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A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom)
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The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire)
The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire)
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.00

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for hardcore fans, but the dissemination of information feels a bit random, 18 Nov 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The World of Ice and Fire is a companion volume to George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels, primarily written by Elio M. Garcia, Jr. and Linda Antonsson, the founders and administrators of the Westeros.org website who have also worked as continuity guides and fact-checkers for the last couple of novels in the series. Martin himself provides has written several sections of the book and provided vast reams of notes on other matters. The book is both a handy compendium of existing information from the novels, novellas, comics and websites and also a way of shining a light on many areas of both the backstory and world that otherwise would not have come to light.

Let me get this out of the way to start with: I've been a moderator on Westeros.org since 2005 and been impatiently waiting for this book since it was announced seven years ago. I was pre-disposed to like it, and hope I can be fair in my appraisal of the book.

Companion guides to fantasy worlds have had a fairly mixed rep, with Terry Pratchett's various Discworld companions being excellent, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time one being reasonable (atrocious art aside), Raymond Feist's being terrible and the various Tolkien ones being all over the place in quality. The World of Ice and Fire is definitely one of the better ones. The artwork is superb, the amount of new information for dedicated fans is almost overwhelming and the attempt to give the text an in-universe origin (a young maester writing a brief primer on the world for the notoriously impatient King Robert Baratheon) makes for a less dry reading experience than it might have been. There are negatives, some of them significant, but this is certainly required reading for a dedicated ASoIaF fan. Fans of the TV series will also likely find much to enjoy here, but it is not a given that the information in the book will also be canon for the TV show.

The book is divided into several sections. The first deals with the history of Westeros and Essos, initially focusing on the ancient history and mythology of the series before the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror. There is a very lengthy section dealing with the reigns of the Targaryen kings and the various challenges and conflicts they faced, ranging from a religious uprising to the devastating dynastic conflict known as the Dance of Dragons to several ill-fated attempts to invade Dorne to Robert Baratheon's rebellion that forms the immediate backstory to the novels. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring the world itself, from the individual regions of Westeros to the Free Cities and very distant places like Sothoryos, Asshai and the Thousand Islands. The book's conceit is that the young Maester Yandel (Garcia and Antonsson) has written the book a sort of Rough Guide to Westeros and Essos, whilst drawing on material from Master Gyldayn (Martin). Gyldayn is regarded as more authoritative but excerpts from his work are rare, since they were destroyed in the fire at Summerhall. However, he does give us some of the more evocative moments in the book, such as his detailed account of Aegon's Conquest.

The general prose style is reasonable, although prone to repetition. It is not uncommon to see a phrase used and then re-used just a few paragraphs later. It is a common writing mistake, but it's unusual to see it happen quite so often in a book which had a much longer editing period than most. The other problem is that Yandel likes to cover almost every claim in the book with lengthy caveats. Things that happened long ago are unreliable because of the time that's passed and things that happened more recently are unreliable because different historians have different takes on the subject, informed by their biases and political leanings. Clearly Martin and his co-authors want to avoid nailing things down too decisively in case he changes his mind for future novels, and in the case of the ancient mythology and pre-history stuff that's understandable, but for more recent events it's a little more frustrating. We certainly still get a lot of new information - the Targaryen family tree alone swells to a huge size with the influx of new names and characters in this book - but how much of it is 100% reliable is left up in the air. However, the book does sometimes treat this with a nod and wink: by sometimes describing an event as mythological or untrue, but when combined with the reader's knowledge of the novels it becomes clearer what conclusions the reader is being directed to.

The artwork is of course superb, with Ted Nasmith's castle artwork being a highlight (particularly a depiction of the early, ramshackle King's Landing shortly after its founding and a later depiction of the capital in all its walled glory). The only weak part are the maps. Michael Gellatly's maps are pretty to look at, but are of limited utility. They have quite a few errors on them: Saltpans is shown as being part of both the Riverlands and the Vale, and the Riverlands is shown as extended past of Gods' Eye when the text indicated that their border is at the lake itself. The Inn at the Crossroads is also repeatedly shown as being south of the Trident in clear defiance of the text in the novels and every previous map of the setting printed to date. The errors mean that the primary new information shown on these maps - the borders of each region and their major exports - cannot be relied upon, which is a shame. It's also frustrating that the locations of many frequently-mentioned castles (like Raventree Hall) remain unconfirmed and major geographical features (like the Mander's massive tributary) remain unnamed. Minor quibbles? Certainly, but still irksome. More disappointing are the continued absences of maps for castles like Winterfell, Castle Black and Harrenhal, which feel years overdue at this point. There's also the fact that the in-book world map is almost bereft of any useful information and stops at Qarth, whilst many details are given on lands east of Qarth. A more cynical reviewer might suggest that the publishers want you to buy both this book and The Lands of Ice and Fire collection to complement one another.

