#RPG – Tales of Gor Preview, reviewed

b456ccd0f0d8395871ff98c63b654318You can read that review HERE, but I wanted to take the opportunity to reply to a point made about the ‘uneasy skirting around its non-PC nature’.

I am not, by any stretch, a PC fellow and I take pride in not kowtowing to the unreasonable demands of the ‘SocJus’ mob – especially when presenting fiction. However, it would take a sociopath in an isolation tank not to be affected by the intense atmosphere of censorship and (genuine) harassment that goes on around anyone who doesn’t toe that lie.

I have a duty in bringing Gor to the RPG world to present the world of the books as accurately as possible AND to make it accessible. It’s also important to me, and I suspect to fans of Gor as well, to show that there is more to it than swords, sandals and BDSM erotica. That there is a well-realised world with the opportunity for many wildly different kinds of adventures and interpretations.

The broader book doesn’t spend so much time hang-wringing about it, but in a preview (and in the early chapters of the game guide from which those parts were taken) it was – I felt – important to contextualise the material, to defend it and to address these concerns and issues head on.

I suspect, sadly, the game will get a few ‘hate buys’ and some deliberate piracy but I hope that the honest and engaged way I have dealt with the material will buy a few converts, open the game and the Gorean canon to a wider audience, and disarm some of the critics.

Now your humble blue-caste scribe must get back to work!

Ta Sardar Gor!

#RPG – Review: DUST Adventures

I got my much awaited copy of DUST Adventures, the RPG by Modiphius Entertainment, set in Paolo Parente’s world of DUST, which has been used for model kits, a board game of world domination set in the same universe, comics and two battle games, one a more simplified and swift board-game battle – not too dissimilar to Rebel Assault (though it pre-dates it) and the other a more conventional wargame.

It’s fair to say that I’m something of a DUST fanatic and it’s also fair to say DUST has lost a fair bit of impetus recently due to changing partners from Fantasy Flight and getting embroiled – like so many people have – over fights about Kickstarter money. Here’s hoping the RPG and the new figure releases sets that in a different direction.

Modiphius, of course, are on the up and up – launching off their Cthulhu-themed world war two releases and branching out into a lot of other new projects. They’re definitely ones to watch if they don’t expand too fast – which is always a worry – or their Kickstarter led business model doesn’t fall through in the wake of all these other crowdfunding scandals which, to be fair, haven’t yet embroiled them.

So what’s DUST? DUST is an alternative world war two scenario wherein the German explorations in Antarctica lead them to discover an alien spacecraft buried in the ice and a surviving alien in a life support pod. The real pivot point of the alternative history doesn’t really come in until 1943 when Hitler is assassinated and the deployment of walkers – made using reverse-engineered alien technology and uniquely best suited to the combat conditions in Stalingrad lead to a German victory there.

With the removal of Hitler and the application of super-technology the Germans regroup and are able to go back on the offensive.

To cut a long story short we see the emergence of three great superpowers, the Axis, who are no longer Nazis (a shame really, since Nazis make great baddies), the Soviet Bloc – the SSU – which unites Russia, China and large chunks of South America following Marxist revolutions, and the Allies, which is mostly the United States and the former Empire of the United Kingdom, with a smattering of independent nations here and there.

England has been invaded in a successful Operation Sealion and even America is not untouched, suffering SSU incursions into Florida and Alaska. It’s now 1947 and the allies are hard pressed on every front still behind when it comes to technology and becoming increasingly desperate – when a UFO allegedly crashlands in Roswell, an event that may change the tide of the war again…

Aesthetically DUST has always been rooted in the pulps, bombergirls and pinups and that kind of fast-paced, weird war with uplifted gorillas, zombies, laser weapons, tesla weapons, supersoldiers and power armour has always been what the boardgame has been about, albeit with a harder more serious edge than some other treatments of the same concept.

With that out of the way let’s get into the game itself.

System

Characters creation is fairly simple, you toss a few points into a handful of statistics, select a few overlapping skill packages that represent your former life and experience and then you’re good to go. Characters in the DUST RPG are essentially the same as the heroic characters from the boardgame and wargame, super-tough heroes with special abilities that take them over and above the norm.

