Sunday, November 22, 2015

Game of Thrones (2015 video game) review

    A Song of Wood and Iron.

    A Game of Trees.

    These are my nicknames for Telltale game's experimental adaptation of the HBO television show, Game of Thrones, which itself is an adaptation of the popular George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire series. I've reviewed all six parts of the story individually (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6) but feel the need to discuss the story as a whole and how it all comes together.

    Or doesn't.
You will want to kill these characters. Badly.

    My overall opinion is Telltale's Game of Thrones is a flawed but enjoyable game. The flaws are severe, however, and they are ones which I expected better from Telltale than. This isn't to say the game isn't good, mind you, it is. Telltale has some of its best writing and the setting of Westeros is such a vibrant and entertaining one that it's able to paper over a lot of the cracks in the walls.

    Unfortunately, by the cliffhanger ending, the roof has started to leak and you're very aware a lot of the things which you thought were important were actually just misdirections. I'll get to discussing all of the series flaws before the end of the review but, don't worry, I'll also be discovering what worked well.

    The premise of the game is House Forrester, bannermen to House Stark, are savaged by the Red Wedding and left with only a fraction of their former soldiers. With a psychotic and insane lord installed above them, the Forrester family must play the game of thrones in order to figure some way out of their predictment. The Forresters must beg, borrow, and steal in order to survive the anger of their longtime rivals in the Whitehills as well as the wrath of their overseer. Meanwhile, a former squire of the house is sent on a quixotic quest beyond the Wall in order to find a mythical location called the Northern Grove which may hold their house's salvation.

In the game of trees, you always lose and die. Period.
    The biggest problem with the above? Well, none of this will make any sense to someone who hasn't watched the first three season of HBO's Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, if you have watched the show (or better yet, read the novels), then a lot of the game will feel like a retread as the Forresters are eerily similar to the Stark family. While capturing the feel of the Stark's adventures is important, they went a little too far in making them stand-ins for various members of the family.

    Another major flaw of the game is it does its best to try and capture the constant doom and gloom of the show, which sometimes exceeds the book for shocking reversals of fortune. The number of times the Forresters have anything good happen to them in the game can be counted on one hand and the successes of the house are minuscule. The game also kills a lot of characters who aren't quite done with their development so you don't get the level of shock or enjoyment factor out of them you should. Perhaps the nadir is the utterly unwarranted and irritating fate of a character in King's Landing which is both mean spirited as well as frustrating given the events prior.

Some scenes are heartbreaking--and not for the reasons you expect.
    So it's awful, right?

    Not in the slightest.

    Game of Thrones successfully captures the complicated politics, violence, and interactions which embody the allure of Westeros. When you're under the dominion of a psychopath like Ramsay Bolton, there's nothing you can do about it because that's how the feudal system works.

    Is your self-respect worth more than your life? Is it better to be true to yourself or cowardly if it means your survival to fight another day? Is it better to make peace with your enemies or destroy them? All of these questions are represented in the game. Perhaps not perfectly, the Whitehills are such enormous [censored] that there's really no solution for dealing with them than setting them on fire then setting them on fire again but it's still headier stuff than most video games by far.

Peter Dinklage CAN do voice acting. Just not in Destiny.
    I'm actually quite fond of the Forresters despite their similarity to the Starks and while they suffer needlessly I wanted to see them successfully navigate the game of thrones to a happy ending. I'm particularly fond of Rodrik Forrester, Gared, and Talia. I never quite warmed to Asher who seemed like they'd dumped Han Solo into Essos (which I suppose would make Beshka Chewbacca) but, at least, he was an original character. I even have a perverse fondness for Gwyn Whitehill and Lady Glenmore who show the two sides of being a proper lady in Westeros.

    The world-building around the Forresters is impressive too. While they bear little similarity to the one-line Forresters from the book (being more a combination of House Glover and House Manderly than a third tier house of little comsequence), the Forresters feel like they belong in Westeros despite being mostly a creation of Telltale. The importance of house words, family, lineage, history, and rivalries are all brought out with great skill. When a character says, "Iron from Ice" you know they're repeating more than a family motto but a creed.

"Hi, I'm Jon Snow. Bye."
    The guest stars in the video game are a mixed bag. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) do the best in terms of showing their multifaceted characters. I also felt both Lenda Hedey's Cersei and Iwan Rheon's Ramsay Snow did a pretty good job with their characters despite medium changes. My frustration with not being able to stab Ramsay in the eye is more to do with his plot immunity than Iwan's performance. Kit Harrington's Jon Snow, sadly, was completely unnecessary fanservice.

    The art of the game deserves special credit as it manages to have the painted style which isn't attempting to be realistic but works well for a timeless Disney-esque quality. Other games' graphics may fail but this is the sort of game which will be as fun in twenty-years as it is today. About the only thing I should warn you about is it's sadly damn near unplayable on Xbox 360. I had to change over to the Xbox One because the frequent pauses and stops rendered playing a nightmare.

