Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best of the Best 2010

This year I continued shifting this site more and more towards reviews and commentary and less and less about my illustration work. I did reviews for a number of sites and publishers but the lion's share of my reviews were for Black Library. This year I reviewed lots of books, some games, and ran some opinion pieces on publishing and art. The following are my picks for Best of the Best for 2010:

Best Sci-Fi Novel:

SOUL HUNTER by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
Black Library, March 2010
Released in March and it still sits on top of the heap (with some close company*). SOUL HUNTER I feel made the single largest impact on my reading, perceptions and assumptions about how Warhammer 40k Stories are told, especially regarding Chaos Space Marines.
*Honourable Mentions: A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill, Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett, Path of the Warrior by Gav Thorpe, Firedrake by Nick Kyme, The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Crosscurrent, Paul S. Kemp (Del Rey/ Spectra).

Best Fantasy Novel: 

SWORD OF JUSTICE by Chris Wraight.
Black Library, July 2010
Chris Wraight again blew me away with his ability to characterize big named characters as well as keep "the little people" interesting. Wonderful plot, great twists, and a story anyone could get in to and enjoy. Turned Ludwig Schwartzhelm and Kurt Hellborg in to realistic, breathing fallible characters. Bravo!
Honourable Mentions: Grimblades by Nick Kyme, Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross (Paizo), The Crown of The Blood by Gav Thorpe (Angry Robot), The Shadow King by Gav Thorpe. Triumff by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot).

Best Cover Art:

Path of the Warrior by Gav Thorpe, art by Neil Roberts

Enforcer by Matthew Farrer, art by Marek Okon
The Erevis Cale Trilogy by Paul S. Kemp, art by Raymond Swanland
Aenarion by Gav Thorpe, art by Jon Sullivan

Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight, art by Cheoljoo Lee

Best Editor of 2010:
We usually don't get to see who the editor is for most novels, so unfortunately we have no real way of knowing who does what, recommends X or Y, how much guidance or help an editor gives an author, etc. The only real time we see this is in the anthologies and this year we've had several good ones.
Christian Dunn, Black Library is responsible for gathering the best talent and getting books edited and off to press. When editors aren't sorting out grammar, plot and pacing issues, they are herding cats trying to get those bloody authors to get their work in on time. Editors are the unsung heroes of any publisher.
Honourable Mentions: Nick Kyme, Lindsay Priestley.

Best Author 2010:
Nick Kyme, Black Library.
While none of Mr. Kyme's novels hit the #1 spot in my categories, he was easily neck and neck in the #2 spot in every category applicable to him. An editor cum novelist Nick has been a powerhouse: cranking out quality after quality, top shelf books every time. His consistency is amazing. His previous works on the Dwarfs are stellar, and his current work on Grimblades, and both Salamanders novels (and an audiobook) are amazing.
Honourable Mentions: Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Dan Abnett, Gav Thorpe, Graham McNeill, Paul S. Kemp, Chris Wraight.

I'd like to take a moment to thank all the above-listed folks as well as the MANY others who have written, edited, drawn and painted this year's novels (and respective covers). I read a LOT of really great material and you make people's lives more exciting. You bring stories to life. Thank you all! 

Best wishes for you in 2011!

Jeff Preston
Reviewer: The Emperyan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Review: Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie

Special Edition Collector's Set
72 minutes

Captain Severus, a revered veteran warrior with a considerable reputation, has received an urgent request for assistance from the remote backwater planet Mithron. Mithron has only one site of strategic importance, a shrine defended for countless generations by a full company of Space Marines from the Imperial Fists Chapter. What dreadful fate could have overcome them that they ask for help? ...http://ultramarinesthemovie.com/movie/story

The Warhammer 40k movie. This is something that has been discussed for decades. Every fanboy of Warhammer 40k has dreamed of it...and now it is here.

So what do we have?

Well...it's CGI. This is to be expected. I think we all knew it would be. Now since it is 2010, the level of perfection capable with CGI is amazing. Throw enough money at a studio and they can make something gorgeous. Look at Avatar for films and the Trailers for Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, Mark of Chaos, Dawn of War and Dawn of War 2. We know what can be done.

As Avatar evidenced, a pretty picture is nice and all, but the story has to be good. It has to be Warhammer 40,000.

For the writing they got Dan Abnett to do the screenplay. I think it is safe to say that Mr. Abnett knows 40k. It shows. The story is good. I wish there was more of it: it was a bit short. The prelude is in the little hard-bound graphic novel included in the Special Collector's Edition, but really, I wish they would have "filmed" that as well. 72 minutes is an awfully short movie.

The CGI was pretty good. The facial capture work, very well done albeit a little static and stiff. It works ok, Space Marines aren't exactly the most expressive folks so it's passable. The animation of the characters, not as good. It looks stiff. They move like animation from Terminator 2 or maybe Toy Story. mechanical, not motion-captured. The models for Space Marines and their gear is pretty good. The skins good as well. Scoring this as 50% good, 50% not so good.

The environments were mixed. The space-based bits were excellent. The Battle Barge, the interiors and exteriors as well as Mithron from space and the star field, totally good. However when you get to Mithron it is stark and like basic CGI class 101: a flat desert with occasional rocky bits sticking up. Not good. However once you move in to the crags and then to the monastery, it turns really sharp and looks excellent. There's a reason for this of course.

This is something that should have been realized in pre-production but when you have sparse settings, the eye will look  for imperfections. The way to resolve that issue is to either have really exceptional, realistic environments (so for a desert it needs to be photo-realistically imperfect) or clutter it enough with rocks, crags and "stuff" that your eye stops looking for it. That's why the craggy bits and monastery bits work...they have enough there to make us simply stop looking for patterns that are "wrong". Anyhow, the environments get a 50% score as half were good and half not so much.

The story is solid. You have a bunch of scouts that get elevated to full battle brothers and taken by the Captain to Mithron to investigate the goings on. The vibe is on target. The dialog witty and appropriate. Nothing grossly out of place like female Astartes or the Emperor becoming a woman or anything like that. I'm sure that there will be a few purists that will balk over scouts being elevated to a tactical squad right off the bat, or the apparent age of the Captain, Apothecary. Really, it doesn't matter to me and I give it a good solid 90%

The vocal work was solid. I hope so, they got top shelf talent to do the voice work. They did well in vocal work as well as the motion capture for their faces, so that part was solid as a rock. I can't help but wonder how this would have turned out if the funds spent on voice talent were instead spent on the animators, but that is neither here nor there. A solid 90%

Audio effects were solid as was the sound track. Actually, the sound track was brilliant, I'm trying to see if they are going to release it for download or something because it's especially good. The sound effects like how the thunderhawk, bolters, explosions...good. They could have had a little more depth and the sound off the DVD had to be turned up for the voices and down for the gunfire. I'll give this am 80%

Presentation and Collector's Edition goodies. The packaging was good, I like the metal tin. The special features were cool albeit limited. Most of the imagery we had already seen on the website so it wasn't so great. The little featurettes were class though and made up for it. Also included was a hard-bound comic book. The pencils were okay, inking weak, coloring weak, story good, lettering good. Overall for the presentation, I have to give it a 70%

Overall it's an enjoyable film I've watched twice and enjoyed both times. I do admit that the Dawn of War trailers looked better (lets not even compare it to the upcoming Space Marine game from THQ.) but the story makes it worth watching as does the soundtrack.

3 out of 5 Stars.

