Review: “Baltimore Blues” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, shortly after enjoying Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” a couple of months ago, I went online to look for other books by the author and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Lippman’s 1997 detective novel “Baltimore Blues”. And, although I’d originally planned to read it several weeks ago, I got distracted by other books and only happened to rediscover it by accident a couple of days before writing this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Baltimore Blues”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit).

This is the 2005 Orion Books (UK) paperback edition of “Baltimore Blues” that I read.

The novel begins in Baltimore, with ex-journalist Tess Monaghan getting up early to go rowing on the Patapsco river. Ever since she was made redundant by the Star and has had to take up a few strange odd jobs, these early-morning rowing trips have become part of her daily routine. And, like every morning, she meets her fitness fanatic friend called Darryl “Rock” Paxton on the water. He insists on racing her to a nearby bridge, before suddenly bursting into tears afterwards.

His fiance, Ava, has been acting strangely recently and he offers to pay Tess to follow her and learn what is going on. Since she needs the money, Tess agrees and starts tailing Ava. After a while, she begins to suspect that Ava is having an affair with prominent local lawyer Michael Abramowitz and confronts her about it. Ava then manages to get her side of the story across to Darryl before Tess can talk to him. And, although Tess is annoyed by this, she considers the matter solved.

The next morning, Tess reads the local paper at her aunt’s bookshop and is shocked to find that Darryl has been accused of murdering Abramowitz. Since Darryl protests his innocence in the matter and because the head of the local sailing club – Tyner- is also his defence lawyer, he asks for Tess’ help with investigating the matter…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though the story takes a while to get going, it is a fairly atmospheric and compelling detective novel with hints of both the legal thriller and noir genres too 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about the detective elements. Since Tess is an unofficial detective, these mostly consist of interviewing people, studying documents and finding inventive ways to sneak into places. She’s also sometimes able to use her connections from her time as a journalist to help her out with various pieces of the case too. Not only does the “unofficial investigator” thing add a bit of suspense to the story, but it is also slightly evocative of the classic private eyes of the noir genre too.

This connection to the noir genre is also enhanced by the nature of the case itself – which also includes a few smaller mysteries, morally ambiguous characters and the kind of sordid web of criminality (including some fairly dark and/or “gritty” subject matter) that you’d expect from the genre. Even so, this isn’t really a traditional noir detective story – but there are definitely some hints of the noir genre during a few parts of the story.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel also includes some elements from the legal thriller genre too. Since the main focus of the story is building a defence case for Darryl, there’s a fair amount of time dedicated to trying to handle the media coverage of the case or trying to find holes in the evidence against him, in addition to worries about whether various pieces of evidence will be admissable or not. Likewise, since the victim is a lawyer, this also adds to the story’s legal thriller elements too.

When it is at it’s best, these legal thriller elements result in some fairly dramatic set pieces (eg: Tess finding a way to distract a group of court reporters etc…) and a brilliantly realistic sense of ambiguity, where the focus isn’t on impartial investigation – but on exonerating a friend who may or may not be guilty. On the flipside, these legal thriller elements can sometimes slow down the story a bit at times, and can seem a little abstract or contrived in comparison to the much more interesting detection-based parts of the novel. Yes, the legal obstacles in the story add a bit of extra suspense or give Tess an excuse to come up with a clever scheme, but they do slow the story down a bit.

The novel is also fairly atmospheric too 🙂 If you’re a fan of movies, TV shows, stories etc… set in 1990s America, then this novel will give you a chance to visit this interesting time and place. In addition to lots of interesting descriptions of Baltimore, this novel also has a fairly distinctive “atmosphere” to it too thanks to both several of the characters and a surprising number of scenes related to food, books, sailing and/or bars. Although some of this atmosphere and drama can slow the story down a bit (especially in the earlier parts), it gives everything a bit more personality and sets this story apart from a typical gritty crime novel.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written. Although many of the background characters are a quirky mixture of realistic and stylised, Tess is a really interesting protagonist who not only has to grapple with her precarious financial situation and the attitudes of various members of her family, but also still hasn’t quite got over the fact that she is no longer a reporter. She has realistic flaws, quirks and a real sense of personality that make her a fairly compelling and sympathetic character.

Plus, since this novel comes from the 1990s, her opinions are also a much more nuanced and realistic mixture of liberal and conservative ideas than you’d typically find in a modern novel. This also allows for a certain level of subtle irony too. For example, one of the things that really annoys Tess is when other people base their identities around victimhood – yet, her own life has become defined by losing her job as a reporter.

Likewise, in classic film noir fashion, there are also quite a few morally ambiguous and/or downright villainous characters, who will keep you guessing throughout the novel. Plus, one amusing character-related coincidence is that Tess’ on-off boyfriend also shares a name with a well-known British TV presenter, which adds some unintentional comedy to these scenes if you’ve ever watched TV over here.