    In conclusion, buy it but be aware of the flaws. This is an evocative game but it sometimes feels like you're on a set of railroad tracks when most Telltale games are better at disguising the road only goes one way. Nevertheless, they manage to capture the feel of Westeros and if they aren't quite up to the skill of George R.R. Martin in making their world then it certainly doesn't feel like they've bungled the job either. The art is beautiful, the characters entertaining, and I'm going to buy the sequel when it comes out.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Game of Thrones: Episode 6: The Ice Dragon review

    "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."
    -Ramsay Bolton

    The quote above summarizes this game in a nutshell.

    I love Telltale Games, I truly do but I'm rather irritated by the fact this ends on a cliffhanger. The Walking Dead video game got two sequels but both of them were self-contained stories in their own right. I see no reason why Game of Thrones couldn't have been the same way. So, if you want the biggest strike against The Ice Dragon then you should definitely know the story is really just the first part in what will undoubtedly be a much longer epic.

Beshka and Rodrik are an odd friendship I'd like to have seen more of.
    To which I say boo.


    `The premise of this episode is the Whitehills have finally decided to march on Ironrath, having gotten well and truly sick of Forrester defiance. The Forresters have the sellsword army recruited by Asher but it is unhappy and untested against real soldiers.

    Furthermore, the Forresters have suffered a previous loss in a previous episode and this casts a pall over the resulting events. Mira Forrester, meanwhile, struggles with the fact she is now the primary suspect in the murder of a Lannister guard. Finally, Gared Tuttle manages to get to reach the North Grove and discover exactly what Lord Forrester wanted him to protect.

    I give credit to Telltale games for actually making the ending of Season One very determental. Whichever way you choose for Episode 5's climax results in an entirely different version of Episode 6. I actually hope they manage to avoid the usual "cutting off the branches" in Season Two as I think it would terrible for the final choice to be rendered meaningless by the survivor being killed.

The bear, the bear, and the maiden fair.
    Honestly, I'm not sure how they're going to Season Two without doing that, though, since there's a lot of people who can live or die in this finale. It would be difficult to list them all but it's a number only exceeded by the people who definitely die. This is perhaps the bloodiest installment of any Telltale game yet and that's a ludicrously high bar to leap over.

    Unfortunately, it's a value of diminishing returns as killing so many interesting characters only means the relationships developed in previous episodes don't get to be followed up on. There's a TV trope for this called, "They Wasted a Perfectly Good Character" and you'd need two hands to count the number they waste. So did I hate it? Not really. Did I like it? Mostly! Did I love it? Eh, no.

    Aside from the fact it's a cliffhanger with no real ending to the story, the biggest problem of the game is there's really just too damn much going on. It's not so much an emotional roller-coaster as one long dip because it never bothers to go up again. By the time the game is done, I was just numb from the experience and not in the same way I was from the best parts of The Walking Dead's first season. More like the worst parts of Season Two of The Walking Dead where things start at grimdark and move to a kind of darkness event horizon.   

I will say the Whitehills finally graduate from stupid flunkies to villains I want to kill as much as Ramsay Bolton.
    I mean, there's an actual scene where a protagonist can do the human sacrifice of a close friend to do mind-control magic. Seven hells, people. I will say, though, Telltale was smart enough to let me kill one of the Forrester enemies.

    And it was oh so satisfying.

     Of all the plotlines, I think the one between Rodrik/Asher and the Whitehills was the most entertaining. I think it was a suitably epic battle between them and if not for the number of named characters prematurely ended, I would have said it was a fitting finale. Sadly, it feels more like it should have been Episode 5 rather than Episode 6 and if they're going to end the season there, they should have extended the season however many episodes they needed to get it done.

I wonder if Telltale realized the implications here.
     Mira's story ends not with a bang but a whimper and while I chose an appropriate way for her story to climax, the fact it ends on such a sadistic pointless way left a sour taste in my mouth. In the game of thrones, you either win or you die but there's only choosing how you lose here and that's rather tragic.

    When they do Season Two, I really hope they work on the pacing for this story. I'm a fan of grimdark and love it when stories are gritty as well as troubled. Despite this, I also expect events to flow to a certain order and things seem to constantly reverse themselves the favor of the villains. A proper grimdark story doesn't care about the heroes but it doesn't care about the villains either. It is an amoral uncaring place where there's no safety net for anyone. Here, Ramsay Bolton and the Whitehills seem to be operating with a particularly sturdy one.

    Despite this, I'm going to be picking up Season Two first day. The Game of Thrones universe is one I love and while I wish it would dial it down a bit, I was still entertained by the story. I came to care about House Forrester despite the constant ass-kicking they got and hope they manage to get some measure of revenge on their tormentors.

    Call me an addict.

The Moral Ambiguity of Fallout 4

Note: This post will contain spoilers for the storyline of Fallout 4 and previous games.

    War...war never changes.

    These are the arc words of Fallout 4 and they have never been more appropriate to the setting. In simple terms, they are an acknowledgement that the conflicts between human beings will never end because we human nature remains immutable. People will kill for religion, resources, revenge, wealth, power, and glory until the end of time.

    The original Fallout ended with the realization the Master and all of his atrocities were motivated by a warped but sincere desire to do good. The sequel, Fallout 2, ended with the discovery the Enclave were the embodiment of Western privilege and racism with the Wastelanders being on the other side of it. Fallout 3 was seemingly the odd duck out since it was a conflict between the wholly-evil Enclave and the seemingly wholly-good Brotherhood of Steel but this is something I've changed in the past (see my essay here).

