Thursday, September 1, 2011

Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders


Details:
Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders
Black Library Publishing
416 pages

Description:
Inquisitor  Bronislaw Czevak is a hunted man. Escaping from the Black Library of the eldar, Czevak steals the Atlas Infernal – a living map of the Webway. With this fabled artefact and his supreme intellect, Czevak foils the predations of the Harlequins sent to apprehend him and thwarts his enemies within the Inquisition who want to kill him. Czevak’s deadliest foe, however, is Ahriman – arch-sorcerer of the Thousand Sons. He desires the knowledge within the Black Library, knowledge that can exalt him to godhood, and is willing to destroy the inquisitor to obtain it. A desperate chase that will bend the fabric of reality ensues, where Czevak’s only hope of survival is to outwit the chosen of Tzeentch, Lord of Chaos and Architect of Fate. Failure is unconscionable, the very cost to the Imperium unimaginable.
http://blacklibrary.com

Review:
In moving my usual box of BL goodness got lost in the mail so I made some purchases. Among these was Atlas Infernal by Mr. Rob Sanders. I'd never read his work before so I was excited to get a taste of what he brings to the table.

Atlas Infernal has a lot of things pulling me to it as a reader:
1. An Inquisition story. I run Dark Heresy regularly so I'm always drawn to any tales of the Holy Ordos.
2. Inquisitor Czevak is a character I've seen pop up as being quoted here and there as a knowledgeable person when it comes to anything Xenos. I figure a story featuring him would be awesome.
3. Anything involving the Eldar, most especially The Harlequins is 100% win in my book.
4. Anything involving Ahriman and his Thousand Sons is also similarly made of awesome.

I plopped down to start reading and work got crazy busy and I was forced to set it aside after absorbing half of it in one sitting. I wanted to give it a proper reading so I just sat down and started fresh. I absorbed it in a couple days (evenings) after work and it was a proper meal of a story. So much good stuff going on. Rob Sanders did a wonderful job with the plot and characters.

To start with Bronislaw Czevak is certainly no typical Inquisitor. He's sliding down a slippery slope. Hell, he's already slid completely off the path of purity and directly in to radicalism. Unabashedly so. He runs around with Xenos and damned trinkets, and his associates are completely heretical (without spoiling anything). I can't help but see a bit of the mildly cracked Sherlock Holmes in Inquisitor Czevak. Inquisitor Klute (formerly his Interrogator) plays his sidekick Doctor Watson nicely. Their relationship is fun to watch. The character development of the protagonist and his retinue is very well done. Nothing is as it seems.

Rob Sanders takes a complicated plot and makes it work nicely. Maybe it's simple in retrospect, but the way it is ladled out, drop by drop is potentially confusing. We're talking about the plots of a Tzeentchian Daemon here...it's going to be complicated. Wheels within wheels and all that. Add to this there is a lot of illusionary distraction happening as well. From Ahriman and his Rubric Marines and Apprentice Sorcerer Xarchos as well as the Harlequinade. Czevak is a hunted man. Hunted across the galaxy by The Inquisition, across the eye of Terror and the Warp by Ahriman and through the Webway by Harlequins. Mr. Sanders really gives us the feel of being chased down.

The story isn't contiguous. You think it is, but at some point you realize that the story jumps back and forth in time: showing glimpses of his trials, capture, and imprisonment. Since illusion is such a factor it all seems like a feverish, drug-induced haze, but it really works. Usually I balk at such things but Mr. Sanders really pulls it off nicely. I got a little lost on occasion, but I think that is what was intended.

The chapter breakdown is done in the same manner is Milton's Paradise Lost which worked nicely to give Atlas Infernal a very unique feel. Again, it works.

The cover art by Stef Kopinski is good. Not great but a solid piece.

Rating:
Rob Sanders does a fine job in crafting a smart, savvy plot and intriguing characters. It's a very colourful story and I enjoyed it. The characters were interesting but I would have liked to have more depth: pull my heart strings. Kill characters. Make me mourn their loss (after building them up to be cool). The author's skill at crafting plot, managing pacing and keeping it all flowing were great. I felt more like I was watching the story happen more than being pulled in to it on an emotional level.

 3 out of 5 Stars.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: Path of the Seer by Gav Thorpe

Details:
Path of the Seer by Gav Thorpe
Black Library Publishing
401 pages

Description:
The ancient eldar are a mysterious race and each devotes their life to a chosen path that will guide their actions and decide their fate. Thirianna abandons her simple existence to embark upon the mysterious Path of the Seer. She will tread a dark and dangerous road that leads her to the otherrealm of the warp, where daemons are made flesh and nightmares are manifest. For only there can she realise her psychic abilities. After unleashing her powers in battle and communing with the spirits of her craft world, Thirianna turns her skills to discerning the future amidst the myriad strands of fate. Her visions reveal a great threat descending on Alaitoc, and both the living and the dead will march to war to defend it.
http://blacklibrary.com

Review:
I've been looking forward to this book since I finished Path of the Warrior earlier this year. Path of the Seer is a telling of some of the same story, but from a vastly different perspective. To be fair, most of what is covered in Path of the Seer isn't even mentioned in Path of the Warrior; the events take place in the background or periphery.

