Sunday, 23 April 2017

Order: Kharadron Overlords Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer Age of Sigmar Battletome Review, 1st Edition)

First impressions are the single most important thing when it comes to products, people and even basic ideas. A bad initial image can leave products which are otherwise great to be overlooked, and it's something you can never fully get over. That said, cautious as this world and media has taught us all to be, there are some ideas which can instill sheer unbridled joy in people.

Where is this going? Well, upon seeing bronze clad steampunk flying pirate dwarves with airships, I quite simply could not stop grinning for days. This is, personally, an idea which is made in heaven. Something which jumps headlong into the angle that Age of Sigmar is the Spelljammer of Warhammer, singles it out from the past edition and helps it to fully stand out on its own. Combined with an undying love of steampunk, it does mean that this review might be just a tad biased in favour of the concept above all else; as the writers would have to monumentally balls this up to fully turn me against this. This coverage of the lore will still be critical to be sure, but expect it to have that sort of +1 bonus effect of having something which directly appeals to guy covering it.

So, with that brief disclaimer out of the way, let's delve into the lore behind this new army.

The Good

Like so many of the existing forces, the history behind the Overlords is one of failure and survival. Even in the wake of the End Times and Sigmar's crusade, this was a faction born out of necessity, scraping together what little they had left and surviving by almost any means necessary. While it's an idea which has been done to death by Games Workshop, it's one they do exceptionally well, and this is certainly no different. In this particular case, the opening lines note how the Overlords adapted, developed and reworked their society once the last of the Mountain Kingdoms fell to the relentless assaults by Chaos. At this time, what was the Overlords powerbase were little more than airborne mining stations, small forts and installations, all of which quickly became overrun by refugees.

Because of this overpopulation and situation, each was forced to adapt and alter what they had on hand, turning their locations into vast airborne ports which rose up into the heavens to escape Chaos. Desperately focusing upon enhancing their technology and bolstering their strength through newfangled designs, the dwarfs' marvels reached a new level, rapidly turning them into the most technologically advanced force in the setting. Building fleets of airborne ships, they now hunt to make trading pacts to ensure their future and seek out the resources they need to keep their homes aloft.

This background is simple, direct and used exceptionally well, as it explains away why we see shades of old dwarf ideas here. They're culturally mixed up and had part of their society reworked as much out of displaced populations as the sheer necessity of survival. In a bad book this would often be used to simply say "Well, we're keeping this bit but not everything else" without adapting or explaining anything. In this one though, someone clearly put a lot of thought into this society. 

Take grudges for example, which still hold an important place among the Overlords and they will retain them until the end of time. However, the struggling initial years have forced them to alter their views on how best to approach them. Rather than, as the old dwarfs did, amassing huge armies to resolve a few grudges, and then writing down yet more grudges based upon the casualties, these are put on hold. If it is beneficial to follow them, as much to their coffers as their population, they will immediately chase after it, but if they feel it would only harm them, they will hold off for a time. A few examples are cited and, while it doesn't refer to it by name, part of it implies that this system is in place to specifically help avoid the likes of the War of the Beard, or anything which might doom their society. Yet, this is not universal, as some factions barely pay attention to grudges, while others will zealously record and follow them as needed.

Equally, the Overlords' nature and position was used to only enhance their love of profit and gold. Scavenging, desperation and a lack of the necessary metals are all obvious ones, but thanks to the long isolation this evolved to become their primary focus. So, politically each dwarf's standing is judged by his wealth and personal horde more than anything else, but socially it resembles a meritocracy, where helping society and others is the only way to truly rise above your station. It's certainly an interesting combination of elements to work with, giving them shades of the old brotherhood and close ties which made the dwarves stand out, but at the same time giving them an excuse to go full Ferengi as needed. The book even makes it clear that, while they are on the side of the angels, they're also in it for the loot. As a result they are willing to start a few skirmishes for personal profit, adding a shade of grey to their society.

The subject of trade and negotiations is the key driving force behind this entire army. While the book doesn't perform a truly in-depth look into this subject, it does lay down the foundation for just why and how such negotiations are handled, and their more open nature forwards even former foes. This partially ties into the subject of grudges (noting it is bad to start them with profitable partners, until you're in a very beneficial position yourself) but also with segments covering how they deal with lesser forces. For example, the Overlords might lay claim a mountain filled with treasures to claim them for themselves, driving off anyone performing a ritual there or attempting to claim it for themselves. Yet once they've done their business they will try to approach those same people to strike up a fair trading deal with them, with no ill will despite this.

