Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Get some free games! For free!

Two of the online video game stores are giving away free games this week to entice people to look at their December sales.

Ubiplay has put up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for free for this week. This nautical take on the Assassin's Creed franchise is often cited as the best game in the series and an easy one to start off with.

GoG also has Grim Fandango Remastered up for free for this week. Originally released in 1998 by LucasArts, Grim Fandango is comfortably one of the best video games and certainly one of the best adventure games of all time. The remastered edition adds a revamped and much-improved mouse control system and enhanced graphics.

The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

Up to the early 1990s, the discussion of how life is formed and how many habitable planets there may be in our galaxy was massively restricted by us having only one star system - our own - and only eight planets and two dwarf planets to study. In the last quarter of a century, that has radically changed. 3,710 confirmed planets circling other stars have been discovered, with an additional 15,000 suspected to exist and awaiting verification. We have gone from having a handful of planets to look at to veritably drowning in them, with more discovered almost every month.

The key question is can any of these planets harbour life, even intelligent life, and if they do how can we find them? And how do you build a planet and a solar system anyway?

Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker tackles a large number of questions in her book. It looks at how the Earth was formed and the role played by the rest of the Solar system in its creation. This involves a detailed look at the phenomenon which, highly unusually, resulted in our gas giants ending up in quite distant orbits from the Sun (most gas giants end up orbiting their stars at a mere fraction of the orbit of Mercury, becoming so-called "hot Jupiters"), allowing the Earth to form unmolested in the inner Solar system. The book also looks at how water is formed and gets deposited on planets, and the degree to which water is essential for life or if other substances could be used.

The book also explores several dozen of the more exotic exoplanets, including worlds which orbit pulsars and are fried in their radiation beams on a regular basis; worlds covered in thick tar and others where diamonds literally rain out of the sky. There are water worlds with oceans thousands of kilometres deep and frozen iceballs which have been catapulted out of their parent systems and now wander on their own between the stars. These descriptions are vivid and show how chemistry and physics can combine to create worlds far stranger than any science fiction has come up with.

The book is approachable, with occasional dips into more complex discussions of chemistry and orbital resonances, but for the most part the book is perfectly readable for the layman. There's a nice line of humour in the book and the use of pop culture references to explain how certain planets work (a chapter on exomoons compares them to the Forest Moon of Endor from Star Wars, for example, and the one on rogue planets briefly invokes the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron which was likewise blasted out of its orbit around its home star).

The book also explains the techniques used for detecting exoplanets and how they are being refined further to look for planets the size of the Earth, or smaller, and how we may be able to pick up the telltale signs of life through atmospheric conditions.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its upbeat tone. Given that exoplanets seem to have added a whole load of extra steps to the conditions necessary to have life, it would have been easy to have concluded that if life is out there, it's even rarer than we thought and would be very difficult to find. However, Tasker instead keeps showing how even the craziest worlds may still be able to give rise to (at least) bacteriological or microbial life. In one of the most positive chapters, she even looks at the problems Earth has had in developing life - its frequent ice ages as the result of Milankovitch cycles caused by the gravitational tugs on its orbit by other planets, its occasional collision with large asteroids - and postulates planets that wouldn't have these problems and where life and even intelligent life could develop much more quickly than on Earth.

The Planet Factory (****½) is a fast-paced and readable non-fiction book which expands on current science, explains planet formation theories in an approachable way and is highly informative. It's also a good watch of catching up on what is a very rapidly-evolving field. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 11 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 17-18

C17: War Without End, Part 2
Airdates: 20 May 1996 (US), 11 August 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Zathras (Tim Choate), Major Krantz (Kent Broadhurst), Babylon 4 Executive Officer (Bruce Morrow), Centauri Guard (Kevin Fry), B4 Tech (Eddie Mui), Voice (Melissa Gilbert – uncredited)

Date: Parts of this episode take place in 2254, late 2258 (coinciding with the time period of episode A20), January 2278 and approximately one thousand years in the past.

