Sunday, 21 December 2014

Review - Star Wars: Age of Rebellion Beginner Game

By Fantasy Flight Games

It’s December 2014 and there’s a lot of excitement bouncing around the internet at the moment; the Star Wars Rebels cartoon is going great guns and the first teaser trailer for Episode VII has hit the airwaves and created an explosion of buzz and anticipation. Now is the time to get involved in the Star Wars tabletop roleplaying game from Fantasy Flight Games and immerse yourself in the Star Wars universe.

The Age of Rebellion Beginner Game follows the same format as the earlier Edge of the Empire boxset. It’s a step-by step instruction manual for new gamers to the hobby, and serves as an introduction to the new Age of Rebellion rulebook for existing players. With the special dice for the game, cardboard counters (including four for the PCs in the boxset and two extras for the PCs you can download from the FFG website), counters and chips, the rulebook, adventure and a map, you get quite a lot in the box. In total you get the following:

1 32-page Adventure Book
1 48-page Rulebook
1 Introduction Sheet
4 Full-Color Character Folios
1 Full-Color Double-Sided Foldout Map
14 Custom Dice
9 Destiny Tokens, 33 Character Tokens, and 7 Vehicle Tokens

As with the Edge of the Empire boxset you get a decent adventure that should last a few sessions, along with it’s downloadable follow-up ‘Operation Shadowpoint’ to stretch that out, but you don’t get a lot of leeway with the adventure. It really is a set of linear routes and choices that depend on the PCs choosing rather specific outcomes to further the story and doesn’t leave much room for improvisation. That’s fine for a new group who are learning the ropes, but for an experienced group and GM this might be a bit frustrating. Any experienced group worth their mettle should be able to make something of it.

This isn’t a complete game by any stretch of the imagination. Players will find the PCs useful in the adventure provided and may even get some use out of them in other adventures, but the boxset doesn’t really allow for any extended play outside of the limits of the box. Existing gamers may want to skip this and go straight on to the main Age of Rebellion rulebook but completists and collectors, like myself, may want to get their hands on this to complete the set. Regardless, it’s handy for the extra dice, the map and the counters, and the PCs come in handy as templates for NPCs and quick, off-the-cuff characters in case the gaming group is in need of a speedy retainer.

Its basic purpose is to act as a gateway to the full Age of Rebellion rulebook and it’s another avenue for new gamers to get involved in the Star Wars RPG. If the smugglers and ne’er-do-wells of the original Edge of the Empire didn’t attract them, then the allure of fighting as rebels in the Episodes IV-VI setting will surely do so. The clear instructions and step-by-step guidelines make this an excellent introductory game and in that it’s purpose is clearly attained; new gamers will get a lot of fun out of this and get a clear understanding of how the game mechanics work. It will take a lot of other games outside of the boxset for new players to fully appreciate the hobby and the experience of joining an existing group and learning the game hands-on will never be replaced, but this a fine product with excellent production values that will provide a few sessions of fun and frolics, and may even prove useful after it’s initial use.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Review - The Art of Space

By Ron Miller

Published by Zenith Press

I’m going to cut to the chase here – this book is filled with some of the most beautiful and inspiring art I’ve seen for a long, long time. From the earliest images of heavenly bodies to the modern-day digital renderings, and everything in between, this book covers everything.

The five chapters – Planets & Moons, Stars & Galaxies, Spaceships & Space Stations, Space Colonies & Cities, and Aliens – covers art that illustrates what we see in Earth’s orbit to what we imagine in star systems and galaxies far beyond our own. The combination of recreation, concept and fiction takes you on quite a ride and the sheer amount of art can feel somewhat like an overload on the senses. It’s hard not to be fascinated by how the ages before us viewed the stars, or inspired by those who imagine the views from the surface of other worlds.

But, I’m getting well ahead of myself. This hardback book, with a solid binding enabling you to leave the book open without fear of the pages flipping over while you peruse the images, is an attractive piece of work with a suitably impressive science-fiction cover (‘The Rings of Saturn’ by Peter Elson) and wonderful 1970s-style sci-fi title lettering. That may seem a little unimportant, but I feel it set a tone for me, a sci-fi fan from the 70s onwards, and even though science fiction isn’t the driving force behind this book as many of the illustrations are based on fact (or, at least, what was taken as fact at the time), there is a solid offering of speculative artwork. To be clear, though, although there are science fiction elements in this book it’s primary purpose is to show us space art throughout the ages based on what we know - or think we know - about the known universe.

