Friday, 18 May 2018

Octarius War's End & Other Xenos Threats

We are stopping here for a moment before moving onto the next point in the Codex: Deathwatch review for several reasons. The big one is to offer a little more time to better judge some of the rules alterations for the main units, but also to address several major points in the codex timeline. Some of these hint at a few substantial alterations from past books, while one big one heralds perhaps the single worst thing which might happen short of Terra falling: The Octarius War ending.

"Time Runs Out...

Vermillion-level alerts reach the Doombreak, Eye of Octos and Furor Shield watch fortresses as the unthinkable happens. Triggered by empyric shock waves from the opening of the Great Rift, swarms of enormous Tyranids and hordes of hulking Skarboyz break away from the Octarius War to attack neighboring systems. The Watch Masters of all three fortresses request urgent reinforcements from the wider Imperium, before surging into battle."

The Octarius War itself was always a gamble, using the sheer numbers of Orks to try and stave off a major Tyranid Hive Fleet without further damage to the Imperium as a whole. Chapters would occasionally cull splinter factions to keep them focused on one another, and even the Craftworld Eldar got involved to try and thin their numbers. The problem is that, what was intended to possibly buy time quickly turned into a steadily growing powder keg.

The Orks did not fall, and neither did the Tyranid Fleets here. Instead, each began fighting back against the other, growing steadily stronger with each passing battle and calling in further reinforcements. The Orks would grow tougher, looting everything in sight and becoming more powerful both due to the concentrated WAAAGH! energy and warfare. The Tyranids, meanwhile, would in turn create more and more dangerous bioforms in an attempt to overcome the greenskins. What made it such a fascinating battle was the fact this was effectively one side's perfect experiment and the other's Valhalla. The Orks were given no reason to ever stop as this was paradise to them, fighting against a strong foe who only grew stronger as they did, and that only became more notably when Ghazghkull decided to take matters into his own hands.

So, keep in mind that this war has been raging in this state for over a century now, so each side is the stuff of nightmares. A Tyranid and Ork horde on steroids, embracing the strengths of each and enhancing them to the next level. We have seen time and time again just what the unenhanced versions can do, so after so many decades of being forged in the fires of warfare, they will likely give the Primaris marines a run for their money. Assuming, of course, that they do not eclipse them in power. There are opportunities here both for new releases and a full campaign, and it would not be a surprise to see both in play. With Chaos having taken the spotlight or so long, save for a brief moment of favouring the Eldar race, players of other factions have felt overlooked. This would be a perfect chance to correct that with two of the more out-of-focus groups within the setting.

Yet, what is more interesting still is that the book takes the time to offer far more time to relatively minor powers. Xenos races which are typically overlooked or ignored in the grander scheme of things have been mentioned here. While this might be expected given the Deathwatch's intended enemy, but it's taken much further than you would normally expect. For one thing, those mentioned here are either minor parts of larger armies or even groups we have not seen since the Second Edition. Just take a look at this one for starters:

"An Ur-Ghul migration spills from the thrice-cursed ziggurats of Shaa-dom. It goes into the nightmarish Shardmaze, and from there to the Mirrored Palace of Plenitia. When the gangling predators prove strong enough to tear apart the Kill Team that hunts them, the Dreadnought Xenomortis is sent to reinforce its battle-brothers. Months later, the war machine storms from the ruins of the now-empty Mirrored Palace, every inch of its hull covered in Ur-Ghul blood."

The Ur-Ghuls are a species fielded by the Dark Eldar, and were typically depicted as a near-feral race kept as slaves. To see them actively migrating and moving out of the Webway makes them more of an immediate threat, and does leave a few possible story details to work within the future. It's not much, but you end up with questions of how the Archons keep them under control, or how one might sabotage such an instinct for their own benefit.

More interestingly still, the codex places a much greater emphasis on invasions from the likes of the Kroot into Imperial territories, along with Hrud migrations and Ambull infestations which need to be kept in check. This benefits each of them by shedding more of a spotlight on their actions, but also making them more of an active player in events. The Kroot, for example, have typically been depicted as more of an allied race to the T'au Empire rather than a truly integrated member. As such, seeing them act out on their own allows for them to have the impression of being more than mere hired thugs. 

The Hrud meanwhile, have typically been presented as a powerful force which never acted fully in the open, but this was often in supplementary materials. The closest we have seen to them participating in a true battle was against the Star Phantoms, when the astartes homeworld was caught in the wake of a migration and devastated. Given the state of the galaxy, it makes sense that they would now be acting more openly, with the Imperium weakened and often distracted fighting against the Traitor Legions. It is an opportunity to take control of further worlds to create dens. In fact, that goes for much of this. Past events from Old Night to the Horus Heresy depicted alien races as being ever ready to expand their powers. Several were even noted to have established small empires within the Imperium's heartland during the Collected Visions, while the Siege of Terra was taking place. By establishing this, it means that there are more obvious opportunities to break the usual Imperium vs Chaos status quo and explore to new events.

This is mostly highlighting a few interesting points from the latest codex more than anything else, but after the last review, they seemed worthy of being individually highlighted. Whatever the case, it certainly seems as if interesting times are ahead for players.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Codex: Deathwatch Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 8th Edition Review)

The Deathwatch are, ultimately, an unnecessary army. I understand the appeal of them, much of their lore is well written, and they do have an essential place in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Yet, as an army, they seem at odds with their usual role. The entire point of the chapter cobbled together from various other chapters was to establish small strike teams. Elite units which could best serve to covertly attack, kill or capture xenos targets deemed as essential threats. The sort which needed to be actively opposed, with an even greater emphasis on their annihilation than even those found in other forces. As such, to try and build a full army out of them seems at odds with this starting point.

