Monday, 29 August 2016

The Last of Us

I want you to imagine a world where morality, brutality, necessity and mercy combine. It's a world where humanity has been reduced to a shadow of its former self thanks to a disease which turns those it infects into mindless zombies. Society and civilisation have broken down. Martial law dominates the last bastions of human society. In the hinterlands, lawlessness is king, with bands of hunters having their territory, killing anyone who enters it. It is into this world that a girl finds herself becoming infected but, in a remarkable twist, finds herself to be immune to the infection. As people in one southern USA stronghold realise, this could change everything.

This is The Last of Us. It's a survival horror game originally for the PS3 which was remastered for the PS4, and it is completely and utterly brilliant.

A description of the plot doesn't do justice to the real centrepiece of the game's storytelling, the growing relationship between Joel, a borderline mercenary charged with smuggling the girl across America to the Fireflies, a freedom fighting group who will be able to engineer a vaccine from the wounds, and Ellie, the girl. It's a father-daughter relationship which grows steadily. Joel is initially cold to Ellie, as she brings up memories of his own daughter, Sarah, who died in the first outbreak.

Both characters are superb, filling their roles magnificently. Ellie is young and vulnerable, but possessed of enough ingenuity to help and the innocence to throw Joel's often brutal actions into sharp relief. For his part, Joel plays the father figure - a man prepared to do anything for his daughter - to perfection, despite the occasionally rocky relationship the two have. Along the way, the duo meet and are assisted (or hintered) by other equally balanced characters. One of the great triumphs of The Last of Us is undoubtedly its excellent writing, which takes the game beyond the bog-standard survival horrors and makes it into a character drama as compelling as any TV series or film. None of the characters annoy or frustrate, at least from a writing standpoint, and it actually feels like a privilege to watch the bond grow between Joel and Ellie.

It's important to be able to contrast the two characters because they are so different. Joel has blood on his hands, and gets more on them throughout the course of what is at times a completely brutal game. By the end of my playthrough, the kill count - mostly of humans, not infected - stood at around 400. His almost relaxed attitude to killing is contrasted with Ellie, who isn't immune to the horrors of death like Joel, although she hardens significantly as the journey progresses. Unlike Joel, however, she gets upset at times when she is forced to take action. When the violence is from Joel, some of it feels like putting the infected out of their misery while every human death is simply a necessity; Ellie, on the other hand, is hard to kill with, somehow, as though she is losing her innocence there and then.

One of the things that most of The Last of Us's detractors have jumped on is the violence. And it's true that it's a violent game. Often the violence is graphic and visceral. Yet it never feels like violence for the sake of violence. There's a necessity to it as well as an inevitability - this is life on the edge of civilisation. As humanity trembles on the precipice of the abyss, the worst of humanity has come out. Whether Joel is a part of that is a question best left to the individual player.

Before I move on to talking about the gameplay, I should say a word about the atmosphere the game builds: it's grim. The sense of bleakness meant that I never played the 15-hour game for longer than an hour or so at a time, as much as anything to stop the bleakness of the world getting on top of me as anything. There's a palpable despair in the characters, a lack of hope for the future that is probably the scariest thing about the game: forget the dozens of tense stealth sections where a single noise will alert a clicker - an infected so far gone that they're basically a walking human fungus without eyesight and which will deliver a one-hit kill - and the pulse-pounding action sequences where a single slip spells death, it's the despair which creates the real horror, not least horror for and of what humanity is capable of.

That isn't to say that hope isn't present. Ellie provides the brightest of the bright sparks, not just as hope for humanity, but as hope for Joel. Watching as she becomes more like him (or does she? It's a question that has to be asked) is another of the game's horrors. Yet she never loses her sense of wonder and hope, despite the brutality. One wonderful scene sees her marvel as a herd of escaped giraffes makes its way through an abandoned, ruined city. For all she's seen and done, she's a child and she's the future.

She's also a useful partner when it comes to the gameplay. Often games which have a character being escorted from one place to the other end with that NPC being a hindrance rather than a help. Or they end like Resident Evil 5, where the NPC is far too helpful, force-feeding you healing herbs when you don't want to us them. Ellie is a real help for the majority of the game, and I have to say the NPC AI in general is excellent. Also excellent is the enemy AI. One wrong step will see them onto you. Make a noise in the wrong place and you can expect a horde of clickers to descend, or for a pack of human hunters to start a relentless search.

Action takes place through an over the shoulder perspective on the player character. Occasionally this results in a restrictive view, but problems are few and far between. Gameplay in fact compensates for this with things like Joel's listen mode, which can help to pinpoint enemies, and having NPCs shout warnings.