There is also an issue with the disparity of information given on different regions. The North gets short shrift, which is quite surprising, whilst the longest region chapter is given to the ironborn. Whilst packed with new details and it certainly fleshes out one of the less-detailed regions of Westeros, the fact that we get more new information on the Greyjoys than the Starks or Lannisters seems a bit odd. Even this is then weirdly-presented: we get tons of new info on obscure internal ironborn conflicts from centuries ago, but only a couple of paragraphs on the Greyjoy Rebellion - a critical bit of backstory for the novels - itself. It is also very strange that various obscure parts of the world are fleshed out in sometimes remarkable detail (the new information on Yi Ti and its relationship with the island of Yeng is surprisingly thorough) but Slaver's Bay and Qarth, major locations from the novels themselves, are completely glossed over.

Still, once you get used to the book's eccentricities, there is much to enjoy in The World of Ice and Fire (****). The detailed accounts of Maegor's cruel reign, the Dance of Dragons and Daeron's invasion of Dorne are engrossing and it's satisfying to finally get the chronology of Aegon's Conquest and the repeated invasions by the Blackfyre Pretenders all nailed down. Fan theories will receive a lot of new fuel from this book, from the claim that the seasons used to be normal before some event threw them out of balance (actually suggested by the original cover blurb to A Game of Thrones, but only finally presented in-world here) to the relationship between the Mad King and the Lannisters to the exact nature of the Long Night, the War for the Dawn and the Others. Yes, it's a book more for hardcore fans and in fact the exacting detail of it may be off-putting for casual fans more in the mood for a casual primer, but if you fall into that bracket this is essential reading. The book is available now in the UK and USA.


Sleeping Dogs (PC DVD)
Sleeping Dogs (PC DVD)
Offered by GameExplorers
Price: £11.60

4.0 out of 5 stars Solid but unspectacular, 14 Oct 2014
After many years in San Francisco, Wei Shen returns home to Hong Kong and is almost immediately embroiled in violence and crime. His reputation and some childhood friends see him recruited into the triad known as the Sun On Yee, but Wei is playing a dangerous game. He is also an undercover cop, striving to bring down the triad and also avoid the machinations of his own corrupt bosses. It is a difficult line to walk as the risk of discovery and being fired and arrested is constant.

Sleeping Dogs is a game that is almost cheerful in how easy it is to review. It asks the question, "Do like the Grand Theft Auto games?" If the answer is yes, than go get it. If not, than not. But the game also appeals to those who aren't so keen on the GTA games but like the basic idea and would prefer a non-American setting and more focus on melee combat. And also to those who are partial to scenes where an old grandmother tortures someone for information using her standard range of kitchen implements.

Sleeping Dogs is a violent and brutal game, sometimes in a genuine attempt to unnerve and shock, but perhaps a tad too often simply for the sake of it. It's a game that embraces the GTA structure of an open world with lots of optional stuff to do wedded to a narrative driven by cut scenes and criminal cliches. It's a game that tries awfully hard to do things differently with its invigorating and satisfying martial arts combat system, but then almost regretfully embraces tedious gunplay towards its conclusion.
The game has a curious definition of 'undercover cop'.

There is much to like here. The story is cliched and predictable (a groan-inducing wedding scene goes down near identically to a comparable scene in GTA4) but unfolds with enough swagger to make it worthwhile. The voice acting is excellent, with Will Yun Lee in particular giving Wei Shen a haunted voice that helps him stand out a little from the standard action game lead. The graphics are reasonably impressive (especially, as always, on PC), with the game's faux-Hong Kong standing out from other open world cities thanks to its bright lights and colourful backdrops. The city is also huge, with many hours of side-missions and activities (including some very enjoyable car races, although the bike handling is a little stiff) awaiting the intrepid gamer. As mentioned above, the melee combat is also tremendously enjoyable to use and spectacular to see in action. Even some of the dreaded minigames are genuinely fun, with the karaoke game being particularly bonkers.

On the downside, the gunplay is surprisingly poor. There is relatively little of it in the whole game, which is not so bad, but the endgame is completely dominated by it which is makes it a lot more annoying. The game also suffers from a really bad case of story dissonance: Wei can run civilians over, blow up cars and buses and cause quite a lot of mayhem, but the only penalty he gets is a reduction to the bonus XP available at the end of the mission. Given that Wei is a cop, this is both unconvincing and also just really weird. You can try to roleplay more as Wei the cop, avoiding the carnage, but this becomes more difficult on missions with tight time limits.

Sleeping Dogs (***½) isn't a classic of the genre, but it's solid enough. It's certainly a very large game and packs a lot of ideas and even a few fresh innovations into the GTA formula, but it's still pretty standard stuff for a game of its type. Well-executed and very solid, but rarely outstanding. The game is available now in the UK (PC, PS3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PS3, X-Box 360).


