Monday, 19 November 2012

Death: The High Cost of Living - recommended reading


Of all the characters in Neil Gaiman's ten Sandman books, none perhaps captured the reader's affections and interest so much as his reinvention of the personification of Death.

It wasn't just that Death was portrayed as a pretty, teenage, Goth-styled geek-grrl (about as far removed from the more usual Grim Reaper stereotype as it's possible to get!), it was also due in no small part to her bright, sunny disposition.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that she would feature in her own spin-off title and, indeed, Gaiman kindly obliged with two - Death: The Time of Your Life and, my favourite of the two, Death: The High Cost of Living.

What's it all about, then?

Like many of Mignola's HellBoy stories, Death: The High Cost of Living takes a theme from folklore and spins a modern story from it. In this case, the starting point is the traditional belief that Death has to spend one day a year as a mortal, in order to be able to appreciate just what it means to be alive; to understand better the value of what she's taking when a person dies.

As she spends her day among the living, Gaiman's cheery Goth-girl version of Death finds herself helping both Sexton Furnival, a boy who - at the ripe old age of sixteen - has already decided that life isn't worth living, and Mad Hettie, a character from the Sandman books who has decided never to die.

Art

As I've said many times to many people, I'm no expert on comic art and - truthfully - I'm always impressed by artwork which is reasonably realistic and is easy to follow, but seldom impressed with artwork that tries to be too innovative.

And, on those criteria, the artwork here does a good, workman-like job. I know Chris Bachalo (pencils) has a lot of fans and they'd probably like to lynch me for daring to damn their hero with such faint praise. But I really do mean that as a compliment. The characters are recognisable from one panel to the next, the backgrounds are nicely detailed and the panel layouts are clear (no mean feat given the number of panels a Gaiman script can try to squeeze onto a page!)

In short, Bachalo's artwork serves the story rather than the artist's pretensions. And that's a good thing!

Writing

Even allowing for the fact that Gaiman tends to cram his pages with more panels than most of today's comic writers and crams those panels with more dialogue than pretty much anyone (except, perhaps, Alan Moore and Frank Miller), at barely 75 pages of actual story, Death: The High Cost of Living is not a long book. It is, however, an exquisitely crafted book.

Gaiman may be better known for his Sandman series but, as graphic novels, those books are - in my opinion - very flawed. Despite having many excellent parts, they also have sections which wander off-topic, sequences which have been shoehorned in just to create a spurious connection with the rest of the DC Universe, a main character whose role actually changes (from Lord of Dreams to Lord of Stories) for no reason other than to enable the writer to take liberties with his own creation, and sections that aren't really comics at all.

The two spin-off titles featuring Death are free of those flaws. In fewer pages than most of today's writers would need to tell one story, Gaiman manages to include several different plot-threads, keeps each of them on track and, ultimately, knits them all together into a single, satisfying whole.

The dialogue is realistically colloquial and in character. In particular, the dialogue of Death herself is, at turns, witty, insightful, thought-provoking and naive - and yet always to the point and in character. It's a joy to read!

It's a Wonderful Life

Death spending a day as one of the living in order to better appreciate the value of life is subject matter that could have been tailor-made for Gaiman's perky, cheerful version of Death.

In stark contrast to the gloomy images that have typified most depictions of death from Hieronymous Bosch through to Ingmar Bergman, Gaiman's cute Goth girl dressed in emo-chic, has an infectious, positive outlook on life. To her, everything is wondrous and life-affirming, and is to be appreciated all the more precisely because the time we have to enjoy it is so fleeting.

So, if you want a reason to read this book, then you could read it because it's a perfect antidote to the cynicism that colours so much of our everyday lives. Or, of course, you could just read it because it's a well-written, highly entertaining tale featuring one of comic-dom's most loveable and engaging characters!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Top 10 - recommended reading

There can't be many comic fans who need to be told that Alan Moore is the single most lauded writer in comicdom. There are many pretenders to his crown, many wannabes, but - to my mind - none of the other Big Name writers  has really managed to rival his capacity for wit, intelligence or pure entertainment value. Certainly no one has managed to combine all three as perfectly as Moore does in Top 10.