    The premise of Fallout 4 is the Sole Survivor is a Pre-War citizen of Massachusetts who manages to survive the Great War by being cryogenically frozen for 215 years. When he awakens to the brave new world of the Post-Apocalypse Wasteland, they are sent on a quixotic search for his missing son with only an old fortune-tellers' advice to guide him.

    Along the way, he or she discovers the Commonwealth is being fought over by two technologically advanced power-houses and two much lower-tech local organizations. Despite all four organizations having a point, the best you'll be able to accomplish is two surviving. Because the same belligerence and refusal to compromise of the Pre-War world is still intact in the Fallout universe.

A man and his dog have some difficult choices ahead.
     This conflict of factions is similar to Hoover Dam being fought over in Fallout: New Vegas. In fact, Fallout: New Vegas followed Fallout 3's example and made the conflict largely one of good versus evil. NCR, while corrupt and expansionist, was still a group out for the benefit while Caesar's Legion were a salad of everything a Western liberal non-misogynist technophile gamer would despise. The only neutral party in the story was Robert House and, if you chose the Independence ending, the Courier themselves.

    Fallout 4 one-ups New Vegas, however, by making it clear all four factions have a point. Unfortunately, none of the parties involved are WILLING to compromise and the unwillingness to make peace spells the downfall of those the Survivor chooses not to aid. It's interesting the game subverts traditional storytelling models by making it clear the "right" choice may not be the most beneficial one while foregoing the idea being more beneficial is necessarily "better." To explain, I'll give a brief rundown of all four factions.

The Institute

    The primary antagonists for the first half of the game are set up as the Institute, which murders the spouse of the Survivor as well as makes off with their child. They also callously murder the entirety of Vault 111's inhabitants, shutting off the life-support systems to everyone else in the Vault. We hear about the Institute's slavery of Synths from the Railroad, how they discarded sentient robot Nick Valentine like garbage, how they kidnap people to be replaced with dopplegangers, and learn they're experimenting with the Super Mutant-creating FEV. Perhaps the most damning act is the story about how they deliberately destroyed the Commonwealth of Allied Settlements (CAS) which would have created a new nation in the post-apocalypse world.

    Then we actually get to meet them.

Flawless, beautiful, soulless. Or is it?
    The Institute proves to a idealized vision of the future with grass, clean walls, science, and knowledge available to all. It's a Star Trek-esque utopia where humanity is at a level it should have been had not it destroyed itself 215 years ago. The people are friendly, likable, and idealistic. There is a dark side to the Institute in that it is built on the backs of Synthetic slavery but this is arguable on grounds of sentience. Many gamers have expressed agreement with the Institute they're just very well-programmed machines. The Institute argues they are not slavers because Synths are just, appropriately, video game characters designed to act like people.

    But are they?

    The question is debated back and forth throughout the game as we see quests involving Synths trying to prove their humanity, robots reprogrammed to act like humans (such as the hilarious Professor Goodfeels) but failing miserably, and individuals who blur the lines. There's even the fact the Institute might be potentially capable of changing as the Survivor is able to express he finds the organization monstrous in its actions but loves his family (his son turning out to be the director of the faction) too much to betray it.

    The Institute is a source of immense knowledge and resources which could be turned to the benefit of humanity but doing so requires the destruction of its enemies. Enemies who stand against the Institute on moral grounds. If you side with these enemies, you destroy the Institute but you also condemn the Synths to extinction as they can no longer be produced. Likewise, you potentially kill or render homeless countless innocent people whose greatest crime was believing the lie Synths aren't people (or producing them in the first place if you believe the Brotherhood of Steel).

The Brotherhood of Steel

    Fan-favorites of the franchise, the Brotherhood of Steel has gone through numerous changes from its original concept. The depiction of the one in Fallout 4 is a combination of the various incarnations of the group over the years (Western, Midwestern, and Eastern chapters). The Fallout 3 chapter of the Brotherhood believed in protecting the innocent from monsters as well as aiding humanity in its recovery by sharing technology. This is directly contradictory to the original Brotherhood's stated ethos of keeping dangerous technology from the hands of "savages."

    The Commonwealth Brotherhood of Steel has combined these missions by adopting a policy of destroying or controlling dangerous technology with a less-xenophobic policy of recruiting Wastelanders as well as ruling over them directly. While all Brotherhood of Steel chapters have been prejudiced against nonhumans, their new leader Arthur Maxson believes all nonhumans should be destroyed. This is a defensible position when dealing with the near-universally hostile Super Mutants of the East Coast and Feral Ghouls but becomes less so with the intelligent ghouls and sympathetic Synths you meet during the game.