Plot:    On the Centauri Prime of the future a stunned Sheridan tries to find out what’s going on. Londo tells him that it is seventeen years since Sheridan started his great crusade against the Shadows and, although he defeated them, he failed to eliminate their allies, who have apparently devastated Centauri Prime in retribution for their defeat. Londo tells Sheridan he will be executed for his crimes and is returned to his cell. He is soon joined by an aged Delenn, who tell him that their son is safe and that she loves him. They are brought before Londo again, but Londo is now inebriated by drink. He tells them that drink is the only thing that can keep "it" asleep and shows them a strange parasitic alien creature attached to his shoulder, his "Keeper" as he calls it. He tells them he has arranged for them to escape on a Centauri shuttle, telling them that in return for sparing them he wants their forces to liberate Centauri Prime from its conquerors. They agree and depart. After they have gone G’Kar, missing an eye, enters and Londo tells him that if his Keeper awakens it will know what Londo has done and will stop Delenn and Sheridan from escaping. G’Kar agrees to put Londo out of his misery and starts strangling him, but the Keeper awakens and Londo tries to fight back. Later, Vir enters, finds the two corpses, and reaches for the Emperor’s circlet. Outside, Sheridan is pulled back to his own time and Delenn urges him not to go Z’ha’dum.

Meanwhile, back in 2254 Sinclair and the others board Babylon 4 and fake a hull breach in one section, arranging for the whole area to be sealed off. They begin preparing to send Babylon 4 through time and Sheridan reappears. Zathras has fixed his time stabiliser to some degree using extra power from a spacesuit’s battery, but it is still not fully functional. Sheridan and Sinclair enter Babylon 4’s fusion reactor and begin placing the equipment needed to begin the time jump, but a power spike causes the system to overload and move the station forwards in time. Zathras stops it, but the station has moved forwards in time by some four years, to 2258. Soon ships from Babylon 5 approach and events unfold as they did before (in episode A20). Sheridan vanishes again due to the time malfunction but reappears. During the confusion Delenn has a flash-forward similar to the one experienced by Sinclair and Garibaldi two years ago: she is in Sheridan’s quarters, watching him sleep. The door opens and a woman says, “Hello?”, shocking Delenn. She wakes up again, confused, on B4. Delenn swaps her time stabiliser for Sheridan’s and dons his spacesuit as well. Zathras is captured by B4 Security, meets with the past Garibaldi and Sinclair, and they see a spacesuited figure (Delenn) appear outside, who Zathras claims is "The One". Zathras gives Delenn the fixed time stabiliser to stop her leaping around in time and Zathras encourages the past crew to abandon ship as a new time jump begins. The B4 crew and their rescuers abandon the station and return to Babylon 5, just before Babylon 4 vanishes.

The crew reconvene in B4 C&C. Sinclair has aged some 20 years, apparently due to being exposed to the time field for a second time and not having a time stabiliser the first time he was exposed to it (in A20). He guesses that the closer he moves to his own time he will get older and older before dying, which is why he didn't want Garibaldi along on the trip. He volunteers to take Babylon 4 personally back in time to a thousand years in the past and Zathras agrees to go with him. Zathras tells Sinclair that the One is actually three people, the One who was, is and will be. He says that Sinclair is the One Who Was, Delenn is the One Who Is and that Sheridan is the One Who Will Be. The remainder of the crew abandon ship and return to the present.

The White Star reappears in 2260 and heads back to Babylon 5. Draal collapses and seals the time distortion in Sector 14 once and for all. Along the way Delenn explains some of what has transpired. She tells them that if B4 had appeared with a human on board, her people would never have accepted it. She also tells them that the triluminaries - the devices used by the Minbari Grey Council and by Delenn to perform her transformation - originated on Epsilon III. Marcus, shocked, recalls that the Minbari histories claim that Valen was a "Minbari not born of Minbari". Delenn tells Sheridan that her transformation was to close a door opened 1,000 years ago, the door that allowed Minbari souls to be born in human bodies...

1,000 years into the past, Babylon 4 appears. Several Minbari battleships detect its appearance and arrive to investigate, to find that two Vorlon transports are already on hand. On board they are greeted by a Minbari who says his name is Valen and grants them Babylon 4 as a place to be used against the Shadows, but there is much work to do...


Sunday, 10 December 2017

THE WITCHER TV show gets a showrunner

Netflix have tapped Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to helm their television adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books.

Hissrich was a writer and co-executive producer on Netflix's Jessica Jones, Daredevil and The Defenders, as well as a producer on Power and a staff writer on The West Wing. This continues Netflix's tradition of promoting from within and giving writers and producers on their shows a shot at running their own projects later on.

The Witcher books chart the adventures on Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter who initially spends his time hunting and fighting monsters in the wilderness. Despite being a loner, he gradually attracts a number of allies, including the sorceresses Yennefer and Triss, the enigmatic young woman Ciri, the bard Dandelion and the dwarf Zoltan.

