Mass Effect 1 & 2: Storytelling vs. Mechanics

In preparation for Mass Effect 3 I recently replayed the first two games. (on Insanity… infuriating at times, but easier than I thought it would be.)

When it was released I played the first game a lot. I mean, for a long game, I actually completed it several times, and not just for achievements, but because I enjoyed it. On this recent playthrough I did a full playthrough, you know, everything, every side quest, every planet, every conversation. And it didn’t feel like a chore, it didn’t feel like filler, it didn’t get annoying. OK, so tootling off to some random system to look for some guy’s missing brother may seem a little like a waste of time when the galaxy hangs in the balance, but that’s RPGs for you.

Before this Insanity playthrough I had played Mass Effect 2 once. One time. I started a second playthrough, but don’t think I even got through the opening mission. I did a full playthrough again this time (except for some of the Firewalker DLC), and it solidified some of my ideas about the games, and why I think Mass Effect is a superior game to its sequel.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to prefer the second game, citing the shooting mechanics, the more varied missions and scenery, calling it a more polished game.

Well, yes, those things are better in the second game, for the most part.

I’m going to mention the Mako, too. I liked the Mako sections, I liked rambling over all those planets, and however much you disliked it, you can’t tell me that ridiculous scanning mini game in Mass Effect 2 was more fun; it was dull, repetitive and annoying.

The other complaint levelled at Mass Effect was the re-used assets for the missions: one spaceship, one bunker, one building, with a few changes in doors and boxes to alter the layout in small ways. Its a fair complaint. But if that meant they got to concentrate more on the story and throw in more missions I don’t really care. I noticed it, sure, and no amount of suggesting they would use prefabbed buildings can explain away every single one being the same, but I didn’t care… I was enjoying myself.

For me the meat of the matter is the storytelling. In the first game you have the big threat, Saren and the Geth. In typical part one of a trilogy style, there is a vaguer, worse enemy looming, but they are not as immediate until the climax. It’s great, I love the structure, the fact you need various clues before you can go to the endgame and then you fight the bad guy. In the second game you know the reapers are the threat, but they introduce the Collectors and you have to build your team to fight them.

Its the whole ‘building your team’ business that bothers me. In the first game the process seems much more organic, everything feels natural. I collect my team on the way, I can do sidequests, or I can just go straight ahead and do the urgent, main mission. The second game feels much more modular, or episodic.

In Mass Effect if I choose to just hunt down Saren and follow the urgency of the mission I can. But if I do that in the second game it might impact on my endgame. I have to do all the missions to get all the weapons/ armour upgrades instead of just picking up better armour if I go straight to the later missions. I have to get all the allies (or specific allies) to upgrade the ship and so on. It feels like I’m being forced to do all the sidequests, which takes some of the random ‘wandering around the galaxy, righting wrongs’ fun out of it.

Mass Effect 2 feels like a lot of short stories. Some really great shorts, sure, about the individual characters. It’s as rich and deep as the first game, but because each of these stories feels almost like a separate thing, and they’re almost as big as the main storyline, it detracts from the import of the main storyline, whereas the first game feels all about the same thing. It’s more focussed and, I think, a better game for it.

And because Mass Effect 2 feels so structured and forced at times, it sometimes feels more like I’m going through a checklist making sure I have all the ticks in all the boxes than it feels like a natural narrative.

So, don’t get me wrong, I do like Mass Effect 2, and I am looking forward to Mass Effect 3 a great deal, but I think the first game, for all its faults, was a more enjoyable, more immersive experience. The second game is more polished from a gameplay and mechanics perspective, but it feels more like a duty than an adventure… it does not sweep you up in the story the way the first game did.

Rebirth

Hello… is this thing on…?

Too clichéd? How about…

It lives! Ahahahahaaa!

That’s kind of worse, isn’t it? OK, so, it’s 2012 and since I never have any time to do the things I already do I thought I would try resurrecting this blog too. That makes sense, right?

The thing is, as well as writing, this is my other passion. Science fiction. Reading, watching, playing. And I want to give something back, more than just fiction, something wholly involving and substantial, something with community. I want Space-Time Industries to be synonymous with developing science fiction, with the evolution and growth of the genre. Pretty high goals, and a way off. I need to re-establish this place as a solid foundation from where I can encourage creation. I want to foster writing and filming and programming the science fiction that other people can write, watch, play.

I have a confession though. I don’t know how to do this. Not entirely. But a good place has to be just talking about the genre, promoting the genre, discussing what already exists, and what might one day exist.

Of course, I should be getting out there, communicating with people who already do this, participating in the existing community. But, here’s confession number two, I’m a bit rubbish at that. So… let’s take this in baby steps. Let’s just see if I can maintain this blog and develop some kind of momentum here first, and take it from there.

If you’re still reading… thanks, and welcome on board. My intention in the next few weeks is to write posts on the books, films and games I’m anticipating most in 2012, as I did for 2011. I should talk about that post from this time last year too, looking at 2011’s games and what I actually thought of them; did they live up to expectations? And, hopefully, I’ll throw in a few reviews as well.

