Saturday, 16 December 2017

Gaunt's Ghosts: Warmaster by Dan Abnett (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)


It's strange to think this is the first time this website has visited this series. It's stranger still to think that we have gone so long after the previous novel's cliffhanger. Serving as one of Black Library's big flagship series and rivaled only by the Horus Heresy novels now Gotrek and Felix has ended, Gaunt's Ghosts is quintessential Warhammer 40,000. Equal parts Napoleonic War epic and science fiction battle campaign, it follows the efforts of Commissar-Colonel Gaunt and Tanith First and Only light infantry regiment. Fighting their way across the Sabbat worlds, they are shown fighting various opponents across a multitude of battlegrounds.

The series was praised for its balance of Warhammer's key elements, its "anyone can die" mentality without it becoming gratuitous, and was one of the key sagas which promoted the Imperial Guard's popularity. So, as you can imagine, its return is a big thing.

Synopsis

Following the harrowing battle of Salvation's Reach, the remaining Ghosts are on their return flight back to Imperial lines. Still reeling from the heavy casualties taken in the conflict, the atmosphere is tense and tempers are running high. Yet, they are not out of the fight just yet. Assailed by Chaos forces as they attempt to return, the Ghosts must fight tooth and nail to hold their transport vessel against the corsairs aligned with Sek. Even should they survive, stranger things still await them back with Imperial Command, along with an astounding revelation for Gaunt himself.

The Good

Trying to start up a series after a six year gap was always going to be difficult, especially in the case of this one. Rather than having any kind of conclusion, Salvation's Reach was almost a cliffhanger, with the deaths of several major characters and the heroes stuck in enemy territory. They were on their way out, the journey and their return still had to be dealt with. So, this left the conundrum of both trying to directly resolve the stories established in that book while leaving it open to anyone who simply wanted to start up again. Thankfully Abnett pulled this off spectacularly. The intro reminds the reader of who is alive and dead, but it does so in a natural and understated way. This is also folded into reminding people of the ongoing character changes, developments and recent repercussions as well. This is all done within the first few pages and, while it is clearly written with series familiars in mind, it's open enough that anyone who has missed one or two books can quickly adjust to the current events.

There is enough character drama on hand in these early stages to remind readers of the major issues plaguing its heroes, and of the tensions between units. The First and Only has been reborn several times now, with the most recent event still fresh in the memories of its troopers and the book does a good job of balancing this out against greater threats. While it does prove to be combat heavy even by Gaunt's Ghosts standards, it nevertheless still has the quiet moments of character drama people value most. These serve to divide up the combat, but also to keep people guessing when it comes to certain new revelations. A mystery surrounding Gaunt's son in particular runs throughout the first act, and as one ends another quickly starts up. The book doesn't string you along with these plots, nor does it deny you answers. It just makes sure that there is enough character drama and questions to keep you hooked. That and very concerned when the Ghosts are put on the firing line. 

Right from the outset, the book puts its heroes in a number of extremely desperate fights, from close range engagements to a sniper duel while they are running low on ammo. It repeatedly hammers home just how dangerous and utterly hellish a Guardsman's life is, even for hardened veterans like the Ghosts, and many of the problems which come with it. Both from within and without, the regiment struggles to hold itself together, beset on one side by a relentless enemy and confronted on the other by both rival officers and conflicts borne of their strange merged status. While there are clear divides and periods of peace throughout the book, it nevertheless manages to make sure that no single scene serves as conscious "downtime" to another. The aforementioned sniper scene runs concurrently to a major revelation surrounding Gaunt himself, and is then followed by a similar act with a major character. This gives the book a constant pace, preventing it dragging at any moment, and combined with its treatment of sub-plots as events which can arise or stop at any moment, it gives the book a sense of real life.

The use of acronyms in Warmaster is far more pronounced than those of previous books, which have started to notably downplay a few of the more aged qualities to the universe. While the series itself has always seen an odd relationship with this quality, to the point where it juggles between various eras at a time, here it is obviously fixed upon a blend of Napoleonic and 1940s societal aspects. These are deftly handled at various points, and Abnett makes the time to delve into the problems with a few particular ones. The issues of nobility fighting one another and how that might impact its recruits proves to be a surprisingly pronounced and well written moment for the book. Equally, the shadowy actions of Gaunt's superiors could have been written off as a cartoonish moment of self-interest when they come into play later on. Instead, the book makes it very clear just why they are following through with their actions, and how the years have reshaped them.

Even when the book does opt to focus upon territories which have been trodden many times before, there's always a new spin to them. This is especially evident when it comes to the subject of the Inquisition and possible corruption. The Ghosts have been questioned about such matters from Ghostmaker onward, and yet the use of the divine KGB of the Imperium is an interesting take to be sure. There's different methods of censorship on display, different figures and different methods behind the faces, making sure you can never be wholly reliant upon past experiences. The same is even true of the command staff up to Warmaster Maccaroth himself, who have a few notably different takes made on them than you might expect. It might take you some time to even fully realise just why the book has been named after a character who is barely in it, but the reasoning quickly becomes evident as you progress through the chapters.

The Bad

The bad here largely stems more from the awkward nature of the book's placement over anything else. While Abnett certainly handled an awkward situation extremely well, there is no denying that a few key plot elements stand out like a sore thumb, and are abruptly disposed of with little ceremony. The trio of space marines who were accompanying them to Salvation's Reach are hit hard by this factor. While they certainly make an impression, and you are reminded of the rift between humanity and its enhanced angels of death, they serve as a walking plot device here. They show up, deal with a few situations, wait around in the background for a while, and then promptly vanish partway through a chapter. There is a goodbye, but it's fairly clear the author wanted them out of the way at the earliest opportunity.

