Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tales From the Borderlands - Episode I: Zer0 Sum

[Tales From the Borderlands - Episode I: Zer0 Sum, Telltale Games, 2K Games, 11/2014]

What-tale Games?

I'll be honest, until The Walking Dead, I'd never heard of Telltale Games, yet now they seem to be dominating the market on some of the biggest titles in all types of entertainment across the board. From The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us to Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and the upcoming Minecraft series, none of which has yet to receive anything below an 80 on Metacritic, Telltale has put together what may be the most impressive library of titles in recent memory. They're making EA look like a small, indie production company that just figured out how to make Hexic into a high definition game for the PS3. On top of their plethora of quality releases, Episode 1 cost a whopping $2.50, which is quite possibly the best deal in gaming since The Orange Box

Choose Your Own Adventure...Wizard or Warrior?

One of the new gameplay additions that makes this Borderlands game different from the others is the ability to affect the outcome through decisions you make throughout the game. Unlike other games where your decisions can alter the plot, your decisions about how to respond to situations immediately effect how other characters feel about you and parts of the story as immediate as the following scene.

Is This REALLY a Borderlands Game? 

While making game-altering decisions is a great new addition to the gameplay in Borderlands, Episode 1 just didn't feel like a Borderlands game without the massive arsenal at your disposal, discovered and earned through hours of tireless grinding and mission completion. Although it's pretty clear the future episodes will contain plenty of the old-style FPS game mechanics that made the first three games so much fun to play, but they were sorely lacking in the first go-around in Telltale's 
Borderlands product. It's good, don't get me wrong, but it just doesn't have the feel of the Pandora we've all come to know and love. 

So If It Doesn't Play Like a Traditional Borderlands Game, How DOES it Play?

It honestly did remind me of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books, except you couldn't go back and switch to the other outcome if you didn't like what happened as you could with the books. Once you'd spent that ammo or made that other character angry, you were stuck with the repercussions. On top of that, you didn't get much time to consider your responses, like maybe five seconds, tops. Not only does this add to the sense of immediacy each time you are presented with a challenge but it raises the replayability significantly. This is due to the fact that you want to find out what would have happened if you had just been nicer to that one character or showed more of a spine with another. Although it felt as though many of the "choices" were just going to end up with you getting insulted no matter what response you chose, there were plenty that definitely affected how the game progressed. It will be interesting to see if they carry over your decisions from the first episode into the next four or if the decision-making effect is limited to each episode. Hopefully it's the former. 

A Little Bedtime Story

As usual, I don't want to get too far into the story line so as not to spoil the game for those who have yet to play it. I have to supply a little bit of backstory, but to give away the ending would probably get my figurative Interwebbian head chopped off by crazed jihadi gamers. To that end, I'll just give you the setup and some critique and let you decide if it's worth a play or not based on that. You start the game as Rhys, a lower-tier suit-and-tie at Hyperion who has dreams of middle management. However, instead of the raise and promotion you were expecting, you quickly learn that your former boss has been "Blown out of the g@&&^m airlock," to borrow a phrase from Aliens, and replaced somehow, repercussion free, with your arch-nemisis Vasquez. 

Needless to say this doesn't do good things for your career, with you ending up as Vice President of Janitors. You and your sidekick, Vaughn, come up with a quick plan to get back at Vasquez by stealing a deal he has set up to purchase a vault key for $10 million. Things get a bit off track from there and you end up trying to salvage what you can from the leftovers. 

At the same time, Fiona is a con artist that lives on Pandora alread. Rhys is lucky enough to at least live on the space station where there are working toilets and people don't eat one-another's eyeballs. Fiona is working with some other shady characters trying to set up the deal for a Vault Key planet-side. However, all hell breaks loose and you're being dragged through the desert that looks strangely like the male version of Princess Leia's bounty hunter from Jabba's Palace in Return of the Jedi. You know, the one that's holding a thermal detonator and says, "Yoto, yoto." 

"Where am I?"
"Jabba's Palace." 
"Who are you?" 
"Someone who loves you!" 

Anyway, sorry for the Star Wars flashback. Back to the game. While I will admit to being a bit disappointed with the lack of a real control mechanic and firefights, the place where this game really shines is in its story. Whereas Borderlands 1 and 2 seemed to be a bit disjointed at times when you got off on a side quest run for a few hours, Tales From The Borderlands never suffers from such side trips off the main course. Telltale Games was free to focus on creating a top-quality story set within the Borderlands universe, and they squeezed every ounce of goodness out of the opportunity. This game is fraught with the irreverent, sometimes dark humor of its predecessors. Where it lacks in control scheme, it more than makes up for with a hilarious and overwhelmingly engaging tale of Pandora and its unique and often freakish inhabitants. The only real problem I have with this game is waiting for the next installment to come out!

The Math

Objective Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for having possible the best Borderlands story to come out yet and leaving me starving for more.

Penalties: -1 because, come on, Borderlands is a first-person shooter. I can count on one hand the number of times I fired a weapon in this game. Heck, I'd still be able to count the shots on one hand if half my digits got sheared off in a thresher accident at age nine. I know there are guns coming to the series from hints in the story, but I was a bit disappointed in the almost total lack of them in this episode. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. A standout in its category. Very high quality. You should REALLY go buy this game, especially for just $2.50! If you don't like it, I'll personally refund your money. 

(But not really.)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

We are one month into the new year and I am pleased to say that January has been a good month for comic book fans.  With 2015 off to a great start, I hope that the remainder of the year delivers the goods.  I hope that the Star Wars franchise is a hit for Marvel, but doesn't get watered down with numerous spin-offs.  I hope that Marvel or DC actually have an event that impacts the universe in a meaningful way.  I hope that Wolverine remains dead.  Finally, I hope that Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez will return us all to the Locke and Key universe.  That is all.