Such a level of depth and thought when it comes to the basics of their society is very welcome indeed, as it helps to massively flesh out and set them up as their own force. Without it, you could easily just think at first glance that this was simply a fantasy steampunk rehash of the Craftworlds, but with stunties in place of panzees. Yet, with the ancestor worship dialed back, with tradesman aspect in full swing and more a focus upon craftsmanship, there are enough immediate changes to help them instantly stand out. The reason this is so well worth praising is that these cultural elements and thoughts are what makes or breaks an army in terms of lore, as without them they can easily seem far too one dimensional. By giving people context, tone and a basic idea of how day to day life works, you end up with a better idea of just what makes them tick and how to create a personal background from this.

Speaking of making things tick, the book also makes it very clear that each port needs a specific substance known as aether-gold. Besides also hinging on the dwarf love of gold, this is used to power their technologies, serves as a source of commerce and is vital to keep their society going. In fact, hunting it down is their primary priority above all else, and almost all of their fleets devote themselves to finding this stuff time and time again. It's illusive, notable for appearing and disappearing, shifting hundreds of miles at a time in vast streams, but the Overlords need it to keep their forces going. Like the above examples, this is another element where the book actually stops and points out how this stuff works. Rather than just stating that it's a vital fuel what we get are bits like this:

"Should a rich vein of aether-gold be discovered, the sky-fleets cordon off the surrounding airways while the rest of the armada set to work. Larger operations employ cloud dredgers and trawlers to sweep the area, siphoning and straining the raw aether-gold. If the fleet is small - an exploratory or prospecting flotilla sent out to find new veins - then it will be composed entirely of warships. Although equipped primarily for battle, the ever practical Kharadron also use such fleets for mining and trade operations.

Should the dangers of mining aether-gold be avoided, the extracted gas is stored within the holds of the airships or, in the larger mining fleets, within the vast hulks known as Krontankers. Many convoys transport the mined material in a steady stream away from the mine, heading back to the sky-port from which the fleets originated. This too is dangerous work, for even within the armour-plated holds of Kharadron ships, the siren call of the substance attracts beasts and airborne raiders that lust after it. Many a convoy has been smashed out of the sky by raging chimera packs, pulled down into sludgeclouds by tentacled nightmares or brought to battle by the aerial armies of the Grotbag Scuttlers."

What's so very notable about this? Many points and ideas here don't even have models. In fact, most aren't even reflected in the game at all so far, and this oddly helps to immensely flesh out the world. All too often recent books or tomes have seemingly been written to purely reflect what's on the tabletop, limiting themselves only to certain miniatures and idea. So, for example, whereas the older Gaunt's Ghosts works cited lesser known Imperial vehicles or designs, more recent books only feature Leman Russ battle tanks or the likes. Elements and ideas like this help to reinforce the fact that there's a much. much bigger world out there to find and explore, and sidesteps any risk of stagnation within the setting. Or, for that matter, too readily relying upon a few choices elements over themes over all else.

As a final note, it's also worth adding how the book handles the subjects of weaknesses. Every creation needs a failing or a weakness in some way, from major to minor ones, and interestingly this force makes most of their strengths into a double edged sword. They're only occasionally highlighted, only briefly brought up as major subjects, but it's enough for players and fans to latch onto if need be. The big one here is their reliance upon aether-gold, as the book makes it clear just how dangerous the subject of mining the stuff truly is, but also cites an issue that the ports need more of it every year. Without it, they will crash back down to the ground. 

Another key one is the code by which they live by. This defines them, guiding how they cooperate with others to a fair degree and even internal structures within their ports. Yet, while this is initially built up to be a relatively utopian angle on capitalism, there's a sinister edge to it which keeps cropping up. Often respect of others is based upon how well a dwarf adheres to this code, and even without that the code itself is rife with loopholes to exploit as needed. It was even the reason why they did not become involved with Sigmar's crusade and still try to remain relatively neutral despite the standing against Chaos. Both of these offer a good deal of depth to the force, and it gives some real substance for writers to work with.