Review: Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett

Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett
448 pages
Advance Review Copy

The Emperor is enraged. Primarch Magnus the Red of the Thousand Sons Legion has made a terrible mistake that endangers the very safety of Terra. With no other choice, the Emperor charges Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, with the apprehension of his brother from the Thousand Sons home world of Prospero. This planet of sorcerers will not be easy to overcome, but Russ and his Space Wolves are not easily deterred. With wrath in his heart, Russ is determined to bring Magnus to justice and bring about the fall of Prospero...http://blacklibrary.com

First off, I'll explain my bias. I loathe Space Wolves. Always have. I've always felt they were oversimplified Space Vikings. Thick-necked killers one step away from being khornate bezerkers. The way they were portrayed seemed lame. Why? Because I spent a decade researching and studying Migration Period cultures of Western Europe and *MY* view of the Germanic and Norse cultures was that they were SO much more than simple killers, rapists and pillagers. Seen through the looking glass of their contemporaries they were fantastically deep cultures and I thought that Space Wolves, loosely based upon them, completely missed that point. In addition, I've always been a Thousand Sons fan and I found Graham McNeill's companion to this especially moving.

Add to this that Dan Abnett, like any other author does not hit a home run every time at bat. Don't get me wrong, I still think Dan Abnett is a rockstar of an author and one of the top 3 authors at Black Library, but I feel that some of the stories published have lost a bit of the Cold, Dark and Grimness of the 41st millennium and begun to take an almost superheroic bent (This is understandable in any long running series of course). What I mean is that while Mr. Abnett's Horus Heresy Novels have been stellar, I think the Gaunt's Ghosts and even Ravenor series seem almost four-color in comparison*. Heroes that are HEROES and do almost nothing wrong, make all the right decisions, moral compasses that always point true north and the mistakes they make are so minor that they are oversights instead of true flaws. My wonder was whether Prospero Burns would be along the lines of Gaunt's Ghosts/ Ravenor or the lines of Legion or Eisenhorn where the protagonists delved deeply in the realms of grey and moral ambiguity.

Let me start off by saying my worries were misplaced completely.

As soon as I started reading Prospero Burns I was witness to a scene that was told in a manner that could have been orally explained by a skald by a fire in a longhouse in ancient Jorvik. Dan Abnett's wording, pace and the way he describes the dialog is perfect. The reader has no choice but be transported to a different place, a different time. You're no longer just reading a book, but you are immersed in a way that I have never seen or experienced before.

There are many brilliant dialogues and as the protagonist awakens and explores, so does the reader. This is deftly handled, as usual. Each of the characters is brilliantly defined. They are all imperfect in a way that I think only Astartes can be. The verbal banter between characters, especially the Vlka Fenryka is so appropriate in comparison to the real-world Norse analog. Same with many of the simple beliefs, mannerisms, little bits of superstition. Aside from being a Warhammer 40,000 story of the Space Wolves, it would be an awesome sci-fi alternate history novel for folks in to that sort of thing. I can't believe how well Dan Abnett really nailed it. Mr. Abnett has absolutely NAILED the perfect vibe for Sixth Legion.

The novel follows the protagonist, aptly named Kasper Hawser who comes to Fenris to learn of the Wolves of Fenris. He is a unique man and interesting in many ways that is detailed over hundreds of pages. As he learns of the Vlka Fenryka so does the reader. As he gets pulled in to the plot...so does the reader. Most importantly you learn about why the Sixth Legion exists, and it is a grim purpose, exposed through direct witness to how they carry out their role in the Great Crusade.

The events of the Great Crusade unfold on through the Council of Nikea and soon after to the razing of Prospero. To be frank, Prospero is the end of the book and only takes maybe a hundred pages tops. We know what happens at Prospero. Dan Abnett is not one to dally over long on battle-porn. His battle scenes are poignant, direct, and have a point.

There are some brilliant plot twists and reveals that catch you sideways as well as characterizations that will surprise you. My initial fears and prejudice were GROSSLY off the mark.

The cover art by Neil Roberts is as always glorious.

In summary, it's a brilliant novel. A PERFECT counterpoint to Graham McNeill's  A Thousand Sons. The author is able to grab the reader, pull them IN to the story, drag them through the muck, and blood, burn their eyebrows off, then neatly tuck them in to bed at the end. It's really genius storytelling. Dan Abnett is truly a master at his craft.

5 out of 5 Stars.
*Don't get me wrong. While I feel that Gaunt's Ghosts and Ravenor (among others) may not have the same dirty, hopeless, grim feel, they are still fantastic novels. I don't think I've read a Dan Abnett book I didn't like. The above listed novels admittedly have some of the characters I love the most in them. I don't consider myself a "Fan" of any writer per se, but I certainly respect the skill of the authors to make me think, second-guess and outright change my prejudices as well as pull my emotional strings...and Mr. Abnett is a master at this, regardless of the "appropriate tone" (in my own opinion) or not.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Salamander by Nick Kyme

Salamander by Nick Kyme
416 pages

Hailing from the volcanic world of Nocturne, Space Marines from the Salamanders Chapter are in search of an ancient artefact that leads to a world overrun by Chaos. They are the fire-born: implacable warriors with iron hard determination. But all is not what it seems as far more dangerous foe is revealed. As bitter rivalries break out amongst the Salamanders their endurance will be tested to the limit. Will the Salamanders survive long enough to discover the truth about this world and the revelations that will shake the very foundations of this Chapter forever?...http://blacklibrary.com

So I received Firedrake to review but hadn't read Salamander yet, so to get the full effect I picked up Salamander at Barnes and Noble...and finished the book in a night. Granted, it was a long night: I finished at 3:30 am.

Mr. Kyme starts it off with a bang: an action packed, emotional prologue that sets the stage nicely. The main characters are vivid, you can't help but get a very clear picture of them. Tsu'gan the noble-born hothead and Dak'ir, the low-born contemplative. Surrounding them are a number of very cool characters that are nicely fleshed out and make this a very characterful novel. The insight in to the Salamander Chapter is awe-inspiring. A progenitor chapter finally fleshed out in detail!

The plot is very well conceived. Very smart. There are some exceptional reveals and some additional mysteries presented. The reader is certainly kept on their toes. The author does a fine job of "splitting the party" and keeping several simultaneous threads going strong: his pacing is very good. I have to admit there are times I got a bit confused on the relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist were.

As I turned the pages, the author led me down a primrose path, setting the stage and tweaking my emotions. Of course like any good author he has plots within plots, and things going on behind the scenes we don't know of, so he's able to keep the tension going and surprises coming. Well done Mr. Kyme.

The finale is powerful. I really didn't see it coming. Maybe it blindsided me, maybe I allowed myself to be. Either way, the end is action packed and it left me anxious for more.

The Salamanders Chapter is very much a "Good Guy" chapter. They have a high regard for humanity and are very honorable in every way. I think they shine in their own way as much as any other progenitor chapter. The author REALLY gives them a very distinct vibe and I love it. I can see some others not digging it as much, preferring Mortificators, Exorcists, Blood Drinkers and other more...gritty, dirty chapters.

Mr. Kyme is also able to write at the down and dirty individual/ squad level, space combat/ strategic level as well as the top end Heroic/ Chapter Master level. This is exceptional as some authors don't seem to give the grit or grandeur the proper feel: Nick Kyme handles this deftly.

The cover art by Cheoljoo Lee is fitting, crisp and clear. Very much an iconic Salamander image. Well done Cheoljoo Lee!

Nick Kyme is on a roll! He's steamrolling his way through the 40k 'verse and taking no prisoners!
This is an exceptional introduction to the Space Marines for anyone who hasn't read about them yet, or a stellar into to the Salamanders for anyone already familiar with Adeptus Astartes. Even for those unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40k setting, this is just some damn good sci-fi/ military fiction.

4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman


Viking Adult - a division of Penguin Group

Published: August 2009

ISBN: 978-0670020553

Reviewed by Earl Davis


Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he's still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin's fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.


Every story has been told at least once. It’s the ultimate truth that all writers face. In the end, the prestige lays in how the storyteller can convince the audience to ignore that truth and accept the tale as something fresh.

The Magician doesn’t just fail. It stumbles around the stage imitating the images, themes and ideas already handled expertly in other novels. It borrows (and I use the term loosely) from J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, E.L. Doctorow and J.D. Salinger so heavily that I’m forced to wonder if Lev Grossman has a fetish for authors who use initials in place of given names.

