Monday 29 August 2016

The Maze Runner, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin (Twentieth Century Fox) | review

Three years ago Alby (played by Aml Ameen) woke up in a wooded glade surrounded by immense walls, with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He remembered his name after a day or two, but that was it. Each month another boy arrived in the freight elevator, bringing with them some essential supplies, and though it got really bad at times a peaceful community slowly developed with a few simple rules, don’t hurt each other, and, unless you’re a runner, don’t go through the huge gap that opens up in the wall each morning and closes at night, because if you’re stuck in the maze on the other side when night falls, and the maze starts to shift, you won’t ever come back.

The film begins when Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) arrives. By then there are about thirty-two young men living in the glade, going by the cast list, and many others have already died (perhaps they were being vague with the talk of three years, and maybe there were months when more than one boy arrived). Thomas isn’t the kind of guy who’s happy to chill out in a lovely, peaceful glade. No, he wants to get out into the maze and find a way out. Problem is, out there in the maze live the Grievers, immense spider-cyborgs who’ll kill you just for being in their labyrinth. Gally (Will Poulter) thinks they should stay where they are and get on with living their lives. He’s totally right and the main character is an idiot.

The Maze Runner is a well-produced film, with good performances from a lot of talented young actors, but it has a lot of story problems. There is very little maze running, for a start, and it’s over an hour into the film before it begins. The maze was fully explored before our hero ever turned up, and he just leads a couple of short expeditions before getting very lucky. The maze is supposed to be a trial, a test, but for most of the young men that trial has involved a long, pleasant camping trip in a leafy field with bonfires and bacon. The only people who face any danger are those who fancy it. It could have been more aptly entitled The Guy Who Lives in a Nice Field with a Bunch of Dudes and Sometimes Pokes Around in the Maze for a Few Minutes. As part of their brainwashing it seems that the young men have been wiped clean of any desire, since the arrival of a young woman is greeted by many with dismay, as a bad sign. It’s not even suggested that her presence might be dangerous because they’ll begin to fight over her, or any thought given to what the presence of a woman might mean for the future of their colony. Do they not want to hear the noise of little runners’ feet? The monsters are well-designed, but as so often with CGI your heart knows it’s not real and they fail to truly thrill. Not an awful film, though, and it’s good to see this kind of revelatory science fiction on screen. It’s been compared to The Hunger Games a lot, but it’s much more like a little league version of the Riverworld saga. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 26 August 2016

Predator vs Judge Dredd vs Aliens: Incubus and Other Stories, by John Wagner, Andy Diggle, Henry Flint, Alcatena and chums (Rebellion/Dark Horse Books) | review by Stephen Theaker

Judge Dredd and his fellow lawmen here face two extraterrestrial threats from the silver screen. In the first story a Predator crashes in the Cursed Earth, and from there makes his or her way to Mega-City One, where four hundred million people are already losing their minds. The Predator quickly realises that the judges are the big game here, and begins to collect its gruesome trophies. A somewhat psychic descendant of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character from the first film is called in to help in the search. Alcatena’s artwork is very appealing, but is maybe a bit cute for this story. The Aliens story that follows is much more memorable, perhaps because the Predator doesn’t offer much of a threat to Mega-City One. It kills a lot of people, but it’s essentially a nuisance – whereas the Aliens are a plague that threatens total extinction. Henry Flint’s art looks a lot like Carlos Ezquerra’s, so this feels like authentic Dredd from the beginning. The Mega-City offers a million dark places for an alien to hide and lay its eggs. A space pirate brought them here to conquer the city, but luckily another idiot thought he could breed them for use in fighting pits and got himself infected – his exploding chest and the thing that comes out of him gets Dredd on the case. Great use of Dredd, the Mega-City, and the aliens. ***

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Contributor news: Charles Wilkinson, Rafe McGregor, Douglas Ogurek

Hope you’ve been enjoying issue fifty-five, which was as ever free to download and as cheap as we could possibly make it in print. We don’t expect anything in return, other than your unquestioning love, but if you want to show your thanks in less romantic fashion, there’s no better way than having a look at our contributors’ other publications.

