It Must Be Review Week – Guardians of the Galaxy Time

So, yes, I popped into Tesco last night and picked up a cheap copy of Frozen and the Blue-ray of Guardians of the Galaxy. And since I’m in the mood and there are some Aneka-ish things to discuss in there…

On the whole I was disappointed. Not in a ‘this movie sucks big time, I wasted my money, I want a refund’ way, just in a way I should have expected: the movie was hyped up to the earlobes and there was no way it was going to meet expectations. The difference here is that Guardians was hyped by the fans. I feel parallels with Star Wars, actually. I have a feeling that there is a real lack of space opera in films and anything filing that hole is going to be greeted with over-enthusiastic fandom. I do think the sequel could well be awesome, but this movie was about as good as I’d expect from a film which has to introduce 5 characters from scratch. It dragged. A lot in places.

On the other hand, Zoe Saldana was hot, even in cool colours. (Yes, I’ve been working on that joke for hours.)

The parallels with the Aneka books should be obvious really, though they aren’t as strong as they might first appear. A friend who read Steel Beneath the Skin commented that she was expecting Aneka to have been born later, a little in the future. Of course, the reason Aneka has to be from now (more or less) is that she is our eyes and ears on the world of the future. Her previous experiences are ours and her reactions to her new home are (similar to) ours. Peter Quill, aka StarLord, is also kidnapped from Earth and ends up in a strange land, but the main reason for doing that is to drop in 1970s music and modern cultural references for the aliens to not understand. Quill already knows all the things that Aneka is there to educate the reader on. Of course, the assumed audience for Guardians already knows the setting, so that kind of thing isn’t really necessary, is it… Well, I’ve read a few comics and I was still kind of lost on who was what and why half the time. It’s a shame, because I think there’s a lot of background here I’d probably enjoy. Well, okay… I turn off my brain for most movies, why not this one.

Arise – The Major is Back

So, it may come as no big surprise that one of the influences on the Aneka books is Ghost in the Shell. I’ve seen both movies, even read one of the Manga comics, but the animated series Stand Alone Complex is my favourite and the basis for the characters in that has always been the way I think of them. Rise and I Can’t Be Cool from the second series soundtrack are still on my playlist.

For those unfamiliar (there are any reading this?) GitS is the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg and wizard-class hacker, and her team in Public Security Section 9. Section 9 deals with cybercrime, proactively where possible, and they do so using a lot of weaponry along with their military and hacking skills. Moyoko, “The Major,” is one of the absolutely classic kick-ass heroines, but her story is also about identity and what it means to be human when most of your body is cybernetic. Sound familiar? (Actually, Aneka and Motoko would probably not see eye-to-eye on the matter, but I think that’s a matter of perception.)

And now we have a new entry in the GitS reality: Ghost in the Shell Arise. This is a “re-imagining” of the existing universe, changing a few starting points and then running with it (a bit like the recent Star Trek reboot in a way). The aim is to show how the Major put her team together, explain the characters, etc. The first two episodes, Ghost Pain and Ghost Whispers, are out on Blue-ray and DVD and I watched them last night after Amazon delivered them into my hot little hands.

I liked them and if you’ve never tried GitS, or even Animae, then this is a pretty good place to start. The original books and films are a little on the inaccessible side, but still a bit more western in outlook than many of the genre. GitS: SAC is one of the few Japanese animated series I consistently like and re-watch and it looks like Arise is going to fit right in. Plus, since this is starting from scratch, so to speak, you don’t need to worry about knowing anything about the characters.

I’m not totally keen on some of the character redesigns, and I wish they’d got the same actor to do Aramaki’s voice as in the old versions. Motoko’s voice has changed too, though not so drastically and I can get used to that one. I liked the two episodes so far, and it’s nice to see Section 9 back in action.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – My Views on this Week’s Defiance

And I’m back on Defiance, but this time it’s one specific episode. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times aired on June 10th in the US and June 11th in the UK, and it has such obvious parallels with the over-arching plot of the Aneka Jansen stories that I had to comment.

If you haven’t seen the episode and plan to, this article is going to contain pretty major spoilers, so watch first. If you haven’t read Steel beneath the Skin and plan to, there are also some spoilers, but they aren’t quite as major seeing as they are pretty much given away in the cover blurb. Anyway, due to spoilers, I’ll continue after the break…

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Defiance! (And all that.)