A peace at the expense of the annihilation of all those different is seemingly a bargain when those are 90% evil. But what about the remaining 10%?
    The Brotherhood of Steel rejects both freedom as well as espouses racist values which put in mind various fascist movements over the years as well as the darker excesses of feudalism. Despite this, the Brotherhood has a lot going for it. In the horrific chaos of the Commonwealth, the Brotherhood of Steel are strong and they are sincere in their desire to help--almost fanatically so. If you're a Wastelander rather than a ghoul or Synth, the Brotherhood's rule is an oasis of safety in a radioactive desert. The fact individuals can join the Brotherhood of Steel and rise on merit also removes the inherent nepotism of feudalism.

    The Brotherhood of Steel is also dominionist as well as expansionist. They revere the concept of humanity and loathe the misuse of technology so there is no hope for any reconciliation with the Institute or Synths. The Institute and its survivors are marked for death and there is no hope for the Synths or their sympathizers in the Railroad. To side with the Brotherhood is to ask yourself whether the deaths of a minority of ghouls and Synths is worth the salvation of thousands. Also, whether freedom is a worthwhile sacrifice for survival.

The Railroad

    The Railroad is my favorite faction in Fallout 4, which is surprising since I assumed they would be my least. In simple terms, they're just not as "sexy" as the Brotherhood of Steel or Institute. They're a bunch of Wastelanders from various walks of life united by nothing other than their belief Synths are people and their desire to free as many of them from the Institute's control as possible. They're named after the Underground Railroad, an organization of individuals who recognized the humanity of people living under some of the worst oppression in United States history.

    But is the Railroad good?

    They certainly think they're the good guys. One of the things the Railroad has going for it is certainty. That's a rare commodity in the Wasteland but they have every bit the fortitude and confidence in their cause as the Brotherhood of Steel. Desdemona, leader of the Railroad, makes it clear that a Synth is a person and you should be willing to risk your life for them the same way you would a human being. The fact many Synths have tried to kill the Survivor by the time they meet as well as the fact they've killed many humans is lost on the woman.

The Railroad's HQ being underneath a church is symbolic--but of what?
    The Railroad's methods are somewhat questionable as well. Rather than simply helping Synths settle into new lives, they brainwash (less charitably, "reprogram") them into believing they're human beings and leave them in the Wasteland to fend for themselves. This leaves them vulnerable to recapture by individuals like Doctor Zimmer and sometimes horrific identity crises. Paladin Danse, a Brotherhood of Steel zealot, cannot reconcile the fact he's a Synth with the fact he believes they are abominations against humanity.

    The Railroad's zealotry also makes them blind to events beyond their cause. The Brotherhood of Steel represents a danger to all Synths and their sympathizers but the Railroad remains unaware of their intended xenocide until the Brotherhood strikes. They intend to destroy the Institute in order to eliminate the oppressors of Synths but this means no more Synths will be created.

    The Railroad ignores the many humans who will be killed and rendered homeless in the destruction of the Institute as well as the loss of knowledge. Destroying the Brotherhood of Steel may be necessary as an act of self-defense as well as one to protect innocent human beings but there are children on board The Prydwen and they get not a single word of acknowledgement. It is perhaps because of this that Synthetic Detective Nick Valentine doesn't express much sympathy for them.

    This doesn't bring up the Railroad is divided as to what qualifies as human as well with 1st generation android Synths considered to be "merely" machines the same way Pre-War robots like Codsworth are. This despite the fact Codsworth expresses shock, grief, and a range of human emotions which seem to point to his being alive (if not human). 3rd generation Synths look and sound human so the Railroad believes they are--nothing more, nothing less.

    Righteousness blinds the Railroad and anger even as they are the only people fighting for those who have no voice.

The Minutemen

    The final faction is another "good" one like the Railroad which suffers for the fact it is also ineffective. The Minutemen are the remnants, reduced to one active member in fact, of a Commonwealth militia known for protecting settlements against various threats. In-fighting, the loss of their headquarters, and catastrophic losses during the Battle of Quincy have broken them but they maintain a positive reputation with most Commonwealth citizens.

    If the Survivor chooses to join the Minutemen, rising to their leadership almost immediately, we also discover they run a similar arrangement to 1988 video game Wasteland's Desert Rangers. The Minutemen receive food, water, and caps in exchange for providing settlements with protection. Given you physically begin several settlements and can give orders for what is constructed on the settlements which join you, this is less like an alliance and more like rulership. It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a scaled-down version of what the Brotherhood of Steel promises its citizens.

    The Minutemen's representative in the game, Preston Garvey, is unambiguously good and represents the best of a Wasteland hero. Unfortunately, Preston's naive touting of the Minutemen's graces tends to ignore its many flaws. The organization is well-armed, as militias go, but has nowhere near the power or knowledge as either the Institute or Brotherhood of Steel.

To be good or great - the Minutemen achieve one but can't reach the other.
    The organization's ability to project force is also far weaker than the former as they were effectively destroyed by an attack by a single Mirelurk Queen (impressive but something the Brotherhood of Steel or Institute Synths would have mopped the floor with). Laser muskets, crank-operated alternatives to Pre-War technology, are inferior to the real thing. When faced with threats like the Institute, Super Mutants, Brotherhood of Steel, and even the Gunners, the Minutemen are mostly outmatched. Indeed, it was the Gunner mercenary army which destroyed the Minutemen in the first place.