The artwork is printed on glossy pages and the amount of detail is fine for a book of this size, but there are images you wish were much, much larger so that you could drink in the visuals, but where do you draw the line? A small book is out of the question and a poster-sized book is unwieldy and impractical, so I think the coffee-table book approach works just fine.

The Art of Space contains some stunning paintings and covers many things, from the bodies of our solar system, to some incredible starship designs to imaginative images of alien life. For example, the early drawings of the Moon reflect how our views and attitudes towards, as well as knowledge of, our Moon has changed so amazingly over the last century. To see the early images of how we thought the Moon would be, as well as the other planets of our solar system, is fascinating when compared to what we know of the Moon and planets now, and actual images alongside what could be regarded as simple flights of fancy really draws the line between a sense of innocent wonder and practical knowledge.

You get this sense throughout the entire book, as early concepts of what could be beyond our world or how we would get there is brushed aside by the reality of it. This doesn’t mean the early images have no merit – indeed, I found the creativity and energy of many of them very inspirational – and it doesn’t sterilise the impact of modern, practical art based on a more tangible sense of reality. In fact, some of the paintings based on what we know about the universe are just as fantastical and awe-inspiring as the speculative art, in some cases even more so. There’s wonder to be found in both types.

In each chapter there’s also a spotlight on some of the most influential and inspiring artists who really gave a lot to the genre – Chesley Bonestell, Lynette Cook, Pat Rawlings, Don Davis and Wayne Barlow. With a brief background and some of their best work included, these little snippets give you an idea of what drives and inspires artists to create the amazing visuals feasts that they do.

It’s written well and gets to the point, and each piece of art has it’s own description to give the image context. It’s very informative and covers all the pertinent details, and includes some great stories such as the ‘Moon Hoax’ and some observations on certain aspects such as the Soviet poster art. Even though I don’t like the black-on-grey text on some pages as I do not feel it’s easy on the eye, it’s a good read and really adds a lot of depth to the images.

I can heartily recommend ‘The Art of Space’. It’s a great selection of artwork accompanied by some good writing and I can’t imagine anyone not being even partly inspired by the glorious images within.

For me it was perfect because I’m a lover of everything this book has to offer, from the early art of Jules Verne stories to the renditions of starship concepts, planet surfaces and insane but believable aliens. It really did have something of everything for me, and I felt I had travelled the cosmos when I turned the final page. This is a truly great piece of work and a must-have for lovers of this genre.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Preview Trailer - the 13th Age Soundtrack

Here's the trailer for the 13th Age Suite by James Semple and his team of fantastic composers and musicians.

I'll be reviewing this soon, but I can tell you now that this will be many-a-gamer's go-to music for a very, very long time.

Review - The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition

Publisher: Dark Horse

Review by Richard Williams

I have wished for a Dragon Age artbook for as long as Dragon Age has been around. It baffled me that there should be such fantast
ic art books for Mass Effect and nothing at all for this icon of fantasy RPG gaming. Now, finally, Dark Horse have gotten around to addressing this missing element of my collection and I can say that it is everything I hoped for. This is a lovely, big, beautiful book which somehow manages to look bigger than it is whilst still being larger than most other concept art books.

The layout seems a little haphazard at first, I'm not sure if the book has been tackled in sections as they are discovered in the game, and so there are no 'character', 'locations' or 'monsters' chapters. Instead it's this wonderful melange which keeps the book fresh and interesting as you work your way through it.

There are several different art styles on display here ranging from a fine art approach to something closer to a comic book. But all of it is excellent. The locations in particular are gorgeous and inspiring and I just can't wait to get stuck into the game and explore them in depth. Likewise the architectural designs that make the real world seem unbearably dull by comparison.

