Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon

After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Friday, 13 January 2017

TWIN PEAKS relaunch gets an airdate

Twin Peaks is returning to TV screens on 21 May, after a gap of more than a quarter of a century. Showtime will air 18 new episodes picking up on the events in the mysterious town of Twin Peaks, Washington.

The new season has been completely written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, who created the original series, and has been completely directed by Lynch. This is Lynch's first dramatic, scripted project since the movie Inland Empire in 2006: his only projects since then have been the short documentary Idem Paris (2013) and the music video "Came Back Hunted" for Nine Inch Nails (2013). Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor in fact has a guest role in the new Twin Peaks, alongside Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. Original composer Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the show's infamous haunting theme music, is also returning.

The original show ran for two seasons and 30 episodes from April 1990 to June 1991. It opened with the murder of Laura Palmer, a young girl in the town of Twin Peaks, and FBI Agent Dale Cooper is called in to help investigate the crime. However, what initially appears to be a mundane if horrific crime rapidly expands to incorporate bizarre spirits and an other-dimensional location known as the Black Lodge. Cooper helps solve the crime - and other related cases in the town - by interpreting his dreams and communing with the spirit of Laura Palmer.

The first season was a titanic critical and commercial success, with massive ratings and critical acclaim, as well as appreciation for its tightly-serialised storytelling (highly unusual in 1990, when most shows were episodic with no long-running storylines). The second season, mostly helmed by other writers as Lynch and Frost took a back seat, was considerably less well-received, especially after the resolution of the Laura Palmer murder mystery halfway through the season and relatively few answers being given to the show's many questions. However, the ending to the season was better-received, especially the revelation that the Palmer murder was setting in motion a much bigger and darker storyline. Sadly, this was not enough to save the series from cancellation.

The series was, arguably, the first harbinger of today's big watercooler shows, and its mix of critical and commercial acclaim gradually giving way to disappointment would later be replicated in both The X-Files (which inherited David Duchovny, one of Twin Peaks' recurring castmembers and who is returning for the new show) and Lost. David Lynch himself frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the ending of the series and resurrected the franchise in 1992 for a prequel movie, Fire Walk With Me, which fills in Laura Palmer's backstory and hints at Agent Cooper's fate after the show's cliffhanger ending, as well as having David Bowie show up for no discernible reason. The movie was slated and bombed at the box office, but has seen a positive critical reassessment in more recent years.

Many of the surviving castmembers from the original series return, most crucially Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper. The 25-year gap since the original series will be acknowledged and will play a key plot point (helped by the ghost of Laura Palmer saying "See you in 25 years" in the final episode), and the Fire Walk With Me prequel movie will be considered canonical. Presumably the series will explain what happened to Cooper after the cliffhanger ending to the show's final episode, which appeared to show Cooper possessed by the murderous entity "Bob".

Twin Peaks has been a huge influence on everything from the aforementioned X-Files and Lost to more recent fare like Stranger Things and the Alan Wake video games.

Showtime have described the show as "the pure heroin version of David Lynch", which is both intriguing and terrifying. Whether the new Twin Peaks can resurrect the same kind of power as the original show remains to be seen, but we'll find out in May when it airs in the US and on Sky in the UK.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams

The Storm King has been defeated, his army of Norns driven off and peace returned to the lands of Osten Ard. King Seoman and Queen Miriamele have taken the throne in the Hayholt and a new age of peace beckons. But for Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard the war is not entirely over. Along with the famed warrior Sludig, Isgrimnur has been given command of an army with orders to pursue the fleeing Norns back to Stormspike and ensure they are destroyed forever.

The Heart of What Was Lost acts as a bridge between the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams and its upcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The first novel in that trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, will be released in June 2017. This book is useful for laying some groundwork for that trilogy and wrapping up some loose ends from the earlier series that Williams was unable to address at the time.

The Heart of What Was Lost is short, focused, lean and mean. Just 200 pages long in hardcover, making it barely a short story by the author's normal standards, it moves with pace and energy. As a war story it has quite a bit of action, but also with some strong moments of character-building as characters reflect on what is going on.

