Sunday, 29 March 2015

Early thoughts on PILLARS OF ETERNITY

Obsidian Entertainment's latest computer roleplaying game, Pillars of Eternity, was released three days ago and has attracted blanket critical acclaim from the gaming press. Pillars hits the sweet spot of nailing the nostalgic feel for the RPGs of yesteryear whilst also bringing some modern sensibilities on board. It's not flawless - in fact I'm rather surprised that some of its more glaringly obvious interface and presentation flaws have been brushed over by reviewers - but it's a pretty excellent game so far.


Obsidian was formed out of the ruins of Black Isle, Interplay's in-house CRPG development studio which created the Fallout franchise and worked on the Icewind Dale series, as well as creating the single greatest CRPG of all time, Planescape: Torment. They also published the Baldur's Gate series (developed by a nascent BioWare before they were swallowed by the EA machine) and helped with the development of Baldur's Gate II. After the collapse of Black Isle, the reconstituted Obsidian developed games including Neverwinter Nights II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Dungeon Siege III, Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

However, as an independent studios working on-hire for big publishers, Obsidian found themselves at the mercy of publishers changing contracts, altering terms and conditions and drastically cutting development time at limited notice. On no less than three occasions, Obsidian games were released buggy (Fallout: New Vegas), not-quite-complete (Knights of the Old Republic II) and apparently in a barely tested beta build (Alpha Protocol). On all three occasions the publishers were to blame: Bethesda did not run sufficient QA on New Vegas* (something they have a reputation for on their own titles, with Daggerfall and Oblivion in particular released in a buggy state, with even the mighty Skyrim suffering from problems); LucasArts reversed a deadline extension for KotOR II at the last moment*; and the people at Sega who had commissioned Alpha Protocol had left and their replacements just wanted to get rid of the game ASAP to save money*.


This left Obsidian with a reputation for, depending on your POV, either extreme misfortune or simply an inability to release a game that worked properly. On games where they had much greater development time and all of the agreed promises were kept, such as Dungeon Siege III and South Park, the games were delivered in a good state. However, what is remarkable is that Obsidian's laudable commitment to intelligent game systems, player choice and top-quality writing have shone through even on their most buggy games.

Pillars of Eternity was an attempt to both change that reputation, with Obsidian in total control over every aspect of development and QA, and also to bring back some of the classic feel of the old Black Isle days. The game is a homage to the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, but isn't quite as old-school fantasy as it appears. Whilst classic elves and humans and wizards are all present and correct, the game throws some curveballs into the mix, such as arctic tundra dwarves and the ability to assess non-player characters by gazing into their souls. It's a big game - at a reported 50-60 hours in length it's bigger than any Black Isle game bar the monstrously huge Baldur's Gate II, and bigger than any game Obsidian has developed before - but also one that focuses on the moments and the details.


I'm now seven hours into the game and am rocking a five-member team of adventuring nutters around the Dyrwood. So far we've fought a crazy giant bear, fought off a horde of mushroom men, laid to rest dozens of zombies and almost been slaughtered by, erm, a pack of boar. My team consists of stalwart dwarven fighter (my main character), a posh elven wizard named Aloth with a nice line in sarcastic invective, a religiously-minded warrior named Eder, an enigmatic priest named Durance who likes to think he is Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II but is actually The Sphinx from Mystery Men, and Kana Rua, a 'chanter' who sings inspiring ballads whilst unloading shots from his mobile hand cannon (did I mention the game has occasional moments where it goes randomly steampunk on the rest of the setting's epic fantasy behind?). They're a memorable, crazy bunch of characters who it's fun to go delving into dungeons with.

The game mixes up tricky side-quests (complete with trademark Chris Avellone-penned morality labyrinths) with a series of interconnected main storylines revolving around your character's newfound ability to gaze into souls, resulting in him/her becoming known as "The Watcher". There's also the interesting ability to gain control of a ruined castle and rebuild it into your own personal stronghold. You can retire to the castle between quests to re-arm and resupply. Your unused-in-the-current party NPCs can chill out there or strike out on solo, off-screen missions and you can fortify the place so it looks more impressive. Oh, and there's also a (wholly optional) 15-level mega-dungeon directly underneath the castle if you feel like an extra challenge.


The game does the usual Obsidian thing of emphasising roleplaying alongside combat (although, unlike some of their other games, you can't avoid combat altogether) and you can use intelligence and wits to overcome problems as well as homicidal ultraviolence. There's also some nice ability-based effects: give your beserker barbarian some high intelligence and he or she will engage in combat more tactically and do extra area-of-effect damage to groups of enemies.

It's not perfect. Obsidian didn't quite catch all of the bugs and there's a few minor ones knocking around that are fairly irritating. There's also some very curious UI decisions. There's a "Stash" option which means you have no inventory limit and never have to worry about weight limits. This is good, because weight limits are extremely irritating and games enforcing them only serves as pedantic busywork. However, the game then doesn't allow you to rest at will to recover between fights. You have four campfires and can only rest four times before having to resupply. So you go into tough areas, make some progress, rest, make some more progress, rest, etc until you run out of campfires and have to run back to the nearest inn or store to buy some more. Which is pretty much just pedantic busywork. Obsidian giveth and Obsidian taketh away...