The problem of trying to weld both older narrative arcs and a new beginning divides the book into three clear-cut sections. While this isn't a problem in of itself, you can also separate these out into mini-stories with a few loose links connecting them together. The series has done this before, but it often worked best when it came to the early tales or brief side stories. For a main book it is oddly distracting, as you can almost immediately see the immersion breaking intent behind how it was structured to serve the series as a whole. This hurts it primarily because a few particular sub-plots seem rushed in order to fit them into certain events, while one or two deaths are so quickly breezed over that it lacks the expected punch the series is known for. It doesn't necessarily make the book weaker as a whole, but it does limit the potential behind certain ideas.

In addition to the above points, the story also seems to have problems fitting in so many characters now. It re-introduces many, reminds the audience of their role and jumps between them, but some can arise for just one or two chapters only to fade away again. These aren't minor figures either, these are a few major players who have been here since the initial trilogy. As a result, it's difficult to get to grips with what archetypical role each figure is playing within the narrative or how they will be important to the overall tale. This might sound like a strange criticism, but it's as if the book is desperately trying to find something of importance for each of them to do, rather than fitting it naturally into the narrative as a whole. As a result of this, certain stories can come across with an uneven feeling, and it contributes to a rather abrupt end to the novel.
The Verdict

You have to credit Abnett at least this much with his works - Upon returning to an old favourite he proved once again he was unafraid of change. While he could have easily relied more upon past victories or re-establishing old ideas, he very effectively managed to balance the role of a re-introduction to the series with a new status quo and major changes. As a result, it's a book which relies upon prior familiarity with the series, but almost anyone who has kept up to date with the last trilogy can quickly get to grips with it. More importantly though, rather than feeling like some throwback to a past saga, the conclusion makes it clear that there is a much bigger tale yet to be told with Gaunt. How this will impact the Ghosts or the war in general we will only find out at a later date, but it makes one thing very clear: Gaunt's Ghosts is back, and it's as great as ever.


The Verdict: 8.0 out of 10

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Hello Neighbor (Video Game Review)


Welcome to Rear Window if it were a Terry Pratchett story. Hello Neighbour really is more or less that. You play as someone who peeks in on someone living in the house across from you and behaving very strangely, seemingly hiding something in his basement. Your job is to sneak inside and find out what it is, as the building becomes more surreal with every step.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Was Star Wars: Battlefront Ever Really THAT Good?


So, we are soon to have the first truly major update to Star Wars: Battlefront II. While the game continues to simultaneously serve as an extra foot to shove in Electronic Arts' mouth and a spade to dig themselves deeper, many have compared it unfavorably with the originals. This is hardly an unfair comparison, the Battlefront duology was the single best selling Star Wars video game series of all time, after all. 

Yet, while EA's recent gateway drug to online gambling remains a lightning rod for criticism, a few have begun to ask if the comparisons are fair. After all, the original Battlefront II might have lacked the pay to win elements, but it was a comparatively simpler game built upon mechanics from over a console generation ago. So, was it really that good?


The short answer: Yes.


The long answer: Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.


If you were to sit down and play Battlefront again today, you would likely notice just how simple it is. Even accounting for age, the game was mechanically streamlined to a ludicrous degree in many areas, even in comparison to games of the time. If you were to stop and compare it to the likes of Counter-Strike or even the main Battlefield series, this quickly became evident. 


While classes were available, they lacked the flexibility of those found in other games. You could not switch out weapons for alternatives, limiting you to a largely stock set of gear. This led to some being overly specialized, crippling their effectiveness on more than a few maps. No matter just how good of a shot you were, you didn't want to be a sniper during the corridor fights of Bespin or Tantive IV. Equally, you would be lucky to find a use for some skills. The likes of the Engineer's mines proved to be remarkably surprisingly ineffective outside of a few circumstances. While great in concept, the mechanics meant that AI Zerg rushes or a well-placed grenade could undo minutes of work in a second. This proved to be equally true of what should have been otherwise spectacular abilities, such as orbital bombardments.



The features of many maps were also surprisingly mixed, as it seemed the creators were never wholly sure how to deal with certain subjects. Both Bespin maps were little more than a series of singular choke-points which forced the two sides to smash against in a relentless fight, with little room to maneuver. This was even more notable with the platforms which was little more than a single corridor running from one command post to the next. While that map did attempt to vary things with the use of fighters, like numerous other levels, it quickly became clear that they were a superficial element to the battle. Flying up in an X-Wing to engage fighters often served little benefit to the overall battle, as you were earning far fewer points than on the ground, and lacked the large payload to inflict some serious damage.

While much of this could certainly still be put down to simply making it appeal to a broad audience, there were still a large number of mechanics people would deride today. The kind which, either overly simplified one-on-one engagements or streamlined certain abilities until there was no real skill to them. Easily one of the biggest problems was often how weapons - especially the soldier's rifle - utilised a lock-on system. This was effectively auto-aim leveled at the chest, limiting the ability to use accuracy to the player's advantage. This was to say nothing of how some weapons simply lacked any and all impact, suffering either from poor hit detection or DPS. Notably the shotgun in that regard.