Make no mistake, writing is a craft and Lev Grossman is a craftsman. While reading, The Magicians, I couldn’t help but imagine him; brow furrowed, back hunched, wrists bent through endless hours over his keyboard. I can taste the stale caffeine and smell the man-funk that accumulates from sitting still for far too long in the same spot. Then at last, after months and months, triumphantly his finger strikes that final period and his creation is complete.

Unfortunately, his creation isn’t his own. This novel broke my heart. I wanted it to be great because Grossman deserves it. He’s earned it, but in the end The Magicians is nothing more than a well-polished amalgamation of other works. In a way, it reminds me of the art forgers who can copy beautiful oil paintings of the Great Masters, but they live in the utter frustration at never hearing the Muses’ call.


I’d recommend this novel for any new writer as a case study. Everyone else should steer clear.

2 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: Grimblades by Nick Kyme

Grimblades, An Empire Army Novel by Nick Kyme
416 pages
Advance Review Copy

When orcs and goblins invade the Empire, the Emperor Dieter IV does nothing. While the other elector counts bicker, Prince Wilhelm is left to defend the Reikland alone. The Grimblades are among his brave army that opposes the greenskins. Amidst desperate war across the Empire and a plot to kill the prince, the Grimblades must survive this orc invasion and be victorious...http://blacklibrary.com

Nick Kyme must have the coolest job in the world. He gets to write stories that are about the fantasy realms that make up the background for games of toy soldiers. How cool is that?!?

If you are in to the Warhammer Fantasy Battles tabletop miniatures game, or the Old World setting, then you probably know about The Empire, Karl Franz, Elector Counts, rough and tumble soldiers, political intrigue and Warrior Priests of Sigmar. It's a grim and gritty setting. There's dirt under the fingernails.

I play the tabletop game on occasion but for the most part I'm a fan of the lore behind the game as well as collector if toy soldiers. I used to have an Empire Army. Sold them off in favor of my Chaos and High Elf armies. The Empire had gotten boring.

So I received Grimblades and saw Mr. Kyme penned it. "Hrm, he's that guy who did the Dwarfs novels and Salamanders stuff. This may be worth digging in to." I wasn't able to read all night as I had to be up early for an appointment, but I read along the way, before the appointment as well as on the way back, and finished early the following evening. In-between I was surfing the Games Workshop website for prices on State Troops.

Needless to say, I DEVOURED it. The characters were set up from the word go. Good solid, characters with issues, who make bad decisions, deeply flawed characters we get to see succeed and fail, be heroes...and sometimes die for it. Nick Kyme did all the right things when he wrote this one! The plot is engaging and had me guessing who the good guys/ bad guys really were.

Previously Chris Wraight's Sword of Vengeance has been lauded as pretty much the best of the Empire-based stories. This one is creeping up on it! I think the only thing that keeps it from hitting the very top mark is that there are some instances where the soldiers of the Empire are just... too good. Times where the lone halberd-wielding soldier is gutting orc after orc.(an exaggeration on my part) That sort of thing. Small areas where the suspension of disbelief is marred slightly. Of course...this is an Empire Army Novel, so the perspective is a bit (and rightfully so) skewed.

I'm glad to have this section of ambiguous Empire History nailed down a bit.

 Nick Kyme is fast outpacing his contemporaries as a weaver of exceptionally deep, rich stories we can all relate to. A wonderful read!

4.5 out of 5 Stars.

P.S. I am in the process of assembling and priming about 2000 points of Empire troops now (again). My core unit? The Grimblades: a 40 man strong unit of State Troops wielding halberds. Thanks Nick, Black Library and games Workshop for feeding the toy soldier addiction...again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton and Swinbourne in)


The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton and Swinbourne in) by Mark Hodder


Published: September 2010

ISBN: 978-1616142407

Reviewed by Earl Davis


London, 1861.

Sir Richard Francis Burton—explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.

Algernon Charles Swinburne—unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!

They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy. The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End.



In 1864, Jules Verne published his first novel laying the groundwork for the subgenre affectionately referred to as “Steampunk” by its loyal disciples. Steampunk, once confined to basements, garages and science fiction conventions, can now be found in blockbuster films and network television. Like vampires, zombies and werewolves Steampunk is now main stream.

Fear not though! Mark Hodder’s debut novel harkens back to those glory days of yore. It is a love letter to every lady that ever slipped out of her modern life and into a bustle dress. It winks and nods at the gentleman who has traded his tracksuit for a stovepipe hat and cane sword.

Imagine a group of friends sitting around one evening chatting about nothing in particular, when someone pipes up and says, “I’m thinking about writing a Steam Punk novel”. With that simple statement the flood gates open; tropes and plot points, settings and character sweep the participants along the rapids. Then out of nowhere, a pre-teen daughter walks through the room and says “What about werewolves?” A novel is born.

In the hands of a lesser writer, juggling so many ideas at once could easily spell disaster. It’s not hard to imagine this novel becoming a shapeless, unreadable mess. Hoddor avoids the trap and maintains a steady hand guiding the reader along. At times, he is less a novelist and more like the conductor of a symphony ensuring that each section moves in time.

Not content to tell merely a science fiction tale, he wraps it in the shell of a grand adventure and mystery the likes of which Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin would admire. Heavy handed exposition and lengthy description, often necessities in science fiction, are interspersed with swordplay, helicopter chases and enough intrigue to keep the beats moving forward at a brisk pace.

Oscar Wilde, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Laurence Oliphant, Edward Oxford, and many other notable figures from the Victorian era all move in and out of the narrative affecting the protagonists Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne, who are also famous Englishmen of the period. Burton is the classic adventure hero, an educated man and explorer, capable of violence when it is necessary. While he is a compelling hero, the character suffers from being one sided; focused solely on the needs of the mission at hand.

Burton’s partner in this adventure, Swinbourne, is a far more dynamic character and acts as a much needed support for the static Burton. Not merely content to be a “Watson”, Swinbourne’s enthusiasm and debauchery creates his own spotlight. In fact, it is Watson’s own masochism (he constantly allies himself with a know-it-all who chides and embarrasses him) that draws the greatest parallel to Swinbourne who is an acknowledged and proud follower of De Sade. Swinbourne’s delight and pleasure involving the infliction of pain add a unique flavor to scenes that would otherwise be throw-away material.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is well worth the cover price. It teases and titillates and like a good lover leaves you spent, satisfied and waiting anxiously for more. Hodder has created high expectations with this novel and I sincerely hope that his sophomore effort lives up to his potential.


This is a novel for any adult reader. It stands as proof that there is quality and unique writing still going on out there in the ether. I whole heartedly recommend its purchase.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Fable III by Microsoft/ Lionhead

Name: Fable III
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead
Release Date: October 25, 2010
Type: RPG
Version: Limited Collector's Edition

In Fable III, the latest installment of the critically acclaimed Xbox 360 exclusive franchise, fans new and returning will now embark on an epic adventure, where the race for the crown is only the beginning of your spectacular journey. Five decades have passed since the events of Fable II, and Albion has matured into an industrial revolution, but the fate of the kingdom is at peril.From Amazon.com

My copy arrived a few days early due to the oddities of shipping and weekend deliveries so I had the weekend to devote to the game. My wife kissed me and said she's see me in a few days.

My history with the game is that I got Fable the day it hit the streets and then spent the next 24 hours or so glued to the TV/ Xbox. I loved Fable. It was almost perfect to me. Later I got Fable II at the midnight release. I didn't warm to it immediately. It was fairly different from the Fable I knew. Albion had changed and the way the game worked changed too. I didn't care for it at first but after a few restarts I warmed up and I fell in love with Albion again.

Now it's time for the third installment and Peter Molyneux has promised some sweeping changes...and I recall my feelings about that the last time around. I pre-ordered the Limited Collector's Edition as it looked to be worth the price difference.