Happy new year. =)

Most anticipated SF games of 2011

Everybody’s doing it, a new year starts so you look forward to all the new releases. This is even more important this year than the past few. Personally – although there were some big games, sure – last year was a bit disappointing. There have been years where come the big Autumn release schedule I’ve been really pushed to know what to play first, I’ve had loads of games on pre-order and they’ve kept me really busy. Last year… not so much.

Maybe that’s just my impression, there’s been a few changes in my life and in my gaming habits. A lot of my solo-gaming time goes to writing now, so Fable 3, which would have been a major time sink, remains unfinished. Not because i didn’t like it, I loved it, but gaming time is not what it was. Halo Reach had a disappointing campaign… great gameplay, of course, and some good story-telling but way, way, way too short.

So for my most anticipated science fiction games of 2011 I’m going to do a top 5. But first of all lets talk about the games that didn’t make the top 5, and why.

Gears of War 3 – I am looking forward to this, and doubly so because it has a co-op campaign (something which none of my top 5 do). But I’m looking forward to it because I know it’s going to be a good, solid gaming experience. I know I’m going to enjoy it, but it’s not really going to surprise me with the gameplay and the story has some good hooks, there are answers I’m waiting for, but well… there are better stories out there.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon – This is going to be so bad. But so was the previous one and I played the shit out of it. The graphics were crappy and the controls left a lot to be desired but it was a simple and awesome premise… giant insects & giant robots are invading the Earth, take your increasingly over-powered weapons and stop them. And if you happen to spectacularly destroy every building in the city while you’re at it… so be it!

Warhammer 40k: Space Marine – I am looking forward to this quite a lot… but guardedly. It has the potential to be awesome, I just don’t want to get my hopes too high.

Duke Nukem Forever – Borderlands is one of my all time favourite games, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Gearbox do with this, and with Colonial Marines if that comes out this year too.

It’s looking like a good year for SF in games, there are others: Dead Space 2, Portal 2, Crisis 2 and more. But they don’t make my top 5. These are the games that do:

5. Brink – It looks amazing and I really enjoyed the slick gameplay of the demo at the Eurogamer conference last year. I’m intrigued by the factions and storylines and want to see how well it all gels together in game terms. I’m a little worried about how much the multiplayer aspect is integrated with the game as I’m not too big on online play (I’m definitely not against online, I’m just a bit of a lone wolf or local co-op guy).

4. Mass Effect 3 – Only at number 4? But surely this is a science fiction list and Mass Effect 3 is science fiction to the core? Epic space opera with excellent gameplay thrown in? Well, yes, but… from the teaser trailer I have fears, I have worries. I loved the first game, I played it again and again. I only liked the second game… a lot, mind you, but it wasn’t a patch on the first. Oh, sure they’d smoothed a lot of things out, but I really didn’t like the way it felt so episodic. In Mass Effect 1 I felt like I had so much control over the story and where I went and when I chose to do it. In Mass Effect 2 I picked a character, worked at them, picked the next one, did their bit, and between every mission made a round of the ship to see if they had something to say. It felt more like a routine than an adventure. But, look, it still makes the top 5, I am looking forward to it immensely, I love the Mass Effect universe and I really can’t wait to get back there and see how it all ends.

3. Bulletstorm – Yes, seriously. There’s been some backlash over people saying they’re not going to be tricked into buying it for the Gears of War 3 beta access, and they’re right, they shouldn’t be. They should buy it because it’s going to be awesome. I’m no FPS god, not by a long shot, but Bulletstorm goes some way to making you feel like you are. I’ve played the demo and pulling off those trick shots is totally possible without needing uber pad skillz. Two of the most important things to me in a game is how much straight-up fun it is, and its sense of humour. Bulletstorm looks like it’s going to hit both those spots, and hit them hard. If you’re not excited about Bulletstorm, download the demo on the 25th January and you soon will be.

2. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Put simply, it looks tremendous. Deep mechanics, deep gameplay, deep storytelling and the graphics are amazing. (I saw it running on an xbox 360 at Eurogamer, so while the SquareEnix rendered trailers are stunning, I can testify that the game itself does look great too.)

It is single player, but I can see my girlfriend playing on the PS3 while I’m on the other TV playing it on the Xbox 360, so it’ll still be a shared experience… ;) And it would have been number 1 on the list were it not for…

1. Rage – oh. my. god. I cannot express how much I am looking forward to this. Both Rage and Deus Ex are sitting so high in the anticipation spheres of my mind, but something puts Rage ahead. On paper I think I would put Deus Ex into the lead (I have, admittedly, seen more details for Deus Ex, although I have seen Rage in action too). Rage excites me, I like the setting; I like the movement and design of the bad guys; even the racing looks well-integrated and the graphics truly, stupendously incredible, I mean it looks are mind-blowing. So Rage, you better live up to the hype… I can’t wait to get you under my thumbs…

Big, Bad Biomega

Cover image for Biomega volume 1 by Tsutomu NiheiI keep meaning to at least post a few little thoughts at a time here, if not taking the time to write full reviews, just to keep this thing alive… so I’m going to talk about Biomega, as I’ve just caught up with the series.