Far more annoying is that certain commands, including most buff spells and abilities, are not available until combat starts. So you can't cast a few bless/fortify spells upon spotting trolls in the distance before wading in. You have to trigger the fight and then cast the buffs (if you have time before the enemy close the distance) which is pretty ridiculous. For these reasons, whilst Pillars of Eternity approaches the quality of the old Infinity Engine games it doesn't quite match them in terms of user-friendliness and playability.

Still, it's the best of the recent retro-nostalgia-crowdfunded RPGs (certainly more engaging than Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2, both fine games, at least so far), it's huge, it's fantastically well-written and it's easily the best traditional fantasy RPG to appear since at least Icewind Dale II in 2002 (it knocks the first two Dragon Age games into a cocked hat, that's for sure). It might all go pear-shaped in the next 43 hours, so my full final review will have until then, but for now I can firmly recommend the game.

* Allegedly.

DEEP SPACE NINE: To HD or Not HD?

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise. To celebrate, Paramount are hoping to release the third Star Trek 'reboot' movie (and thirteenth overall) and, erm, at the moment not a lot else. Tentative discussions on a new Star Trek TV series don't seem to have gone anywhere and there isn't even any talk of a big TV documentary or retrospective. It does seem a bit odd for the biggest name in science fiction that more isn't being done to celebrate its longevity, especially considering the successful celebrations the BBC put on for Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary a couple of years ago.


Something that fans had been expecting and looking forwards to, at least, was the HD/Blu-Ray re-relase of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. CBS completed their release of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-Ray in December and things looked good that they could roll straight into DS9 and, hopefully, Voyager right after. However, Robert Meyer Burnett, the producer of the documentaries for the TNG Blu-Rays, has tweeted that a DS9 re-release is now less likely, citing low sales for the TNG box sets. The news has stunned Trek fans who'd assumed that the whole franchise was being upgraded and future-proofed.

Burnett later clarified that he had no insider knowledge on a final decision, but the sales were not looking good. This came as slightly more of a relief because all the other indications so far have been that a DS9 re-release was possible (although tricky) even considering the slow take-up of TNG.

To backtrack a little, CBS and Paramount have, between them, so far released all twelve films on Blu-Ray, the complete original Star Trek series, all seven seasons of The Next Generation and all four seasons of Enterprise. That's fourteen seasons of television and twelve films. What is left are the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine and another seven seasons of Voyager, plus the two seasons of the 1970s animated Star Trek series (the latter not really being a priority to most people, but something it'd be nice to have). So CBS have made slightly more than half of the franchise available on Blu-Ray and for HD streaming. It would seriously odd not to complete the process.

TrekCore got the inside info on the 50th Anniversary logo. Exciting. It's note quite clear what the logo is going to actually be on, however.

Cost has been raised as a factor. The original series Blu-Ray releases were extremely popular, selling very well on Blu-Ray and doing well in streaming. TNG started off very well, with strong sales, but tailed off significantly over the course of its run. The cost of the remastering was substantial, with some reports placing the initial set-up and start-up costs, plus the cost of remastering the first season, at over $9 million. Later seasons came down substantially in cost as the team became faster and more proficient, but additional cost savings (such as farming some of the work out to third parties) were lost due to quality issues (the quality of the second season's remastering, handled by an outside company, is notably inferior to the other six). The total cost of remastering all seven seasons has been put at north of $20 million. This was the reason for the high costs of the sets: a RRP of £70 was set in the UK, although most retailers discounted to £50, but this still a lot higher than most Blu-Ray box sets. Burnett suggests that CBS failed to market the remastered series heavily enough and also blames the tailing off of marketing efforts, such as screening some of the remastered two-parter episodes in cinemas, due to legal issues over residuals and pay.

The big issue was, of course, the move from physical media to streaming. Physical media sales are down across the board and Blu-Ray never took in the way DVD did (although some franchises - such as Game of Thrones - are shifting more than half of their discs in the Blu-Ray format now). A lot of customers have skipped Blu-Ray to go to Netflix and Amazon HD streaming straight from DVD. Those who haven't either don't care about new technology and HD in the first place, or are living in areas where the internet infrastructure does not support such streaming.

Oddly, this move may be what eventually saves the situation. As well as being released on Blu-Ray, the HD version of TNG is airing on television and is available for streaming from Amazon. The deals CBS have put in place with international broadcasters have already either turned a profit, or will a few years down the line, and would make a HD DS9 and Voyager more enticing, especially since CBS could then package them together into a much bigger and more interesting deal (711 episodes being almost enough to air two episodes a day every day for a year).

An additional point is that the complete TNG box set (with all seven seasons in one box) has only just been released in the UK and other markets and, preposterously, still isn't out in the USA. I know a lot of Trek fans are waiting for the complete box sets before springing for the Blu-Rays, so for it not to be out yet is just crazy. Sales for the complete series box set are likely to dwarf that of the individual ones and may change the tone of the discussions about DS9 and Voyager.

We've also seen that Fox has released The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in HD to cable TV companies in the States, but has not yet announced a release date for the Blu-Rays. With a new X-Files TV series due on air in 2016, it is likely we will see a tie-in release of the series for that. The rumour is that Fox will not go for individual season box sets but will instead spring for all nine seasons in one box at a more reasonable cost, the same strategy employed by HBO on The Sopranos and The Wire. Buffy and Angel may follow the same model. Fox is funding the remastering in-progress instead with these early TV deals (in Buffy's case, rather too early) instead, which seems to be working for them.