In terms of the writing, this novel is also fairly well-written. The novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to add a bit of pace and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive and formal enough to add atmosphere, character and depth to everything. Even though this writing style can occasional slow the story down a bit, it means that the novel contains the best elements of both crime/detective thriller fiction and literary fiction.

As for length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 291 pages in length (albeit with slightly smaller print), this novel really made me miss the days when this sort of length was standard for novels 🙂 The novel’s pacing is also more like a traditional detective story or thriller, with everything gradually rising in intensity throughout the story. Although this means that some early-middle parts of the story can feel a bit slow, they really help to set up the more compelling, eventful and dramatic middle-late parts of the story 🙂

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only do some elements of the story feel a lot more modern than movies/TV shows from 1997, but the story also has a very recognisable (albeit relatively subtle) “1990s” atmosphere to it, which really helps to add a lot of intrigue to the story. There are also a few amusingly ’90s moments too, such as when a character goes “on-line” to access a “data base”.

Plus, as hinted at earlier, the novel also comes from a more nuanced and less polarised era of history where creative works could easily be both liberal and conservative. This results in a less predictable and slightly grittier story with more complex characters, but may make some moments seem dated when read today.

All in all, this is a really good detective novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit slow to get started and doesn’t become seriously compelling until a little way into the story, but it is worth sticking with thanks to the intriguingly complex mystery, the atmosphere, personality and characters. Plus, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then this novel is worth reading for the setting alone too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Wanton Destruction” (Expansion For “Shadow Warrior” [1997])

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“Resident Evil: Nemesis” by S. D. Perry), I thought that I’d take a look at an official expansion for the original “Shadow Warrior” that was developed by Sunstorm in 1997 but wasn’t released at the time and, instead, was released as freeware later.

I got this expansion as part of the “Shadow Warrior Classic Complete” game that, at the time of writing, has officially been made available for free on GOG. Unlike the enhanced commercial re-release, this free edition is a fairly barebones version of the original game, plus two expansions, that runs via a built-in DOSBox launcher.

And, after playing the modern remake of “Shadow Warrior” recently and then re-playing the original game for the sake of childhood nostalgia, I decided to check out “Wanton Destruction”.

So, let’s take a look at it:

One of the first things that I will say about this expansion is that, although it has some slight enemy design flaws, some moments that haven’t aged well and less stuff than I’d expected, it was actually more fun to play than the original “Shadow Warrior” was. This is because…

The level design in “Wanton Destruction” is, in a word, superb. Not only are the ten or so levels the kind of non-linear 1990s style levels that you’d expect, but they are also just the right size too. In other words, they are usually large enough to require you to explore, but small and focused enough that you won’t get stuck that often either. Not only that, there is a much greater level of creativity in the level design here than in the original game too.

Seriously, at one point you actually get to walk on top of a plane whilst it is in mid-air!

And check out this cool location as well 🙂

Not only does the expansion start with a vaguely story-based segment (involving escaping from a flat), but the levels also include a variety of cool locations including a couple of really cool “Die Hard”-inspired skyscraper levels, a Chinatown-themed level, a secret military base, a level set on a plane, a couple of train station-based levels (including a brief train segment) etc… and most of the levels each follow on from the previous level too (basically the beginning of each level looks like the end of the previous one) which gives the player a real sense of progression.

Seriously, with the possible exception of a generic “factory” level later in the game, none of the levels really feel dull or monotonous 🙂

In addition to looking cool, the wider variety of settings also allows for better gameplay too, with a really good blend of claustrophobic corridors, wide-open spaces, a few awesome set pieces (like walking on top of a plane) and even some fairly decent (and reasonably forgiving) first-person platforming. Needless to say, this results in the kind of thrillingly epic gameplay that would put many other FPS games to shame.

A sudden random mini-boss encounter on the second level? YES 🙂 This is a FPS game!

The expansion’s combat is as satisfyingly challenging as you would expect from a Build Engine game although, and it might be because I’m an experienced player or because the expansion is a little more generous with health and ammo, but it felt marginally easier than the original game did. Even so, the combat is still the kind of tough-as-nails fun that you’d expect from “Shadow Warrior” 🙂 However, there are some unintentional forms of cheap difficulty which let it down very slightly. And, this brings me on to the enemy design.

These guys especially…

Unlike many 1990s expansion packs, “Wanton Destruction” doesn’t really seem to add much in the way of new enemies. Instead, it mostly does the classic mod thing of changing the sprites of a few standard enemies but not changing their programming.

Although this helps to set it apart from the original game and the sprites look fairly decent, the “ninja” enemies no longer have different trousers to tell you what weapons they are carrying. Instead, they have smaller hats that tell you this – which makes it more difficult to tell what you’re up against at a glance, especially in gloomier areas.