Gameplay mixes between exploration, stealth and combat. Exploration is mostly down relatively linear paths (albeit paths which don't feel linear and which you do occasionally get lost down), through which you find most of your raw items for crafting and upgrades. There's a satisfying feel to the exploration, not least because the environments are varied and beautifully realised. You really feel like you're rooting through someone's old home and through dead towns - faded posters for old films hang on walls, stained bathtubs occupy bathrooms. People have left all sorts lying around - alcohol, rags, explosives, sugar, scissors, tape, pills, weapons, ammo, raw remodelling materials, tools... All of this can be used to craft a number of different things, including Molotov cocktails and smoke bombs. Each item can be used at different times; nothing is redundant, but most of it is scarce.

Stealth feels satisfying but is remarkably tricky to get right. I only mastered it at the end, when outwitting heavily armed guards by the dozen (the thought of sudden death at the hands of a platoon armed with automatic rifles didn't encourage gung-ho exploits). Otherwise, it's trial and error. Sometimes fear can paralyse you in one place, not least when you're protecting Ellie from a number of clickers and you want to time a dash properly.

Combat in some scenarios may seem preferable, but the lack of supplies means it's to be avoided where possible. When combat does happen, however, it is superb: fast-paced, brutal and uncompromising. Gun combat can be hit and miss with the auto-aim off and irritatingly imprecise when you need accuracy with it on, but there is something about the combat which means it's possible to be sucked into it completely. Its intensity is its biggest strength. When battling a small army of infected you have to live in the moment or risk being killed.

It's difficult to think of a game I've ever been more impressed by. The experience was one I won't be forgetting any time soon. It's as memorable a game as I've ever played, as well as being technically superb. It blends gameplay and story seamlessly. It makes you care for the characters whilst pulling no punches - emotionally or otherwise. Indeed, I think I might just have a new favourite game.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

If nothing else Becky Chambers' debut novel provides an inspiring story for the aspiring writer. Faced with the choice between keeping a roof over her head or finishing her book, she started a Kickstarter to fund her writing and was able to do both, going on to initially self-publish The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet in 2014 before it was picked up by Hodder in 2015. Since then, she's been able to work as a technical writer, meaning that the second book in the series is out in about two months. Triumph over adversity indeed.

Of course, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has a lot more to it than an interesting and inspiring backstory. There's a lot to recommend it. It's a space opera which focuses strongly on the varied personalities aboard the Wayfarer and their interactions on a long-term deep space trip. The Wayfarer is a tunnel ship, effectively drilling wormholes for swift travel throughout the galaxy. Rosemary Harper joins the crew, running from her own past, just as the ship is given a year-long mission into what could be hostile territory.

It isn't a novel of the unknown. If you like novels charting something new, where the science and exploration aspects dominate the plot, this isn't the book you're looking for. Emphasis is squarely on the crew of the Wayfarer, their pasts, their presents, their hopes and their dreams. The bond between the crew is thoroughly examined.

I've seen articles strongly criticising The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet for being nauseatingly liberal. Different species and races rub along quite nicely in a confined space, with respect for each other and each other's beliefs in a way they wouldn't in real life, according to these criticisms. These are criticisms I reject. What is science fiction if it feels it cannot show us a glimpse of society where everyone does have that respect? For decades Star Trek held the progressive torch of science fiction, promoting a future utopia of co-operation and showing that respect could take relations - both personal and diplomatic - a long way. It was idealistic, it's true, but that's not to say it couldn't happen. And sometimes in the world we need to be reminded that different cultures can and do co-operate. There's enough war and discord in the world to want to escape from it.

This is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet's great triumph. It is escapist, whilst presenting a vision of the world that uplifts and affirms positivity. It succeeds in pulling the emotional heartstrings whilst also providing hope. In many ways, it emulates Star Trek at its best.

That said, I could still point out problems with it. I found the lack of focus in the plot to be slightly disconcerting. Although the driving narrative is there, it's broken up into episodic chapters which break the flow slightly. At times the characters are a little too positive and forget to be living, breathing beings. But these are complaints which can be overlooked.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is well worth reading and is a rare treat. In a field which in recent years has had a negative outlook, it is a positive delight.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The End of All Things

If you like fast-paced space opera with witty characters and an emphasis on violence and warfare, you'll enjoy Old Man's War, the first book in John Scalzi's still-growing series. It's got good characters, an enjoyable plot and sets the scene of a brutal universe out to kill humanity. The Ghost Brigades followed up the first book by introducing new moral depths and fleshing out the universe to the point where ambiguities and questions could be exploited by the third and fourth books, The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale. What had been a clear case of rooting for humanity was now much more morally grey; realpolitik in the stars mattered and humanity's interests were thrown into sharp relief as other races were shown to be sympathetic and realistic, with interests of their own which clashed with humanity's expansionist policy.