While Battlefront II did improve upon many areas, it still left a fair number of flaws. The maps were vastly improved, but the new modes lacked complexity. The likes of the starship combat only featured a few basic targets to concentrate your efforts on, and each vessel featured almost identical internal layouts. Frigates served only to have the player lose points due to their low health while bombers typically outstripped fighters in all duties, even dogfighting other ships, due to their more powerful (if slower firing) guns. 


This was also to say nothing of the new problems it introduced, such as the upgrade system. While certainly conservative and lacking the extreme grind its successors would become known for, it created a number of instant-win weapons. Not literally of course, but the sheer jump in power was ridiculous. The award rifle, shotgun, and pistol, in particular, stood out thanks to the advantages they offered. The rifle transformed a largely inaccurate weapon which fired on full auto into a battle rifle with pinpoint precision. Combined with the lock-on feature it meant that you could rapidly chew through enemy soldiers in two bursts at the most. The shotgun could one-shot enemy soldiers at medium range, while the pistol was turned into a scoped weapon just as powerful and effective as the sniper weapon.



Perhaps most infamously though, the early Battlefront games was how overly straight-forward they were. They often lacked the sheer scale many would expect of a military game, or the benefits of a true battlefield map. You were often limited to the advantages and vehicle deployment positions of one or two command posts, with few ways to have the map develop as you fought around it. The actual flow of battle would often only progress in one or two directions, with the maps designed to funnel troops into one another. (note how the only game mode was effectively "capture the flag" with one or two exceptions. Even space battles offered little variety).

This, combined with the prior issues created a situation where the game featured an extremely low skill ceiling. The sort of one where it focused on spectacle and creating a sense of power over truly competitive gameplay. 


So, after all, that you are likely wondering what worked then. Did anything? Yes. Ironically enough, the exact flaws outlined in that last paragraph served as strengths of an entirely different kind.


As a Battlefield style game set in the Star Wars universe, the Battlefront series was a failure. Yet as an experience of playing as a soldier in that universe participating in those grand-scale battles, it was a remarkable success. You see, people judging it in retrospect tend to compare it with this:




In actuality, it offered something more along the lines of this:



Really, think about it for just a moment. You have a battlefield system which is streamlined to the point of simplicity, populated by dozens of AI units which are hardly a match for you. It emphasises the use of gradual power-ups earned through chain-kills and those even lead into heroes themselves. While it's hardly a one-to-one comparison, when you go into it with the mindset akin to a Warriors game, its strengths start to quickly become clear.

For one thing, you have the aforementioned low skill ceiling. The game's core mechanics were simplistic compared to those of similar titles, but that meant that players could easily get to grips with them. Within one or two missions you were chewing your way through enemy AI troops at a rate of knots, but that didn't mean that you were a master of it. If you were stuck facing down a talented enemy human player, there was still a good chance you were going to be beaten senseless. Yet, because there were so many AI units about, because there was so much going on, such deaths rarely felt cheap.

No matter the situation you could always walk away having made at least a few kills, or gain an edge playing in a manner they could not inherently counter. This meant that players rarely felt as if there was some massive skill barrier preventing them from playing, or throwing them to the lions for daring to take interest in the game. See Starcraft for that sort of thing. Even if you were dying over and over again, that did not take away any personal victories you attained while playing. Someone could be an expert marksman capable of earning headshot after headshot, but anything from a fluke or overwhelming force could still be used to bring them down. You could play the game for ten years, know how to make one headshot after the next and even make the best use of healing items, but that didn't mean that a misaimed grenade or tank couldn't kill you.

Yet, despite the above comments, skill did still truly matter in its own way. Well, at the very least experience did with many key classes. Even with all the bonuses of ranking up and the obvious differences in certain classes, no single one was wholly useless and you could often find an easy way to approach playing them. While I might have ragged on the Sniper a few times, players still found uses for them in holding certain choke points with auto-turrets or serving as an auxiliary unit. As such, a talented player could get by on their lonesome against the AI and rack up a sizable number of kills for themselves. However, because the system utilised so many hard counters, it meant that there was always incentive to team up with a multitude of other classes. Either other players, or just AI units for some additional cannon fodder.


What was more was that the levels always seemed to emphasise situations which could lead to massed kill streaks against the AI. The aforementioned early Bespin levels were among the most obvious and flawed in this regard, as they were little more than a direct funnel driving troops toward one another. Others, however, were able to do this much more skillfully, with the likes of Polis Massa, Theed, the Death Star, and Kamino displaying superior designs. Even the much more open environments such as Geonosis, Dagobah and Hoth still reflected this in one way or another, due to the careful positioning of command posts or interior sections. This was a simple but oddly subtle and surprisingly clever design element, as it was disguised by the nature of the maps. With enough explosions or big events, you wouldn't notice them for some time while you were caught up in the action, and there were usually enough visibly open areas to keep you distracted. On Geonosis, the presence of big tanks, a sky filled with explosions and multiple entrenched bunkers was enough to keep you busy. Even on Bespin's platforms, the air battles going on overhead and risk of being blown off the sides assisted in this regard.

However, the map designs served a dual purpose. By focusing the attention towards key areas and having a direct flow of battle along intended lines, it meant the losing side had plenty of opportunities to turn things around. Any advancing enemy would still need to move through a gauntlet of reinforcements, incoming fire, and ambush points to keep going, and even without this, there were always secondary routes which could be used for sneak attacks. One favoured method on Polis Massa was having a squad of troops charge across the thin atmosphere of the astroid's surface and into the opposing hanger to wreck havoc. Either to sabotage their tanks or, in some cases, take their command post while the enemy units were advancing ahead, so they could catch them in a crossfire.