Pick of the Week:
The Dying and the Dead #1 - I have been looking forward to this title for quite some time and it did not disappoint.   With any Jonathan Hickman tale, you know you are going to be a few issues in before you really know what his plan is and where the book is taking you.  This is no different, but the beginning of the story is extremely intriguing and I can't wait to be wrong about all of the assumptions I am making.  There are three parties that have a stake in the story thus far.  A group of occultists who have summoned Bah Al' Suharur, an old colonel who is at the end of his rope and would do anything to save his dying wife, and a society of immortals who live underneath the Earth.  All three parties are interesting on their own, but how their paths intersect in this first issue warrant your time and money.  It will cost you $4.50 for this oversized issue and is worth every penny.

The Rest:
Batman #38 - Part 4 of Endgame is here and it is a doozy.  I feel that this issue was a return to form for Scott Snyder.  Not that I didn't enjoy the previous arcs, but felt it needed a recharge after Zero Year.  Endgame started on that trajectory and this issue felt like I was reading classic Batman and classic Snyder.   The crew is not any closer to finding a cure for the new Joker virus and Gotham is getting ripped apart at the seams by its own citizens.  Pretty standard Batman fare, but not a bad thing.  That is until Snyder dropped a rumored Joker backstory bomb that leads to Batman making a difficult decision.  He is at his wits end and needs to learn about the history of Gotham.   I won't spoil who or what he turns to for help, but I was shocked and cannot wait until the next issue.

Munchkin #1 - It seems like no matter where you turn your head you will bump into something Munchkin.  At our house we have multiple Munchkin games, a stack of Munchkin bookmarks, a pint glass from the Munchkin Tavern, and I backed a Munchkin themed Lego type brick.  Needless to say, I am a fan.  This week we have been graced with a Looney Tunes style comic that featured three stories from some pretty impressive creators.  The only catch is that if you aren't a fan of Munchkin I don't think that you would find this title worth your time.  If you are a fan, you will enjoy the simple comic that captures the spirit of the game and includes some familiar faces and foes.  Throw in the fact that each comic includes an exclusive card (pretty cool!) and I will be picking up issue #2.

Skylanders #5 - I continue to enjoy this series, but my son brought up a great point.  The first story in this issue was already featured in one of the comics that was packaged with a legendary trap.  It happened when the series launched (the first comic was available through a series of Gamestop mini-comics), but at this point I want to see where the main storyline is going.  While it is nice to see this material available to people who don't have the trap, I feel a bit shortchanged when I only got three new pages of material for $3.99.  What is frustrating was the new material was good and actually moved the plot forward.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Microreview [book]: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A trans-dimensional Georgian (mad king, not deep South) fantasy thriller

what a great cover
just saying

V.E. Schwab has written several 'young adult' SF/F novels ( a term I hate; are dull historical romances 'old adult', then?) as Victoria Schwab in case the name is familiar, but this latest lies more firmly into the 'adult' world. By this I don't mean it has nudity or extreme violence from the get-go (sounds of several readers clicking away..) but it tackles a complex (multi) world-build that requires not a little concentration. Having said this, it is fun, youthful and approachable. No Banksian reams of text, but straight into the story.

Kell is a young Antari, a rare breed of human gifted with magic, noticable by one of his eyeballs being jet-black. A visual trait that probably makes dating tricky, but is proof of his ability to travel between worlds. The worlds in question are several versions of Georgian London - the drained, rainy Grey London; cruel, cold White London; Kell's homeworld of magical, colourful Red London; and the mysterious lost city of Black London. As a self-confessed victim of wanderlust and trans-Atlantic dweller, Schwab does a good job of describing the thrill of travel. As a Londoner myself, I identified with the realistic Grey, and yearned for the warmth of Red. Each world contains its own rules, and rulers, and have very different environments and lay-outs, but were once linked freely through magic. Three centuries ago,  however, each were forced to sever the link as the balance between magic and humanity was tipped and magic -and the human lust for its power- threatened to destroy them all. 

Now decadent Red respects and manages magic, the fascist White subdues and restrains it, miserable Grey has all but forgotten it and Black is but a legend, lost to the magic that overwhelmed it. Only the Antari have the power to pass between, and they are employed by the monarchy of each city to deliver letters. When Kell is mysteriously passed a dangerously-powerful artefact from Black London, Holland, his vicious older counterpart in White, lays chase and Kell finds himself on a desperate quest to restore order, and save his own skin.

Joining him is Lila, a defiant and intelligent pick-pocket from Grey who stumbles into this hidden sect of spells and powers and leaps at the opportunity for adventure, the yang to Kell's yin. A too-convenient pairing, perhaps, designed to propel the plot, but an entertaining one and delivering the necessary heart and humour to what could have been a 'grey' bulk of exposition. Meanwhile, there is a palpable dread in White London and Holland's dark past, and enjoyable threat in the power of the artefact (despite too-obvious shades of Golem's ring).

It would be easy to pop A Darker Shade of Magic in with so many other fantasy novels - another drop in the rising ocean. Yet Schwab drew me in with an intriguing concept (and that wonderful cover art) and then kept me there with her confident prose. Her writing never dallies or wallows, but cuts to the chase, without losing the power to portrays her world(s) in detail. Occasionally her device of going back over key moments from a different perspective glares too awkwardly. An otherwise brilliantly-realised clash between Kell and Holland in particular loses some tension as a result of restarting from Kell's point-of-view, as if it had come back after a commercial break. Also there are perhaps some - sigh - young adult undertones to her reaffirming points, repeating phrases from earlier, as if to say, 'Remember this, kids'. Yet I must remove my Grey cynicism and step forward into the embrace of Red optimism and admit I am meanly searching for flaws to create a balanced-seeming review. The simple truth is I raced through this absorbing and imaginatively-rich thriller with barely a thought for syntax or structure. Schwab's writing just works, seemingly-effortlessly, disgusting the effort and skill beneath the surface. Like all good magic tricks.

