Saturday, 30 April 2011

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

As before, spoilers throughout. This is posted a little later than I would’ve liked, due to connection-related woe.

I liked this quite a lot, though it wasn’t quite as good as the first part. The strangely inexplicable hunting of the Doctor et al. at the start and the unexplained possession of the densest material in the universe (still light enough for humans to move by hand) did detract in a minor way.

However, the story generally was good. Moffat’s excellent at taking advantage of the show’s basis to create complicated and creative plots using time-travel. In addition to the future and younger Doctor, the use of the Silence’s own powers of hypnotic suggestion being used against them was a cunning plot twist, if perhaps contrary to the Doctor’s typically pacific inclinations.

I also loved the clever use of the markings and Amy suddenly discovering she’d scrawled all over herself. Bringing in the viewer by showing the markings but not the initial moments of seeing the Silence (for her and, earlier, Canton) was a good move.

There was less comic relief than the first part, and River Song’s slightly silly massacring of the Silence was a bit over the top. I did miss, previously, that the machine was the same as the one in The Lodger, for the very good reason that I didn’t see The Lodger.

Amy’s pregnancy wasn’t resolved. She both is and isn’t pregnant, it seems, and the little girl (still unidentified but possibly the daughter of Amy, or the Doctor or, scandalously, both) has some sort of regenerative power.

It also seems likely that River Song’s dastardly deed will soon be revealed, given the closing scenes. She also seemed surprised that the Doctor had never kissed her before, raising the interesting possibility that he’s an even earlier version that he ought to be.

Next episode sees swashbuckling pirates, a siren and Amy Pond with a cutlass.


Thursday, 28 April 2011

Kindle: first thoughts

After some prevaricating I decided to take the plunge and acquire a Kindle.

The screen is really quite strange, in a good way. It looks closer to paper than a standard screen and, naturally, is purely black and white. The controls are a little smaller than I’m used to (I have no mobile telephone or Blackberry) but easy to get the hang of.

The guide does explain things clearly but is a bit repetitive and probably twice as long as it needs to be. The inclusion of two dictionaries (a corrupted colonial version and an accurate English one) is a simple but excellent feature.

Initially, I’m going to use it for reading the first draft of a story I’ve been writing. That might not sound like a spectacular use of a pricey gadget, but given the alternative is printing off hundreds of pages and then daubing them with four highlighters and a biro it’s pretty handy and saves a lot of space.

I’ve downloaded an MP3 (Queen’s excellent but less well-known ’39), a picture or two and the first six chapters of my aforementioned story. Music-playing falls under the Experimental heading. It’s a crude system but a reasonable addition. Pictures get diminished in size, sadly, by the conversion process, but they still look quite nice. My chapters (originally Word documents) keep some formatting (the titles are larger and underlined) and lose other bits (indented paragraphs and speech is just left-aligned now, and the justified body of text is likewise).

The screen is substantially easier on the eye than a standard PC or TV screen. Text can be varied in font and size, and two people (one man, one woman, both tedious) can be prompted to read the text. Terms can be searched for within a document or all documents, or a definition sought from the dictionary.

There is a web browser but it’s rather clunky. It’s ok if you want to check something quickly but if you’re planning on doing much more then it is insufficient. [In fairness, this really isn’t the Kindle’s point].

So, what are the advantages?

Space is the big one. It’s very thin and no larger in breadth and length than a standard paperback. If you’re a frequent flyer or buy numerous books which would be just as good in an electronic format, it will probably prove value for money.

It’s also convenient, and in many instances cheaper than getting physical books. This won’t affect most people, but for me personally it’s quite nice reading my stuff on a Kindle rather than spending ages (I have an old printer) printing stuff out and then reading and marking it with highlighters.

I only got it today so I need to do a bit more with it (downloading an e-Book or two, most obviously) before reaching a firmer conclusion, but so far I’m quite liking it. I also need to work out how to either make my story formatted so I can just transfer files directly to the Kindle, or alter them so that when the automatic Kindle conversion e-mail comes back the formatting isn’t half-lost.


Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Review: F1 2010 (PS3)

I wanted to wait until I’d completed a season before reviewing this, but even so, I can’t give a comprehensive review as I’ve not raced in a competitive car.