The book is related from three different points of view. Porto is an ordinary soldier in Isgrimnur's army who yearns for an end to the war so he can go home, but is distracted when he befriends a terrified younger fellow soldier and tries to keep him alive. Isgrimnur, a returning character from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is the gruff general and old warrior, still charismatic and skilled at warfare but hurting from the death of his son in To Green Angel Tower. Viyeki is a Builder, one of the main orders of Norn society, tasked with maintaining walls and fortifications, and the first Norn POV character in the series.

This POV rotation is effective, although Porto's contribution to the story is limited. I suspect Porto, or maybe his offspring, will play a role in the upcoming trilogy otherwise I can't see much reason for him being in this book. Still, he provides an interesting ground's eye view on the battles. Isgrimnur is the same world-weary warrior we met in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but fleshed out as he grapples with the fall-out of his son's death. Williams is successful in making Isgrimnur's grief raw and convincing, given he last wrote for the character some twenty-three years earlier. The most successful character is Viyeki, who gives us a much-needed "bad guy" perspective on events. Although the first trilogy successfully established why the undead Ineluki wanted to destroy the world, it was less clear on why the Norns would support him. This book goes much deeper into their motivations, backstory and histories, fleshing out an under-explored area of the original trilogy's worldbuilding.

The story is short, mostly concerned with moral concerns as Isgrimnur ponders the wisdom of trying to make the Norns extinct and the Norns' battle for survival and hope to leave something for future generations to build upon. But it is powerfully and effectively told. Williams slips back into Osten Ard like he's never been away, and the novel feels weightier than it could have been, as the author slips extra moments of worldbuilding and foreshadowing for the future books into the narrative. There's also some nice misdirection. At one point the Norns outline a plan which feels almost like it could be the plot synopsis for the next trilogy, but this is then abruptly undercut when a major character dies and the plot takes an unexpected 90 degree turn onto a different path. Ultimately, this makes the book more self-contained than I was expecting. Certainly there is pipe-laying for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, but it's done very subtly.

The Heart of What Was Lost (****) is not just an effective scene-setter and palate-cleanser for the new trilogy, but a strong self-contained story in its own right, with more twists and turns than you might expect for its short length. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

HALF-LIFE 3 not in development at Valve

A new expose undertaken by Game Informer has concluded that Valve are not developing Half-Life 3, even on the backburner, at present. This contradicts Valve's position, taken since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, that the next Half-Life game remains a work-in-progress.

To rewind, Valve released the original Half-Life back in 1998 to immense critical acclaim. A first-person shooter noted for strong combat and total immersion in the game's viewpoint character, Gordon Freeman, the game sold over 10 million copies and completely redefined the first-person shooter genre. Two expansions, Opposing Force and Blue Shift, followed in 1999 and 2001. Opposing Force launched the career of Gearbox, themselves now one of the biggest FPS developers in the industry for their Borderlands series.

Half-Life 2 was released in 2004 to even greater acclaim and sales. It was praised for its graphics and its pioneering use of physics technology. More importantly, the game launched the Steam digital distribution platform which is now the leading online retail store for PC games with over 125 million users.

Unhappy with the six-year wait between the two games, Valve decided to split the next Half-Life game into three distinct episodes. Half-Life 2: Episode One was released in 2006 and was followed by Episode Two in late 2007, which infamously ended on a massive cliffhanger involving the death of a major supporting character. Episode Three, it was speculated, would be released in 2009. Valve also improved their game catalogue by releasing Episode Two alongside two other games in the "Orange Box" collection: Team Fortress 2, a colourful and fun multiplayer shooter, and Portal, a sophisticated puzzle game using portals, physics and momentum to solve puzzles in a story with a very dark sense of humour and a break-out villain character, the evil computer GLADOS. Portal also took place in the Half-Life universe and fans had fun spotting the Easter eggs linking up the two storylines.

Portal 2 was released in 2011 and was a massive success. A far larger, funnier and more sophisticated game than its forebear, it gained immense acclaim. It also had much closer ties to the Half-Life franchise, including some elements that seemed to be helping set up Episode Three.