Steles of the Sky (Eternal Sky)
Steles of the Sky (Eternal Sky)
by Elizabeth Bear
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.63

4.0 out of 5 stars A worthy conclusion to a different kind of fantasy series., 14 Oct 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Temur has raised his standard at Dragon Lake, gathering forces together for a final showdown with Al-Sephehr before he can bring about his plan to resurrect the Carrion Prince. Unexpected allies join Temur, but his army is still dwarfed by that of the enemy.

Steles of the Sky concludes The Eternal Sky, Elizabeth Bear's thoughtful and intelligent epic. Inspired by the history and vistas of Central Asia, The Eternal Sky puts character and dialogue ahead of carnage and mayhem and, for those of a cliched bent, could be described as a thinking reader's fantasy. It's a restrained novel that dwells on the humanity of its characters as much as the magic and mystery, and far moreso than the action. Certainly fans of authors like Guy Gavriel Kay will find much to reward them here.

That is not to say that action is not present, and what there is well-presented, but Bear's focus lies elsewhere. The rich tapestry of varied characters that we have enjoyed in previous volumes is back, and as the storylines dovetail into one another it's interesting to see characters reacquainting themselves with one another or meeting for the first time. It's a more balanced book, with the Temur/Samarkar 'main' strolling having equal weight here with the likes of Edene, Tsering and Saadet. Bear's enviable ability to create cultures with distinct customs that are influenced by real history but are also original creations also reaches its apex here, with the differences between these groups strengthening rather than dividing them.

The characterisation is rich and nuanced (particularly of Edene, whose storyline takes a more humane turn than I was expecting) and Bear skirts the edges of 'dark' fiction without either pulling her punches or digressing into needless violence. What Bear does instead, especially with Al-Sephehr and Saadet, is hints at the darkness of the souls of her antagonists which is more difficult but ultimately more rewarding.

There are reservations: the climactic battle is over in a handful of pages and some storylines feel a little perfunctory in their resolutions. But perhaps I was expecting a more slavishly traditional fantasy novel than what we got instead, which is far more interesting, rewarding and poetical.

Steles of the Sky (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.


Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6 [1992] [Blu-ray]
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 6 [1992] [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Patrick Stewart
Price: £27.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The show at the top of its game, now improved in HD., 27 Sep 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
When Star Trek: The Next Generation's sixth season began production, it was a busy time for the franchise. A new spin-off series, Deep Space Nine, was about to launch and air alongside TNG. Plans were being made for a new film, one that would transfer the TNG crew to the big screen. It was also the first time that a season of Star Trek would be made without any input at all from Gene Roddenberry, who had passed away early in the production of the fifth season.

Despite a lot of outside issues, TNG's penultimate season is a bit of a triumph, certainly better than the inconsistent fifth season. Things do get off to a weak start with Time's Arrow, Part II which feels like someone had an idea about doing a time travel romp in the 19th Century but never found a story to make it work. Realm of Fear - a Barclay episode about transporter phobia - never really takes off either and Man of the People is the worst episode of the series since Season 1. However, Relics, which sees the return of James Doohan as Scotty, is a fine episode and sees an upsurge in quality that lasts through most of the rest of the season. There are a few more weaker episodes - Aquiel, Quality of Life, Rascals, Birthright - but these overcome some iffy premises and scripting with good ideas and solid performances.

More interesting are the classics. Chain of Command is a superb, tense masterclass in which Patrick Stewart is tortured by David Warner for a full hour whilst the Enterprise gets a new captain who is a bit of a martinet, but who is also an effective military commander who just happens to do things differently. It's one of the few Star Trek two-parters where the two parts work well together. Tapestry, although slightly overrated, is also a tremendously good episode where Picard revisits his past and finds out how he became the man he is now.

Better still are the underrated episodes that didn't stand out so much originally but now emerge as being more interesting: True Q is the lesser Q episode of the season is still a vastly superior rewrite of Season 1's Hide and Q; Ship in a Bottle and Frame of Mind foreshadow Inception with their multiple levels of reality; Lessons is a rarely effective Picard romance episode (let down by a hugely problematic ending); Starship Mine is an effective TNG cover version of Under Siege, with Picard as Steven Segal; and Timescape is a moody, atmospheric time travel mystery with some excellent direction.

The season is let down by its trite cliffhanger in Descent, a good example of the writers finding a great image for the cliffhanger and working backwards from there to find the story and not succeeding. But for a show 150 episodes and six years into its run, it's still finding fresh takes on established tropes and the cast is working together superbly as a unit.

For this HD re-release, the show has been completely re-edited from the original film stock. A vast amount of time and money went into this, and this pays off with some spectacular effects (more impressive as most of them are the original elements, simply re-combined at a higher resolution) and an image quality that makes it look like the show was filmed yesterday. There's a few moments which haven't translated as well - the duplicate Rikers in Second Chances oddly look unconvincing, given the simplicity of the effect - but the improvement in visual quality is stunning.

The sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (****½) still finds the show at the top of its game and still generating entertaining stories delivered by a cast of seasoned performers. The season is available now on Blu-Ray in the UK and USA.


Thief (PC DVD)
Thief (PC DVD)
Offered by Digitalville UK
Price: £7.04

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun, but fails to capture the magic of the originals, 24 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Thief (PC DVD) (DVD-ROM)
Thief is a reboot and revival of the classic Thief Trilogy of video games: The Dark Project (1998), The Metal Age (2002) and Deadly Shadows (2004). These games were hugely influential in their introduction of stealth elements to video games, with importance placed not on combat and killing enemies but on the player sneaking past foes and 'ghosting' through levels to complete objectives with the enemy not even being away of their presence. The SF roleplaying game Deus Ex (2000) also followed a similar strategy, though gave players more tools to choose stealth, combat or other options as they wished.

When Eidos Montreal released Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, they received praise for managing the difficult feat of making a game that honoured its predecessor's freeform choices and design whilst also making the title more accessible and approachable to modern gamers. Hopes were high that they could manage a similar balancing act with Thief. It is questionable if they have succeeded.

The newest incarnation of Thief is superficially similar to its forebears. You have a large hub area in the City where you can buy supplies, carry out opportunistic robberies or undertake minor side-quests for different employers. There is also a storyline that you can dip into and out of at will. Garrett is not very good at combat (although he does receive upgrades as the game progresses and can hold his own more effectively later on), so stealth is the order of the day. Hiding in shadows, moving quietly and making use of both the environment and tools such as rope arrows are all essential to avoid tedious fights which will usually end with Garrett's death. The game puts a large amount of importance on light, with enemies only being able to spot you motionless in well-lit areas. Water arrows can be used to extinguish torches and Garrett has a special 'swooping' move which can be used to move rapidly through lit areas whilst only briefly confusing guards, rather than fully alerting them to your presence.

All of this is theoretically good stuff, and the game is at its best in tense moments where you have infiltrated the heart of a dangerous location and one wrong move can spell disaster. However, it also feels stage-managed. Unlike the previous titles, you can only use rope arrows on specific beams of wood, which makes no sense. The game also discourages you from using certain lit routes by making the light sources indestructible gas lamps (which inexplicably can't be smashed by any of the tools at your disposal, including explosives) or oil lamps instead of torches. Exactly how oil lamps in the City work when they have no external controls of any kind is something the game leaves a mystery. The game then goes a step further into hand-holding by allowing you to jump and climb walls in certain contextual circumstances, usually by sign-painting climbable walls in white paint or sticking very large and obvious grills on them. Thief seems to delight in giving you an array of options and toys to play with and then arbitrarily places restrictions on how and when you can use them.

There's still usually a variety of different ways of accomplishing each task, but these boil down into two or three approaches per mission that everyone will experience. The original Thief trilogy was more of a simulation, which let you run riot with the tools and abilities in the game in large, sandbox-like levels, with dozens of viable approaches for each situation at hand. The new Thief never comes close to replicating that experience. Sequels should expand and improve upon their forebears, so for this game to be more limited than what came before is disappointing.

Even worse for Thief was the release of Dishonored in late 2012. A homage and love letter to the Thief series (amongst others), Dishonored featured a mix of stealth, combat and magic in a weirdpunk world that felt more like the original Thief games than the official reboot does. Dishonored did place more emphasis on magic and combat, but it was also extremely atmospheric with a well-designed world, a reasonably well-written (if not particularly original) storyline and a well-defined supporting cast of characters. Thief, on the other hand, features a wafer-thin backdrop, a badly-written and corny storyline and a largely forgettable cast of cliches. If you haven't played or are not interested in playing Dishonored, such a comparison may be meaningless, but between the two games Thief stands as the weaker.

None of this is to say that Thief is a terrible game. As the first title in a new franchise it would have gotten a much more favourable reception, and there is much to enjoy about it. The game is decently long: doing all the side-quests will take it well over 20 hours, and successfully 'ghosting' some of the trickier missions gives a real sense of achievement. There are a couple of missions, most notably the excursion to the lunatic asylum, which are chillingly atmospheric and well-designed. And, as superficial as they are, the game systems are intermittently effective at creating the illusion of being a master thief. It never really lasts very long, however, and in the endgame Thief loses whatever grasp it had on being a stealth title and turns into a linear action adventure with you dodging explosions, defeating your enemies in a series of boss fights and completing the game in the exact one way the designers want you to, to get a tediously predictable cliffhanger ending. I should probably also mention the mutant enemies who have super senses and can't be disabled with a takedown, which are a woeful game design decision.