The game is solidly based on the 2010 season, in that the driver lineups only change if you change a team and shunt one driver into the wilderness, and the 19 circuits of 2010 always occur in the same order.

Certain features are not present. The formation lap, safety car and podium presentation/celebration are all out. The first and last are froth as far as I’m concerned, whereas the safety car’s absence is felt. It would be complicated to introduce, but hopefully the 2011 game will see it included.

Codemasters have included a lot of the features of F1 and have an excellent range of customisation options in terms of both car set-up and gameplay choices to make it easier or harder. I have all the raw pace of a sedated James May, so chose most of the easier options, only turning on tyre and fuel simulation. Damage can be non-existent, cosmetic or realistic, but needs setting from the menu.

Players can choose between a short race weekend (brief practice and qualifying, then the race) or a full one (3 practice sessions, full qualifying and then the race). Practices can be skipped, though some include R&D tests.

NB: this is buggy and will wreck your save. The problem can be resolved by switching off autosave, and, after doing the final R&D test, doing qualifying and saving manually. A hassle, but not an enormous one.

Car setups can be dealt with in three ways. Firstly, you can leave it as is. Secondly, your engineer can change the setup for you. Thirdly, you can tinker with a slew of finickity options, such as ballast and aerodynamics. It’s an excellent system that lets the lazy/disinterested (like me) do little or nothing whilst giving those inclined towards customising the car to eke out the maximum pace plenty of scope to do so.

Pit strategy is set pre-race, and ought to be amended because there’s a small but irksome pit bug. The lollipop man is a nervous Nelly, and won’t let you leave if there’s anybody else in the pit lane, potentially costing you multiple places. In a big race, moving your pit stop forward or back a lap will usually prevent this occurring much, if at all. However, this is a bloody obvious bug and should not have been left unfixed.

So, how’s the racing? Pretty damned good, actually. The tracks vary a lot, and it was interesting to find that there was a huge overlap between how much I like watching a track in real life and how much I enjoyed racing on it. Singapore was loathsome, and I absolutely love Interlagos. The only one that stands out as a track I love to watch but hate to drive is Silverstone.

The game offers a number of flashbacks, which are mini-replays and an opportunity to wind back time a short way to prevent a big mistake. These are handy, and entirely optional of course. I had races set for 50% real distance, meaning they last around an hour, and it’s pretty easy to make a few mistakes during that time. I was fantastically quick in places like Monza and Interlagos but appallingly poor in Singapore and elsewhere. The driving is not too difficult, though some of the long, slow corners were the bane of my driving career. It is much easier to overtake in the game than actual F1, and far easier for the lower teams to do well. At the sharp end, it’s more or less realistic.

A fantastic part of the game is the dynamic weather system. Codemasters made a song and dance about this, and it really lives up to the hype. Weather forecasts are pretty accurate, but not always right, and rain can strike during practice, qualifying or the race itself. Naturally, this alters the lap times and driving style required, and affords opportunity to leap up the table if you’re cunning with tyre choices. The first time it rained during my career I stayed out on slicks too long and ended up right at the back of the field. Similarly, when the rain stops a dry line emerges on the racing line, so overtaking (often through standing water) becomes much riskier.

After a session you can have an interview with David Croft, or Sarah Holt (I think) if you get a podium finish. The answers you give can determine who your rival is (beating him helps you get an offer of a drive), how much your present team likes you and your reputation with other teams. It’s a nice feature and means that there’s slightly more to securing a contract than just the race performances.

Overall, F1 2010 is a good game with nice driving, a plethora of options and a fantastic weather system, marred by a pair of obvious bugs that can be largely worked around but should never have been included in the game. There are a few more features that could be added, but the important stuff, save the safety car, is all there.

I’d give it 8/10. It would’ve been 9, but for the bugs.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

Enormous spoilers right from the off, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid them.

I really enjoyed this episode. The Doctor, River Song, Amy and Rory are invited to the middle of nowhere (in America) by a mysterious chap, who turns out to be a Doctor from the future. Shortly thereafter, the future Doctor gets promptly murdered by a strange astronaut that emerges from (and then returns to) a lake.