Not as well known as those of Moore's books which have, with varying degrees of success, been made into films, Top 10 is a two-volume under-appreciated masterpiece.

So, what's it all about?

On a purely narrative level, this is the story of Robyn Slinger, a rookie police officer in the precinct known as Top 10 - the precinct responsible for maintaining law and order in Neopolis, a city built after the Second World War to house America's booming super-powered population.

So far, so Kingdom Come. But this is Alan Moore and, unlike Alex Ross's monolithic oeuvre, Top 10 is about so much more.

Every page bristles with new ideas, some only glanced at in passing, others apparently cast aside only to be picked up again later as the focal point for a totally unexpected sub-plot. Casual comments about superhero costumes and the absurdity of certain characters' powers jostle alongside barely disguised reflections on AIDS, racial prejudice, life, the universe and everything.

Art

The artwork in Top 10 is by Gene Ha ("finishing artist") and Zander Cannon ("layout artist"). I have no idea what those titles mean in terms of process (I suspect there's a touch of computer trickery involved?) but the result is a style which is unique. It's not as slickly mainstream as work by Jim Lee, not as artistically idiosyncratic as Dave McKean or as photorealistic as the paintings of Alex Ross. Instead, in keeping with the book's premise and the nature of the characters, the artwork has a quirky charm, and - as befits a story with so much substance to its content - is often incredibly detailed. There are many, many panels in which events unfolding in the background are almost as significant as those playing out in the foreground.

The characters are drawn with sufficient realism for the reader to accept them as real people, with a refreshingly wide variety of faces and body types. Read it more than once, and you'll discover something new with every reading.

Writing

As for the writing, do I really need to say anything other than that it's by Alan Moore? Well, yes. Even for a huge admirer of Alan Moore (like me!), not everything he's written is of equal quality. For me, V for Vendetta was little more than a prolonged rant against the 1980s Thatcher government, From Hell read like a dull text book and Promethea was a self-indulgent coffee-table book, full of pretty illustrations but little story.

Top 10, I'm pleased to say, is none of those things. Along with the better known League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10 was one of the first projects launched by Moore under his ABC comics imprint and, free of his wranglings with DC, his joy at being able to write exactly what he wants in exactly the way he wants is palpable.

Stylistically, Top 10 is written as a police procedural. We join Robyn (a.k.a. Toybox) on her first day on the job. She is partnered with Smax, a Superman-type figure with a surly, unsociable personality made even worse by the recent death of his former partner. We sit in on the precinct's morning briefings, we follow the characters' investigations into the hunt for a serial killer (and an invisible groper!), we get glimpses of their private lives, we get to laugh at their interactions and to share in their losses. Forget the X-Men. Never has a group of super-powered beings felt more like a group of people that we might all know in real life.

And all the time, on every page, Moore is dazzling us with new ideas, new concepts, new philosophical musings and new observations on life, comic books and everything in between. There is more dialogue in one or two panels of Top 10 than most of today's so-called writers put into one or two pages, and yet not one word is superfluous. It all serves to reveal character, explore themes, advance plot or create atmosphere. This book is a masterclass in (intelligent) writing for comics. Plus, Moore also makes it fun!

The city of tomorrow, today

One of the things that make Top 10's characters so believable and the reading of it so enjoyable is the skill and care which Moore and Ha have put into building the city of Neopolis. Described by Moore in his foreword as a "four story carpark [...] designed by Ray Bradbury, Fritz Lang and Zeus", Neopolis is very much a futuristic sci-fi world for futuristic sci-fi characters. Where it differs from the domed environment created in Alex Ross's Kingdom Come, however, is that this city feels real. It feels lived in. The people in it eat, live and breathe.