Charles Wilkinson has a collection of strange tales out now from Egaeus Press, A Twist in the Eye, which includes two stories that first appeared here. In his introduction, Mark Samuels calls it “the most exciting collection of weird fiction … that I have read for many years”. Charles’s work has appeared in Supernatural Tales, Shadows & Tall Trees, Horror Without Victims and Strange Tales V (Tartarus Press) amongst other places. The book is available to buy from the Egaeus Press website.

Rafe McGregor’s seventh book, The Value of Literature, was due for publication by Rowman & Littlefield International in hardback in August 2016 and in paperback in February 2018. Learn more.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s unsplatterpunk extravaganza “Maim Street” was selected for The Best Weird Fiction Vol. 6 (Morpheus Tales Publishing). Prick of the Spindle published his satirical piece “Thomas Sageslush’s Support of the Moronvia Heights Pit Bull Ban”. The Literary Hatchet (PearTree Press) picked up his oft-anthologized (and highly juvenile) “Stool Fool”. The Great Tome of Forgotten Relics and Artifacts (Bards and Sages Publishing) featured “The Binding Agent.”. Learn more.

Finally, check out the current Interzone #265 for my reviews of Hunters & Collectors by M. Suddain and World of Water by James Lovegrove, plus the upcoming Interzone #266 for my review of The Rise of Io by Wesley Chu and – honour of honours! – my guest editorial, where I talk a bit about running the British Fantasy Awards, where I think awards can go awry, and why I love them anyway.

Monday 22 August 2016

The Cobbler, by Tom McCarthy and Paul Sado (Voltage Pictures and others) | review

Max Simkin has been struggling since his dad left, a long time ago now. He’s angry at the guy for going, a feeling not helped by going to work each day in the shoe repair shop where his father worked, as well as his grandfather and great-grandfather. Max’s mother suffers from dementia, and her well-meaning suggestions to take a nice girl out just drive home the point that all the nice girls he used to know have been married for fifteen years with children. A change in his life is provoked by the appearance in his shop of an obnoxious and aggressive criminal, played by Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan, who doesn’t want the shop to close till he’s got his shoes. Max’s cobbling machine breaks down and because of the urgency he goes down into the basement and gets out an old machine – a magical machine! He discovers that when he uses it to stitch the soles of a pair of shoes, he turns into a replica of the person to whom they belong. With interesting consequences! Max is played by Adam Sandler, totally convincing in the role of this disappointed, miserable man who doesn’t resent his mother for a minute. The friendly barber next door is played by Steve Buscemi, extremely likeable in the role. The film sets out very clearly (though unobtrusively) the rules of the premise: he looks like the person as they look right now (even if they are dead), he takes on their voice and accent, he has to wear both shoes, and they must fit his size ten and a half feet.

Though I liked the film overall, a few things bugged me. The music tries a bit hard, and Max takes off his shoes in some very daft situations, places, for example, where he wouldn’t want to leave fingerprints. It feels like that’s because we might otherwise go long stretches of the film without seeing its star. Max also seems unbelievably unconcerned about the real-world consequences for the people he impersonates. Fair enough when it’s a gangster, but putting on the shoes of a young teenager or a woman and using them to talk to that gangster? That was appalling. The trailer put me off by making it look like Max would use the shoes to impersonate men to have sex with their girlfriends; while still very unwelcome, this plays a tiny part in the film and he doesn’t go through with it (albeit because he can’t get in the shower without taking off his shoes). The main plot concerns a property developer who wants to get one last tenant out of an old block. As Max disguised himself to help I couldn’t help thinking that this was essentially the same plot as the Daredevil television series. And this film does feel a lot like a television pilot, even if the actors involved give it the heft of a movie. If there isn’t a series currently planned, I’m sure it will happen eventually: easy to imagine the cobbler pulling on a new pair of shoes each week and getting involved in a new set of scrapes. Stephen Theaker ***

Suicide Squad | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Popsicles and lollipops advertised, mostly stale bread delivered.