    The addition of artillery and the return of the Castle means the Minutemen can gain the ability to project force better than they could in decades, perhaps enough to be able to defeat Super Mutants and enough to defeat the Brotherhood of Steel in a surprise assault on The Prydwen. They even get the Brotherhood's Vertibirds if they destroy them. Still, it's abundantly clear the Minutemen promise only the beginnings of a better life for the average Wastelander. It took NCR the better part of a century in order to become the power house it is in the West and there's no sign the Minutemen are the beginnings of anything more effective. Still, security and supply lines mean the Minutemen promise a better life.

    The problem is that siding with any other faction AND the Minutemen seems like it would do better.

In Conclusion

    Fallout 4 is excellent for providing real moral dilemmas to its protagonist's player. For me, I chose to side with the Railroad and the Minutemen. I did so, however, knowing I was condemning many innocent people to die and potentially costing the people of the Commonwealth a better future. I was willing to let Rome burn as long as Rome's slaves were freed and that's not a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    Others chose to side with the Institute in order to make sure the world was a better place through technology and science, knowing they were going to have to kill a bunch of innocents to do so or thinking the synthetic question irrelevant. Others sided with the Brotherhood of Steel, believing the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. There's a right answer to which faction you pick but it will change depending on what kind of person you are or what you believe.

    Just like in real-life.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Fallout 4 review

    I am a huge fan of the Fallout series. The original Fallout games were a bit before my time but Fallout 3 was a revelation and inspired me to check them out. I love their satirical look at society, comedy, pathos, melodrama, and, of course, shooting things in V.A.T.S. As such, I was very excited about Fallout 4's announcement and interested in what sort of changes they would be making for the series.

    The answer?

    Flawed but fun.

    I'll get into a discussion of the game's storyline in a later article as the work deserves my full attention but both it and the gameplay have their ups and downs. This is a revelation of a game, truly, and I would remiss in not giving it a 10 out of 10 but this is because the massive amount of content as well as fun to be had compensates for its glaring flaws rather than the latter not existing.

My survivor looked like Ned Stark and his wife Daenerys.
    Fallout 4 makes numerous improvements over Fallout 3 and New Vegas but, unfortunately, also makes several changes which are decidedly unwelcome. There's also numerous changes which are roughly as good as the previous version but took some getting used to. A frequent joke about Fallout 3 was it was "Oblivion with guns." A joke about this game would be it's "Skyrim with stiff voice acting."

    The premise of the game is you are the Sole Survivor of Vault 111. You, your spouse, and your infant child are living a happy life in the Pre-War era of America when nuclear was breaks out. You all swiftly head out the door to the Vault, only to discover it is a cryogenic freezing chamber where you and your family are put in suspended animation. During your sleep, your spouse's chamber is attacked and your child taken away before you're awoken to the brave new world of 215 years after the apocalypse.

    Cute joke on the time, Bethesda.

    There was some mild controversy with the fandom over the fact the protagonist is voice acted now given the traditional blank slate protagonists of the series. Gay and lesbian fans of the series also expressed some displeasure over the fact that, in a series where homosexual relationships had always been possible, you were shoe-horned in a heterosexual one in the Pre-War era. I, personally, think it would have been better to have been able to determine the sex of your spouse as well but note the Sole Survivor can have actual gay and straight romances later. I'll get to the romantic element later, though.

Recognizable landmarks become excellent battlefields.
    The biggest change to the character other than his/her set backstory is the addition of voice acting. While Brian T. Delaney (male), Courtenay Taylor (female) do a serviceable job with the Sole Survivor, the simple fact the writing is unchanged from things like Skyrim and Fallout 3. Choices range from superficial opinions ("I hate newspapers", "I love newspapers") to phrasing various levels of irritation with your surrounding associates. Compared to Hawke from Bioware's Dragon Age 2, the Sole Survivor comes off as somewhat flat and two-dimensional.

    The changes to the leveling system are also questionable with the new Perk system replacing the perfectly serviceable and comprehensible skills system. The various Perk trees were confusing and complicated, making it more difficult to know who and what I wanted as well as what was available. The lack of a level limit is appreciated, though, because it allows you to eventually get everything you want. I also dislike the loss of the repair system since that provided a sense of rarity and decay to items.

Poor Garvey is the nicest guy in the Commonwealth.
    Despite this, there are a lot more changes that I appreciate. Gone are the "easy" enemies of the game with Molerats, Radroaches, and Raiders all having much-much more powerful versions of themselves. One of the early enemies of the game is a Deathclaw which is encountered when you have a chain gun and suit of tank-like power armor. It's a nightmarish fight and really goes a long way to restoring that monster's terrifying nature. There's a later fight where you also encounter a Dagon-esque Mirelurk which is every bit as horrible.

    Companions are an area where the game improves on previous editions quite a bit. In addition to taking the complex stories and personalities of Fallout: New Vegas, it also allows the much-desired romance plotlines for them. I was particularly fond of Piper and Garvey, the former being a post-apocalypse version of Lois Lane and the latter reminding me of Boone from Fallout: New Vegas. There's also guaranteed crowd-pleasers like Nick Valentine (an android detective) and the endearingly sycophantic Codsworth.