Where Path of the Seer (and Path of the Warrior for that matter) really shine is in really delving in to the psyche of the Eldar (functionally Space Elves). They are truly an alien race, in many ways grossly different from us, and Gav Thorpe really nails it down clearly for us. In many ways the Eldar see, feel, experience the universe in full color where humans really only see maybe in black and white. Kind of like dogs and their ability to smell, see and hear in ranges we can only dream of, The Eldar are psychically gifted and emotionally vibrant.

The protagonist is Thirianna, a young (how do the eldar really define that?) firebrand of a woman who was once on the Path of the Warrior, drifted to the Path of the Poet to be self-contemplative, and now travels The Path of the Seer. She's a hot-head, difficult and stubborn as well as extremely gifted. Not only do we see how the Eldar path works, how the Eldar go through the various stages of their exceptionally long lives...but we see how their personalities and life changes have a huge impact on their entire direction. Her mentor gives us as readers some nifty insight in to how short sighted the protagonist is (and it's easy to slip in to self-critique too as he shows circumstances from multiple views, showing us that our own views tend to be...limited). It's really brilliant work.

I think the only real drawback is that I really don't like the protagonist. I had a hard time relating and getting to feel for her. She seemed like a snotty child and I personally have difficulty warming to that. She certainly gets her comeuppance though and she learns many things the hard way. Some of the backtracking is a bit tedious for those who read the previous novel but it does give some wonderful insight, so it IS valuable. Thankfully the author "touches on it" instead of wallowing in it. It is NOT a retelling of the SAME story from another perspective: it is two stories that intersect at different times.


I can't wait for the next installment. Gav really knows Eldar!

Cover art by Neil Roberts is of course awesome. It's simple, plain and works perfectly. A fine representation. I want a print of it!

Rating:
Gav Thorpe shows us once again that he's truly the Loremaster of the Games Workshop IPs.

4 out of 5 Stars.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brothers of the Snake by Dan Abnett

Details:
Brothers of the Snake
Review by Earl Davis

Description:
Best-selling author Dan Abnett turns his hand to the mighty Space Marines in his next project following the success of Horus Rising and the Armour of Contempt. The war-torn far-future is laid bare as Brothers of the Snake follows the exploits of the Iron Snakes Space Marines as they battle against the enemies of mankind. First appearing in the pages of Inferno!, the Iron Snakes Space Marines quickly gathered a loyal following and now they make their debut in a full-blown adventure!


Review:
There are moments when the Warhammer 40k omniverse can be overwhelming. This is especially true during the novitiate. With over 20 decades of canon source material beyond the original tabletop game spread throughout novels, rpgs, and video games, the gap between initiate and Lore Master of the Imperium is dizzying. Brothers of the Snake by Dan Abbott is a shining example of material helping a lowly pilgrim along the path.

Abnett is very good at writing action. That is no secret and BotS is no exception. Readers get to experience every blast, gunshot and chainsword roar as the brothers of the Iron Snake decimate enemies of the Imperium.

The unfortunate thing about writing about Space Marines is that they tend to be one dimensional, nearly invincible figures. Successful authors, like Abnett, managed to insert small glimmers of fallibility into characters like Brother Priad while maintaining the image required by Warhammer cannon. In addition, Abnett adds layers to the Iron Snake Chapter as a whole by recalling Earth’s own legend and histories. Using classic imagery borrowed from Arthurian legend, the Roman legion, the Greek phalanx and the Spartan…well…Spartans, he is able to grant a much deeper connection to what could otherwise be a stock Space Marines novel.

In lieu of the traditional novel format, BotS is more of a collection of short stories describing separate engagements of the Iron Snakes Chapter. This offers two advantages over other Space Marines books. First, it allows the reader to gradually learn about the Iron Snakes and their place among the Reef Stars. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the format makes it an easier read for anyone who is still taking baby steps along the guiding light of the Emperor.

The issues with this novel seem to be universal throughout Warhammer 40k fiction, and genre fiction at large. A need to placate a dedicated fan base combined with strict guidelines within the particular IP prevents authors from taking any real chances. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but BotS is not one of those. However, it speaks to Abnett’s talent and craftsmanship that he continues to produce such quality work within those tight boundaries.

Rating:
It’s a damn fine read and perfect for anyone with a limited amount of reading time or anyone who is new to the Warhammer40k universe.

4 out of 5 stars

Green Lantern: Spoiler Free Review


Theatrical Release
105 Minutes
Release Date: June 17, 2011
Review by: Earl Davis

Description:
A test pilot is granted a mystical green ring that bestows him with otherworldly powers, as well as membership into an intergalactic squadron tasked with keeping peace within the universe.

Review:
Green Lantern holds a unique place in the comic spectrum. Possessing none of the mainstream exposure of Superman or Batman, the character’s name is none-the-less well known among the general population. Ask any man on the street and he probably won’t know the fully history of the Green Lantern Corps, but will without doubt recognize the ring. For those with geek inclinations, Green Lantern is something more. He’s not inherently strong or fast or brilliant. No alien planet spawned him. No rich parents left him a legacy. The Green Lantern’s power pours from the well-spring of imagination. He is bound only by the limits of his mind and will. He is the hero that writers and artists and creative types abound wish they could really be.

That level of “geek love” creates an inherent problem that few movies ever manage to overcome. Green Lantern stalls a little while climbing Expectation Mountain but eventually putters it’s way over the top.