The Bad

There are a number of definite bad points which crop up here, but it's honestly not nearly so many as you might expect. In fact, unlike many examples in past books, much of this is down to the ideas behind the Kharadron Overlords not being taken far enough over an actual mistake. For example, while we are given a basic description of the ports and their defining traits, it is always very brief. It lacks anything more than a few notable traits and ideas to hinge on, and it pales compared to better established forces. As such, while it's enough to leave an impression and get you interested, you can be understandably irked that there's nothing more to it. To give two examples, Barak Zubar is known for its monster-slaying and cutthroat trading deals while Barak Ziflin has the best navigators. However, we don't get much beyond this about their unique nature or societies, such as differing cultural trends or even aesthetic choices. Again, it's not bad but a few more paragraphs could have seriously helped bolster their individual images.

Another aspect which is problematic stems from the book going towards the other extreme most oppose. You see, whereas the likes of the Sylvaneth lacked a detailed analysis of their society and nature, they had a surprisingly compelling saga to work off of. In this case, the society is remarkably well fleshed out and you have some fantastic building blocks to start working with for a broader force, but few to no tales to truly help exemplify their capabilities. What little we do get is limited to small side texts (such as a hilarious one known as Aethersson's Gambit) or rolled into character backgrounds, and this book definitely needed at least one big two page story to help flesh things out. Plus, in this same note, it doesn't help that the timeline is very brief on this end.

The Overlords themselves also share a few too many distinct similarities with the dwarves they stemmed from and more generic steampunk factions. This might sound a little odd at first, but once you look at the listings of Admirals and Warrant Officers, it doesn't take much to see where the old Engineering Guilds or the like stemmed from. While each is to their own of course, I personally feel that more adaptation and development was needed at this end and a little less direct translation in this regard, along with perhaps broadening the focus of the faction a little more. You do get within the first few pages that profit is a great boon and necessary to these people, but it's difficult to find any subject where it doesn't come up. This might sound odd but, just to continue the Star Trek comparisons, think of how often klingons bring up "honour" then replace that word with "profit" and you might understand how overdone this is after a while.

The book's text can also end up repeating information you already know at more than a few points, either citing stuff which it had established only a few pages before or simply rewording it. There's certainly nothing wrong with reminders or some basic repetition, especially when it's not committing the sin of giving entire pages to single units only to repeat it later on. However, when the intro is being cited again just a few pages on, some of this stuff has clearly gone a bit too far. Combined with the rampant use of "pragmatism" to describe their behaviour and outlook on life, and it can be a difficult thing to get through at certain points.

The Artwork

It's stunning. Really, I wish I had a better criticism for it, but looking at this you can definitely see where the money for Games Workshop's art department has gone of late. It seems that the creators were going the extra mile and looking into the likes of Dishonored when thinking up this stuff, because I simply cannot single out a single negative work. While a few of them are definitely repetitive in showing airborne assault scenes more than anything else, they do try to at least diversify the angles and foes they're combating. Better yet, not all of this is wholly devoted to big battle scenes and we do get quite a few moments to help punctuate certain points. From what the ports look like to a slain sky-beast - and a very atmospheric look at an Overlord standing before his armour - there's plenty here to work with which again helps to give the army more of a definitive feel as a whole society.

While the book does also delve into a few too many splash pages for my liking, especially during the intro, this is also one of the few times where it is somewhat excusable. Unlike long established forces like the astartes, there's no singular iconic image to work with here. So, by adding in two major splash pages at the start combined with some very distinct imagery, it immediately leaves an impression upon the reader while also laying down the foundations for later works. You can argue that every codex or rulebook should be expected to do this, but the criticism I had with this was that said imagery always seemed to serve more as padding. To the point that, with Codex: Imperial Knights, we gained more pages but lost a massive amount of lore due to the new structure. With a first attempt like this, combined with such fantastic new artwork, it's very hard to complain.