Upon opening the package the game case looks like a book, with a secret compartment. Nicely done. Faux leather enclosure with magnetic snaps. Inside, apart from the game itself is a deck of playing cards with the face cards tarted up with nice artwork from the game as well as a metal medallion with the guild seal on it. Very nice! Also included are some DLC items which are of fair usage. Not great, not bad. I did use the sword, though the "lodge" I visited once and never used again (was unable to put "family" there.). The clothes were ok.

I completed the main storyline and most of the side quests in about 30 hours. Most of the achievements left are for multi-player or making it through the game without getting knocked out (only knocked out twice so far) or collecting all the gnomes/ keys, weapons etc. A good full-length game with a lot of replay value!

Some of the controls are the same, so that is helpful. Gone is the need to pull the right trigger to absorb all the orbs/ XP. I occasionally pulled the right trigger for that express purpose all the way until the end out of habit. It's a nice feature. Now you don't have to worry so much about not getting all your XP. On the flipside is that you also no longer have Strength, Skill and Will divided up. You get XP in the form of "Guild Seals" which is kind of the unified "coin of the realm" for experience now. A single pool of XP. With that pool you spend points to open sections along a metaphysical "road to rule". On this road you have unlocks for everything: spells, skills, expression packs, et cetera. Gone are the days of using renown to unlock expressions (or books) all willy nilly. It's not a bad system at all. I like it because it really simplifies things. The only negative things is that it limits your options quite a bit as you only unlock the road the rule in stages, not all at once. This means you are very limited in how you play your character. No longer can you be the crude and rude bastard early on or the roguish thief (early on)...the unlocks for thievery/ stealing and being rude aren't until later in the game. (Not really a problem for me as I tend to play a goody goody at first anyhow).

As far as expressions go, you only ever have an A or B choice. Good or Bad. Nice or Rude and you have no say so over which comes up when you have several available. When you interact, it chooses a Nice or Rude pair for you and rotates through them. There is a neat sparkly effect around the good choice and flames around the evil choice. Good is ALWAYS the "A" choice for example. It's clear that someone at Lionhead loves the idea of unified mechanics.

You have your pet dog (which we always call "Dig Spot") who helps with being personable, finding buried treasure and helping dispatch downed enemies. You have no control over his expressions either. He just has a "Charisma" score that helps you be more personable. He growls a lot at everything and tends to get separated from you a LOT (collision), so his helpfulness is pretty limited. Much more limited than in Fable II. With the Collector's Edition you have the ability to have him as a Border Collie or a Bulldog (just a changed skin).

Many things are the same: silver keys are scattered all over the world (though the number of boxes they open seem fewer) and there are now a hand full of gold keys which open a few special doors. The Gargoyles are gone, replaced by Gnomes. Well...not entirely gone. They use a couple of the gargoyles as props, but they aren't the Scottish raving bastards they were in Fable II. This time you have Raving Gnomes (English). The Gnomes seem a bit easier to locate as they gain you Guild Seals and consequently tie directly to XP and completion of the main quest line (versus a secondary quest with secondary payoff). Adversaries have become much simpler: a couple types of bad guy and a boss type for each, outlaws/ mercenaries (humans), Hobbes, Balverines, Hollow Men, etc. I understand the desire to simplify things, but visually it means fewer skins/ characters/ antagonist types and a limited look. Instead of fighting waves of a wide variety of critters, you have few racial types, and a few subtypes (skins) and that is it. It makes the combat a bit boring. On the flipside of this, there are some pretty heinous waves of baddies where you get bum-rushed by a horde and are completely surrounded very quickly.

Adding the the swarm effect is that there are no status bars on the Heads UP Display (HUD). You can't see how beaten up the bad guys are and your own health is shown in the same way many other games are showing it, a red halo effect on the screen when you're taking damage. This adds to the stress of the fights which helps distract you from the limited palate of adversaries.

You have only 6 or so spells available, though these can all be combined with each other for fun effects. For the first half of the game I used Fireball + Force Push so I could do damage and keep from getting swarmed. Later I switched to Fireball + Shock for damage dealing bad-assery. You advance in melee, ranged and spell skills by type (melee, ranged, spell) rather than per spell, which is awfully nice. When you amp up your spell ability, ALL your spells go up in power. Same with ranged skills, and melee, it is shared between all weapons.

Summon Creature, Slow Time, and Health Potion are it as far as potions go. There are no Resurrection Phials. You get knocked out, you come back with a bit of a blast to knock everyone back and a scar.

Digging and Diving for treasure...the same.

There's no access to a list of your inventory. No rotary wheels or dig-down menus. Instead, everything is handled through a Matrix-like "Construct" called The Sanctuary. Takes a bit of getting used to, it's a bit slow at first, but like the menus, you get used to it. I think a lot of folks will prefer this to dig-down menus.

Flourishes are more varied and looks awesome. A flourish that results in a kill, gives a kind of "finishing move" or "Fatality" where the character does some pretty nifty stuff like kicking a Hobbe in the face, then jumping on it's chest and driving the sword through it's head. Yeah, brutal, and AWESOME! (Same as Dragon Age when a Critical Hit results in a kill).

There seems to be a bit of collision issues going on occasionally, but I think this is due to tightening up of models and improving the visuals of the game. It's a trade off.

Again they have created a beautiful glimpse of Albion. Great detail has gone in to this and it shows. From the models to scenics to posters, it all looks great. The water alone is breathtaking.

Audio (Voice):
They went all out on voice actors this time. I won't spoil it, you can dig that up yourself. It's cool to hear the voice of Theresa and recognize it as well as hear the butler or Walter and recognize who the voice actor is. That said, I don't know if it necessarily helps the game or not. As long as the voice acting is believable I don't care who plays the part. I worry that money spent on voice talent could have been better spent on coding/ testing.

Audio (Music):
This is something Fable has always scored a critical hit on and this is no exception. Fantastic musical score. Even some nice reused bits to fit a retro theme.

Plot/ Story:
Again, another good one. This is a beautifully crafted direct sequel to Fable II. The Next Generation...literally. It is clear that a new installment is planned: there are some nicely clear holes in the plot. Stuff that you would think should be addressed...totally not. Bastards you want to put in a cage...several. Ohhh, we're not done with Albion by any stretch of the imagination. Nicely played Lionhead!

One thing they did which was excellent was with any achievement that requires you to do something X number of times, it gives a little pop-up that shows how many you have done so far. "Flower Child" Collected 18 of 30 Unique Flowers in Aurora. That is awfully nice.

While it is certainly different from Fable II (and very different from Fable) in how the system/ mechanics work out, it's entirely all Albion. The flavor remains the same and I do love it. I do feel that in many cases options, "breadth" has been seriously constrained. It several points it feels railroaded. (Note: It almost always IS a railroad, but usually effort is shown to give the illusion of freedom of choice.) On a few quests you have to go with a compatriot and really, you are just taking the guided tour of the game with little room for deviation (though it unlocks areas that you can go back through later. On one hand it rewards (as Fable always has) wandering off the beaten path by placement of lots of goodies away from the "sparkly path". On the other, often you are limited in being able to go any other way. Missions are neatly divided in to specific types: Fetch missions, Deliver missions, Escort missions, etc. and it's not transparent at all. It seems that immersion was the plan for part of the game (the HUD, simpler XP, etc.) that immersion is lost when you have to do really gamey stuff to progress (shake hands with everyone, dance with everyone to gain friends and get relationship quests of the above types.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I also realize that the game is evolving and I tend to be a bit slow to accept that evolution. Like Fable II it'll take me a bit to warm up to this a bit more.

Coming from the perspective of a fan of the series and seeing the changes and comparing to previous editions I would grade this with 3 stars. I think for folks who have nothing to compare it to (haven't played Fable or Fable II) they will enjoy it more and would likely give it a 4 of 5.