Biomega is awesome. Crazy, exploding, future bike, super soldier, talking bear, zombie killing awesome.

Now some people just aren’t going to get it. You could read one volume in about sixty seconds there are so few words, but it’s all about the pictures. Usually I would shy away from metaphors that seem unfitting for a medium, but Biomega is widescreen SF. It’s the book equivalent of the mega-budget, high octane, special effects blockbuster, and then some. It’s an exciting thing to look at, and the sense of action captured in the still images is just outstanding.

Previously Tsutomu Nihei worked on a mini series for Marvel called Snikt, something that was very minimal on speech and big on visuals again from what I remember. It was a while ago, so beyond those scant details, and that i liked the series I don’t remember it that much. My comics collection is shamefully hard to get to at the moment so I can’t go re-read it. Really quite fancy doing just that though. (Looks like it hasn’t been collected either, which is a great shame)Cover Image for Snikt issue 3 (Wolverine) by Tsutomu Nihei

Biomega’s greatest flaw is that it can be difficult to keep a firm grasp of the plot, such as it is. A lot of the characters look very similar (especially the bad guys), and while there has clearly been effort put into varying character design it isn’t always easy to follow just whose side they’re on. And when you’re talking multiple corporations and multiple factions it gets a bit confusing at times…

It also delves into some pretty heavy, high concept SF stuff. But didn’t I say there were hardly any words? Well, that’s still true, which, again, can make some of it difficult to keep a firm grasp of. Biomega delves into mass control, ethics, post-humanity concepts, matter mutagenics, synthetic humanity and human/ post-human symbiosis… heavy stuff, huh? Not really, it’s all just backdrop. Biomega’s about the visuals, the mind-blowing, gut-punching action. The other stuff is in there, but it doesn’t get in the way.

For me it’s about seeing some awesome action scene unfold in front of me, then turning the page and seeing it taken to whole new levels, again and again and again. It keeps getting bigger and better and I can’t wait to see what Tsutomu does with it next. Highly recommended.

Biomega so far (vols 1-4): 9/10

Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

Cover image for Finch by Jeff VandermeerFinch by Jeff Vandermeer

I’m a sucker for a good cover, and I love this cover. It’s eye-catching and interesting and different. Much like the story it contains (except for the eye-catching bit, which doesn’t really work, and leads to this horrible parenthetical digression which, really, spoils the whole snappyness of the intro paragraph… oh well.)

Ambergris is a city taken over by mushrooms. Seriously. Fungus to be more precise. The whole thing is quite insidious and leaves you feeling slightly grimy as spores and mould grow on every surface and invade buildings and even people. Ambergris is an occupied city, brought low by civil war and invaded by an alien fungal race who have subjugated its human inhabitants, most of whom now seem to exist in a kind of drug-fuelled lassitude. Those that aren’t committing crimes or rebelling.

I never really got a sense of what the day to day life of the general populace is. A select few have been chosen by the gray caps (the mushroom overlords) to be ‘detectives’ and police the city. But I’m not sure what anyone else does, money seems to be food tokens (issued by the gray caps) and people eat food dispensed from giant mushrooms but I get no real sense of society other than the few colourful individuals Finch interacts with and the rebels (who are busy rebelling, obviously).

It’s an ongoing theme. A lot of the colourful characters aren’t delved into nearly as much as the fungal invasion. They’re interesting but tantalising. There is a feeling of depth to the characters (which I applaud) but at the same time you feel short-changed because of the lack of exploration of that depth. And ok, so the book has a single protagonist and,really, it’s his story, but still.

Now maybe some of this perceived lack is because this is the third book in the Ambergris cycle. Although this wasn’t mentioned till I read the afterwords. Apparently the books are all stand-alone, so that shouldn’t be the case, but it also says some of the questions raised in the first are answered in Finch which I should think means you will get more from this book having read the first two. However, the story itself is certainly standalone. The crime and everything it leads to are all contained within this book.

The Richard Morgan quote on the back calls it Fungal Noir. I think this should be re-written as Fungal. Noir.

Why? Well, the first part of the book is very fungal, going into a lot of detail about how the city is so overwhelmed by the infection, how people themselves are becoming colonised and changed. I found this interesting and quite different, I like exploring new worlds and original ideas, but my partner was a little turned off by the ‘fungal this, fungal that, fungal the other’. During this time Finch fumbles around a bit being a slightly rubbish detective. Then things start to kick off and it becomes more of a driven plot (and not necessarily because Finch starts detecting, mostly other people’s actions drive Finch through the plot). At this point the Fungal nature of things drops off and it becomes a more standard (and decent) story with fungal references thrown in just to remind us that the book is weird and different and please don’t notice that the whole fungal thing was just a device.

That’s a little uncharitable. The fungal thing is different and genuinely interesting (and repellent) in places, but it doesn’t always feel fully integrated and it doesn’t always feel fully justified as being anything more than backdrop, which is a shame.

