Monday, 30 December 2013

Review: The Shining Citadel, (The Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles 2) by AL Butcher

This was the fantasy Book of the Month for November over at the Indie Book Club on Goodreads.

The story continues pretty much straight on from the first book (The Light Beyond the Storm Chronicles). The cast is generally the same, but there are several major additions, most notably the elf Th’alia and a chap called Marden. We also get to meet the trolls for the first time. Unlike the usual reputation of trolls, those in this book are rather civilised (and attractive).

Lord Archos and his lady wife, Dii, accompanied by various others are tasked with finding the Shining Citadel of the title. It was an ancient city of the elves, deliberately hidden away by magic when plague ravaged elven civilisation and the elves were spread far and wide. They’re assisted by the elven scholar Th’alia, but all is not quite as it seems…

Although I’ve read the first one my suspicion is that a person who hadn’t would not find themselves lost at sea with characters or story in The Shining Citadel. The basics of the world and roles of characters within it are recounted, but not at a length that would feel like an info-dump to a new reader or endlessly repetitive to an old one.

The book is an improvement in almost every way over its predecessor. The pace of the book works throughout, and I enjoyed the storyline, which rises to a nice crescendo. I sometimes felt detail was excessive previously, but here it’s pitched just right. There’s also more moral ambiguity, largely due to the new arrivals.

It’s not perfect, however. Sometimes there can be repetition of ideas in thought or speech, so that points become a bit laboured. The dialogue could be a little sharper. It never fails to accurately convey the message the author wants, the issue is that it feels a shade unnatural (perhaps a bit too formal).

Overall, I rather liked it, and I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mass Effect 3 (PS3) review

So, a bit later than I’d planned (been busy writing) here’s my review of Mass Effect 3.


It’s a little while after the events of ME2, and the galaxy has been invaded. FemShep just about makes it off Earth, which has been conquered. She sets about trying to unite the various races of the galaxy to see off the enemy, who have seemingly overwhelming power.

It feels rather less engaging than previous games, to be honest. Even the extended cut DLC (free) doesn’t make the ending all that good, although there are various possible endings, so perhaps I got a duff one.


I have a pretty major complaint about companions. Part of this I’ll cover in a full review of the Trilogy as a single purchase, but part belongs here. After a small but solid number in the first game, and an arguably excessive number in the second, the third has too few. After 10 hours of play I have 4. Now, I’ve checked (because I was wondering if I’d done what I do with Dragon Age games and missed one or two) and the reasons for this are:
One who would’ve joined me got killed during the final mission of ME2 (who lives and dies varies according to your decisions)
One who sounds pretty interesting is DLC (a pet hate and something Bioware should stop doing)
One who could join me is Kaidan, and he irritates the hell out of me

So, I’ve got 4 (at the time of writing: later Kaidan does join). Two technical, 1 biotic and 1 meathead who I’m disinterested in. So, really, I’ve got 3 to pick from. Whereas in ME2 I always took Miranda, the third spot was varied, with Thane, Garrus, Grunt and Tali often joining me.

The galaxy is as big as ever, but just about every sidequest appears to be a fetch quest. Annoyingly, you will sometimes get a quest to go to planet X, but they won’t tell you the system or the cluster in which it’s located. This is a letdown after ME2, which had some more varied sidequests, and even random missions from exploring planets could be unexpected and interesting.

Battles are very similar to ME2. Whether it’s the fact I played them back to back and got a bit used to it or because the ME3 battles are just worse, I found them a bit irksome sometimes. There’s a tendency to just hurl huge numbers of relatively easy foes at you, and some enemies are overpowered. Banshees were just a pain to fight, whereas Brutes were a challenge without feeling frustrating.


Generally improved from ME2, although not the large leap that we saw from the first game to the second. However, the character creator has changed significantly. This meant that, even importing my ME2 file, it was pretty much impossible to get my FemShep to look she should. The character creator seems a step backwards to me (from my limited furkling there appear to more options, but the end result isn’t as good, to my eyes, as ME2’s).

The armour looks better than in ME2 and works more or less the same, although customisation options have been improved. Cutscenes and so forth look nice and I think the texture loading issue has more or less gone.