The Math

Baseline Assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for a keen sense of London's past and psychogeography; +1 superb characters that mirror the light and dark of the plot 

Penalties: -1 an ending that was a little too wrapped-up; given another part in a series must surely be coming, a cliffhanger may have been more rewarding somehow

Nerd Coefficient : 8/10 well worth your time and attention

find out why 8 is good, 6 ain't bad and 10 is rarer than the Antari here

Written by English Scribbbler, Maybe it's because I'm a Londunaaah, That's why I love London Taaahhhwwn... Since 2013

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

True epic fantasy... spanning hundreds of years...

N.K. Jemisin is a rising star and one of the brightest young voices in the fantasy genre. With evocative and engaging prose, moving character-driven stories, and fantastic worlds that feature a panoply of gods, demons, humans, and even ninja priests, Jemisin's work has thus far been a breath of fresh air. We at Nerds of a Feather in particular love her Dreamblood Duology, which proved to be perhaps the best reading of 2012 (see my reviews of The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun; the latter received the extremely rare score of a 10/10). So needless to say, I was excited to pick up her Inheritance Trilogy, which was recently re-released in omnibus form.

The Inheritance Trilogy is composed of three novels: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and Kingdom of the Gods. Overall, the trilogy is centered on the story of the Three, the elder gods: Bright Itempas, lord of light and order; Nahadoth, the Nightlord and god of chaos and change; and Enefa, the goddess of twilight and life. They waged a war among each other more than two-thousand years before the story begins, one that devastated both humanity and many of the lesser gods. In the process, Itempas killed Enefa and chained Nahadoth and a number of lesser gods to serve the Arameri, his devoted human followers.

The first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, begins two-thousand years after the Gods' War, in a world where the Arameri followers of Itempas reign supreme. Yeine Darr, a northern "barbarian" outcast, finds herself called to the center of Amn, the beautiful and dangerous city of Sky. To her utter shock and dismay, she finds herself declared a successor to the ruler of Amn and thrust into a dangerous succession dispute against two dangerous full-blooded Arameri. But since Yeine harbors a secret, she soon finds herself thrust into a perilous, high-stakes game pitting the Arameri and their imprisoned gods against one another. In this succession dispute, the choices Yeine makes could have dramatic ramifications, and the fate of Sky and the realm itself are balanced on a razor's edge.

I don't want to spoil the trilogy, so I will just briefly mention some of the major plot lines of the second and third books. The Broken Kingdom, the second tale, begins a decade after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It centers on the story of Oree Shoth, a blind woman who has a magical ability to paint gorgeous pictures and to see shimmering outlines of magic, gods, and godlings. One day, she decides to take in a homeless and mute godling, who she calls "Shiny." Together, they become embroiled in  a mystery, trying to discover why (and how) gods are being murdered across Amn. And the third tale, Kingdom of the Gods, transports the reader forward hundreds of years in time and shifts focus to the child-like trickster god, Sieh. After making an oath with two Arameri children (on a whim of sorts), Sieh loses his immortality. Slowly dying, Sieh begins a quest to figure out how to regain his immortality. In the process, he slowly learns of a possible war that could threaten the very world itself.

Taken together, The Inheritance Trilogy is epic fantasy writ large. The three books span a period of hundreds of years and follow gods and humankind alike, telling tales of love, betrayal, envy, forgiveness, sacrifice, and repentance. In the process, the reader learns that aside from immortality and power unimaginable, the gods themselves seem so very "human." After all, gods and godlings may be powerful, but they are equipped with the same powerful emotions that at time make them feel all too human. And strikingly, the immortals envy the lives of their mortal followers. Brief their lives may be, but filled with a yearning for meaning and an intensity that the gods cannot help but admire.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdom are both fantastic. Both novels feature engaging prose and are so rich in detail and beauty that the plot almost becomes secondary to the overall story. Granted, each story is built upon a central mystery, but I found myself much more interested in the emotions and relations between the characters than I was with the central plot. Jemisin has thus succeeded in creating truly powerful character-driven stories. Were I to give scores for them, both would have received an 8/10.

Kingdom of the Gods, however, left a sour taste in my mouth. It follows Sieh, a god who is much more interesting as a side character than as a main character.  I quickly lost interest in Sieh's plight, cared little for his emotions and the whole melodrama of him becoming mortal, and cared even less for his relations with the two Arameri children. Following Sieh around felt almost like a Star Wars sequel focusing wholly on R2D2. Sure, we all love R2D2, but do we really want to spend 2 hours watching him click, beep, and open up doors to save the Rebel cause? Actually, now that I think about that, "R2D2: The Revenge" still seems better than following a bratty, melodramatic godling around the realm of Amn for hundreds of pages. Still, Kingdom of the Gods features the same poetic prose as the rest of the series and deals with  norms of love, life, and even sexuality. But it falls flat after the beauty of the first two books. Were I rating it as well, I would have given this book a 5/10.

Despite the weak ending, I would still highly recommend The Inheritance Trilogy as required reading for fans of fantasy. N.K. Jemisin has crafted a beautiful story of love, betrayal, and repentance. The power of her prose, the richness of detail, and the complexity of her character-driven dramas, and the overall consistency of quality novels make Jemisin one of the best young authors in the genre.

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +2 for the power and richness of the first two books.