One of the things I like most about the Art of Dragon Age is how thorough the creators have been. There is barely an element of the game's design which has been left out. Banners, tables, curtains, weapons, statues, thrones - it's as though they have tried to fit the entire world of Thedas into this one book. On top of this is the extensive iterations which comprise the design process, in particular regarding characters. There are pages of costume and armour designs and they are just a joy to look at. At several points in the book there are also storyboards so this really is opening the doors onto the work that went into designing the game, not just showing off the lovely art.

This point is carried across with the accompanying text. Normally in art books this is used to let the artists explain what they have drawn and perhaps explain why and what they were going for. With The Art of Dragon Age the text is more about the work carried out by the art department, techniques and processes, and less about the actual pictures on the pages. On the one hand this is good because it gives you a greater insight to the work that the art team creates but on the other hand I like to know about the pictures I'm looking at. I'm also not too pleased about the fact that the only place in the book where the artists are credited is at the very start along with the books publishing details and 'special thanks to...'. I'm a fan not only of the art but of the artists and I much prefer to see an artists name next to their work, or least somewhere on the page.

But this is my only real problem with The Art of Dragon Age. Dark Horse make excellent art books and they have done so yet again. If only they would produce similar books for games 1 and 2! (seriously Dark Horse, if you're reading this, my money's just begging to be spent on such books).

To sum up: I can hardly praise this book enough. The art is outstanding, the detail is breathtaking, the book itself it excellently made and if there were a prize out there for 'concept art book of the year' then this would be serious contender. If concept art books are your thing, then this book is for you.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Review - Assassin's Creed Unity: Abstergo Entertainment Employee Handbook

Inline image 1By: Christie Golden
Published by Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I opened my new Abstergo employee handbook and was thus very pleasantly surprised. There's plenty of really nice artwork throughout the book taken from all of the games (although largely from Black Flag and Unity) and the accompanying text is both well written and informative. Characters from the games are cast in a new light, the assassins now bloodthirsty anarchists while the Templars are glowing models of decency, and we can see the ideas that have been kicked about the Abstergo office for other time periods to explore. The only down side of this is that it might make you wish they had been made.

Occasionally there are little pull-out goodies (letters, pictures, etc) which are well made and add an extra dimension to the book and the way the book is laid out, divided by sections as in a real company handbook, is fitting and a nice attention to detail.

One of the things I like most about this book is the subtle undercurrent of the Templar's true intentions. While the book talks in glowing terms and with an eye towards the glorious future that technology will bring there are little clues to Abstergo's real motivations written between the lines. Health monitors that record your every heartbeat and bead of sweat and Abstergo's plans for Fluoride+ (Google 'fluoride' and 'conspiracy' and you'll see why this is funny) are just some examples and I appreciate the extreme subtly used by the author with many of the other 'beneficial technological developments'.

This is not a big book but is is colourful, fun and well thought out and fans of Assassin's Creed will get a kick out of it. Ideal present material, in my opinion.

- Richard Williams

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Interview - Aaron and Ryan of the LARP Census

Please welcome Aaron Vanek and Ryan Paddy of the LARP Census.

Live Action Role-Playing is huge across the world, and these guys have set up a website in an attempt to get an idea of the scale of the hobby. What is this all about? Well, let me share with you the first two questions on the website's FAQ:

What is larp?

Larp or LARP is an acronym that stands for Live Action Role Playing. Some people think of larp as a sport, some as a hobby, some as a medium of expression, and some as an art form.

Larp means you portray a character—who may be a mindless zombie or who may be very close to the real you—with other people doing the same. The overall experience is designed and guided by someone or a group who may or may not also portray characters during the event. There is rarely a detailed script to follow like staged theater. This improv acting is performed for personal satisfaction and the fulfillment of your fellow role-players; larp is not for a passive audience that has no agency in the narrative.

Larp goes by many names, and instances of it have appeared throughout global history. It appears to be in a global resurgence, with larp communities in many different countries.

Why a global larp census?

Although some countries have rough estimates of their larp population, there has not been a comprehensive global census taken of self-identifying larpers on this scale. We really want to count everyone who larps, has larped, and wants to larp.

The information we acquire will be publicly shared so scholars can analyze the data and make conclusions that will, hopefully, increase both the quantity and quality of larps around the globe.