However, the replacements for the Guardian monsters do come in two different varieties (one has a blue coat and one has a red coat). But, saying this, I didn’t really notice any functional difference between them during gameplay.

The sound effects in this mod aren’t that good. The new voice effects for the ninja enemies are very annoying, to put it mildly. Not to mention that, instead of a terrifying roar, the sprite replacements for the Guardian monsters now just say “Souls!” in a deep voice. This is kind of cool the first time you hear it, but it seems a little random and underwhelming on subsequent encounters.

These guys sound cool when you hear them once, but on the fifth time, they just sound a little random.

Still, the game also includes some new dialogue – which makes it seem like more than just a level collection. Whether you like this new dialogue or not will depend a lot on your sense of humour, although at least some of the new dialogue really hasn’t aged that well (eg: the segment involving Zilla’s secretary) and may be a bit cringe-worthy when heard today.

All in all, whilst this expansion has some flaws with the enemy design/ voice-acting and is more like a mod than an expansion, it is still a hell of a lot of fun 🙂 Thanks to the excellent level design, this expansion actually feels more thrilling and just generally epic than the original game did. Seriously, if you love ’90s FPS games, then this expansion is well worth checking out. Especially since you can (legally) get it for free too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Intellivore” By Diane Duane (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Diane Duane’s 1997 novel “Intellivore” since my second-hand copy of it has been lying on top of my “to read” pile for at least a month or two. If I remember rightly, I ended up buying a copy of this book after seeing a picture of it on a fan site for the old “Star Trek: TNG” novels.

Although “Intellivore” tells a self-contained story, it is probably worth watching at least few episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and/or seeing the “Star Trek: First Contact” movie before reading this book, since it kind of assumes that you already know the show’s main characters, the technology, the premise of the series etc…

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Intellivore”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 Pocket Books (US) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Intellivore” that I read.

The novel begins with Captain Picard taking a relaxing horse ride through the Alps. Of course, this is just a holographic simulation and it isn’t long before he is interrupted by a message telling him that his spaceship, the USS Enterprise, has arrived at the deep-space rendezvous point.

Following a spate of attacks on vessels and researchers in this remote region, Starfleet has ordered the Enterprise to meet up with the science vessel Marignano and another ship called the Oraidhe in order to scare away the space pirates suspected to be operating in the area. Although the mission seems fairly ordinary at first, things get a bit stranger when the ships run across a damaged pirate vessel with only one survivor on board.

Although Doctor Crusher can find nothing physically wrong with the survivor, he appears to be severely brain-damaged to the point that he is, to all intents and purposes, brain-dead. Needless to say, it seems like space pirates will be the least of the crew’s worries…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, it’s a surprisingly compelling and suspenseful story. Unlike some of these novels, which are like extended feature-length episodes of the TV show, this one’s story is more like a traditional TV show episode- albeit with a lot more depth and detail. Although this results in a slower story that will probably only appeal to fans of the show, it contains a really good blend of sci-fi, drama and horror 🙂

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel is fairly heavy on them at times. If you like “treknobabble”, formal discussions, alien anthropology and scientific explanations, then you’ll be in your element here. This novel falls fairly heavily on the “scientific” side of things, although this is kept compelling by the mystery that the characters are trying to solve and the fact that all of this scientific stuff is used brilliantly in the novel’s epic final segment. This is a story that follows a consistent set of “rules” and a story where science is used to both unravel mysteries and solve problems in creative ways.

Not only that, the novel also contains the kind of cool sci-fi stuff that would have probably been prohibitively expensive for the TV show’s special effects team. Although I don’t want to spoil too much, the final segment of this novel is indeed epic and is well worth reading through all of the slower and more science-focused earlier segments of the story for.

Plus, to my surprise, this novel also contained a few horror elements too. These are subtle, ominous, psychological and/or tragic moments that really help to add a sense of suspense and unease to the story. And, although there are some lighter moments and beautiful descriptive moments, this novel’s tone is more on the grim and serious side of things. Still, this fits in with the story really well and helps to give it the kind of atmosphere that you’d expect from a more “dramatic” episode of the show.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting – with most of the story’s themes focusing on the topic of life, death, medical ethics and what it is to be human. Although the novel touches on the topic of euthanasia a few times, this is more of a background element and most of the story’s moral discussions are about whether it is right to kill the mysterious force that is threatening everything in this region of space. This also links into discussions about the food chain and the survival of the fittest (with scenes describing “benevolent” civilisations that have damaged or destroyed themselves and a ruthless, amoral civilisation that has prospered).