Visually the movie is striking. Film makers have started following the Jon Favreau school of thought by mixing traditional affects with CGI. Because of the intergalactic and fantastical nature of the Green Lantern universe, this film goes heavier on the CGI, but does not suffer for it. Some of the powers effects and the overall design of the film’s Big Bad are breathtaking. The action sequences and imaginative uses of the ring elicited more than one “Wow” from the crowd at large.

The movie features a strong supporting cast with appearances by Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively, and Angela Bassett. Tim Robbins even joins in the fun. On a side note, it is fascinating to me that there is character archetype, the staunch military/government official that is always filled with aging A List actors. Tommy Lee Jones, Andre Brauer, Jeff Bridges are just a few that come to mind. These supporting character add a little unique flavor to what is otherwise a standard popcorn flick. If there is one complaint in this area, it lies with Angele Bassett’s Amanda Waller character. She was underused in this film. Perhaps, she is a place holder to help tie later the later films together as Warner Bros. builds toward its Justice League movie. Marvel used a similar device with Agent Coulson.

The weakest part of the movie is its star, Ryan Reynolds. There are only a few parts in the film where Reynolds manages to disappear in the role of Hal Jordan. Most of the time, he comes across as the same smarmy guy audiences have seen in his other films. More than once, while leaving the theater, I heard viewers deliver various renditions of “It’s like Van Wilder in a costume”.

Type-casting is not the only issue with the film, however. Editing is also a major issue. At several points during action sequences, the principal character in explicably move or change blocking while off camera. I suspect that the intention was to surprise the audience when attacks or motion comes from unexpected angles. Unfortunately, this technique is handled poorly and created the feeling more akin to “How did he get over there?” This film is concrete evidence as to how important a quality editor is to a modern motion picture.

One final note about the film. WE GET IT. Ryan Reynolds works out and you need to give housewives and girlfriends reasons to watch, but I have seen entirely too much of him in his skivvies now.

Rating:

It’s a good popcorn flick that will warm some geek hearts and cause some grumbling with others. You may want to stay away from opening weekend crowds, but this is one that should be seen while it’s still in the theaters.

One piece of advice though, save your cash and see it in 2D. Color is very important to this film and 3D conversion loses far too many colors.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Star Wars Vs. Star Trek by Matt Forbeck

Details:
Published: May 2011
ISBN: 978-1440512629
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Could a Jedi knight use his light saber to deflect a beam from a phaser?

Which aliens are cooler: the Cardassians or the Chazrach?
Have any Federation ships ever made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs?
And most important . . . in a fight between the Empire and the Federation, who would win?

Ever since Princess Leia's starship hove into sight on the silver screen, fans of Star Wars and Star Trek have been debating these questions. Now, side by side, they can line up aliens, technology, story points, weaponry, and heroes from the two great science fiction/fantasy stories of our age.

For fans everywhere, this volume offers detailed information about both universes, as well as trivia, quizzes, quotes, and information drawn from these two iconic settings. So phasers on stun and light sabers at the ready! It's time for the duel to begin.

http://www.adamsmediastore.com/product/star-wars-vs-star-trek/humor

Review:
Picture this. The year is 1999. It’s May. Just over one hundred people form a line that is beginning to wrap around the side of our local movie theater. Those of us at the beginning of the line have been waiting just over sixteen hours for the box office to open. That’s one hour for every year since the last time a new Star Wars movie was released into theaters; a golden ratio illuminating the peaceful darkness of our nerd-vana. Out of nowhere a voice shatters the perfection.

“Can we just go? I’m tired and you said you like Star Trek better anyway.” The bleary eyes of a dozen nerds snap around at attention. There is a traitor in our midst. His whiny girlfriend has revealed him to the pack and he must be dealt with.

Thus, the great Space Nerd War has raged on for more than two decades. Not since the Hatfields and McCoys , went to battle over a West Virginian pig, has a family battle been waged so publicly. Up to this point, the great debate has been the subject of mockery and ridicule among the so-called normal folk. It took one of our own, Matt Forbeck to shine an honest light on the subject and force us to laugh at ourselves.

At just over two hundred pages, the book is an easy afternoon read. It’s divided into three main sections, which in turn are divided into small chapters, which are in turn divided into smaller subsections. Each chapter is punctuated with a “Cosmo”-esque quiz that acts like mirror forcing the reader to confront the reality of their nerd quotient.

Forbeck pulls no punches laying out lightsaber swipes and Vulcan Nerve Pinches with equal aplomb. His rhetorical battles range from the well-known “Vader vs Khan” to the culturally obscure “Kit Fisto vs T’Pol”. My greatest fear (and the most common issue with this type of book) would be a cop-out by the author declaring it a tie in an effort to appease both communities. Thankfully, Forbeck avoids this trap and makes a stand by declaring a definitive winner.

No, I won’t tell you who wins. Buy the book!

Rating:

This book is perfect for anyone with an inkling of inner-nerd, especially those Dads out there whose only quiet time can be found in the bathroom. Well done, Matt.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: LA Noire by Rockstar Games


Detail:
Name: LA Noire
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Type: 3rd person Adventure
Version: Playstation
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
L.A. Noire is a gritty, single player detective game set on the infamous streets and in the smoke-filled back rooms of post-war Los Angeles. Designed and developed with a nod to the classic film noire movie genre, L.A. Noire blends crystal clear graphics that bring the iconic look and feel of the era to life, with a combination of innovative technology and unique gameplay that allow you to solve crimes through interrogations and investigation. Additional features include: five LAPD based crime desks to work, the ability to analyze the case as well as suspects for clues, an accurate block-by-block recreation of eight sq miles of 1947 Los Angeles, multiple difficulty settings and more.