I'll split the difference and give it a 3.5 of 5.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: Medal of Honor by Electronic Arts (Single Player Campaign)

Name: Medal of Honor
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Danger Close
Release Date: October 12, 2010
Type: First Person Shooter

Operating directly under the National Command Authority, a relatively unknown entity of handpicked warriors are called on when the mission must not fail. They are the Tier 1 Operators.
Over 2 million Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines wear the uniform. Of those, approximately 50 thousand fall under the direct control of the Special Operations Command. The Tier 1 Operator functions on a plane of existence above and beyond even the most highly trained Special Operations Forces. Their exact numbers, while classified, hover in the low hundreds. They are living, breathing, precision instruments of war. They are experts in the application of violence. The new Medal of Honor is inspired by and has been developed with Tier 1 Operators from this elite community. Players will step into the boots of these warriors and apply their unique skill sets to a new enemy in the most unforgiving and hostile battlefield conditions of present day Afghanistan.
There is a new enemy. There is a new war. There is a new warrior. He is Tier 1. http://www.ea.com/games/medal-of-honor

First off, it's short. 5-6 hours from start to finish. Not good in my book. That said, the quality of the story is pretty darn good. There are some challenging and interesting moments in gameplay and plot. The game touches upon some sensitive issues like friendly fire and treatment of combatants, rules of engagement, etc. Some of which I agreed with, some not. From a political standpoint it is very much an all HOOAH, pro-war, hawkish game focusing on the roles of the elite forces of the US. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers with USAF CAS guys, and Special Forces: the creme of the Special Ops community. Attention is given to identification of combatants, and in some cases it is deftly handled, at least initially. I think if it were to be more accurate, there would be more non-combatants mixed in, running, hiding, making the combats more difficult because you have to shoot the ones shooting at you instead of just killing everything in the area once combatants are identified as hostile. That's neither here nor there. One of the main themes of the game is "suits at Langley" and "Generals" making decisions from afar with little input from the guys on the ground, and the problems it causes. Fair enough.

As far as the gameplay goes it is pretty darn good. The characters are interesting. The plot is solid. There are moments where you know you're really screwed and there's no way of knowing whether you'll survive or not. That character may be doomed to die. Maybe those guys running away will have an impact later. There are some railroaded moments you cannot avoid. That's normal really, but usually they are pretty transparent. In one case a guy lights a signal. I replayed that scene a dozen times and filled him full of holes and no matter what, he always gets that damn signal off. Bummer. I did enjoy some of the hair raising moments where you really had no idea where the chapter was going or the scene would end. Heads up people...characters do die.

The game runs pretty smooth but I hit a couple snags. In one case a main NPC got stuck on an object (collision issue) and I couldn't dislodge him, and by doing so, I couldn't progress as the character is needed to get through a gateway (a door needs to be opened and he opens it). I restarted the level and it was fine. Still...it happens. The game is new and glitches will happen. There is also a scene where the NPCs often get in your way and obscure your line of fire causing friendly fire if you're not careful. This happens in a very small area and there's really little room to move, so it's a bit frustrating. The enemy AI is pretty good. The scenery is top shelf. The characters models are good if a bit limited (a few times you have identical guys shooting at you.) I had no issues of collision for the main character. No problems there.

Controller setup is almost identical to Call of Duty so the learning curve is nil.

Mapping: where some games have you running back and forth on the same map this one does a nice job of making any repetition seamless.  A fine mix of stealthy missions, marking targets, creeping. as well as running and shooting missions. It all blends nicely.

There is a variety of interesting scenes and toys to play with. You get to be an Apache gunner, door gunner on a Chinook, AC-130 gunner in addition to the usual SEAL, SF guy, Ranger, Sniper/ Rifleman, CQB guy. You get to drive around four-wheelers which is fun.

The UI is pretty basic and unobtrusive, giving a far better immersive feel than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (more or less the current standard). Overall the feel was much more...real than the gamey Modern Warfare 2 which I greatly appreciated.

Overall, my experience was a good one and I enjoyed the game. I'm looking forward to some multi-player this evening.
I expect any gameplay weirdness (a few collision issues, etc) will be sorted in an update shortly. This is easily Electronic Arts rival to Activision's Call of Duty series. My hope is that it remains the more realistic version of a modern warfare game where Call of Duty continues the trend of becoming more arcade-like.
EA's Medal of Honor creates a far more realistic and immersive play than Activision's Call of Duty series.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review:The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund

Del Rey Books
Published: October 2001
ISBN: 9780345451323

*Note: This was originally published in 2001, but as Halo: Reach is now out, this is a good time to cover this!

As the bloody Human-Covenant War rages on Halo, the fate of humankind may rest with one warrior, the lone SPARTAN survivor of another legendary battle . . . the desperate, take-no-prisoners struggle that led humanity to Halo--the fall of the planet Reach. Now, brought to life for the first time, here is the full story of that glorious, doomed conflict.
While the brutal Covenant juggernaut sweeps inexorably through space, intent on wiping out humankind, only one stronghold remains--the planet Reach. Practically on Earth's doorstep, it is the last military fortress to defy the onslaught. But the personnel here have another, higher priority: to prevent the Covenant from discovering the location of Earth.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the soldiers seem to have little chance against the Covenant, but Reach holds a closely guarded secret. It is the training ground for the very first "super soldiers." Code-named SPARTANs, these highly advanced warriors, specially bioengineered and technologically augmented, are the best in the universe--quiet, professional, and deadly.
Now, as the ferocious Covenant attack begins, a handful of SPARTANs stand ready to wage ultimate war. They will kill, they will be destroyed, but they will never surrender. And at least one of them--the SPARTAN known as Master Chief--will live to fight another day on a mysterious and ancient, artificial world called Halo. . . .

I've never read any of the tie in novels for HALO until this one. With the release of Halo: Reach I asked a buddy and was recommended this novel. I picked it up and I was very impressed by the quality of the story, the detail of the narrative and the overall skill of the writer.

I'm a former infantryman and I have to admit, Eric Nylund tells a very good story. The action scenes, including naval combat were stellar.

My initial fears about the Halo series were that if the story included Master Chief, John 117 then he'd be a Mary Sue. He's perfect. We know he survives the video games...so we know how the story goes already. He's the ultra badass: seven foot, 400 pounds of killy death. So how do you challenge him? How do you hurt him?

This is where a novel trumps a video game almost every time. We get an internal monologue we don't hear in the game. Nice! Also, if he can't really hurt, kill, maim John 117...how does the author make the character sympathetic? Without spoiling anything, Mr. Nylund does a fine job of making that happen.

The plot is good. It's great to dig in to the backstory of the SPARTAN II program. I would have liked to have a bit more characterization for some of the secondary characters, but I realize there is only so much a writer can do with limited word count and the target demographic is more interested (largely) in seeing Master Chief kick ass.

There is plenty of action to satisfy the folks interested in seeing SPARTANs in action, and enough characterization and plot to satisfy those looking for a bit more depth. I really enjoyed Mr. Nylund's no-frills, direct style of writing. maybe it was just how he wrote the characters, but it seemed very lean writing. Tight. Like a lot of the excess frilly description was left out and all that was left was the meat. I like that. Don't get me wrong, it's very descriptive. There are some authors that kind of go overboard in painting the canvas of a story and it ends up being very pretty, but the story, the drive is kind of lost. This is a very lean and direct story with just the right balance of description to set the scene and action/ dialogue to keep the story moving forward at a quick pace. You almost get the feel of trying to keep up with SPARTANs on a run. Very nicely done Mr. Nylund!

One final note: I really enjoyed that the characters seemed to be very human. The plans were made, then broken and everyone needed to adapt in order to survive. People die. This novel is pretty much a blood bath. The whole thing reeks of the UNSC and humanity as a whole getting the crap beat out of them. Winning seems impossible and survival is the only hope. It gives the reader a bit of tension which makes the story really pop. Even with Mary Sue characters like John 117 and Cortana, Keys and Halsey they all take a beating in one way or another and only by the barest margin survive the fall of Reach.

For Fans of the Halo series this is a must read novel, especially now that Halo:Reach is out. Even if you're not that in to Halo, it's a damn fine action novel with good characterization and solid plot. I'm on the look out for more Eric Nylund novels!