Third instalment, so the voice acting is as solid as ever. Jennifer Hale did a great job through the trilogy, and others (Hackett, Anderson, Garrus etc) are a strong supporting cast.

Bugs and Other Issues

There’s a serious bug, but having searched Gamefaqs it sounds like a rare one (unlike the ME save problem and the ME2 Cerberus problem). Basically, the game freezes. This is quite rare, and normally it’d be no more than a mild annoyance (30 hours of play included 2 freezes). However, the console fails to shut down properly afterwards and does a check to see if it’s been corrupted. I don’t want to have to worry about my PS3 becoming a brick when I’m playing a game. After the first freeze, which occurred just a few hours in, I disabled autosave. No idea if that made a difference.

This is especially frustrating because I’d planned on playing it through a few more times, to take advantage of the German language option. However, I think I’ll probably give it a miss from now on.

On a lesser note there’s also a strange little bit of lag when changing floors in the Normandy. And halfway through floor 2 there’s a stupid delay for a body-scan, which never reveals anything and just causes a 5-10 second wait. The floor isn’t large, and this isn’t a major problem, but it’s just a needless and tiresome thing.


A good game let down by freezing, and a lack of quest variety. Enjoyable but fails to live up to the standard set by Mass Effect 2. 7/10 (score does not consider the freeze problem as, mentioned previously, this does not sound like a common issue).


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Review: Paw-Prints of the Gods, by Steph Bennion

This book was the Other Book of the Month over at the Indie Book Club on Goodreads.

It’s a sci-fi story that takes place in the relatively near future. Mankind has now colonised about five star systems but has yet to make confirmed contact with aliens.

The story follows Ravana, a young archaeologist who wakes up to find herself in a dubious psychiatric hospital. It soon emerges that the sick minds present are not so much the patients as the staff, and that she’s been kidnapped and drugged up.

The opening chapter is one of the strong points of the story, as it has a nice air of creepiness without being over the top, and is perfectly paced.

As well as Ravana, we follow Quirinus, her father and captain of a largely wrecked ship, and intrepid reporter Fornax.

The dig site is the centre of the story, as is the question of what the ruins are for, who built them, and whether it’s a good idea to go poking around there. Archaeologists, the police, and the dodgy Dhusarian Church all have their own reasons for investigating the ruins.

An earlier book involving the same characters has been written (Hollow Moon), and initially there’s a nice little explanation of what went on. However, this is repeated and referenced a bit too much, I think.

The writing style is really easy to read. The characters are all well-written and distinctive. There’s a sense of humour throughout, and it generally works well. Although most of the story occurs in space or a desolate planet the sections with civilised (well, relatively) life do feel realistic.

As the story progresses (no spoilers) the way the various threads become ever more closely entwined, up to the conclusion, works perfectly. I do have a gripe, the only serious one, which is that the pacing feels a little off. A slower pace earlier on works fine, but I wish from the mid-point to the end it had been a bit faster, with a greater sense of urgency.

The maps at the back (of two star systems) are simple but do a great job of conveying what’s where (perhaps they would’ve been better at the front).

So, if you’re into sci-fi that’s light-hearted rather than grim I’d recommend giving Paw-Prints of the Gods a look.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Mass Effect 2 (PS3) review

Mass Effect 2 (Shep Harder) takes place a couple of years after the events of the first game. In general, it’s an improvement. As usual with a review I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum.


After suffering a prolonged spacewalk, FemShep (or ManShep if you opt for the male version) wakes up in a Cerberus facility. Cerberus are, of course, a bad guy faction of human fundamentalists who prefer dominance to co-operation for humanity. Owing them her life, and faced with a new threat to the galaxy (and, specifically, human colonies) she agrees to work with Cerberus to protect both humanity and the galaxy.

It was pretty bloody galling not to be able to import my old FemShep directly, largely because almost every decision I made was contrary to the default setting of the game. I remember reading that the original ME2 release for the PS3 had a little comic at the start to enable Mass Effect decisions to be chosen pre-game, but that’s absent here. So, I was lumbered with almost everything being different.