The Verdict

In terms of lore and visuals, this one gets a definite thumbs up. Again, you will probably find harsher critics among those with a more negative disposition towards steampunk elements, but even were that removed this would likely still stand out from the crowd. Besides a few somewhat problematic points it offers a very strong start for this new army, and the lore here is genuinely interesting; establishing some of the best storytelling and ideas we've seen in a Warhammer rulebook for quite some time. It's at least on par with the original Codex: Tau in terms of basic details, and there are plenty of seeds left for later ideas to bloom. Definitely have a look at the synopsis first, just to get a feel for the army, but if you like what you see you'll be buying a faction with a very strong starting background.

So, that's a major point in this book's favour then. Join us in a few days when we move on from the fluff into the tabletop crunch.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Narcosis (Video Game Review)

Even today, there are few places on this planet more terrifying than the ocean. As proven by Subnautica, SOMA and Zelda (because who doesn’t still fear the Water Temple?), the very idea of something awaiting below the waves is chilling. As a result Narcosis, takes this to an absolute extreme, trapping you at the bottom of the ocean in an armoured suit, with seemingly no way up.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Pilot (Episode Review)

So, here we are, back again with the time travelling (mostly) immortal alien. With Capaldi's long announced departure having taken up a lot of attention recently, along with some odd attempts to draw figures by pointing out the companion is openly gay (though, i'd personally argue Jack Harkness beat her by several years) there have been mixed thoughts over this start. Some people think it'll be a mess of different ideas and conflicting influences, others are hopeful that the lessons of past series have been learned at long last. Well, it's too early to tell which is right, but if The Pilot is any indication, we're up for a series of good, solid entertainment.

The Synopsis:

The story here is set some time after the prior two episodes, with the Doctor having hidden himself away in England. Sitting about a university and staying as a lecturer, he seems at first to be effectively on holiday, almost taking a break from past threats, but it's clear something more is at work. The only one who truly seems to pick up on this is Bill Potts, a cafeteria staff member with a knack for picking up on certain odd details. Yet, even as she and the Doctor enter an odd mentor and student relationship, other alien forces are at work on the local campus. Ones which have a specific target in mind, and will stop at nothing to claim who and what they need to return to the stars.

The Good:

The best thing about this whole story is simply this - It's basic. Now, that can certainly sound odd or even insulting, but after so many ambitious efforts to be complex for complexity's sake, often resulting in failure, this is a welcome return. We have a companion succinctly introduced, a new status quo established, a few questions set up for the series, and a definite resolution. It's probably the most straight forwards story we've had in the past two years, and because of this it's effectively told. It's something which leaves room to develop characters, play with a scary idea or two, and to close it out with a definitive end. 

The first, and most obvious, point the story plays with is the introduction of Bill, our new companion. This is someone who had alarm bells ringing in fans ears from her initial announcement, for reasons outlined above, but surprisingly it's actually proven to be a strong initial outing. While the Rose Tyler influence is certainly obvious in many places, Bill nevertheless stands out well as the every person while still brimming with energy and personality. There's a quirky edge to her dialogue at all times and the episode manages to strike a careful balance between ingenuity and missing the obvious. While certainly fairly heavy handed (a point we'll get to a bit later on) it's nice to see a companion with a talent for outdoing the Doctor in certain areas without taking over the show or overshadowing him. 

The chemistry between Capaldi and Pearl Mackie (Bill's actress) proves to be the highlight of the episode time and time again. While each is certainly quite eccentric, the fact they're coming from opposite ends of the insanity or energy spectrum means that they nicely counterpoint one another. This is especially clear during the later office scenes with the Doctor, and each of them are quite capable of shifting back and forth between humour and possible threat as needed. Surprisingly though, Matt Lucas manages to avoid being the third wheel in this trio. For a character briefly introduced as a small part of a very minor episode, his presence seemed almost tacked on, but there's a nice element of humour he injects into each scene while handling some of the more techno-babble related heavy lifting. While it's unclear just how long he'll be here for, the unconventional angle between these three nicely contrasts the more typical trios usually found in Classic and modern Who alike. Plus it should go without saying by this point that Capaldi is on point as ever, because he's frigging Capaldi.