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly interesting. In addition to introducing a couple of new captains for Picard to team up with, this story also occasionally focuses on both Data and Dr. Crusher too. The scenes involving Crusher are probably the most interesting, given that she is shown to act at least mildly out of character for a rather dramatic reason (eg: her horror at the idea of brain injuries and her hatred for anything that can cause them). Still, although this story is fairly Picard-focused, Data gets some of the story’s best moments – with the fact that this is a novel rather than a TV show episode meaning that we also get a much deeper look at how Data experiences things too 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is reasonably good. Although it is a little bit on the formal and descriptive side of things, it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving. Likewise, all of the descriptions add extra atmosphere to the story and the formal dialogue, narrative moments etc… are also in keeping with the tone of the TV show too. Still, this is very much a novel for fans of the show who, for example, don’t mind the occasional scientific explanation and/or debate.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 239 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although there are quite a few slower-paced parts of the story, they never get too slow and are usually there for a good reason (eg: atmosphere, characterisation etc…) and are supported by some well-handled mystery and suspense. Not to mention that, although the later segments of the story aren’t ultra-fast paced, they’re certainly a little bit faster and more gripping too 🙂

As for how this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Most of the novel’s thematic stuff is fairly timeless, although the flashback scene showing Dr.Crusher’s reaction to visiting a school for brain-damaged children during her medical training would probably be handled in a different way if it was written today. Still, thanks to the futuristic setting, the story as a whole still feels fairly fresh when read today (and even the novel’s reference to a “terabaud” data stream still sounds vaguely futuristic too).

All in all, this is a fairly good “Star Trek: TNG” novel. Yes, it’s a little bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and you’ll probably only really enjoy this one if you’re a fan of the show, but it is atmospheric, suspenseful, dramatic and also has a brilliantly gripping conclusion too 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “007: Tomorrow Never Dies” By Raymond Benson (Film Novelisation)

Well, since I haven’t read an action-thriller novel in a while and because I was feeling nostalgic for the 1990s, I thought that I’d check out Raymond Benson’s novelisation of the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”.

Although it has been quite a few years since I watched the film that this novel is based on, it is something which holds quite a bit of 1990s nostalgia for me. Seriously, to me, James Bond will always be Pierce Brosnan. So, when I realised that there was a novelisation (that was going very cheaply second-hand online), I just had to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “Tomorrow Never Dies”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1997 Coronet (UK) paperback edition of “Tomorrow Never Dies” that I read.

The novel begins in the Khyber Pass, where a number of international criminals and terrorists are holding a weapons market. Back in Britain, MI6 are keeping a close eye on the proceedings, accompanied by naval officers and a Russian general. After a while, the navy decide to launch a missile at the weapons market, but MI6’s man on the ground – elite agent James Bond – spots a stolen nuclear weapon at the bazaar. With minutes left until the missile hits, Bond has to come up with a daring plan to get nuke out of there and back into the right hands. Needless to say, lots of thrilling action follows.

Sometime later, a British naval vessel is sailing in the South China sea when they are radioed by the Chinese navy and asked to surrender because they have strayed into Chinese waters. However, the GPS still shows that they are in international waters. The Chinese navy launch a couple of fighter planes. However, these are shot down by missiles from an unknown source whilst the British vessel is scuppered by a torpedo-like drilling machine. As the vessel sinks, mysterious divers close in on it and the surviving sailors are gunned down in cold blood.

Needless to say, Britain thinks that China attacked them and vice versa. With the two countries on the brink of war, it is up to James Bond to get to the bottom of things. Meanwhile, the Chinese intelligence services have also dispatched their top agent, Wai Lin, to look into the matter too. Soon, both agents find themselves meeting each other at the launch for the new headquarters of a news organisation called Carver Media Group in Hamburg….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was really fun to read 🙂 Imagine something like a more efficient Clive Cussler novel (this novel is a lean and efficient 213 pages long 🙂 ) that has a bit more of a traditional British thriller-style atmosphere. Seriously, I actually prefer this novel to what I can remember of the film. It keeps the classic 1990s James Bond atmosphere whilst also telling a story that is much more suited to the page than the screen.

A lot of what makes this adaptation work so well is that – compared to what I can remember of the film – there’s a lot more depth and a bit more grittiness. Not only do we get to learn a lot more about the history of all of the characters (including the sordid histories of many of the villains), but this novel also takes advantage of the fact that it doesn’t have to pass a film censor in order to inject a bit more impact and intensity into the film’s action scenes. Plus, a lot of the film’s more comedic moments translate to the page fairly well too 🙂

Plus, the novel’s story is also fairly close to what I can remember of the film. The only major story differences that I noticed were that when Bond and Wai Lin are captured by the main villain, he doesn’t give a speech about chakras when he threatens to torture them. Likewise, there’s a small sub-plot about James Bond learning Danish that I don’t remember seeing in the film. Still, if you’ve seen the film more recently, then you’ll probably be better at spotting story differences than I am.

In terms of the narration in this novel, Benson’s third-person narration works fairly well. The narration is, as you would expect, a little bit more formal and descriptive than more modern action-thriller novel narration is – but it is still very readable and reasonably fast-paced. Likewise, Benson is really good at translating cinematic action scenes to the page in a way that isn’t too confusing either.