There are of course problems with DS9 and Voyager. The first is simple popularity: the original show and TNG entered the cultural zeitgeist in a way that the later shows did not. DS9's highest-rated episode got barely half of TNG's highest-rated show. However, those high ratings were down to the massive marketing accompanying TNG's return and a dearth of good SFF shows in 1987 which was no longer the case in 1993; the average ratings for the two shows once the outliers are removed were a lot closer. Voyager, on the other hand, aired on a small-viewership cable channel to a fraction of the ratings of either of the other shows.

The second issue is technical. TNG used model shots, shot on film, for almost all of its effects shots, meaning they could simply be upgraded the same way as the live action film. This made the updating process much faster and more efficient. Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, began phasing out model shots in favour of CGI towards the end of its run. From the start of the sixth season onwards, most of the effects shots are in low-resolution CGI. All of these effects shots would need to be re-rendered from scratch, a far higher cost than the remastering on the earlier shows. Voyager has it far worse, with the move to CG effects beginning as early as the third season. Some of the CG artists have kept the models and effects files from both shows, which would simplify the workload, but it does not appear that all of the shots have been saved.

DS9 can be updated to HD fairly straightforwardly: the TNG process has left an efficient workflow and roadmap in place that DS9 can use. Almost all of the first five seasons can be remastered in the same way as TNG was, and although a lot of re-rendering would be needed for the final two seasons, these would be concentrated in just a few episodes. A little bit more complicated than TNG, but doable. In addition, DS9 would likely need a better release strategy, possibly a TV-oriented release on a high-profile platform (DS9's much more serialised storytelling would go down a storm on Netflix) with a complete series Blu-Ray release at the end, as TNG's model clearly did not work. It's all possible, it just needs CBS to stump up the cash for it (so, incidentally, if you were holding off on buying the existing re-masters, now might be a good time to do so).

Unfortunately, I think the prospects for a HD remastering of Voyager are much bleaker. The amount of effects re-rendering needed would be an order of magnitude more complex and expensive than DS9's. For a show with an even smaller potential audience base (if DS9's critical cachet has risen significantly in the last twenty years, Voyager's appears to have dropped), it's unlikely it will happen unless a DS9 remaster, marketed and released better than TNG's, is a huge hit.

Hopefully this can still happen. Of the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine is arguably the most coherent, consistent in quality and tightly serialised, with ongoing story arcs spanning years and some much-needed subversion and re-examination of the tropes of both science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular. Among other things it paved the way for the newer Battlestar Galactica, with many of its writers and producers working on that show as well. It definitely should be updated and preserved for future generations.

Scott Lynch on overcoming depression to hit the bestseller lists

Way back in 2006, the hottest voice in fantasy was a young American author named Scott Lynch. His first novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was released to immense critical acclaim and reasonably strong sales. He followed it up in 2007 with Red Seas Under Red Skies, a well-received sequel. These were the first two books in a sequence called The Gentleman Bastard, planned to run to seven volumes, with Scott vowing to continue releasing a book a year, along with side-novellas.



In the event, the third book in the sequence, The Republic of Thieves, was not released until 2013. In the meantime Scott disappeared from view, aside from occasional mentions that he was working on the book. In 2010 he publicly admitted that he was facing a serious battle with depression. Depression affects many millions of people worldwide, and those in the creative industries seem to be disproportionately affected by it. Scott received many letters and emails of support, along with the backing of his publisher, and was able to get back into writing. The Republic of Thieves rewarded that faith by hitting the bestseller lists. The fourth novel in the series, The Thorn of Emberlain, is tentatively scheduled for the end of this year.

The Relentless Reading blog has interviewed Scott at some length here about the future books in the series, his other writing plans (interestingly, he has another novel in the works apparently not related to his core series) and how he came to grips with his situation. It is honest, forthright and very much worth a read.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Wasteland 2

AD 2102. The world is still basking in the afterglow of a devastating nuclear war. In Arizona, a law-enforcing militia known as the Desert Rangers is trying to bring justice and order to a land plagued by bandits, warlords and crazed cyborgs. When Desert Rangers start turning up dead, it becomes clear that someone or something has it in for the Rangers, and their attempt to find out who is responsible will take them to every corner of Arizona, and far beyond.



Wasteland 2 has an interesting history. The original Wasteland was a hugely successful, genre-defining roleplaying game when it was released by Electronic Arts in 1988, featuring a rich story and solid gameplay for the time. Brian Fargo and his team at Interplay later left EA to go solo. In 1996 they tried to get the rights to make an official sequel but EA turned them down. So they had to make a spiritual successor, a similar post-apocalyptic game with a nicely non-copyright-infringing, alternate-history twist to set it apart. The result was a game called Fallout. You may have heard of it, and its increasingly massive, mega-selling sequels.

Years later, after Interplay went down in flames and the Fallout franchise rights were purchased by Bethesda, Fargo and some of his team-mates regrouped as inXile Entertainment, purchased the Wasteland IP rights from a now-more-relaxed EA and raised over $3 million from crowdfunding. The game was finally released in September 2014. To say it represented a labour of love for its creators, who had spent a quarter of a century trying to get it made, is an understatement.