Since 2011 there has been almost blanket radio silence from Valve on the status of the Half-Life franchise, except for rumours that Episode Three was dead and the next game would be a full-blown Half-Life 3. Valve has since released Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012), Dota 2 (2013) and Portal VR spin-off The Lab (2016) but no more games, instead focusing on online content for Team Fortress 2 and experimenting with new hardware, particularly virtual reality.

Game Informer's investigation relies on an interview with an insider at Valve. According to them, the game never gained much traction due to Valve's way of working, where developers work on projects that they like and then take prototypes to senior management to approve and take to the next level. For whatever reason, Valve's senior management (and its overall boss, Gabe Newell) have never formally approved a Half-Life 3. Apparently some of the ideas and prototypes were pretty wild, including an real-time strategy game spin-off and a live-action movie with branching storylines based on player choice. It does look like that Episode Three did get off the ground after Episode Two's completion, but it was canned pretty quickly, possibly in favour of Portal 2, and the momentum was never regained.

Valve has occasionally released concept art for Half-Life 3, including this image of the Borealis, a ship which was heavily referenced in both Episode Two and Portal 2.

The idea that the Half-Life franchise may be dead was given greater credence when Viktor Antonov, the main designer of Half-Life 2 and its episodes, left Valve for Arkane, where he became lead designer on Dishonored and Dishonored 2. However, even more damaging was the departure of Marc Laidlaw last year. Laidlaw was the main writer on Half-Life and its sequel, as well as the episodes. His departure is a much bigger blow, since it was his influence that led to the franchise's signature laidback, subtle and environmental storytelling, as well as its nods to pulp SF.

Half-Life 3 is a difficult project to take on at this point. Gabe Newell seems to want a game that will redefine the FPS genre as the first two titles did with new ideas and technology, but no-one seems really to have come up with a viable idea. In addition, the Half-Life franchise may have sold over 25 million copies but its console ports have never been more than modestly successful, whilst a new game would also have to appeal to console gamers. The direction of FPS games on console has been to lowest-common denominator, cut scene-heavy and violence-focused titles. That's not to say that a smarter, more thoughtful FPS could not be successful (arguably the Fallout series has moved away from being RPGs to narrative and conversation-heavy FPS games instead), but the project has to be seen as being risky from a commercial POV.

On the other hand, there is no way that a new Half-Life game from Valve would bomb. It'd be a big success regardless of the mechanics it employed. The huge cliffhanger ending of Episode Two, not to mention the numerous storyline nods from Portal and Portal 2, have also set up expectations and questions that Valve should really answer, if not in a new game than perhaps in a novel or comic.

The one thing that might resurrect the franchise? A movie. Star Wars and Star Trek producer and director J.J. Abrams is a massive fan of the Half-Life and Portal games and recently confirmed that his company, Bad Robot, is developing movies set in both universes, although it sounds like the Portal movie will happen first. Whether Abrams would direct or just produce remains to be seen. But if something lights a fire under the franchise and gets a new Half-Life game going again, this might be it.

I Have No PC And I Must Scream

Well, not quite. Two days ago, after six years of leal service, my trusty and faithful desktop PC decided to say farewell to this mortal coil by suffering a Catastrophic Liquid Cooling Failure, which rapidly turned into an Overheating Processor Core Event and then a Total System Kaboom.

Fortunately, I long ago learned (from Steven Erikson's infamous "losing half of first of draft of Memories of Ice" incident, among others) to have an external hard drive hooked up and to back up everything I'm working on, so I didn't lose any vital documents or files. But it is certainly an inconvenience.

Thanks to the generosity of my friends, I have a borrowed laptop so normal blogging service will not be interrupted, but anything approaching modern gaming is out the window for a few months until I can get a new desktop. Hopefully this will also result in more time for reading.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Polygon on the making of FINAL FANTASY VII

Polygon has published an absolutely massive article about the making of Final Fantasy VII.

Released on 31 January 1997 by Squaresoft, Final Fantasy VII was a vast, sprawling 3D roleplaying game which has been credited with helping to drive the success of the original Sony PlayStation console. It also popularised the use of advanced CG cut scenes in video games and drove an explosion in the success of Japanese video games in the West. It was also the first Japanese RPG to also be a best-seller on PC, helping drive the current success of the genre on PC and mobile platforms.