The game uses a fairly simple dice-pool system, again derived from the board-game and wargame and while you can use special dice (marked with targets, faction symbols and shields) you can – thankfully, also use normal dice counting 5-6 as the ‘target’ which is, typically, a hit. To succeed at a task you’ll be rolling a dicepool of Statistic+Skill and sometimes an Advanced skill on top. For example, a sniper might roll Mobility+Firearms+Sniper Rifle in taking their shot. Most of the time when you’re doing something of ‘average’ difficulty, you’ll be rolling to aim for two successes. Keep in mind that the whole system is skewed towards the heroic level, so an average person only has 1 in any statistic and probably only 1-2 in any skill, so some poor Chinese conscript is likely to only be rolling two dice with their attack and for those following along at home that’s only a one-in-nine chance of succeeding – without adding any more complications.

For players, they can push themselves beyond their normal capacity by using Action Points, a game-altering mechanic that along with their more unusual abilities lets them bend the game to favour the heroes. While there’s no explicit suggestion that the Games Master have Action Points of their own to spend, I would strongly suggest doing so.

The system itself is fairly intuitive from there, all the sorts of mechanics you’d broadly expect from a dicepool system. Damage gets a little complicated, especially compared to the existing boardgame where a point of damage is a casualty for a normal soldier and a level of damage for a hero. Here you get ‘capacity’ for mental damage, physical damage and non-lethal damage and everyone’s going to get at least two points in it, which can impact somewhat negatively on the pulp feel of gunning down whole units of enemy soldiers at a time and may have been an aesthetically compromising rules decision here.

Presentation

The game is hardback and just over 200 pages in length, it’s well put together and full colour throughout, though a lot of the art has the muddiness and lack of clarity that a lot of game art does these days. The layout is a bit cramped and this is not helped by a nearly two inch border column either side of the page spread which is occasionally filled with sidebar information and in-game fiction, but more often left blank. The page real-estate this takes up could, perhaps, have been better used to space out and present some of the content in a clearer way, or to include more background information on aspects of the gameworld that are under-explained, such as Japan.

A major disappointment for me was the art, not so much its execution, but its content. There are too many photographs of miniatures in here, fair enough that the makers of DUST are primarily in the model business, but to me it never looks good for much the same reasons as TV show games never look that good if they fill their pages with still images from the show. Art just works so much better thematically. Still, it wasn’t just that but that the pinup aesthetic so integral to DUST’s development and history had been so vastly toned down.

Call it sexism or whatever if you like, but the pinup is emblematic of the era and has been integral to DUST’s appeal since its inception lending it its unique visual style and supporting its cast of what you might call ‘strong female characters’. For them to be downplayed and largely absent is extremely disappointing.

The other disappointment is the lack of expanded detail on the game world. I was hoping to find out more about the background of the game world than what I have already gleaned from the wargame materials but there’s not much extra here – something that would have sold the book to non-RPG fans who are just fans of the game and its world.

Scores

I give marks out of five, before anyone jumps on me, and three is ‘average’.

On style I have to, sadly, give the game a three out of five. While it’s competently executed the muddiness of the art and the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the pinup aesthetic dramatically compromises the presentation of the book. While the material in it is sufficient to play it is cramped, sometimes hard to reference and has a lot of wasted space.

On substance I again give the book a three. There was a missed opportunity here to expand on the game world’s background, tease material for forthcoming releases and go into detail and this was missed.

Overall that gives DUST adventures a 3, an average score, but this is largely down to my investment in the broader game world and the intellectual property as a whole.

I would still recommend the game, but contextually within the IP as a whole. DUST Adventures reads more like a companion volume to the rest of the material, rather than necessarily as a stand-alone game of its own.

I’ll still be playing it.

[Review] Destiny: The Taken King

Z-1Destiny

I already liked Destiny.

This is an unpopular position to take and has made many people very angry.

I could always see the game within the game, the lore, the secrets, the hints of Big Ideas(tm). I enjoyed rooting them out, browsing the revealed grimoire information online (find the dead ghosts myself?) and figuring out what was going on and who my character was in this universe.