Review:
Cole Phelps winces at the morning sunlight, tugging gently at the brim of his hat, hoping to give some small relief to his eyes. The well-worn grip of his snub nosed .38 digs into the thick scar between his ribs; a gift from a Jap soldier in the war. Off in the distance, the grinning teeth of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign offer a welcome and a warning to the denizens of Angel City. This is a world of booze and blood, of bullets and broads.

This is LA Noire.

Rockstar has written a love letter to the hardboiled detective and all of his fans. No, this is more than that. It’s the love letter given before dinner, followed with drinks, and dancing before culminating in an orgasmic reach around that may have the neighbors calling the police.

Players are dropped into the role of Cole Phelps, a war hero of the Pacific campaign, who is now a Los Angeles police officer. Eschewing the standard tutorial structure, Rockstar chose to begin the game with Cole and his partner being dispatched directly to a crime scene. There are a few helpful information pop-ups, but for the most part education comes (the way it should for any great detective) from the mean streets.

After solving several crimes, the player advances upward in the LAPD moving from Patrolman to the plain clothes detective division. That’s where things really start to get interesting. At each “desk” or subdivision of the detective unit, Cole is assigned a new partner. The dialog and interaction with each partner constitutes some of the most fascinating elements of the game. Views on history, politics, race, marriage are all addressed in great detail. The team at Rockstar walked a tight rope with several of those conversations between maintaining historical accuracy while not offending modern sensitivities.

Far and away, the best part of LA Noire is the actual police work. Cole must scour crime scene identifying and recording relevant clues. Then as the cases proceed, suspects are interrogated. During this phase, the detective must not only choose the line of questioning, he must decide whether or not to accept the response as truthful or call the subject out on their lie. Visual clues and case notes help guide the player in making the choice. Incorrect choices have severe consequences and will cause Cole to miss important clues or even fail to apprehend peripheral culprits in some cases.

However for all of its success, the game isn’t perfect. There is one design choice that had me screaming at my television and a few technical issues keep the game from achieving digital nirvana. The inclusion of the “follow that car” missions is unnecessary at best and downright infuriating at worst. Rockstar’s tester obviously reported the same thing because after failing these missions three times, players can skip that portion of the mission.

Technically, LA Noire suffers from the same issues that have plagued third person open world games (especially Rockstar’s) from the very beginning. Invisible artifacts or tiny debris from car wreckage can stop a speeding car dead in its tracks. This is especially true when driving through the LA River. Also, there is a delay when the player’s character breaks into a run from a standstill. It wouldn’t be a problem if the NPCs also had the same delay. Unfortunately, it means that fleeing suspect will always have a ridiculously large head start making some of the chases harder than they should be.

Gameplay:
Anyone who has ever played Grand Theft auto or any of its clones will be comfortable with the gameplay of LA Noire. The same mission based, open city gameplay is at work here. Cole can even “commandeer” nearly every vehicle in the game. LA Police Commandeering just doesn’t have the same ring as a title though. The only true innovation comes in the investigation portions of the game described above.

Visuals:
While in third person, street level mode, LA Noire does not appear to be a significant upgrade over Grand Theft Auto IV. At first, gamers may be a little underwhelmed. Fear not though, once the interrogations gear up, you will be blown away. Rockstar created a new form of face mapping and hired myriad of B and C List acting talent to film the question and response sequences. The level of facial detail and visual cues for lying are on a scale never seen in a video game. It is quite simply, stunning.

A great part of the fun of this game is trying to identify exactly which movie or television show you recognize the game character from.

Audio (Voice):
The IMDB entry for LA Noire lists over 150 individual voice actors. Do I need to say more?

Audio (Music):
Rockstar is the king of “in game” entertainment and the title remains safely with them. The radio programs and music are 100% of the period. Even those who aren’t fans of big band swing or pre-television radio drama should appreciate the painstaking level of detail in these performances.

Plot/Story:
It’s dark, gritty, well-conceived and tied into the Black Dhalia murders. Anyone who spoils this plot should be punched in the throat.

Extras:
The PS3 version from Gamestop included two additional cases, “The Consul’s Car” and “The Naked City”. Both cases are mildly interesting but don’t add anything significant to the game beyond an extra chance to gain experience.

A third extra, a badge collection challenge is far more entertaining. The challenge itself is a pretty standard “roam the city and collect” challenge. Clues to the various locations are pure genius. Rockstar included a series of photo negatives that reveal the targets. It’s the perfect mini-game, hands down.

PS3 vs. XBOX360:
Historically, Rockstar games have run far better on the XBOX 360 than the PS3. With LA Noire, that streak is broken. The PS3 edition maintains a solid frame rate equivalent to the 360 edition. Plus the PS3 version is just prettier. Details are sharper, shadows are more defined and reflective surfaces fare far better on the PS3. When added with the fact that the PS3 edition comes on a single bluray versus three discs for the 360, I must declare the PS3 edition the winner in this showdown.