His companions burn his body, only to bump into an earlier Doctor (still played by Matt Smith) later that day. Earlier Doctor has no idea who summoned them (he also got an invite) nor what’s happened previously (or later, in his timeline).

The scant information future Doctor provided before getting crispy allows earlier Doctor to take the TARDIS to the Oval office, where President Nixon is trying to enlist an ex-FBI agent’s assistance. Nixon’s being hassled, via phone daily, by a little girl and wants the agent, distinctively named as Canton Delaware, to find out how she manages to call him directly, wherever he is.

The Doctor’s cunning (and the President’s impatience) affords him the opportunity to discover the girl’s whereabouts and he takes off in the TARDIS, along with Delaware. Whilst in the White House, Amy encountered a creepy alien, the Silence, who cannot be remembered once you stop looking at him.

River Song and Rory explore underneath the building, which is filled with ancient tunnels inhabited by other Silence type aliens. They seem to be in some sort of trouble at the end, though it’s a little vague.

In the abandoned building the little girl is supposedly in the Doctor and Amy come across the unconscious body of Delaware, and are stumbled upon by an astronaut. Without thinking, Amy shoots him, only he turns out to be the little girl. At which point, the first part of the double bill draws to a close.

The episode was fast paced, made good use of the show’s temporal potential and was nice and dark, lightened by numerous witty moments throughout. I’m not generally a River Song fan, but rather liked all the main cast in this one. Looking forward to next week.


Friday, 22 April 2011

Link hunting

Ahead of the new Dr Who series, which starts tomorrow, I thought I’d better get a bit of house-keeping done and enlarge my slightly diminutive link list. Almost all those I’m adding are authors whose work I very much enjoy, with the exception of Sacred Texts, which is an excellent online archive that I heartily recommend. - the site of the author of The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Erotic Gnomes Through The Ages. [I may have made the last part up]. - the blog of George RR Martin, the closest thing to a modern day Tolkien there is. [Actually, I prefer A Song of Ice and Fire to Lord of the Rings]. - the site belonging to the author of the Tales of the Ketty Jay. When I checked it last, he indicated parts 3 and 4 would be out shortly. - not updated for a little while as he’s taking a bit of a break, but I hope Mr. Lynch gets back to writing soon. - author of the Sharpe novels, and the nigh on perfect Warlord Chronicles, amongst many other things. - this is actually the site of Toby Frost, intrepid author extraordinaire, rather than Space Captain Smith himself. - as mentioned above, this is an excellent site where you can find tons of classical, arcane and religious texts for free. - writer of historical novels, including the Emperor series that covers Julius Caesar and the Conqueror series involving Genghis Khan. - aka Megan Lindholm. I loved the Farseer and Tawny Man Trilogies and, heaving bookshelves and almost comically long to-read list permitting, will buy more of her stuff. - Mr Knox is a globe-trotting thriller writer with a penchant for gory delights and whining about the weather.


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Elisabeth Sladen RIP

Elisabeth Sladen was one of the best known faces of Dr Who, featuring in the original series for a prolonged period, returning in New Who and then getting her own spin-off series.

She played Sarah Jane Smith, opposite Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and was in The Five Doctors. Sladen was also in arguably the best ever Dr Who serial, Genesis of the Daleks, which introduced Davros and saw some of the best dialogue and acting of the series.

Sladen’s draw as Sarah Jane was a combination of being a very normal sort of person in a rather extraordinary situation, and also marked a shift away from the companion as the aesthetically pleasing woman who screams quite a lot. She also appeared in the show with probably the best of all Doctors, Tom Baker, and was very popular with the audience.

Sadly, her death from cancer comes shortly after the departure of Nicholas Courtney, who died in February of this year. Courtney played Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the head of UNIT. Courtney featured with just about every one of the original Doctors (he was introduced as Lethbridge-Stewart with Troughton but played a different role when Hartnell was the Doctor).

UNIT has made a reappearance in New Who, but I think the lack of a Brigadier type character is an obvious gap that ought to be filled.

Sladen and Courtney were both very likeable and played significant characters in the series, and will be sadly missed.


Monday, 18 April 2011

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

This was recommended to me a while ago by a chap who, like me, enjoys reading stuff by George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Due to my lengthy to-buy list I only bought it fairly recently and finished it today.