Of course it had some flaws. Not least hiding all that rich lore and story away where your average player wasn’t going to bother with it. Being limited to FPS gameplay. Becoming repetitive. Relying far too much on the grind. Relying far too much on multiplayer. All the rest of it. Plus it had the problems all MMOs have where everybody has done all those heroic things so nobody has any unique acts of heroism, plus the world never truly changing despite your actions.

Still. I loved it. The progression. The customisation. The lore. The look and feel. The world. The Big Ideas. It was just a flawed presentation that might have worked better as an RPG (so I made one…)

Previous Expansions

Neither House of Wolves nor The Dark Below really did much to change any of this. House of Wolves filled in a bit of lore about The Reef and the Queen and her Brother (whom, one suspects, may have had a Game of Thrones relationship…) and the Fallen who had settled there as well, The Dark Below took the mask away from a big enemy and gave us a bit more to understand about the Hive, but really this was more of the same.

2QThe Taken King

The Taken King is NOT more of the same.

The most jarring thing about The Taken King is how it has rejigged everything. Your ‘Light’ is now more akin to a ‘gear score’ in standard MMORPGs and, once you get past how jarring it is to lose all your old unupgradable gear (I almost cried) this change to the system and the gear subsystems is great. Just don’t forget you can upgrade purples to have higher attack/defence from other gear and don’t discard them, like your humble author (who probably shouldn’t have played all day).

On the other hand, you get swords now.

Story-wise presentation is much better now and… here be spoilers… the plot makes good use of Nolanbot, Cayde-6 (Nathan Fillion) and Eris Morn (Morla Gorrondona – which might have been a better name for the character, come to that) when it comes to exposition and really starts to, finally, bring some of your allies to life.

Now, I actually liked Dinklebot’s delivery (another unpopular opinion which has made many people angry) and find Nolanbot worse, but the way they’ve improved the ghost’s interactions and exposition – including scanning things for pure story reason during missions and patrols – is better.

You now have lore in the game, where you can get at it.

Patrols have a minor overhaul and have been more integrated into missions, you also get mysterious signals with unclear objectives you have to figure out.

The questlines dealing with The Taken King and leftovers from House of Wolves are better integrated, better explained, more ‘present’ as story and just generally better.

I haven’t bothered with PvP yet (I loathe PvP and only engage in it out of necessity or sufferance), but I’m told that the new Mayhem Mode is a lot of fun and that there are eight new maps. The most interesting new map is set in the European Dead Zone, which holds out promise for the future that we may get more content set on Earth and outside the now monotonously familiar Russian patrol zones.

Personally I’m holding out for Saturn, Jupiter and their many moons coming along in the future.

Guardians

Each Guardian now gets access to a third subclass that they can obsessively level up, can now level up to 40 and can further refine their gear to absurd and obscene levels.

Titans now get to be Sunbreakers, a solar class with all sorts of explosions and smashing powers.

Warlocks get to be arc-empowered lightning-throwers as the Stormcaller subclass.

Hunters now get to be void-empowered bowmen, kind of like the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon ranger. Playing a Hunter this is what I have gotten to play so far and I honestly find it a little lacklustre. More effective in team play, playing solo it just doesn’t seem to have the sheer, devastating power of the arcblade attacks and, once I’ve levelled it up completely, I’ll be changing back.

ZAll things considered…

This is much more like the game Destiny should have been at launch. Finally the complete game we deserved. If it had started with this sort of level of presentation and polish I don’t think we’d have seen the harsh kinds of reviews we did. With the changes I would up my original review score of 3.75/5 to 4/5. There’s still some issues with the PvP necessity, more in-game presentation of lore needs to happen and we need new places to explore and conquer (the Dreadnaught is just too much like the Moon).

It’s also left some new things unexplained and taken some major NPCs out of the game (or has it…?) before we had a chance to really connect with them.

Still, things are really starting to look up.

#Review – The Peripheral

20821159I like William Gibson and I like – or adore – the overwhelming majority of the things he has written. He’s generally a switched on guy, a good egg and – despite having made the poor life choice to re-tweet that appalling bigot and sexist Chris Kluwe too often (EG: ever) – is an interesting person to follow on Twitter, where he’s a curator of the interesting and muse-inspiring.