Grading:
LA Noire is a masterpiece. It’s not perfect but then again neither is the Venus de Milo. Purchase this game. Purchase it brand new and unwrapped because Rockstar deserves every cent.
5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: The Purging of Kadillus


Details:
A Space Marines Battles Novel
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Faced with an ork invasion of Piscina IV, the 3rd Company of the Dark Angels believes the threat to be minimal. As enemy numbers continue to increase, their commander, Captain Belial, insists that his Company are strong enough to resist. But Scout-Sergeant Naaman knows just how dangerous this foe can be, and when a renewed greenskin offensive takes the Dark Angels by surprise, the orks swarm towards Kadillus Harbour. Little do the Dark Angels know of the technological power available to the xenos, and the true scale of the threat they face. Belial, Naaman and their fellow Astartes fight a desperate siege at Kadillus, knowing that they must hold out until Imperial reinforcements arrive or the planet will be lost.

Review:

Fiction should be immersive. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule. The sweetness of Turkish Delight, the smell of salt and sailor funk from the deck of the Bounty, the stillness in the air as young Wart slides the blade from the anvil have been experienced by millions of readers. Successful fiction authors do not tell stories. They open doors.

The Purging of Kadillus is a door. When I knocked, Gav Thorpe answered with fresh baked cookies and a smile.

I have two pages of notes that I took while reading this novel. I started this review fully prepared to rave about the brilliant characters. I wanted to detail the finely crafted imagery and map out the bits and beats that Thorpe uses like a shiny lure to pull the little fishy (me) along, but that would be doing him a disservice. In his tale of the Dark Angels and their defense of the besieged world of Kadillus, Thorpe transcends the common and sometimes clich├ęd language of the standard book review.

Imagine a grown, thirty-year old man lying in bed reading. It’s dark because the daylight has long since faded and only a small lamp illuminates the room. A comforter is pulled over his head concealing him from the approaching Ork invasion force. He doesn’t dare move because movement means death and a death without tactical advantage serves neither the Lion nor the Emperor.

That’s how I found myself experiencing the purging of Kadillus and the best praise I can think of is to simply say: Thank you Gav Thorpe.

Rating:
Everyone who enjoys science fiction or war stories should be reading this novel. Kudos goes out to the Black Library for green lighting it. It deserves far greater exposure than it has received thus far.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Hunt for Voldorius by Andy Hoare

Details:
Hunt for Voldorius
A Space Marines Battle Novel
Black Library Publishing
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
Captain Kor'sarro Khan of the White Scars is petitioned by his Chapter Master to hunt down and destroy the daemon prince Voldorius, a warleader of the renegade Alpha Legion, thus ending his reign of terror across the stars. Hunting the beast doggedly for over a decade, Kor'sarro finally brings Voldorius to battle on Quintus, a world that has totally given itself over to the Alpha Legion. Together with their Raven Guard allies, the White Scars must fight an entire planet if they are to slay the daemon prince.

Review:
Reviewing genre fiction where there is a vocal and deeply entrenched fan base is something akin to walking through a minefield with snow shoes on. From one direction or another, the blast is coming and it’s probably going to be messy. Fortunately, genre fiction and more specifically franchise tie-ins have improved over the last two decades making the path a great deal less treacherous.

Unfortunately, there is still a mine or two left to be stepped on.

Novels in the Space Marines Battles series are snapshots in space time. They focus on a specific campaign involving specific companies within the Warhammer 40k universe. Think “Saving Private Ryan”, only instead of Tom Hanks the reader gets Kor’sarro Khan, leader of the White Scars. The strength inherent in this type of war tale lies in its intimacy. It offers a chance for the author to shine a spotlight on the grim reality of war. Readers are side by side with the combatants, tasting the dirt and blood in the air, despairing as a brother soldier flails in pain from a brutal wound and fighting with grim determination until the last gunshot fades to echo. It’s the closest we mere mortals can ever really get to marching forward under the shining light of the Emperor.

However, instead of a spotlight, Andy Hoare offers the reader a flashlight that seems to cut out at the most inopportune times.

In a character driven narrative, like Hunt for Voldorius, some weakness in plot is forgivable barring that the strength and dynamic of its main characters can pick up the slack. Kor’sarro Khan and his fellow White Scars fail in that regard. They are so one dimensional that “transparent” might be the best single word to describe them. Also, they are absent from a great portion of the novel in any real capacity. Kor’sarro himself feels more like a bookend than the protagonist of a war story. In fact, only one character feels like she has any depth at all. Malya L’nor , former leader of the Quintus resistance, is far and away the shining star of Hoare’s work. Presented with unspeakable choices and forced to make unthinkable sacrifices, Malya is the perfect example of the quality of work that Hoare is capable of producing. It is a shame that quality didn’t carry over to any other part of Hunt for Voldorius.

The failed characterizations as profound as they are though, pale in comparison to the real failing of this work; passive repetition and confounding technical choices. Entire sections of this “action” novel are written in a passive voice that ejects the reader from any sense of immersion in this fantasy world. No one in this story did anything but everyone “had done” something over and over and over again. I am at a loss to understand how those passages made it past an editor. This passive voice coupled with the author’s penchant for overly complex sentences in the middle of what should be a fast paced, assault sequence makes this a very frustrating read. Far too often, Hoare reaches for the lightning but pulls back only a handful of lightning bugs.

Rating:
Warhammer 40k completionists will buy this. Some may even cheer as specific tie-in aspects that they love appear, for example the appearance of the Raven Guard chapter. Everyone else should save their cash. There are far better novels in this series that will scratch the same itch.