Before we talk about the LARP Census, tell us something about your own gaming histories.

Aaron Vanek - A friend of my mom's gave me the white box (three tan books) version of Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. I made a few characters but couldn't find anyone to play with, nor did I really understand the rules. I recall trying to buy the Chainmail expansion from a game store a few blocks from home. Instead I got the D&D Basic Set (the purple 1981 version), and found one friend to play with. One player slowly grew to well over a dozen by high school. This group enjoyed playing games, mostly RPG's, almost every weekend; Traveller, Top Secret, Champions, and Call of Cthulhu were the usual fare, but we tried a lot (anyone remember Fringeworthy or Stalking the Night Fantastic?). We also played board games (Arkham Horror 1st Ed., Talisman, etc.), card games (Nuclear War, Illuminati), and video games (Infocom on the C-64, Star Saga, Bard's Tale, Wasteland, etc.).

I published a quick and dirty system for chases in games in the revamped Space Gamer/Fantasy Gamer magazine (Red Rahm, editor), and then nothing until the 21st century when a few of my Call of Cthulhu scenarios were published by Chaosium and Pegasus Spiele.

I've worked for two defunct video game companies, and in 2012 started my own 501c3 nonprofit company, Seekers Unlimited, that makes educational larps.

I've been playing games of one kind or another for a little more than 30 years. There's more info and credits, if anyone cares, on my website.

Ryan Paddy - My older brother played tabletop roleplaying games, and I grew up hanging around and listening in to all kinds of games. Reading his game books got me excited from an early age, but it wasn't until teenage years that I met a bunch of friends who liked it too. We took turns running a lot of different games. MERP, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Harn all have special places as part of my growing up experience.

We wrote our own systems and settings to play among ourselves too. I made a game called Pakewaitara ("Legends") based on traditional Maori stories. These ancient tales were recorded from oral tradition back in the 1800s during colonial times here in New Zealand, and the heroes and villains often have amazing powers over their bodies, nature and the spirit world, transforming themselves into animals and engaging in epic journeys and battles. Perfect fodder for a roleplaying game, and something with special meaning where I live.

What was the attraction to LARP?

AV - For me, it was getting off my ass and away from the table. Where I grew up there was a creek and runoff passageway next to the train tracks near my apartment. All the kids called it "Mummy's Cave." Paralleling the tracks were giant eucalyptus trees, like temple columns. It was a natural setting for larping if you ignored the cars and trains. I made some very simple larp scenarios set there, but never had enough smarts, resources, or friends to make them "official." it was just play pretend with a fantasy theme and hit points. Except that I now consider play pretend to be live action role playing.

At a local game convention I attended through middle and high school, the IFGS (International Fantasy Gaming Society) ran a few larp scenarios, which I enjoyed. The driving attraction was relying on my real skills instead of random dice rolls.

In college I larped almost once a month through Enigma, UCLA's science fiction, fantasy, horror and gaming club. The attraction still hasn't gone away. I love engaging all five of my senses as well as exercising my physical, mental, and emotional being. I never got that from traditional table games, at least not while I was growing up. I think gaming has matured considerably since my early days. Nowadays I am excited to play and even try to combine the progressive trends in indie RPGs, indie video games, board games, card games, and larps. We live during a golden gaming renaissance that enriches all types, styles, genres, and experiences.

RP - I also heard about larp through my older brother. He had a school friend who was playing in a "widegaming" group - that's what we called larp back then. My brother's friend came over with some really rudimentary foam weaopns (this was around 1988), and when we fought with them something clicked in my mind. Those weapons made me instantly imagine how we could bring to life fantasy worlds in a much more immediate and interactive way, telling stories in real time and staying fully in character rather than popping out of character to resolve conflicts like with tabletop.

After that, alongside tabletop RPGs I started running larps with some school friends. Where I grew up on the North Shore of Auckland is blessed with lots of small forested parks, and we ran classic fantasy quests through them. It started out with a handful of people, but quickly grew to 40 or so kids, a rulebook we wrote, and regular adventures. It was all pretty basic looking back, but a lot of good silly fun was had and we loved it at the time. We also ran some non-fantasy games, usually horror scenarios set in the modern day with pre-written characters.