It pains me, then, to say that his latest work The Peripheral is fucking awful.

It’s full of great ideas such as a post-apocalyptic New World Re-order, the future of drone technology, poverty-tech, the fate of techno-veterans, quantum communication with alternate timelines and so on, but in terms of telling an actual story?

It fails, utterly.

The Peripheral might as well be a ‘literary’ novel in that, while lots of ‘stuff’ happens, nothing really gets resolved in any sort of satisfying way and then it abruptly…

…stops.

I haven’t been left this dissatisfied since receiving half a blowjob.

This is a damn shame since, on paper, there’s good and interesting plots to get your teeth into. Illuminati-like financial conspiracies from another universe, a murder mystery, the threat of a Presidential assassination and the question of whether there’s meaning or worth in providing altruism to a universe you know the approximate future of, even though there’s really nothing in it for you.

None of these are handled with any emotional or structural satisfaction and it all just sort of tails off into a shapeless mush.

Avoid and wait for his next one.

Score
Style: 3/5
Substance: 1/5
Overall: 2/5

[Review/Analysis] Mad Max: Fury Road

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Review

Tom_M_1803904aYou’ve seen plenty of reviews of Mad Max: Fury Road by now, so I’ll just cut to the chase and then skip on to the commentary like a crack-addled roo on hot sand.

It’s a great film, you should go and see it.

Remember how they said the freeway scene in Matrix Reloaded aimed to do for car chases what they’d done for gunfight? They failed. This didn’t.

Score
Style: 5/5 (I almost want to see an animated version so Brendan McCarthy’s insanity can be dialled back up to 11)
Substance: 4/5 (while very little is explicitly explained and a lot isn’t shown, the whole all hangs together very nicely)
Total: 4.5/5

With that out of the way, let’s delve into the themes, design, mythology and all the rest of the film.

Caution, we’re going to get DiGRA level pretentious here.

HERE BE SPOILERS

Analysis

Fury Road is an ‘important’ film and looks on course to be a near-universal, critical success – if not necessarily an immediate financial success (earning 2/3rds of what Pitch Perfect 2 has on opening weekend, which is a fucking disgrace).

Fury Road in the Mad Max Mythology

521796-mel_gibson_mad_max_photograph_c10104041The Mad Max timeline is pretty straightforward for the most part, though hard and fast timelines are hard to come by. If we take year 0 of the collapse of civilisation as being concurrent with Mad Max it runs something like this…

0 – Mad Max
2 – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
17 – Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome

As we progress through the films the Mad Max series becomes more and more surreal and incorporates more and more mythological and strange elements, culminating in Max passing completely into legend as a demigod hero archetype of the Great Northern Tribe.

The availability of guns and fuel, combined with the strangeness of Brendan McCarthy’s designs probably places Fury Road as a ‘Mad Max 2.5’. Neither a reboot nor a sequel, but rather another story in Max’s legend, told around camp fires in the tribal societies that spring up as the world starts to recover.

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Mad Max’s sheer ‘Australianness’ is a bit more muted in Fury Road than it is in previous instalments, though it is still present in accents, outback sensibilities, slang and hints of aboriginal style – especially in the older women that appear later in the film. The strangeness of the heads of the three settlements (Immortan Joe, The People Eater and the Bullet Farmer) further enhances the weird, Dreamtime esque nature of the film, which often seems to be surfing a line between hallucination and car chase.

It is a shame we don’t see more uniquely Australian vehicles, like Holdens (the old types of which are great looking muscle cars) but that’s more than made up for with the customisations which render the vehicles as iconic and mythological as the villains and characters.

In the later Max films, and in this one, you also get a sense of a similar veneration/guilt of the aborigine that one also sees in the relationship of the Americans with their own native tribes, a sense that a degeneration into a tribal culture is a way to survive… and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Environmental Apocalypse

MadMaxFuryRoadImmortanSince its inception Mad Max has been invested with environmental and societal concerns about the breakdown of the world and order as a whole. This began with oil wars, spread to water wars and culminated in a limited nuclear exchange. The sense of looming environmental apocalypse remains large in the public consciousness, more than oil wars did in the 70s or nuclear war in the 80s.