Of course, every story needs a villain and this one proves to be no exception here. With a remarkably slow build-up and gradual introduction, there's no obvious threat at first, but the story uses this lull as an opportunity to establish the setting first. It avoids the old sin of front-loading everything at once, and by introducing events in stages, it allows the story to have more impact. We see the normality of this work at first, the hints of something odd thanks to the Doctor's presence, we get to know a few basic elements of the characters, and by the time the monster shows up there's more room for it to leave a dramatic impact. The creature in question, while problematic in terms of its origins, also proves to be a creatively creepy one. Water based in nature and seeking to claim others, it's by no means original but the presentation surrounding it proves to be outstanding. How it initially establishes a possible threat, how it develops into this unstoppable force and the abilities it displays give it an almost Terminator-esque level of unstoppability which definitely helps it stand out.

However, above all else, what has to be praised are the choices of editing and cinematography. While certainly unconventional and veering into the overly stylised elements of television, they nevertheless manage to hit a very exact balance between knowing when to let a scene play out, and editing around objects. You'll notice this very quickly, as both the first office scene and the Doctor's opening talk with certain students. One allows the actors to get away with anything they need with minimal editing, using a choice of camera angle which opposes what you might expect but works in favour of the setting. The other is heavily edited and reworked, but it's used to help build upon the Doctor's monologue about time and reflect upon the subject he is discussing, giving a literal visual image to his words. Plus, given Capaldi's ability to make any monologue engaging, it's a chance for the episode to work in something which has always proven to be a strong point in the past, even in bad outings. 

While The Pilot also worked in a number of shout-outs easter eggs and fun moments rather well, these were hit and miss. Welcome as they were, the presentation of them sometimes worked and sometimes fell short of what was needed thanks to certain editing choices. A point we'll get onto in the next section.

The Bad:

The bad here stems from a few unexpected angles. Without getting into a few of the more negative comments, many thought that the show was openly advertising Bill as a lesbian and black was a push to be overly PC. Thankfully, as mentioned above, she's a well rounded character backed with an actress who knows how to handle such eccentricities. That said, The Pilot does spend too much time focusing upon her at the expense of everything else. It's a very Doctor-lite experience, which could work, but despite this many points seemed to be stretched thin. 

The details about her life don't develop via a montage or even a typical more visual display, but exposition a lot of the time and despite the excellent editing it comes across as rushed. This isn't helped by how, to compensate for a few of the more grandiose speeches and establishing scenes, certain points are blitzed through as well. The events surrounding Bill's mother, both biological and her step-mother, lack any real impact. Both seem to be set up as important figures, but because there's no room for it to breathe or the actors to really show their stuff, much of it lacks the impact it needs.

Another definite issue which stems from the structure is simply how predictable certain twists are. Now, if this was building up to a jump-scare or two this would be fine and, in fact, the one time the more predictable moments are used to establish a jump scare does work in its favour. It's used as any good one should, to build up dread and a creeping sense of fear. However, at other stages you're just left scratching your head at certain turns or leaps in logic. Even ignoring some of the more awkward dialogue here and there, and there are some rather dumb bits, the decisions made are difficult to truly follow. For example, we know the monster is after Bill. It has followed her first and foremost from start to finish, but the story diverts itself to help set up a future plot arc surrounding something underneath the university. They think it's might be trying to raid it, when there's little established to truly confirm this fact.

A further, and very notable, problem also stems from the sheer lack of subtlety within many scenes. Now, on the one hand, the unconventional style and presentation helps to excuse this. It's stylized and interesting enough to really keep you hooked, while also being very big and bold throughout the tale. However, when the script hinges on a clever twist and many of the shout-outs to past events are being actively shoved in your face, it can seem a little insulting to your intelligence. This is especially bad when it comes to the initial scene which, in an otherwise wonderful format which is excellently presented, feels the need to pause an then perform close-ups on each meaningful easter egg is infuriating. As are more than a few points where it really keeps repeatedly highlighting anything remotely relevant to the plot, until the audience is left with little to nothing to figure out for themselves.

However, perhaps the most irksome part is the sheer lack of answers we get when it comes to the villain. Okay, there's a few basic hints and suggestions here and there, but besides that we don't get much at all. What spacecraft did this come from? How does it work? Where does it originate from? Why was it even there? None of these are ever answered, and for a force so powerful as this one, that's not enigmatic that's just infuriating. If there had just been a few more answers, something to help add a name to the face and to build upon the concepts established that would have greatly offset this. Instead, we're left with a scary and effective villain for the episode, but one which lacks any real depth or purpose beyond plot requirements.