4 out of 5 Stars.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blood Pact Giveaway...

In honor of the forthcoming Sabbat Worlds Anthology in hard cover and the softcover release of Dan Abnett's Blood Pact, We will be giving away one softcover copy of Blood Pact on October 10, 2010.

Are you interested?

Here's what you have to do to win this brand new, hot off the press novel:

1. Answer the following question: Who killed Trooper Bragg & why? Send the answer via email to ordohereticus at gmail dot com. Be sure to include a shipping address.

2. Leave a comment on this blog containing a quote from any Gaunt's Ghosts characters in any of the novels.

That's it!
On October 10 we'll take all the correct answers, put the names in a hat and draw randomly.
The winner will be announced immediately after the drawing.

First and Only!

Jeff Preston

*Note: This is not limited to folks in the United States or anything. I don't care where you are. Postage for a single paperback novel isn't too expensive.

Review: Death and Dishonour by Davis, Kyme and Priestley

Death and Dishonour, Edited by Alex Davis, Nick Kyme and Lindsey Priestley
320 pages
(*Note. I actually read and reviewed this months ago, but neglected to post it. My apologies.)

The world of Warhammer is filled with stories of survival and bravery, and also with tales of death and dishonour. This collection explores those themes with stories from some of Black Library's leading authors including Nathan Long, Anthony Reynolds, CL Werner and many more...http://blacklibrary.com

Red Snow by Nathan Long
A Gotrek and Felix short. Mr. Long does a fine job in telling a gritty, pulpy story. A strong starter story for this anthology! My interest in Gotrex and Felix is renewed! (I'm hunting down the original tales now) 4 of 5

The Assassin's Dilemma by David Earle
A Skaven tale of treachery. I've never read any stories from the Skaven point of view before, and this was actually a pretty fun read. Enjoyable! 3 of 5

Rest Eternal by Anthony Reynolds
This one is really good. For a short story you get a brilliant picture of the characters involved that a lot of authors don't seem to achieve. This one is about a Bretonnian Questing Knight and his peasant squire and dealing with a beat on the edges of Bretonnia and The Empire. Without spoiling it, a damn fine read! 4 of 5

The Miracle at Berlau by Darius Hinks
I admittedly re-read this a couple times. It's a good story, but as I sometimes do, I got confused on what was happening. I'm not sure if it was an issue of mine or the plot. It certainly has a grim and gritty feel to it mixed with the weirdness of creepy critters. 2 of 5

Noblesse Oblige by Robert Earl
A Florin and Lorenzo tale in a pulpy style akin to Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar. The plot is doable, the intro to it amusing (and dark) and the main characters properly morally ambiguous (as is fitting in old school sword and sorcery fiction). A fun read! 3 of 5

The Last Ride of Heiner Rothstein by Ross O'Brien
A fine contrast to the previous short story: far more serious and dark. The started off exceptional: a band of pistoliers acting like ...young soldiers. Telling stories, getting a little drunk and doing admittedly stupid things. Threaded in are serious conversations and good character-building. The scene shifts suddenly and the pace quickens. Things get a little confused but ends in an appropriately "warhammer" way. 3 of 5

Broken Blood by Paul Kearney
I really liked this one. A story of two brothers ending up on different sides of the line. This would make a fine prequel to a novel.The plot is simple, no real complications here, but it plays out nicely. 3 of 5

The Judgment of Crows by Chris Wraight
Chris Wraight always tells a good tale, and this is another one. This one is steeped in magic of the Amethyst Order, undead and treachery. A fine example of dark fantasy very fitting and unique to the Old World. 3 of 5

Wolfshead by C. L. Werner
Brunner is a fun pulpy character who would easily fit in the Old West. This is another good example of a bounty hunter, anti-hero and bastard. If Brunner was made in to a film, it would have to be played by Vin Diesel. 3 of 5

An excellent anthology of old world goodness. Anyone interested in getting a taste of the Warhammer universe should pick it up. Many of the short stories in here are penned in such a manner that I wish the stories were longer. Full-fledged novels. Like most short story anthologies we get just a taste of a story rather than a meal.

3.1 out of 5 Stars.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On reviews...

Do ever wonder what the value of a review is? As an individual or as a publisher or author?
Reviews are opinions. Bottom line. At the very basic level all reviews of anything, whether books, games, movies, adult entertainment products...all opinion.

You may think "Well, some are more educated than others." or something akin to it. That is only barely true. Regarding novels, some reviewers may be able to comment about some things more often like "voice" or the tense used, but really, when it comes down to brass tacks, a review is a grade based on whether one person liked an item or not based on their preferences. While I may prefer certain things, someone else will prefer others. Millions of copies sold, every reader has a unique experience to a greater or lesser degree. I don't think that a review that goes in to why The Chapter's Due has better battle scenes and a truer feel than say... Dawn of War: Ascension is better or worse than one that blathers on about formatting issues, point of view shifts, narrative voice or any of that. makes no difference at all. Both equally valuable.

I think that the best a person can do with reviews is to find a reviewer who has a style you like, and consistent tastes. Doesn't even need to really be the same tastes as you. If Cletis the Review-Guy consistently likes what I don't...then I know if he just rips a book apart, I may dig it. Reviews put you in the ballpark of whether you'll like a book/ movie/ game or not.

Authors may get a bit more out of detailed assessments on voice, tense and plot points, but again, it really depends on the author. I do think that authors prefer a good review to a bad one, but a rant piece that is totally disrespectful usually drives away authors.

Some readers like their reviews like a tabloid: gritty and rank, full of rants and raves. Some like a conscientious evaluation: your mileage may vary.

For publishers, reviews are advertising. Even if the review isn't stellar, it still works on two levels: 1. many people know that their tastes are counter to the reviewer's tastes, so it still scores a net sale. 2. Consistently high reviews (or low ones really) show a marked bias. Who cares if the reviewer graded this book as an A+, he grades them all as A to A+. Meh. I think people appreciate a curve in their grading: not weighted heavily one way or another.

For authors and publishers both, reviews and sales indicate what people dig, and what they don't. A review saying "I was expecting X and got Y" or "There was too much of Z" are important. Publishers publish/ authors write what people want to (buy) read. They don't know if they aren't told. Sales numbers only tell half the story. A strong seller doesn't necessarily mean people loved it. It means people bought it. They may have hated it and that impacts further sales. Publishers are in business and they look forward, not just at the sales numbers.

For reviewers...reviews have an impact on sales. usually not taken by themselves, but in concert with other reviews as well as word of mouth. It's not enough to post a review anymore. You need to post a review, cross-post it to twitter and facebook, spam it to Goodreads, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble as well as put a blurb on the publisher's website (if possible).

Talk with the authors. Build up a rapport with them. Help them improve by giving them good honest feedback. They'll help you understand what his story is trying to say when you misunderstand it (I know sometimes I just don't "get it"on some stories). Talk with the publishers, keep good contact with them. If you are writing a rough review, talk to them about it. Reviewers should try and be a part of a team trying to pimp out good material and helping to raise the bar in whatever is reviewed. Above all, try and remain professional.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Fear The Alien, Edited by Christian Dunn

Fear The Alien, Edited by Christian Dunn
416 pages
Advance Reader Copy

The Imperium of Man has many enemies among the stars, but none are reviled so much as the alien. Dangerous races seek to destroy humanity wherever they turn –the brutish orks, the ravening hordes of the tyranid, the unrelenting necrons and the mysterious forces of the tau and the eldar. Across the universe, humanity and their defenders, the Space Marines, seek to eradicate these xenos threats. Yet all they can hope for is another day of survival – for to stand against the alien is to enter an unending war... Featuring stories by Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Nick Kyme, Juliet McKenna, C.L. Werner and many more, Fear the Alien is an unmissable collection for fans of Warhammer 40,000 and military science fictionhttp://blacklibrary.com