This instalment brings that sense to the fore and while the film was 90% practical effects, the CGI that has been used seems to have been used to enhance that sense of a blasted wasteland and the out-of-control weather than threatens it. The storm in particular is almost a character in and of itself, recalling superstorms from certain other forms of doomsaying, prophetic fiction.

The destruction of the outer world is reflected in destruction of the inner world this time around, something previously (largely) unexplored in previous instalments. Many, even most, of the people in Fury Road have some kind of deformity or problem, from the anaemic, albino war boys to the tumour-ridden People Eater and the amputee Furiosa. Max’s inner destruction is mental, and he is strangely ‘absent’ (mentally) from much of the film.

The macro-environment is ruined, the micro-environment of the body is ruined by deformity and the societal environment is ruined by the lack of hope for the future, with even the possibility of healthy offspring being a rare and valued commodity.

It’s also worth noting that the three warlords are also three old men, people from the time before, a generation responsible for the collapse and living off the bones of the old world.

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Warlords, Child Soldiers, Sex Slaves & Failed States

nerdy_mad_max_fury_road_1If something new has been added to the mythology of the series with this ‘episode’ it is bringing in – or replacing – the feral children of before with concerns and themes taken from the war torn areas of Africa. The Warboys are child soldiers, brainwashed and made vicious with indoctrination and promises of an afterlife. The sex slaves (the wives and mothers) recall the fate of those taken by Boko Haram and Immortan Joe, along with the heads of the other settlements, are warlords of the Somali ilk – ruling through fear and force of arms.

Mad Max has always had warlords and bandit leaders, but – while in the background – the shared rule of the three warlords is something new and their uneasy and grudging truce brings a believable, grounded element to an otherwise over the top film. A plausibility.

Immortan Joe – The Hero

Immortan Joe, hinted to be a former military officer before the collapse, may actually be the hero of the film, for all his violence, evil, imprisonments and slavery.

Hear me out.

  • Joe has forged his people into a powerful bloc and has secured peace with two neighbouring settlements for fuel and ammunition, trading water and even milk (albeit human milk) with them and helping to sustain them.
  • He rains water down on the people below, to buy their loyalty, sure, but it’s still an act of munificence and one that’s unnecessary from the point of view of such a warlord who might well be better off keeping it for himself.
  • His society is strong enough and wealthy enough in terms of resources that it can afford to keep the sick and mutilated and even to treat them – with blood transfusions and medical aid.
  • Even more than that, he gives the mutated and cancer-ridden sons of the apocalypse purpose, a reason to live, a way to be strong and useful as his warboys.
  • Joe is not just a scavenger, he has hope, he has a vision for the future and the survival of the human race and his breeding of that future generation (despite his age, he may be a healthy option compared to children of the apocalypse) bears fruit (albeit stillborn thanks to being hit by a car) in a perfect baby boy, cancer free.
  • Everything was going great, right up until they capture Max and Furiosa and the wives make their selfish run for freedom, lacking Joe’s vision for the future. Things that may well doom the future of the human race…

Harsh times can require harsh measures. A society is only ever as free and liberal as it can afford to be and in the world of Mad Max, there’s not much to spare. Joe might well have been exactly what was needed – and now he’s dead. (Side note, the same actor played Joe that played Toe-Cutter in the original).

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Feminism?

maxresdefault (2)There’s been a big fuss about whether Fury Road is a feminist film or not. This was largely spurred by a blog post on Return of Kings bemoaning it as ‘feminist propaganda’ and a disproportionate reaction to that bemoaning characterising it as a Men’s Rights moan (it isn’t, RoK isn’t part of the Men’s Human Rights Movement and has a lot of nasty things to say about the MHRA as it happens). While RoK occasionally has some thought provoking articles on it, they’re generally thought-provoking in the same that ones on – say – Jezebel are, in that they make you want to put your fist through sheet glass.

The film has also been (secondarily) marketed in many blogs, critical sites and newspapers as being a feminist film.

But is it?

No. I don’t think so.