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Review: Blood Reaver by Aaron Dembski-Bowden


Details:
Blood Reaver by Aaron Dembski-Bowden
A Night Lords Novel
416 pages

Description:
Driven on by their hatred of the False Emperor, the Night Lords stalk the shadows of the galaxy, eternally seeking revenge for the death of their primarch. Their dark quest leads them to a fractious alliance with the Red Corsairs, united only by a common enemy. Together with this piratical band of renegades, they bring their ways of destruction to the fortress-monastery of the Marines Errant.

Review:
To be fair I have been anticipating Blood Reaver for a long time. I read Soul Hunter and loved it. Best book of 2010. I had some reservations on whether ADB could top his previous novel in the series. They were totally unfounded.


Blood Reaver as a sequel or part of an ongoing series of novels, short stories, audio dramas works beautifully. Mr. Dembski-Bowden does a fantastic job with characterization. You can't help but dig the characters. They all have a distinct voice. I think it is fair to say that these stand up nicely as stand alone stories too. The author does a fine job in keeping the plot largely contained and anything referring to previous plots/ stories is nicely explained without violating the show vs. tell "rule". Really nicely done.


The plot is pretty tight. Everything comes together nicely. Almost too nicely. There were instances where I felt that the author loved his characters too much: they were just too good. They fight better, plan better, do all the right things. For the most part I was wrong. The characters DO get in trouble. ADB does an excellent job in giving the reader surprises without resorting the the lame swtcheroo, or last minute twist. Important characters do die.


The characters we all know and love are all there. Talos is of course stellar. Cyrion, Xarl, Uzas, Mercutian, Septimus, Octavia. The old crew, still present. New faces arrive on scene and become crucial. You can't help but feel for them. All of the characters get some attention, but most especially Uzas, which was surprising, and most excellent. The Exalted has an excellent part in this, and the expansion on him is most welcome. I was very happy with how he was fleshed out. Ruven as well. Some wonderful scenes with him. Overall, Aaron Dembski-Bowden makes wonderful characters we all admire/ hate, laugh/cry with. These aren't two-dimensional cardboard cut-out characters that are easily created and tossed away. These are lovingly crafted, detailed characters that the author puts through the wringer.


There are some juicy secrets illuminated in this novel. A little more of the curtain around the Eighth Legion pulled back. It's all good stuff. ADB is a horrible tease. You can't help but feel that Talos is fighting a losing battle: trying to restore the legion to former glories in some way. It is SO interesting to see how the night Lords aren't a Chaos Legion per se. They certainly are no Word Bearers, but you can see how so many of the Legion's finest have fallen from the original path as renegades, traitors. So many have been twisted in to something monsterous (as if being a post-human superman killing machine wasn't monsterous enough). So many are compromised by chaos in one way or another.Uzas is just an obvious example, but all of them are in some way compromised. You can't help but love Septimus and Octavia. Both now faced with this corruption daily, living with it...surviving in spite of it. Haven't I mentioned that the characters are awesome? Yeah, they really are.


I was discussing with a friend of mine about how Aaron Dembski-Bowden has a very unique writing style. In some ways it almost feels anachronistic. he writes so succinctly, direct, in your face. His descriptions feel very personal, real and in many cases fit today's language and nuance. Something young adults and adults in 2011 would easily recognize and understand, but in relationship to the "Grim Dark Future" are almost out of place. Almost. I can't explain why, but it works. Maybe it's just his style, and we forgive it because he writes everything else so beautifully. I don't know. I think if someone else tried it it wouldn't necessarily work, or work near as well. It's THE ADB STYLE, and like the Dan'verse, it is unique to the author. I think it is brilliant. It totally works. I think it is part of what makes ADB the rockstar he is today.


We get some fun glimpses in to the Red Corsiars, Marines Errant, their characters, and their vibe. Now I want to see more about the Red Corsairs and the Tyrant of Badab, Huron Blackheart. Fantastic character. I hate him.


Cover art by Jon Sullivan is of course excellent. Jon never fails to satisfy.


Rating:
Aaron Dembski-Bowden has proved again that he is a powerhouse of a writer. A damn fine tale of betrayal, regret and vengeance.
Ave Dominus Nox.

4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Fall of Damnos by Nick Kyme



Details:
Fall of Damnos, Nick Kyme
A Space Marine Battles Novel
416 pages
Advance Review Copy

Description:
When Damnos is hit by cataclysmic earthquakes, an ancient force is awakened. Deep beneath the earth, the necrons rise from their slumber to decimate the human populace. All appears lost until salvation comes from the heavens – the Ultramarines brave an orbital bombardment to deploy their forces on Damnos, led by two legendary warriors – Captain Cato Sicarius and Chief Librarian Tigurius.
They are the planet's last, great hope against the remorseless alien foes, but tensions within their ranks threaten to derail victory. As battle rages on Damnos, and the Ultramarines seek to defeat their soulless enemies, Tigurius receives a terrible vision – a vision telling of the death of a hero... http://blacklibrary.com

Review:
So we have Space Marines, Ultramarines no less versus Necrons. Second Company, Captain Sicarius and the poster boys of Games Workshop and Space Undead: two of the single most dreaded subjects of most 40k readers. If you're around online, on 40k forums you hear the constant bleating of how Space Marines are boring and how Ultramarines are the most boring of the boring. "Vanilla Marines" they call them. At the initial sight of this novel I can just foresee the "groan" of Space Marine haters the world over.