Gardens of Tycho by Dan Abnett
A fun shift from the norm: Abnett weaves a detective story in to the 40 'verse and does so nicely. Again Dan Abnett shows why he's easily one of the best authors in the BL stable. I loved the characters, especially the protagonist who is very dissimilar to many of Abnett's other protagonists. 4 Stars

Fear Itself by Juliet E. McKenna
A very strong tale of Guardsmen awaiting relief from a unit of Space Marines in the midst of a Tyranid invasion. Very gritty and very true in feel to the whole 40k "grim, dark future". Where many authors tend to save the good guys in the end, McKenna does a fine job in portraying the "holding on in the face of hopelessness" that is so very 40k. 4 Stars

Prometheus Requiem by Nick Kyme, a companion story to the Tome of Fire trilogy
Fantastic characterization! I loaned out Salamander by Nick Kyme and it never returned home, so I didn't end up reading it. After this, I went and bought it at Barnes and Noble so I could catch up. 4 Stars

Mistress Baeda's Gift by Braden Campbell
I admit it, I groaned when I saw this was a Dark Eldar story. DE tend to be so over the top evil it is hard to empathize with them. They aren't really very sympathetic characters. So I started out and I was very surprised. Braden Campbell does a fine job in telling a kind of Dark Eldar fable, complete with the moral at the end of the story. Well played!  3 Stars

Iron Inferno by C.L. Werner
Iron Inferno is a story told from two sides of the same fight: Imperial Guardsmen and Orks. Orkyness is fun, but gets old fast, but CL Werner does a fine job in making it readable. I loved how he delved in to what both sides were thinking, and as the reader getting a laugh, seeing that they were both very wrong. 3 Stars

Sanctified by Mark Clapham
This is an interesting take on an Ad Mech "John McClaine" taking on some invading Dark Eldar. It's easy to forget just how massive some of these ships are, and how nobody really knows what is going on in every nook and cranny. 3 Stars

Faces by Matt Farrer
I didn't realize until the last part of this short story that this was a [redacted] story. Honestly, "listening" to the weird madness that gripped the humans in this, I was largely lost until it all came together in the final several pages. 2 stars.

Unity by James Gilmer
This is a fantastic telling of a few guardsmen and a Raven Guard astartes on the run on a world lost to the Tau Empire. This is probably one of the best depictions of the Tau and the author does a fine job in making the reader guess how it all will end. 4 Stars

The Core by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, a companion story to the Night Lords trilogy
I know a lot of folks have been anxiously awaiting this one, and it is worth the wait. Every taste of the Night Lords trilogy, whether a whole novel or short story is a tasty morsel. 4 Stars

Ambition Knows No Bounds by Andy Hoare
A fine tale of a Rogue Trader who delves in to things far beyond their pay-grade. Rogue Trader plus Alien Artifacts plus Greed ...do the math. A fine intro for anyone considering playing Rogue Trader. 3 Stars

A very solid anthology of Xenos devilry. I don't recognize some of these author's names, but these were all excellent: I'd love to see more by them.

3.4 out of 5 Stars.
(*Thanks to Ross/ Narry for editing help.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The First Heretic- Trailer

This is really fantastic: best intro/ explanation of what The First Heretic is about.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Review: The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden

A Horus Heresy Novel
512 pages
Advance Reader Copy

Amidst the galaxy-wide war of the Great Crusade, the Emperor castigates the Word Bearers for their worship. Distraught at this judgement, Lorgar and his Legion seek another path while devastating world after world, venting their fury and fervour on the battlefield. Their search for a new purpose leads them to the edge of the material universe, where they meet ancient forces far more powerful than they could have imagined. Having set out to illuminate the Imperium, the corruption of Chaos takes hold and their path to damnation begins. Unbeknownst to the Word Bearers, their quest for truth contains the very roots of heresyhttp://blacklibrary.com

*Note. This review is pretty early as the novel doesn't hit the streets until November. However Pre-orders are important, and while I tend to review novels in order of street date, even I get hooked by my own excitement and have to jump ahead. Forgive the early peek at this wonderful novel. I'll be posting additional reviews/ excerpts all over the web as we get closer to the street date. Cheers! JP*

Take a look at the cover art by Neil Roberts: A red mutated Astartes about to open up a Custodes like a can of baked beans (or get opened up). Like the rest of the Horus Heresy…we can see where this hand basket is going. It’s a train wreck in slow motion. The Imperium of Man is going to Hell…almost literally.

A bit of back-story on the XVII Legion, the Word Bearers and the Great Crusade etc.:
The great crusade is an effort by the Emperor of Mankind to reclaim the lost worlds of humanity and bring it under one flag after a dark age of technology where humanity was spread to the corners of the galaxy then cut off from Terra. One of the core tenets of this crusade is to reclaim mankind from mysticism, religion, gods, heathenism and restore the primacy of logic.

The Emperor created 20 super-beings based on his own genes and through super-science (et cetera) made generals to lead his vast legions. These legions are made from the diluted genetic stock of these super-beings, The Primarchs. Being near demi-gods themselves these legionaries, these…Space Marines are bred to be superior in every way, stronger, faster, tougher, smarter, armed and armored the best.

Something went wrong, and through some warp-spawned mishap the 20 Primarchs were spread to the stars, slowly recovered by the Emperor and placed at the heads of their legions. Each Primarch was raised on a foreign planet and shaped by the environment and cultures they found. All the Primarchs are vastly different in look and outlook and subsequently so are their legions.

The XVII Legion is the Legion of Lorgar Aurelian. The Word Bearers. As all Legions are unique in some fashion, what makes the Word Bearers unique is that their home world is extremely…religious. The Word Bearers are devout, pious in extremis in their belief in the Emperor as well as The Emperor’s godhood: something he has always denied.

So. We have a crusade made to bring together all mankind and in the meantime purge the trappings of religion as they go. One of the largest and most loyal legions, practicing the very religiosity they are supposed to be stamping out. See the problem here?

So the Emperor of Mankind comes down on the XVII Legion and Lorgar. Hard.
Lorgar is castigated and Custodes sent to observe and report as the Legion returns to the Crusade.

That is all stage dressing for a really fantastic story delving in to the psyche of people (super-men or not) who are all extremely pre-disposed towards faith…and how a sort of conversion takes place.

The story is beautifully crafted. Mr. Dembski-Bowden really digs deep and crafts a remarkable tale of how important religion is to some people, and how something so important, so central to their character can be rebuked, deceived, and the response to having beliefs turned on their head.

Of course…central to this is how they discover what lurks on the other side of the veil. Chaos does a fine job in twisting and distorting the truth so that the only thing that remains is confusion.

I won’t spoil the story for you. ADB does a fine job really selling Lorgar, Argel Tal, Xaphen, even Kor Phaeron and the vile bastard everyone loves to hare…Erebus. I have to admit, I love it when an author can challenge my prejudices and get me thinking. That in a novel is a total win, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden does it.

The novel itself is not as fast paced as Cadian Blood or Soul Hunter (Soul Hunter is far closer in pace) but it is certainly a “Thinker” novel. Lots of moments of conversations, revelations (boy, there ARE some whoppers in there), contemplation, etc. Yes, there ARE battles. Violence DOES ensue. Actually, while I love ADB’s depictions of melee, he’s good about using violence as garnish instead of the whole entrée…which I greatly appreciate as a reader.

Like all of the Horus Heresy novels with traitors in the protagonist role, you know where the story ultimately goes and it’s akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion. You can’t help but feel for the characters, which are well developed, make poor decisions based on misinformation, lies, and emotion and want them to stop, turn around…”Don’t do it!” and hear the slo-mo “Nooooooooo” in the background.

Where Graham McNeill crafted a tale of dealing with the Emperyan from an attitude of hubris and arrogance from a false sense of control and security in The Thousand Sons, Aaron Dembski-Bowden deals with the Emperyan from the perspective of devout believers in a crisis of faith having recently been chastised by their very god, showing how fast love can turn to hate. Actually, I recommend readers of The Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill to read The First Heretic for a beautiful contrast.