Penalties: -2 for centering a story on the overly melodramatic godling, Sieh.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 "An enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

POSTED BY: Jemmy, a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Microreview [film]: The Whisperer in Darkness

Almost (but ever so slightly not) as wonderful as its predecessor

Film adaptations of Lovecraft are almost universally terrible. Until I watched the special features on the second disc of The Whisperer in Darkness (totally worth the purchase price), I never really had a clear idea as to why. But very astutely, writer/director Sean Branney and co-writer Andrew Leman pointed out in a behind-the-scenes featurette that the eponymous story this film was based on was really only the first two acts of what needed to be three acts in order to make a complete film. Most Lovecraft stories, they said, left off the third act to which they were building. That wily Lovecraft — giving you a beginning, a middle, and leaving the end to your imagination so he'd never get caught writing The Matrix: Revolutions. Maybe that's the real heart of why so many of the films have been terrible — filmmakers either had to scrap everything but some basic idea of the story and then build something entirely new, or invent a third act based on what Lovecraft only hinted at in his actual story.

Branney and Leman decided to go with the latter approach. They fleshed out the characters, built out the world a little, but tried to stay pretty true to the source material for about an hour. After that, it was off to the races with new material to bring the whole thing to a satisfying close. The result is as good a Lovecraft film as you're likely to see...unless you see these guys' earlier version of The Call of Cthulhu (which was one of the first film reviews I wrote for this site).

The Whisperer in Darkness centers on a folklorist and skeptic named Albert Wilmarth who gets invited to a remote Vermont farm by Henry Akeley and his son George to investigate the Akeleys' claims that terrible crab creatures were washed up in a flood and began slinking about the woods. Now I'll admit I had the "crab pe-pole, crab pe-pole" chant from the "South Park is Gay" episode of South Park stuck in my head for the rest of the movie, but that says more about me than it does about the movie. When Wilmarth arrives at Henry's farm, Henry informs him that he had been wrong to fear the crab people, and they were actually benevolent travelers from outer space that were going to open a portal to a select few humans and allow them to travel among the stars with them, in the form of disembodied heads existing in steampunk electrical jars...but Wilmarth smells a rat. If you're not already getting all tingly because of that sentence, I'm afraid there's no hope for you. 

This film was created by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, which tries to create films as they may have been if Lovecraft's stories had been adapted at the time of their initial publication. So The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1926, was made as a silent film, with stop-motion effects and German Expressionistic lighting and set design. The Whisperer in Darkness was written in the 1930s, so the film is a black-and-white, creepy thriller in the vein of a Universal monster movie, made with miniatures and dramatic, high-contrast lighting, a mid-Atlantic accent or two, and a lot of suggestion. It mixes in some 21st century digital technology, too, sometimes for good and other times less so. On balance, it feels slightly less engrossing than Cthulhu in part because it's less foreign to present sensibilities, but it shares a wonderful sense of immersion in Lovecraft's world, despite the feeling that it could've been a bit shorter and all the more improved for that leaner narrative.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for doing just a hell of a job on an effect- and atmosphere-heavy film made using severely limited resources; +1 for the head-in-a-jar effect, which must've been some badass Frankenstein dream-come-true for the filmmakers to shoot; +1 for a real 1-2 punch of an ending

Penalties: -1 for playing the same dramatic moments too many times as the film pushed toward the finish line

Cult Film Coefficient: 8/10. The dread lord Cthulhu would find it a worthy offering.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

I will open this week on a personal note.  I accepted a job with a different university and will be moving my family back to Texas this summer.  The impact this will have on the blog is that I will be that this year's C2E2 will be my last, and I will unlikely be able to go back to Gen Con.  This saddens me, but the move south will open the door to Board Game Geek Con, PAX South, and SXSW.  In addition, I will be able to return to shopping at Austin Books.  I will miss the good folk at Comic Quest, which is an excellent store, but look forward to the new adventures this move will bring my family.  Cheers!

Pick of the Week:
Powers #1 - Even though we have to wait almost a year to finally see an episode of Powers on Sony TV, the new excitement surrounding the series delivered this welcome addition to the Powers story.  The original Powers was a phenomenal series that everyone should read.  Starting with a basic murder mystery, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming created a rich world filled with fresh characters and a new take on people with powers.  Flash forward to the relaunch, and a world that is once again seeing a rise of individuals with powers and it isn't being celebrated.  Deena Pilgrim is the top detective out there and her former partner, Christian Walker, is nowhere to be seen.  It is so exciting to revisit this noir book and I am looking forward to checking it out on the small screen this winter.  A perfect time to familiarize yourself with Powers.

The Rest:
Rumble #2 - I don't know what to make of this title, but I find it engrossing and entertaining.  Bobby has become mixed up with some sort of demon because a friend of his owes him a little over $80.  While the demon won't hurt Bobby, he wants to use him to track down whatever he is seeking.  This causes the demon to run into a six-headed cat type creature and other shenanigans.  There isn't really a good way to describe what this book is, but if you are willing to give it a chance you will be adequately entertained.

Ivar, Timewalker #1 - The good folks at Valiant Entertainment gave us this hidden gem featuring time travel this week.  Ivar has traveled back in time to prevent Dr. Neela Sethi from inventing time travel.  At the same time a group of time traveling robots, the Prometheans, are after her as well.  Dr. Sethi clearly plays a major role for the future of mankind and it isn't clear who we should trust.  Ivar, Timewalker was fast-paced and fun and I look forward to unfolding more secrets and traveling to different time periods.

Groo: Friends and Foes #1 - It is always good to see the one-man wrecking ball Groo return.  Groo is back for a 12-part series and destruction is bound to follow him.  This week we join him on his adventures with Captain Ahax to see if the mighty Groo can sink a boat to allow Ahax to cash in on an insurance policy.  Per usual, hijinks ensue and much is destroyed.  Classic Groo that fans of the warrior are sure to enjoy.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Microreview [video game]: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

The best Assassin's Creed game yet!