The growth of the series has meant a scaling back of the action sequences and an upping of diplomatic relations. Imagine Band of Brothers slowly giving way to a series like The West Wing, only knowing that the first series remains ongoing in the background, and you'll have a rough idea of what seems to be going on in the universe of Old Man's War.

The End of All Things is the sixth book in the series and it continues its predecessors' good work in building a believable universe where politics and diplomacy matter as much as military might, and where co-operation, in true Star Trek fashion, is the best way to further the interests of all involved. Don't misunderstand me: the zany characters, strong dialogue (aside: I once taught a seminar on dialogue and used Scalzi's dialogue as an example of how it should be done; it's organic, readable and builds character by showing and not telling), visceral action sequences and moral ambiguity of the early books are still there, but if you've read the first book and skipped ahead you might struggle to believe they're the same series. Things have changed.

Structurally, The End of All Things builds on the episodic structure of The Human Division, combining four separate novellas into one linked narrative. Each novella has its own point of view character and differs from those around it. The first focuses on a brain in a box. The second is pure realpolitik. The third is as close to military science fiction as this instalment gets. The fourth ties them all up, and quite nicely.

It's hard not to be impressed by Scalzi's workmanship. He really is one of the best SF writers of this generation, with his finger on the pulse of both popular (and niche) culture and international politics. He provides both a snapshot of the world and a vision for how it could be made better. The introduction of other viewpoints from humanity's in earlier books is built on in this volume; the fact he has taken a step back to examine events from alternative perspective paints a fresh picture and removes any ideas of good and evil in the face of aggressive interests from all parties. Morality is very much on the back burner.

I enjoyed The End of All Things. It isn't high-octane military science fiction, it's true, and it often raises more questions than it provides answers, but it's still a compelling, fast-paced read which intrigues and delights in equal measure. The whole series is highly recommended, and this is no different.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Symbiont

Zombies seem to be top of my list of entertainments at the moment. A quick glance at the PS4 (assuming it's on and I'm playing on it) will tell you I've just made a start on The Last of Us, and a quick spy at my phone will also tell you that my main running app is the audiobook/interactive game app Zombies, Run. The last week has also seen me reading the second book in Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire's Parasitology trilogy, Symbiont.

Technically speaking, the mindless walking corpses in Symbiont aren't the walking dead. Instead, they're 'sleepwalkers', who have had their bodies taken over by a medicinal tapeworm in what is, depending on your point of view, either a scientific nightmare or the product of a seriously warped imagination. This has resulted in the end of the world. The majority of people having their minds enslaved by parasites generally has this effect. The problem is that due to the lack of integration all human thought has gone, intelligence fleeing with the destroyed human mind.

Sal Mitchell is our heroine and sole point of view character. After the events of the first book, Parasite, brought about the end of civilisation as we know it and major revelations have been made as to the nature of the future of humanity (hint: it involves parasites), Symbiont picks up where the story had been left and proceeds to take it further into ethically murky waters. What is human? Who gets to decide what is human? What happens when humanity plays god? More questions are asked in this than in its predecessor, but I'm not sure it's a good thing.

The thing about Mira Grant's first trilogy, Newsflesh, was that it was both light in tone and dark in nature. It asked questions, but it never allowed those questions to bog down the pacing and it never forgot about the driving narrative. Zombies and Republicans may not be everyone's thing (even if it offers a great chance for current affairs jokes), but I thoroughly enjoyed it because it maintained its breakneck pace throughout and didn't allow itself to linger. Although it was a hefty read, it didn't outstay its welcome, even in its weirder moments. Parasitology, on the other hand, loses pace dramatically in Symbiont, and it becomes apparent after only a hundred pages or so that this was originally conceived to be a duology and that it subsequently became stretched into a trilogy. I'd personally be interested to know whether this was Grant/McGuire's choice or at the publisher's behest.

To say Symbiont runs to over 500 pages (I read the Kindle edition, which says it's 608), not an awful lot happens. I should qualify that by saying that although a lot does happen on a page-by-page basis, most of the events feel like they're padding out the page count and offer little to develop characters or settings. Even the events which do take place feel like they've been spread out. It's only at the end when it feels like the story is getting back on track, having taken a sprawling detour through a bleak post-apocalyptic landscape.