In terms of the pacing and characters, this novel excels itself 🙂 As I mentioned earlier, all of the characters get a lot more depth and backstory when compared to the film. Plus, this novel manages to cram a full, self-contained thriller story into 213 pages 🙂

Given how long a lot of thriller novels from the 1980s/90s onwards tend to be, it is so refreshing to see a thriller novel that is so lean and efficient. Yet, it never feels like the novel is abrupt or rushed either. Not only does Benson tell a gripping, concise story – but he also has time for a few brief 1-2 page descriptive segments about history, food etc.. too. Seriously, I miss the days when paperback novels could be this short 🙂

In terms of how this twenty-two year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. In other words, although there are a few descriptions, plot elements and moments that will seem cringe-worthily dated when read these days, this novel mostly reads like a wonderful piece of 1990s nostalgia. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the narration is a little bit formal by modern action-thriller novel standards, but still very readable.

All in all, this is a brilliant film novelisation. It isn’t merely a re-telling of the film, but an expansion of it. It adds a bit of extra depth, grittiness and intensity to the film, whilst still retaining everything that makes the film so wonderfully gripping and cheerfully nostalgic. So, if you miss the days when Pierce Brosnan was James Bond and/or you want some 1990s nostalgia, then this novel is worth checking out. If you’re a fan of Clive Cussler, you’ll like this novel too. Likewise, if you want a good short thriller novel, then this one might be worth looking at too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “Flood Tide” By Clive Cussler (Novel)

Well, for the next review in my series of Clive Cussler reviews, I thought that I’d look at a novel from 1997 called “Flood Tide”, which was another Cussler novel from the small pile that my uncle lent me.

Although I had mixed views about reading an older edition with smaller print than a modern novel (that is 511 pages long), my recent experience with finishing “Sahara” made me decide to give “Flood Tide” a try. And, to my surprise, I ended up binge-reading it within about 2-3 days.

So, let’s take a look at “Flood Tide”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS

This is the 2002 Pocket Books (UK) paperback edition of “Flood Tide” that I read.

“Flood Tide” begins in 1948. In an unknown location, the ship Princess Dou Wan is transporting a mysterious cargo owned by a Nationalist general fleeing the civil war in China. Although the journey begins well, the ship quickly runs into foul weather. Given the age and condition of the vessel, she begins to break apart and sink, with very few survivors….

Then we flash forward to the year 2000, where a woman called Ling T’ai is a passenger on a trafficking vessel headed for the US. After cruel treatment by the criminals running the vessel, she survives and we learn that she is actually Julia Lee, an undercover American INS agent. However, as the vessel draws closer to the US, Julia realises that she is still in danger…

Meanwhile, Dirk Pitt is taking a holiday near Orion Lake in Washington in order to recuperate from a previous adventure. However, after a mysterious break-in at his cabin leads to him discovering several hidden cameras, he turns his attention to the mysterious sealed compound on the opposite side of the lake….

One of the first things that I will say about “Flood Tide” is that it’s the best non co-written Clive Cussler novel I’ve read so far. Not only is it filled with the grippingly suspenseful scenes and thrilling action you would expect, but the pacing is significantly better than in “Sahara” too. In other words, there are rarely any dull moments throughout the story.

The thrilling and suspenseful segments of the story are spaced out perfectly, with Cussler giving the audience just enough time to relax between these thrilling moments. Yes, the characters/narrator occasionally drone on about classic cars and old boats, but these segments are less of a slog to read than the scientific/environmental lectures in “Sahara” (mostly since said old cars/boats often swiftly end up being a central part of the story’s thrilling action scenes).

In addition to this, the story also contains a surprising amount of tonal variety too. For example, the earlier scenes set around Orion Lake initially start out a little bit like something from a lighter moment of an old episode of “Twin Peaks”, before going in a much darker horror-based direction. After this, there’s some gripping suspense that eventually builds to a spectacularly thrilling action-packed crescendo. And this is just the first 120 pages! The story gets even more thrilling after this.

There are so many brilliant set-pieces and segments of the story, including an utterly gripping segment based on a ship called “The Oregon” (which is also the setting for a series of co-written spin-off novels), a brilliantly spectacular car chase in Washington DC, some high-stakes drama on a river etc.. Seriously, the action thriller elements of this novel could put a Hollywood movie to shame.

Likewise, the novel’s sub-plots are reasonably good too. In addition to a reasonably well-written romantic sub-plot, the novel’s main sub-plot is actually connected to the main story. Like with “Sahara”, the sub-plot doesn’t take centre stage until the later parts of the story but, unlike “Sahara”, it is actually directly relevant to the main events of the story and serves to provide a satisfying, and slightly emotional, ending to the story.

Cussler’s writing seems to get better with time and “Flood Tide” is no exception. Not only is the dialogue slightly snappier and wittier than in “Sahara”, but Cussler’s narrative style also achieves a brilliant balance between being descriptive and being fast-paced.