If Finch were a computer game you would call it linear. You don’t necessarily feel Finch’s choices or decisions as a detective help him with his case. Other people make those decisions for him, other people feed him information or abduct him or lead him on. The most input he has is either in withholding information or being petulant before giving up information. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the story progresses well once you get into it, it’s interesting and exciting in places, it’s intriguing, but the main character is very much swept up in events which seems to make him an odd choice as the main character, he doesn’t really ever have a moment of triumph that isn’t thrust upon him by someone else. (except, I suppose for when he takes care of a particularly nasty antagonist who is one of the least convincing characters… who transitions from vicious master spy to common thug as the plot requires)

Finch is a well-written book, language-wise. Despite being full of spongy fungal weirdness I never tripped over a single sentence. In fact, I slowed down at points to re-read the odd descriptive paragraph because it was a thing of beauty. (and this is where I wish I’d marked a page or two to quote to you…) Some of the imagery is wonderful, remarkable. And while the prose is not like that in it’s entirety it never falls short of competent. One of the criticisms of creative writing students (and I am a degree level graduate) is that the primary thing taught is often simply the ability to critique (or criticise) other’s work, so strange or uncomfortable language will pull me up short where others might gloss over it and move on, I can be very sensitive to such things. I had no such problems with Finch and it’s probably a sad reflection on the state of current publishing that it was simply nice to read some faultless prose…

(way to alienate all publishers in one fell swoop, Xero… ;) )

It’s a shame too that one of the more interesting twists in the plot was given away on the back cover blurb.

Finch is situated in a lavishly described existence quite unlike any I’ve visited before,  it’s an interesting world to explore for those of us who have seen so many alien places that are simply photoshopped Earth, or extreme Earth or Earth makeover. Or Mars. And for all my criticism it is a good read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone just looking to give SF/ fantasy a go, there are much better places to start, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone well-read in the genre and looking for something different.

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer: 7/10

Review: the Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees

Cover art for the Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod ReesLet’s imagine you’re the US military. One of your brain-labs invents the uber-computer, which never experiences slow-down because it’s impossible to run more processes than it can cope with. They call it ABBA. I’m not sure why they do this, the book is obsessed with acronyms and wordplay, but I don’t remember being told what ABBA stood for, and I can’t find it in a quick flick.

So, anyway, you have the supreme number cruncher, you are the military, what do you do with it? You run VR simulations of warzones that are indistinguishable from the real thing. I’m with it so far. Where the book goes next… I’m not so sure…

They want to train their soldiers in asymetrical warfare environments (AWE). With unpredictable terrain and unpredictable enemies. So rather than creating an actual real world environment, they create a hyper-reality. The world squashed into a single, circular realm. They over-populate it and introduce other stress factors between different regions, like racism and extreme sexism. The idea is that in the Demi-Monde there will always be a war.

The inhabitants of the Demi-Monde don’t know they are simulations (dupes), they think their world is the real world. Throw into the mix (why not) a handful of perfectly simulated genocidal psychopaths (Rasputin, Crowley, Reinhard Heydrich for example) to lead the world, let the stew-pot bubble away and then beam your soldiers in. (It’s important to note that most of Demi-Mondian society are normal people (fake normal people) just trying to live their lives…)

Oh, and to add an extra layer of tension. Make the inhabitants of the Demi-Monde dependant on blood to live. Each inhabitant is rationed enough to survive, but not to be sated, through the blood banks, controlled by ABBA. Except here is where the first bug appears, the inhabitants of the Demi-Monde don’t have blood in their veins. They don’t have veins. But real-world ‘players’ do. They can be captured in the Demi-Monde and drained of blood which can be sold on the black market. So US soldiers become like horrible cows, strung up and bled out.

Surely at this point you shut the machine down. Call it a day and re-start the thing. But there’s a problem (of course). The president’s daughter is trapped inside, somehow. And you can’t just switch the machine off, because, of course, her mind won’t return to her body that way, it will be lost, forever. And did I mention, if you die in the Demi-Monde, you die in the real world… It would be easy to shout Matrix! and rip-off! but why would you? There were virtual worlds before the matrix, and they often had the same maxim. Besides, the Demi-Monde is like the matrix (or any other VR) on a really bad trip.

So the core of the book’s story, its driving force, is this rescue mission. Except somehow all of the portals into the Demi-Monde have been locked down. There is only one exit remaining, and only one way to get an agent in. They need someone who looks exactly like an inactive dupe within the Demi-Monde, which just happens to be Ella, non-military and just looking to make a quick buck (or million). Quite why the real world operator has to look exactly like the Dupe I’m not sure… I can build a character on my Xbox that looks nothing like me, but hey, I’m no expert on god-computers.

To the Demi-Mondians, ABBA is god, the principle object of their worship. Which is weird when you consider all the other tensions they’ve thrown in there… but hey.