So much for the history, what about the game? Wasteland 2 is a top-down roleplaying title. You create a party of four characters from scratch who can then be joined by up to three additional companions as the game proceeds. You control the development of both the created and original characters, determining where skill points are assigned and what equipment they use. The game demands a fairly broad-based approach and it pays to split skills between party members, so making one a computer specialist, another a master lockpicker, another a medic etc is pretty much essential. All characters need to pour points into their fighting skills as well, with the game providing a nice variety of ranged (rifles, pistols, miniguns, laser weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns etc) and melee weapons. There are also non-violent skills, most notably the conversation skills which can dramatically change how conversations, quests and entire storylines unfold. Roleplayers will enjoy seeing how much combat in the game can be avoided by picking the right dialogue options and using either logic, determination or appeals to mercy as befitting the other character's nature.

Grenades and bazookas can be a vital equaliser in really tough fights.

Wasteland 2 is reasonably attractive graphically, although the first half of the game is very, very brown. You spend so much time zoomed-out it's not really a problem (the - fortunately very brief and rare - in-game cut scenes are a bad idea), and the game's excellent graphic design shines through at every point. The game employs the old Infinity Engine technique of having some well-designed maps and areas that aren't actually that huge, but cleverly-designed paths and well-placed enemies can make crossing them a lengthy challenge. There's also an absolute ton of them. Wasteland 2 is a massive game, taking most players north of 50 hours to complete (I did in 54, and that included rushing some late-game areas and not exploring every nook and cranny as it was no longer necessary) and does a good job of maintaining interest over that time. I certainly never found myself glancing at the time and wishing the game was over like I did through most of the second half of Dragon Age: Origins, for example.

The writing is pretty good, although inconsistent. Chris Avellone was parachuted in from Obsidian to help on several sections and his Planescape: Torment co-writer Colin McComb played a large role, resulting in a twisting and turning narrative which never shies away from asking hard questions and leaving players feeling that all choices are bad ones. However, some other sections of the game are more pedestrian and more easily resolved through combat. The writing is good but certainly not a major selling-point of the game (as it is for Pillars of Eternity, for example). Combat is more enjoyable, being turn-based and emphasising positioning and cover. XCOM fans will particularly enjoy the fights. As better weapons are secured and combat skills are levelled up, battles become more elaborate and enjoyable. However, towards the end of the game your party will start outstripping the enemies arrayed against it and tactics will become less important as you shrug off massive volleys of enemy fire like gnats.

Although your party does eventually become unstoppable walking tanks, it takes a while to get there. Unlike most RPGs, the game is pretty stingy with ammo and money. Looting items provides only a small return, while the cost of everything is absolutely astronomical. Late in the game I still found kitting my side out with enough bullets to get through a few fights without running dry to be ruinously expensive. It doesn't help that the game is also stingy with its vendors and their bank balances, sometimes necessitating large trips across the map stopping off at every merchant you know to stock up.

Despite small and undetailed textures, the graphics can be ocassionally excellent.

The other key weakness is the overly exacting use of skills. Having Safecracking and Lockpicking as separate skills felt like one step too far into pedantry, as was the splitting of Medic and Surgeon. It does force some hard choices in levelling your characters, which is good, but the gap between tough choices and unnecessary busywork is very small and the game does step over it several times.

Still, if Wasteland 2 repeats some of the mistakes of old-school RPGs, it also embraces some of the best bits. There are lengthy, branching storylines with multiple outcomes. Quests with three or four different outcomes which have associated subquests with their own branching endings. Entire storylines can be missed if you don't open the right door. Decisions made in the opening minutes of the game have huge consequences in the endgame. One wrong judgement during a particularly tense, dramatic confrontation with a bunch of warrior-priests can determine if a nearby town is enslaved, left alone or destroyed. Wasteland 2 gives every one of your decisions weight and consequence, and makes you care about those consequences.

Wasteland 2 (****) is occasionally tough, sometimes obtuse and perhaps overuses the brown texture colour a tad too much. It's also brilliantly designed, well-characterised and knows how to gut-punch the player when they're least expecting it. Amongst the recent surge of old-school RPGs it may be the ugliest (although this is very relative) but it's definitely one of the most rewarding. Wasteland 2 is available now on PC from Steam and GoG, with PS4 and X-Box One versions to follow later this year.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Sony fast-tracks a ROBOTECH live-action movie

In a surprise move, Sony has acquired the film rights to the Robotech franchise and has fast-tracked a live-action film based on the property. They are hoping to develop a big-budget franchise which will attract old-school fans of the original animated series as well as a newer, younger audience.



Robotech was developed in the early 1980s by producer Carl Macek and his team at Harmony Gold. They bought three separate, unrelated Japanese anime series - Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA - and, through careful editing and dubbing, transformed them into one epic story unfolding across three generations. Airing for the first time in 1985, the Robotech TV series and the subsequent novels by James Luceno and Brian Daley (writing as Jack McKinney) and the roleplaying game by Palladium Books all became extremely popular. Combined with the arrival of Akira later in the decade, Robotech helped pave the way for the growth of the anime business in the United States.