Defiance! (And All That.)

Defiance is something of a phenomenon, a computer game and a linked TV series, or maybe a TV series and a linked game. It depends on how you look at it, but the concept is that events in the TV series will be reflected in the game world, and game events and characters will reflect in the TV series. Some player characters from the game may even get a mention (or appear as guest characters) in the show, though I doubt those will include XMASTERBLASTERX or his like. So, the game kicked off on April 2nd and the show on the 15th or 16th (depending on your region), what’s it like?

The World

The basic premise behind Defiance is the arrival in 2013 (April 4th) of a huge fleet of alien ships. These “Ark Ships” are carrying billions of Votans, most of them in suspended animation after a journey of about 5000 years. Obviously this causes a bit of a problem and, eventually, war breaks out despite the best efforts of many to integrate votans and humans.

It is during these “Pale Wars” that two events occur which are to shape the future of the world. The first happens on January 5th 2029 when the ships still in orbit mysteriously blow up. This results in a belt of wreckage in orbit and the fall of a considerable amount of Votan technology to earth. That technology included terraforming equipment which had been intended to make an uninhabitable world habitable; now it transforms the Earth into an alien version of itself.

The following December, in San Francisco, the Battle of Defiance takes place. Human and votan soldiers, sickened by the years of conflict, join together to defend helpless civilians against the warring human and votan armies. Thousands die, but the battle is seen as a sign that humans can get along with their new neighbours, and working together is the only way to get by in the new, shattered world.

The Votans

There are seven votan races, but you’re going to see only a few of them, and I’m going concentrate on two. The Irathients and the Castithans are the big two, though there are also the Indogenes (technologists, cyborgs), the Sensoth (long live, apelike, tall, slow), the Liberata (small, had working, mostly important because one gives you missions in game), the Volge (bad guys), and the Gulanee (energy beings, total unknown).

The TV series has some seriously major characters who are castithans (the Tarr family) and that’s the main reason I mention them here. Pale skinned, but basically human, castithan society is caste-based, highly stratified, and highly ritualised. Tony Curran’s Datak Tarr is suitably evil and malign, but you just know that his wife, the sensuous Stahma Tarr (aka “Hot Mamma Stahma,” apparently, and played by Jaime Murray) that you have to watch out for. In game you’ll find Ara Shondu who gets a mention in passing in the series pilot, who seems far too nice to be a castithan.

Irathients are the wild children of the votans. They are important because one of the main characters in the series, Irisa, is an Irathient, but also because (at launch) Irathients are the only votan race you can play in game. This makes sense since they are the most common votans on Earth. Irathients, like castithans, look mostly human; they have a more pronounced brow structure and redder skin with naturally occurring paler markings. They like nature and tend to be a bit more elemental than the other votans. The buxom Cass Ducar, who you will meet right out of the escape pod, is an Irathient.

The Series

The TV Series Defiance airs on Syfy on a Monday night in the US and a Tuesday night in the UK. As I write this the second episode has screened in the UK with far less action than the pilot, but far more of a view into the world and people. So far it’s keeping my interest and next week we get hellbugs!

The show is based around what was St Louis and is now the frontier town of Defiance. Defiance has a gullanite mine, a population largely consisting of humans and Castithans, and is built on top of the buried city of St Louis. I mean, the old city is still down there, with buildings, bridges, and a nuclear plant! Julie Benz (Buffy’s Darla) is the mayor and (after the pilot episode) the scheming sucker who stole our gem in the first week of the game is the Lawkeeper. Clearly Mayor Amanda needs to get some of Darla’s smarts for employing that… Ahem.

Thus far, the first episode (a double length show) was pretty action-packed with a Volge army turning up to trash the city and kill everyone. Unsurprisingly, Nolan’s self-sacrifice saves the town, and Irisa saves Nolan (and the town) by having an Irathient bike gang turn up to help after we think she’s run off and left him. Episode two demonstrated that the Castithans have a non-human society and that Irisa has spent time in chains. It also continued the on-going plot ark which has the town’s old major hunting for some Votan gadget which will save the world, or something. To be fair, next episode we’ve got Hellbugs, which is likely to be more fun than any of that stuff.

I’ve no idea yet whether the series is going to be worth watching long-term; it’s far too early to tell, but it has a strong cast and a world background which is a little different from many other sci-fi series. It should be interesting to see where they go with the world they’ve created.