That little intro was to make it clear where this review is coming from in terms of its lore. If it seems far more critical than the few who bother to examine the stories behind armies in their reviews (actually examine not just an "It's all good, now onto the rules!" handwave), this is why. The review isn't going to bring up Fantasy Flight Games for comparison, save for one moment, nor will it slam it for opposing some more generalized depictions. However, it is fighting an uphill battle to justify itself and some of these do need to be addressed. With that done, let's delve into the positives and negatives here.

The Good

One of the big uphill battles this Edition has faced has come in the form of time. Not only have the writers been forced to repeatedly deal with a tangled web of end-of-the-world situations, but to keep things moving as well. So, just as it sorts out one major faction-destroying problem, it needs to add in a hook to bring you back. This is without even getting into things like more general bits and pieces like establishing how the army itself reacts to a setting which is in flux. However, Codex: Deathwatch might be the book where they have started to truly get a hand on all three at once.

The single greatest problem established at the end of the last codex was a growing shortage of recruits. Even as they attempted to put out calls for more marines to bolster their numbers, many were being recalled to assist with the increasingly overburdened chapters of the Imperium. The book quickly deals with this in the most obvious way possible - the Primaris marines - but it uses the opportunity to do more than simply brush the point under the rug. The book introduces new factors which need to be dealt with thanks to this. 

Guilliman is the most obvious one, as he seems to have taken a special interest in them and understands their importance to the Imperium, perhaps offsetting the influence of the Inquisition. The other is the Primaris marines themselves, as a large number have been given specifically to the Deathwatch. This means that the faction needs to contend with not only the issue of Mk. II astartes, but also that they have those of no distinct origin. Those who carry no past with them, no chapter cultures nor millennia-long traditions, and who only belong to the Deathwatch. Even the blackshields never offered this quality, as they had their own hidden agendas and histories. As such, it opens more than a few interesting points for future stories.

The importance of this fact is that it closes one door, and then opens several more. This sort of thing is essential to an ongoing setting with a timeline moving forward. Without it, you end up with a slapdash ongoing structure and stories which come out of nowhere. It's not definitive, not specifically binding it to a single ongoing story, but it pushes to have things evolve over time. It's a metaphorical rock thrown into a pool. It's now up to the fans and writers to see what ripples it creates in the setting.

So, what about the hook then? Well, this is going to be a major spoiler, but it's something many people will want to take notice of: Kryptman's Gamble has failed. Octarius War, that thing which pitted the orks and tyranids into a seemingly unending war against one another? It's started to break out of the cordon and groups have gone on the rampage:

"Time Runs Out...
Vermillion-level alerts reach the Doombreak, Eye of Octos and Furor Shield watch fortresses as the unthinkable happens. Triggered by empyric shock waves from the opening of the Great Rift, swarms of enormous Tyranids and hordes of hulking Skarboyz break away from the Octarin war to attack neighboring systems. The Watch Masters of all three fortresses request urgent reinforcements from the wider Imperium, before surging into battle."

Now that is a way to get the reader invested. It emerges right at the very end of the timeline listed and isn't the whole "THE UNIVERSE WILL DIE IF THIS FAILS!!!!" thing books used to favour. However, it is a harrowing thing to consider and it means that the Imperium is going to face some of the worst xenos threats possible in the next few years.

Speaking of the timeline as well, this is another good example of how to use this section of the codex. Many praises brought up in favour of the past few books resonate here, with larger text to fully explore the events themselves, and two pages for pre and post M42. Yet what proves to be interesting here isn't their quality - which is fantastic - but how they link together with the overall setting. In a previous Age of Sigmar review, we cited how certain books would only tell you so much, specifically contrasting the Daughters of Khaine and Deepkin works. Here, we don't quite have that. Instead, it has the book cite and tie up several concepts brought up elsewhere. They link up quite neatly, without resorting to an immense amount of detail, nor are they completely beholden to continuity.

These are small things like following up on the remnants of the massive Leviathan tendril which threatened Baal in the Blood Angels codex, to narrative threads which have run throughout several books. In one particular case, several brought up the growing interest the Dark Eldar have with the Imperium's genetically enhanced warriors. The Custodes were among these, but it was noted that a number of Primaris marines had gone missing. The book opts to follow up on this, citing one specific haemonculus who has taken a great interest in them, and that a Deathwatch team has been dispatched to stop them. It's a good battle and it creates a greater connection between books without being intrusive.

These moments are a few specific engagements which arise between wholly original ones, or even mini-narratives within the book itself. As such, it's enough to improve on a few ideas previous Editions dabbled with, while ensuring that most things remain coherent as the story keeps moving forward. Better yet though, it's never definitively expressed if what the reader sees is truly the finale. In just that last example, it's never said that these were all of the captive Primaris marines, just those taken in a certain skirmish. As such, it still leaves room for others to build on the subject or return to it if they consider it to be an interesting point.

Outside of a few key battles, the timeline also favours the use of the Deathwatch as a spec ops group over a full army. Their deployments often involve infiltration efforts, rescue missions and specific attacks to turn the tide of battle. For example, during a battle where the T'au attack a fortress world, the Deathwatch deploys two teams to inflict environmental damage on the surroundings. This causes the loss of several Stormsurges, turning the battle in the Imperium's favour, and the Deathwatch withdraw. It shows them being used as a precision instrument and the writing tries to offer them more than just "they show up, then kill everyone" as a story basis.