However, the franchise has also proven controversial. In Japan, Macross became an enormously successful franchise in its own right and has spawned a large number of sequel and prequel series, including Macross Plus, Macross 7, Macross Zero and the non-canon Macross II. Harmony Gold has blocked any of these series from being officially released in the USA, not wanting to dilute the Robotech brand. Harmony Gold's own attempts to continue the franchise - most recently through the Shadow Chronicles animated film and an eyebrow-raising attempt at crowdfunding a new series - have floundered in comparison. Harmony Gold blocking the export of one of the most successful and popular anime franchises of all time to the USA, not to mention the release of the original, unedited Macross, has earned it the ire of many anime fans.

There are also significant legal obstacles to overcome. The original Japanese creators of Macross won a court case securing the live-action film rights to most of the franchise. This means that the American film cannot use storylines, characters or mecha originating from Macross. Or to put it another way, this is going to be a Robotech film without the Veritech fighters, Rick Hunter, SDF-1 or Minmei. Needless to say, the exercise sounds completely pointless.

It could be that Sony have a masterplan in mind where they strike a deal with the original Japanese creators of Macross, possibly getting licensing rights to the story in return for allowing the Macross franchise to be released in the United States. Otherwise, the appeal of a Robotech movie which can't use any iconic Robotech characters, vehicles or locations is questionable, to say the least.

Also of concern is the talent being assembled for the film. Previously Tobey Maguire, Akiva Goldsman, Lawrence Kasdan and Leonardo DiCaprio had all been attached to the project when it was being developed at other studios. However, this new take is being helmed by producers Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton, whose only works of note are 300 and The Immortals, with the script in the hands of Michael Gordon (300, GI Joe). The presence of Harmony Gold producers also does not bode well for any attempt to secure licenses to use the classic characters and vehicles from the Japanese creators of Macross (who have long resented Harmony Gold for preventing the release of their series in the States).

Whether this project can be a success given everything that is stacked against it is highly questionable. But there is quite a good and strong story at the heart of Robotech/Macross that would resonate strongly with a modern audience, if it can be told in an entertaining way.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Gameplay footage for SWORD COAST LEGENDS

Sword Coast Legends is a forthcoming computer roleplaying game set in the Forgotten Realms world and using a modified version of the new rules for the 5th edition of Dungeon and Dragons. Below is a 10-minute video showing some of the single-player campaign.


 
Sword Coast Legends is the first official 'big', single-player focused CRPG for the franchise since 2007's Neverwinter Nights 2 and its well-received expansions, Mask of the Betrayer and Storm of Zehir. Of subsequent games, Daggerdale (2011) was a short, quickie action title whilst Neverwinter (2013) was an MMORPG. Sword Coast Legends is being marketed as a spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights series and, if successful, may open the floodgates for more D&D CRPGs, so there is a quite a lot riding on its success.

It also looks like the game has taken some cues from recent crowdfunding successes, such as last year's Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2, and Pillars of Eternity which comes out this week. On the plus side, the graphics look reasonable, the interface seems clean and logical (a bit of a relief after embracing Wasteland 2's cheerfully click-mad interface for over 50 hours) and the game has an old-school feel. On the minus side, the dialogue is pretty risible and the voice acting is not stellar at this point. Hopefully those can be addressed before release.

As well as a single-player campaign of uncertain length, the game will also feature a multiplayer mode allowing a player to create new campaigns and work as the Dungeon Master, similar to features in the Neverwinter Nights games.

Sword Coast Legends is being targeted for a late 2015 release at a budget price point, and so far is a PC exclusive.

Gratuitous Lists: Best Space Battles

There are two key ingredients to the perfect space opera. The first is successfully evoking a  sensawunda: the scale of the cosmos, the ingenuity of the technological developments required to space interstellar distances and the majesty of the universe. The second is to have really, really big spaceships which, at a dramatically appropriate moment, explode.

Here is a list of what I think are the best space battles of SFF TV and film are over the years, listed in no particular order but with my favourite one at the end.



Babylon 5: The Battle of Gorash VII
Season 2, Episode 20: The Long, Twilight Struggle
Airdate: 1 August 1995



Babylon 5 was the first SF show to feature 100% CGI spaceship shots and space battles. Scepticism from more established shows (who preferred to use models, although they were more complicated, limited and expensive) was replaced by them rushing to embrace computer models after Babylon 5 pioneered the concept.

The first two seasons had many, many great space battles but the most emotionally draining one came at the climax of the Narn-Centauri War. The Centauri Republic learned that the Narn Regime was going to attack their supply depot on Gorash VII and cut their supply lines leading into Narn space, forcing a temporary stalemate. The Centauri chose to instead launch a full-scale assault on the Narn homeworld using mass drivers to propel asteroids into the planet's surface and lay it waste. The defence of Gorash VII was handled by the Centauri's redoubtable allies instead, the powerful Shadows. What made this battle more interesting was a greater use of tactics: the Narn use long-range energy mines to try to disrupt the Shadow attack and later concentrate their fire on one of the Shadow ships to cripple it (the first hint in the series that the Shadows aren't completely invulnerable). In addition to Foundation Imaging's brilliant visuals, Christopher Franke (ex-Tangerine Dream) also delivered a killer score fit for the occasion.