The Verdict:

This one will likely split fans on just what they favour the most, and how well they think many of its ideas were executed. Personally though, while it's certainly a bit less ambitious than some previous efforts, there seems to be a concerted effort to just get things right. This isn't so much reaching for the stars and repeatedly failing so much as asking "So, what did we get right last time, how can we improve on that, and what can we experiment with?" Overall, this definitely works in its favour so far as I am concerned, as while the story itself is relatively simple and the character drama is mostly straight forwards, but it's executed well enough that you can understandably forgive that.

If you do find a few of the more obvious twists mentioned to be irksome or the push to be overly quirky for its own sake, then I will understand entirely why you'd dislike this. Given Doctor Who's often unconventional nature and the fact this is the series finding its footing again though, it's enjoyable enough for an outing setting up the new status quo.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King (Video Game Review)

The act of taking inspiration from any retro era release is always a gamble. Many of those games, from Super Mario to Final Fantasy, were brief sparks of pure genius built from primitive programming. Few attempting to create their own modern day versions seem to truly understand what made them classics in the first place, but thankfully Castle Pixel is one of those few exceptions to this rule. In fact, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King, might be the first with the right to truly call itself a true Zelda successor.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Carcharodons: The Red Tithe by Robbie MacNiven (Book Review)

Many people say that there are too many books about space marines. These people are entirely right. When you actually sit down, break up the books following the astartes and those following everyone else, the you'll notice more than two thirds lie with the former. However, perhaps the best defense of this is the fact that there are so many varied factions of astartes on each side, and a longer personal history to work with when it comes to Chaos. Carcharodons: The Red Tithe is the latest example of this, and it goes to show what an author can do when given the chance to experiment with a big, fun new project.


Tasked with defending humanity from the horrors which lurk beyond the galactic rim, the Carcharodons have stood sentinel over the Imperium for ten thousand years. Trapped in a state of self-exile, they rarely return to place they once called home, save for the need to slaughter traitors and to carry out the sacred tithe. Drained and depleted, the chapter needs fresh bodies to serve as its serfs and officers, ready to carry out their orders at a moment's notice. Such souls are damnable, miserable scum taken from a few select prisons across the Imperium, such as the one the Third Company now descends upon: Zartak.

Yet, as the ancient astartes arrive, they soon discover that others have fallen upon this world to claim it as their own. A sizable warband of Night Lords, seeking to slake their need to harvest terror and the souls within the prison cells, have turned the planet into a charnel house. A warzone awaits them below, and amid the deep dark pits of the forsaken prison world, these two armies of silent predators will clash until only one is left standing.

The Good:

The massive highlight of this book, and what will draw many people to it, is the Carcharodons themselves. As one of the relatively more recent chapters to be revamped and remade, they had an air of mystery about them, with slight hints and general suggestions of some ancient past, but few answers. We knew little of their culture beyond vague tribal designs, and even their age - if they were a Second Founding chapter - was always in question. As is their very origin, for many people. Rather than answering this, MacNiven opted to give depth to the mystery in question, developing and reworking it until many of these elements are unknown within the chapter itself. While we do know that they were exiled from their home millennia ago, their legends only offer slight hints that it might have been a primarch, and even then it is never confirmed if this was their primarch who gave the order.

Many early segments of the book serve to help build up and establish the ideas behind the chapter itself, running through many basic themes and then pushing beyond this. For example, rather than hanging exclusively on the questions surrounding their origins, it questions how they would have evolved in this state. Isolated, self-focused and no outside influences from other human cultures save for the odd recruit, it presents them as a world apart from almost any other chapter. Calling upon Polynesian and Maori inspirations for their ideals, beliefs and nature along with a few shark related themes, the book builds the idea of an almost archaic chapter which has been preserved in time. This idea of one being so alien, so remote from any other chapter, is something which has rarely been seen of late, and it's used to great effect. This moment of diversity helps to immediately make them stand out, and even against a well established force like the Night Lords there's no point where they risk falling into the background or being overshadowed.

