Wednesday 28 July 2021

Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium | review by Rafe McGregor

Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium (Collector’s Edition) by Joe Dever

Holmgard Press, hardback, £19.99, July 2020, ISBN 9781916268043


Lone Wolf 27: Vampirium is the seventh (of twelve) gamebooks in the New Order series of the Lone Wolf cycle of thirty-two, all but one of which have already been published although the majority remain out of print (1 to 29 can be played online, at Project Aon). I won’t bore regular readers with details of either the cycle or its publication as they are described at length in my reviews of books 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, and 31, all available on this blog. Vampirium is also Holmgard Press’s eighth publication and maintains the high standard of production values begun with Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai. The New Order series turns away from protagonist Lone Wolf to focus on a new member of the Kai order, Sommerlund’s warrior elite, and combines standalone with campaign adventures. Vampirium begins a campaign that is continued through gamebooks 28 and 29, despite the elapse of nineteen years of real time and seventeen years of game time between the latter two. The adventure begins three months after the conclusion of Lone Wolf 26: The Fall of Blood Mountain and sees Grand Master True Friend (of randomly-generated-name-fame) once again pitted against the agents of the evil deity Naar.

The Kai have received a second request for assistance from the Kingdom of Siyen, which borders on the Doomlands of Naaros and was last visited by True Friend a year ago in Lone Wolf 23: Mydnight’s Hero. The King’s Ranger Regiment have been keeping an eye on an incursion into the Doomlands by Autarch Sejanoz, the three-thousand-year-old monarch of Bhanar, which also shares a border with the barren wasteland that was formerly ruled by Agarash the Damned, Naar’s most powerful servant on Magnamund. The rangers report that a squad of the Autarch’s Imperial Guard have found the Claw of Naar, a wand of great malignance, and are in the process of returning it to Bhanar. The Siyenese patrol consists of only four rangers and True Friend is dispatched post-haste to rendezvous with them and take possession of the Claw once the ambush is launched. The insertion is as smooth as it is speedy and the adventure begins with True Friend’s rendezvous with Ranger Captain Gildas in Sunderer Pass, courtesy of Lord Rimoah’s flying ship, Cloud-dancer. The narrative that follows is divided into three parts, the first of which is a wilderness adventure. The ambush is only partly successful and True Friend must first pursue the surviving guardsmen, then recover the Claw, then flee from the guardsmen, and then pursue them again when he loses the claw. The second part is an exploration of the town of Yua Tzhan and its military barracks, from which the Claw must be stolen. After fleeing from the town, the final part of the narrative begins when True Friend discovers that the Autarch has cut his party off from escape to the sanctuary of Chai by sending an army to the Anfeng Forest and occupying the border town of Zuda. In what remains of the mission, True Friend must either break or sneak through enemy lines to reach the Chai Wall, where Cloud-dancer awaits.

The gameplay of Vampirium is curious and distinct from any of the previous adventures. As my summary of the narrative suggests, the game begins with an action set-piece in the ambush and then consists of an exciting series of pursuits and flights. There are, however, very few combats that employ the Combat Results Table in the method regular players of the cycle have come to expect and enjoy. My first combat was after leaving the Vanchou Forest (late in the first part) and that was only because I decided to stop and fight rather than continue fleeing. I only fought two more combats in the remainder of the gamebook and it is testimony to the late Joe Dever’s skill and expertise in game design that the lack of combat did not detract from the suspense and satisfaction of play. I found the New Order Kai Grand Master Disciplines of Animal Mastery, Assimilance, and Elementalism particularly useful. It is probably also worth noting that once one reaches Yua Tzhan, there is a great deal of luck involved and a bad day on the Random Number means one may well find that: ‘Tragically, your life and your mission end here…’ In consequence, the adventure is both exciting and difficult to complete without having to restart at least once.

The bonus adventure is ‘Shadow Stalkers’, which is written by Florent Haro. The player character is Captain Ernan of the 1st Kirlundin Isles Marine Cassel, part of the armed forces of the kingdom of Sommerlund, the homeland of both Lone Wolf and True Friend. The narrative moves forward in time to the ‘present’ of the cycle, the year MS 5103, which is eighteen years after the events of Vampirium and in between Lone Wolf 31: The Dusk of Eternal Night and Lone Wolf 32: Light of the Kai (due for publication shortly). I think this was a good idea, serving to remind players that the cycle is building to a climax four decades in the making, but I was disappointed by the adventure itself. I have two criticisms. First, my initial reaction was that for a short gamebook (it is exactly half the length of Vampirium), it took a while to get going, with several lengthy and consecutive sections of description before there is any gameplay. This tendency continues throughout the gamebook, however, with the result that my criticism is precisely the same as that I reluctantly levelled at The Dusk of Eternal Night: it is more like an experimental young adult fantasy novella than a gamebook and while many readers may like this format, I have always ‘played’ rather than ‘read’ the series. The second criticism is completely different, but also concerns gameplay. Ernan’s equivalent to the Kai Grand Master Disciplines are the Kirlindun Marine Skills. As one would expect, several (two of six) of these skills are sea-based. Given the player character’s profession and skill-set, a surprising – and, for me, disappointing – proportion of the adventure takes place on land.