The playful colours and reckless tone of Suicide Squad advertisements suggest a departure from the typical superhero film. Unfortunately, excepting the antics of one flamboyant couple, the film is too dull and safe to live up to the hype.

Director David Ayers presents a Gotham where one of the most beloved superheroes appears to be dead. The ruthless Dr Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles the worst of the worst criminals as a safety measure. Suicide Squad starts strong, giving viewers a taste of the “metahuman” recruits’ powers, ranging from Deadshot’s (Will Smith) incredible accuracy to the pyrokinesis of remorseful gangster Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

The antiheroes get microchips embedded in their necks – they misbehave, and boom! – then soldier Rick Flag leads them on a mission to rescue an unknown operative. In the meantime, archaeologist Dr June Moone (also Flag’s girlfriend) struggles to subdue Enchantress, the ancient witch who resides within her. Moon fails, so the Enchantress sets in motion a plan to destroy the world.

The squad blasts and pounds away at Enchantress’s faceless, lumpy-skinned henchmen that an eight-year-old girl could defeat. Half of the squad consists of underdeveloped dullards with little to no backstory. For instance, Australian burglar Boomerang adds nothing to the film and swordswoman Katana seems to spend more time posing than fighting. Winning the booby prize for most annoying character, however, is Killer Croc. This sewer-dwelling goon makes comments that make you want to slap your forehead.

Enchantress spends too much time using her magic to swirl garbage in the sky to build a “machine” that will destroy humanity, while her brother, a flaming monster with elastic burning body parts, protects her. How long does it take to build this thing? Also, one has to question why Enchantress, arguably more powerful than any of the Suicide Squad members, would resort to hand-to-hand combat.

An Adorably Idiosyncratic Couple
What makes this film worth seeing is the eccentric duo of the Joker (not a Suicide Squad member) and Harley Quinn. Their effervescent personalities and their vivid costumes echo the vitality of the film’s soundtrack, which ranges from Eminem and Kanye West to Ozzy Osbourne and The Rolling Stones.

Jared Leto’s Joker admirably fills the shoes of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but also puts a new spin on the beloved arch villain. This bling- and tattoo-laden Joker retains Ledger’s dramatic gestures and adds a penchant for baring silver-capped teeth in the style of James Bond’s Jaws.

Then there is Dr Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie), who the Joker seduced, then transformed into quirky criminal Harley Quinn. Quinn stands out by far as the Suicide Squad’s most entertaining character. “Huh? What was that? I should kill everyone and escape?” she says
in her Brooklyn accent before an audience of simultaneously attracted and wary law enforcers. “Sorry. The voices. Ahaha, I'm kidding! Jeez! That’s not what they really said.”

Quinn fills a gap in the world of female superheroes. The bubble blowing, the exaggerated swagger, and the cutesy Betty Boopesque sexuality merge with the questionable insanity, plus Quinn is somewhat of a sweetheart. She wields a baseball bat that says “Good Night”. Her necklace – it’s more like a dog collar – that says “PUDDIN” (her nickname for the Joker) in bold gold letters reveals her obsession with the villain.

Suicide Squad offers a couple of iconic raised shots featuring these two. In one, weapons and dolls surround the Joker, who lies on the floor and laughs distinctively. In another, the lovers kiss in a vat of unknown liquid – is that pudding? – surrounded by swirls of the Joker’s colourful paint.

“Would you die for me?” asks the Joker. “No, no, no. That’s too easy. Would you live for me?”

Don’t be surprised to find yourself rooting not so much for the Suicide Squad to succeed, but rather for the Joker and Harley Quinn to reunite. Interesting, isn’t it, that the most entertaining characters in this film really don’t have any super powers? A testimony to the magic of character.