There's also the distinct feeling of déjà vu which also pervaded Parasite. There are times when the trilogy has felt like a slightly off-piste rehash of Newsflesh without the politics and with the end of the world playing out rather than the aftermath alone. We have complex conspiracies, wacky minor characters (one of whom genuinely believes that his life is a video game) and an end of the world scenario. There was a freshness to the ideas of Newsflesh which made it so enjoyable, but that freshness doesn't exist in Parasitology. I may be forced to revise my opinion by the third book, but although I can't say Symbiont was bad by any stretch of the imagination I can't recommend it highly. To now I've found the whole series something of a disappointment. Hopefully I'll enjoy the conclusion, Chimera, far more.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

It

Derry is a strange town: every twenty-seven years or thereabouts a cycle of violence and death repeats itself. Children are murdered, their bodies either found in a mutilated state or never found at all. Violent events which would seem out of place elsewhere seem to go unremarked. 'It's a Derry thing,' the locals would say.

Against the backdrop of one of these cycles of violence, a group of friends is brought together, seemingly by fate. It is the summer of 1958, and these seven friends - the 'losers' - find themselves caught up in events and unravelling the truth behind the child murders. This leads them to an evil beyond what they could imagine. Twenty-seven years later the same friends are reunited when the evil they thought they had defeated awakes once again.

It is probably best known for its villain, Pennywise the Clown. With good reason. Pennywise is a capricious, unpredictable and implacable villain. He seems to be omnipresent and omnipotent at times. He inspires a sense of dread throughout, even when he isn't actually killing or maiming. His evil goes a long way beyond just being a child's nightmare, but on one level it's exactly why he works as a villain and why It works as a book.

Childhood belief and imagination plays a key role in the book, as does the idea of memory. The friends lose their memories of the summer of 1958, and it's only as the narrative goes on - intertwining events of 1958 with those of 1985 - that they regain their memories. There's a difference between the adult characters and the children they were, whilst there's also a connection between who they were and the paths their lives have taken.

Unusually for a Stephen King book, It never gave me the feeling that it was running away from the author. The Stand ran out of steam after about 400 pages; It never ran out of steam and ideas. It gained momentum as it went on. The last few hundred pages, where the big reveal was made and the final confrontation took place, were thunderous.

What King does well is create characters who can be empathised with. That this comes from a rambling writing style which expands the story probably far beyond where it should have been expanded is a trade-off which is worthwhile. By the end, you feel you've become a personal friend or enemy of each of the characters. Were King's prose stodgy the trade-off would not be worth it, but his style is easy and readable. For all his failings in planning, he's a good writer who creates believable worlds and who tells superb stories.

It is a superb story, if a remarkably long one. Those reading it will be rewarded with a strong story which draws on its setting and its characters to create a genuinely pulse-pounding experience.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Crocodile Tears (Anthony Horowitz)

When I was a teenager I loved the Alex Rider books. They were fast-paced books with exciting stories and a likable protagonist. They might not have been the most believable books in the world, but they were sheer entertainment and could be forgiven for quite a few things because of it.

Unfortunately, I grew up. What entertained me at 13 wasn't going to hold my attention at 18 and 19. By the time Alex was killed off in Scorpia (sort of - he got better) I was ready to move on. I read both Ark Angel and Snakehead and found that the series had gone beyond barely believable into the realms where suspension of disbelief just wasn't possible. A hotel in space? In 2006? Really? The end result was that it's almost a decade since I picked up a new Alex Rider book.

A few months ago I re-read Stormbreaker to remind myself of the facts. One of the scouts at the group I help out at was going to read it, and I needed to know the story to test him for a badge. From there, I discussed the series with my little sister, asking if she'd read beyond Snakehead (like me, she'd given up after then). As a result, I got an unexpected present from little sister for Christmas: Crocodile Tears, the eighth Alex Rider novel.

I'm going to shed all pretense of maturity at this stage: reading it, I felt like a 14-year-old reading Eagle Strike for the first time all over again. The premise is ridiculous, of course, and the reader has to spend most of the time suspending incredulity, let alone disbelief, but it really is a fun read even if it is a little formulaic in places.

Alex, reunited briefly with (girl)friend Sabina Pleasure and her family, finds himself at a New Year party in Scotland hosted by international do-gooder Reverend Desmond McCain. As ever, Alex finds himself in a dire mortal situation only to save himself. When a journalist subsequently tracks Alex down and threatens to spill the beans on Alex's past, the young spy turns to MI6 for help. In return for help, MI6 put Alex back in the field, where his paths cross with McCain again as he unearths a sinister plot.