Babylon 5: The Battle of Babylon 5
Season 3, Episode 10: Severed Dreams
Airdate: 1 April 1996



Babylon 5 was also the first show to feature a pre-planned (if not in quite as much detail as claimed at the time) five-year story arc which had several major paradigm shifts for the concept and format built into it. The biggest of these came at almost exactly halfway through the show. Having spent a season and a half covertly investigating the murder of the Earth Alliance President, the crew of the Babylon 5 station inadvertently force his tyrannical successor to declare martial law across the Alliance. In the resulting chaos, the colonies on Mars and Proxima III break away and are subjected to retaliatory bombings and air strikes. As full-scale civil war erupts, two rebel Omega-class destroyers take refuge at Babylon 5 and are cornered by pursuing forces. The crew of B5 are finally forced to make a stand.

This was a hugely important moment for the show and it delivered in spades. Unfortunately, the above video is the only decent one I can find online and omits the ending of the battle, when newly-arrived reinforcements almost force the station to surrender but Minbari cruisers led by Ambassador Delenn force them to retreat or be destroyed (and risk plunging Earth into an interplanetary war with a race who wiped the floor with them last time).

Later seasons would also feature large-scale space battles, but they lost a little something when Foundation Imaging was controversially fired from the show at the end of the third season. Netter Digital, who replaced them, showed considerably less care and attention to details (such as the proper Newtonian movement of the ships in 3D space). As computing power increased Netter also adopted a bit of a George Lucas approach to everything, chucking in tons of ships and beams in lieu of keeping things clear and well-directed. But for the first three seasons, the space battles were very cool indeed.




Firefly: Reavers vs. the Alliance
Serenity
Release date: 22 August 2005



Firefly wasn't really a show about space battles, mainly because the series is set in the aftermath of a civil war and failed rebellion and was more about surviving when your cause is taken from you. However, Joss Whedon wisely decided to cut loose in the big-budget movie spin-off. The battle is well-directed and excellently scored, but works because the tiny Serenity (which probably couldn't survive more than a couple of direct hits from any of the Reavers or Alliance's weapons) is just try to get through the blockade to reach the broadcasting centre. This makes the battle more of a chaotic backdrop to the real tension of the scene and this works pretty well. The above video omits the horrifying climax to the battle, the scene which is definitive proof that Joss Whedon is evil.


Mass Effect: The Battle of Earth
Mass Effect 3
Release date: 6 March 2012



Most video games featuring space battles have you actually taking part in them, which is a different type of list altogether. The Mass Effect trilogy is different in that the spaceships are merely a way of getting around from place to place, with the in-game battles being set on planetary surfaces or on space stations. For the conclusion of the trilogy, however, BioWare went all-out to produce a CGI firestorm for the moment when the alliances Commander Shepherd (i.e. you) had spent three games and 60-odd hours assembling finally engages the Reapers over the surface of occupied Earth. It's nicely done, especially considering that the course of the battle varies depending on your in-game actions. Spend a lot of time carefully honing your forces and getting every upgrade possible and your fleet does a lot better. Skimp out on upgrades and maybe fail to get every faction on board, and your fleet suffers much heavier losses with different CGI shots to show this.

Great stuff. Just a shame that the actual ending to the story was less impressive and less well-thought-out. [/understatement]


Battlestar Galactica: The Battle of the Resurrection Ship
Season 2, Episode 12: Resurrection Ship, Part 2
Airdate: 13 January 2006



Battlestar Galactica used many of the tricks, skills and even same artists who worked on the CGI for Babylon 5, Star Trek and Firefly, so by the time they started work on that show they were already old hands. The result was a show that used its CG brazenly and with confidence from day one, with (more or less) Newtonian physics and the use of "more realistic" bullets and missiles rather than lasers. They also inherited Firefly's "documentary in space" feel, with crash-zooms and occasionally going out of focus.

There were some great dogfights in the first two seasons, but the quality of the battles took an upswing in this episode, when the battlestars Galactica and Pegasus team up to take down the mysterious Cylon "resurrection ship". The battle, one of the first to truly look glorious in high definition, is a backdrop to the drama as Lee Adama faces a moment of nihilistic contemplation and Admiral Cain and Commander Adama have to consider whether to proceed with their plans to kill one another or not. It's an interesting, non-triumphant way of approaching the battle with its cold cut from the preceding scene to the battle already being underway and the camera cutting away from the moment where the battlestars destroy a Cylon basestar outright (the first time they do so in a fair fight in the series).


Battlestar Galactica: The Battle of New Caprica
Season 3, Episode 4: Exodus, Part 2
Airdate: 20 October 2006


For the conclusion of its four-part "New Caprica" arc, BSG faced a problem. It had created the ultimate hostage scenario, with over 40,000 civilians trapped under Cylon occupation on the colony of New Caprica. The Galactica and Pegasus have escaped with skeleton crews and only a few of their fighter squadrons (most of the pilots still being on the ground). Our protagonists have to orchestrate a rebellion against the Cylon ground forces and engage and draw off at least two basestars in orbit whilst 40,000 civilians escape. A tall order and Admiral Adama has to come up with a badass, unexpected way of doing so. Cue the most memorable moment in the series (in any series): "All hands, brace for turbulence."