As might be expected from the title, the book follows the adventures and trials of the mostly good-natured and devious Locke Lamora, a thief par excellence in the city state of Camorr. He is one of a small, close-knit gang who execute cunning acts of theft/fraud.

It took me a little while to get into the book, which is quite common when reading something by a new author. Its real strength is the story, which manages numerous unexpected twists without degenerating into the loathsome deus ex machina or stretching credulity to breaking point, coupled with the cleverness of Lamora and his associates.

Sorcery is very uncommon, but there are numerous references to alchemy and its uses (particularly as a source of light). Although the good-natured (well, mostly) thief is not wholly original it is quite refreshing to have a protagonist who is not endowed with political power, or martial ability, or arcane strength. Lamora’s just a sly, likeable chap with many vices and quite a few virtues.

In terms of style, the author shifts timeframes quite often. This is not something I’m overly fond of and at first I found it not to my liking. However, further into the book it worked reasonably well, sometimes providing light relief and more information on a topic or character. In a way, the book reminded me of Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. Took me a while to get into it, but I ended up racing through it and loved the storyline.

The characters are three-dimensional, and react very realistically to unexpected situations (I could give a few examples, but the best ones would be massive spoilers).

Slightly unusually for new fantasy, this is a self-contained book with a proper conclusion at the end, instead of being the first instalment in a trilogy. I liked getting the full ending (and it’s a proper ending) and fully plan on getting the next book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, although it is rated somewhat lower on Amazon.

At the start I said this was compared to stuff by George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie. So, how does it compare?

It’s substantially different, being a solo work rather than a series/trilogy, and the closest book in style/plot by the two authors I mentioned would be Best Served Cold. The Lies of Locke Lamora is better than that, and I’d rank it ahead of The Heroes as well. Would I recommend it? Yes, but I’d warn the chap I mentioned it to that the first few chapters may need a little perseverance.


Saturday, 16 April 2011

Siege engines

Siege engines and the art of siegecraft are very interesting, especially as they actually declined for a time. Alexander’s surviving lieutenants, the Diadochi who squabbled and squandered his empire, maintained a high level of excellence but it declined thereafter.

The siege can be brought to victory, and the subject city to submission, by the means of storm, surrender, starvation, or shenanigans of a treacherous nature.

The big problem with starving a city until it gives up is that feeding an army that’s unable to move and will soon exhaust nearby food supplies is bloody difficult. It gives time for the city’s allies to gather and attack the besiegers, and, often far worse, time for things like chronic diarrhoea, dysentery and despondency to grow amongst the attacking force.

Shenanigans of a treacherous nature can be the easiest way to resolve a siege. The traitor gets some money (or murdered for being a perfidious git), the army gets victory and the city gets sacked because it didn’t surrender.

Surrender can work well… or not. Alexander and Hannibal were pretty merciful and generous to surrendering cities. Tamerlane was not. Nevertheless, refusing to surrender and then getting beaten is usually far worse.

To try and give the attacking side a better shot of swift victory an array of ingenious siege engines were developed. From Alexander the Great to the Black Prince there was not that much improvement. One particularly exciting device was the Theban flame-thrower. Basically, they took a big tree trunk, cut it along the length, hollowed out the middle to make it a tube and then stuck it back together. Then, they put massive bellows at one end and a flaming cauldron at the other. It was used in the Battle of Delium, according to Thucydides:

“The Boeotians constructed a strange device, which according to the description in Thucydides (4.100) seems to be a kind of flamethrower, and used this weapon to set fire to Delium and chase away the Athenians. Only about 200 Athenians were killed; the rest were allowed to escape.”

More well-known, and obvious, was the ram, which often had a cunning roof to stop defenders throwing rocks and so forth upon the chaps trying to smash their walls.

The ancients also used enormous siege towers of many levels, within which soldiers could hide. A high level drawbridge could be lowered rapidly, enabling the soldiers hiding within to run onto the defending walls and try to open its gates to the aggressors.