I love Monolith. I've loved them since way back when they made Blood. They have always made solid games with interesting twists, such as F.E.A.R. and first-person slow-mo, and Condemned: Criminal Origins with its melee and crime investigation focus. They did it again with Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

Shadow of Mordor is a third-person action game that plays like a combination of Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the Assassin's Creed vein, there is a lot of climbing on buildings, sneaking around, stabbing orcs, interrogating informants, and finding collectibles. Shadow of Mordor does all of these better than Assassin's Creed has in the past. The climbing feels better and it's more obvious where you can and cannot climb. The stealth makes more sense, as breaking line of sight gives a ghostly outline to show where you were last spotted. This makes following enemies seem less omniscient and not unlimited in numbers, while still presenting overwhelming amounts of enemies. The informants are also better done in Shadow of Mordor. Taking a page from the Arkham games, information on your particular target can be gained by grabbing a particular orc, instead of tediously following NPCs, or (even worse) innately somehow knowing everything about your enemy from the start. This last one is something Assassin's Creed has botched badly in the last couple games.

Taking pages from Arkham, the combat in Mordor is very much influenced by those games, with the same attack, counter, evade, and stun face buttons. It's a well-done imitation, and I found that my skills learned from the Arkham games translated perfectly to Mordor. Also taking a page from Arkham's books, the collectibles include bits of Middle-earth lore which makes them something that (as a Middle-earth fan) I want to collect, rather than just boxes to check to completionists.

What Mordor does that neither of those games do is introduce the nemesis system. You see, true to Middle-earth lore, Uruk-hai lead the orcs and they are nasty. They're mean, they fight each other, and power is the rule of law. In the game, there are around 20 Uruk captains. They all have unique names. They all have a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, fears, and hatreds. For example, a particular captain might be invulnerable to stealth attacks, weak against fire, afraid of Caragoar (large four-legged beast), and a hatred of losing. This would mean that stealth is useless against him, and he will regenerate his health if you take his health down but not out, but fire will do more damage, and he'll lose all of his strengths and hatreds if he sees a Caragoar.

Controlling the 20 something Uruk captains are five warchiefs, with more power and unique attributes themselves. They also have bodyguards, which are Uruk captains. Taking on a warchief without accounting for their bodyguards is a good way to find yourself fighting a lot of powerful Uruk. But you don't know any of these attributes or command hierarchy from the start. You don't even know these Uruk's names. You have to collect intel to learn these things. You can go into these fights blind, but it's much easier when you know what to expect and who might show up. Later in the game, you can exploit the command hierarchy by turning bodyguards against their warchief, or turning warchiefs and captains against each other.

Reading this, none of it might sound particularly compelling, but it is so well done that it makes the entire game. The named Uruk must have thousands of lines of dialog because repeat encounters result in them bringing up things that I had done to them in the past. Where Assassin's Creed forced me to collect intel just to put me in the same sneak, murder, run away cycle, Mordor made intel optional, and made the unique Uruk attributes a way of forcing me to be creative with my approach. The nemesis system created stories in Mordor that few games can replicate even with crafted encounters. I've written up a great example of one of these stories involving Orthog the Crafty at my blog.

Despite all of these strengths, Mordor isn't perfect. In fact, where it is lacking is in the crafted story. You play as Talion, and, right from the start, your wife and son are fridged and you're killed by a minion of Sauron. However, you learn that Talion can't die because he's possessed by a wraith. The wraith doesn't know who he is, but his power keeps Talion from dying in his quest for revenge. The story isn't particularly bad in itself, but it suffers from too much fan service. You run into a handful of antagonists modeled accurately from their characters in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy who seem to just pop up for no good reason. Or at least, not good enough reasons. It's a bummer, because I loved all of the collectibles and their stories and found them much more interesting than dragging out movie characters for the apparent purpose of saying "HEY THIS GAME IS LIKE THOSE MOVIES! REMEMBER THOSE?" It's the movie poster cover art on the latest print of a classic novel. Tacky and unnecessary. The game itself stands alone great without the ham-fisted cameos.

The game ends weakly, and leaves the doors wide swinging open for the sequel, and I personally cannot wait. Maybe they'll get the story right next time, but if they don't, I'll hope to make my own, better stories with an improved nemesis system. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of those rare games where the gameplay mechanics create better, more interesting stories than what was written for it, and I hope that we see more of the nemesis system in these type of open world action games in the future.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 the nemesis system is absolutely awesome

Penalties: -1 weak story

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (Well worth your time and attention)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Monolith Productions. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor [Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2014]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Draft Hugo Ballot 2015

Welcome to my Second Annual Draft Hugo Ballot! This year I’ve loosened the reins a bit and brought in some outside assistance from fellow nerds of a feather Charles, English Scribbler, Mike and Vance--mostly in the short fiction categories (which I was exceedingly grumpy about in 2014) and in the graphic fiction and dramatic presentation categories (which I consumed far too little of in 2014). The rest is mine, for better or for worse.

As a disclaimer, I should probably also mention that ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’ is eligible in the Best Fanzine category. So if you read and enjoy what we post on this site, and are going to fill in a ballot (you can sign up here), I encourage you to consider us alongside the other blogs and print ‘zines you enjoy reading.

[If you do happen to nominate us, our official name is ‘nerds of a feather, flock together,’ edited by The G and Vance Kotrla).]

Returning to this list of Hugo nominees, and particularly to the fan categories, I feel obliged to mention that there are many more deserving folks than there are spaces on the ballot. That’s speaks to the richness of our discourse but also makes me feel like any list I could draw up would insufficiently capture the range of awesomeness that I’ve observed over the past year. I could easily make another list full of great stuff from deserving people.

On the other side of the coin, you may notice a few categories missing. That’s because there are some I feel unqualified to discuss (such as the artist categories) or just don’t feel like nominating anything (due to the aforementioned grumpiness). But enough about all that--on to the nominees! (Purchase links at the bottom.)

Part I: Creative Products

Best Novel

These all feature on my Best of 2014 post for The Book Smugglers, so forgive me if the copy looks familiar...