As teens we once constructed an elaborate cardboard maze in the crawlspace under my parent's house, only a couple of feet high. It was incredibly claustrophobic crawling through there with just a flashlight. We'd already has some creepy scenes with seances and an undead house invasion before the players found it, so they were pretty freaked out. One player was armed with an unloaded airsoft pistol, the rule was that if it was "fired" it always hit the target. Deep in the maze under the house, he encountered a madwoman who came flailing and screaming at him down the tunnel like something out of Aliens. He fired wildly at her, then panicked and crawled backwards all the way back out (it was that tight), then when he got out he mistook his friends waiting outside for more enemies and shot them too! Nowadays that player works in a tactical unit in the police. True story!

The last time I LARPed was fifteen years ago, and I spent my time monstering and having great fun. This meant hiding in bushes, hitting people and shouting out my damage score. Has LARP changed much since those early days?

AV - No and yes. No, it hasn't changed at all. What you describe is still the prevalent style of live action role playing, especially in Europe, America, and lands down under.

But yes, it has changed, deeply, radically, but only in limited areas. There are larps used for business and military training, education, or to evoke social change. Some larps have almost no rules and deal with deeply emotional issues. Some larps have only two or three players, no GM, held in a private, tiny room, while other larps have hundreds or thousands of players and are set on a battleship or in a medieval castle. And there is quite a lot in between, too. It's not all fantasy, either: there are science fiction larps, horror larps, post-apocalypse larps, historical larps, dramatic larps, comedy larps, and experimental larps. Some run for years, some less than an hour.

I've said this many times before, but I feel that fantasy foam combat campaigns are to larp what super heroes are to comic books: colorful, popular, and too often mistaken as the default form of larp. That's just one type of larp content; it's not what live action role playing is. I personally think of larp as an ancient art form--there are examples of larps from before, long before, D&D was a gleam in Gary Gygax's eye. Some regard larp as a hobby or, occasionally, a sport. We're all correct.

RP - Every larp is so different. Even back in 2000 when you last larped Jonathan, there was already a massive diversity of larps happening beyond what you experienced, and it's only grown since then. It's never even been all foam weapons and adventure games, right from the first larps in the early 1980s there were games using alternative mechanics like rock-paper-scissors, often indoor games which were about intrigue and politics between a group of pre-written player characters rather than adventuring or factional conflicts. In Australia, the first recorded larp (although they called it a "freeform RPG") was a live game of Traveller played at a convention, where the convention rooms represented a starship and the players walked around and talked in character. They used dice and had lot of GMs to referee, but as soon as you get up and embody your character and represent the setting in real space, you've crossed the very fuzzy line from tabletop to larp. A lot of early larp origin stories are like that, basically tabletop games that went a bit feral and turned into something else - a larp.

The major change of the last decade has been a recognition of how larp can be used not only for entertainment but also for education, emotional catharsis, political activism, and so much more. The immediacy of larp makes it a very powerful and personal medium. The international larp scene has also become increasingly connected through technology. This started as early as 1994 when I first got onto newsgroups and talked to larpers in the UK and the US, but technology like Facebook now means that you don't have to go looking for groups or forums, international larpers come find you.

I'm also starting to see a lot more professional involvement in larp. Making and retailing costumes and props is a growing industry, and has attracted the attention of some big players including manufacturers for licenses like Age of Conan and The Hobbit. There are a lot of professional movie prop makers & costumers getting into supplying larp too. Movie work is often uncertain for these folks, so they can use larp sales to fill the gaps between productions. As a result there's an explosion of really high-quality gear coming out, and there's a virtuous circle where all the pretty gear attracts more new larpers, and that growing market in turn attracts more industry to these customers. We're also starting to see things like electronics products purpose-built for larp.

Tell us more about the LARP census - what's it all about?

AV - The Larp Census is a non-profit project that Ryan Paddy and I developed over the past two years to count every larper on Earth. No small task, that, and it's doomed to failure. Still, we want to count as many as possible and find out more about them: where are they, how old are they, how many larps have they participated in, why do they larp, do they make things for larp, etc.