Thief (***) is an enjoyable stealth game that fails to live up to the titles that came before it and is distinctly less accomplished than the similar Dishonored but, when taken on its own merits, is entertaining enough to merit a play-through. But the title falls way short of its potential.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 25, 2014 5:09 PM BST


Tomorrow People - Season 1 [DVD]
Tomorrow People - Season 1 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Robbie Amell

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cheesy, disposable fun, 22 Jun 2014
The next stage of human evolution has begun. All over the world, individuals are developing the powers of telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation. A secret government-funded agency, Ultra, is tasked with keeping these individuals under control or removing their powers altogether. However, a small group of 'Tomorrow People' has taken refuge under the streets of New York and is preparing for the day when they can escape persecution.

The Tomorrow People is an SF franchise with some history behind it. It originally aired from 1973 to 1979 as a zero-budget children's programme in the UK. Although almost forgotten today, it remains the second-longest-running British SF show of all time in terms of episode count (just beating out Red Dwarf). The series was then revived in 1992 for a three-season run. The premise of both shows was that humanity is developing into another form of life - homo superior* - and that the new 'break-outs' (humans who have developed these powers) need to be helped by the existing Tomorrow People to deal with their newfound abilities. Both shows also used more overtly SF elements like aliens and robots, with the Tomorrow People using an alien spacecraft as their headquarters and relying on a powerful AI named TIM to help them.

This latest reboot is from the American CW network and is surprisingly faithful to the original show. Character names are reused, original lead actor Nicholas Young has a cameo and even TIM (now a human-built computer) returns. However, the premise is complicated, darkened and made a bit less hokey. There are no aliens or spaceships and the struggle is now presented as being between the Tomorrow People and those humans aware of their existence and who see them as a threat, not a symbol of hope. There are also internal struggles within the Tomorrow People, between those who seek to use their powers for good, those who just want to get on with their lives and others who actively want to use their powers to commit crimes.

Our main POV character is Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell), who breaks out in the first episode and finds himself torn between joining Ultra (run by his uncle Jedikiah, played by genre-favourite Mark Pellegrino) and a group of rebels led by John (Luke Mitchell) and Cara (Peyton List). Relations are complicated by John and Cara's group having been founded years earlier by Stephen's missing father Roger (Jeffrey Pierce). Early episodes play up a cheesy love triangle between Stephen, John and Cara and rely on break-out-of-the-week plots in which Stephen, having joined Ultra to spy on it for the rebels, has to maintain his cover whilst also helping his friends. Some episodes show promise - Cara's back-story is surprisingly well-handled, with List playing the younger, more rebellious version of the character with more aplomb than the somewhat dull modern equivalent - but it's pretty disposable stuff.

The show shifts up a gear in the mid-season, when more people find out about Stephen's powers and the real main antagonist, the Founder (played with scene-destroying relish by ex-Spartacus actor Simon Merrells) shows up to complicate things. The ongoing story arc comes more to the fore and for a few episodes the show almost lives up to its potential. Particularly welcome is Luke Mitchell stepping up to the plate and impressing more in the role of John. The showrunners seem to be aware of this, with a move in the mid-season away from focusing on Stephen as the protagonist (despite bringing enthusiasm to the role, Amell's range is rather limited) and instead on the group as a whole. This works well until the last couple of episodes when the plot starts lurching in all kinds of random directions and the conclusion to the season-long arc ends up being a bit of a damp squib. The cliffhanger pulls it back a little by providing some interesting groundwork for the next season, but given there isn't going to be one (the show was cancelled after filming concluded) that doesn't really help.

The Tomorrow People (***) is watchable, cheesy and disposable fun which occasionally delivers some above-average performances and episodes. There's certainly a lot of mileage in the premise and it's a shame that the show won't be given a chance to improve with time and more episodes. However, the show is also predictable, frequently badly-written and some of the actors should really think about taking up other careers: Jeffrey Piece is particularly awful, over-acting to the hilt and making even his cornier young co-stars look amazing in comparison. Overall, the series is only worth a watch once you have exhausted the several dozen better series around at the moment.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 3:07 PM BST


Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (PC/Mac DVD)
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (PC/Mac DVD)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best Transformers game ever made, 1 Jun 2014
The war between the Autobots and Decepticons for control of their homeworld, Cybertron, has resulted in the near-ruination of the planet. Its energon stores are almost gone, with the last few scraps being fought over at tremendous cost. The Autobots realise they have no choice but to abandon their home and search for a new refuge amongst the stars. To this end they have built the Ark, an immense starship, but it is under the threat of Decepticon attack. The Autobots have to power up the ship, protect it from attack and escape, whilst the Decepticons try to stop them and engage in their own internal conflict.