The inhabitants of Neopolis may have outlandish names, colourful costumes and superhuman abilities but, for the most part, they aren't heroes. We can identify with them because they work as taxi drivers, insurance salesmen or, of course, cops; they worship boy bands and go to night clubs; they care about their partners, children and mothers; they grapple with injuries, prejudice, diseases and even pest control. To quote The Incredibles, it's a city where - because everyone's super - no one is.

If you've ever wondered what New York would be like if super-powered characters really were commonplace or if you just think that a good comic should be both intelligent and a lot of fun, get hold of a copy of Top 10 and treat yourself to a visit to Neopolis!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Batman: Cataclysm - recommended reading

Recently I've been re-reading some of the older graphic novels and TPBs collecting dust on my book shelf and, given how difficult it can be to find the better books among all the chaff out there, I thought it might be an idea to jot down my thoughts on some of those I'd be happy to recommend.

I'm starting with Batman: Cataclysm not because it's necessarily the best, but simply because it happens to be one of the first I've re-read.  And, of course, because it's good!

What's it all about?

Essentially, this is the scene-setter for the No Man's Land maxi-series. Most of the book tells the story of a massive earthquake (measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale) hitting Gotham City, what each member of the extended Bat-family are doing when it hits, and how they respond to the challenges thrown up in the immediate aftermath.

The final couple of chapters follow a more typical path as Batman attempts to track down the book's principal villain (don't worry - no spoilers!)

Writing and art

This is a book clearly designed by DC's editorial committee.  It does not have a single guiding hand behind it, it isn't the brainchild of a single creator, and virtually every chapter has a different team of writers and artists. This means that the quality of both the writing and the artwork is variable and the styles are varied. Some chapters are startlingly realistic, others are superheroically dramatic and yet others are more simplistic.

Being a fan of the graphic novel as a form of novel, I generally find that the hotchpotch of different styles you get with this kind of approach can seriously detract from the enjoyment of the overall story. But, whilst I can't pretend that I think stylised artwork suits a mainstream superhero story, in Cataclysm it bothers me far less than in many other TPBs. In fact, it could be argued - particularly during the opening chapters - that switching between art styles actually serves to underline the fragmented nature of events as the city is quite literally torn apart.

Tearing down the house

As the story opens Batman is absent, trapped in the flooded tunnels beneath the ruins of a collapsed Wayne Manor. Dick Grayson comes running from his day-job in Bludhaven. With her father missing, Barbara Gordon begins to coordinate rescue efforts from the GCPD. Out on the streets, strange alliances are formed: the cynical Huntress finds herself working alongside the idealistic Spoiler; and vigilante-resenting cop Harvey Bullock is briefly and grudgingly allied with Anarky.  Catwoman and even Penguin are persuaded to help the emergency services rescue survivors.

Wherever you look, familiar characters are being dropped into unfamiliar situations, and this is at the heart of what puts Batman: Cataclysm on my recommended reading list.

Having to pit Batman and his allies not against a super-powered villain but against the ferocity of nature itself, means the writers aren't able to send the heroes into action glibly quipping one-liners or yelling the hackneyed battle cries they've used a hundred times before. Instead, they're forced to think about the dialogue they put into the characters' mouths, to come up with something more realistic, something that actually fits the circumstances.

Similarly, having destroyed so many of the familiar Gothic buildings and rooftops which have so long dominated the Gotham skyline, the writers and artists have had to re-think how the characters move, how they stand, what vehicles can be used, which pieces of equipment will be useful, which will not, and which can be repurposed. This is not just another retread of the well-worn Good Guy beats up Bad Guy story, and even some of the least satisfying pages (well, there are some, inevitably!) show signs of creators exercising imaginative muscles they probably haven't used since they first started writing for the Big Two.

Now with added topicality

When Batman: Cataclysm was first published in 1998, the terrorist atrocity of 9/11 hadn't happened.  When I read it back then, it struck me as a very powerful piece of work, the whole being so much more than the sum of the individual creators' respective parts.  Re-reading it again now, I was struck also by just how topical the events of 9/11 have made it.