Many major advantages to players were often still a double-edged sword in one way or another. Even if it seemed as if they might be able to single-handedly steamroll through the entire game without slowing down, there was always some inherent weakness or flaw to their build. This was especially evident with the games' various heroes. While the Battlefront games released under Electronic Arts became little more than a rush to reach the heroes, especially in II, they were not so much of a staggering advantage here. While unlocking Luke, Vader, Han or even some of the lesser-known figures gave the player a massive power-boost, they were not directly helpful outside of serving as a battering ram. They had no advantages in vehicles, and their lifespan was shortened to a timer which could be whittled away by enemy fire. Explosions could still floor them, and concentrated efforts could still take them out easily. As such, they were useful for blunting an enemy assault or even clearing a command post, but they were not game-winners on their own.

The same was true of the vehicles for all their variants. Levels like Mos Eisley or Yavin IV featured one side with a noted advantage in terms of enemy armour, yet they could still be exposed to attacks without escorts or coordinated efforts. Even if a player was a veteran at picking out targets at range, an Engineer could still sneak up on them and prize the surprised driver out of his machine. Then usually give him a shotgun blast to the face before highjacking his machine.


In each of these examples, the game featured a diverse set of vehicles, heroes and classes to choose from. Yet, because of their streamlined nature, you could pick up on their role in seconds. While they certainly lacked the ability to tailor and alter their load outs, or even the capacity to swap weapons, you could switch between them and know exactly what you were getting. Even if you had never played an anti-vehicle class before, the presence of the rocket launcher and bonus items meant that you could pick up on its role and how best to use it in moments. Vehicles featured anything from bikes to interceptors, but because they had a layout intended for controllers and the same basic interface, you were less likely to make errors than in a Battlefield game or die due to unfamiliarity.

The same strength was evident through the games - They were easy to access yet still had room for mastery. This seemed to be part of the overall concept behind Battlefront, with the game almost perfecting the pick-up-and-play advantage consoles used to benefit from. It carefully balanced some of the more complex themes, mechanics and ideas people loved about other games, but made them simple and straightforward enough for anyone to get to grips with them. Then made them explosive and engaging enough so that they featured short but satisfying bursts of action. Most Battlefront levels could be over in just a few minutes. Yet, because they were designed so that the player could always be at the centre of the action and had so many additional ways to keep you on your toes, that never seemed to matter.

It also helped that many story elements or key maps featured unique bonuses to keep players entertained. Hostile NPCs who would fight both sides or death traps like the Rancor in Jabba's Palace were among the most infamous there. Bonus modes like droids vs gungans or scout troopers vs ewoks were also present, while the campaign proved to be remarkably engaging. While it did focus on many of the maps present in the multiplayer, it had enough spirit to keep things interesting. A narration by an unnamed 501st trooper covered the events of the Clone Wars to the Battle of Hoth, giving context and meaning to events. What's more, the levels themselves often featured unique qualities to them, such as different objectives, limited troop numbers, or entirely different foes than usual. This meant that, yes, when you played out Order 66 you faced down several dozen Jedi. Even without this, it led to wholly canon reasons and situation, such as the explanation as to why clones were phased out of service and what happened to the Seperadist holdouts.


Yet, more so than anything else, Battlefront II succeeded in giving the player a solid basis for their own stories while retaining a true Star Wars feel. It utilised locations, themes and ideas from the films, but it wasn't unwilling to offer the odd unique touch here and there. It allowed you to see previously unseen areas, get the feel for fighting across Naboo or the Death Star, but left events open enough for players to tell their own stories in them. Ultimately, overall, it won out because it was loyal to the qualities set down by the films and its themes in every way. From the thematics, to the setting, to the ability to offer a seemingly simple experience, but do it so exceptionally well that players would keep coming back to find its hidden qualities. That's why, even today, you will find people coming back to it time and time again, for persona entertainment or even creating new mods.


Monday, 11 December 2017

Star Wars: Battlefront II (Video Game Review)


Star Wars: Battlefront II is the rare example of a game which takes two steps forward, and then twelve backwards. And then stumbles over the edge of a cliff. There are tangible, very notable, efforts to bring back what made the classics memorable. Many key criticisms have been resolved with brilliant solutions, vastly improving the core gameplay, and with a true story mode this time. Unfortunately, EA’s greed got the better of it.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Video Game Review)


With The New Colossus, it’s clear that MachineGames stuck to the oldest of sequel tropes: More is better. If you have a winning idea, then doubling down on its best elements is usually a major step in the right direction. As a result, the latest Wolfenstein game strikes a similar tone to The New Order but manages to rise above it.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Rogue Trooper Redux (Video Game Review)


Based upon one of the three members of 2000 AD’s holy trinity of anti-heroes, Rogue Trooper Redux is a welcome re-release of a sadly often overlooked adaptation. Following (with some pragmatic edits) the story of the last genetically modified infantryman, Rogue, hunting down the general who betrayed his species, the tale works the best of modern and classic stories into itself.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Horus Heresy: Old Earth by Nick Kyme (Book Review)


Well, it's the best of the Horus Heresy Salamanders novels, for what it's worth. Yes, that is as backhanded a compliment as it is meant to sound.

For those not in the know, my views of the prior Salamanders works of this era have been dim, to say the least. Vulkan Lives was the literary equivalent of having my skin flayed, while Deathfire wanted to make me facepalm every other chapter. While they certainly were not the worst things ever reviewed on this website - even for Warhammer 40,000 - there's still no denying that they were not good. So, to its credit, Old Earth seems to be one last stab to have the trilogy go out on a high note. A few old criticisms seem to have been directly addressed here, both in terms of the storytelling and style of prose. It doesn't quite save the book, unfortunately, but it makes it the leanest and easiest to read of the lot.