Polygon's article is remarkably thorough in talking to those responsible for the game's creation, prototyping, publishing and marketing. It brings together several of the creative forces involved in the game for group discussions of its creation, as well as one-on-one interviews with other personnel. The game also touches on Squaresoft's decision to terminate its relationship with Nintendo to work with Sony (some cite Square's move as helping drive the nail in the coffin of the N64 console) and the difficulties faced in marketing Japanese titles in the US and European markets.

A fine piece of video games journalism and well worth a read.

Square is currently working on a high-tech remake of Final Fantasy VII for modern consoles (and probably PC). The game is not expected to be released until 2018 or 2019. Final Fantasy XV was recently released on PlayStation 4 and X-Box One, with a PC version rumoured for later this year or next.


George R.R. Martin has broken his year-long radio silence on The Winds of Winter to confirm that he hopes to release the book in 2017.

Martin cautions that he had hoped to release the book in 2016, prior to Season 6 of Game of Thrones debuting in April and clearly failed to hit that deadline, and makes no guarantees that the book will be out this year. However, it is his current aspiration.

The previous book in the series, A Dance with Dragons, was released in July 2011, itself five years and nine months after the previous volume, A Feast for Crows. The Winds of Winter will break this record if it is not released by April, which does not seem likely at this stage. Publication before Game of Thrones begins its seventh and penultimate season in late June 2017 also seems a little ambitious (but not completely impossible).

The turn-around from hand-in to publication for the novel will be around three months. To get the book out before 2017 ends, Martin will have to turn the manuscript in around August of this year.

Martin declined to provide a page count update for the novel. However, in January 2016 he confirmed that he had completed hundreds of manuscript pages and dozens of chapters. The Winds of Winter is expected to approach the size of A Dance with Dragons and A Storm of Swords, which both had over 70 chapters and 1,500 manuscript pages.


To celebrate their acquisition of the Tad Williams back catalogue, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK are offering the ebook of The Dragonbone Chair for 99p for a limited time.

The Dragonbone Chair is the opening novel of the epic Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy and the first of a planned total of eight (or nine, depending on how you count it) novels set in the world of Osten Ard. You can read my full review of The Dragonbone Chair here. You can also read my assessment of the impact of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn saga on the history of epic fantasy here. The full list of Tad Williams' novels is as follows:

Novels of Osten Ard
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
The Dragonbone Chair (1988)
Stone of Farewell (1990)
To Green Angel Tower (1993, often published in two volumes subtitled Siege and Storm)

Stand-alone Novels
The Heart of What Was Lost (2017)
The Shadow of Things to Come (forthcoming)

The Last King of Osten Ard
The Witchwood Crown (2017)
Empire of Grass (forthcoming)
The Navigator's Children (forthcoming)

Other Works
City of Golden Shadow (1996)
River of Blue Fire (1998)
Mountain of Black Glass (1999)
Sea of Silver Light (2001)

Shadowmarch (2004)
Shadowplay (2007)
Shadowrise (2010)
Shadowheart (2010)

Bobby Dollar
The Dirty Streets of Heaven (2012)
Happy Hour in Hell (2013)
Sleeping Late on Judgement Day (2014)

Solo Novels
Tailchaser's Song (1985)
Child of An Ancient City (1992)
Caliban's Hour (1994)
The War of the Flowers (2003)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

The liveship Vivacia is in the hands of the pirate king Kennit, who has won the living ship's heart with his kindness and rejection of slavery. But Althea Vestrit is not prepared to let her family ship be taken into piracy. Having refloated the liveship Paragon and assembled a crew, she now plans to retake her vessel. Meanwhile, the forces of Jamaillia and Chalced have sacked Bingtown. The surviving Traders have to rebuild and reassert themselves in times of great adversity. But, far to the north, the first dragon seen in the world for centuries has taken wing...