The book also goes the extra mile to express a few ideas about points surrounding the chapter without fully delving into them. Much like the Ultramarines there's a sense that constant politics pit the companies against one another, and it's not uncommon for a single force to have several varying ideals or plans from each of its leaders. While hardly chaotic or conflicting, there's more strife and clashes born from this than you might expect, despite each of them often being right in their own way. Furthermore, there's a careful effort to ensure it's only showing us certain details about them only up to a point, or even leaving certain conflicting comments. 

For example, the chapter's frequent use of cryo-pods suggests that several key members of their kind are ancient,with a few lines even suggesting that at least one may have witnessed the Heresy. While the book never fully expands upon this, it leaves the subject hanging, only passing on a few comments before leaving it behind. By never fully addressing it, but confronting it in the right way, it garners a sense of interest and engagement from the reader. We even see the same treatment given to the long standing question of their gene-seed. The book all but outright confirms that they were born from Corax's legion at one point, only to later suggest origins from the Night Lords or World Eaters thanks to their tactics and the presence of Ursa's Claws on their strike cruiser. This could have easily led to a number of infuriating non-answers, but it's enough to make the tale oddly satisfying and leaves you wanting to see more from them.

Many of these ideas and details are not even hindering the tale at any point. Rather than dragging the book to a screeching halt to explore them, they're added here and there throughout the story, breaking up the action as needed. The result is a relentless story of constant conflict, but one which never overstays its welcome or burns you out as a result. Plus, and this has to be said, it helps that the characters here don't serve as simple examples of the chapter. While a few do reflect parts of their history or nature, most are given just enough individual traits to help them stand out, despite their general mental uniformity. 

Of course, the book remains fairly strong even once it gets beyond the Carcharodons themselves. While the Night Lords have often been written, re-written and reworked a multitude of times over the past few years, MacNiven still finds a few interesting angles to explore. Personal glory, back-stabbings and conflicts are all on display, but we also see some of the issues when it comes to their leaders. In particular, in this case, many of their kindred hold little innate loyalty to the current Prince of Thorns because he's a comparatively recent recruit rather than someone who saw the rise and fall of the Legions for himself. Plus, there's the idea that this is a cult of conflicting ideals here, but one which has been well established and built up. They do not risk open infighting like others, they're bereft of insanity, and much of the corruption usually found within such warbands is contained and controlled. It's a more optimistic outlook than we usually get with most Chaos warbands (well, to a point anyway) as they're unrepentant monsters, but ones who have developed strict systems and codes to avoid self-destruction and still hold certain values dear.

What many fans will certainly celebrate here is the fact that the astartes, while insanely tough, don't fall into the old trap of being utterly wanked out invincible. We don't get any of the more exaggerated or insanely overblown moments which tends to put people off of these chapters, and they do die to mistakes, attacks or sheer overwhelming odds. So, while there are scenes like a marine dragging him self out from under a few hundred tons of fallen rock, or even shrugging off multiple point blank bolter rounds, others are killed instantly by precision attacks or planned assaults. In fact, one of the most crippling losses taken by the loyalists isn't inflicted by the Night Lords themselves but their cultists, attacking from a venue they simply couldn't afford to counter. So, what we end up with is marines who can still die two one or two blows from a chainsword, but they still have to be blows which behead or effectively bisect them.

The Bad:

This is going to be very debatable on many points as, personally speaking, I think many of my complaints come down to personal taste. Simply put, while MacNiven is clearly giving his all here and has some fantastic moments, he lacks the descriptive strengths of other writers. There are few heavy atmospheric moments in this book which helps to define Warhammer 40,000 as the grim dark nightmare future, or many of the more theoretical and introspective bits. Every descriptive element and point has been incredibly streamlined, almost to the point where it's difficult to truly pin down some of the more heavy going moments of the tale. It's certainly not bad to be sure, but there's always a sense that it lacks some of the substance or ideas found in some of the bigger books.

Perhaps some of the biggest examples of such streamlined storytelling can be found in how it quickly wraps up certain points. Towards the end a minor group of secondary characters is killed off - out of sight no less - with little more than a brief mention, and the final few pages become something of a rushed affair as it tries to bring about an abrupt and bloody conclusion to tie up all the loose ends at once. It's not nearly as abrupt as something by Dan Abnett, but you can also see points where something was just suddenly resolved or brought to a close in order to finish up events. 