However, what I have noted is that the use of the timeline itself seems to have changed somewhat. Now, this is more of a personal theory, and there is a chance that I have missed something. With that said, the depiction of events in the timeline now follows a different style to some past outings. Previously, it often seemed to exist to give extra glory moments for the characters, victories for the armies, or to show off just what that army could do. There were exceptions, but this seemed to the core of it. Here, however, there's less of a focus placed on the battle itself and the units involved than the story behind it. How the armies got there, their objectives, the narrative arc they follow etc. Because of this, I am almost tempted to think that they serve as fodder for authors and fans alike. There are a multitude which could easily be adapted into short stories or full novels due to how they are described, with easily defined protagonists and goals. 

Equally, the sheer variety of them and the much greater varied number of environments, objectives and solutions seems fit for fan creations. It would be a good step forward, as it encourages fans to develop their own concepts and ideas without forcing it on them. At the same time, if these could be used as fodder for new stories - as a few previous ones were with the Space Marines Battles series - then it would be an easy method of having tales flesh out and keep up with the moving timeline.

The other sections of the book outside of this are, admittedly, somewhat mixed but there are good points among it. While we'll get into the negatives in a minute, the positives here are very notables and easy to pinpoint. The layout and depiction of the Blackstar is a big one here, which offers a semi-blueprint view of the gunship while also offering some more technically focused details in its blurb. Each one largely outlining its exact use in battles and essential contributions in engaging with missions. The same can be said of a few others, like the structure to a watch station's command hierachy and the brief listings of chapters. They help to give an impression of professionalism within the group, and their role less as crusaders than more typical wetworks troops of a sort. While it does mention the multitude of chapters which makes up their number, it only does it enough to make sure it's a key part. Not, as it could have easily been, defining various figures only by what heraldry they bare.

Finally, the codex does its best to address the point that many items are new to them now. The primaris marines and their wonderful toys are the big ones, of course, and the Repulsor tank highlights this. It cites its strengths, but also how Deathwatch captains are having to adapt to its use and innovate on certain older tactics. They're minor touches, but nice ones which helps to reflect on how the book is expanding on its points.

Unfortunately, there are a few very big problems which are still evident within its works.

The Bad

The big negative point which is immediately clear here is how many older flaws have been carried over into this new version. It retains the same basic structure and design of the past codex, listing unit by unit and leader by leader. In of itself, it's not too bad of a design choice, and it can work with such a segmented army as this. However, the actual prose and descriptions doesn't do them much justice. It's not badly written so much as lacking a lot of the bite needed to further cement the army's style, and to better reflect on the Deathwatch's unique status. Too much of it reflects on the crusader/Templar style of the space marines, and more than a few descriptions swing back to that style of writing. It robs the army of an opportunity to stand out on its own among the marines, and it's often frustratingly so.

A major highlight which better confirms the issue of treating them as a large army over a dedicated specialised force is evident on pages 16 and 17. These display the heraldry of the various watch fortresses, and the banners which signify victories, specialisations and accomplishments. The problem is that it's too close to what a chapter would have for companies, and not what you would expect the Imperium's anti-alien Inquisitorial force. If you don't see just why this is oddly out of place, then try to imagine MI5 having this sort of thing.

Worse still is how it handles a multitude of the new ideas. There's few points where the book actually stops and offers a few pages of solid lore as seen with previous positive reviews. The closest it truly get to this is the initial pages, but these are half-text and half images which are padded out. They do less to comment on the Deathwatch's overall situation than they do introduce them to new readers. That's an essential part of this, but without a more solid series of writings to build on what the book introduces, some of the changes feel skin-deep. It works to introduce them, certainly, but it never takes it the few steps further than that needed to really push things forward. This means that things like the Primaris recruits are commented on, and their presence is justified, but you get nothing more than these essential parts.

The style of writing on here is also notably bereft of internal details. With the Custodes we were given countless details on traditions, inner workings, and the structure of their organisation. There's nothing which even approaches that on here, and the overall depiction, as a result, is lacking in more than a few core details to really give the book some meat. The basics are present, but it keeps mentioning a multitude of key bits of information over utilising them to further give the reader something to truly work with when it comes to fleshing out their own versions. It's always a very basic outsider view more than anything else, giving enough to make it clear just why the Deathwatch are needed but perhaps not enough to ensure a potential player will remain invested in them.

In the points where the codex does start to offer a few more detailed elements, they're so bite-sized it's difficult to get invested in them. Mentions of a dreadnought which has lost its identity are conceptually interesting, but it only lists the essential components behind what could be an interesting story. It never combines them into something which could make it truly engaging. Others, meanwhile, tend to be always depicted in the midst of combat and focus on the violence over everything else. As such, it again doesn't offer much character to the book because of this and its short length.

Also, they still have leaders carrying Guardian Spears. That might sound a little petty, but one of the codex's problems stemmed from how it often favoured simpler and more direct variations of Fantasy Flight's lore. The big one it could not escape is the differences in how the Deathwatch was founded. One was a controlled response to the Imperium's xenocidal nature, and the other formed out of desperation during a conflict with the Ork WAAAGHs!. The issue is that the other group of writers seemed to have a better handle on the Deathwatch's role as a larger organisation, and the specifics of how it operated, while this is more of a general take on things. Even if you're not directly comparing the two, there's no denying that the RPG books had a better handle on the fine details of the chapter's operation.

The Artwork

This might well be some of the best stuff we have seen in a long time. The original Codex: Deathwatch featured some fantastic artwork and despite a few odd choices in places, there was no denying the work was spectacular for its larger pieces. This one takes that to the next level, offering a much more consistent aesthetic while also granting far more visuals of the enemies the Deathwatch fight. The massive combat sequence facing off against Craftworld Eldar in the opening pages is proof of this, and the newer Primaris pieces are often depicted in the style of an action film poster. It lacks the sketchier style of John Blanche's works to build on the gothic thematics, but it still works out extraordinarly well on the whole.