Archimedes was a genius of Syracuse, and for a few years in the Second Punic War successfully prevented the talented Roman consul Marcellus from taking the city, virtually single-handed. He created a number of brilliant defensive weapons, and although what they actually were is in dispute, it is a matter of consensus that he successfully kept the Romans from taking the city for two years by his genius. Amongst the claims are a claw which could be dropped from a crane onto a ship and then raised, sinking the ship, and a heat ray so powerful it made ships burst into flames.

In medieval times, siege towers (known as belfries) were still in use, as was the ram (although the wheeled shelter was now called a sow and sometimes protected men with picks).

However, they also used the magnificent trebuchet: a cunningly designed catapult of substantial size which could hurl rocks of 200lb or 300lb several hundred yards. A smaller version, the couillard, was also available for use. Trebuchets could be used in a rather less hygienic but more cunning way, as a means of delivering festering, disease-ridden carcasses into the city, encouraging plague and woe therein.

Alongside the trebuchet, the mangonel is probably the best-known medieval siege weapon. It’s basically a big catapult that hurled a single large rock at a time. Unlike the trebuchet, which sent its ammunition high into the air, the mangonel’s flew on a lower trajectory and was used for smashing walls rather than crushing buildings and people within the city.

After thousands of years of enormous wooden siege engines with the occasional bit of metal here and there the likes of the trebuchet were outclassed by guns. One of the most important things the cannon achieved was the ultimate and lasting defeat of Byzantium. The Second Rome had repelled countless invasions thanks to its naturally excellent defensive position and its staggeringly effective walls. But no walls could withstand the cannon of the Ottoman Turks, and the city fell in the mid-15th century. It is now known as Istanbul.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Dr Who, comparing old and new

I’m not old enough to remember much of the original series when it was still going. The theme tune was etched in my mind at an early age, as was a liking of cybermen and Ace (still my favourite companion).

The BBC used to run repeats, particularly of the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker era, on BBC2 which I used to watch regularly. I also had quite a few Dr Who books, though in a fit of philanthropic delight (and not at all because I needed the shelf space) I donated them all to a local hospice.

I like Old Who, but then, I like New Who. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out! A point-by-point comparison, with a brief summary of why I prefer one of the other in a given category.

Theme tune/intro:

This is the easiest one. The New Who intros and theme are rubbish compared to the otherworldly synthesised original theme(s).


Hmmm. Tricky, especially as most Old Who I saw was repeated, which would mean only the best got shown. New Who has had some howlers (the Master, the Abzorbaloff [sp] etc), but also some great episodes (Blink, The Impossible Planet). I’d give it to Old Who, based on the unrivalled excellence of Genesis of the Daleks.

Special effects:

New Who, without a doubt. Old Who gets a comedy bonus point for the extreme ropeyness of some of its effects.


Old Who. The Weeping Angels are fantastic, but also the only New Who aliens that are, and have been featured repeatedly. I dislike the Slitheen, and whilst the Beast and the clockwork robots were both excellent I’m not sure if they’ll be seen again. The Master and Davros are Old Who creations that have been worsened in the new series, and other New Who creatures do not stand out so much.

Well-known spoiler about the episodes of the forthcoming series 6 below:

I do think the series has been better under Moffat than RTD. The decision to have a split series with a calamitous event in the middle, and the latter half following three months later, could prove quite clever. With luck, we’ll get more menacing new villains, a Master with an evil beard, and a rather more impressive Davros.

The new series starts on 23rd April.


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Review: Hand of Chaos, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

This is the fifth of seven Death Gate Cycle books, and unlike the previous four sees Haplo return to one of the realms (namely Arianus) rather than exploring a new one.

As usual, I’ll try and keep spoilers to a minimum.

The book’s quite enjoyable but is a weaker link in the series. The return of old characters (Bane in particular, who is referred to but does not feature in any other book save the first) is welcome, and the antagonists are subtle and sinister.

However, a problem with returning to Arianus is that much of the storyline is a little too familiar and akin to that of Dragon Wing, the first book. It’s also too slow, particularly in the first half of the book.

Unlike some previous instalments in the Death Gate Cycle there is relatively little revealed about the Sartan, or the Sundering, the war with the Patryns and so forth, which is a shame.

A strength of the book is the return of one strong character in particular from Dragon Wing, and the divergence between Haplo and Xar, the Lord of the Nexus with whom he once shared an absolute loyalty.

