There are few authors that warrant purchasing in hardcover editions. Once upon a time, George R. R. Martin was one of these. Don't misunderstand me; 'he's always ranked as a talented writer in my view. My first exposure to him was through the WildCards shared world story collections and novels. I considered him to be one of their best (and one of the best editors, as well). An enjoyable writer, then, but not much more than that, or so I thought.
Enter 'A Game of Thrones'. This was a fantasy novel that was as grand in scope as Lord of the Rings, with the character depth of Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' series and a level of political intrigue and detail rarely seen elsewhere. Martin's work is nothing like the standard boiler-plate material of the genre. Elves? Not here. Magic? The stuff of stories, mostly. Brave heroes and base villains? Well, it looks that way at the start. But Martin's characters are fully realized human beings. As the man says, they "contain multitudes."
The third book in the series, 'A Storm of Swords' follows on the chaos put forth in the first two books, and fulfills their promise. This, in and of itself, would make the book worth reading. That it exceeds them makes the book one of the finest in fantasy literature, period. What originally started as a tale of the family Stark, and their trials and tribulations, has grown to the grand struggle of mankind against an unknowable enemy.
I assumed that since Martin had surprised me in the first book that he wouldn't be able to do so again. I was wrong. With each book, he shows me that I can't second-guess his characters or his story. Would I have believed that one of the series vilest villains would turn out to be a sympathetic (albeit hotheaded and rash) almost-hero? I wouldn't have believed it, but there it is. The weak become strong. The strong become dead. The disenfranchised become the elite. While I have suspicions about where the series is going, nothing is certain. I like that. No character is safe, and this sweeping epic has more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Characters aren't stupid, and the plot never feels forced or hurried. There is only one situation (at the end of the book) that is telegraphed a little more than needed, but it's not poorly handled'and following on one of the biggest surprises of the book, it's perfectly legitimate. What surprises the most is that Martin's history and backstories are so well developed. Several characters reveal facts about events already presented that throw them all in a completely different light, but all of which match what has already gone before.
In short, I cannot recommend 'A Storm of Swords' enough. Martin knows how to write political intrigue, combat, horror and joy with equal skill. His characters' lives matter, and it's hard to tell the heroes from the villains. No one is safe, and nothing is certain'and the ending to the book is sure to chill your bones. Like any great book, the only thing truly wrong with it is that it ends, and leaves you craving more. I can't think of a better reason to recommend it.
One of the advantages of developers purchasing game engines is that they can spend their resources on making a game better, rather than making the game at all. The two best utilized engines to this point are the Quake II engine and the Unreal engine. Quake III certainly is technologically superior than its predecessor, but has had little success in finding mainstream acceptance. Of these, the Unreal engine has had much greater success in creating 'intelligent' shooters that break the mold (although the Quake II-based 'Half-life' certainly is the watermark to compare to).
The latest game to reflect this trend is Clive Barker's Undying, from Electronic Arts. Like the last really good Unreal-based game, Wheel of Time, Undying has an impressive literary pedigree'this time in the form of horror author Clive Barker of Hellraiser and the Books of Blood fame. He wrote the many text pieces that occur throughout the game.
The central conceit of the game is that the main character, one Patrick Galloway by name, has been summoned by an friend who he owed a life debt to from 'The Great War', which would be World War I, had a second one occurred, which it hasn't by the starting point in the game. (And although you'll do some time traveling, it's only backwards in time, not forwards). Following the war, Galloway became a drifter, and inadvertently fell into the role of a paranormal investigator (it may sound a little forced'I assure you that it's not. I'm just condensing here).
Arriving at the Covenant estate (and if that last name isn't a clue to what's going on around here, nothing is), he finds his friend Jeremiah dying of a wasting sickness that no one can identify or cure, and that his two brothers and two sisters are both dead. He's summoned you back to investigate the strange goings-on about the estate, and investigate the reports of some of his siblings being seen. It soon becomes obvious that much more horrific things are happening'the dead walking, creatures from another dimension slaying the innocent, a hateful cult searching the grounds, mad possessed monks haunting the past, and so on.
The game makes horrific use of the Unreal engine, and I mean that in a good way. Some of the creatures are just down-right creepy. The scripting abilities lead to some terrifying dramatic sequences, and allow for some good story-telling. The voice-acting is top-notch, never ridiculous, and often chilling. The graphics are excellent, although sometimes the Unreal engine shows it's age with regards to level design. My biggest beef with the game was the sizeable load times between levels, and considering I have a 7200RPM drive, I can only assume it would drive lesser mortals mad.
You pick up texts throughout the game, and then read them pressing F3. The texts are all written by Barker, and some were more than effectively scary. Writes one of the cursed Covenenant siblings 'Could I have prevented father from having a long, painful death? Yes, I could have hit him harder.' Brrrr. An added feature beyond your traditional 3D FPS is the additional of spells. Essentially, you hold a weapon in your left hand, and cast spells with your right. So you can effectively do two things at once, which becomes critical later in the game.
The scry spell, which you gain early on, allows you to see ghosts and otherworldly visions. Paintings change to horrific visions, ghosts can be seen or heard, and the atmosphere is made about a zillion times more creepy. In some cases, you need to look into the spirit world to solve a puzzle, as well. Weapon selection is good, with a healthy balance of melee and ranged weapons, both guns and more'exotic items.
The game is not entirely linear, and gives you some freedom of movement, but ultimately you still need to follow a base path. That doesn't matter much, though, as you're usually much to concerned with staying alive to notice. Few games short of Half-Life, Thief 1, and System Shock 2 have created such immersive and often very creepy atmospheres. This is a good combination of thinking man's shooter and horror adventure game.
I highly recommend Undying. I've almost finished it, and I fully intend to, something that I haven't done with more games that I'm comfortable admitting. Find this game and buy it. You won't regret it. Just don't play it with the lights off. It might eat you.
Official Movie Site: http://www.finalfantasy.com/
There are three fundamental questions that the Final Fantasy movie asks the viewer. The first is, do all living things have some essential non-physical life-force that translates into a soul or a ghost? Second, is the earth itself a living thing (the Gaea)? Finally, if you want Ben Affleck in an animated movie and he isn't available, will anyone notice if you animate a character who looks just like him with Alec Baldwin's voice?
Let's face facts: Final Fantasy could be about five people on a quest for a really good hot dog in a post-apocalyptic world, and people would go to see it. (note to self: wasn't that a summary of Damnation Alley?) Why? The CGI is like nothing ever done before. It's that good. Really.
We're not talking about cartoony characters or amusing non-human entities, we're talking about normally proportioned, realistically rendered human beings. If you've seen 'Shrek', you might have been impressed by Fiona, the films only true normal human character. She might as well be a stick figure compared to FF's Aki, who moves and looks like so real as to be astounding. And I'm talking down to the hair follicle, skin dimple level of astounding.
Hmm, what? Oh, the story? Well, the plot's not exactly original, but it's not broken, either. The pacing is similar to many Japanese films and, not coincidentally, most of Square's RPGs. It's written fairly intelligently, and the pacing is appropriate, as needed. While I would have preferred to have more character development, the professional big-name cast certainly goes a long way towards the film's legitimacy. Ming Na and Alec Baldwin work well together, and Steve Buscemi has fun with his role. James Woods doesn't just chew the scenery, his General Hein virtually sneers it near to death. He's one of the worst Generals in the history of mankind, but since when has that stopped a movie?
There are moments in Final Fantasy where you can literally forget that you're watching an animated movie. It really is that good. There are spots where the human movements seem'well, mechanical. But other times they are fluid and dramatic. The mechanical designs are fantastic, and the CGI allows for rendering of environments that are simply gorgeous to view. Final Fantasy redefines the state-of-the-art with respect to what is capable with CGI.
I considered Final Fantasy to be a summer thrill-ride, and for my money, it delivered, big-time. If you're coming in looking for Dr. Zhivago, you'd best move along'this ain't the film that redefines the genre. As far as I can tell, Square chose a plot that was somewhat safe with respect to its audience, especially given the risk of the CGI approach, and the amount of money invested in the technology in this film.
Ultimately, this was one of the best films I've seen in the summer of 2001. I plan on paying it one or both of the two highest compliments I can pay any film: I may see it again, and I plan on buying it on DVD. If that ain't high praise, I don't know what is.