Synopsis

Vulkan lives. A word which was once a cry of hope is now spoken often in earnest, and the giant of Nocturne once more walks the earth. Yet, he is troubled by certain matters. Images of prophecy and possible futures hound his every waking moment, and the mysterious forces which encouraged his return still seem to have another use for him. As his sons seek to reunite with their father, Vulkan must face down a threat from ages past, one he seemingly defeated long before the Emperor's arrival. His path will bring him before both the shattered remnants of the Isstvan survivors and the Golden Throne itself before his journey is completed. Yet, what awaits him at the end of his time throws much of what he believed true of his life into question...

The Good

Surprisingly a substantial part of Old Earth proves to be genuinely good from the outset. Unlike its previous two releases, the "teaser" offers elements few other stories can and concepts which other authors have largely ignored. While most have remained focused primarily upon humanity's civil war, the quick introduction of the Craftworld Eldar into this tale - including Eldrad himself - grabs the reader's attention. This is further enforced when Vulkan awakes, only to find himself almost as confused as the reader, facing down what seems to be the living embodiment of Mount Deathfire itself, as his sons begin their hunt for him.

The opening pages are quick, satisfying, and establishes many running themes with little issue. Furthermore, it avoids the stumbling point of using faith and mystery to simply excuse the absolute single most insane things the writer can think of, or having the heroes all but pulling victories quite literally out of their rears. Here, the vagueness is used to establish atmosphere and some of the issues in following prophecy. It sets the tone, builds atmosphere, and establishes a genuinely brilliant form of bluff which relies upon the reader overlooking certain predictions in favour of others. Rather than coming completely out of nowhere to the point of being nonsensical, the thematic qualities and ideas are established very early on.

Vulkan and the Salamanders also fare much better this time in comparison to previous outings. While Vulkan himself is still sadly surprisingly unremarkably and lacks the demigod aspects the Primarchs are supposedly famed for in certain areas, they do shine through in others. Moments of personal history, half-remembered discussions and how he is viewed among the legions assists in this regard. While he's less the unstoppable juggernaut or elite general they are sometimes depicted as there is an undeniable Herculean quality to his depiction.

Many minor descriptive elements retain a more poetic quality this time around. While fleeting and lacking focused detail, many are executed so brilliantly that your mind finishes the rest. Building up where they left off or forming an almost exact visual of how the scene plays out despite how seemingly sparse it is on the page itself. It's a rare quality to get right, and a few of the repetitive or awkwardly phrased moments have been thankfully worked out of the book, meaning there are very few moments which can take you of its atmosphere. In fact, it's one of the few books where, in key scenes, there is a genuine cinematic quality to how it phrases and presents dramatic scenes.

The balance between various storylines is very clear cut and much more streamlined this time. While each book in the trilogy dabbled with the subject of various ongoing storylines, they were often either muddled by inconsistencies or suffered from extremely abrupt ends. Many even suffered from a notable issue where, at times, you questioned why they were even present rather than ending partway through the tale. This isn't the case here. The two major stories of the book focusing upon Vulkan and Shadrak Meduson are both fairly well told and compliment one another extremely well. You can see a few comparisons between the two roles, with each following a path with the remnants of their legion and seeking to unite those left. Yet, while Vulkan's story is one of myth, hidden duties and intentions, Meduson's is one of political drama, intrigue and attempting to find a purpose again.

Kyme mentions in the afterward that the Meduson plot was once considered for its own book and it's clear why that might have been the case. While the character's own arc has been notably uneven throughout the series, there was some noted substance to his efforts. He was an interesting contrast to his legion due to his Terran birth, and with the Iron Hands having fragmented into guerrilla fighting units, attempting to reunite them was a subject worth exploring. With so many clashing personalities, ideas and figures, having one person trying to turn them back into a full legion was a tale worth telling, and what we get here is definitely well told. Up to one moment, but we will get to that.

The fight scenes featured in Old Earth are odd in a few ways. They lack the more bombastic nature of other major tales or even the rapid-fire descriptive punches of two armies clashing in a constant flow of war. Instead, they treat many events almost as duels no matter their scale. You can compare Vulkan engaging a certain Dark Eldar character with Meduson leading a fleet of warships into battle. There's a consistency in how easily the narrative flows through certain actions, easily expressing large-scale or complex maneuvers through a few key sentences. While this was previously a quite infuriating factor in past works, it genuinely benefits the story here.

In fact, Old Earth was going so well that it looked as if it might redeem the entire trilogy...

The Bad

... Right up until a "reveal" happens with the Iron Hands. You can see the exact point where a flawed if solid concept and a few balanced ideas wobbled, then fell completely to bits. While it would be wrong to reveal the exact moment where everything went wrong, it's one of those moments which is so over the top and exaggerated you cannot take it seriously. The sort of bit which even a superhero comic embracing its intentional zaniness would never attempt to play for drama or even effectiveness, because it's so downright stupid. Worse still, it heralds the return of a few key problems which has plagued both the Horus Heresy and some of Kyme's works alike: Ending the story, and violently screwing over the Iron Hands with an industrial drill.