It's often been noted that Batman is not super-powered. What is less often remarked upon, is that neither are the other members of the Bat-family. Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman and Huntress may wear costumes but, underneath, they're all human beings. James Gordon, Harvey Bullock and Oracle don't even have any particular athletic prowess. And yet, here they all are - pulling survivors out from under mountains of rubble, rescuing people from burning buildings, desperately trying to help in any way they can as the world they thought they knew is going to Hell around them.  Ordinary people performing acts of extraordinary heroism.

I have to admit I found the "official" attempts by DC and Marvel to align their fictional superheroes alongside the real-world heroes of 9/11 rather awkward. No matter how well-intentioned they were, it almost seemed as if the publishers were somehow trying to usurp the heroism shown by the ordinary men and women who were really there. In contrast, despite being about an entirely fictitious event, Batman: Cataclysm is a powerful tribute to the courage of ordinary people and, as I re-read it this time, I found myself reminded of 9/11 time and time again.

Read it to whet your appetite for the bigger story of No Man's Land, or read it as a stand-alone story in its own right. Either way, this is a superhero story like very few others. For that reason alone, it deserves to be read.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Abhorrent Practices - Chapter 2.4

Tremayne (Part 4)

Sandrine turned her head and sank her face back into the pillow. She could tell from the muffled sound of water lapping against the side of the ship that the sun must have been up for some hours. It wasn't the gentle, rhythmic lapping caused by tides and currents. The intervals were irregular; erratic; waves caused by the rocking of ships' hulls as dockworkers leapt on and off the vessels moored close by.

As her senses returned, she became aware of a distant hubbub of cries from the dockside: the familiar shouts of traders looking for passage and captains in search of crews; of stevedores and longshoremen exchanging ribald taunts as they loaded and unloaded cargoes. With a groan, she pulled the pillow out from under her and pulled it over her head. Further sleep would be impossible now, but she could afford to lie there for a few more minutes.

There was a soft, hesitant rapping at her cabin door.

"Go away," she moaned miserably.

She heard the door creak open and realised that most of the covers had fallen from the cot, leaving the lower half of her body exposed. Her right leg dangled limply over the side.

"If that's you, Naylor, you can take your eyes off my backside or I'll maroon you on the next uninhabited island we pass."

"Umm ... no. It's m-me," whispered Skrawl apologetically. "And I'm n-not looking. Really."

(A chameleon doing an impersonation of) Skrawl!"Oh please!" scoffed Sandrine, grimacing as she pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the cot. She pulled a blanket around her and looked at the skeletal figure standing half in and half outside the cabin. "You've got four eyes, Skrawl. There's no way you could keep them all from looking, even if you wanted to!"

"But I d-don't want to," protested Skrawl. "I was just ..."

"Relax," said Sandrine curtly. "I won't say anything to Marla. Now, I assume you've disturbed my sleep for a reason?"

For a second or two, Skrawl looked perplexed and Sandrine wondered if, perhaps, he had actually managed to forget the reason he'd come to her cabin. His eyes, each one sheathed in a scaly cone were swivelled upwards, she noticed, fixed on a wooden beam above his head.

"Skrawl!" she snapped. "Focus! Look at me and focus. It's okay, I'm decent now. Look at me, and tell me what you came in for!"

Skrawl allowed one of his conical eyes to turn itself cautiously towards her.

"It's Marla," he said. "She's just got a message ... a m-message from the Abbey. It's a n-new contract. Or something. She said it ... she said it's important."

"I've already got the next contract," Sandrine yawned, running a hand sleepily through her hair. "We need to be in Brael by the weekend." Looking at her hand, she shook her head at the tiny flecks of black dye on her fingers. Damn. She'd rinsed her hair three times after the job at the Grand Marshall's mansion. There shouldn't have been any dye left in her hair. She'd have to tell Marla the new ingredients weren't working.

"N-not Brael," Skrawl corrected her. "This is something else. Something special. Something very, very special. Marla says ..."