Fall of Cybertron is the sequel to the enjoyable-but-lightweight War for Cybertron and is an improvement over that game in almost every way. Like its forebear, it's a linear third-person shooter which tells a large-scale story involving many characters, with you playing different Autobots or Decepticons on different levels. Unlike its forebear, it's a bit more generous and smarter in differentiating the characters and allowing you to use their full range of abilities.

Part of Fall of Cybertron's appeal is that it takes what is usually the starting point for the Transformers mythos - the launch of the Ark from Cybertron, the subsequent Decepticon ambush and the crash of the starship on prehistoric Earth - and turns it into the grand finale. The build-up to this event is depicted through a series of missions where the Autobots try to get the ship ready for take-off, secure new fuel supplies and fend off Deception attacks, with a series of side-missions depicting the search for the missing Grimlock and his team (the future Dinobots, who get probably their most logical-ever origin story in this game). From the Deception POV, there are a series of missions about trying to defeat the Autobots whilst - as usual - there are internal conflicts and attempts by the treacherous Starscream to supplant Megatron as leader.

The game is heavily focused around combat, although some of the characters (Cliffjumper and Starscream) have more stealthy options available to them. A lot of the time you are fighting in robot mode, diving in and out of cover to exchange fire with enemies, but the game also provides many larger areas where you can switch to vehicle mode for a more mobile experience. The first game was guilty of neglecting the Transforming mechanic (which is a bit stupid), but the sequel makes full and vigorous use of it. Indeed, the one level where you command Grimlock has you limited in being able to transform only when Grimlock gets mad enough (represented by filling a bar by defeating enemies) and then giving you a ridiculous number of overpowered abilities in dinosaur mode. Another sequence has you controlling the gigantic Decepticon Bruticus and smashing your way to victory.

The game also maintains interest by providing a series of massive set-pieces. The game is limited in the freedom it gives you to change or alter the storyline (you get two slightly different endings depending on whether the Autobots or Decepticons get the upper hand in the battle for the Ark but that's about it), so it makes up for that by making the combat fun and by making the levels as memorable as possible. One sequence has you alternating between the Combaticons as they work together to take down a bridge to block an Autobot transport. Another features you as Cliffjumper infiltrating a ruined party of Cybertron and taking down enemies through stealth attacks. Jazz takes part in a combat mission using a physics-based energy grapple, whilst Optimus Prime has to fight his way through enemy lines by lighting up targets for the massive Autobot Metroplex to destroy. The designers work hard to provide big, epic moments at every point of the story (some shamelessly cribbed from the comics, TV series or, especially, the 1986 animated movie) and generally pull it off. Long-term Transformers fans will likely play through most of the game with a big grin on their faces.

The game's biggest success is the depiction of the battle for the Ark. Ususally depicted as a one-sided massacre, the game turns it into a furious battle in space, on the hull of the ship and inside its decks. The POV switches rapidly from Soundwave boarding the ship with his cassette warriors to take down its main guns to Jetfire shooting down grappling hooks outside to Bruticus smashing his way along the hull to Jazz trying to take him down, and finally to a brutal slug-fight between Optimus Prime and Megatron. As final missions go, it's exceptionally good, despite the massive cliffhanger ending.

The game still has some drawbacks. Whilst the stealth sequences and the sequences where you play as overpowered killing machines break up the third-person shooter scenes, you still spend a lot of the game exchanging fire with distantly-glimpsed enemies down corridors. It's also highly unclear what half the weapons in the game actually do (due to some uselessly non-descriptive names). There's also an upgrade system which never really feels that necessary to use.

The drawbacks are fairly minor, however. The game is fun, makes much more interesting use of the licence than its predecessor and has a great, pulpy storyline. More recent fans of the franchise may miss a whole host of Easter Eggs, but old-school Transformers fans will enjoy the tons of references to the many different incarnations of the franchise. If there is a major problem, it's that the game ends on a cliffhanger which is not likely to be resolved any time soon: the planned third game in the series has been turned into a tie-in with the upcoming new Michael Bay movie and won't resolve the story at all.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (****½) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 3:06 PM BST


Community - Season 4 [DVD]
Community - Season 4 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Joel McHale
Price: £14.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The weakest season, but not a complete waste of time, 29 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Community - Season 4 [DVD] (DVD)
Jeff Winger's time at Greendale Community College is coming to an end. Graduation, and a return to his former career as a hotshot lawyer, is now in sight. But standing in the way is a villainous English history teacher, his own (reluctantly growing) sense of community and events unfolding in another timeline altogether.

Every long-running series has its Attack of the Clones, Crossroads of Twilight or "Jack's tattoo episode" moment, when the creative engines misfire and things fall out of alignment. Characters don't gel like they used, lines are delivered with less conviction and everything just goes a bit wrong.