The Heresy itself was supposed to be a beginning. It was a tragedy where a bright hope was abruptly snuffed out and things started to go horribly wrong. While many traitors would be pushed somewhat down their path toward corruption, it was only the beginning of a ten thousand year journey into becoming what is featured in the game today. The same is equally true of many loyal legions, where their personalities, cultures or even dominating ideals changed over time. To give one of the better examples, you could sit down and compare the Space Wolves of M31 and M41 and find a few notable differences. They retain a number of broad key characteristics, but you can still see distinct alterations which have developed over time. Unfortunately, they are often the exception.

More than a few authors keep treating the Heresy books as the entirety of their turn rather than the beginning. Fulgrim was especially guilty of this, where the Emperor's Children were effectively converted into their modern-day selves by the end. Equally, the Sons of Horus are all too often a mere step away from being the classic Black Legion, and the Raven Guard works effectively set them up for their current selves by that series' end. The result is that you have a radical series of changes over three years, but for it to then suddenly stop and nothing to change for the next 9,997 years. 

Just when Old Earth seems to be avoiding this, it slams this home with full force, to the point where the entire legion might as well have had its switch flipped from good to evil in the space of a page. By the time the book closes out, they have suddenly become exaggerated caricatures of themselves, so over the top that they would be laughed off of a Flash Gordon set. Why? Because someone slapped together a badly scrawled "redemption" arc in Codex: Clan Raukaan, and the reader needs to be reminded that the legion NEVER did anything right until that book's "hero" came along.

While this might sound bitter over the actual fall itself, the tragedy of it would have been fine. The legion turning in upon itself, even how Meduson's story ends, could have been executed brilliantly thanks to infighting or the need to focus upon the greater good. The problem is, the book hammers home how cartoonishly evil the Iron Fathers have become within the space of months following their primarch's death that it's impossible to believe. It's one of these moments where the writer needed to get from A to B, but decided to just burn his way through everything in its path, sense or good storytelling be damned. Imagine if, for a moment, A Thousand Sons went from Ahriman being his usual self to a cackling daemon summoning Tzeentch worshipper in the space of a chapter. Then multiply it for an entire legion and you might start to understand just how badly this is botched here.

The moment this comes into play, similar effects begin to show throughout the rest of the book. While they are not nearly so egregious, you can see the old habits falling back into place. Vulkan's story is suddenly catapulted forwards in a few specific scenes purely because the book requires it, in moments which arise from nowhere. The story's later phases do not so much as shift and evolve as they do lurch about. When the story needs to speed things along, you can see exactly where stages were skipped in order to keep the tale moving and bring things to a close. This is sadly very obvious in the final few pages where Vulkan meets the Emperor. After so many minor scenes and a slow-burning start, the real drama of the finale was notably blitzed through at high speed, with the final revelation talk barely lasting a few lines if that.

Another definite problem which holds back Old Earth is how it repeatedly relies upon convenience to have many things line up together. While there's something to be said for simply accepting narrative requirements or breaks in reality for drama, you can only take things so far before the reader starts to question them. The use of the Webway to overcome more than a few obstacles in this regard - or how the distance between the Salamanders and a large number of pursuers seems to be nebulously defined to the point where they could be any distance apart - hurts the book at its worst moments. This is to say nothing of how a few key scenes also fall back on bad habits. Notably how one character seems to only appear because he was in the rest of the series, and a few other major figures are regulated to merely cameo roles after a strong start.

The story suffers from being incapable of reincorporating or using certain key events as needed as well. You shouldn't be too surprised when something brand new emerges a few times over, or a character undergoes a full personality transplant at at least one point, to excuse a plot twist. Because of these, the flaws might be fewer and less painful than previous parts, but it's hard not to just question why they were not dealt with in a first draft.

The Verdict

This was genuinely depressing to read. Not because it failed, but because for so long this looked as if it might finally be a success, and I would be given nicer things to say about Nick Kyme again. Despite all that has been said about this book and its preceding tales, Kyme is still a talented author. His works with the Ultramarines - or even moments where they show up in his other works - range from entertaining to downright brilliant. When he wants to write horror, specifically of the exaggerated Hammer or surrealist variety, he's one of the three authors I would personally trust to do it right in this setting. Furthermore, he's also one of the best writers for audio dramas. It's simply that, with this mini-series within the larger Heresy saga, he seems to stick to elements he's not good at or simply bad ideas.

Old Earth starts well, keeps going relatively decently, and then starts to gradually fall apart as it goes along. There are still good moments which emerge throughout the latter two-thirds of the book, from moments of descriptive genius to a few genuinely great moments of drama. The issue is that you're left trying to force your way through contrivances, abrupt twists and moments which break any and all suspension of disbelief. If you were one of those who genuinely enjoyed Deathfire and didn't facepalm at every dramatic moment, you will likely enjoy it. If not, just buy something else from this range and wait until the Siege of Terra starts.

Verdict: 3.7 out of 10

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Horus Heresy: Ruinstorm by David Annandale (Book Review)


Ruinstorm could be considered many things. It's an attempt to tie up the Imperium Secundus plot for good, a major push toward Terra, and complete the final acts in the Heresy for several major characters. Atop of this, it was treated as if it were a second stab at both Battle for the Abyss and Fear to Tread, two of the lesser regarded novels of the series in the eyes of many. It also ties into Damnation of Pythos, the characters from Angel Exterminatus, and a stab is made to resolve several dangling plot threads. There was a lot riding on this one, many eggs in one proverbial basket. So, with that in mind, this was a story which had to juggle many elements all at once, while still also remaining its own creation.