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)

“In some ways, the book feels like a sequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and it is arguably framed as such). At other points it resembles a science fictional riff on Roberto Bolaño’s magisterial 2666. But here’s the thing: Station Eleven isn’t just very good literary fiction in speculative clothing; it’s also very good at being speculative fiction—something litfic authors rarely manage when “slumming it” in genre. Easily the best novel I read in 2014, and one I imagine I’ll re-read periodically for the rest of my life.” (The G)

A Darkling Sea by James Cambias (Tor)

“Equally a tale of first contact and how good intentions can go awry, A Darkling Sea is smart and sociologically complex “hard” SF—the kind of thing I often long for but rarely find.” (The G)

 Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski (Orbit/Gollancz)

“As I wrote in my review, ‘there are a lot more decent fantasy novels than detractors might believe, [but] very few can credibly claim to be significant works of literature. Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Cycle is a rare exception.’ A highly significant work of genre fiction that deserves to be much more widely read than it is. Also far, far more sophisticated than the two video games. (Oh, and if you decide to read the series, please start with the short story collection The Last Wish.)” (The G)

Eternal Sky Trilogy [Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky] by Elizabeth Bear (Tor)

“I’m going to follow Aidan of A Dribble of Ink (as I do in many things) and nominate this for the Hugo under the “Wheel of Time Rule.” Though the ending to Bear’s “silk road fantasy” may not have been as superlative as the start, I honestly can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy trilogy this good.” (The G)

City of Stairs by Robert J. Bennett (Broadway Books)

City of Stairs has a briskly paced plot and well-rounded characters, both of which are integral to its success. But it’s the way Bennett smashes past the genre’s assumptions and conventions of world building that really make it stand out. Plus the whole cars but no guns thing—Bennett doesn’t really make a big deal out of it but I found the notion fascinating.” A shot of fresh air in a genre that can be very stale and crusty. (The G)

Best Novella

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

I understand that some will view anything with Sriduangkaew's name attached as toxic, and I understand why. But one of my 2015 resolutions is to respect the Barthesian author/text distinction to the best of my ability. Accordingly, I think texts should ideally be considered on their own merits and not through the prism of the author's person (or vice versa). Of course this is not always possible and people draw the line in different places. However, I am compelled to note that Scale-Bright was--by far--the best novella I read in 2014. Strong characters, confident world-building (based on Chinese mythology) and elegant prose--exactly what I look for in fantasy. (The G)

Best Novelette
"Dancing with Batgirl in the Land of Nod" by Will McIntosh (The End is Now)

About the world ending and the choices people make when faced with such an event. A sad look at nostalgia, loss, and endings. (Charles)

The Magician and Laplace's Demon” by Tom Crosshill (Clarkesworld)

A great story that explores the intersection of magic and science, computers and humanity. (Charles)

Heaven Thunders the Truth” by K. J. Parker (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Another year, another top-notch gritty fantasy from Parker features in the middle-sized categories. Should anyone be surprised? Parker is one of the few remaining practitioners who can write a compact novel with a linear plot and make it feel like nothing’s left out. (The G)
We are the Cloud” by Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed)

A very painful, personal piece, heavily coated in early 1990s nostalgia. That did turn some people off, as it ends up being more about the writer and similarly-aged readers working through their own personal issues (related to growing older and less connected to the totems of youth and adolescence) than speculation. But, being both a fan of Miller's writing and somewhat forgiving of nostalgia, this one really resonated with me--especially since I am that similarly-aged reader. (The G)

Best Short Story

Didn’t realize Lightspeed had such a good year until I saw how it accounted for 3/5 of our short story picks (and 2/4 of the alternates).
Candy Girl” by Chikodili Emelumadu (Apex)

A bitingly funny commentary on cultural appropriation as a woman is first transformed into chocolate and then consumed. That it doesn't end there is a great twist. (Charles)

What Glistens Back” by Sunny Moraine (Lightspeed)

A man falls toward the surface of an alien world while saying his last goodbyes to his husband. Heartbreaking in every way, it focuses on the human spirit spreading out among the stars and is hopeful and tragic and made me cry so much. (Charles)

"Four Days of Christmas" by Tim Maughan (Terraform)

Inspired by a visit to the factory in China where 60 percent of all Christmas products are made (the subject of this non-fiction article), "Four Days of Christmas" features strong writing and highly focused (and unsettling) speculation on realistic future(s). If you ask me, this is what science fiction was made for. (The G)
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson (Lightspeed)

A woman must recover after war, when she literally was a tank, to find a purpose in life, and perhaps some human contact. About dealing with the scars left long after the fighting is done, the story managed to be uplifting and genuine. (Charles)
INELIGIBLE BUT STILL AWESOME:The Herons of Mer D'Ouest” by Matthew Bennardo (Lightspeed)

This historical horror is superb, frankly. Told in the form of 1764 diary entries, it charts the discovery by an early American pioneer of a local tribe and the monsters that they fight. The haunting imagery is wonderful, and the resulting violence outlandish and yet believable. (English Scribbler)

Best Related Work

I’ll be honest here and state that I don’t really understand the point of a category that compares 1,000 word blog posts with books. And what about post series, you know, statements broken into several component pieces either because they took time to write or because the author didn’t want to inundate her/his readers with too much at once? Do those count as multiple “related works” or a single “related work?”
Speculative Fiction 2013 edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James (Jurassic London)

This yearly anthology of writing on SF/F continues to impress. And we’re featured in it! (Not that this is why it impresses--just saying.) (The G)

Call and Response by Paul Kincaid (Beccon)

A collection of must-read essays by the guy I consider to be one of--if not the--preeminent critics in SF/F. (The G)

Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens - A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines” by Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)

I’ve linked to the binding post, because my understanding of the rules is that post series not compiled in a single publication (like a book) aren’t eligible while single essays are. But really you should read the other two entries to get an idea of why this is such an important piece of criticism. Also served as the prompt for our first Perspectives post. (The G)