In reading the novel I found it a little slow starting, but it got stronger and stronger as the pages turned. I have no complaints about characterization, plot, or pacing.

I would like to comment that there are some really smooth formatting tricks done to keep the ‘voice’ straight for the reader: there are several instances where the reader sees flashbacks, changes in POV, awkward lurches in time and voice that are deftly handled by use of italics/ parentheses, and bold text. I tend to get lost when the ‘voice’ changes but I had zero issues with it this time. I don’t know if this is the author or an editing choice but it worked. Very clear. Good job!

Also, there are all kinds of nuggets of info knocked loose from the pre-history of the Warhammer 40,000 Universe. We get a lot of nifty reveals in this novel.

Easily one of the best of the entire Horus Heresy series!

4 out of 5 Stars.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Review: Deathwatch RPG by Fantasy Flight Games

Deathwatch RPG
Fantasy Flight Games
400 pages
As a Deathwatch Space Marine you have been selected as an exceptional candidate from amongst the warriors of your primary chapter, to bring your unique talents and abilities to the fight at the furthest fringes of Imperial space. United in this newly forged brotherhood, all Deathwatch Space Marines must learn to put aside their differences and work together to succeed in the most extraordinary of missions — or face the threat of total annihilation when confronted by implacable alien foes.
Excerpt from http://www.fantasyflightgames.com

This is it, what many of us have been waiting for since the 1980’s: an RPG where we get to play Space Marines! A few years ago when we received word of the development of Dark Heresy, the geek world exploded with excitement. Having a Warhammer 40,000 RPG was something I think we all wanted. An official one, not just something we cobbled together in Mutants and Masterminds, but something officially sanctioned by the hallowed halls of Games Workshop. Dark Heresy was a dream come true.
One thing I appreciated with Dark Heresy, is that it kept the core mechanics of the existing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (basically a percentage-based system with talents and careers, and an advancement scheme for leveling). This has remained true all the way through the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series.
I think that having a core set of mechanics that we get used to, and doesn’t change makes it easier for us to understand and ultimately set it aside for a more immersive experience while roleplaying. Dark Heresy absolutely nailed the dark vibe with fragile characters on the low end of the totem-pole of the Inquisition food-chain. Rogue Trader did a fine job in capturing the space-faring angle and now we have Deathwatch to capture the brutal and bloody end to many of the very worst of antagonists.
Rogue Trader and Deathwatch truly owe a huge debt to the developers of Dark Heresy who really built the template for things to come. I think if Dark Heresy would have been anything less than a smash hit, we would have never seen Rogue Trader, much less Deathwatch. I am very pleased that the level of success has allowed Deathwatch to come to my gaming table!
So what is it?
For those versed in Warhammer 40k lore, the Deathwatch is something we all know about. For those less so up on 40k, the Deathwatch is a secret organization tied to the Ordo Xenos, a branch of the Holy Inquisition of the Imperium of Man. Made up the crème of the Space Marine crop they are sent in for the most brutal missions: when subtlety is largely unnecessary and a hive needs to be burned out, a genestealer cult eradicated, securing an Eldar artifact, executing a Tau Ethereal, rescuing an Inquisitor Lord from the clutches of vile aliens…when the mission MUST NOT FAIL, they send in a Deathwatch Kill-Team.
Space Marines are a varied lot. Each one a bio-engineered superman encased in the best armor, equipped with the best weapons and hypno-indoctrinated to be as loyal and fearless as a living being can be. Each “Chapter” of Space Marines has their own way of doing things and being steeped in traditions in a very much “Dark Age” of technology, they are all vastly different in how they act, believe, reason and interact with other Space Marines and humanity as a whole. Aside from a common set of guidelines in the Codex Astartes (which some revere as a holy text or largely ignore in favor of their own traditions) the only thing that binds these Chapters together is a common goal of defense of the Imperium. A task they all do in their own unique way.
When called upon to be “Seconded” to the Deathwatch, they must learn to work together as a team. Each of the new Deathwatch members is a veteran performer in their Chapter. Already a hero of legend by any account. The missions they undertake are the most dangerous. Suicide missions by any other description. Truly they would be suicidal if undertaken by any other force in the Imperium’s arsenal. The members of a Deathwatch Kill-Team resemble Jason and the Argonauts in the same way “normal” Space Marines resemble the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae.
A quote I heard this past weekend was that as Dark Heresy resembles a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 40k ‘verse, Rogue Trader resembles Traveller and Deathwatch resembles Dungeons and Dragons. I think this is particularly apt. Each of these games really snags a piece of the Roleplaying pie and runs with it. For those wanting a dangerous investigation with less-than perfect adventurers delving in to mind-shattering secrets…Dark Heresy really shines. For exploration in to a very grim and dark universe where Bad Things ™ are literally around every corner…Rogue Trader nails it. For a game where it is time to get in, kill everything and get out with your prize intact…Deathwatch is stellar!
Add to this that the system is savvy enough to allow for a wide bit of variation within each game: Inquisition acolytes who grow in ability and power to kick ass, Explorers who can investigate or become conquerors, or big hulking supermen who can be as silent as ghosts or discreet as the need calls for it…these games can handle it!
One last bit on the trifecta of awesome is that they are all inter-operable. It is entirely possible to mix and match between games to make it what YOU want. It really doesn’t get any better than that!
What’s IN the game?
At this stage there are rules for a handful of representative Space Marine chapters: Black Templars, Blood Angels, Ultramarines, Dark Angels, Storm Wardens and Space Wolves. Rules for representing other Chapters of Renown and creating custom chapters will come in a later supplement. Kind of a bummer, but expected.
The skills, traits, talents etc. all make sense and are well thought out. There are interesting rules for the history of your power armor and quirky bits on how it functions.
There is a LOT of material which long-time 40k fans, especially Space Marine aficionados may grind their teeth at: much of the material covering the making of a Space Marine, their gear, traditions, the gene-seed and explanations of implants, organization as well as history of the Imperium from the Great Crusade to present is covered in detail. This makes perfect sense as Fantasy Flight Games (and GW) want to net new customers (zealots) to the “cause”. Knowing a few long time 40k fans, I know there will be complaints as there is re-used art from Warhammer 40,000 and the Space Marine Codex. This I think would happen one way or another though as the more rabid and opinionated fans would end up complaining if dying the desert of dehydration and handed the wrong brand of distilled water.
So there is a lot of excellent material for newer players and a nice refresher for existing fans. Excellent!
FFG did a fine job with Cohesion, Solo and Squad abilities as well as the Horde Rules: a very smart way of handling the effects of armored supermen being able to cut a swathe through entire cults of mutants or swarms of lesser xenos. Emphasis is made on how Cohesion is gained or lost as well as how to get it back so the squad can work most effectively and carry out their mission, which will likely affect the entire sector. The very different personalities MUST learn to work together. By being true to their characters this will be a challenge, but this really is a very team-oriented game. The challenge is just as much about learning to operate as a single entity as completing the mission.
Fantasy Flight Games has captured the appropriate feel of the genre and this niche of it.
Presentation- 4 of 5 The new illustrations really are stellar, though they use of a lot of existing art keeps this from being as high as it could be. It’s still nicely laid out, clear and concise. I only found a couple typos so far and thankfully it has a nice index!
Rules- 4 of 5 Very consistent with the rest of the Warhammer 40’000 Roleplay series. Percentage systems aren’t complicated and easy for newer players to get their heads around. All the current additions to the base system are well thought out.
Price- 3 of 5 Expensive. $60. Granted this is a nice book, coffee-table display kind of book but still a stretch for many gamers.
Game Play- Not Graded I have not actually played this. I’ve played the pervious games in the series, and while they have the same core mechanic, I cannot comment on the current additions more than saying it seems to work on paper. It looks brilliant, but until I roll dice in a group…I’ll withhold judgment.
3.6 out of 5 Stars.