The Verdict

Codex: Deathwatch seems like an experiment in terms of its lore. It relies heavily on re-using the older skeleton of the previous armybook for much of its information or sticks closely to what was there before. When it does try to push beyond this or innovate on certain elements, it's highlighted only in areas cited above, and the majority of the works doesn't update itself fully to make use of this new era. As such, I can fully praise and welcome the alterations offered and a few of the very innovative ideas, but I do think more could have been done with the rest of the codex. When it's good its very good, and when it's bad it comes across as irritatingly miswritten for another army.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Rogue Trooper: The Quartz Massacre (Fan Film Review)

The last time we looked into one of these high production 2000AD fan films, I mentioned a personal holy trinity within its comic book settings. You have Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Rogue Trooper. With the former having benefitted from similar productions in the past, now it's Rogue's time in the spotlight. I don't think a more ambitious subject could have been picked. With Dredd it was more about showing his world through the eyes of the exiled Judge Minty, with Dredd only putting in a cameo. With Strontium Dog, it was a short series of gunfights against a terrorist group. Here? It's set in the middle of one of the series' single largest battlezones.

The Synopsis

The story takes place at the very start of the Rogue Trooper mythos. The Genetic Infantrymen are a superweapon built by the Souther armies to face off against the fascist Nort legions on Nu Earth. With humanity's home now long gone, Nu Earth is all they have left, and it has been ravaged by continual war, poisoned until the air itself is choked with pollutants. The GIs are immune to this, and their opening mission was to be a trial by fire. They were betrayed from within, by a nameless general, and faced a force which outnumbered their kind many times over. By the end, only Rogue will walk away from it alive. Yet he won't be alone, with biological chips recording the personalities of his squadmates Bagman, Gunnar and Helm implanted into his equipment.

The Good

There's a lot of baggage to get out of the way with Rogue Trooper, even more so than the others. While you can put some of it down to simply "he's a super soldier" other parts do need to be explained. As such, the film utilises an opening crawl to quickly bring the audience up to speed on the essential details. What I like about this is that it's brief, sticks to the bare essentials and does more than simply offer an opening crawl - using voice-overs and background footage to impart a greater sense of atmosphere. There's only so much that the film can show, after all, and it helps to convey a much greater sense of scale to the events.

Furthermore, the film opts to get right into the action, quickly cutting to the latest possible opportunity to offer an introduction to this event. Originally in the comic, the entire battle was shown in flashbacks, cutting from one moment to the next as Rogue's squadmates are gunned down, but there's simply not enough time to do that in this short length while allowing each to have an impact. As such, it instead cuts to the last of these, Helm, in his final moments with the others already dead. This initial act is used to get a multitude of essential points across in an extremely short amount of time, through Nort communications chatter, fleeting conversations and visual actions. Mere background things most people will miss, like a dropship which flies past as the Norts inspect Helm's drop pod are small elements but essential ones. Most people won't notice them on the first viewing, but they're enough to give the impression that this is more than just a few actors engaging in gun battles. Again it's the implication of larger events which works so well here.

The very subject of the bio-chips are dealt with neatly and clearly, without much fuss. Given that they are one of the much more unusual parts of the mythos, I could see writers on bigger budget productions spending far more time trying to explain and detail how they work. Instead, the film just shows the audience the basics, establishes their role in two lines, and then trusts the audience enough for them to keep pace. Better yet, they're used perfectly within the film, delivering much of the dialogue and showing how they can operate as a squad even when Rogue is the only one with an active body left. While it doesn't have time to show things like Bagman deploying micro-mines or working with computers, it does offer moments such as commenting on equipment status or making combat suggestions. More importantly Helm, who was all too often left with little to do in the comic's early years, has a more defined role here in locating and confirming the locations of inbound enemy troops.

The film frequently re-uses certain key shots to establish continuity and a better identity of the bio-chips themselves. It's done in the same manner that a film might repeatedly re-use certain shots to capture the faces of actors, and it's again a very nice visual touch. This is most evident with Gunnar's view when Rogue is using him to mow down waves of Norts, and it's so cleanly cut that you likely won't realise that the film is doing it until some way in.

Yet, for all this, the fighting was clearly meant to be the main focus of this work and it stands out extremely well. Above all else, Rogue Trooper was presented as an amalgamation of every historical war given laserguns, from Vietnam to the Second World War. This was effectively a commando raid which has gone horribly wrong, forcing those left to rely on their skills and superior builds to overwhelm greater numbers of opponents and heavy armour. Rogue here is constantly on the move, hunted and pursued by multiple Nort squads, and it's clear that he's only alive thanks to his enhanced reflexes and heightened skills. When he does kill them, it's often in the most direct and easiest way possible, constantly going for the metaphorical jugular and wasting no time with anything flashy. 

While the film holds back from having Rogue shrug off bullets or turning him into Neo, it does have him quickly gunning down opponents in controlled bursts. Thus thinning their numbers before drawing them into an area where they can best be defeated. This leads into the film using a faux single shot sequence which shows Rogue dismantling the Norts at close range through precision shots and then hand-to-hand engagements. The lack of perceived cuts makes the kills much more visceral as a result, and the few cuts made flow easily from one moment to the next. A personal favourite was how one blow landed against Rogue quickly transitioned into him drawing a knife.

Still, as with everything, there are a few flaws here. That and some pet peeves.