By gathering this information and then releasing it freely to anyone via a Creative Commons license, we hope the quantity and quality of larps everywhere will increase. We'll have hard figures about who is doing this art-hobby-sport, and what is working and what might not be working. Ideally, larpers around the world will realize that they aren't alone, that larp is a global phenomenon. Unlike tabletop RPGs that can point to D&D as their origin, there wasn't really--and still isn't--a single larp game or rule set from whence everything else sprang, at least not globally. We hope to show people that there's more going on here than what your local larp is doing.

RP - The Larp Census is about curiosity. Or call it science, perhaps. Who is larping? Where are we? How do we do it, how many of us are there, and what do we enjoy most about it? Nobody knows, and we want to find out. We've already started looking at the data collected so far, and every single statistic has a surprising and interesting story to tell.

Not only that, but now is the right time for a census. Because larp is on the verge of a big step-change. If you've been to any big pop-culture conventions, you'll know that there's a massive convergence of costuming, gaming and fandom going on. More and more people want to dress up and get fully immersed. So what activity lets you dress up, tell a story and play a game all at once? Larp combines all these things better than any other medium.

We're seeing the emergence of a new breed of larps with amazing production values and huge general appeal. It's happening at the same time as the market for this kind of game is reaching maturity. That market and those games are about to meet, and there's going to be quite an explosion. Now is the time to document the "before" picture, while larp is still young and mostly amateur.

What do you hope to achieve with the census? What will it be used for?

RP - The Larp Census is really an absurdly ambitious project. I don't know of anything else like it, trying to document an activity across the entire globe. If nothing else we've demonstrated that we have the technology to survey the whole world about a niche thing they love, that's pretty cool in itself! At launch we had thousands of responses flooding in per day, which was quite a rush. Social media has played a big part, giving the project a viral boost.

Fundamentally we want larpers, organisers and suppliers to know where, how and why people are larping, so that more and better games can be created and played.

Also, we want to help along the process of bringing the worldwide larping community together, breaking down barriers and building new international collaborations. We're already seeing that happen from the early census results we've published so far, they have started conversations between regional larp communities and made people aware of all the unexpected countries where larp is being played.

LARP is still big across the world. What do you see in it's future? 

AV - I think, and hope, that larp will be recognized as a valid art form--it already is in some countries. Maybe larp will be understood as "structured experiences" that can create very profound changes in not just individual lives, but societies as well.

Or larp is just a fad that will die out in a few years. But I doubt that.

RP - We're going to see larp go commercial and mainstream in our lifetimes, with massive games and incredible production values. There are some larps with thousands of players at events now, but the entertainment industry is only beginning to catch on to this growing market. In a world where media piracy is the new norm, there is special value in a medium like larp that can only be experienced physically. Players engage and invest in larps over a long period of time, often buying multiple in-character wardrobes as well as paying for events. We're already seeing companies like Disney invest in larp-like in-character interactive games at their amusement parks. Strange as it might sound, larp is a bandwagon that a lot of companies are about to jump on.

The real question is: will any of the new breed of big commercial larps be any good? Just as successful blockbuster movies can have terrible scripts and acting, and huge MMOs can lean on pointless but addictive grinding, we may see larps emerge that are fine-tuned to extract money without having either the artistic merit or the strong aspect of personal creativity from the players that less commercialised efforts allow for. I imagine we'll some big commerical larps that are high on glitz and short on substance, but I also hope we'll see some quality mega-larps too, drawing on the experience of larp organisers to help design games that are spectacular and also have depth.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Soundtrack Mini Review – ‘300’ by Tyler Bates

‘300’ is a cracking comic-book movie that gives us a heavily stylised and fantastical version of the Spartan stand against the Persians at Thermopylae.

The mood of the film is both slow and daunting, interspersed with moments of intense action, and the music reacts to these beats well. The choral music, which you hear in the trailer, is powerful and really drives the mood. However, the more ethereal singing and the inclusion of heavy guitar riffs kind of works in the film but sounds out of place when listening to the soundtrack as music on it’s own.