Star Trek: The Battle of the Mutara Nebula
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Release date: 4 June 1982



A strong contender for the #1 spot. Admiral Kirk on the Enterprise and Khan Noonian Singh on the captured Reliant face off for the last time. Several things make this battle work so well. There's a lumbering sense of scale with these huge ships taking time to make turns, pass, reverse course and so on. They also need to strategically manoeuvre and place themselves to get the best firing angles (Kirk gains the upper hand after Khan, more used to fighting land battles on Earth, fails to properly appreciate the 3D nature of space). It feels more strategic. Other SF shows (including later Star Trek ones) tend to make the ships feel more like nimble fighters, which isn't always appropriate. More key is the fact that the two ships are actually pretty evenly matched. In fact, the larger Enterprise is probably slightly more powerful. It requires Khan to get the drop on Kirk and put him on the back foot. This is the key point the later attempts to match this battle (most notably in Nemesis and Into Darkness) ignore, as they prefer to have the Enterprise crew go up against someone in some gonzoid massive ship of mega-death, which is simply excruciatingly dull.


Star Trek: The Next Generation: Defending the Enterprise-C
Season 3, Episode 15: Yesterday's Enterprise
Airdate: 19 February 1990

 
Given its 178-episode, seven-season run it's surprising that Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't have more space battles. There were a few battles in the Klingon Civil War and the Enterprise would occasionally have to fire on alien ships which were either ridiculously inferior or, more frequently, would have no impact, but not much more than that. The highlights were the battles against the Borg, although they tended to end with the Borg victorious which wasn't so much fun. More annoying was that the most famous battle in Star Trek's history, the Battle of Wolf 359, where forty Federation starships took on a Borg cube and were obliterated, took place off-screen. A small slice of the battle is seen in the Deep Space Nine pilot episode, Emissary, but a larger and more elaborate depiction of the battle was cut for time.

That leaves TNG's sole contribution to memorable space battles being one that happened in a parallel timeline. In this timeline, created when the Enterprise-C was flung twenty-two years forwards in time, the Federation is slowly being crushed by the Klingon Empire. Realising that the Enterprise-C can restore history to its proper place if it returns to the past, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D have to buy time for their escape...easier said than done when three Klingon K'Vort-class battlecruisers are bearing down on them. The stage is set for a pretty impressive (for 1990) space battle, and one that gleefully takes advantage of its alternate universe setting to kill off regular characters. Sadly, the scene where Wesley Cruser is decapitated by debris (no, really) was cut at the scripting stage.
 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Defence of DS9
Season 4, Episode 1: The Way of the Warrior
Airdate: 2 October 1995



Deep Space Nine was The Next Generation's grittier and more conflict-driven spin-off, where negotiations were less assured of success and desperate phaser exchanges more commonplace. There was less potential for space battles at first, with the DS9 station being too large and powerful for single ships to attack and the crew's runabout shuttles being too small and weedy to take on larger ships, but in the second and third seasons the threat of the Dominion emerges and the station prepares for war. Ironically, it isn't the Dominion who are the first force to stage a full-scale attack on the station (that will come almost two seasons later) but the Federation's own erstwhile allies, the Klingons. Manipulated by the Dominion into attacking the Cardassians and then enraged when Sisko's crew rescues the Cardassian government and proves they aren't Dominion shapeshifters, the Klingons stage a massive assault on DS9 that doesn't entirely go to plan.


Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Operation Return
Season 6, Episode 6: The Sacrifice of Angels
Airdate: 3 November 1997



By its sixth season DS9 was struggling to produce the effects needed to match the script needs. With full-scale war raging between the Federation/Klingon alliance and the Dominion, more episodes required effects shots featuring entire fleets of ships. Motion control was poor at producing such shots in a timely fashion (earlier episodes used toys and even drawings in the far background of such shots), so the producers finally threw their hands up and embraced CGI, even calling on the ex-Babylon 5 CGI team at Foundation Imaging to assist. Sacrifice of Angels, which depicts the Federation attempting to retake Deep Space Nine from the Dominion (who had captured it at the end of the fifth season), features the biggest space battle in Star Trek's entire history: 600 Starfleet vessels, later joined by (at least) 200 Klingon warships, mount a frontal assault on 1,200 Dominion and Cardassian ships.

Its not just the sheer size or impressive (for the time) CGI which sells the battle, it's the use of tactics. If earlier Trek battles drew on naval inspiration, this one is based on Napoleonic field engagements, with fighters used as skirmishers to break up enemy formations and allow cavalry (the heavier starships) to slip in and destroy the enemy. There's also the use of the unwieldy size of the enemy fleet, and the Federation bringing more of its heavier guns to bear against the enemy's weak spots, allowing them to gain overwhelming local superiority and threaten to trigger a rout of the entire line. It doesn't work entirely as well in three-dimensional space, but it's another battle where some thought has gone into how it works.


Star Wars: The Battle of Yavin
Episode IV: A New Hope
Release date: 25 May 1977



There's not much to say about this one, is there? In 1977 audiences were blown away by this lengthy battle sequence, inspired by WWII movies like The Battle of Britain and The Dambusters, where the X-wing and Y-wing fighters mount a desperate attack on the Death Star. It still looks good now, although the fighters are a little stiff compared to how they move around in later films and TV. But given this was all pre-CGI, it's very impressive with a great use of tension and music.

Of course, George Lucas tinkered with the battle in the 1997 special edition of the film by introducing new CGI shots. These shots stick out like a sore thumb and the ships now move around too chaotically. It also feels fairly arbitrary on when a new shot is shoved in or an old one is left out. A better argument could be made for completely redoing the whole sequence in CGI or simply leaving it alone rather than this weird, distracting hybrid version which doesn't really satisfy anyone.