Nick has a face only his robot mother could love.
    Changes I like include the alteration of the series' traditional Power Armor from something which is just an elaborate suit of plate-mail to something more resembling Iron Man. You can only use it for as long as your Fusion Cores last and yet, while wearing it, you are able to take on nearly invincible foes. Another change I liked is the ability to take over and lead your own faction in the Minutemen early on in the game. You get a real sense of power and authority from your association with these do-gooders and I decided to wear its signature combination of tricorn as well as Captain America outfit for the rest of the game.

    Another welcome addition to the system is the revamped radiation system. Before, you could very easily ignore radiation throughout the game. Now, it replaces hit points and can swiftly fill up a meter with damage. This makes concern over radiation exposure much more immediately dangerous. I had to make ample use of both Rad-X and Rad-Away throughout the game as well as pay multiple trips to the doctor. Stimpacks and food are changed too, making both of them much more relevant to daily survival.

I played on Easy and Super Mutants were *terrifying*!
    A big change to the game is the addition of Settlements which have their ups and downs. There are numerous locations across the map which the Sole Survivor can take over, invite settlers, and proceed to decorate to their hearts' content. While an excellent time sink I spent much time decorating with portraits, toilets, and generators--I felt this should have been more of an optional pursuit as Sanctuary was more than enough of a town for me to build rather than the dozen or so I ended up constructing. It doesn't help I often ended up having to bail them out from Raiders and other groups when I invested a great deal in giving them machine-gun turrets and artillery *grumble grumble*.

    I will say the graphics aren't noticeably all that improved from the Xbox 360 version I played years ago. The character models are much-much better and that's not nothing but the gameworld doesn't feel all that different. It still has the same vaguely plastic, vaguely cartoonish style of the original game. Compared to say, the Witcher 3, it looks last generation. On the other hand, that same plastic and cartoonish style made the original Fallout 3 look more advanced than it should have been. Funny how that works.

    The Commonwealth is beautifully detailed with some real crowd-pleasing sights like Diamond City (constructed on a baseball field), the Brotherhood of Steel's zeppelin (The Prydwen), and the U.S.S Constitution now outfitted with rocket boosters. The developers do an amazing job differentiating it from the Capital Wasteland, going for a dried scrubland look over Fallout 3's radioactive hellhole. The detail in individual levels is sometimes stunning with a comic book shop level containing dozens of unique models not used anywhere else in the game. It doesn't have a moment quite as amazing as seeing the Capital Wasteland for the first time but it has a few which come close.
Piper is awesome. That is all.

    Fans of the series will be interested in several changes to the lore. The Eastern Brotherhood of Steel has reverted to the West Coast's doctrines in certain areas and is now an expansionist feudal state which eliminates all nonhumans it encounters. They're closer to Space Marines now than the heroic order under Elder Lyons and I couldn't be happier. Those who thought Bethesda should have come up with original factions for Fallout 3 will note all of the ones in the Commonwealth are really interesting and worthy additions to the setting's lore. I'm particularly fond of the Institute and think it's a great "villain" you might actually want to side with.

    Indeed, one thing I really liked about the game was the addition of a very gray and gray set of morality throughout. Despite the fact Garvey, Piper, and most other characters are good, the simple fact is all of the major factions have serious flaws. You have a choice of evils to side with and everyone brings something different to the table. There's no group which is so awful, though, I didn't see why anyone wouldn't want to side with them, though. This is a stark change from the usual Black and White handling of things like the Enclave as well as Caesar's Legion. Hell, if I have a complaint, it's that your character has to work *REALLY HARD* at being evil if you want him to be a bad guy. There's no opportunity to nuke Megaton or be genuinely evil in this game and that's actually disappointing in its own way.

What is this strange object? A...tree?
    Unfortunately, fans should be aware the game comes out of the package with the usual array of Bethesda bugs. Clipping issues, getting stuck in locations, parts of the map not loading properly, and even getting stuck in elevators for infinity are not unheard of. I had all of these happen to me. Also, whenever I took an elevator ride, a Mister Handy called "Doctor Goodfeels" appeared beside me for no apparent reason. That is perhaps the single strangest bug I have ever encountered in any game whatsoever. All of these will be patched out eventually but I wish they'd delay a month or three to get these hammered out.

    I'm also a bit back and forth about the music. The majority of the licensed soundtrack, as mentioned, is from Fallout 3. I loved the soundtrack there and its very evocative. However, there's also an additional set of orchestrated music which is sometimes a bit too loud for the events onscreen. I would have preferred silence as an option since I could literally turn on a radio station if and when I wanted to hear the music. On the other hand, songs like "Atom Bomb", "Rocket 69", "Don't they know it's the end of the world", and "The Wanderer" are really-really good.

    In conclusion, this is a great game with some serious flaws. I'm very-very glad I played it but fans should be warned it has a number of problems. The increase in enemy strength, well-designed companions, imaginative detail, and simple joy of exploration are contrasted with the bugs, mediocre protagonist, and unnecessary gameplay changes. The good heavily outweigh the bad but this is a game I repeatedly asked myself, "why did they change this?" I'm still going to give it a high score, though, because it's quintessentially Fallout and I'm off to play it some more.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

The World of Ice and Fire review

    George R.R. Martin's world in A Song of Ice and Fire remains one of the most detailed in fantasy, which is saying something given the hundreds of books printed about various Dungeons and Dragons settings. What makes it more impressive is the larger portion of this material comes from George R.R. Martin himself. Before I get into the actual review of the book, I'll share the humorous and interesting story of the book's origins.