Much has been made of the Furiosa character, but kick-arse female characters are nothing new and in many ways she’s simply a ‘Miss Male’ (as you might put it). Her femininity is absent from her as a character, while it is simultaneously invested in the wives. The wives are far from strong, soft, feminine, first really seen in virginal robes and ‘frolicking’ in water in a scene played in no small part for its sensuality and from Max’s point of view (a ‘male gaze’, albeit one really more concerned with getting a metal mask off his face than ogling boobs).

The wives are damsels in distress, to the power of a hundred. The other mothers in The Citadel are – literally – brood mares and milking cows. Furiosa, it can be assumed, is infertile otherwise she wouldn’t be driving the rig.

Charlize-Theron-Furiosa-Total-FilmThe closest the film gets to feminism are the older women from Furiosa’s original settlement who are a bit ‘Mary Sueish’, combining the aboriginal wisdom tropes and a grab-bag of classical female tropes from old mythology. While they’re set up as agricultural, mother-Earth types in a way we first meet them using the sexuality and nudity of their younger members to bait a trap and we find they’ve resorted to banditry, just like everyone else. They’re just as vicious, just as compromised and even without taking that into account these aren’t feminist tropes – they’re very ancient stereotypes of women as totems of fertility, fecundity, agriculture and peace.

So is it feminist?

No.

It’s plausible, it’s grounded in the real-world fate of women in failed states and it taps into both ancient mythology and new apocalyptic myth (The Road and its human farm springs to mind) and it treats everyone who can fight or contribute as equals.

It’s an egalitarian film if its anything, but only for those in a position to assert their independence. Neither the Warboys nor the Mothers (or wives) have any freedom, because of circumstance and necessity.

Max, on the other hand, is barely human in this, male or female. He’s a force of nature. An animal bent on – as he says at the start – the single goal of survival. This is, strangely, best exemplified off-screen when he disappears to ‘dispose’ of a pursuer, and we never actually see what he does.

Basic Film, Far from Basic Scope

90% of the film is practical effects and that’s a huge part of its charm. CGI still can’t compete with practical effects and this, combined with the sheer pace of the film (and, I think, the fact that every shot has been fine tuned by Miller right down to the frame rate) keeps your attention glued to the screen. This is ano mean feat in a world where our attention spans have been eroded by constant stimulation and access to electronics.

This seems, hopefully, to be part of a swelling trend to return to practical effects. The new Star Wars – so we’re told – goes back to old-school practical effects as much as possible and judging from the quality of Fury Road that’s a hopeful trend and something that may help me get back into cinema, to which I have become increasingly jaded of late.

Straightforward filming techniques, practical effects, attention to detail and above all an overriding commitment to the concept without compromise are what stand Fury Road out from the crowd and while little is explicitly explained it dwells in a sweet spot of modern mythologising in away even the New Gods of superhero cinema can’t.

Go see it.

It’s fucking bonkers.

mad-max-fury-road-guitar

Review: A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S.

Reviewing Zak’s work – when he strays into RPG territory – is difficult. Zak has an outsider’s perspective and so he does things in unconventional ways. He’s also primarily an artist, which brings a different perspective to game design.

Vornheim was tricky to review, but less so than Red & Pleasant Land.

Ostensibly its a setting book, a world for your Old School gaming. That’s not really a helpful thing to call it though, as it doesn’t convey what the book is. It’s a hodge-podge of nonsense and weirdness, tables, rules, asides, sketches, art, peculiar maps and so forth loosely connected by a theme that is a mash up of Alice in Wonderland, Balkan mythology and D&D.

This isn’t really D&D though. It’s ‘Old School’, which harks back to a simplistic, nostalgic, half-
remembered version of the basic game that a lot of people started with back in the 80s. It’s like you and a bunch of friends got together with no plan, sank a few too many shots and someone suggested ‘Hey, let’s play D&D!’ and then through the drunken haze you cobble together something vaguely like it from memory and have a blast.

1Until you realise someone spiked the shots with acid.