The Game

The Defiance game is a multi-player, online, third-person shooter, and there-in lies my major disappointment with it. However, that is kind of my problem so while I’ll discuss it later, I won’t be “marking it down” for that. The servers opened on April 2nd, 2013, two days before the Ark Ships were to appear in orbit according to the timeline. Sadly, no aliens in the real world, and the game-world begins in 2046 with the arrival in what was California of the Stratocarrier New Freedom, with your character aboard it. Unfortunately, this arrival is a little more sudden than expected; the ship crash-lands and you bail out in an escape pod.

You are playing an “ark hunter,” one who earns a living scavenging votan technology (vo-tech) from arkfalls. The backstory has you recruited by Karl Von Bach, genius arms-dealer, to help him track down the parts of a “terraspire,” a device which facilitates terraforming. To help you’ve been given some Pale Wars technology which Von Bach has managed to repurpose commercially, an EGO implant. Basically, your EGO is a synthetic intelligence which turns you into Super-Ark Hunter! You can turn invisible, or supercharge your weapons, or out run the Flash… Basically, it’s a cool toy that explains giving you various extra talents. It and the weapons you’re going to pick up are your main tools of interaction with the world. Let’s face it, why would you want to talk to it when you can shot it in the face? Ah, well, actually I would like to talk to people, but I said I wouldn’t go into that…

So, off you go into the world, and this is pretty much where your problems start. After a very brief tutorial in which you meet Cass, have a headache, grab some weapons, and get shown the four EGO powers (I didn’t mention Decoy above), you are thrown into a random little fight not knowing what the Hell is going on. After climbing over a wall having blown something up, you are out on your own, following the main mission as it winds its way through the crash site of the New Freedom. The game needs way more instruction and help than it has. After several weeks I still have no clue what various things on the UI mean and the help screens are so terse as to be useless.

Missions fall into a few categories. First there is the main mission thread following a plot related to finding the ark-tech Von Bach needs to try his experiment and “save the world.” The main missions gate side missions; until you have completed certain main missions, some side missions are unavailable. This becomes a problem when the main mission was designed by a sadist. Next up are the challenges which are time trials (racing on a quad bike), hotshots (shooting a lot of things with normal weapons), and rampages (shooting a lot of things with big weapons). Emergencies are random encounters which you can find on the road, generally requiring you to shoot a lot of things. Finally there are arkfalls, which involve running from place to place and, you guessed it, shooting things. Arkfalls can be fun, except when the one social aspect of the game comes into play and people behave like total arseholes to get on top of the leader board. It’s usually better late in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. You can also shoot things in cooperative instances, and shoot other player characters in competitive instances and Shadow Wars. You may have noticed a theme? Well, it is a shooter.

And that’s the problem. Trion decided that they would make an MMO shooter out of something which would have made an excellent RPG. The game does quite well at exposing the world to you, but there is no real player interaction which doesn’t involve shooting stuff. There is nowhere to meet others. The only indoor settings are ruins and small rooms. You can’t even holster your weapons. None of that means role-play won’t happen, but the game almost goes out of its way to make it hard. “This game is not an RPG” has become a mantra and that is just a shame considering the possibilities. Games companies tend to ignore roleplayers, which is stupid considering that a setting rich in RP will keep such players happy without the company adding content.

The game mechanics are… confusing. If my skill in aiming my sniper rifle is what determines a hit, why does my rifle have an aim score? The enemies you face have little tactical ability, so to compensate they never miss and tend to have numbers; a favourite tactic of the designers is to throw as many bad guys at you as they can rather than create clever enemies. RPGs have levels, so Defiance doesn’t. I like this factor personally, but a lot of complaint has been made about it; you lack a feeling of progression, apparently. I feel like I’m progressing because I don’t die as much, but I recognise that that is partially because I pick my fights better. Using cover is essential, so I avoid fights where the available cover works against me, or there simply is none (because that would give me a chance, right?).

We’ll see how the game progresses, but right now I could never recommend it to anyone. It’s buggy, maybe the worst MMO I’ve ever seen for bugs. There is not too much lag, but frequent server disconnects, and plenty of times when things just vanish in front of you when you were shooting at them. The one big advantage this game has over some MMOs is no subscription fee; buy the game and you can just keep on playing. That means that they are relying on downloadable content (DLCs) to make it pay. Currently, I see no reason to buy them, but we haven’t seen what’s coming.