    While his fans (im)patiently awaited the release of The Winds of Winter, George commissioned the page owners (Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson) to compile all of his various references into one single coherent history of the setting. This project proved to be intriguing to George R.R. Martin so when they turned in their initial manuscript with many requests for clarification, he wrote thirty and forty thousand words of new notes at a time to answer their questions.

    As such, The World of Ice and Fire is as much another volume in the series as supplementary material. Massive new amounts of information on such subjects as Aegon the Conqueror's unification of Westeros, Ironborn culture, Essos cultures, and such events as the Targaryen Civil War ("The Dance of the Dragons") are all present here.

Beautiful interior.
    In some respects, it's actually rather disappointing since George R.R. Martin gives the complete history of Ser Duncan the Tall and Aegon V. While you can't really spoil the character's story since their fates are detailed in the main series, the detail he goes into gives us a pretty good idea of where the characters are going to be going for the next fifty years of their lives.

    The premise of the book is that it is a present meant for Robert Baratheon of the "accepted" history of Westeros. This proves to be the first of the book's many in-jokes as the book's intended destination changes a number of times with the events of the novels. It should be noted the book spoils many twists and turns in the main series up until the events of A Feast for Crows. They don't go much into detail of the novel's events but a number of major character deaths are spoiled in the opening page.

    The fact the book is written from an in-universe perspective makes it quite entertaining for those up on their Westeros lore as there's numerous facts which are meant to be deliberately wrong. For example, the in-universe writer's speculation the Others are merely a savage group of Wildlings which Northern historians elevated to superhuman levels. Some of these will go over a causal readers head but were a source of great amusement to me.

Amazing character portraits.
    My favorite part of the book is the section on the Targaryens which was, according to Garcia and Antonsson, almost all George. Almost every King or Queen of the dynasty has a fascinating story which would make its own awesome novel.

    I'm particularly fond of both Aegon's Conquest and the Dance of the Dragons period. The Blackfyre Rebellion was alluded to in the Dunk and Egg stories but seeing its tragic, pointless history in-detail was a real treat. I now have many new favorite A Song of Ice and Fire characters thanks to thos section.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't necessarily hold itself up to the same high standard as this section. The Ironborn section, for example, is basically one long dissertation on what an evil bunch of fundamentalist psychopaths they are. Likewise, I didn't find the sections on Essos to be as interesting as the ones on Westeros. There's also a rather glaring omission in they never bother to name the planet.

    The art in the book is gorgeous, some of the best I've ever seen in fantasy. The many character portraits bring to life the characters described within along numerous locations. Some of the art is wildly inconsistent with itself like Dragonstone or the Iron Throne but I don't mind as what inspires is the imagination is more important than 'accuracy.'

    Unfortunately, the nature of the books' layout means that the ebook version of it loses much of its affect. If ever there was a book to get on paper rather than electronically, this is it. I tried reading it on my Kindle and it proved damn near impossible. It's a book best purchased in its large physical edition format as an addition to your bookshelf because other types of presentation simply do not do its creator's justice.

Good? Evil? She's the woman with the dragon.
    Part of what I love about the book is its frequent use of dramatic irony. Rhaenyra Targaryen is one of the most beautiful women in the world but, ironically, the loss of her looks in old age and after childbirth is one of the reasons her claim to the throne is diminished. Aegon V struggles with trying to improve the lot of the Smallfolk (commoner) due to the fact he didn't force his children to marry who he wanted. Much like the actual A Song of Ice and Fire novels, being a good person or a bad person is no guarantee of success in the game of thrones. In the end, every action has consequences and fondly remembered kings are incompetents while amazing ones are just as often folk whose lose everything with their successor.

    If I had a serious complaint about the book, it would be the Essos section. I mentioned the Iromborn section describes their entire millennium-long history as one long collection of anti-intellectualism, rape, murder, and incompetence. Well, this kind of two-dimensional treatment is given to several other cultures in the setting as well with the Dothraki fairing best but still just what they are now unchanged for millennium. As a historian, it disappoints me to see that kind of unchanging cultural history in a work otherwise so vivid.

    A lot of the Essos cultures suffer from orientalist stereotypes and that isn't helped by the incorporation of iconography from H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard's writing. I like the men and women of Leng in Lovecraft's work just fine but not as a substitute for the entirety of the Chinese history. I suspect George R.R. Martin is making use of the limited perspective and knowledge of the Westeros scholars here but it's still rather troubling.