Alas, despite the vibrancy of these two, Suicide Squad doesn’t make the cut when compared to this year’s other superb superhero films like Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and especially Deadpool. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Friday 19 August 2016

Goldtiger: The Poseidon Complex, by Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton (Rebellion) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lily Gold and Jack Tiger are fashion designers at London’s most stylish fashion house, Goldtiger, but have a side project: adventure. In this book, collecting newspaper strips which supposedly appeared in the Maltese Clarion during the sixties, they investigate the disappearance of a number of boats on the Thames. Eventually this will lead them to the carnivorous Mr Sobek, but before then the putative artist of the strip, Antonio Barreti, will get bored of the scripts provided by Louis Schaeffer and begin to draw whatever the heck he likes, to the point of inserting himself into the story. In reality, this is the work of Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton. The idea of the book is neat, and the strips do a good job of recreating the feel of the actual Modesty Blaise or James Bond strips from that period. But there are so few of them: by my count just eighty-nine finished strips, appearing two to a page, which means they only fill about a third of the book, the rest being substantially padded out with text pieces, photographs and rejigged pieces of art. The Goldtiger adventure is okay, but there’s never time to get into it, while the text pieces spend a lot of time telling us how outrageous and shocking the strips are, which the strips don’t really live up to. It was a potentially interesting project, and you can see why it picked up plenty of backers on Kickstarter before finding a home with Rebellion, but it feels half-finished and scraped together. That may be deliberate, all part of the gimmick, but readers who like the sound of it will probably have more fun with Modesty Blaise herself. **

Monday 15 August 2016

Superman: Doomed, by Greg Pak and chums (DC Comics) | review

A young Superman is dating Wonder Woman rather than Lois Lane, and maybe that’s a good thing because Lois is currently under the control of Brainiac, who is in deep space, preparing to add the people of Earth to his collection. That would be trouble enough, but what’s more Doomsday, the monstrous product of Kryptonian science, has been resurrected, this time with the brand new ability to drain the life from anything nearby. (It isn’t clear whether Doomsday has killed Superman yet in this new reality.) Superman decides that there’s only one way to stop the monster for good, and rips it to bits, and then, erm, inhales what’s left, and is thus infected himself. He has Doomsday’s rage, strength, bony bits, and tendency to suck the life out of a room. How to fight off Brainiac’s attack when it’s not safe for the Man of Steel to be on Earth any more? This is a chunky five hundred page book on Comixology, though in print it would be even longer because all the double page spreads count as one page each on Comixology. It’s surprising to see so many of them here: they are a pest to read on a tablet (and don’t look much better in a print collection). It’s almost like print issue devotees are deliberately throwing their clogs in the digital works. The book collects material from eight different titles, including five issues each of Action Comics and Superman/Wonder Woman, and there are sections where the art style changes every few pages; it’s a jigsaw where each piece was drawn by a different person, but somehow it hangs together pretty well. It’s quite contrived, since so much of the story hangs on Superman acquiring powers from Doomsday that Doomsday doesn’t usually have. Perhaps it was felt that involving Parasite in the story wouldn’t have had the same heft. The Doomsday angle feels like it’s been bolted on to beef up the Brainiac story, a feeling reinforced by the way it’s eventually resolved, as an afterthought. Many other DC characters make an appearance. Batman, Steel, Lana and Wonder Woman come across very well, and it’s interesting to see the ways that different artists cope with the shame of having to draw Supergirl in her current costume! They cover it up with her cape, draw her from the waist up, or lengthen the sides to turn it into more of a jumpsuit, which is a big improvement. We don’t get to see much of the new young Superman’s personality in this book, what with the Doomsday infection and everything, but his costume looks weirdly unbalanced without the red underpants. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 12 August 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (2entertain Ltd) | review by Rafe McGregor