Now, does this all sound a little contrived? A little bit heavy-handed? Because it did while I was reading it. The more you think about it the more improbable the whole set up seems. Which is a shame, because the whole world of the Demi-Monde is a really interesting experiment and environment in which to set a story. I think I would have liked to have become more immersed in it before it was revealed to me that the whole thing was a virtual world. I would have liked to have been made to wonder, and ponder, before being told. But, hey, I’m not published, Rod Rees is, I guess he knows best. ;)

So I’m sure you can imagine there is a lot of set-up involved in the early stages, a little real world, a lot Demi-Mondian -because that is where most of the story occurs. It’s not boring, though. It gives the book a chance to introduce the random capitalisations and acronyms it relies quite heavily on… HerEtics, HimPerialism, MALEvalence, UnFunDaMentalism (there’s a lot of that one) and more. It’s almost too much, but it actually works. Too little and it would have seemed a half-baked idea, but the prevalence of these forged words actually makes it seem more genuine, more natural within the context of the world. It is a feature of the dialect, if you like.

The first half is a little slow, it takes a little while to settle in, but it builds to an incredibly tense scene about halfway through, where several key characters seem imperilled by each others plans and it doesn’t seem possible they can all survive and you really don’t want any of them to die… and from that point onwards the book really shifts up a gear. We actually get some of this warfare the Demi-Monde was made for, we get action and explosions. We get character development (dramatically so in some cases). We get to see some of the real potential the Demi-Monde has as a fantasy setting. A world apart from our own. And it’s great.

And then it finishes. I’m guessing the series is going to run to four books (hence ‘Winter’). I don’t really care about the real world elements, other than the fact that potentially they could just wipe the Demi-Monde, and that’s the bit  I really like, as an experiment, as a fantasy world that’s a mad mash-up of our own. It would never be created, that bit is far too far-fetched, unbelievable even by science fiction’s lofty standards, but I’m glad it was forced into creation by a contrived plot-crowbar, because it’s a world I can’t wait to get back to.

I do recommend giving the Demi-Monde: Winter a go. It’s something quite different, and I’m always up for that. Stick it out through the weighty disbelief (too heavy to fully suspend) and the slow build because it becomes truly exciting about half way through, and really, really interesting by the end. I’m looking forward to more, I want to see where this goes.

7.5/10

Review: Enslaved (demo)

I realise I mostly talk about books on here… I want to try and rectify this because I really do play a lot of games (a lot of games) and watch a lot of films. Let’s take the first baby step with the Enslaved demo.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for Xbox 360

Xbox 360

So what makes a good demo?

Put someone in too early and the game might seem too simple, too linear (afterall, this is the learning stage of the game), but put them in too late and while it might show off the game’s richness and depth, it might also seem too complex to someone who hasn’t had the build up to that point.

The Enslaved demo is the first level of the game so it’s the tutorial level, but it also shows off a little of the storytelling and, obviously, the graphics.

Let’s start with a little personal background, I’m a big SF geek (I may have mentioned) and I have a particular fondness for myths and legends retold under the science fiction flag. For all it’s faults (and there were many) Too Human did a good job with Norse Mythology, for example. Score one for Enslaved then, based (loosely) on the Monkey story (Journey to the West), not one I’m familiar with in anything other than the broadest strokes, but it gives them rich source material to mine, always a good thing. The lead character (Monkey) has the staff, he gets flying disks later on (no cloud, sadly) and he even has a strip of belt hanging down that kind of mimics a tail.

I also enjoyed the 2008 Prince of Persia game… big guy goes clambering around pretty scenery with help from a girl… it was pretty simplistic and a lot of people didn’t like the characterisation but I really enjoyed it. Since it seems Ubisoft are in no rush to produce a sequel (and talk about a cliffhanger) I was quite excited when I saw the first trailers for Enslaved. I was totally up for more of that kind of action.

Monkey by Wu Ch'eng-en (Penguin Classics edition)

Monkey by Wu Ch'eng-en

Then more trailers came out and the graphics started to look a little shabby to me so I let my hopes slide a little (always a safe course of action anyway). And then a demo! Can’t go wrong with a demo, there are the graphics and the gameplay, on your machine and your 42″ HDTV (ok, my 42″ HDTV). And this is actually a chunk of the finished game, not just a work in progress, time to judge the actual facts.

Lets start with the graphics… and I’m glad to say that they’re actually pretty decent. Nothing mind-blowing, but they avoid the drabness of a lot of games and the design work is pretty interesting if, again, nothing ground breaking. There is a slight problem in that because the graphics are colourful and varied it isn’t always easy to spot the handholds (They’re often red in this segment, but then so is some of the scenery around them).

The story-telling seems quite well-handled, and pretty well integrated into the gameplay. There are cut scenes too, sure, but some of the story just comes through while you play. This does mean that there is some kind of director on board, giving the game a cinematic edge, often a good thing, but in this instance sometimes leading to strange and awkward camera choices in what is a visually effective shot, but clumsy in terms of play.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3)

PS3

And speaking of clumsy… It’s never encouraging when it feels like you’re wearing gloves to hold the controller. Oven gloves. I think they built the control system out of jam… This might be something to do with the fact that the director was quite jealous of camera control and only reluctantly lets you have some right stick control over it. But also because you will attempt what feels like the exact same thing several times and only on the fourth try will he jump to the handhold, or climb the box. And the parkeur is very restrictive. I imagine this opens up a bit later in the game, but for now you can only hold and climb the pipes that are shiny, that is your path.