[However, I have (after several efforts) since managed to save my Mass Effect PS3 file. I had to change a few settings, namely: putting autosave back on, getting rid of graphical enhancements, changing difficulty to casual, changing graphics to the intermediate setting and reinstalling the game data twice. Hard to say for certain what made the difference, but it’s a lot of faffing for something that shouldn’t’ve been a problem to start with].

There are some pretty cool moments in the game, when finding new (or old…) companions, and near the end there’s a fantastic shock discovery. The ending isn’t quite as trouser-explodingly fantastic as the climax of the first game, but it’s still pretty bloody good.


It was notable immediately that the game takes a more arcadey approach to gun battles. The skill system has been slightly rejigged but is similar enough to the first game that it won’t take a moment to adapt to. In addition, even an Infiltrator (sniper) gets to have every weapon type. I did play ‘in character’ and used my sniper rifle a lot, but it was handy being able to use heavy weapons on occasion.

Sadly, the overheating mechanism of the first game has been abandoned in favour of ammunition. I really liked the overheating system, and missed it. Ammunition is usually fairly plentiful.

Oddly, the Citadel was far smaller than in the first game. It’s easier to navigate and simpler, but it seems a bit weird. Navigating the galaxy map was slightly clunkier than it could’ve been because from each cluster a label would spring with important info (critical worlds and active quests) and they could sometimes be so close together that it telling which referred to which cluster was difficult. However, I was pleased the loading screen when flying from system to system or cluster to cluster was no more.

In addition, the Mako (a moon buggy/tank hybrid) is gone. Instead, you scan planets from orbit, plunder their resources with probes and occasionally land if there’s a mission or you pick up an anomaly. Although I was a bit rubbish with Mako-combat I did quite like cruising around alien worlds. However, the anomalies do present more interesting and varied missions than were present in the first game.

I think there’s a slight flaw with the number of companions. As with Mass Effect, your away team is just Shepard and two others. But the number of companions is about 10. It seems excessive, and also means that there’s a large number of missions that are simply recruiting them and improving your relationship with them. In their favour, the writers have done a fantastic job of making them all distinctive and interesting characters despite the large number.

One problem with gameplay is that the Cerberus Pack meant to be available for free download simply isn’t there. Neither through the main menu (as instructed) or through PSN directly.


As mentioned in my Mass Effect review, I was unable to import my FemShep into ME2 [at the time of playing] because the first game froze immediately after my glorious victory. This pissed me off quite a bit, but, happily, it was pretty easy to recreate her face to a high degree of similarity. The character creator is almost identical in structure but improved in quality. As my FemShep was quite close to the first preset (albeit with blonde hair and purple eyes) it was easy to recreate and looked significantly better.

In all areas the graphics are markedly improved. Textures sometimes taking a while to load recurs as an issue, but it’s less frequent than in the first game and still not a serious problem.

Whether in cutscenes, dialogue, or anywhere else, the graphics are a big step up.


The voice acting seems better. I really liked Jennifer Hale’s performance in the first game, and this time it seems even better (possibly due to improved writing). The rest of the crew (of which there are quite a lot) are a very strong supporting cast.

Sound effects seem to be slightly improved, and the music seems to be more or less the same.

Bugs and Other Issues

I suffered no freezing at all during the game, and no lag or hangs (a hang is a temporary freeze of a few seconds). In fact, beyond the very minor issue of textures occasionally taking a while to appear the only other problem seems to be the absence of the Cerberus Pack DLC.

After further research, it emerges the Cerberus Pack does exist. It isn’t visible from the DLC link in ME2’s menu, and it doesn’t appear on the list of add-ons, but you can see it if you search PSN for Cerberus. However, even more annoyingly, I still couldn’t download it (there wasn’t even an option for a paid download) because it claimed I didn’t own ME2.


A very good game, better even than the first one. There’s a stronger emphasis (relatively) on gunfighting over roleplaying, but it’s still got a good storyline and fantastic voice-acting. Such flaws as there are tend to be technical and minor (DLC being absent, for example) and there’s no serious issue to criticise.

I’d give this 9/10.