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction may seem an unlikely venue for a review of the first full-length Sherlock special, shown on all small screens and some big screens across the UK on New Year’s Day 2016. Three mini-seasons (of three episodes each) and one mini-special (of just over seven minutes) in, however, the world of Sherlock is already brim-full of superhuman beings. The eponymous protagonist refers to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” (one of the series’ most-repeated phrases, suggesting sociopaths are usually low-functioning), but his superpowers include: reading an entire life history in a glance, disarming sword-wielding assassins without breaking a sweat, destroying international crime syndicates single-handedly, successfully masquerading as an extremist in Karachi, riding a motorbike safely at breakneck speed, instantly recovering from consuming vast quantities of Class A drugs… and returning from the dead. His nemesis, supervillain Moriarty, has his own list of powers: controlling Cockney serial killers, Chinese secret societies, and Eastern European paramilitaries; breaking into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously; resisting “enhanced interrogation” indefinitely… and returning from the dead (which is what the special is all about). Even Mycroft, whose powers are intellectual rather than physical, can follow his brother’s clandestine footsteps across Europe, masquerade as a Serbian soldier without detection, and take charge of a Tactical Firearms Command team. In fact, poor old Watson is the foil to at least four superhumans as “His Last Vow” (season 3, episode 3) reveals that Mrs Watson is a (semi-retired) super-villain-turned-hero, able to fire a handgun with one hundred percent accuracy, pass through multiple layers of physical security without trace, evade the joint efforts of NATO’s intelligence services, instantly access information beyond the combined capacity of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ… and waltz in a wedding dress. All of which to say that the BBC’s Sherlock is very much a mix of genres, alternating between detective stories in an urban fantasy setting and high fantasy in a tragic clash of good and evil – not to mention regular dashes of comedy.

The mix of crime and speculative fiction is by no means a flaw (though I hope to have conveyed a mildly disapproving tone) and may well account for the show’s popularity – along with the star qualities Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and Andrew Scott (recently Bond villain Max Denbigh in Spectre) bring to the small screen. The generic motley also serves, conveniently, to distinguish Sherlock from Elementary, CBS’s contemporary Holmes series, which is pure crime fiction and currently in its fourth season (of twenty-four episodes each). Given the template of detective-story-within-urban-fantasy, The Abominable Bride is exemplary, with murder mystery and high fantasy prised apart for most of the episode. Prior to the original screening, much was made of Cumberbatch and Freeman appearing in Victorian garb, suggesting that the special would be outside the overarching narrative of the series, but the first few seconds drop this pretence and story picks up precisely where “His Last Vow” finished. Minutes after Holmes’ departure into exile (and certain death) for the murder of Charles Augustus Magnussen (a particularly nasty villain), Moriarty’s face appears on all the television screens across the country asking, “Did you miss me?” Holmes is recalled, the plane turns around… and we appear to go back in time to 1895. The (Case of the) Abominable Bride takes its title from Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes mentions “Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife” as a case he investigated prior to meeting Watson. Doyle was fond of making these references to unpublished cases in order to give the impression that Holmes had a life beyond the printed page and they are scattered throughout the original short stories and novellas. Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction contributor John Hall (whose stories from issues 23 to 29 were collected in Five Forgotten Stories, published by Theaker’s Paperback Library in 2011) analysed them all in The Abominable Wife and Other Unrecorded Cases of Mr Sherlock Holmes (Calabash Press, 1998). Drawing attention to the fact that Doyle either let his imagination run away with him or was flexing his sense of humour – aside from abominable wives, there are remarkable worms, trained cormorants, red leeches, and flying false teeth – John takes “abominable wife” as a metaphor for all the references. The abominable wife serves a similar supplementary purpose in Sherlock, the idea being that if Holmes can solve the 1895 case he can work out the 2014 case of Moriarty’s resurrection.