I have a problem with that. The path (especially given this was an early level) was not always obvious. Given that you can clamber over the scenery, it’s horrible that only certain shapes of scenery will let you hold them. Either you wait till it glimmers at you shinily, or just wiggle the left stick a bit and press jump lots until it locks onto the target and goes the right way. You can’t jump the wrong way. Less annoying falling to your death moments maybe, but less challenge in discovering the path, less reward when you do find it. There was a bit in the demo (when you face the first robot) where you have to climb the up the pipes on your left, along a gantry to the right, then down another pipe to the level below, where you pick up your gear. On the way back there is nothing that would physically prevent you from jumping off the second pipe to the boxes beside them and then back onto the path, except that you’re not allowed too. You have to go all the way back along the prescribed path (not that far, admittedly, but annoying).

The fighting is fairly standard. And I know more staff moves open up later in the game, but having just played the demo twice they’re already starting to get a little repetitive. Nothing that would bother me, I like button-bashy, hack’n’slashy games, but an observation for people who might like a little more depth.

The impression the demo gives me (which, after all, is its job), is that the game will have some great storytelling, a very cool cinematic edge, but that the core gameplay element (traversal) will be somewhat annoying. I think I’ll pick it up when the price drops, if there’s nothing else I’m playing at the time. It’s not on my list of essentials…

Now, I should be able to treat you to a few interesting insights next week. Tomorrow I’ll be at the Eurogamer Expo and there’s a few games I’m hoping to get a bit of hands on time with. Brink and Bulletstorm I’m particularly excited about, for different reasons, but both of those are looking superb. I’m also looking forward to: Fable 3, Gears of War 3 and Infamous 2. Hopefully *crosses fingers* there’ll be a demo of Duke Nukem too. It’s not on the list but Gearbox were there last year so…

There are developer talks tomorrow for the new Deus Ex and Rage as well. Can’t wait! *^_^*

Review: Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History by William GibsonZero History

Slick and interesting, Zero History turns fashion and marketing trends into the stuff of spy thrillers. This time Gibson’s hit it straight on the head, the book’s swagger and cool all seems genuine, not forced.

I’ve been reading Gibson for a long time. Not since Neuromancer was first published, obviously, I would have been five, but he’s one of the few authors I’ve read almost everything by. So I still remember my disappointment at Pattern Recognition, even if I don’t remember exactly why. I vaguely recall the plot almost entirely hinging on far too random an encounter, maybe, but that can’t have been the only reason. So disappointed was I that when Spook Country came out, I never got round to reading it (although I have it on my shelf).

I wanted to give Zero History a try though, not realising initially that it was the end of the trilogy (I should have, it is Gibson after all). The cover helped, I really like it, simple yet complex, not unlike the plot.

I talked about first lines in my previous review, I’m a little obsessed with them. The first line in Neuromancer is classic: evocative, classy, indicative of the book you’re about to read. The first line in Zero History has none of that. It’s pretty ordinary, mundane even, which is a shame, because there are turns of phrase within the book that are classic Gibson; a twist of language that is almost everyday, but with added cool, a nod to noir. And there are certain paragraphs that just have such resonance, the book is almost worth reading for those alone.

The larger plot is great too. It feels like Pattern Recognition, but more accomplished (Pattern Recognition as a title even, could almost apply equally well to this). Like he went away and re-wrote it with (mostly) different characters and new driving motivations/ devices. Unlike a lot of Gibson’s books where the characters start quite a distance apart and a drawn together by what seem initially to be disparate plots, in Zero History the two main characters are brought together fairly early on. There are still several different plot lines woven together, but it feels tighter, it feels driven. This is a very good thing.

The two main characters are strong too. Hollis Henry was a rock star, in a minor way, once, and now she doesn’t really seem to know what to do with herself. She had a fairly successful book published (which I think may have been something from Spook Country), and she is followed around by the vestigial remains of fame, her face on posters; people who used to be fans; mobile phone ringtones… She’s interesting, but the other protagonist, Milgrim, is far more interesting, in the way he thinks, acts and develops through the book.

Milgrim is a recovering/ recovered addict, put through a kind of experimental cognitive behavioural therapy program (from the sounds of it). As a result, the Milgrim in the book is a new (though fully grown) Milgrim, who doesn’t exactly know who he is. As we’re discovering him, he’s discovering himself. He has a very good eye for detail and a circumspect way of thinking, which makes him useful to his employer and interesting to follow as a character. He starts off very obedient, in part because of his gratitude at having been put through the program and freed from addiction, but in part because his personality has not quite emerged yet. To make things more interesting, within him is the old street-wise addict, a way of looking at the world in terms of risk-assessment and street sensibilities; it emerges unbidden sometimes, like a great white peering from beneath a placid surface. (I’m not talking a sense of violence, but more a sharp, hungry sense of subterfuge and motive). Part of Zero History’s journey is these two sides of Milgrim reconciling themselves.