Likewise, the characters in this novel are reasonably good too – whether it is the novel’s greedy and ruthless villain or the supporting cast, the characterisation isn’t ultra-deep but it is certainly good enough. Likewise, Clive Cussler also makes a brief author cameo too – although this is fairly understated.

The harsh cruelty and sadism that characterised Cussler’s “Sahara” and “Iceberg” is somewhat less prominent here, with most of the novel’s combat-based scenes being more focused on thrilling drama, suspense and/or spectacular fast-paced action. This lends the novel more of a rollercoaster-like quality and also gives the novel a bit more of a “blockbuster movie”-like quality too.

However, I should probably include the obligatory warning that I almost always have to include when reviewing older Clive Cussler novels. In other words, a few moments of the story might seem mildly dated and/or “politically incorrect” when read today. Even so, this is much less of an issue in “Flood Tide” than it is in the other older Cussler novels (eg: “Iceberg”, “Sahara” and “Raise The Titanic”) that I’ve read.

But, like with most older Clive Cussler novels, if you can overlook the dated elements of the story, then you’ll be richly rewarded with an utterly gripping and compelling tale. Seriously, despite these flaws, the story is still brilliantly gripping.

All in all, this is the best older Clive Cussler novel I’ve read so far. Not only is the pacing of this novel absolutely brilliant, but it is also crammed with thrilling and suspenseful scenes that will propel you through the book at a fast pace and make it difficult to put it down for too long. Yes, the novel is a little bit dated sometimes. But, despite this, it is still one of the most spectacular older Cussler novels that I’ve read. Like with Cussler’s excellent co-written “Zero Hour“, it is pretty much a spectacular 1990s action movie in book form. Which is never a bad thing!

If I had to give “Flood Tide” a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “Quake: Dissolution Of Eternity” (Expansion For “Quake”)

Well, after playing the amazing “Scourge Of Armagon” official expansion for “Quake”, I thought that I’d check out the other one. I am, of course, talking about Rogue Software’s “Dissolution Of Eternity” expansion from 1997.

Before I go any further, I should point out that I played “Dissolution Of Eternity” using the Darkplaces source port rather than the GL Quake source port supplied with the version of the game available on GOG. Not only was this because, after working perfectly exactly once, GL Quake then started crashing my computer every time I tried to play the game – but also because using Darkplaces allowed me to save hard drive space. Seriously, the download of “Quake” on GOG is a bloated 1.1 gigabytes in size!

Likewise, due to some problems with Darkplaces and/or my computer, I had to lower the texture quality to “16 bit” during the last couple of levels of “Dissolution Of Eternity” in order to maintain a playable framerate. So, if the textures in a couple of the screenshots in this review look slightly posterised, that’s why.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Dissolution Of Eternity”:

When you get here, choose the door on the right and don’t look back!

“Dissolution Of Eternity” contains 15 new levels (split into two episodes), new monsters, new textures, alternate ammo types and apparently new music too (but, again, I couldn’t get the music to work).

One of the very first things that I will say about “Dissolution Of Eternity” is that you shouldn’t judge it by the first episode. In fact, it’s probably best to skip the first episode altogether (and, yes, this expansion actually has a proper episode selection area) and just play the second one – because it is way better. But, more on that later.

The first episode, “Hell’s Fortress”, contains seven reasonably well-designed non-linear levels that contain challenging, fast-paced gameplay. However, this episode just lacks personality. It is drab, dull and dreary.

*Yawn*

Yes, the actual gameplay may contain a few really cool moments and E1M5 looks vaguely cool (in a gothic Lovecraftian kind of way) but, for the most part, this episode really isn’t anything that memorable – even down to the relatively weak boss fight at the end.

The fifth level of episode one is probably the best. I mean, there’s a reason why a demo of it plays in the background when you start the game.

And, yes, this electric pentagram in E1M4 looks cool – but this episode isn’t anything to write home about.

On the other hand, the second episode (“The Corridors Of Time”), is amazing!

Seriously, it contains all of the creativity and personality that the first episode lacks… and then some more. Not only are the levels in this episode longer, even more complex and slightly more challenging – but there’s loads more variety and creativity too. If you only play one episode, play the second one!

If you choose wisely when you start the game, then you should see THIS.

There are too many standout moments in episode two to mention. But, the best ones are probably the ancient ruined streets in part of E2M1, the amazing gothic ancient Egyptian setting of E2M4, the awesome Aztec-style settings in E2M6 and the epic boss battle (against a dragon!) in E2M8.