The Bad

This is going to vary from one person to the next, but certain cinematic choices here seemed at odds with the subject matter. The big one was the use of slow motion, which dominated much of the fights. While they did work at certain key moments, especially with a grenade, in others they seemed oddly gratuitous; detracting from the grittier edge and offering a more stylised take than what was usually seen in the comic. This wasn't helped by a few odd choices, such as Rogue's first appearance by having him leap onto the screen while firing in the air, followed by a dramatic reload. It's not that the sequences were badly done by any means, but they seemed at odds with Rogue Trooper's usual style.

Another definite issue was how the film doesn't quite carry the same visuals typically described of Nu Earth. Some changes can be accepted for the execution of a better film - such as the alterations made to the character designs - but Nu Earth itself is constantly described and seen as a choking wasteland. Coated in the worst kind of smog, filth and acidic rain, it is gaia's lament incarnate. The problem with this is that the setting looks too clean in many ways. The scenes are too well lit and lack the chemical tinge that made the world so visibly poisonous, and short of a few light misting effects there's little indication of the poisonous present in the setting.

Another noted issue is how the film abruptly ends. This was always intended to be an extremely short fan film, and there's nothing wrong with that. It would be wrong for this review to dock points for a lack of quieter or more character driven moments, when that was never the core focus. Yet it does feel as if there should have been more to this. The final shot of Rogue trooper leaping into combat as the war goes on certainly will work for some, but something more definite which reflected the Quartz Massacre's nature would have been more fitting. Perhaps even a brief shot of Rogue walking into the distance, confirming he was the only survivor, or even a brief closing shot to confirm that the GIs were wiped out. Without that, it seems to present the event as a battle that they will fight and likely win.

The Verdict

At best, the problems here are teething ones. Like the other fan productions mentioned in the opening, this is another very strong and excellently produced film showing a character at their best. It's the sort of thing you would offer to someone unfamiliar with the setting to get them interested in further works, or to fans who have been denied a Dredd level adaptation for so long. It's certainly the shortest of those covered, but it has a distinctive style and it's a great example of how a talented crew with the right vision can accomplish brilliant things. Definitely set a few minutes aside to watch this one.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Frostpunk (Video Game Review)

When you mention post-apocalyptic video games to most people, the likes of Fallout are what immediately comes to mind. RPGs with exploration, choices and mini-quests are plentiful in this regard, as is the survival genre it often ends up paired up with. Frostpunk seeks to take a new spin on things with a city-building and attempting to establish a new society in a world which is freezing over.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Cyberpunk: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth

Cyberpunk is a typically problematic genre in that it is both inherently singularly defined and yet still oddly nebulous. The same core tropes can be seen time and time again, from the dystopian environments to the themes to technology's renaissance having turned into a dark age, but for a smaller sub-genre of science fiction, it has proven to be oddly malleable. This isn't to say that most sub-genres typically have a single "proper" take to fit in with a constraining list of requirements to fit a definition. However, few can be reworked, revamped and completely remade so easily as cyberpunk, to fit into almost any setting or style. This is likely part of what has left it with such an enduring appeal, and a benefit of coming into being at exactly the right time. Something which allowed it to remain inherently linked to the mid-80s to early-90s, while still benefitting from the quality listed above.

To truly examine the idea behind the genre of cyberpunk, you need to seriously take into account the two words which make it up, especially the latter. While "punk" is easily applied to everything, from teslapunk to the ever popular (or over popular) steampunk, the term means more than a simple tacked on term to help define a gimmick genre. The innate themes within cyberpunk itself are anti-authoritarian, opposing a tyrannical governing force. Commercialism is out of control, corporations often hold more sway than governments themselves, while rules are enforced for the benefit of those above alone. The only ones who seem to escape this belong to fringe groups, a newer trend of those who refuse to be fully associated with the wider majority. Groups who are both bitter and cynical, and emphasize the "anti" in antihero, and often ditching the "hero" part entirely.

While there's no one-to-one comparison which can be fully drawn with the musical genre or subculture as a whole, it's easy to see how many ideas which inspired them were present here. It pressed to oppose what was seen as a lie, and to more aptly cope with the reality of the world before it. In the medium of science fiction, you can clearly see this thanks to how the genre developed. The much more optimistic and utopian futures seen in the forties, fifties and sixties had been born of a post-Second World War sense of hope and optimism. Those few which broke from this often only did so in order to comment upon the Cold War and the threats it posed, with the likes of Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cyberpunk, as a result of this, the perfect societies being threatened by outside alien threats or infiltrators from within were gradually transformed into more ingrained problems. The problems they focused on were not a perversion or corruption of a society, but were simply those created by it being exactly what it was intended to be. Or at least what those in charge felt that it should be.

The impact that new technology had no cyberpunk cannot be downplayed, however, as that first word "cyber" reflected this detail. While older science fiction had been inspired by the likes of the lunar landings and orbital flights, cyberpunk was encouraged by the development of software. The importance of computers, the wide scope of networked machines and their importance never could have been predicted. With this, cyberpunk had something of an edge to work within its science fiction elements - a new unexplored realm that no past story had truly delved into. It's why virtual reality, internet interfacing and other concepts similar to this often played such a prominent part, along with the greater emphasis on cybernetic augmentation. Some of this had been delved into before, of course, but it wasn't in the same gritty style. Stories which delved into such things as VR were often a grander or more high concept take which did not offer the same thematic choices. Think of it as the differences between It! The Terror from Beyond Space! and Alien, for all their similarities.

However, the last truly significant work of great significance within the genre was printed in 1992 with Snow Crash. There were exceptions to this, and it did hold on in other genres, but few epics ever matched up to its literary strength and sheer bold reworking of an environment. So, what happened? Simply put, society and technology moved on. While the 1990s themselves saw no end of strife and domestic problems, the same cynicism and contempt was moderated with more hopeful elements. For more than a few people, it was an idyllic change from the economic disasters of the 1970s or insanity born of the 1980s. The economy was better, Thatcher was gone and Regan's administration was a fading ghost, while the Cold War itself was rapidly winding down. Compared with what had come in the two decades before, it was practically a new golden age.