It is unknown what short stories and books the TV show will adapt, or if they will have anything to do with the highly successful Witcher trilogy of video games, since some of the game personnel will be working on the TV show in the effects department.

The Witcher is not expected to debut on Netflix until mid-to-late 2019 at the earliest.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 15-16

C15: Interludes and Examinations
Airdates: 6 May 1996 (US), 28 July 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jésus Treviño
Cast: Dr. Lillian Hobbs (Jennifer Balgobin), David Sheridan (Rance Howard), Morden (Ed Wasser), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain & Jeffrey Willerth – uncredited), Vendor (Jan Rabson), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman), Ranger (Glenn Martin), Medtech (Doug Tompos), Tech (Mark Ciglar)

Date: 3 August 2260.

Plot:    Ten days have begun since the Shadows launched their assault on the Brakiri and other worlds. The attacks are random, senseless and unpredictable. Unfortunately, the League worlds are unable to stand up to the Shadow vessels, but on the other hand the Shadows have not yet attacked their homeworlds. Sheridan calls a meeting with the Brakiri and Gaim ambassadors, since the Brakiri have been hardest hit and the Gaim are their nearest neighbours. The Gaim have not yet been attacked and refuse to draw attention to themselves by aiding the Brakiri. After some negotiation, the Gaim agree to send ships to help the Brakiri, but only if Sheridan demonstrates they actually stand a chance against the Shadows by providing them with a victory.

Morden arrives on the station in secret, bribing a guard to circumvent Customs. He confronts Londo, annoyed that Londo has somehow arranged for all contact between Morden and the Centauri Royal Court to be cut off. Londo refuses to heed Morden’s threats or warnings and walks off, telling Morden that he cannot do anything more to him than has already been done. Morden notices that Vir is quite busy arranging something for Londo and learns that Londo’s one-time lover, Adira Tyree, is returning to the station after two and a half years. Morden begins plotting something...

Dr. Franklin loses his temper during an operation and begins to crack up under the stress. Garibaldi and Franklin’s assistant, Dr. Hobbs, both notice this. Franklin is forced to admit he has become addicted to stims and takes a leave of absence from Medlab until he can sort himself out.

Sheridan goes to see Ambassador Kosh and tells him that the War Council they have established is demanding to see a victory over the Shadows, to see that they are not invulnerable, before committing themselves to open warfare against them. Sheridan requests that the Vorlons intercept and destroy a Shadow taskforce, but Kosh refuses. It is not yet time for the Vorlons to enter the fray. Sheridan becomes annoyed, telling Kosh that he and Delenn have put themselves, their careers and their lives on the line because the Vorlons have told them to and now the Vorlons are needed they refuse to get involved? Kosh becomes incensed and comes close to killing Sheridan before admitting he may be right. He warns him that in return for this favour he will not be able to help Sheridan if and when he goes to Z’ha’dum.

A large number of Shadow warships jump into a Brakiri system and go on the rampage. However, a Vorlon fleet appears, led by a huge mothership cruiser. The Shadows, taken completely by surprise, are destroyed and the Vorlons suffer no losses. The League worlds are heartened and sign a formal treaty of alliance with each other, the Minbari, the Narn rebels and Babylon 5. Sheridan’s hope of uniting the lesser worlds against the Shadows seems to be on the verge of actually happening. However, Morden learns of these events and breaks into Kosh’s quarters. His two Shadow associates materialise and attack the Vorlon. Sheridan has an odd dream in which his dad appears and tells him he was too proud and too afraid to help him until it was necessary. A terrific blast of light fills the station and Sheridan discovers that Kosh is dead, murdered by the Shadows in retribution for the Vorlons involving themselves in the war. The Vorlon homeworld sends word that a replacement is on the way and instructs them to place Kosh’s belongings in his ship. The ship then departs the station and dives head-first into the Epsilon Eridani star.

Londo is shocked to discover that Adira is dead, poisoned on the transport before it docks with Babylon 5. He goes to Morden and learns that, just before they broke off relations, Refa expressed his anger and hatred of Londo to Morden for poisoning him and wanted to even the score. Londo demands Morden’s help in getting even, in return for re-opening the doors on Centauri Prime he closed, and Morden agrees.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Taika Waititi in line for STAR WARS job

Star Wars franchise boss Kathleen Kennedy has said that she is interested in hiring Taika Waititi to direct a future instalment of the space opera franchise. Waititi has delivered a major, successful blockbuster for Marvel in the shape of Thor: Ragnarok and it's no surprise that Lucasfilm (also owned by Marvel's owners, Disney) are interested in seeing if they can sign him up as well.