In the case of Community, this problem was inflicted on the show by the studio: creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired between Seasons 3 and 4 and the show had to struggle on without its primary creative force. Given that Community is a finely balanced mix of meta-commentary, comedy and character development and even Harmon couldn't get it right all of the time (see the uneven opening to Season 1 or the middle of Season 3), it's unsurprising that Season 4 is a bit of a mess.

The show remains entertaining, even though the moments of out-of-character behaviour and dialogue grate. The performances remain strong and there's some genius moments of casting, with Malcolm McDowell playing the hard history teacher and a reasonable turn by Matt Lucas as an Inspector Spacetime fan to rival Abed. There's also some nice follow-ups to earlier seasons, with the finale combining both the 'darkest timeline' storyline that began in early Season 3 and finding a way of bringing back the paintball game in a different way. Even Britta recovers from her Season 2/3 descent into ditziness and is a moderately more interesting character this year. There's also a clever episode - a puppet musical - which pokes fun at the whole idea of high-concept episodes and feels like it could have been made on Harmon's watch.

Unfortunately these high points only emphasise the lows: the over-reliance on the Dean and the now utterly-redundant Chang for cheap jokes, the mishandling of Abed and indeed the whole pop culture angle (often just referencing things rather than using them to highlight plot or character) and the total sidelining of Pierce until he basically just vanishes from the show altogether. The actors, directors and writers make a heroic effort to make up for Harmon's absence, but there is no disguising that the show is no longer operating on the same level. Fortunately, the studio saw sense and Harmon was reinstated for the fifth (and, for now, final) season, which has been much more positively received.

Community's fourth season (***) is certainly watchable, with its share of funny moments. It also does move the characters and storylines forward more successfully than I was expecting. However, there are too many moments which misfire, too many moments when characters say and do things that feel off and too many lazy references to previous, funnier episodes. There's some fun to be had from revisiting Greendale, but Harmon's absence is palpable. The season is available now in the UK and USA.


Batman: The Animated Series - Volume One [DVD]
Batman: The Animated Series - Volume One [DVD]
Dvd ~ Batman
Price: £6.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific artwork, excellent writing and fantastic voice-acting, 18 May 2014
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In 1992 Warner Brothers Animation capitalised on the success of the Tim Burton Batman films with a new animated series which took its cue from those movies in terms of visual design. The result was one of the most acclaimed cartoon series of all time, Batman: The Animated Series. It ran for three years and spawned a number of spin-off films and sequel series, not to mention the entire DC Animated Universe.

The series was immensely successful for three key reasons. The first is its visual design, which moves away from the traditional primary colour aesthetic of cartoons to something much darker. This was achieved by painting light colours on black backgrounds rather than vice versa and setting most of the action at night. The art style also draws heavily from the Burton movies' mixture of art deco and retro design with modern technology. Stylistically, Batman may be one of the coolest and visually engaging series ever made.

The second key to success is the writing. Whilst the show occasionally fumbles with a fairly obvious cops 'n' robbers story or an episode more suited to the 1960s Batman series, for most of the time the writing is pretty smart. Whilst overt blood or scenes of death are avoided, the show also doesn't hold back on showing the psychological damage the characters have received and even manages to turn certain characters - Mr. Freeze most notably - into tragic figures. This extends to Batman himself, who suffers occasional bouts of trauma resulting from the murder of his parents. One episode imagines a fantasy world in which Bruce Wayne's parents lived and is appropriately tragic. The series also does a good job of hitting the right note of moral ambiguity, such as in Bruce Wayne's friendship with the doomed Harvey Dent and the depiction of Catwoman as both an ally and an enemy.

The third element of success is the voice acting. It's a remarkable feat given competition such as Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but Mark Hamill's Joker is now widely considered definitive for his hitting of just the right note of demented insanity in his portrayal of the character. Kevin Conroy's Batman is also terrific, particularly his ability to adjust his performance so that Wayne and Batman have somewhat different voices and people don't recognise him immediately (an idea that carries on into the Nolan films and Christian Bale's performance). One-off guest stars are also excellent, with Adam West (who played Batman in the 1960s TV series) relishing a chance to give a serious performance as a childhood TV hero of Bruce Wayne's who helped inspire him to become Batman.

Episodes are fast-paced and engaging, action-packed enough to entertain children but with enough funny lines and smart moments of character-building to keep adults engaged. However, the show does suffer from a relaxed attitude to continuity. Aside from a few elements (Harvey Dent appearing several times before turning into Two-Face), the show doesn't have much of a developing story and characters appear and disappear randomly, particularly Robin. The show also mixes in-depth origin stories for some villains with others showing up and Batman apparently having known them for years.

The absence of heavy continuity means it's a lot easier to dip in and enjoy the show without having to pay too much attention to details, but it also means some of the much more complex character development of later animated series is missing.