        The World of Ice and Fire is an amazing work of fictional scholarship. Not all of it is amazing and some of the cultures remain almost painfully two-dimensional but those places which have captured George's imagination are fantastic. There's also some problematic elements in the book's depiction of non-white, non-European cultures. Despite this, it has a huge amount going for it. The description of Assahai and its nightmarish "wrongness" to the abuses of Aegon the Unworthy to the comedy of errors which befell Aegon V--this is just a great world and one I could spend years studying the intricacies of.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The cover for THE GAMES OF SUPERVILLAINY revealed


The absolutely beautiful cover for THE GAMES OF SUPERVILLAINY by Raffaele Marinetti, lettering by Terry Stewart. I really love the way Raffaele captured Mandy (dressed as Nighthuntress) and Diabloman for this work.

We're trucking along to THE GAMES OF SUPERVILLAINY's release late November, 2015.

I hope everyone will pick up a copy.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms review

    I've often wanted to review the A Song of Ice and Fire books on this website but, really, there's nothing I could possibly say about them which other websites have not said and better. Likewise, there's no point in bringing more attention to the novels because they're already some of the most famous in fantasy. It's pretty much the same with the spin-offs as there's not much point in talking about Game of Thrones since everyone and their brother is watching that show.

    I've made an exception for Telltale's Game of Thrones because that's a side-story but this is the first book I feel comfortable recommending which might have slipped under fans' radars. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a compilation of three novellas (The Hedge Knight, The Sworn Sword, and The Mystery Knight) written by George R.R. Martin for various anthologies.

    The premise is a young hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall (a self-granted title since his master never knighted him), takes on a squire named Egg after the death of his mentor Ser Arlan. A hedge knight is a knight with no prestige or lineage but has the training as well as equipment to be a mounted soldier in the Seven Kingdoms. At the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy's warrior class but still part of it, Duncan has a unique perspective on events occurring in the century before A Game of Thrones.

    The three novellas take place in a very different Westeros from the one described in the books because the Targaryens are still at, if not the height of the rule then some distance from their twilight. The lands have been at peace for a decade and the nobility, if not following the example of chivalry in spirit, is at least trying to follow the example of chivalry in appearance. In a very real way, the book serves as an argument for a Targaryen Restoration because it shows everyone more or less getting along and the peasants able to live reasonably secure lives.

    George R.R. Martin, the father of grimdark, still treats the Medieval romance with a good deal of disdain but it's not nearly as cynical in many respects. Ser Duncan's basic decency makes him a far better knight than those born into the role but the absence of Gregor Cleganes, Boltons, Bloody Mummers, and even Lannisters make the villains of a decidedly more sympathetic bent. They're still very realistic fantasy with only the occasional prophetic dream keeping it from being absent magic together but the heart of the stories is a peasant-born warrior trying to navigate the complicated social dynamics of Westeros' knightly class.

    The Hedge Knight is, in a weird way, not that dissimilar from Heath Ledger's A Knight's Tale. Duncan is a peasant knight from Fleabottom who has a vision of becoming a famous warrior after Ser Arlan's death. Unfortunately, Ser Duncan lacks William Thatcher's godlike skill with a lance and swiftly finds himself in hot water with a Targaryen prince. In a very real way, this is a sports story and the deadly stakes of the event make it all the more entertaining to read about. Of the three, The Hedge Knight is my least favorite as I never really found that much interest in jousting and its central role in peacetime Medieval life.

    The Sworn Sword is a follow up to The Hedge Knight where Duncan has managed to find himself as an actual proper sworn knight to a lord--sort of. Having taken up service to a lord of something which barely qualifies as a tower, Duncan ends up caught up in a conflict between his lord and the beautiful widow across the river. The central conflict turns out to be not one of good and evil but the legacy of a war which had, to quote George Lucas, heroes on both sides. I like how it managed to take a very Medieval concept of fighting for a ladies' honor and play it straight while also illustrating how absurd it was.

    The Mystery Knight is, bluntly, one of my favorite stories in fantasy. I've re-read this novella five times and am probably going to do so again. It's a story with a lot of parallels to Bonnie Prince Charlie's revolt and is basically a Medieval spy novel set against the backdrop of a tournament. I love the characters of Lord Butterwell, the Fiddler, and Fireball's bastard. They are eccentric, larger than life, and yet believable. I also loved finally getting a chance to meet

    These stories are,obviously, going to be enjoyed more by fans of the books than by the show. Aside from the possible relationship between Duncan and Brienne, many of the details of the history will fly by television viewers. Despite this, I think they would be enjoyable even to those who have no experience with the world. Fans of grimdark will find the stories a good deal more idealistic and pleasant but still possessed of the moral ambiguity as well as "realism" which made the original books so enjoyable.

    The chief draw of the books for me is the relationship between Ser Duncan and Egg. Duncan is, to be honest, dumb but decent while Egg is highly-intelligent and somewhat more ruthless than his master. The contrast between their social positions, viewpoints, and attitudes provides an endless array of interesting conversations. It's kind of sad I know how their story works out due to The World of Ice and Fire but their tale is one I could follow through its own series. They're hilarious, insightful, and fun together--and what more can you ask from your heroes?

    In conclusion, I really really recommend this book. I almost wish George R.R. Martin would take more time from The Winds of Winter to do more of these stories. They're fun, light, and entertaining reads which deserve to be looked into. This version of the story is illustrated and while I tend to prefer the comic book versions of these story, it lends a sort of "Illustrated King Arthur" feel to things.