All in all it’s a great soundtrack; Tyler Bates really captures the mood of the film. Maybe not so much the era, but considering that this is a fantasy version of a second-hand story of a legend, that’s perfectly understandable.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review - New Space Frontiers: Venturing into Earth Orbit and Beyond

By Piers Bizony

Published by Zenith Press

When I’m working on new projects, when I’m looking for ideas for my writing, I often turn to all kinds of sources for inspiration, from TV shows to books to movies to the internet. It was great, then, to not only get my hands on a book that’s filled to the brim with some incredibly inspirational images covering the early days of spaceflight to the future of manned and unmanned exploration, but also containing a lot of small and enlightening facts that even I, a follower of space programs worldwide, didn’t realise.

‘Get ready to experience the excitement of adventure with New Space Frontiers. Through gorgeous photography and engaging writing, noted space and science author Piers Bizony speculates beyond just today's hardware and explores what might be possible for the next generation.’

Chapter 1, ‘Escape From Planet Earth, covers the hardware we are and can be using to get vehicles into low Earth orbit. It details different ways to get into and back from orbit, from the existing vehicles to ones in preparation, and the images on show are excellent, especially one visually stunning photograph of a Soyuz night recovery mission.

Chapter 2, ‘Almost Space Flight’, gives us a look at the sub-orbital vehicles in development and, even though it does sometimes read like a promotional brochure for the firms taking part in the research, there are, once again, some great images on show.

Chapter 3, ‘Islands In The Sky’, entices us with the possibility of orbital habitations, space stations where humans could live, work and even raise families. From the small cramped ISS to the huge visions of wheeled cities in space – peppered with images from science fiction as well as the visions of conceptual artists – it’s inspirational stuff.

Chapter 4, ‘Destination Moon’, talks about future journeys to our closest celestial body and even establishing a base or colony there. There are some great images of Moonbases, again from science fiction as well as actual concept renderings, and the next generation Moon vehicles are incredibly fascinating.

Chapter 5, ‘Interplanetary Adventures’, throws us beyond Earth orbit and talks about exploring the other planets of our solar system and the challenges such a thing creates. Again, there’s a wealth of wonderful images in this chapter that inspire and make your mind whirl with the possibilities and the logistics of it all.

Finally, Chapter 6, ‘Across The Gulf Of Stars’, takes us even further, beyond our solar system and to the nearest stars via telescopes, nuclear-powered robot probes and even possible manned missions to the potential worlds that surround us. Much of this is purely speculative, of course, although much of the science is hard and, once again, the wonderful images make it all very possible.

Piers Bizony gives us an excellent journey through the next actual and possible steps of space exploration and gives us both the practical and fantastical. The reality of existing space programs and the technology they use blends with the conceptual and then the almost unbelievable, so when reading this you feel like everything is reachable and the stars are closer than you think.

There are a few issues; there are some errors in the type and the layout breaks up the text so it sometimes feels that sentences are left hanging and incomplete, only to be picked up on a page or two later. This is a little jarring and when the text is filling your head with ideas, to have yourself yanked out of the narrative flow is disorientating and ruins the impact slightly.

The images are gorgeous. The full colour glossy pages gives us some amazingly detailed photographs, paintings and renderings and I found myself wishing the pages were a little larger so that I could see more detail. This brings me on to another issue I had with the book and that’s the landscape presentation; I’m not a fan as I find books like that a little clumsy in my hands, but that’s a personal thing and does not detract from the book at all.

New Space Frontiers is a great book and it’s filled with some amazing images that you will no doubt find inspirational on many levels. Piers Bizony’s writing is functional and he explains things well and, typos and layout aside, it’s a good read.