Batman: The Animated Series is a highly watchable and enjoyable show with or without kids, with some beautiful artwork and terrific writing. The absence of more serialised storytelling means some storylines and characters are not fleshed out as much as might be wished, but overall this is an animated series that has aged very well and is worth checking out.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 29, 2014 12:34 PM BST


Alpha Protocol (PC)
Alpha Protocol (PC)
Offered by passionFlix UK
Price: £2.10

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, despite a premature release by Sega, 7 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Alpha Protocol (PC) (CD-ROM)
Mike Thorton is the newest recruit to Alpha Protocol, a clandestine American security organisation operating with maximum deniability. When an operation goes wrong and Thorton is targeted for assassination by shadowy forces operating within Alpha Protocol, he is forced to go undercover, expose a devastating international conspiracy and clear his name.

Alpha Protocol is a combat-focused, third-person RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, the developers of Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2 and the recent South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game is more than slightly reminiscent of BioWare's Mass Effect franchise, with its reliance on cover-based combat and dialogue choices having a huge impact on how the game proceeds. Unlike the team-based mechanics of the Mass Effect trilogy, however, Alpha Protocol's hero Mike Thorton is a lone operator who has a wide array of stealth options to enhance his combat repertoire.

The game is structured around a series of missions in certain cities, including Rome, Moscow and Taipei. In each city Thorton has a home base where he can catch up on email, watch news reports (periodically updated to comment on the chaos caused by his latest operation) and buy new weapons and equipment. From each base he can rally out to do missions, which are sometimes nothing more than short cut scenes as Thorton tries to wheedle information out of someone else but are sometimes long and elaborate infiltration and combat operations. For each mission Thorton can attempt to achieve his objective through sneaking into locations without being seen, going in all guns blazing or attempt diplomacy (or some combination of the three). He also has the ability to hack security systems, remotely unlock doors or set traps. A levelling-and-skill system also gives Thorton a wide array of abilities he can upgrade to improve his chances of success.

The game is also heavily focused on characterisation. Thorton has a reputation with every character in the game, even enemies, and he can improve that reputation by saying the right things to them in dialogue. You can generally engage in conversations aggressively (inspired by Jack Bauer), suavely (inspired by James Bond) or professionally (inspired by Jason Bourne), with occasional extra options available if you have researched the right info about the character. Intelligence dossiers (bought through the black market or found on missions) hold clues as to how people will respond in certain situations, allowing you to manipulate them into helping you out. It's a clever system, enhanced by some satisfying dialogue (written by the mighty Chris Avellone) and some terrific, unexpected outcomes which radically change the way the story develops.

The game's reactivity is probably its best feature, with characters living or dying (sometimes taking entire storylines and occasional missions with them) based on your actions, or how you go about doing things. Alpha Protocol rewards replaying more than most games for this reason, with real consequences to your decisions.

Unfortunately, whilst the plot is excellent and the characterisation is strong, the actual gameplay is occasionally wonky. Infamously, the game was released by Sega in a highly unpolished state, as they had refused to give the game a full QA or testing pass after taking the initial build off Obsidian's hands. Minor bugs - clipping, jumpy camera controls, the physics engine occasionally going berserk - occasionally blight the game but are easily ignorable. More severe are problems with the game not reacting properly to your actions. For example, my usual approach to a mission was to attempt stealth but by around 50% of the way through each mission I'd given up on that and was resorting to gunplay. Yet my version of Thorton soon gained a reputation as a ghost, with other characters reacting to my ability to slip in and out of places undetected with awe. Considering I'd left a trail of blood, fire, chaos and bodies across most of Eurasia behind me, this didn't really make sense. There's also the fact that - especially on PC - the hacking minigame suffers from such poor and unresponsive controls that it's almost unusable.

Combat is reasonable, although pouring points into stealth soon makes you almost invulnerable, able to attack targets at will and hide almost in broad daylight. The stealth part of the game is fun but also made too easy by unconscious enemy bodies vanishing after a few seconds, meaning you don't have to worry about them being discovered. Instant takedowns (lethal or not) are also possible if you take the target by surprise. Played the right way, combat can be trivially easy. There's also periodic bossfights which, depending on the game's whim are either brutally hard or ridiculously straightforward: many areas have blindspots where the bosses can't see you, allowing you to shoot them with impunity.

Alpha Protocol does have a reputation for being heavily bugged, although I did not find this to be the case. Minor bugs abound, but on only two occasions was I forced to reload. Out of a 15-hour game, that's not too bad at all. It's a game clearly in need of a few more months of polishing, but it's still perfectly playable to completion.

Alpha Protocol (****) is a fun, clever, well-written and smart game hampered by minor-but-constant gameplay flaws and a few broken systems. The game is highly replayable and has some great ideas, but in many ways it feels like an early prototype of a style of game that would be achieved with considerably greater skill by Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Alpha Protocol is flawed and underrated gem that is definitely worth a second look.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2014 5:51 AM BST


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