However, it seems an odd match. Waititi has a laidback, humorous and improvisational style, noting that many of the funniest moments on Ragnarok emerged out of the cast and crew just playing around on-set. This is similar to the approach adopted by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord on the set of Star Wars: Solo, which so horrified Kennedy that she fired them and drafted in Ron Howard to finish the picture. Waititi himself has seemed dubious about tackling the franchise, noting it's less whacky and is less tolerant of changes in tone than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He even said, "Lolz, I like to complete my films. I'd be fired within a week."

Still, it'd be interesting to see what Waititi could do with the franchise, especially one that can occasionally be a bit too Poe-faced for its own good at times.

Netflix developing John Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR as a movie

Netflix have announced that they are developing an original movie based on John Scalzi's 2005 novel Old Man's War.

The book, which riffs off both Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, focuses on an old man who agrees to fight on the front lines in a war against an alien species in return for being given a younger body. The novel has been optioned previously, with some thought in turning it into a movie or a TV series. The novel has five sequels: The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Last Colony (2007), Zoe's Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013) and The End of All Things (2015), ensuring a lengthy franchise if the first movie is a success.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 13-14

C13: A Late Delivery from Avalon
Airdates: 22 April 1996 (US), 14 July 1996 (US)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Arthur (Michael York), Emmett Farquaha (Michael Kagan), Merchant (Roger Hampton), Old Woman (Dona Hardy), MedTech (James Kiriyama-Lem), Lurker (Robert Schuch), Security Guard #1 (Michael Francis Kelly), Security Guard #2 (Jerry O’Donnell)

Date: mid-July 2260.

Plot:    The starliner Asimov comes through the jump gate, the first Earth ship to visit the station since Babylon 5 broke away from the Alliance three months ago. The ship brings the mail and also an eccentric human claiming to be King Arthur. He boards the station claiming to be needed here. Franklin thinks he’s mentally ill but Marcus ponders if the Vorlons could have frozen him in time like the inquisitor Sebastian. Franklin tests Arthur’s DNA and discovers he is really David MacIntyre, former gunnery sergeant on the EAS Prometheus. The Prometheus was the ship that led the fleet that made first contact with the Minbari. There was a miscommunication and the Prometheus’s captain, thinking the Minbari were about to fire on him, ordered MacIntyre to fire first, thus triggering the death of Dukhat and the start of the Earth-Minbari War. When Franklin confronts MacIntyre with this, he descends into some kind of catatonic state. He only snaps out of it when Delenn forgives him for his actions. Cured, he heads to Narn to help out with the resistance (after befriending G’Kar on the station).

Garibaldi has a package containing foodstuffs waiting for him but is enraged when the B5 Post Office charges him 100 CR to cover the now-extortionate export fees from Earth to the station. He tries to break into the Post Office, but decides to instead blackmail them, accepting a 101 CR bribe not to mention to Sheridan that the Post Office’s quarters and offices are no longer paid for by Earth and thus they should be paying rent.

Sheridan is getting worried about relying on the Minbari too much for defence. He brings together the ambassadors from the League of Non-aligned Worlds, many of whom are fighting each other, and offers the use of Babylon 5 as a free diplomatic centre for negotiations and mediation in return for them donating ships to defend the station. Most accept the offer and additional warships from the League worlds soon arrive to aid the Minbari in defending Babylon 5.


Empire: Total War

1700. The world is divided between several major European powers, a smattering of colonies in the Caribbean and Americas, and the rising power of India, which European nations are starting to take an interest in. There is an opportunity here for an ambitious nation to seize real power and conquer the world through trade, diplomacy...or total war.

Empire: Total War was originally released in 2009 and is the fifth game in the Total War series (following Shogun, Medieval, Rome and Medieval II). It was the first game in the series to use the Warscape engine - which all subsequent games in the series have used - and also the first to move into the early modern period and depict the use of muskets and cannons on a large scale. It was also the first game in the series to actually depict large-scale naval battles between galleons and warships. It also, famously, launched in a broken state with numerous bugs, graphical and AI issues which saw it lambasted by fans.

Eight years later, following numerous patches and the somehow-even-more-disastrous launch of Rome II, Empire's problems have mostly been fixed and the game can now be assessed more in line with how its creators intended it.