This isn’t really a setting book either, it’s more like a grab-bag, a lucky dip. It’s kind-of organised, it has a contents with page references organised – vaguely – along various lines. It’s full of tables of weirdness, motivations, searching bodies and pecularities which are great for inspiration but if you’re not that sort of ‘wing it’ Games Master they’re going to leave you floundering. The only product I’ve seen with even greater love of randomness is McKinney’s Carcosa.

There’s always tensions in the design of an RPG book and each one generally operates to the detriment of the other.

Do you want to write it to convey rules information effectively? Setting information? Do you want the reading experience to reflect that setting? Do you want to make it easy to spot things and look them up? Are practical and financial considerations the primary factor? How important is the art?

RaPL definitely conveys the setting. Reading through it is a borderline-hallucinatory experience due to its randomness and grab-bag design. This doesn’t necessarily make it easy to use during play.

The physical book has a built-in page marker, but as anyone who plays RPGs knows, a single ribbon is never going to be enough to place-mark everything you need to mark and they don’t – as far as I know – make the cat-o’-nine-tails, rainbow page ribbons an RPG book would need at a bare minimum to be useful.

2So usability suffers a bit, the D&D styling is minimal and will only be vaguely familiar to newer gamers, but is sort of the ‘machine-code’ base level operating system for all RPGs so with a little work they should be able to get it to purr along smoothly – it’s just that extra work that may not appeal to gamers pressed for prep-time (I’d probably convert to old-school Storyteller, D6 or FATE if I ran it).

RaPL shines – particularly – in its monsters. Some of which are familiar from Alice’s adventures or vampiric mythology, some of which will be unfamiliar and new but which owe some inspiration to Burton, Gaiman, Mieville and other puveyors of weirdness, it’s just a lot more bloody and direct.

So how can I sum up?

Pros:
Conveys the setting via its design and presentation.
Cool monsters.
Inspirational tables.
Physically lovely object.
Novelty! Difference! Experiment! – Far more so than many Indie-darlings.

3Cons:
Feels like reading a Burroughsian cut-up.
Bewilderingly trippy.
Disorganised.
GM-work heavy.
Novelty! Difference! Experiment! – Not all of it works and the traditionally minded will be lost.

Final Score
Style:
4 (It’s a divisive style, it appeals to me greatly but I understand that it will be offputting to others).
Substance: 4 (There’s a lot in here, much of it is useful, but the organisation can make it hard to access).

I have illustrated this review with images from Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, which added to the mix as inspiration would bring in some clock/steam/weirdpunk vibes.

Review: Far Cry 4 #PS4

2561268-fc4_screen_tuktuk_e3_140609_8pmpst_1402224704Overview

Far Cry 4 is the latest instalment in the series and it is pretty much more of the same. It’s the first Far Cry for the new generation of consoles, though you might not necessarily feel aware of that as you’re playing. This instalment takes us to a fictional pseudo-Himalayan nation (Kyrat) under the rule of tyrannical crime-against-fashion Pagan Min where you, as lost scion of a previous rebel leader end up entangled in the Kyratian Civil War, becoming the key player who determines how things are going to work out – despite only really being there to scatter your mother’s ashes.

Design

While Kyrat is a beautiful recreation of a mountainous country with many gorgeous locations it doesn’t make a great deal of internal sense, with the various locations seemingly plonked down willy-nilly here and there and the geography (and the way in which you have to travel across it) rather arbitrary and often a bit frustrating.

Character design is good and the characters move and express themselves well, especially the main characters whose movements and mannerisms are convincing.

The weapons are the usual sort of spread, though they lack any truly iconic or truly outstanding weapons that stand out above the rest. In many ways this is good as it requires you to switch around to use the right tool for the right job but it also means there isn’t really a particular weapon you can aspire to. Even the signature weapons aren’t that much better than anything else you can use, so other than OCD completism there’s little reason to gather every weapon.

Unfortunately, Far Cry 4 feels a bit like it’s ‘painting by numbers’ at this point, formulaic, repeating the same ideas found in the previous games without any innovation or expansion. It’s the same thing, just in a different location. It also doesn’t feel like it lives up to the new platform at all, with little to no discernible difference at the play experience level between the graphics and sound of Far Cry 3 on the PS3 and Far Cry 4 on the PS4.