Back in 1895, Emelia Ricoletti (made up to resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight in an already over-used trope) fires two six-shooters into a crowded London street from her balcony before blowing her brains out. Her body is removed to the morgue, but that evening she conspicuously gives her husband both barrels of a shotgun in front of a police constable. Holmes, Watson, and a shaken Lestrade arrive at the morgue to find that Mrs Ricoletti’s corpse appears to have written “You” on the wall in blood after the murder of her husband. Holmes doesn’t get very far with the investigation, but a few months later Lady Carmichael hires him to protect her husband from Mrs Ricoletti, whose ghost has been seen walking in the grounds of their estate. Holmes and Watson fail to save Lord Carmichael, giving them two murders to solve. By two-thirds of the way through The Abominable Bride, it becomes clear that the Victorian case is taking place in Holmes’ “mind palace” (where he retrieves information from his near-eidetic memory) and that he is fixating on the (very) cold Ricoletti case because he thinks Moriarty has used the same method to fake his own death in “The Reichenbach Fall” (season 2, episode 3). The solution to the 1895 case is rather disappointing and I disclose no spoilers when I say that Mrs Ricoletti was indeed dead by the time of the second murder (where she was not positively identified), but not the first (where she was). This suggests that Moriarty is actually dead. Holmes shouts “There are no ghosts!” in 1895 and confirms “Moriarty is dead, no question” in 2014, but there are plenty of questions left unanswered, not to mention some ambiguity, at the conclusion of the 2014 case. If Moriarty is indeed dead, then The Abominable Bride is a giant red herring in much the same way as John characterises all of Doyle’s teasers (the references as abominable wives to the admirable husbands of the published stories). More likely it is just that, a teaser of suitable ambiguity aimed at whetting audience appetites for season 4. Unfortunately for fans, filming hasn’t yet begun and Sherlock won’t be on screens until 2017 at the earliest. In the interim, I recommend Elementary for a gritty and realistic contemporary take on the Great Detective. The Abominable Bride DVD contains two discs and if, like me, you are not enticed by the prospect of “over an hour of Bonus Features” there is always the double-sided poster to colour in (advertising Sherlock: The Mind Palace, published by BBC Books last year).

Monday 8 August 2016

Planetary Brigade, by J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Julia Bax and chums (BOOM! Studios) | review

The Planetary Brigade is a team of mismatched superheroes from the writers of Justice League International. Captain Valour, the Grim Knight and Earth Mother are analogues of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the first two played for laughs, as if the chummy Superman of the fifties teamed up with the Batman of the nineties. Purring Pussycat is a former supervillain who joined the team after becoming disenchanted with mentor Mister Master, two feuding brothers in one body who will destroy the world if he can’t conquer it. Mister Brilliant is an obese genius in a weaponised hoverchair who runs a comic book store in his spare time.

The standout characters are the Third Eye, the team’s female Phantom Stranger/John Constantine/Doctor Strange, and the Mauve Visitor, an ambi-sexual acerbic alien with a taste for the finer things in life.

The book is a bit of a jumble, collecting a two-issue series illustrated by several artists in each issue and a three-issue series that jumps around the group’s timeline. On the whole it works, and though the art styles change from page to page it’s all good. It’s not as funny as the JLI, but I devoured dozens of issues of that comic all at once so there was time for the running jokes to hit top speed. A scene at the end hits a bum note, where a kiss with a trans character is said to be less scandalous because she’s has sex-change surgery. Not my place to forgive it that clumsiness, but at least the book is trying to be progressive and accepting.

A more cohesive follow-up with a longer present-day adventure for the team would be very welcome. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday 5 August 2016

Fallout 4 (PS4) by Bethesda Softworks (Bethesda) | review by Howard Watts

I didn’t mention this in the editorial to TQF55, but Bethesda are partly responsible for a huge distraction when it came to putting that issue together. Having bought a PS4 with Fallout 4 as part of the package, and being a bit of a Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas vet, I was eager to load the game, having watched various YouTube first playthrough and guide vids. Time exists as an entirely different entity when playing this game, as your perception of the outside world is taken over by this new reality. Crazy!