Thanks to the more complex level design and increased variety of interesting settings, this episode is an absolute joy to play 🙂

Since the background music didn’t work here, I supplied my own. Seriously, this Ancient Egypt level is even cooler with “Powerslave” by Iron Maiden playing in the background 🙂

And, yes, there’s an Aztec level too: )

And you get to slay a dragon too! Thankfully, this isn’t a “puzzle-based” boss. But, the battle is tough enough for a final boss battle 🙂

E2M4 is probably the best level in the episode, and it includes things like a giant temple to Osiris, Egyptian mummies, sarcophagi, complex mazes, smaller sphinx statues, smaller pyramids and even an excellent mini-boss segment. If you love classic Ancient Egypt-themed FPS games like “Exhumed“, “Killing Time” and “Serious Sam: The First Encounter“, then episode two is worth playing for this level alone 🙂

And, yes, there are even pyramids too 🙂

Another cool thing about the second episode is that, every level or two, you will have to fight several small mini-bosses. Near the end of many levels, a powerful ancient Greek/Babylonian/Egyptian-style giant (called a “Guardian”) will rise from the ground and attack you.

Not only is this guy a formidable foe, but if you retreat or hang around too long, he’ll start spawning weaker copies of himself too. Often, the portal at the end of the episode will only open when the “original” Guardian is killed. Not only does this add extra challenge to the game, but it also makes finishing each level feel like even more of an accomplishment:

And, yes, these battles can be wonderfully epic 🙂

The other new monsters in “Dissolution Of Eternity” are all reasonably good too. In addition to an ogre that fires a different type of grenade, there are also floating wraith creatures, electric eels, stone knights, lava mini bosses, stronger “Egyptian Mummy” versions of the zombies, a mini-boss version of the episode one boss and “invisible” swordsmen (fortunately, they aren’t completely invisible – there’s a floating sword and a light on the ground).

These new monsters help to add some extra challenge and variety to the gameplay. However, they don’t really seem to have the same level of uniqueness or “personality” as, say, the gremlin monsters from the “Scourge Of Armagon” expansion.

However, the zombie mummies are about as metal as you can get \m/

Instead of new weapons, “Dissolution Of Eternity” includes three new ammo types (“Lava nails”, “Multi-rockets” and “Plasma”). These basically serve as an “alternate fire” mode for many of the game’s weapons (and you can toggle between “standard” and “improved” ammo by pressing the weapon’s number key). Plus, there’s actually enough of this extra ammo scattered around the expansion for it to actually be useful in many of the game’s combat encounters.

Yes, this looks really cool… and you’ll actually get to use it semi-regularly too 🙂

The lava nails allow both nailguns to not only be more powerful, but also to carry extra ammo too. The multi-rockets allow the grenade launcher to fire cluster grenades (which look cool, but aren’t that useful practically) and the rocket launcher to launch a powerful barrage of four rockets (which is a lot more useful).

The plasma ammo for the lightning gun… didn’t work properly (on my computer, at least) and did nothing more than place a floating blob of plasma in front of the player.

All in all, about half of “Dissolution Of Eternity” is really brilliant (and the other half is fun, but a bit drab). Although this expansion contains lots of cool extra stuff and a decent number of challenging and enjoyable levels, it often doesn’t quite reach the level of personality and fun found in “Scourge Of Armagon”. Even so, the fourth and sixth levels of episode two are well worth playing though.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Review: “Quake: Scourge Of Armagon” (Expansion for “Quake”)

Quake” is one of those games that I only ever seem to play every few years. I first played the shareware sometime in 1996-8, I played some of the full version in 2005 and I actually completed the full version in 2013.

Still, whilst looking on GOG a couple of weeks before I prepared this review, I noticed that a re-release of the game that included the two expansions (“Scourge Of Armagon” and “Dissolution Of Eternity”) was on special offer.

So, I thought that I’d return to “Quake” once again. And, since “Scourge Of Armagon” had the most cool-sounding title, it was the first expansion that I decided to play.

Before I go any further, I should point out that I played “Scourge Of Armagon” using the Darkplaces source port rather than the GL Quake source port supplied with the GOG version. Not only was this because, after working perfectly exactly once, GL Quake then started crashing my computer every time I tried to play the game – but also because using Darkplaces allowed me to save hard drive space. Seriously, the download of “Quake” on GOG was a bloated 1.1 gigabytes in size!

So, let’s take a look at “Scourge Of Armagon”:

Yay! Quake! It’s been way too long!

“Scourge Of Armagon” is an official third-party expansion (by Hipnotic) from 1997 that contains fourteen new levels (and three secret levels, although I only found one). In addition to this, it also contains new items, new monsters, new weapons and (apparently*) new music.

(*The music didn’t work in the version I played – I don’t know if this was because of the source port I used or the method I used to get “Scourge Of Armagon” to run. However, I vaguely remember some comments about the lack of music on the game’s GOG page too – so, it could possibly be a general issue with this version of the game. Likewise, since I wrote this review quite far in advance, I don’t know if it has been patched by now or not.)