"Okay, okay. I get the picture." She hadn't been awake long enough to be able to cope with the excitable preen for long. "Tell Marla we'll have a ship's council as soon as Perrick gets back from the market. Now please leave me, Skrawl. I need to get dressed."

"Good. Very good. Should I ... should I tell Naylor, too? About the ship's council, I mean. Should I ...?"

"Of course," replied Sandrine, exercising as much restraint as she could muster. "We can hardly have a ship's council without the ship's captain. Now, if you don't mind ..." She reached for her shirt and waved it towards the door, motioning for him to leave.

"Yes, yes," Skrawl nodded. "I didn't mean any ... I hope you don't think I was ..."

"Now!" she snapped.

The door slammed abruptly shut and Skrawl was gone. She heard the scratching sound of his four clawed feet scurrying their way across the wooden deck as he scampered off in search of Naylor.

She pulled the shirt over her head and pushed her arms through the wide, billowing sleeves. She yawned again and crossed to the small basin on the far side of her cabin. She filled it with water from the dented pewter jug that stood to one side. Scooping a handful of water with one hand, she splashed it over her face. It was cold and she gasped as it broke refreshingly over her forehead and cheeks. Just what she needed. She ran her hands backwards through her bright, copper coloured hair, pushing it back off her still wet face, and crossed to the large wardrobe that extended along the entire length of one wall.

Opening one of the huge wooden doors, she ran her eyes over the dozen or so pairs of breeches that lay meticulously folded on a shelf near the bottom.

Burt Lancaster doing his famous impression of Naylor!She took a blue pair from the pile. They were worn in places and the button holes were beginning to fray, but she wasn’t planning to go into the town and they’d be more than adequate for a day onboard ship.

“Hey, Skrawl!” She heard Naylor’s cry through the wooden walls of her cabin. If he was shouting it probably meant he was still at the top of the main mast, painting his logum. “What news of her ladyship? Are we expecting to see her any time soon?”

She bristled for a moment. Naylor was far too cavalier for her liking. She looked at the worn, blue breeches in her hand, hesitated for a moment and threw them back on the pile. She really shouldn’t allow him to rile her the way he did. He was a good captain and she needed him. Or rather, she corrected herself, the Order of Charon needed him.

She hesitated for a moment longer and then took a pair of tight, scarlet breeches from the bottom of the pile. Were they too showy for a day onboard ship? It didn’t matter. With the exception of Marla, there was no one onboard who ever noticed what she was wearing. She pulled them on and, as she closed the wardrobe’s heavy wooden door, she turned and glanced at herself in the mirror on the back. They looked good, she thought, bending to fasten the breeches at the knee.

She’d bought them a few weeks earlier from a tailor in Sharrow’s Bluff as a gift to herself. She’d been keeping them for a day when she had something to celebrate and, with the Grand Marshall’s contract completed, she felt she’d earned the right to treat herself.

Crossing to the cabin door, she slipped her feet into a pair of black shoes and pulled a long silver sash from a rack fixed to the wall. She tied the sash about her waist, and opened the cabin door. It was brighter outside than she’d expected and she blinked in the bright afternoon sunlight.

“Ah, there she is! As wild and magnificent as a storm at sea, and twice as deadly!”

The voice came from above. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the sun, she looked up and saw Naylor, hanging upside down from the main mast, a paint brush in one hand, the other thrown wide in a generous gesture of greeting.

“Weren’t you supposed to have that finished yesterday?” she admonished him. To her annoyance, Naylor’s grin seemed to grow even wider.

“A logum can’t be hurried, Princess. It’s …”

“A work of art, I know,” she replied sourly. “You told me before. But hurry it up. We may need to leave earlier than we planned.”

Naylor relaxed the pressure his right foot was applying to the rope coiled about his left leg and allowed himself to slither rapidly down the mast. About six feet from the deck, he halted his descent, reached up to take hold of the rope, and allowed himself to swivel into an upright position. A look of concern flickered briefly across his face.