Best Graphic Story

Locke and Key: Alpha and Omega by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)

The emotional ride with the Locke family came to a stunning conclusion in my favorite comic series of all-time. I can't think of any series (television, film, or written) that has so appropriately parted ways with its fans. It was so heart breaking and fulfilling and I can't imagine ever enjoying a series as much as this one. (Mike). Puts a period at the end of what is frankly the most engrossing comic saga I've ever read. The end of the story of the Locke family's stay in Keyhouse is so, so sad and so beautiful. The ending more than lived up to the high expectations set by the earlier volumes. (Vance)

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Check)

I think I've pretty much aged out of my titillation phase, so I didn't rush out to get SEX CRIMINALS until it had been recommended by several people. What I found was a stunningly inventive sci-fi story like a filthy episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that was also laugh-out-loud funny, even while the characters experienced grim and frightening things. (Vance)

Trillium by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo)

One of the most creative sci-fi titles I read in 2014, Trillium captivates your imagination as the reader explores the budding relationship between two individuals separated by over 2,000 years. Lemire continues to flex his artistic chops as he is able to balance the juxtaposition of a beautiful love story with the sheer terror of The Caul. Lemire is one of the most creative and talented individuals in any medium. (Mike)

Saga Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Vertigo)

If say anything negative about this title Lying Cat will call me out on it. An epic sci-fi tale of star crossed lovers told from the perspective of their child that will appeal to a broad range of fans. An epic saga (sorry) that everyone should read. There is a reason it won the Hugo in 2013 and has a great chance of repeating. (Mike)

The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy (Vertigo)

Technically this started in 2013, but kept going into 2014, so I *think* it’s eligible. It’s also a hyper-experimental, freaky science fiction/horror mashup marked by great writing and seriously high quality art. (The G)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long-Form)
Big Hero 6 (dir. Don Hall and Chris Williams)

This was the most magical, most captivating sci-fi film I saw this year. From the emotional core of the film to the individual characters, there was nothing that didn't grab me in a major way. This also has the distinction of becoming my son's first favorite film — that first movie where you "get it," what film is capable of, like Ghostbusters was for me. (Vance)

**Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)

I honestly feel bad that all three of my nods are to Disney movies, which certainly don't need any more help, but they're the best I saw in 2014. The sci-fi comedy is always a tightrope act, but when it works it's probably my favorite kind of movie. Guardians works. (Vance)**

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (dir. Anthony and Joe Russo)

What a strange year for Marvel releases, that their lightest, funniest film is paired with their most serious-minded. Cap 2 does something I really never considered, and does it very well, which is to cross a political thriller with a superhero film. I mean, for your plugged-in, thinking moviegoer, this is a film tailor-made for our times, and which evokes favorable comparisons with classics of 1970s paranoia like Three Days of the Condor. It also embraces the emotional pain of its characters, from Steve Rogers' displacement in time and Sam Wilson's struggles to adjust to civilian life after the war, to the gut-punch of learning the Winter Soldier's identity and what that means to Cap. Plus, the action is just badass. This is a sequel that, to me, exceeds its predecessor in every way. (Vance)

[Anything but] Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)

A visually beautiful film unfortunately paired to a hackneyed, nonsensical and frequently cringe-worthy screenplay. Sorry, Shaun! (The G)

Part II: Fan Categories and Quasi-Fan Categories

Best Semiprozine

I’m thumbing my nose at the established pro-paying markets this year, mostly because I want to give a signal boost to a few deserving folks who might be off the radar, but also because I question whether “semi-pro” is an appropriate label for established, high-profile and pro-paying online magazines like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons or Lightspeed. Not that they shouldn’t be up for an award--they should--but in a new/appropriate category in which they would be considered alongside Asimov’s and F&SF.
Interzone (edited by Andy Cox)

I read pretty much every issue of Interzone in 2014, and was consistently impressed--not just with the fiction, but also the reviews and essays, which are often an afterthought for fiction magazines. Many of my favorite British critics and reviewers--for example, Maureen Kincaid-Speller, Ian Sales, Jonathan McCalmont--are on the team. Top quality stuff.

Pornokitsch (edited by Jared Shurin and Anna Perry)

Like us, Pornokitsch cast a wide net across geekdom. But it covers an even wider terrain than we do, yet does so with a voice that is clear, strong and unmistakable for anything else. As someone who’s tried hard to build an “identity” for a fundamentally eclectic blog, I can attest to how difficult that is to accomplish. Somehow Jared and Anne manage to come off as high-brow but not snooty, a delicate balance to maintain, yet maintain it they do--even when discussing things like D&D.

The Book Smugglers (edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James)

One of the best, most professional and most readable blogs out there, The Book Smugglers are now publishing short fiction. And not just any short fiction, but really, really good stuff--with a mild emphasis on YA too, which adds to the thematic and stylistic diversity of the overall short fiction market.

Fantasy Scroll Magazine (edited by Iulian Ionescu)

This is a new, fantasy and science fiction venture but one that already feels like it's been around forever. The inaugural issue could serve as a masterclass on how to make a semipro-paying relevant, though I suspect FSM fast on its way to evolving into a fully-fledged pro-paying market. 