Ship of Destiny concludes the Livship Traders trilogy, the second major movement (of five, so far) in Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings mega-series. The conclusion to her first series in this world, The Farseer Trilogy, was sabotaged by the book being incredibly overlong, with poor pacing and structural issues that made ploughing through it a chore. Ship of Destiny is certainly a far superior ending, juggling a much larger number of stories and interesting characters far more effectively, although some similar issues remain. It does feel like events continue to unfold more slowly and laboriously than they really should, and the book has more endings than the film version of The Return of the King.

Still, Hobb's gifts of characterisation continue to shine with her treatment of her major cast. After being fairly restrained in the previous novel, it's good to see Althea reassert herself as a major protagonist and after all of his self-delusions and justifications, it's good to see Kennit's flaws and plans blow up in his face. However, I can't help but feel that the mechanism Hobb uses to make it clear that Kennit is a villain and not a cool, amoral antihero - the rape of another character - is a little too obvious. Unlike some characters who introduce this idea into their work for shock value, Hobb owns this story decision and follows through on its consequences effectively, which is a refreshing change even as it makes for some grim reading.

The storylines and characters are developed satisfyingly, although as we reach the climax the focus shifts to events on the Vivacia and Paragon and the storylines in Bingtown and Trehaug are completely abandoned. This is a bit surprising as major characters vanish abruptly from the story for hundreds of pages at the end of the novel, but Hobb actually makes it work quite well when we eventually catch up with those characters at the end of the story.

Ship of Destiny (****) is a surprisingly relaxed conclusion to a highly enjoyable and some different kind of fantasy trilogy, with Hobb's fine gifts for characterisation on full display. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Wertzone Classics: Dungeon Keeper 2

Your conquest of the underworld continues. Your next target is the Kingdom of Harmonia, but King Reginald has created a magical force to repel dungeon keepers. Dissipating this force requires forging an alliance with the redoubtable Horned Reaper and seizing the twenty Portal Gems from their guardians.

Dungeon Keeper II was released in 1999 and was one of the very last games released by Bullfrog, one of the greatest and most innovative video game developers of all time. It was a straightforward, iterative sequel to their 1997 hit Dungeon Keeper, retaining most of the core gameplay, adding new features and including a superior interface and better graphics.

As with the original game, you start with a group of imps, your dungeon heart (which has to be protected at all costs) and not a lot else. Early parts of each level are spent excavating new rooms and mining gold to afford stuff. By building different rooms and claiming portals you can attract and recruit new creatures, train them up and send them into battle, or put them to work on various tasks. Warlocks, for example are great at researching new spells and room types, but are also very powerful if trained up correctly. Since creatures only gain experience for combat training (or actual battles), not working, you have to carefully manage your creatures and what they are up to.

The improvements over Dungeon Keeper are legion. The graphics are vastly superior, using a full 3D engine which is vastly more detailed and attractive than the original game. The original game is fine (once you know how to activate the high-res mode) but Dungeon Keeper II is a giant leap ahead and retains a detail and charm that still impresses today. The graphic design is also more varied, with immense lava levels changing things up, and different types of underground environments and styles to make things more varied. The interface is also better, allowing you to drag-select areas to tunnel out (a vast improvement on the original) and giving you more feedback and precise control of individual room functions. On the downside, the combat feedback panel is less detailed and responsive than the original, making it harder to lend fine amounts of aid (such as healing) in battles.

There's also a little more busywork in the new rooms. Training rooms can now only train creatures up to Level 4. To train them higher, you need to put them into Fighting Pits. This is hilarious - especially as creatures scurry over to cheer on their favourite - but requires far too much micromanagement to be really viable for training up large numbers of creatures at once. Still, it is entertaining. Some of the other new rooms are also clever, like the Casino which allows you to fleece your wages back from your creatures on low-income levels.

There's more of a storyline linking different levels and some optional missions and side-quests. There's also some amusing animated sequences linking each level.

Dungeon Keeper II (*****) doesn't really put a foot wrong. It's a slightly easier game than Dungeon Keeper (and certainly a lot easier than the original game's insane expansion, Deeper Dungeons) but it's far from easy. It's fun, still feels fresh eighteen years after release and is a deeply compelling game that will keep you playing for hours. It's available now on PC from GoG.