The introduction of the Kenkari elves is another positive. I can’t quite recall whether they’re explicitly mentioned in Dragon Wing, but the concept of soul-capturing definitely is. The Kenkari build on this theme and play a critical role in the story.

Hand of Chaos is not a bad book, just a little too slow, and with not quite enough excitement or revelation compared to its immediate predecessors. I’ll be ordering Into The Labyrinth, the sixth part of the Death Gate Cycle, when I buy my next batch of books.


Thursday, 7 April 2011

Book Review, Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual by Michael Prestwich

This is a sort-of sequel to the fantastic Legionary Unofficial Manual, by Philip Matyszak (I’ve just seen there’s a Gladiator Manual out as well, also by Matyszak). Like Legionary, it’s a light-hearted, entertaining, concise but nevertheless intelligent book crammed with juicy titbits.

My knowledge of knights and the medieval period is essentially rubbish, so a lot of the stuff in Knight was new to me. The book covers a lot of ground, including how to become a knight, how to impress at tournaments and jousts and how to conduct sieges and battles.

The bits I found most interesting were about armour, siege weapons and retinues. Like most people, I knew the basics of armour but didn’t know about different suits for tournaments and battles and enjoyed reading about the advantages of plate armour, chainmail and boiled leather armour. Similarly, the trebuchet wasn’t new to me but there were a number of siege engines that were. Formations/units seem far less formal than in Greek/Roman armies, with a knight often having one or more squires, likewise pages and some servants plus numerous horses.

Throughout the book, (which is a nice solid hardback), there are oodles of medieval pictures and numerous quotations from medieval works (some of them by knights themselves).The author also does a good job of comparing many different knights and their fortunes and styles. John Hawkwood, for example, was born not only a commoner but a bastard, rose to become Florence’s favourite (and most expensive) mercenary and had a glittering career slightly besmirched by an unsound approach to spending money.

Prestwich also highlights the interesting doublethink of the chivalric code. Honour matters above all, yet peasants seem to be strangely exempt and are fair game for extortion, murder and all manner of general unpleasantness.

The book blends the serious stuff of history with rather more witty remarks and snippets of information (I particularly enjoyed the bits about football being a peasant’s game, and the penalty for suicide being death).

Knight, like Legionary, is an excellent sort of book, suitable for history buffs or those who enjoy light reads peppered with mirth. I learnt a lot more from this than did I from Legionary, though this is probably because I know sod all about the medieval period (similarly, I prefer Legionary, but only because ancient history interests me more than recent stuff).

The only real problem I have is that when checking the spelling of Matyszak’s name for the purpose of writing this review I stumbled across the recently released Gladiator Unofficial Manual. Damn, you Matyszak! Don’t you have enough of my money already?

[Incidentally, for those wanting a strictly serious but nevertheless excellent book on gladiators I can recommend Fik Meijer’s Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport].


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Doctor Who: season 6 preview

In a few weeks the sixth series of New Who will be upon us. As you might expect, this post will probably have spoilers so if you’d prefer to stay spoiler-free, don’t read beyond this point.

I’ve got pretty mixed views about New Who. Sometimes it’s laughably bad (Dobby the house doctor and the appalling Master probably being the lowlight of the new series so far) and sometimes it’s fantastic (The Impossible Planet, Blink).

I think Matt Smith’s a pretty good Doctor. He’s good at sarcasm, which is important, but is not so good at menace or rage. He’s helped by the fact that Moffat’s a far better writer than RTD, who deserves kudos for resurrecting the series and little for some of the deus ex machina storylines and retconning he dreamt up.

Amy Pond and Rory (who I loathed initially as another stereotypical idiotic bloke to Amy’s smart girl, but has rather grown on me) also come back, as does the smarmy River Song.

The season is split in two by a three month break, suggesting a climactic event in the middle of the season, possibly leading to a storyline that’s resolved at the end. Fingers crossed that River Song gets fed into a giant mincing machine.

Rumours regarding the daleks and cybermen abound, with some suggesting the old-style daleks (the gold ones, rather than the New Paradigm teletubby daleks) will come back. I don’t know if this will happen but I’d like to see the Mondas cybermen return.