On the technology front, the new idea of computers lacked the same fresh fascination that they had benefitted from a few years before. Rather than being a truly new craze, a technology which was just within reach, they were rapidly becoming household appliances. Without that same sense of the unknown or fascination of what might come about because of them, the stories behind them slowly but surely became much tamer and more in line with what widespread audiences would generally expect. As a result of this, cyberpunk gradually lost a lot of its substance. It was more of a fashion, a craze and aesthetic choice over a more definitive sub-genre. Something audiences would prize for its aesthetic than how it would truly resonate with people. Hell, even the benefit of Orientalism which, had seen a resurgence with Japan's economic boom and the anime craze, had died away. As such the Western-Eastern corporations and the sense of cultures mashed together didn't have the same appeal as before.

The franchises which did continue to carry the torch greatly focused on a specific thematic choice within the cyberpunk setting at the cost of all others, or broke away from it entirely. Ghost in the Shell, for example, is definitely cyberpunk and an incredible franchise but its themes focus on transhumanism and identity theologies above all else. Many of the anti-authoritarian elements are downplayed or are typically depicted via factional infighting over the true opposition. 

Equally, Shadowrun's enduring appeal often comes from its hybrid nature and association with typical fantasy elements. The Middle-Earth meets Blade Runner descriptions are what often gets the attention of fans over its cyberpunk elements. In fact, the major successes of the past decade have heavily emphasized magic in its stories over technology. Each of the Shadowrun Returns trilogy games utilized fantasy enemies and magic based threats as their "big bad" and the tabletop game has largely done the same. While emerging AI has been a major game-changer in multiple points in the timeline, it frequently returns to the subject of the horrors or insect spirits for its ongoing narrative.

In order to survive, more the genre itself had to stop being true to what had fully inspired cyberpunk. This often happens with most genres, as trends take hold and are then subverted, deconstructed, and fade away in time. Pick any major individual franchise, let alone a full storytelling setting, and you can easily pick out a similar ongoing arc. Star Trek alone is a perfect example of this, depicting both a willing break from the ideals which founded it and, in the case of Voyager and early Enterprise, the sins which can even come from being unwilling to evolve. When the genre did attempt to return to its roots, the only creators who willingly did so were the ones who wished to parody its ideas. The sorts of stories and video games (hello, Far Cry: Blood Dragon) which either lovingly mocked the era which inspired it, or the aged aesthetic ideas which helped to identify and found the genre.

So, with that in mind, why has cyberpunk seen something of a rebirth of late? The answer is simple: The exact same qualities which inspired it in the first place have come back into focus. While cyberpunk itself still lacks the major blockbuster literature hit or masterpiece it needs to fully re-emerge into the limelight, we have seen the same aspects come into existence yet again. Technology is once more advancing into a brand new field which breaks away from most previous definitions, with the likes of VR and cybernetics being far more feasible than ever before. Corporations hold infinitely more power than ever, looking to benefit themselves at the cost of their employees with Amazon working people to death, and MacDonalds attempting to defend its "living wage" by offering a financial guide to employees. One which required them to manage two full-time jobs. Well, that and to not use basic living requirements such as heating.

Even if you ignore the constant issue of police brutality, the increasingly tyrannical nature of the USA and UK's governments, or the rise in neo-Nazi groups, more than a few general social trends are beginning to align with the dystopias of cyberpunk. As such, their stories carry more weight and relevance than they might have done previously, offering something which directly connects with those reading, playing or watching media on some level. This is only further encouraged by enthusiasts who remember the golden age of the genre - Shadowrun Returns itself came about thanks to this - and offered it the opportunity to return in a position of strength.

The question now is how cyberpunk as a whole will continue to evolve and develop. There are any number of ways in which it could experiment with its core tropes, and use old ideas in a new manner to experiment with ideas in this new era. With the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 on the horizon and the likes of Black Mirror emphasising the threat of technology developing beyond our control, there's plenty to work with. Let's just hope that life doesn't start to resemble fiction too closely.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi - The Golden Age of the Sith / The Fall of the Sith Empire by Kevin J. Anderson and Dario Carrasco, Jr. (Comicbook Review)

This is the first of a few Star Wars titles we will be delving into, and this one seemed only right for today. You see, I personally don't celebrate the whole "May the 4th Be With You" speel Disney has been hyping like there is no tomorrow. Star Wars day was always the 25th of May, due to A New Hope's release in the USA on that date. Yes, I should probably celebrate the UK one, but it's wedged right between Christmas and New Year's Eve, so that just complicates things.

However, if we're going to celebrate anything Star Wars related, it seemed only right to return to a distant chapter in the Expanded Universe. That of the Old Republic. The Tales of the Jedi comics were written when someone asked "What happened long before then?" The films had set up mention of the Jedi, the Republic and the servants of the Dark Side, but how did that all start? These comics did just that and were set five thousand years prior to the events of A New Hope. This is not the era of the Rebellion against the Empire, this is not the age of rebirth, this is a time of great empires, of new beginnings, heroes, and terrible mistakes. This is the age of the Sith Empire, and the time of its fall.

The Synopsis

As we're covering two linked story arcs, the synopsis here will only cover so much. There is more to it, but I do not wish to spoil everything.