And my pick for the top spot:

Star Wars: The Battle of Endor
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Release date: 25 May 1983


The best space battle evaaah? Quite possibly. This battle shows how much Lucasfilm learned in six years since Episode IV, with some hugely impressive shots, a lot more movement in the ships and a great variety in design. The battle features designs from the two previous films (X-wings, TIE fighters, Star Destroyers) and also new ships, such as the ever-popular A-wings, TIE interceptors and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers. The designers took a leaf out of real history here, where large-scale battles feature many different designs at work (fifteen different fighter and bomber classes took part in the Battle of Midway, for example). A shame they couldn't find a satisfying way of filming the B-wings though, who disappear after the opening shots.

There's also some good tactics here. Once the Death Star becomes operational the Rebels charge the Imperial fleet, where the Death Star can't fire without hitting their own ships. Whilst expecting to get chewed up, the Rebels actually do a great job here of blowing up Star Destroyers and taking down the Imperial flagship fairly comfortably (a lucky A-wing kamikaze notwithstanding).

The battle is also completely filmed with motion-controlled models with no CGI whatsoever, which is jaw-dropping. And it's also insanely quotable thanks to the presence of Admiral Ackbar, the most grizzled alien fish-man space admiral in history.


Saturday, 21 March 2015

A previously unpublished interview with Iain M. Banks

Strange Horizons have published a previously unreleased interview with the late Iain M. Banks. The interview was conducted in 2010 and focuses on the Culture, the signature SF setting of so many of Banks's novels. It was carried out by former student Jude Roberts as part of her PhD.



A brief extract:
The way the Culture came about initially was as—I thought at the time—a single-use solution to a particular problem. I was getting ready to write Use of Weapons and I knew that Zakalwe was this sort of ultimate warrior guy, just very martially able, but I wanted him to be on the side of the good guys somehow. Squaring that circle was the problem, so I came up with the idea of the Culture as his ultimate employers: a society basically on the side of the angels but willing to use people like Zakalwe (utopia spawning few warriors, as the later-written poem says) to do its dirty but justified work. The "justified" bit always having something to do with statistics; from the beginning the Culture had to be able to prove—rather than simply assert—that it was generally doing the right thing, even when it interfered without permission in other societies. That was it, initially, but then the Culture proved to be the nucleus around which all my other until then rather nebulous ideas started to cluster and take shape, and it just developed—naturally, it felt—by itself, from there.


The full interview is very much worth reading for any fan of Banks, space opera or SF in general.

GAME OF THRONES Season 5 Premiere report

On Wednesday evening I had the fortune of being able to attend the world premiere of Season 5 of Game of Thrones. The event was held at the Tower of London, which was surrounded by bonfires and had dragons projected onto its walls for the occasion.




It was a pretty cold evening, but it was fun. After the screening there was an after-party with the requisite amount of Iron Throne-sitting fans and journalists trying to get pics of the stars. Fun stuff.

Still, the main event was the episode itself. HBO aired The Wars to Come, the first episode of the season. In traditional fashion for the series this was a catching-up episode which recapped where the characters were from last season and set up storylines and elements for the season to come. It certainly wasn't a quiet episode though, with one major character (not dead in the books yet) biting it, some dragon action, some throats cut and a metric ton of nudity. However, this time out the nudity was almost entirely restricted on male characters. There's also a sexposition scene (this time focusing on the geography of Dorne, rather weirdly) that is nearly the inverse of the much-ridiculed Season 1 scene from Littlefinger's brothel. I guess the writers finally got the memos the fanbase has been sending in for the past few years. There was even one scene which I suspect was a homage to the Austin Powers movies.

Season 5 starts off pretty confidently, with some huge set pieces, ambitious effects and some excellent-played dramatic exchanges. Some minor characters last seen in Season 2 show up again, which was a relief as they were needed for the stories getting going here, and there was some reasonable integration of new material with stuff from the book. The episode felt off in a couple of ways: one character should clearly have been present but the actor was unavailable, so there's some script fudging to try to work around that. Some other characters have been renamed from their book counterparts for no immediately discernible reason and there's already evidence that A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are going to be streamlined - possibly quite ruthlessly - to fit most of them into this season.

Overall, this was good stuff and hints that this may be the strongest season yet...but book purists are definitely going to have a rough time of it.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Lois McMaster Bujold confirms new VORKOSIGAN novel for 2016

Lois McMaster Bujold has confirmed that a new Vorkosigan Saga novel will arrive next year.
 

However, rather than being another adventure for Miles, the new book will focus on his mother Cordelia. The new book will be entitled Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and will be published in February 2016. 2016 also marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first three Vorkosigan novels, Shards of Honour, The Warrior's Apprentice and Ethan of Athos, and Bujold has indicated this will be celebrated with the new book.
I am pleased to report that a new Cordelia Vorkosigan novel has been sold to Baen Books for publication, tentatively, in February of 2016.

The title is Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

It is not a war story. It is about grownups.

And that is probably all I ought to say right now in a venue read by the spoiler-sensitive. It is, after all, a long haul till next February.

2016 will also mark the 30th anniversary of my first publication by Baen, which ought to be good for a little PR fun.