The fantasy author Neil Gaiman has written a stand-alone episode to be aired in the first half of the season, and the series will continue the cracks in the universe/TARDIS exploding storyline from season 5.

The TARDIS explosion causing the cracks in the universe suggests someone (or thing) highly intelligent. So, the Master or another evil Time Lord (most of them seem to be evil, now I come to think of it), the daleks, or possibly another race, whether new or an obscure old one, seems likeliest.

If I could dictate the plot, I’d have the Time Lords properly return at the end of the first half of the season. I think the Time War was a decent idea but locking away both sides was foolish. Why apparently deprive the series of its two most important species and then force the writers to constantly contrive reasons for how this dalek or that dalek magically escaped?

Speculation has suggested Amy Pond might get slightly murdered just before the season splits. I’m not so sure about that. My own preference would be the permanent axing of River Song.

Matt Smith is not thought likely to go at the end (or in the middle) of the series.

I hope the season of two halves approach works. It should make a nice change from the overblown End Of The Cosmos finales that were becoming rather predictable and obvious.


Saturday, 2 April 2011

Retro-review: Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story was amongst the last and the best of titles to be released for the original Playstation. It’s presently available through PSN, I think, and well worth a look if you never had the pleasure of playing it back in the olden days (2000).

It’s an action RPG featuring Ashley Riot as the protagonist. The player guides Ashley through the abandoned, haunted city of Lea Monde, hunting a prophet thought to be responsible for the death of a nobleman. The prophet, Sydney, captures Ashley’s companion Callo early on, and is also hunted by the Crimson Blades, led by Romeo Guildenstern. The player will also uncover some of Ashley’s history as well as learning more about the main plot.

The music is an excellent feature (one of several) of the game. Numerous tracks are top notch and most are at least enjoyably above average. There is no voice acting. Instead, the characters speak through ye olde speech bubbles. This works well, and is helped by the fantastic translation (by Alexander Smith) which transforms the script into a more archaic form of English. It’s perfectly understandable and has a dash of Shakespearian eloquence which helps immerse the player in the world of Lea Monde. More than that, the game also features a little sprinkling of French, German and Latin which works nicely.

Combat is almost flawless. Excepting the very first few fights, Ashley can execute combo attacks if the player is good enough at timing. But, the more combos the enemy is struck with the higher the Risk gauge rises. Higher Risk lowers the chances of hitting the enemy and increases the damage Ashley takes, introducing an element of strategy to combat.

In addition to this, weapons are highly varied according to material, range and damage type. Materially there are half a dozen different options, from wood to silver. The player has access to a number of workshops in the game, and in these weapons can be combined to create new means of killing enemies. Range can be anything from very, very short to pretty huge (crossbows were always good for killing bats). Players have access to staves, swords, axes, maces, spears and crossbows. Damage type is another intriguing variable which hasn’t been replicated much in subsequent games, I think. Weapons can cause piercing, slashing/slicing and crushing damage. Some enemies are vulnerable to one particular type or resistant to another.

There’s a wide range of enemy archetypes. Many are stereotypical (zombies, bats) but even some of those are excellent (the massive dragons were always fun to kill). There are some slightly creepier and more original foes, such as child-like ghosts or a gigantic iron crab.

Ashley can also learn magic. By acquiring grimoires and using them once he is taught how to perform a certain spell. Elemental resistance/attacks can be very useful in certain fights.

Graphically, the game is clearly dated, but this does not detract from it materially. The only area it slightly annoyed me was in the Snowfly Forest, where the screen is somewhat cluttered and seeing enemies can be tricky. Generally, Lea Monde is enormous, well-designed and fun to play through.

One feature I loved at the time was the award of titles (the ancestor of trophies) for certain deeds. Killing a massive enemy, slaying a certain number of foes with a given weapon or suchlike would yield a title. Vagrant Story also includes a New Game Plus feature, as after the game ends Ashley acquires a key needed to unlock certain doors that cannot be opened in an initial playthrough.

For those wanting a look at it in action, I recommend the excellent review by MetalJesusRocks on Youtube:

So, what score would I give it? 9.5/10. It’s not quite perfect, it’s merely trouser-explodingly fantastic.