Another definite issue is how many fights, while well described, often come down to a one-sided battle. Blows are always exchanged and the actual fights themselves are pretty damn satisfying, but it doesn't take much to pick out the rock-paper-scissors effect on display. We have one group overcoming the other, a squad sent in as a response, and then something to counter them. After a while, it sadly becomes predictable how certain key engagements will play out. Even the duels aren't a big exception to this, as you often know who will survive thanks purely to old tropes and storytelling ideas.

The book also suffers when it breaks away from the post-human characters into more mortal figures. While The Red Tithe does work well when it comes to the subject of night and haunting figures, anyone more mundane than this becomes quickly forgettable. As the opening few chapters are populated by almost nothing but Arbitrators and prisoners, this makes actually getting to the action quite a chore. You can find yourself rather bored by characters you know aren't important to the tale, as you know from their language and presentation that they're little more than irrelevant story fodder to be bumped off before the real heroes show up. This might not have even been that bad were it not for the running framing device of an Inquisitorial investigation which heads each chapter, It follows an Interrogator picking out and analyzing scenes of the battle, theorising on what took place. This could have been used to build up mystery and reflect upon the Carcharodons, but it instead often just ends up repeating what the reader already knows.

While there are far fewer problems to pick out here than strengths, each of them is at the very heart of this tale at every turn. You cannot simply enjoy its strengths without having to constantly stomach its weaknesses; because the prose and structure are among these key flaws, it can even reach points where it's hard to see one through the other.

The Verdict:

Carcharodons: The Red Tithe is a solid release and an entertaining tale to be sure, but it's by no means a perfect one. The ideas and concepts are great, but it never manages to rise above greatly entertaining at any point, meaning it can seem weak after so many excellent releases of late. Yet, for all the problems I personally had, it's one I would still definitely recommend in a heartbeat. The core concepts are solid, and it proves that the author can create something great when he's given more freedom to express and explore a chapter. Especially one which embraces the more rustic and ritualistic fantasy elements of this science fiction setting.

Whereas the likes of Master of Mankind and Malleus are much more heavy going titles, this is more of a travelling book by nature. It's the sort of one you'd do better to read on the train heading to work each morning rather than plunging into it for hours at a time. So, take that for what it's worth and give it a look if you're at all interested.

Score: 6.5 out of 10

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Kept You Waiting, Huh?

So, it's been a while. A combination of things have kept me from writing on here for a few days, few of them good unfortunately. The daemonic entity which occupied the building of my last job made one last effort to kill me and claim my soul, altering fate by trying to end my life via stress induced heart attack. I was then unable to take the week off to prepare for my new one as planned, forcing me to cram seven days of work into two. Oh, and now after joining my new employment, I was given a three day crash course crammed full of information, before being left as the only person to run my department. In fairness though, that one was just plain bad luck, and no, you're not getting more details on this.

The point is this - Lots of bad stuff kept me from sitting down to properly type, moderate and run this website, and that's something i'm trying to end. Starting tomorrow things will be moving again, though I cannot say they'll be up to full speed for a while at least. As it stands, we'll be aiming for three to four updates per week to try and account for abrupt workload shifts, and quite a few of those will be going back to old ideas.

More than a few things I wanted to do were missed dropped abruptly thanks to the utterly hellish last few weeks of my previous job - including a rather great April' Fools joke. These will be focused upon first, added in around new releases as we can and updated as time goes by. Sure, new video games and novels will still take priority, but there's a lot of classic coverage and past great releases which deserves a great deal of attention. This is especially true of Black Library, with one particularly overlooked book which we'll be covering in full tomorrow.

You can also expect a Star Wars related announcement not long after that. I won't spoil much ahead of time, but there are a few follow-up comments which need to be made surrounding Aftermath and, having thought over the subject for quite some time now, I have decided there's more we need to talk about before finishing up with that franchise.

So, fingers crossed, and with any luck we'll be back to releasing content at our usual pacing again. You have my word that all viable comments will be approved and quite a few awaiting ones will be responded over the coming week or so, just as soon as I sift through the usual wealth of morons, spambots and death-threat dealers first. I apologise in advance if it takes me some time to upload your comment and answer it, but you have my word we will get to it at some point.

Oh, and if you're not a fan of the obvious Terminator reference, here's the alternative: