Book Review: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

hangingtreeI’ve been waiting on this book for what seems like an age, and then with everything that’s been going on recently I then managed to completely lose track of the publication date. It was therefore a very nice surprise to realise on the first day of my leave that it had downloaded to my Kindle.

What follows is a spoiler-free review based on my first read-through, completed yesterday in a single read while wrapped up in bed with multiple mugs of Bovril though the morning.

If you’ve not read any of the Peter Grant novels or comics before then this will still be enjoyable, but you really do need to go an read what has come before so that you get half the context of half the references in this story.

Go on – this review and book will still be waiting for you. Don’t miss out the comics which have already been collected in a bound trade paperback either – they are in continuity and are set between the events of the last book (Foxglove Summer) and this one.

Right, that should keep the newcomers busy while we get on with this. As the last paragraph reveals, the comics are worth reading, for the same reason that you should have read the previous novels – but they are not vital. That is the joy of this series, and this book in particular. Any references to previous stories’ events and characters are dealt with as colour rather than necessities – throwaway comments that hint at the rich stew of past adventures rather than relying on them as plot points. Anything relevant to the immediate plot is laid out for you briskly so that continuity is a scaffolding rather than a scaffold. (See what I did there?)

I do wonder, and I’ll be sure to ask when I next get to a book signing, if this attention to detail and back-story has been enhanced by the experience of writing a comic book. There seem to be so many callbacks and characters popping up that you could be forgiven for wanting to make your own case wall to keep track of everyone. It’s a massive contrast to the leafy and somewhat isolated themes of the previous novel, which seemed intent on keeping the regular characters as much on the borders of the story as possible.

The strength of this series, for me, has always been the ensemble cast and the interactions between them. The usual dry and self-deprecating humour in Peter’s internal monologues continues – a comfort blanket of caustic wit that draws you in and along on his journey without being actively mean. All the regular cast get moments to shine without edging out either the protagonist or the plot – and the story fills out yet more back story for certain characters that will add weight for re-readings of earlier books.

At one point I was going to make the criticism that the book has so many recurring characters that it was in danger of getting muddled. New characters introduced in this story go a long way towards spacing things back out again and adding new ingredients to the mix, but even so there were points where I did ask myself if the whole thing was going to wrap itself up in a Möbius Strip and strangle the plot.

To my great relief, that didn’t happen. There are resolutions, and climactic battles that bounce from suspense to drama to surreal humour to wide-screen action without breaking sweat and I finished the story with a sense of satisfaction.

But

There’s an awful lot of sub-plots waving in the wind, setting things up for future tales. I don’t know if they will be resolved in the comics, or in future stories and I do hope that the temptation to throw plot points at the wall to see what sticks is avoided. I keep going back to the comic books and the influence of that writing style. Chris Claremont, legendary writer of the X-Men, became famous and then notorious for throwing sub-plots into the wind and then taking forever to resolve them, if he ever did. It lead to a soap opera feel where laying threads for future plots sometimes made the current plot play second fiddle.

I really hope that Ben Aaronovitch resists this temptation. I also hope that the comics generally stay as their own thing that occasionally get referenced in the novels, rather than important story elements shifting over to the new medium for resolution. Cross-media storytelling can be fun, but it shouldn’t be at the risk of confusing people as to where their plot lines have disappeared to. The balance seems to be about right at the moment, I’m happy to say.

Like life, there are no definitive endings, and there are always loose ends, which plays to the aforementioned loose plot points. There’s no grand closing of the book, just the sign off on the case, and the realisation that life goes on. This has been another chapter in Peter Grant’s life, just like each month is for the rest of us. We’ll see how he’s moved on and grown in the next instalment.

So if you can’t already tell, I really enjoyed this book. It doesn’t contain the wisdom of the ages and its generally light fare, and that’s absolutely a selling point. It’s fun. It rewards regular readers with knowing nods and small updates, and best of all tells a story.

Can’t ask fairer than that. Five out of Five Lux Scinderes

Now Playing… Overwatch

I suspect that this is a game with which I will come to have a love/hate relationship, based on my first exposure to it. We’ve picked up a second hand copy from someone where Lady M works, and finally installed it this evening, so this is very much a first impressions blog that I can go back to once I’ve got a bit more time logged on it.

The basic setup is simple – two teams of variously classed characters are pitched against each other over a series of objectives in timed matches. There is no real story, merely hints at a wider conflict, but to be fair the game knows that’s not what the competitive players are generally here for. No doubt little nuggets will unfold as I earn levels and unlock bonuses, but my first impressions are of a game that is bright, fast-paced and generally fun. The qualifying statement to that is: if you can get a whole game in without losing your connection to the Blizzard servers. 

The basic tutorial and practice arena are both useful ways to introduce basic mechanics and controls, but the flakiness this evening came when I joined the games played against AI opponents. Out of the three games I played, only one went the whole distance without dropping me out. Now, I’m casual enough in how I play to have enjoyed even the partial games, but I can see the dropped connection situation getting old very quickly, especially with Blizzard’s pedigree in hosting online games.

The one thing that these early games have already shown me is that I really need to go back and try out all these new characters before I play them. I’ve enjoyed the robustness of Soldier76, the fluid strikes of Genji, and had great fun with Widowmaker, but I did feel a small panic each time I picked a new character. I forsee some serious mucking about in the practice arena to see what each can do.

Anyone else playing? What have you found effective in terms of play style or tactics?

Retro Gaming Card-Based Simulation

Last night we finally got round to playing a game I was given for my birthday. Boss Monster has “The Dungeon Building Card Game” as its strapline, and takes its graphic style from 8-bit computer gaming. I’d heard good things about it, but we hadn’t really had time to explore it. As our hosts for the weekend are seriously into their tabletop games it seemed only fitting to bring it along with us.

We had a bit of a false start setting up – alcohol and overly complicated instructions will do that for you – but found a YouTube play tutorial that made it all a lot easier.

It’s a clever game, with some nice flourishes. Each Hero has flavour text, many of the illustrations give shouts out to famous book covers or film scenes (my favourite is a nod to the classic AD&D DM’s Guide cover), and gameplay is a lot more tactical than you might anticipate at first. This is particularly important when working out whether you want to attract marauding heroes to your Dungeon.

We played two games, with the second being much more assured and competitive, and replay value seems high. Now I’ve got the hang of the setup and play it’ll be a good go-to game to pull out with company and let the geekery flow.

A New Map

I’d seen The Discworld Emporium advertised in a few places, both around the wider ‘net and in Terry Pratchett fan groups and been tempted by a few of their offerings. I hadn’t ordered anything until earlier this month though, due to nothing quite leaping off the page until then.

Then they released a colouring map of Ankh-Morpork, and Lady M and I both grinned in anticipation.

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Much of the appeal of the shop is that most of the memorabilia they sell can be seen as items stolen away from within that flat, magical world. There’s a whimsy to their offerings that appeals. Their good reputation in the groups also tipped the balance.

I ordered the map, and then forgot all about it as life threw some extra curveballs and we got earnest about our decoration.

Yesterday I dropped in to the post office to pick up an undelivered parcel. I had no idea what it was until I saw that it was a poster roll, and it had some decidedly Discworld elements to it: namely Ankh-Morpork Post Office Stamps and warning notices about snails, dribbling toads, and alchemist guild-made contents.

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Inside was a glorious map of The Big Wahoonie, and a personalised thank you/non-delivery note from the Ankh-Morpork Postal Service blaming “nae ordinary chicken!” which was why the non-magical Royal Mail had completed the delivery.

The map itself is on large high quality, thick and creamy coloured paper and the printing is clear and unsmudged. Details of the city’s landmarks are easily made out, but without labels so that you can stretch your imagination recognising them from descriptions in the book.

It’s little touches like this that mean I will be a return customer. I think I spent more time yesterday geeking out over the packaging than the actual contents, much to the amusement of colleagues and the staff at the local coffee shop.

Now our only decisions remaining are whether we’ll colour it at all, or only certain elements, before or after we mount it on the wall. I’m tempted to order a spare so we can frame one untouched and play with the new one.

Disney Infinity 3.0

I splashed out a bit on Lady M’s Christmas presents this year, and bought her the new version of Disney Infinity. I’d resisted the previous versions despite the sleek appearance of the toys, but having seen her eyes lingering over the new Star Wars-themed sets that came out late last year I thought it was as good a time as any. Besides, the adverts have looked fun and some other friends who are Disney geeks have been quietly raving about them in positive terms.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the game, it allows you to use a range of classic Disney characters, along with Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar characters to play a variety of professionally and community-created scenarios. The tools to create and share your own content are included within the hub software, and a particularly bright feature is that the game allows split-screen play so that you can sit on the couch side by side. Characters can be mixed and matched between franchises smoothly and easily – but here’s what for me was the catch:

To get new playable characters, you have to buy a corresponding model. There’s an element of collectable mania that you risk if you want to get your hands on a good selection.

The relatively good news is that the statues are not particularly expensive at around the £10 mark each, depending on where you look – and they do look good. We already collect Funko Pops and other statuettes related to our various geeky interests, so the prospect of having more character figures around the place – let alone ones that also have another game-related function – is not a particularly daunting one.

A lot of the usual Disney attention to detail is in evidence here – the account each of us was prompted to make to use the online features picked up that we already had Disney accounts from our recent holidays and tied into those rather than creating duplicates. Background graphics and features refer to various famous Disney landmarks park and film features, and the likenesses of a huge number of characters appear. The immersion in the huge portfolio of Disney worlds is both impressive and, if you are a fan, kind of reassuring. Your mileage, of course, may vary…

So – is it fun? Absolutely – the game is aimed at a young audience, but is a delight full of Disney trivia. The games are typically platform-based and adopt a stylised 3D style that reminds me of the more recent Star Wars cartoon series. Even though I bought the game for Lady M, we’ve both been enjoying playing and learning about the system together and we’re losing a lot of time to it. It’s just as well neither of us are working this week!

 

More Halo 5 Thoughts

I hadn’t finished the campaign when I last wrote about Halo 5, and I hadn’t even touched the multiplayer side of things. Now I have done both, so it’s time for a few more relatively spoiler-free musings.

The single-player campaign is surprisingly brief, despite being fifteen levels in length. Three of those levels are not combat orientated, and are basically an excuse to hide exposition and collectible items. The traditional Skulls denoting different game modifiers are hidden in each level, and there are also varying numbers of audio files that provide extra background information to find as well.

The level design is pretty much a traditional linear progression from point A to point B, with wide open spaces for large numbers of set piece encounters. It’s very Halo, and there’s a comfort in that. What is very different is the AI of your team.

In previous Halo games, the player has typically been a lone wolf figure, battling through seemingly insurmountable odds. Any additional computer-controlled characters have tended to just be cannon fodder, useful only for the weapons and ammo they drop when killed by the opposing forces.

In this game your team is actually pretty helpful. They provide covering fire, can be ordered to concentrate fire on designated targets and pick up weapons if you tell them to. Most importantly, they can revive you and others for a short period after incapacitation, which makes a huge difference in avoiding restarting levels and checkpoints.

The team support is so good in fact, that it’s only really at the Legendary level of difficulty that I started to find them less helpful. There isn’t a huge difference between difficulty in playing Normal and Heroic, but the step from Heroic to Legendary actually made it feel a challenge because it was so noticeably harder.

This is a good thing, though maybe playing co-op will make it easier. I haven’t done that yet as no one in my usual gamer circle has yet bought the game, and without split screen I can’t play on the couch with anyone (yep, sorry, raising this one again).

That said, I enjoyed the story, even if it suffered from the curse of setting up the sequel rather than resolving anything. The new big bad is suitably worrying, even if their reasons for acting feel out of character and petty. I’m not sold on their motivations (how’s that for vague spoiler-light fare?) even if I’m more sold on their allies’s reasons for joining.

The multiplayer side of things is slick, there is no doubt, and I’ve enjoyed it far more than I did Destiny’s Crucible games, if only because the skill matching seems generally more even. The current PvP modes seem balanced, and I’ve rarely experienced lag. On my connection, that’s pretty impressive.

I had worried that the new Halo would prove to be a bit of a one trick pony, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by its replay value and the online carnage. I’m actually looking forward to the new content landing next week, including Big Team Battles in Arena, which has always been a favourite.

Halo 5 First Impressions

Oh, Halo 5, you’re very pretty, I’ve almost forgiven you the rank stupidity of being a digital download only. Almost, even if it did take nearly four days to install you. You’d have thought that buying the Limited Collector’s Edition might possibly have given you physical media from which to install. I wouldn’t have minded multiple discs, or even a USB stick – because downloading roughly 60Gb to install a game when you don’t have blistering fibre connections (thank you BT) is a fecking pain in the proverbial.

But you’re working now, and all those tricks they’ve engineered to keep things running at 60 frames per second are so far making this a glorious experience. Now, I haven’t touched the multiplayer side of things yet as I’m an old fashioned soul who prefers to play the single player campaign through first. I’d love to co-op play it with Lady M, but the lack of split-screen still rankles. Previous incarnations of the XBox, and Halo in particular, won my loyalty for enabling side by side couch gameplay with friends and family. It’s departure is keenly noticed and still irritates the hell out of me.

So, I’m in the third mission now (hey, I do have to work too, even if I was playing it this morning before going to open up the library), and I’m happy to report that so far it does actually feel and play like Halo, even with the new features. What is very interesting is how the UI differences give the impression of the age difference between Spartan Locke’s system and Master Chief’s system. They actually play pretty much the same, but Locke feels like the newer production model compared to The Chief.

The game seems so far to be full of little signifiers like this. The newer Spartans seem more mobile and speedier in how they engage the enemy, compared to the more solid and deliberate movements of the older ‘classic’ Spartans. There’s some good dialogue and banter between characters too in the cut-scenes, building on the foundations laid in the Spartan Missions from Halo 4 as well as the rest of the main game series.

Is it a deep and diverting game? No, it’s Halo, not Tolstoy, but it’s so far hitting all the right notes. Now, if the multiplayer side delivers when I get to it – and the Beta suggests it will – then I’m going to continue to be a happy bunny. Just sort out that split screen 343!

Double Date Film Night

There’s some film about dinosaurs getting all uppity about being Disney-fied or something doing the rounds. It’s been out a couple of weekends, seems to be a bit popular? Yeah, Lady M and I hadn’t seen it due to budget; and the pulchritudinous Lady P, being a bit keen on said creatures, has seen it a few times.

“We should go see that” she texted the other day, and so with payday having finally arrived, we’ve merrily trooped off, booked a prime set of seats and just finished watching Jurassic World. Yeah… Now I see why that’s had the biggest opening weekend ever and seems likely to carry on trampling over everything else in its path.

The great success, for me, is how the special effects and CGI weren’t obviously driving the scenes, but were there to enhance the scenes and progress the story. The dinosaur body languages were similar to creatures we’ve all seen in natural history programmes (or in the wild if we’re lucky), and that just helped ground the fantasy enough to allow the wilder flights of fancy.

Nods to classic scenes and dialogue from the earlier films came thick and fast, but didn’t seem to overwhelm the film in simple fan service. It’s a film of wonder, black humour, wry winks and at least one wrinkle I didn’t see until a good couple of seconds before it happened.

So yes, a lovely evening in good company, and we all ended up with velociraptors on our drink cups – not so much birds of a feather that flock together, as a pack with big toothy grins. I think film night will start happening more regularly.

A little of that…

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In the wake of E3, the Beta invites and codes for all sorts of things have been pouring in. The most recent has been for the multiplayer part of Gears of War, which is being remastered for the XBox One.

My impressions so far is that it’s very pretty in a brutally industrial way, but it has reminded me just how bad I am at Gears of War. There’s something about the controls that feel counter-intuitive for me. There’s a bulky rolling clumsiness that throws me off balance and I seem to spend an awful amount of time exploding in bloody chunks, or on the wrong end of a chainsaw. I’m sure its great fun for my opponents and deeply irritating for my team mates.

Visually it is crisp, and runs smoothly. Matchmaking is quick and didn’t leave us hanging (take notes Halo, I’m still watching you after that MCC débâcle), so who knows, from this limited set of maps and game styles it appears to be a good update.

Will I buy it when it comes out? Maybe, but then I never even finished the story for the first one in co-op play. It may just be that it isn’t my cup of tea.

Trialling Xbox 360 Games on the XBOne

I’m part of the early access program run for XBox One users to trial new features. It’s not that hard to get into, I just got an invite one day – I suspect because I apply for so many Betas across so many platforms. There’s an app on my dashboard that gives me tasks to perform with various planned features and then I give feedback. In return I get full early access to cool stuff, and occasionally free games or admittance to early closed betas for them.

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At E3 this week, Microsoft announced the upcoming backward compatibility of 360 games on the XBox One, and I’ve been trialling the short collection of titles based on my previous purchases: Mass Effect, Kingdom for Keflings, and Zuma.

How does it work? Well to be blunt, you’re running digital downloads that then run in an XBox360 emulator running under the One. If your original game was a digital download, it just appears under your games, ready for installation. Otherwise you still need to put the original disc in the drive to then prompt the image download.

Once the games have installed to your hard drive, you can then launch them. The 360 launch screen appears, it searches for your cloud saves, and away you go. The good news is that so far they seem to run quickly and effectively, and they run as an XBox app, so you can still snap, cut back to the desktop and do anything else just like any other app.

The disappointment so far is that you are still effectively downloading an image even if you have the disc. I would hope that the equivalent of a no-CD crack would be applied so you don’t effectively need it as a key to launch, or that the emulator would actually be able to play off the disc, but that’s probably a bit much to ask in these DRM days. Instead, expect to be using up your hard drive space at a rate of knots, so invest in an external drive and be ready to uninstall/delete games when you’ve stopped playing them.

There’s still a few months before this feature goes live for everyone, so maybe they’ll iron it out a bit. I’ll try to do some Twitch streaming to really see how good the XBox integration is, and I’ll update it in a few days.