The game is an astonishing achievement, certainly a leap far beyond that of Fallout 3 and the latter Fallout New Vegas. Obviously the visual and audio aspects are superior due to the PS4’s processors, but Bethesda have built upon the unique gaming concept of the previous Fallout offerings and improved upon the idea superbly. Not that Fallout 4 is without its minor faults – but these can be excused as the game is just so damn good, and looks absolutely beautiful. Reading back through this review, I can honestly say that I’m only scratching the surface of the whole experience – to go into great depth would be impossible within these pages, and any attempt by me to do so would only serve to spoil the game. I’m just gonna stick to some of the core aspects, just to give you a flavour.

The backstory is simple: In a 1950sesque U.S. / future alternate history mashup, atomic war begins. You run with your family to a Vault where you will be protected from the devastation. You awake early to witness your (in my case) wife being killed in her hypersleep chamber and your infant son kidnapped. Escaping the vault to track down your son, you are greeted by an atomic wasteland. Various mutated beasts and creatures inhabit this wasteland, and as the story unfolds you – as per previous Fallout outings into the wasteland – establish yourself with the many and varied inhabitants and factions you encounter. There’s a great depth here. The game’s narrative provides a convincing array of human and non-human groups and settlements, all with their own unique take on life in the wasteland. It’s easy to get caught up in the dialog of these characters – where before with Fallout 3, I found myself skipping a lot of the dialog and interactive conversation choices to just get on with it. With 4, I find myself listening more, taking in all the information, interacting more with the characters. This is down not only to the visuals, but also the voice acting. There’s a lot of info dumping here, but it all knits together to form this vast tapestry which is the wasteland. Bethesda have removed the You’re good for doing / saying this / that, you’re bad for doing / saying this / that / idea which could instantly stall the game as you hit pause to consider the ramifications of your actions. New Vegas suffered from being bogged down with so many choices of which character or group to befriend, it became a real problem, taking away from the enjoyment of actually moving around the environment and, well, playing. Saying this, Fallout 4 is hardly a “game” as such – it’s more of a simulation. You’re out there in the wilderness, trying to find your son, trying to stay alive. On the way you’ll be offered companionship, but I chose to stick with my first companion offering, an Alsatian called Dogmeat. He helps you through tough spots, sniffs gear out for you to pick up, and provides a few lighter moments as he rolls around in the dirt, or finds a teddy bear to play with. All this love for a digital dog, from a cat man!

This survival concept is but a small part of the whole. As before with Bethesda’s Skyrim, you can craft weapons, harvest food to cook potions for healing and power-ups. But the experience is far more than just that. Now you can build settlements, encourage settlers to be part of your community, but hey – if you don’t provide basics such as food, water, shelter, electricity, defence, a bed to sleep in and a roof over their heads, they get grumpy. This is where the “game” really sets itself apart. Suddenly you the participant have changed the pace. You can ignore a mission asking you to defend another farm or plant nursery from rampaging raiders, and build, slow the game down and enjoy the addictive pleasure of constructing a community and looking after these poor souls that have chosen to join you, and at your pace. Shacks, small houses, animal pens, bridge walkways, fenced off gardens can be built to name a few. This is where the “game” sets itself above others, as practically every item in the wasteland has a value – not only monetary, but also (and more importantly for this aspect) as a material commodity. Steel, plastic, wood, oil, glass, electronics, you name it, they can all be scavenged and stored to be utilised to build your settlement. These materials can also be used to upgrade weapons and power armour. Once a settlement thrives, you can move on to another, help them, plant more food to attract more settlers and then set up trade routes between them to provide income for yourself. It’s a bonkers concept, but one we can all identify with. No player settlement will be identical to another’s. My daughter decided for her game, the most important aspect of her settlement are small “personal” shacks with just two beds, rather than my large dormitory building holding 17 beds. Opposite her curved metal bedrooms she built toilets, replete with “his” and “hers” signs, and if I know her, to follow will probably be a bloody great white picket fenced garden, growing corn, potatoes, melons, gourds, defended by a couple of machine gun turrets.