Monday 5 July 2021

Dredd | review by Rafe McGregor

Dredd, by Pete Travis (Entertainment Film Distributors) 

Zero tolerance for the wretched of the Earth. 

Film form refers to the narrative, pictorial, and technological elements of a cinematic work and one of its functions is to configure the cinematic experience. The cinematic experience of Pete Travis’s Dredd is configured by a combination of cinematography and voice from the moment the film begins to the last few seconds before the end credits, providing three points of reference that structure the cinematic event. Mega City One is an imagined future urban sprawl on the eastern seaboard of the US in which over double the current population of the country is packed into less than two percent of its territory. The representation of urban space was created by applying computer-generated imagery to photography of contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolitan area, itself plagued by extreme poverty and hyper-violence. The narrative opens with several aerial tracking shots of Mega City One during which Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) introduces a post-apocalyptic America, the megalopolis, mega-blocks (vertical slums), and the criminal justice system (in which the functions of police, jury, and judiciary are combined in the figure of the judge). As the camera tracks up the edifice of the Hall of Justice, Dredd concludes: ‘Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: the men and women of the Hall of Justice…juries, executioners, judges.’ In the fifteenth minute (of ninety-five) there is a scene that will be familiar to police officers the world over, in which patrols depart the Hall of Justice for their tours of duty at the beginning of the shift. The camera focuses on Dredd and Cassandra Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby), a trainee-judge, as they mount their Lawmaster motorbikes. Dredd informs Anderson of the daunting task ahead: ‘Twelve serious crimes a minute, seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.’ The final scene of the film (the last forty-five seconds) returns to the opening, with two aerial shots of the megalopolis. There is a second voiceover from Dredd, which repeats part of the first: ‘Mega City One: eight hundred million people living in the ruin of the old world and the mega-structures of the new one. Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: judges.’ The combination of reproduced reality with Dredd’s gravelly saw-cutting-through-bone voice configures a cinematic event in which zero tolerance policing is endorsed as a response to violent crime, his authoritative tone supplemented by pictorial and statistical evidence.

One of the unusual features of Dredd is that the eponymous character experiences no psychological or moral change during the course of the narrative. Dredd is a model law enforcer, completely convinced of the moral necessity of his role, neither exercising discretion nor employing extrajudicial force. In contrast, Anderson has doubts about both her ability and the role, being selected solely on the basis of the potential value of her extra-human psychic powers. The central plot of the narrative is initiated when she and Dredd are trapped in Peach Trees mega-block, run by Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headey), the ruthless head of an organised crime group. The ethical movement of Dredd is focused on Anderson’s moral maturation, from her uncertainty about non-discretionary policing to her extended confrontation with Kay (played by Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants, to her embracing of the necessity for non-discretionary policing and flourishing in its execution. This change is partly constituted by a withdrawal of sympathy for the residents of Peach Trees, made explicit by the juxtaposition of two scenes. In the first (in the sixteenth minute), Anderson responds to Dredd’s cynical attitude towards the ‘underclass’ residents by reminding him that she was herself born in a mega-block. Approximately forty minutes later (fifty-third to fifty-fifth minute), Anderson appears to be exercising her sympathy when she interrupts Dredd’s brutal interrogation of Kay. Instead of reducing the level of coercion, however, she amplifies it, using her psychic abilities to frighten him into complete compliance. The ethical perspective enacted by the combination of form and content thus endorses a punitive perspective on criminal justice, in which zero tolerance policing and the increased use of custodial sentences are employed in response to increases in violent crime.

Film form is itself determined by the context of the production and reception of a film. Dredd is a British production and the relevant context of its release is the combination of the ‘culture of control’ with austerity. Criminologist David Garland charts a transatlantic change in criminal justice culture from mid-century welfarism to a fin de siècle culture of retributivism, punitiveness, and control, which is motivated and sustained by the twin pillars of market and moral discipline. The rise of this criminal justice culture was encouraged by the ‘Great Crime Decline’, a sustained decrease in violent (and other) crimes in the US and UK (and elsewhere) from 1994 to 2014. Advocates of the punitive perspective claimed responsibility for the drop in violence, but its cause remains unclear, contested by a host of rival hypotheses, including decreasing lead levels in drinking water. Dredd began filming in November 2010, five months after the official announcement of fiscal austerity – a dramatic reduction of public spending – in the UK. The likely consequence of this measure during a period of high unemployment was fewer police officers (in virtue of reduced budgets) dealing with an increase in crime (in virtue of the combination of reduced welfare with increased unemployment). Dredd both represents and reproduces these circumstances, not merely endorsing non-discretionary police practice as a response to rising crime, but providing a rationale for and justification of an increasing use of force by a decreasing ‘thin blue line’. This context regulates Dredd’s form, calibrating cinematic realism to the culture of control and structuring the cinematic event in terms of Dredd’s three saw-through-bone pronouncements of the moral impeccability of zero tolerance policing. Much like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), released three years before, the comic book façade masks an ultra-reactionary and deeply conservative worldview. ***