From that you're probably predicting that the story buckles under its own weight, and fails entirely. Well, no. Not exactly. While some would be quick to write it off due to Annandale's involvement (and you know who you are) and it is notably overstuffed, it's far from bad. In fact, in many regards, it succeeds where several prior tales failed.

So, let's get down to the core details then.

Synopsis

The trio of demigods leading the Imperium Secundus have come to realise the error of their ways. Terra still stands, and with this news Guilliman has made his decision to risk everything in order to support their father. Amassing a gigantic armada of their remaining vessels, they seek to brave the Ruinstorm which has seemingly cut them off from the rest of the galaxy. Yet, nothing is ever simple when it comes to the forces of Chaos. Even as the traitors find themselves beset on all sides by mortal and daemonic foes alike seeking to bar their passage, other plans are at work. Something hungers to claim the primarchs and turn them to the Ruinous Powers' service, and the renegade Konrad Curze still has a part to play in this saga...

The Good

If you were ever to stop and look at David Annandale's interests, you'll notice three major reccuring factors. He's a fan of most classic horror genres, from the Hammer era through to the slasher films of the 80s. He loves big, bold events and explosive pieces with weight to them. Plus, he has a love of the kaiju genre, with the likes of Godzilla and co. Why does this matter? Because he tends to be at this best when two or more of these elements cross over, allowing him to sink his teeth into something familiar, and pull off stunts most authors would struggle with. It's akin to how Ben Counter's tales can verge upon being outright camp at points, but still have enough earnest intent and substance to pull through.

Ruinstorm, in particular, fits Annandale's skills exceptionally well because of these factors. It's a titanic Chaos storm which has been raging for months about the galaxy, warping all about it. This leaves room for horror stories of haunted ships, dead worlds discarded by their Dark Gods, places so twisted that they push the boundaries of what can be believed. While this isn't apparent at first, the opening stages of the book lull you into a false sense of security, offering up some of the more mundane and tangible threats you would expect of Chaos. Just when you think that this might be sticking purely to the tabletop models, the narrative starts throwing threats the Legions' way which are pure Chaos. Less the discount Lovecraft you might expect and more sort of undefined monstrosity Bronze Age Comics were noted for. It's insane and exaggerated, but they are presented so well and on such a scale that it is difficult not to become hooked as a result.

The story also moves at a brisk pace and delves back and forth between certain locations. It visits multiple planets, faces varying threats and even bumps into some surprising foes no one fully expected to appear. As soon as it seems to finish up with one problem, another almost immediately emerges. This creates a sense of relentless havoc and pressing danger which perfectly fits a journey on this scale, and emphasises the true power of Chaos. When a God or something capable of twisting reality itself to its will decides to make you its plaything, you're hardly going to overcome it without suffering some serious scars as a result. Even if you are among the best soldiers the galaxy has ever known, you're still going to be cannon fodder before some of their best servants. By adding in these elements and juggling between more substantial offerings, it avoids at least a few of the more disliked elements found in Battle for the Abyss. Furthermore, it grants more substantial moments for character building.

The story does repeatedly emphasise a massive scale and weight to the beings involved. However, before it becomes truly unmanageable, the story is always scaled back. There's always some excuse to narrow down the focus naturally or concentrate upon one or two figures, while cutting back and forth between the larger military effort and an individual duel or act. This especially benefits the Lion early on due to his personal secrecy and Sanguinius for the bulk of the story. Both of who have enough insight, impact and commentary to prevent some of the immense nature of what is going on from completely overwhelming the narrative. Guilliman himself also has a few decent moments, and the story does a good job of presenting flaws within the characters without letting them overwhelm all else. Rather than the laser pointer focus upon Angron's failings which made many fans regard the World Eaters as "the joke legion" (and no, I'm not going to let that drop anytime soon) it brings them up, but offsets them against obvious moments of competence. Even when a character is performing an act which is seemingly stupid, the drama or even subject of fate itself is used to almost excuse it. There's a certain internal logic to the overall setting which carries them through. That might sound odd, but it's the same sort of one which allows people to accept elite special forces to exist alongside knights errant and space elves.

When the narrative does make call-backs to previous books, they are extremely deftly handled. This creates a sense of tangible continuity with prior events, and while many are obvious there is a number which prove to be subtle. At least subtle enough to be lost in the moment of the action itself. Take this one scene for example, where the Ultramarines opt to get some revenge on the Word Bearers via a captured vessel:

"In the midst of the Word Bearers formation, the Annunciation turned against the flow of the retreat. It accelerated as if it sought to escape from the cluster of ships. It had ceased to respond to hails shortly before the arrival of the Ultramarines fleet. The Cavascor­ pulled away from it, and the Annunciation drove straight for the Orfeo’s Lament. The light cruiser was still turning when the larger ship closed in on it. It abandoned its manoeuvre and tried to accelerate on a tangent. The Annunciation struck it just forwards of the stern. It broke the Lament in half. It barrelled through the hull in a storm of explosions. Statuary from both ships, colossal embodiments of metaphor and the lessons of the dark, flew off from the collision in a swarm of tumbling fragments. The Orfeo’s Lament howled its last, and the plasma cry swept over the Annunciation. The strike cruiser’s bow was a ruin after the collision, twisted and fused. Tremors swept the hull, damage feeding damage until the ship was a bomb awaiting the signal for detonation. The signal came from the Cavascor, when Hierax remotely triggered melta charges he and his Destroyers had left behind. The raging holocaust grasped at the retreating squadron, scraping the void shields, striking at the vessels with a foretaste of the XIII Legion’s anger.”