In effect, a major conflict in the Koros system has been raging for some time, as a few remnants elements hold out against the forces of Empress Teta. Several Jedi are called to assist Teta in her actions, using the Force to break their enemy's morale and force them into retreat. Teta emerges victorious, but it is not without cost, and a multitude of supply ships attempting to assist the rebels are blown apart by their own anti-air weapons. Among them are the parents of Gav and Jori Daragon. 

As the Daragons attempt to continue their lives, growing desperation and unexpected threats drives them into a rash action, and they jump into a realm far beyond the borders of the expanding Republic. What they find is a hidden Empire ruled by banished Jedi, hungry for power and ready for war.

The Good

One thing needs to be established before everything else: This wanted to be something different. While this won't make too many comparisons or contrasts with the Mouse Canon, one thing which separates Disney from the EU is the fact that the former is adamantly focused only the Galactic Civil War. To many, it seems to be the only point of relevance, the only area worth building on, and anything else needs to either emulate or mimic it. The EU, for all its successes and failings, tried to do away with this. As such, you have events like this set millennia prior to Anakin's birth, which barely resembles the original films and yet remains quintessentially Star Wars. New concepts were introduced, new species were created, and the very history of the Jedi was expanded upon into a new age.

When you look back on this book, some of its concepts seem almost mundane and expected. Yet that's only because the EU itself repeatedly tried to push for something new and different. It's akin to how Alien is a victim of its own success, with exposure and oversaturation working against the xenomorph's unique design. You need to keep in mind that this comic was what helped to solidify the term "Sith" in place of "Dark Jedi" and that it was the first idea that there had even been a species of that name. The comic's very visuals and design aesthetic battled to reflect this, offering something more akin to a science fiction Conan civilization or John Carter of Mars over the world we knew. While small elements and points would creep through, much of it seemed to emphasise the idea of a high tech Bronze Age civilization. It's archaic, overly stylised and primitive yet advanced, but that helped to offer its own identity. It would give the reader just enough to ensure them that this was Star Wars, but one of a completely different time.

When you consider how overly homogenized and samey many science fiction settings become - especially the likes of later Star Wars and Star Trek - the boldness of a massively altered aesthetic cannot be emphasised enough. To strip everything down and rebuild it from scratch as a new cohesive aesthetic was near suicidal, and yet it worked. So many pages, through visuals alone, offer broader glimpses into this setting's nature, capturing what made the Cantina Scene and its like so effective. There are multiple panels where world building is executed purely through the actions of others, or the environment they are standing in. Even when it opts to utilise direct exposition, the artwork itself nevertheless still benefits the story.

More curiously still, the style of storytelling is even a plus here. That will likely leave a few people scratching their heads, especially with Kevin J. Anderson's name attached to this. However, while his novels have a questionable reputation, the man nevertheless has an eye for epics in the right setting, and with comics he seems to be in his element. Especially these ones. The story itself is told through big, bold and direct means. Characters are larger than life, often bombastically so in the case of major leaders, while the logic behind some actions seems questionable. Yet, what benefits this is its age, and the fact it is clearly working on its own internal logic. In an odd sense, this makes it all the more genuine.

When you look through any past epic - real-world ones here for a moment - you might notice one often defining factor. They're often insane. Ignore the adapted creations, reworked stories and updated versions, and go back to the originals. It's evident that they were written for a very different time and an extremely different set of values, emulating or venerating a different social system. This sort of thing has often been a problem for tales like the Forty-seven r┼Źnin, where Bushido seems so alien to many readers now. Or, if you wish for another example, look to Arthurian legend. John Boorman's Excalibur was an extremely faithful adaptation, but to the point where many criticise it for odd characterisation and plot elements. It's a careful thing to manage, but Tales of the Jedi often accomplishes this in its stylings, and it avoids many typical narrative failings besides this. It never drags, never relies on deus ex machina to win the day, and doesn't utilise anything which has not been established before. As a result, it just about manages to capture this feeling.

Even if you don't agree with the above, stop and compare the writing with those of older Thor comics, especially Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson. Those which aren't determined to wink at the audience, or try to have a very faithful feel to them, strike a similar chord to this one in many places. It helps that, similar to those works, you have manipulating figures, plots, and shifting allegiances. Schemes, legends, and generation-spanning feuds all remain core to the work, along with a greater emphasis on using the Force as a force of sorcery. It's no Games of Thrones, of course, but it retains enough of those elements to make the characters engaging. They're direct, defined and interesting, which is why the likes of the villain - Naga Sadow - can remain in your mind long after the comic is done. It's akin to playing an older Final Fantasy game. Even when the characterisation and plot might be a little basic, it's still executed well enough that it's difficult to seriously dislike it.

The story also makes a point of throwing in enough human moments and surprising subversions to keep the reader surprised. Along with a philanthropic Hutt businessman, you have nice moments like Jori and Gav thinking of one another after they have been separated and isolated. While there's an emphasis on larger powers and a vast impending war, it always remembers to scale things back just enough to focus on the characters themselves for a while.

The action itself is rightfully grandiose and large scale. The creators seemed to realise that they could get away with things the films were never able to manage due to budget constraints, and as a result you have things which eclipse them. Thousands of sword-wielding Sith shock troops charging the Republic capital? Check. Multi-storey tall Sith warbeasts akin to elephants? Check. Vast armadas which makes the Battle of Endor look small? Damn right. When the comic needs to be big, it will go the full mile to be big, and this goes for everything from battles to large-scale environmental shots to define worlds.

However, no comic is without its problems, and there are a few to be found within Tales of the Jedi.

The Bad

You might have noticed something as this went along: Little time was spent talking about the actual protagonists. There's a good reason for that, as they have little standing in the story. It's not so much their tale or the fact that they are a core part of it, as they kick off a few key events. They're important at points, but all too often the much more interesting and important things are given to the side characters instead. It's why the villains have a more memorable role here, as they are more actively involved within the tale and do much more to make their presence felt.