Although it's ridiculous, there's a lot to like. The characters - some familiar, some new - are overblown to an extent, but certainly no more so than any of the characters in Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton (OK, and Pierce Brosnan) Bond films. Horowitz gets McCain down beautifully - an ex-boxer former Tory MP cum insurance conman who grew a public conscience and founded an international charity for helping disaster areas who actually turns out to be psychotic lowlife seems quite accurate. There's also a sense of Alex having grown a little into his role.

At over 400 pages Crocodile Tears might seem a little on the long side, but it isn't. I whipped through in about 5 hours, and it won't daunt its target audience in the slightest.

Speaking of the target audience, this is the sort of book that will encourage reluctant readers to read. It's a point made absolutely everywhere, but when a book can engage kids with its story and characters it's a real victory. Horowitz has that knack of grabbing and holding his audience's attention by speaking directly to them and tapping into schoolboy (and girl) dreams and fantasies. Thoroughly recommended.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Best of 2015

If the Big Fat Quiz of the Year is on, it must be that time of our annual journey around the sun: the time to look back and reflect on out triumphs and disasters over the past twelve months and promise ourselves that, no, we're not going to do THAT again. It's also the time of year for those irritating 'best of' lists which leave the reader cold and the writer frustrated.

I wasn't going to do one this time out. But, as I've written little and consumed plenty this year, it seems the ideal chance to sum up the best - and worst - of the year.

Film of the Year

No prizes for guessing this one. Although Avengers: Age of Ultron was great fun and Bridge of Spies was a good, engrossing film, if the new Star Wars was any good, it was always going to be my film of the year. I've seen it three times in a fortnight. That probably answers the question about whether it's any good. No spoilers, though. If you haven't seen it: see it.

Game of the Year

In the running for this are a few titles. For the first time in quite a while - possibly as a result of spending most of my reading time consuming material for my dissertation, making reading a little less fun - I spent quite a bit of my downtime playing video games. In February I treated myself to a 3DS XL so I could finally play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. I still haven't finished it at the time of writing (though I'm up to the Spirit Temple), but it has been a cracking experience. I also got a PS4 and spent a significant amount of time on Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 - it's probably the best title since Pro Evo 6, with second flights appearing on the game at long last.

Completed titles were Final Fantasy X HD and Zone of the Enders: The Second Runner HD, both on the PS3, while the likes of Civilisation V got a good play on the Mac. Also played were NHL 10, International Cricket 2010 and Virtua Tennis 3. Although I have played on a few others, it's not fair to compare them as I've not got fully to grips with Destiny and Star Wars: Battlefront yet.

Ocarina of Time just about wins in this category. In some ways it hasn't dated well, but it remains an engrossing game.

Novel of the Year

Where in years gone by I would be able to break down the novels I read into a number of categories, this year has been a difficult one. Novels have been in a minority of books I've read (or, at least, it's felt that way at times). The best new novel I read was Robin Hobb's Fool's Assassin, the continuation of the tale of FitzChivalry Farseer, protagonist of the Assassin and Fool books. It's not quite as good as its forebears, but it improves immeasurably on the Rain Wild Chronicles. And 'not quite as good' Hobb still outstrips the overwhelming majority of other writers as her characters shine through.

History Book of the Year


If it was tough to pick a winner out of the novels I read, it was much less tough to pick a (very clear) winner out of the histories I picked up this year. Richard J. Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich is a magisterial history. Running to over 600 pages, it's the definitive history of the emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany and the circumstances leading to their seizure of power in 1933. It's the sort of book that combines exceptional scholarship from a writer utterly in command of their source material with a powerful narrative told through compelling prose. Evans' books are always worth reading (his critique of postmodernism, In Defence of History, is one of the most compelling texts on historiography I've come across and is probably as much of a subject primer as E.H. Carr is these days), and in his Nazi Germany trilogy he's at his imperious best.

Football Match of the Year

From a footballing point of view, 2015 has been a bit of a disappointment. I've not played as much as I would like through a combination of being too busy for my own good and recurring injuries, and Chris Powell's tenure as Huddersfield Town manager produced too many non-events on Saturday afternoons. A 1-0 defeat to Reading in the FA Cup stands out as being probably the worst game of the year - one shot on target from either side all afternoon. On the other hand, a 4-4 draw with Derby County was football at its very best, both sides attacking and scoring some great goals. Here's to a prosperous 2016 under David Wagner and an injury-free year providing me with the chance to score some Thursday night goals.