Add to this Necrons; space undead. Not exactly easy to get folks interested in. Neither of them really: Ultramarines OR Necrons.
Ultramarines and Space Undead, those characters can't be deep, compelling or sympathetic. Right?

Wrong. 
Nick Kyme proves everyone dead wrong.

I have to really hand it to Mr. Kyme. He's taken what could be a disaster of subject matter, the ultimate in boring subjects and breathes life in to in a way I would have never guessed.

First off, as some of the best authors of 40k fiction have already expressed, Space Marines are not boring. They can have depth to them. Hypno-indoctrinated superhumans they may be, but they still have all the failing of mere mortals: anger, jealousy and hunbris. The striving for glory is something that really shines within the Ultramarines and it is quickly shown to be a chink in the armour of the Second Company.

As Nick Kyme shows us, straight away we are thrust in to a world where the "perfectness" of the Ultramarines is tested. First off, there is trouble within the chapter and nowhere else is it as clear as within the Second Company. Internal squabbles and strife threaten to undermine the entire deployment. At the heart of this are several of Sicarius' Veteran Sergeants. We get to see the struggle through their eyes and we get a varied perspective on the internal politics of the Chapter as well as the fight against the Necrons. We see personality flaws clearly, mistakes made, hubris shown and dearly paid for. The Ultramarines Second Company certainly pays dearly in this campaign.

On the other side of the battle lines there are the Necrons. I've never seen such characterization of something so...dead before. Prior to this Necrons have been illustrated as typically undead, unfeeling and largely uninteresting antagonists. They awake and snuff out all life. They are no better than the Tyranids. A faceless enemy out to wipe out everything else. Blegh.

When I started reading the first paragraphs of Mr. Kyme telling the Necron side of the tale I was taken aback. My suspension of disbelief was shocked. I got a taste of what it must be like to be as ancient as the stars, hungering, needing, the pain of being lost, craving flesh and utter hatred of the living. It was awe inspiring. So many things I had never considered were laid bare. in-depth explaiantion through prose on how the various sects and divisions within the Necrontyr actually WORK. Warhammer 40k fans who play Necrons are going to geek out so hard on this their head is going to spin. Without a doubt this is *THE* definitive book for Necron fans. Absolutely required reading.

I've read all of Graham McNeill's Ultramarines novels telling the tales of Uriel Ventris and his 4th Company, and they are good. Mr. McNeill weaves a great yarn and has proven Ultramarines can be fun to read about. Now Nick Kyme is ascending to tell of the Glorious 2nd Company and it appears Mr. McNeill has a Challenge to the Throne of Macragge!

To be fair, The stories of McNeill's 4th Company and Kyme's 2nd Company are completely distinct. They stand nicely on their own as excellent examples of how Space Marines are interesting subjects, and how the "perfect" can be so flawed...human. The Ultramarines in Fall of Damnos are actually very different from Nick Kymes's previous work on the Salamanders Chapter, which is a testament to his versatility as a writer (I know I expected a bit of similarity, redundancy, re-hashing of the same-ol, same-ol. I was happily surprised in Mr. Kyme's ability to keep his work distinct...unique.)

The characters in Fall of Damnos are very rich. Even the venerable brothers encased in Dreadnought sarcophagi are compelling characters. Sicarius is played fairly close to the vest. I would have liked to see more in to his psyche. We get a view in to him and his command squad and I would like to see more of them, but maybe that is saved for later tales. Kyme started something very cool in Battle for Macragge, and it is played out nicely in this novel. (I'd say more but I don't want to spoil the plot/ key subplots)

Internally there is a planetary map, and a nice Order of Battle sheet which is quite useful in keeping track of who is who.

The cover art by Jon Sullivan is perfect (probably my favorite of his in this series). It clearly gives the appropriate feeling of creepy wrongness of the vile Necrons.


Rating:
This is a damn fine read! nick Kyme shows he can weave a tale and make Ultramarines, Necrons even Dreanoughts compelling as characters. HUZZAH!
Any shortcomings in the plot were negligible. I only wanted MORE of it. Nick Kyme has a firm grasp of what it means to tell a tale in the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium: characters die, and nobody is safe. Even the mighty are flawed and the smallest of characters can shine as brightly as a superhuman.


4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: Marvel versus Capcom 3 by Capcom



Details:
Name: Marvel Vs. Capcom 3
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: February 15, 2011
Type: Fighting
Version: Special Edition
Reviewed by Earl Davis

Description:
After a decade of waiting, iconic Marvel and Capcom characters join forces again in Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds, a re-envisioned team fighting game for a new generation of gamers. Fill the shoes of legendary characters from both the Marvel and Capcom universes as you engage in 3-on-3 battles within living comic book art style environments powered by Capcom's MT Framework, an advanced version of the graphics engine used for Resident Evil 5.


Review:
The last time a new Marvel vs. Capcom title was released, the world was a different place. The iPod was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, Y2K was a looming threat on the horizon and arcades were still operating in malls across America. It’s a dollars to donuts wager to suggest that most people probably can’t even remember the last time they saw an arcade. At the time, it was a destination game; a source of pride for loyal players eager to drop endless streams of quarters and expletives.