While the grand scale combat is mixed, the smaller scale bits are unfortunately quite mixed. There are a few excellent duels to be sure, but these are very thinly spaced out throughout the book. Often single combat is reduced to a few panels before moving on to the next big thing. As a result, it often draws attention away from the characters to events, and it can feel as if said events are the driving force behind the story. Because of this, especially during the Fall of the Sith Empire, the characters are reduced to a few unfortunately small moments and several are unceremoniously bumped off. The actual moments themselves are good, but it seems as if they lack the time to actually make them more prominent within the pacing of events.

Oddly, the art itself is also mixed at times. At many points it is fantastic throughout, and it retains the striking and sharp visuals which made it so distinct. At others, however, details seem overly soft or the colour is slightly off. As a result of this, a few parts in the early comic especially can seem very disjointed, and it can take a fair bit of getting used to until it finally evens out in the end. Even then, there are times when it relies on single colour backgrounds over those of notable detail, and this takes away from the story at several key points.

In terms of the overall story department, however, there is a problem in how a major engaging point within the story is needlessly reworked into an "As you know" flashback. This details the exact rise of the Sith Empire and how it came to be, and yet it is told to other Sith Lords. Given that there were two outsiders on the way, it could have much more easily and natrually been left for them to discover, but this is passed up. It's a damn shame as well, because the history itself is well thought out and surprisingly fascinating for what was effectively a one-shot villain.

Finally, you will want to punch Gav Daragon in the face before this is over. While more than a few odd actions can be put down to the points above, Gav's blindness is nevertheless facepalming and could have been easily avoided. It's set up to be a sort of redemption arc, and yet it never fully pays off. Rather than turning to evil and becoming good once more, it instead just makes him seem as if he couldn't tell that the Sith were evil, even as he was helping conquer his own homeworld. It can't even be put down to Dark Side manipulation, as there's no hint of that here.

The Verdict

The first two parts of Tales of the Jedi here are aged to be sure. They were from a different time in comics and in the setting itself, but their qualities do still shine through nevertheless. It's not a story for everyone, and I could easily see a few readers being put off by the writing style. However, in the right mindset and approach, it is still a very entertaining and engaging chapter in the series history. Cap that off with the fact that this was the starting point which led to a multitude of key developments both in and out of the series, and it's one well worth looking into.

If you're an Old Republic era fan who wants to see more of that era and the road which led to it, this is definitely recommended. If you want something a bit more accessible, however, wait until later on this month.

Verdict: 7.6 out of 10

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The State of The Blog

This isn't so much an announcement of more delays for once, so much as it is bringing you all up to date on events. I said partway through the Deepkin review that I would do so (admittedly "tomorrow" turned into a few days" and that's what we're dealing with now. This will be basic, but it is going to address a few points.

The first is simple - Life has been getting in the way a great deal of late. Since departing from my previous job I have been trying to strike a balance between several long-standing problems and finding a new one. The former has thankfully been dealt with for the most part, but the latter is taking some time. While I have been using the opportunity to establish and expand a new source of income, I will need to find something sooner rather than later. Atop of this, there have been a fair few shake-ups at home as well. Besides the aftermath of a few family deaths, my home is undergoing some severe maintenance, each of which has taken its toll on things one time after another. In fact, the maintenance is ongoing, and will likely cause a severe slowdown of my output on here for some time.

There's also Games Workshop to consider here. GW is our wheelhouse of course and I have thankfully had more than a few positive things to say of late. The problem is that they have proven to produce an extremely high output of work. None of it has been truly bad from what I have covered, and even when it is disappointing, it thankfully remains head and shoulders above the condition of previous Edition creations. Yet with so much of it coming out, it's burning me out and it takes time away from everything else. 

We tend to go into great detail with Codex reviews, after all, and just one tends to take multiple days, repeated playthroughs and testing to formulate a final opinion on things. It's why there never was a Codex: Dark Eldar review as I had planned to do that, but Necrons was taking so long and Deepkin had just come out, so there was no time at all to fit it in. It's also why, after joining them, there have been so few TechRaptor articles. As such, future reviews are going to be a bit different. On some we will look fully into the book's strengths and weaknesses in lore and on the tabletop. In others, we will just examine the lore. This is what tends to get the most attention in what I do, so that will take priority from here on.

Another issue is coming to terms with the news that John Bain, also known as Totalbiscuit has announced his effective retirement as a video game critic. You can see the full details here, but they are grim. Given that he was a major source of inspiration in maintaining such high standards and never compromising when issuing feedback or commentary on a work, it's a hard thing to take in, to say the least. Everyone saw it coming, but it's still something of a shock in its own way.

Finally, as a start to fixing things and trying to bring the blog back on track, I will be going through a backlog of review copies for Starburst Magazine. These are lesser known titles (with one or two big ones) which I didn't have the time for, but do deserve a once over. In others, there are a few opinion pieces I have been meaning to write, more about general media and industry approaches over all else along with one or two Games Workshop theories. That and dealing with one or two more Star Wars Expanded Universe stories as well, for obvious reasons. So, over the next few days, you have that to look forward to.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Battletech (Video Game Review)

With the failure of Mechwarrior Tactics thanks to the remarkably shady practices of Infinite Games Publishing, having any tactical BattleTech game see release was a small miracle for fans. The fact that it was handed to Harebrained Schemes must have seemed like an act of divine intervention. Following their repeated successes in bringing the Shadowrun franchise to PC, there were few more appropriate developers for the task and the studio has struck gold once again.