The book is told from the two characters’ points of view, alternating chapters between them. An early criticism I have of the book is that before this pattern is established it’s not entirely obvious this is the case, so when you hit chapter three and it just talks about Hollis as ’she’ it’s a little disorienting until you realise who ’she’ is from the environmental clues.

And he still doesn’t quite know how to finish a book. Most Gibson (and a lot of other cyberpunk) seems to finish and then just roll on for a bit until the momentum runs out. The plot reaches its conclusion but the book carries on for a few pages to a meandering halt. This isn’t a terrible thing, the books are still good books, I’ve just always found it a little odd. The climax of Zero History is a little damp, initially. The explosive action scene happens in the dark from the point of view of characters who are only watching remotely… but after that the closing chapters do bring the book to a very strong end, thankfully. Except that Gibson then adds a final one-page chapter that is entirely superfluous and throws the feeling of a satisfying end a little off-kilter, which is a shame.

I will read Spook Country at some point. Whether I will re-read Pattern Recognition beforehand and Zero History afterwards for a fuller sense of the trilogy (the Blue Ant trilogy?) I’m not sure. And whether you’ve read them or not, I do highly recommend Zero History. Having not read Spook Country and barely remembering Pattern Recognition did not greatly reduce my experience of this book. One of the things I try to achieve with my own micro-ficion (the Xeroverse) is a sense of a greater world, a wider story, beyond what you are reading. Reading Zero History isolated from the rest of the trilogy leant it that feeling, that beyond the characters was history and other intersecting stories; it’s a feeling of depth and one I greatly enjoyed.

So what I’m saying is, don’t be put off by thinking this is part three. It’s a whole story in its own right and well worth picking up.

8/10

Review: the Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Book Cover for the Quantum Thief The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief is a heist story; it’s a reality-warping conspiracy thriller; it’s far-future cyberpunk (were such a thing possible); it’s hard SF, but it isn’t. It may just be my new favourite book, toppling Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny from the spot it has occupied for years innumerable (well, about a decade since I first read it, I reckon). It reminds me why I always used to insist on never reading a book 1 before the whole series was out. I want the next book, and I want it now.

So, first things first… I’m coming to appreciate how important a first line is. It is the most important line in the book. If it’s alright, then no matter, your book sells itself on the merits of the first few paragraphs. If it’s bad, you’re starting in a ditch, you’re already having to work to win the reader back onside. But if it’s good, if it’s great, you’ve got yourself a headstart, the reader is already on your side, you’ve won the first battle. The Quantum Thief has a great first line, it works hard, it makes you think, it gets you interested and involved.

As always, before the warmind and I shoot each other, I try to make small talk.

As always? The narrator and this warmind shoot each other a lot? And ‘warmind‘, that’s a great word, you know what it is, pretty much, but it is something science fiction, it is something different and interesting. And to shoot each other, violence, collocated with small talk, that’s some contrast there, and it tells you something about the narrator. I already like this book, I already want to know what’s going on, I’m already starting to like the character, and I’m only one line in!

Not content with having one great first line, Hannu Rajaniemi throws a whole bunch of excellent first lines in throughout the book. Any one of them would be brilliant as the opening line of a book, but he has them in such plenty he can spare them just to begin chapters; the titles of which are all excellent and apt too. And speaking of chapters… the structure and pacing of the book, through the chapters and the occasional, brief ‘interludes‘, is spot on, and significant.

Not something I noticed on the way through, but something I can see in retrospect. It makes me wonder what else I missed. I already know I want to read this book again. But I want to read this book again right away. I’m debating whether the next book I read should be this one. I mean, I have so many books I want to read (one of the tainted blessings of working in the industry) – I have the new William Gibson sat next to me; I have a copy of Finch by Jeff Vandermeer, which looks excellent; I’m reliably informed The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson is awesome and I want to get onto that too. There are more. Yet despite all of them, I’m contemplating re-reading this book that I’ve only just finished.

I should explain my opening comments. It’s a good way of talking about this book (how convenient…). So, ‘heist story’, that’s the easy one, it’s called the Quantum Thief, you work it out. But more than a name, this is a great heist story, with everything implicit in that word.

‘Reality-warping conspiracy thriller’… Everything is not as it appears. Who is pulling the strings? Who is pulling their strings? What really happened back then? Can we even trust the things we’ve always taken as true? The Quantum Thief is rife with twists, some obvious, some less so, but all satisfying. There is a lot going on in this book, but with a slight exception near the end I never felt lost or confused.

‘Far-future cyberpunk’? How can that be? Well, it’s more about the feel of the book. It’s full of advanced technology, hyper-advanced in this case, and it’s full of jargon that has evolved with the technology, but the jargon is appropriate and understandable, it works. A big part of cyberpunk, for me, is about extrapolating from current tech and society. I can’t help but see Martian society in the Quantum Thief as a hyper-evolved social network. Everything, everywhere is recorded, from audio and video to thoughts and feelings. What people can see and ‘remember’ is controlled by complex privacy contracts. This applies to present time too, if someone has full privacy up, you only see a haze with a placemarker. This idea is really well thought through and fleshed-out, it is integral to the story.