The game’s story is fairly standard stuff – you play at the Ranger once again, who has to travel through a slipgate in order to defeat the forces of one of Quake’s generals called Armagon. In other words, it’s just an excuse to fight lots of monsters.

Seriously, I mean a lot of monsters!

Be sure to play the original “Quake” before you play “Scourge Of Armagon”!

Since this is an expansion, it is designed to be even more challenging than the original game was. So, it isn’t for new players! But, as thrillingly fun as these challenging new levels are – the difficulty curve is somewhat strange, since the final boss is ridiculously easy:

Seriously, I beat this guy on my second attempt. Despite the dramatic way that Armagon is introduced, this is just a “circlestrafe and hold the fire button down for a minute” type of boss fight!

One of the interesting things about “Scourge Of Armagon” is that it is split into three “episodes”. Although these episodes cannot be selected individually (and you’ll lose your weapons every 5-6 levels or so), this structure allows the game to contain a surprising amount of variety.

Most notably, the first “episode” is a sci-fi themed episode that obviously takes a lot of influence from the then-upcoming “Quake II” – this episode is also filled with grunts, enforcers, zombie dogs and robot scorpions.

It’s been a few years since I played “Quake II”, but I’m pretty sure this is a Strogg logo… in “Quake 1”!

This episode also includes a rather creative level that is set in an underground mine – featuring an “Indiana Jones”-style boulder segment, some cool-looking outdoor areas, some impressive machinery etc…

The other two episodes mostly consist of the kind of classic gothic medieval Lovecraftian horror type levels that will be instantly familiar to fans of the original game. Plus, the third episode starts with a level that reminded me a bit of an ‘evil’ version of “Riven” too 🙂

Seriously, it’s almost like “Riven” but with guns and monsters!

One interesting thing here is that some parts of the second episode are more gothic than usual. One stand-out level here is called “The Crypt” and it features ominous lightning, zombie-filled coffins and all of that kind of stuff 🙂

There’s also some really awesome lighting in this level too 🙂

The level design is mostly really good, with some creative touches throughout the expansion. Most of the levels are the kind of challenging, non-linear things that you would expect from a classic FPS game. But, there are some interesting variations too.

For example, one level called “The Gauntlet” deliberately tries to be more linear than usual in order to create a ‘gauntlet’-like experience.

*Sigh* Remember when linear FPS game levels were actually a rare and amusing novelty?

Likewise, since I’m more of a “Doom” fan than a “Quake” fan, it was surprisingly cool when I saw this in another level:

Yes, the ending to level eight (?) looks a little bit like something from “Doom” 🙂

However, part of the seventh (?) level is somewhat badly-designed. Basically, unless you know some of the tricks that only experienced “Quake” players (and retro FPS gamers in general) know, you’ll get totally and utterly stuck.

Seriously, it was only after wandering around the level about five times that I finally realised that you were supposed to bypass a locked door by standing on top of a small raised area and rocket jumping through a hole in the ceiling.

Unless you’re an avid FPS gamer who knows how to rocket jump, you’ll get totally and utterly stuck on this level!

The new items, weapons and monsters are really cool too. The new monsters consist of formidable robotic scorpions, really annoying floating grenade creatures and, best of all, the gremlins.

These adorable little critters will scamper around and try to steal your weapons. They also make really adorable squeaking sounds and look a bit like cute little green versions of the “Fiend” monster…. which will probably make you feel bad when you inevitably blast them into smithereens with your shotgun.

Plus, they’re almost certainly also a reference to an amazing Christmas movie from the 1980s too 🙂

The new weapons are mostly good. The laser gun is a powerful and useful rapid-fire weapon, whose projectiles will also bounce off of walls too. Likewise, the proximity mine launcher can actually come in really handy sometimes (seriously, there’s one segment where you can use it to defeat a shambler just by firing prox mines through a hole in a nearby door).

The other new weapon is none other than Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor! This mythological weapon can either be used as a simple club or it can shoot sparks at nearby enemies when swung at the ground. However, you probably won’t use this souped-up crochet mallet that often – since it’s often more practical to just use the other weapons.

Pictured: One of about three times that I actually used Mjolnir.

As for the new items, they’re really good too. In addition to a scuba suit and a new type of shield (the “Empathy shield”), the stand-out item is the Horn of Conjuring! This amazing item will summon a random “friendly” monster who will follow you around and help you out. Although the monster’s AI can be a little bit clunky, there is nothing more awesome than having a pet Fiend or a pet Shambler at your side during a fight!

Awww! It’s a pet fiend 🙂 Isn’t he adorable!

All in all, “Scource Of Armagon” is a fun set of enjoyably challenging “Quake” levels with some interesting (if infrequently frustrating) level design. Most of the cool new stuff added to the game works really well too. In addition to this, the expansion neither feels too short nor too long and it will provide at least a few hours of thrillingly challenging 1990s FPS fun 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.