“Did something go wrong?” he asked. “With the Grand Marshall?” He released his hold on the rope and dropped to the deck.

“No. Harlan was straightforward enough. He was a soldier; old school. He wanted to die by the sword and, if he couldn’t do that in battle, he wanted his death to be by his own hand. It’s an ancient tradition. For someone of his generation, it was a matter of … honour. He believed if he died in bed, taken by some disease, he’d never see his ancestors. His medical staff wouldn’t help him and he was too weak to hold the sword by himself. But I got there in time. I held his hands clasped around the hilt of his sword and applied the necessary pressure to push it past his ribs. He died … content.” There was no emotion in her voice.

Naylor’s face again showed his concern. He’d never understand how she could do the things she did for the Order. He stepped forward and placed a hand on Sandrine’s arm.

“It … must have been hard,” he said softly.

Sandrine stepped backwards, startled, recoiling from Naylor’s touch.

“Nothing of the kind,” she snapped. “He gave the Order a contract. “I fulfilled it. There’s nothing difficult about that. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Naylor withdrew his hand and shook his head. Sandrine had always been a very private person and if she didn’t want to discuss the matter further, he knew better than to press the point.

“So … Skrawl says you’ve summoned a ship’s council for when Perrick gets back,” he said. “Did he tell you what Marla’s mysterious missive is about?”

“A new contract,” she said. “No details, except that it’s something special. Have you recruited all the deckhands we need?”

Naylor nodded towards the dockside and the scores of longshoremen bustling about, moving crates, lifting bundles of raw materials and engaging in salty humour. Tremayne was not a large port compared to others in the region, but its reputation as a centre of the arts ensured a steady stream of traffic.

“I found half a dozen who want to go as far as Brael,” he said. “Of course, if the new contract requires us to go farther …”

Sandrine shook her head.

“No,” she mused, considering Naylor’s suggestion but rejecting it almost instantly. “We’ll follow standard procedure. When we get to Brael, we can recruit a fresh crew for wherever we need to go next.”

“Very good,” acknowledged Naylor. “Is there anything else I can do?”

“Yes,” she said, walking off in the direction of Marla’s cabin. “You can stop calling me Princess.”


(C) David A J Berner, 2012. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Kingdom of Amalur: Skyrim slayer?

Yesterday I played the XBox 360 demo for Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. And, whilst there are still plenty of ways in which the full game could fail to deliver, based on the demo, I'm inclined to believe this could well be the next big thing to hit the world of fantasy RPGs.

Let me put that in context. Ever since Dragon Age: Origins (which I loved) and Dragon Age 2 (arguably the most disappointing game of 2011), I've been eagerly devouring fantasy-themed RPGs in the hope of finding a game that could recreate the kind of immersive, fun-filled experience I first enjoyed as I wandered the vast expanse of Ferelden as a Grey Warden.

Nothing came close. I've tinkered with the likes of Dungeon Siege 3 (not a stellar solo experience but reasonably good fun in co-op), dabbled in numerous Japanese styled hack-and-slash epics, and dipped my toes into the horribly uninspired waters of lacklustre efforts like Venetica and D&D: Daggerdale.

Towards the end of last year, the RPG community fell in love with Skyrim. Sadly, I didn't. Sure, it looked stunning but, when I've played a game for several hours and I'm still having a harder time battling the game's controls than I am battling the game's monsters, I find the word "tiresome" comes to mind far more readily than "immersive".

Low expectations

I stumbled upon the Kingdom of Amalur demo by chance and, to be honest, I wasn't expecting much. It labours under a typically cumbersome title, takes place in a setting already far too familiar to devotees of Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm, is populated by a number of races with generically unpronounceable names (the Ljosalfar?) and is being marketed primarily on the reputations of those behind it, rather than the game's own merits.