For newcomers, Empire: Total War is a strategy game which is divided into two modes. There is a turn-based grand strategic map, on which armies can be formed and assembled, cities can be fortified, towns and factories upgraded and diplomacy and economic agreements formed. When two armies meet, the game switches to a real-time battle map. These battles favour real-life tactics, such as forming  strong lines to pepper enemy lines with fire whilst manoeuvring cavalry to conduct flanking attacks. You can also use artillery to soften up the enemy before closing to battle.

Empire has the widest scope of the entire series. Earlier games mostly focused on the European continent, the Middle East and the north coast of Africa, whilst Medieval II introduced the coast of North America. Empire has three distinct theatres: North America, Europe and India. Europe and India are (slightly awkwardly) linked together on the map, but for most powers the only practical way of moving between the theatres is by ship. This results in different types of military campaigns in the different theatres: a European nation invading India will be constantly outnumbered and will have to secure and hold territory in the face of unrelenting attacks (allying with one of the two native powers and pitting them against one another whilst you carve up the subcontinent is a viable tactic). The colonies in the New World are much less-developed and armies will be more primitive, mostly consisting of native American allies and colonial militia. But back home in Europe much larger armies featuring state-of-the-art equipment are more the rule. Empire feels truly epic.

One of the game's biggest changes is moving most of the buildings out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside, as well as the establishing of towns, secondary settlements lacking heavy defences which warring factions can raid or capture to cut off money. This is a good idea as it drastically reduces the number of sieges, the most repetitive part of any Total War game, and results in far more interesting field battles. It does add more micro-management to the strategic layer, with lots of clicking on towns to find out which ones need to be upgraded, but it does give more Civilization-style options to the gameplay. You can also research new technology, which unlocks new buildings, new units and new weapons.

Graphically, the game has aged very well. Both the strategy map and the in-game battles are fantastically detailed and well-presented, and of course even a moderately capable modern gaming PC will blast out the game with everything switched up to max with no problem at all. The music is excellent and the game can be very atmospheric. Once you get used to the secondary settlements and switching between the different theatres, the game settles into that sweet spot between complexity and simplicity that the best Total War games occupy. The core gameplay mechanic of building armies, fending off attacks, seizing territory, pacifying it and moving on is very moreish and it's not uncommon to get that "just one more turn" feeling that ends with you switching the computer off at 3am. On all of these fronts, Empire delivers the goods.

In other areas, the game is more problematic. The battlefield AI is not great, even on the harder difficulty levels. Some battles will feature stunning enemy tactics such as cavalry riding parallel to your infantry, with the AI happily letting its horses get mown down my your infantry rather than engaging. It's also very easy to set up kill zones and letting enemy armies eagerly rush into them. The campaign map AI is fortunately much stronger, with the computer using diplomacy, feints and tactical withdrawals far more intelligently than on earlier games (although they are still reluctant to engage in naval landings and invasions). Naval battles are unfortunately a slight let-down, with generally the bigger fleet of better ships winning. Although they look amazing, the naval battles soon get repetitive and you'll soon be auto-resolving all but the most critical naval battles.

The game does have an interesting variety in factions, with nations such as Prussia, Sweden, Russia and Austria favouring continental armies and forging land empires whilst England and Spain focus more on massive fleets and establishing colonies dotted around the globe. Minor powers such as the United Provinces face a steeper struggle to conquer enemies but can make judicious use of alliances and colonies to fund a military machine. The game leans away from the idea of painting the entire map in your colours (which is inherently unrealistic, even though you can do it with difficulty) in favour of giving your empire historically-inspired, more limited objectives. Even these limited objectives can be quite tough to achieve, but it's a lot of fun to try. The real hardcore gamers can also settle in for massively long campaigns where they try to conquer the entire world and all three theatres.

Modern editions of Empire: Total War come bundled with the Warpath Campaign expansion, which offers a very steep challenge where you play as one of the Native American tribes and have to try to hold back the invading Europeans. This is exceptionally tough, pitting guerrilla forces lacking line formations and guns against massive European field armies, but it can be quite satisfying when you rout a "superior" enemy force with cleverer tactics.

Empire: Total War (****½) is a fine game and, now it's technical issues are long in the past, very enjoyable to play. It's wide scope and lots of upgrade options make it one of the most strategically satisfying games in the series and it also has much more gameplay freedom than later titles (starting with Rome II, the series has bafflingly allowed only 3 buildings per city which is limiting). The AI sometimes struggles with this freedom, but ultimately the game emerges as one of the more enjoyable and interesting in the series. The game is available now on Steam.