Bastion Science Fiction Magazine (edited by R. Leigh Hennig)

In the interests of transparency, I should note that they published a short story of mine. However, I hope that doesn't give the wrong impression about my including them on this list. I read Bastion regularly, and though it can be a bit uneven, I highly value the fact that, in an environment with increasingly indistinct borders between science fiction and fantasy, Bastion publishes stories that are both strictly science fiction and often quite different from what you see published elsewhere.
Best Fanzine

For this category, I simply asked myself: which sites or print ‘zines (that fit the criteria of what is or isn’t a fanzine) did I read the most in 2014? And the fact is there were too many to mention, so I picked the five that most consistently did it for me over the course of the past 12 months.
SF Mistressworks (edited by Ian Sales)

Year after year, Ian Sales’ blog dedicated to the secret history of female-written science fiction uncovers more top-quality (and important!) stuff that’s been neglected, looked past or left on the shelf in favor of the Asimovs, Heinleins and Clarkes of genre history. Depending on your perspective, SF Mistressworks either provides a long overdue complement or much needed correction to the dominant narrative. Either way, it’s highly valuable and deserves recognition as such.
A Dribble of Ink (edited by Aidan Moher)

Initially I wasn't sure whether I should re-nominate last year’s winner, but A Dribble of Ink is just too impressive not to. Someone (Justin I think) once said that Aidan Moher’s fantasy-oriented blog was evolving into something more akin to a magazine, and I think that’s even more so today than it was at the time (2013 I think). The writing, whether Aidan’s or from one of his many illustrious guest posters, is consistently top-flight, while the gorgeous site design leaves everything else in its dust.

Lady Business (edited by Renay, Ana and Jodie)

I’ve been reading Renay’s work for a while now, but 2014 was the year I really came to appreciate Lady Business and its signature voice, which combines the casual style of a fansite with the heft of critique. And in 2014 they added some quality new features, such as "Short Business" (a short fiction review series). Of course the ultimate compliment I can pay the Feminist Ponies is to say that, even when I disagree vociferously with their conclusions, I always leave wondering if I just wasn’t looking at things right. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the mark of a great review.

Violin in a Void (edited by Lauren Smith)

I don’t remember how I discovered the Africa-based blog Violin in a Void (founder Lauren is from South Africa and, until recently, lived in Ethiopia), but I quickly recognized its reviews for their insight and general high quality. Tilts more fantasy than SF, but there’s enough of both to satisfy both halves of fandom. A site I really hope more people take notice of in 2015.

SFSignal (edited by John DiNardo)
Yes I know they wouldn’t accept the award if given to them, but there are several people writing for the site whose work I’d like to recognize for the top-notch stuff it is: Paul Weimer, Andrea Johnson, Rob Bedford, Sarah Chorn and Rachel Cordasco, among others. So there!

Best Fan Writer

Another category with too many deserving folks for five slots...
Jonathan McCalmont

Last year I called Jonathan “acerbic in the best possible way,” further celebrating “his broadsides against the hypocrisies and absurdities of fandom.” Both statements stand--but, if anything, Jonathan upped his game in 2014. His "Future Interrupted" column for Interzone and blog posts at Ruthless Culture demonstrate a sharp critical eye, wonderfully sophisticated writing and a unique ability to frame current discourses within genre history and social theory. Though there are a lot of critics/reviewers I enjoy reading, Jonathan is one who most consistently inspires me. Now get back on twitter already!

Natalie Luhrs

Every year there’s an essay or post series that shakes me out of my comfort zone. This year it was Natalie’s heartbreaking post on Marion Zimmer Bradley and her family’s sordid history of pedophilia. I loved The Mists of Avalon as a child, and learned to value its ideas as an adult; as such, the revelations triggered an extra level of dismay beyond the shock and horror of the revelations themselves. Though “Silence is Complicity” was not the only essay on the topic in 2014, it was the one that best framed the story for me.

Foz Meadows

Her essays and opinion pieces are remarkable for their insight and her writing is really sophisticated. But in 2014 I also discovered how good Foz is at constructing a book review (thanks to doozies like this one for A Dribble of Ink). Simply put, she's operating on another level.

Justin Landon

Staffers Book Review is dearly departed from this mortal coil, but Justin is still out there making his (typically strong) opinions known. And thank goodness for that--he’s consistently one of the most entertaining and informative voices out there. Absolutely one of the best and someone deserves to be recognized as such.

Martin Lewis/Petto

Martin’s output slowed in 2014, but I guess the less he produces the more I value him as a critic. Martin, as it happens, may pull the fewest in the business, and he’s a great writer. Fandom needs more voices like his.

Best Fancast

Rocket Talk (Justin Landon)

Well, you knew that even if he shut down his blog, Justin wouldn’t shut up, right? I mean, this is a guy who loves to talk genre, and unlike many of us, he’s got an excellent speaking voice. So I guess you could say’s podcast is the perfect venue! In all seriousness, Rocket Talk was my single favorite podcast of 2014. Great, high-level conversations and always fun.
Skiffy and Fanty (Shaun Duke, Jen Zinc, Paul Weimer, Rachel Acks, Julia Rios, Michael Underwood, David Annandale and Stina Leicht) 
My other favorite podcast--one that consistently impresses with its professionalism and quality of discourse (and lack of insider/card-table-style chitchat--the failing of many a podcast). Though I nominated them last year as well, I think Skiffy and Fanty got even better in 2014. Also love the range of tastes and insight that its many contributors provide.

Midnight in Karachi (Mahvesh Murad)

Mahvesh is someone whose work I only discovered recently, but both her podcast and print reviews bring the awesome. She’s fast becoming one of my favorite critical voices in fandom. 

The Coode Street Podcast (Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe)

Always great listening to these guys.

Part III: Support the Creative Folks (and us)!


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A Darkling Sea by James Cambias
Range of Ghosts/Shattered Pillars/Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear
Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew


The End is Nigh (Apocalypse Triptych Book 1) (Anthology)
Clarkesworld (Magazine)
Apex (Magazine)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (Magazine) 
Lightspeed (Magazine)
Fantasy Scroll (Magazine)
Bastion Science Fiction (Magazine)
Graphic Novels/Collections

Alpha & Omega (Locke & Key) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Trillium by Jeff Lemire
Saga, Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

Related Works

Speculative Fiction 2013: The year's best online reviews, essays and commentary (Volume 2) edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James
Call and Response by Paul Kincaid


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).