Fast forward more than a decade, America has changed. In 2000, nothing actually happened and we realized that our fears were ridiculous. In 2001, we grew up and learned that the things we should fear the most are the ones we’ll never see coming. The years flew by as advances in technology made everything smaller, faster and more powerful. Arcades became a thing of the past and the console wars challenged publishers to up their game. Capcom took up the challenge and released Marvel vs. Capcom 3 into this brave new world of home based and high-speed multiplayer gaming.

At its root, Marvel vs. Capcom remains unchanged. It is a “2D” fighter, featuring three man teams selected from a roster of characters taken from various Marvel and Capcom titles such as the X-MEN, Avengers, Street Fighter and Resident Evil. Anyone who has ever dreamed of smacking Chun-Li around with She-Hulk can now have their cross-over fight club fantasies realized in high definition.

The game runs at a fast pace and I was able to complete the basic arcade mode in just under thirty minutes gathering several trophies (achievements for all you xbox folk) along the way. Let’s face it though, the value of any fighting lies not in the initial play through but in the subsequent replay value. MvC3 is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to replay. With a bevy of characters, each sporting a variety of moves and combinations, this game gives players plenty of replay value.

Gameplay:
With MvC3, the game play is old hat to anyone who has played any of the series’ previous entries or any other fighting game produced in modern era. Players select teams of three characters and duke it out using special moves, flashy combos attacks and “hyper” combos which are special finishers boasting ridiculous damage. Tag moves, character switching and even the over-sized, over-powered final boss remain constants in the core game play mechanic as well. However, there are a few notable that help keep this game from being just a rehash of MvC2.

The first notable change is on the character select screen. MvC2 boasted a total character count over fifty, depending on which version you played. Capcom decided to pare that number down to thirty-six and the game is better off for it. Each move set has a unique feel and even the character’s that feel like clones on the surface, for example Wolverine/X-23 or Magneto/Dr. Doom, shine as individuals after a little play time.
Control scheme is the focus of the second major change to the series. Capcom has merged the schemes from MvC2 with the traditional Street Fighter style controls to create something new. The four face buttons map to Light Attack, Medium Attack, Heavy Attack and Special Attack (not to be confused with Special Moves). The top trigger (bumper for xbox) buttons are the Assist buttons which swap out team members or call them in for tag-team attacks. It’s an extremely responsive system and friendly to both the casual button masher and the grizzled 2D veteran.

The final notable change is a small one but it is brilliant; the Advanced Guard. Many years ago, one arcade junkie rotated a joystick forward with a quarter degree turn, pressed a punch button and the first Hadoken was thrown. Thus, the first fireball spammer was born. Now, instead of getting constantly pinned to the opposite wall and forced to engage in fireball war, savvy players can press an easy button combination and block while moving forward. There are few greater pleasures in gaming than finally getting to go Hulk-smash on Ryu.

MvC3 isn’t all roses and nerd-gasms, though. A few problems exist and keep the game from perfection. The decision to continue the tradition of undersized, yet overpowered characters creates some frustrating game moments that will have some players screaming “bullsh!t” at their consoles. I’m talking to you Amaterasu and Viewtiful Joe. These characters cannot be hit by a large number of normal attacks and their hyper combos are begging to be nerfed in a future path. I’m as enamored as anyone at Amaterasu’s striking water colors. It shouldn’t cost me half a health bar every time I see them.

Also, Capcom decided to allow “Simple” controls as a selectable option for Ranked online matches. I was beaten at my first six ranked matches in a row. Everyone was pulling off the same moves only a fraction faster than I could. It wasn’t until I noticed that I could turn on “Simple” for a ranked match that I understood why. This means that players can invoke special moves and combos with a single button mash. There is no way for standard players to compete with that speed. It’s something that Capcom needs to address for there to be any validity to the Leaderboard rankings.

Visuals:
This game is beautiful. Period. There are no visual glitches and all of the frames come through with stunning vibrancy at 720p. The backgrounds and models are stunning. Every time a new stage or character is selected, I highly recommend setting the timer to infinite and taking a few minutes to soak up the details.

Audio (Voice):
Capcom went above and beyond with the voice acting. Select Deadpool , listen very carefully, and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. His one liners alone are worth a good portion of the admission price.

Audio (Music):
It’s a generic techno-mix that doesn’t overpower the game. Capcom keeps the music mixed low against the game sounds and voice acting, so it doesn’t detract from the other audio which is far superior.

Plot/ Story:
What? If you think it will have a coherent story, then you obviously haven’t played a fighting game before.

Achievements:
Most of these are easy to get and are based around winning matches with specific team members, like the Avengers or completing a specified move count, like 100 hyper combos. A few are online based, but nothing out of reach for most players.

Extras:
MvC3: Special Edition comes with a metal case, a mini comic book, three decals featuring MvC3 characters/moves, a one month subscription to Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited and two downloadable characters, Jill Valentine and Shuma-Gorath. The mini-comic and decals are laughable at best, unless you are eight years old. Unfortunately, MDCU is online 9.99 a month. With a price tag at 99.99 for the special edition, this means that consumers are paying an extra $30.00 for a sub-par comic, a few stickers and two DLC characters that can’t be used until mid-March.

Grading:
Overall, MvC3 is a solid game with amazing replay value that can be enjoyed by both the casual and hardcore gamer alike. A few balancing issues and one poor design choice keep this from being the perfect game. I highly recommend purchasing the standard version of this game, but don’t waste your money your money on the Special Edition.

SHORYUKEN!
4 out of 5 stars