And ‘hard SF’ (but not)? OK, this is revealing a prejudice of mine, but I don’t like hard SF. So that’s a generalisation, but most prejudices are, aren’t they? I have read some that I enjoyed (early Stephen Baxter?) but that is normally despite the hard elements, I dislike stories which get bogged down in pseudo-science. If the science behind your stardrive worked… why the hell are you writing books? I loved that in M. John Harrison’s Light there are loads of FTL drives that work, even some whose mechanics contradict each other.

The Quantum Thief has a Charles Stross quote on the cover (my copy does anyway)

The next big thing in Hard SF…”

Which would have put me off the book had it not been recommended to me. Now, the hard elements are there, Hannu Rajaniemi has a PHD in string theory after all, but that probably explains why he is so comfortable with these ideas. There are advanced sciences and materials and concepts in there, but you never feel bogged down in explanations, the book still flows really well, it is all a part of the story.

(Interestingly, the one review of mine that ever made it onto a book jacket was on a Charles Stross book, credited to the magazine rather than me, and massively misquoted. But more about that another time…)

The Quantum Thief is a brilliant book. High concepts draped over a classic plot. I can’t wait for more.

10/10

Review: The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, jr.

Book jacket: The Eternity Artifact by L.E. Modesitt, jr.

Humanity has left the Earth and expanded into the universe. (Don’t we always). But in all the planets they have settled, they have never encountered another sentient species, they have never encountered aliens. Now one of the superpowers is putting together a clandestine operation to investigate something which might finally prove we are not alone…

A planet, hurtling through the void  between galaxies, with buildings that have remained preserved through millennia, even after the atmosphere has either frozen or been blown away from the surface. A planet with incredible, unmatched technology that seems to verge on the impossible.

It has to be a major operation, of course, and staying clandestine when you are recruiting the cream of several professions and building one of the largest ships ever built in a future of advanced technologies and advanced surveillance is nigh on impossible. There are other superpowers, and they all have reasons for wanting the mission to fail. Whether it’s to stop advanced technology from falling into the opposition’s hands, or whether it’s because their entire society is based on humanity being the foremost amongst God’s creations (an advanced alien race, of course, throwing their whole theology into crisis).

There are, inevitably, attacks on the mission, from the more direct throw ships and missiles at it, to the more insidious infiltration and subversion type. The latter being the main purpose of one of the four main characters.

The book is presented in from the point of view of the four characters, and they are a good spread of characters. The enemy agent, alone in unfamiliar territory; the educated ex-military academic; the hard-nosed ace pilot; the visionary artist. Each chapter is headed with their name and written in the first person, which works surprisingly well. They all have distinctive and believable voices, for the most part. The female pilot is supposed to be closed off and business-like, burned in the past and defensive, but she felt a little too masculine at times. The professor uses long words and long sentences which offers a good contrast to the pilot character, but a couple of time he thinks ‘perambulates‘ instead of ‘walks’ and I just can’t believe anybody would do that, no matter how articulate they were or how expansive their vocabulary was. The artist quite often thinks about how colours clash, not a consideration of the military mind, and that device seems a little too obvious to distinguish his thoughts. But these are minor quibbles. The distinct voices do work very well.

It took me a long time to finish this book, for a number of reasons, but I never wanted to leave it, which is a good sign. I have a nasty habit of putting books down and moving onto something else if I am not motivated to finish them at a good pace. Not so with this, it is well put together, intriguing and exciting.

My major issue with the book (there had to be one, didn’t there…? ;) ) is in the agent character. The book opens with his storyline, an assassination. In the early parts of the story, most of the tension is with him, his infiltration aboard the ship, his mission, remaining undetected. At the end however his story is unfortunately anticlimactic. His voice effectively vanishes and the storylines of the other three brings the whole thing to a strong conclusion. In fact, where the other three characters show different and important sides of the main story, and give the book its satisfying end in the way they come together, the agent character is almost entirely separate.

I can only conclude he is in there to add tension in the early stages of the book, as his storyline contributes nothing that couldn’t have been covered within the other three. I don’t know whether removing him would have made the beginning too dry, but I do wonder whether he should have been cut entirely (at least as anything other than a side role).

Having said that, he doesn’t bring the book down, while he is there, his story is interesting and readable. It is the other three, however, who are the key. They bring such a human edge to the story, and a different and interesting angle to the usual SF vista. In fact, where I was expecting (hoping for, even) a grand, explosive, wide-screen ending, I was impressed and very pleasantly surprised by the totally effective and very personal ending I got instead.

In some respects, the Eternity Artifact is typical (if well-written) idea-driven space sci-fi, but really, it is far more than that. For the most part it manages to avoid clichés, or at least, when someone (or something) initially seems a cliché they often turn out to have another side, more depth. It has space combat, but it doesn’t overly dwell on it. It has action, but in moderation. It’s really good. Highly recommended for the fan of expansive, space SF who’s looking for more, but not just more of the same.

7.5/10