None of this is to say that it isn’t beautiful and impressive, just that expectation is higher now and we’re still, really, waiting for games that really stretch the legs of the new hardware and show what it is capable of.

Gameplay

Gameplay is largely standard FPS controls. It does this well without a lot of the clumsiness many console games have compared to mouse-and-keyboard FPS on the PC. PC still gives a superior experience but as an old PC warhorse I find that – more and more – the console FPS experience is becoming tolerable and playable – at least against NPCs.

Other than the usual run-and-gun elements of FPS stealth is an important part of the game, especially when rescuing captives or capturing outposts.

The set-pieces, karma missions (how you win the hearts and minds of your fellow rebels) and the tower and outpost capture missions are exciting, if repetitive, but there’s also a lot of filler with little or no pay-off. Meaningless collection missions for letters, records and demonic masks with nothing to really show for it at the end – disappointing given the amount of effort it takes to unlock all of the map and get them all.

As you undertake missions you unlock the map and advance the story, giving you your path through the open world, but letting you go off the beaten path as much as you want. That may, actually, be a problem with a lot of these games as being able to spend hours going off and doing your own thing without the story or threat advancing robs you of any real sense of urgency or threat to the baddies. Games weren’t always this way, going back to some of the earliest free-roaming 3D games such as Midwinter and Midwinter 2, if you spent too long faffing around the enemy would advance and overrun you – a model that might be welcome in these sorts of games in the future.

Story

Ostensibly your kukri-wielding maniac – Kyratian in race but American in culture – is in Kyrat to scatter his mother’s ashes but can’t as the country’s civil war has divided the country and made it hazardous and near-impossible to get to where you need to go. As a descendant of the former rebels you’re also considered a useful PR tool and – increasingly – as a warrior. Your favour is curried by the two competing rebel leaders (one a traditionalist religious fanatic, the other a reformer who’s willing to do unspeakable things to bring her country into the future). The existing dictator, Pagan Min, is also obsessed with you to his detriment since it seems to prevent him finishing you off.

The story and motivations never reach the interest level of Far Cry 3 which was far more engaging and had a much more powerful hook for your character. The choices you are presented with lack urgency and are about as equally hopeless. They also lack any real emotional payoff for you. Even the final scene of the game is anticlimactic. This may be a deliberate design choice, trying to make some sort of comment about the pointlessness of civil wars or the cyclic nature of conflict (tying into the buddhist themes) but if so it’s a bad choice since it robs the player of any real sense of accomplishment from finishing the game.

The one place in which the story – and the design – truly shine are in the hallucinatory mythic sequences, to the point where these might have made for a better game than the one we got. Belled tigers, magic bows, demons and giant birds are just more engaging than gunning people down with a rattling AK.

Score
Style: 4 (Last gen on this gen, but pretty enough)
Substance: 3 (There’s plenty to do, but it’s all rather shallow).
Overall: 3.5/5

Opinion

Having been involved wit Gamergate until very recently (I still support but am phasing out my activity for various reasons) I was disappointed in many of the horrible statements made by people involved in the making of this game. I was also concerned, given some of the statements from the designers, that it would be a tokenistic, overtly PC love fest. Especially since one of the rebel leaders, Amita, is allegedly based on Anita Sarkeesian – something that made repeatedly blowing her up and shooting her incredibly cathartic, despite it being a fail condition for much of the game.

FC4ArtWork_15_165459Those fears were unjustified though. There’s – thankfully – plenty of things in the game that are still ‘problematic’, and, therefore, fun.

Far Cry 4 is a perfectly respectable game and plenty of fun to play, but it fails in its storytelling in a way Far Cry 3 did not, ironically – apparently – as a response to Far Cry 3’s perceived lacks which turned out to be comparative strengths.

Far Cry 4 doesn’t really try to tell a strong story and many of its actions are robbed of significance, meaning or payoff because it has tried so hard to decouple its exploration and side activities and to focus more on being a murder-sandbox. Unfortunately, for someone like me who likes story and likes to get caught up in making a difference to the virtual world this made the experience lacklustre and unsatisfying.

Still, playing at Gurkha is pretty satisfying, in the moment.