Explosive, awesome and utterly over the top, isn't it. Well, in admiring that, you might have missed one thing: This is karmic retribution. It's the Ultramarines performing the exact same action as the opening strike against Calth, the one used to kill hundreds of thousands in the opening attack and destroy much of their fleet. The way it is presented and added in does grant some value to re-reading the work, and that might even be true of later stories as well.

Finally, and most pressingly, Sanguinius is probably one of the story's strongest points. While James Swallow is the best-known Blood Angels author - and I will personally defend all but one book from his series as being entertainingly crafted - people have noted that he tends to focus upon a few key elements above all others. In particular, their Curse went from a notable pillar of their character to overwhelming all else, hardly helped by an atrocious codex which enhanced this mistake tenfold. So, when it came to writing about the Heresy, rather than getting insight into the legion as it was, the same focus yet again was purely on the Black Rage and Red Thirst. Annandale does acknowledge it here, but he isn't beholden to it. Instead, his commentary upon Sangiuinus reflects more of the upstanding qualities of the character and a surprising level of both pessimism and optimism. Much of it ties into choice, fate and the actions made in the time characters have, along with a few definite links to the future. It's a more engaging take on him than what we have previously seen outside of Pharos, and it's enough to make me personally hope Annandale gets another shot at writing him before this is all over.

Yet, while there is a lot of good there's also a great deal of bad, unfortunately. Often, this tends to go hand in hand with its best qualities.

The Bad

What will certainly rob many people the wrong way to star with is Annandale's prose. While personally, I have grown to like it, his short and choppy sentences can be grating outside of some of the faster-paced action scenes. Equally, as charming as it is in adding a level of detail writers often ignore, there's no denying that his stories can delve into purple prose at times. This often works well when it comes to Chaos itself, or even the more pseudo-ancient qualities of the Imperial forces, but in others it can be unnecessary. It creates a sense of the work being overengineered, and it's easy to see a new reader finding it off-putting. Even the best of authors have this happen at times, after all, just look at Prospero Burns.

Another definite issue with the core narrative is how certain elements tend to loop themselves or even add in utterly superfluous elements to them. This is especially evident with Konrad Curze partway through the story, as his conversations with the Lion seem to exist largely to fill time and drive a wedge between the Lion and Sangiunius. Even his eventual fate, while poetically told and with a few nice touches, nevertheless still suffers from a few logical holes which holds it back. This is true of many scenes intended to drive a few major players onward, as they work thematically and have a fantastic atmosphere, but occasionally certain necessary ones will push that suspension of disbelief a bit too far.

In fact, the book tends to be at its worst primarily when details tend to get a bit out of Annandale's own hands. The sheer scale of what he presents and many of the fantastical elements can push things to the very brink of people questioning them or taking them out of the story. Yet, there are a few key moments when he underplays equally massive events or skims over them, making them seem irritatingly small in the grand scheme of things. This is true of supposedly one of the greatest single naval actions of Imperial history. When there is atmosphere, detail, and weight to the events they work extremely well. When it's too overstuffed, rushed or even lacking in a few key elements, the immensity works against it until its simply destructive "noise" overwhelming the narrative.

It has to also be said that a number of notable characters simply lacked any serious impact upon the tale. The Iron Hands in particular retain a number of key scenes to help give them some meaning - and even one of the few scenes to actually get their "flesh is weak" mentality right in recent years - but they tend to be lost in the story. With so much going on, it's easy to quickly lose track of them, and a few notable deaths seem too much like C-list fodder as a result. This might have been fine if it ended there, but others suffer as well. Several major Blood Angels players, particularly Amit, feel as if they are so far into the background that they might as well not be there. While this could be understandable due to the strong focus upon the relationship between the primarchs - a major plus of the book - it's neverthelss quite disappointing to see.

Even if you can get used to the above points, what works against the story the most is how it lacks a definitive ending and beginning. If you attempt to go right from the very end of Angels of Caliban to this, there's a distinct jump from one to the next. While the story might serve to tie up the Imperium Secundus plot, very little is actually done within the Imperium Secundus itself. When you start reading, the attempts to escape are already underway, and the book simply skims over the dismantling or nitty gritty of their mass exodus from Guilliman's personal empire. More than a few other readers have questioned if there was supposed to be another four chapters at the start, or even a full novella, to get around this. Without them, the tale suffers from a notably awkward start to series familiars.

Then we have the conclusion, which is definitely rushed. It's not bad,and the epilogue itself is certainly very satisfying for all involved. It justifies why the other primarchs cannot make it to Terra in time, does away with Curze and even offers a new spin on Sanguinius' fate. With that said though, so much of the previous chapters emphasised action that it seems more like a concession over an essential story element. If it had included more of what was seen in the epilogue then this would be a far better tale, but without it the character-driven edge is unfortunately just that bit too blunt for it to stand among the greats.

The Verdict

This is certainly going to be a very divisive book among fans. There's no denying its strengths, but the shortcomings certainly make it very flawed indeed. It seems as if for every major step forward the story makes, it falls short in another area. Not so spectacularly it is unreadable by any means, but simply to the point where it can be seen as quite disappointing. Even with that said however, Ruinstorm is still a tale worth reading for Horus Heresy fans. It offers up plenty of good moments and, even with its own problems, corrects a few old issues or proves certain story concepts right. Some great moments will definitely stick in your head - especially one particularly mind-bending daemonic fortress - but the overall tale won't hit as hard as other works. Overall, most will likely read this once, feel satisfied, and then move onto the next book.

Verdict: 5.2 out of 10