Am I likely to buy a game just because it can boast contributions from Todd Mcfarlane (creator of the demonic comic book hero Spawn), R A Salvatore (fantasy writer) or Ken Rolston (games designer on two Elder Scrolls games)? Nope. The aimless wandering of Morrowind and Oblivion make those two of my least favourite RPGs of all time and, as for Mcfarlane and Salvatore ... well, we all know that success in one medium is no guarantee of quality in any other. So what won me over?

Visuals

The first thing that struck me about the demo is its look. The world may be made up of fairly staple components (expect winding tunnels, gloomy dungeons and quaint mediaeval villages), but the colour is extraordinary. There is a hint of this in the opening section (an underground system of tunnels peopled by gnomes and infested with - yes, you guessed it! - giant rats and spiders) but, unlike so many other games of its type, the pillars that support this subterranean network glow bright green. Not spectacular, but a small hint of what lies ahead.

Make it through those tunnels and step out into the sunlight and the colours of the world that awaits are vibrant - think Fable 2 with the colour settings on your TV turned up to 11! Reds, yellows, greens, purples and blues are there in abundance - each one incredibly bright, radiating an inner warmth. This is a million miles removed from the pin-sharp but relentlessly bleak beauty of Skyrim's graphics. After only a few minutes in Amalur's countryside, the greyish shades of blue, the greyish shades of green and - let's be frank - the greyish shades of grey that characterise Skyrim's undeniably detailed landscapes start to seem just a little too ... monochromatic!

Combat

The demo gives the player a chance to complete a number of minor quests but the focus in something of this length is inevitably on combat. Two features struck me here. The first is the character's ability to block attacks with a shield. As a player, this is a function I rarely use in games. Blocks are typically too easily overcome and, if attacked by more than one enemy, they tend to be pointless, since they do nothing to protect the character from attack by flanking enemies. Not so in Kingdom of Amalur. Raise your shield to block one attack and, if you keep it raised, your character will automatically turn to face whichever direction subsequent attacks are coming from - again and again and again. Finally - a blocking move that actually does what it says on the tin!

The other feature I liked was the ease with which the player could use a bow. Just as I very seldom use a block function in combat games, I almost always use bows when I get the chance. In Kingdom of Amalur, your bow automatically locks onto a target. This, of course, is by no means an innovation (many games do this and have done for years), but it's in marked contrast to the manual aiming required in Skyrim. I can understand the argument that having to aim manually is more "realistic" but, let's face it, these are meant to be story-driven games, not hardcore archery simulations. I found Skyrim's system made it a matter of luck as to whether you could actually hit anything with a bow (or even impossible in the case of moving targets) and, eventually, I gave in to my frustration and stopped using the bow all together. Now, with Kingdom of Amalur, I can look forward to picking up my quiver again!

Back story

In a short demo, like this, it's impossible to get a feel for the bigger story that will eventually unfold in Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning although, predictably, it does include such fantasy staples such as a hero with no memory, a looming war and the growing presence of orc-like bad guys (the "Tuatha"). A nice touch, however, is the inclusion of mythical creatures drawn from ancient Celtic lore, rather than exclusively from the more usual Germanic/Nordic sources. Alongside familiar monsters such as trolls and a number of game-specific creatures are references to, for example, the "fae" and "boggarts". Ultimately, this may amount to little more than a change of nomenclature but, combined with the gloriously colourful surroundings, I found Amalur reminiscent not so much of a world created by Todd McFarlane, as one created by Neil Gaiman.

Of course, a pretty world and an efficient combat system are not enough to make a game worth buying. The success of the game will ultimately depend on whether the story and characterisation are strong enough to draw players in and make them feel invested in the fate of the character they control. We won't know whether that's the case until the full game is released in February but, on the strength of the demo, it appears that Kingdom of Amalur will, at least be a fun game to play, with easy to use controls.

My initial reservations have already proved completely unfounded and, contrary to my expectations, I'm now looking forward to this game immensely. I know this will be blasphemy for the many millions of Skyrim players but, in the couple of hours I spent playing the demo, I had more fun than I did in days of wrestling with Bethesda's behemoth. Go try the demo now!