If this all sounds a little too twee, then the options are there to just go out and explore and pick up missions to up your XP and level up. Set a marker on your map and you’ll come across beautiful vistas of devastation. Towns and cities you cannot refuse to explore, as exploration’s in our nature. And in these highly detailed locations, when the sun’s going down and the rain courses through the streets, lightning momentarily illuminating the damp bricks and rusted cars as the thunder booms, you’ll round a corner and find…

Well, absolutely anything really. It’s up to you to find out.


Monday 1 August 2016

Rare Replay, by Rare (Microsoft Studios) | review

When I bought the Xbox One, I never imagined – or dared to dream! – that one day I would use it to play Atic Atac. But sometimes dreams come true, even the ones you never dreamt! Rare Replay is a collection of thirty of Rare’s games, going all the way back to their days as the fabled gods of ZX Spectrum, Ultimate Play the Game. Their name was a guarantee of quality in those days where the hottest new titles would cost just £5.50. The oldest game here is the evergreen Jetpac, still as good as ever. A few titles at either end of the Spectrum era don’t make the cut – like Psst!, Trans Am and Alien 8 – and one can only hope that DLC will be forthcoming, but the stone cold classics are, like Lunar Jetman, still as rock hard as ever, till you realise this collection adds a rewind button that turns you into Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, magically anticipating enemies before they even materialise. It never occurred to me, playing that game thirty years ago, that there might be so many more aliens in the game than I had ever seen. Destroying one alien base still feels like a great achievement, but with the rewind button in play I managed eight! Then there are the games that dared to cost ten pounds: Sabre Wulf, rope-swinging Underworlde and isometric werewolf adventure Knight Lore, and the less fun Gunfright which still impresses by replacing the traditional “rooms” with a scrolling three-dimensional environment. Ultimate then became Rare, and began to produce games for Nintendo, games that were always out of my price range. I was still playing on my Spectrum the day I saw WipEout and the PlayStation on Gamesmaster with Patrick Moore! So there are several titles here that are completely new to me: Battletoads, Slalom, Blast Corps, Killer Instinct, and most excitingly (for me at least) Solar Jetman, which turns out to be a clone of Thrust, albeit with enough new features to make it well worth playing. Some of their notable games from this period are inevitably missing, for rights reasons, like Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye. Others, like Perfect Dark and Banjo-Kazooie, appear in the form of their Xbox 360 remakes, produced after Rare became part of Microsoft. Rather than being part of the Rare Replay game proper (at least in the digital version), these are downloaded to the Xbox One in their Xbox 360 versions, and can be run separately too. (It doesn’t look like they become part of your Xbox 360 library, though, which is a shame.) Here too are the Xbox 360 originals, like Kameo: Elements of Power, Perfect Dark Zero, Viva Pinata and Jetpac Refuelled, all a bit underappreciated upon their original release but sure to find their fans now. I love that Perfect Dark Zero includes a bot multiplayer mode; I wish more games did. From the fact that I’ve written quite a lot of review without saying a great deal about any of the individual games, and not even mentioning half of them, you can tell what a huge package this is. I’ve barely scratched the surface, both here and while playing it. I haven’t yet mentioned the special features that can be unlocked, or the snapshots that let you play strangely altered versions of those classic Spectrum games (Underworlde without the creatures!), the ten thousand gamer points (there is an achievement just for playing most of the games!), or the price: amazingly, it costs just twenty pounds. Rare Replay is an essential purchase for Xbox One owners, and goes a long way towards making the Xbox One an essential purchase too. It’s an instant games collection, and they are some of the best games ever made. Stephen Theaker *****