If you want to learn more about the near future of space exploration, then I can recommend this tome quite easily. It’s a fascinating look at the past, present and future of our journey into space.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Review: The Art of Assassin's Creed - Unity

Author: Paul Davies
Published by Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

*WARNING: Contains spoilers for the game*

Assassin's Creed Unity has come under a lot of flack for a number of reasons. Thankfully I have the pleasure of reviewing not the game but this outstanding collection of concept art. Those who have bought previous books in this series will be pleased to find that Titan Books have kept to their tried, tested and outstanding format and have produced yet other concept art book where the emphasis is on art, rather than design. I feel that this is an important point to make. Concept art is experiencing something of a heyday and is now a thing worth collecting in its own right. However, due to the reason for its existence, concept art, however artistic it may be, is functional and intended to be useful to developers later on. As such it is typically a collection of usable things, people out of context and places for the sake of testing the lighting. The art books of Assassin's Creed are a bold exception to this rule and you will be hard pressed to find concept art where so much is done in a painterly style and where page after page of work wouldn't look out of place framed on a gallery wall.

However that does not mean that this is all you'll find here. Of course there is plenty of design work but I did notice there was strangely nothing of the gear, weapons and equipment. This will displease quite a few people, I'm sure, although it took me several goes looking through this book before it dawned on me that it was under-represented.

Firstly there is an impressive amount of character design, almost fifty pages of it, with each drawing as pleasing to look at as the next. The outfits are rich in detail and the faces tell the life story of the characters who wear them. I would complain that there is hardly any exploration of the design process (early stages through to production pieces) but with so much on show it would frankly just sound ungrateful. A completionist (to borrow a word from gaming) would mind the missing work but a fan of art would merely enjoy the really nice work on show, much of it full page. Character design has always been one of Assassin's Creed's strongest elements in the art books and I can honestly say that I think Unity showcases their best work.

Other than character design the rest is almost entirely locations. This might not please everyone such as the people who want a catalogue of everything that had to be designed for the game (much as the artbook for Thief provided) and considering this is a book of concept art it isn't an unfair gripe. Had the artwork in this book been less to shout about I might have felt myself cheated too. But there are few games where the location design work is so majestic. The colours are rich and vibrant and the detail is stunning. Just as the artists capture the luxury, elegance and grandeur of Parisian high society they are no less inspired in their depiction of the poverty and desperation of the poorer districts with gritty, overcrowded streets and a dour and darker colour palette.

Due to the new capabilities of the next-gen consoles AC: Unity features a lot more game time indoors exploring the great buildings of Paris such as Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace. Subsequently we are treated to the designs for those interiors and it's the kind of artwork that leaves you feeling a little worse off about your own house. Not since I was a little boy have I found myself looking through a book saying 'want' quite so much.

An interesting surprise (and the forewarned spoiler) is the art showing Paris in different time periods. The game does not stay settled in revolutionary Paris but also takes place across 'memories' of the French capital during the second world war, the medieval period as well as what is known as 'La Belle Epoch'. These sections are small, given that they are only a smaller part of the game, but provide some of the best art in the book. Fans of the games have often said 'they should set the game in ...... period' and it is nice to see such things through the prism of Assassin's Creed. Who hasn't thought of setting the Assassins against the Nazis. Seems the creators finally gave in to what the fans wanted, even if only a little bit.

There is not much writing accompanying the art but what there is is interesting and to the point. It also credits the artists and lets them explain in their own words what they were trying to convey and I think that this is an area that Titan Books does really well. There is so much that the designers have to take into account when they make these games that I think we, as gamers and art lovers, take for granted and reading about the many little points of consideration that needs to be taken into account gives me a much better appreciation for the work they do.

The book itself is very nice to look at and will fit nicely with other books in the series. I suppose one day there will be no more Assassin's Creed books and when that day comes there will be a special collectors edition bringing all the books together in one boxed set priced at a princely sum. Canny art lovers will spare themselves some pennies and buy the books now.

So to sum up; This is a big beautiful book which brings revolutionary Paris to life, filled with incredible art work (much of which is shown off to best effect across a two page spread), with succinct and interesting commentary from the artists. Yes, there are some things missing from this book, most noticeably the weapons and equipment, and I hope that in future this will be included as I know a lot of people really like to see it. However I don't see how anyone can claim to be a collector of concept art and not own this book.

- Richard Williams

Saturday, 15 November 2014

And now for a word from...

The first of the regular Autocratik vidblogs takes a look at the size of tabletop roleplaying books. Remember the days when RPG books were small? How could this be employed with new RPGs?

This is an insight into upcoming episodes and the companion series - Roll Your Own Life.

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