Reviews

Review: The Great Zoo of China (Paperback)

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Picking this one up on a punt, and vaguely recalling Jurassic Park back in the 90s, I wasn’t unimpressed by my first foray into Matthew Reilly’s work. The Great Zoo of China was an enjoyable rocket-sled ride that, tellingly, I finished in about three days.

I’ve decided these days to be less ponderous about the books I buy and read, and just read the ones I think are going to be enjoyable. The Great Zoo of China begins in classic action-movie terms, introducing the flashy setting and the characters before plunging them quickly into the main meat of the book.

The premise of The Great Zoo of China is that the modern nation of China has embarked upon a project of goliath proportions – the titular Great Zoo – that aims to restore the nation’s pride and score a massive boost to Chinese cultural achievements. The book makes what I feel is an astute commentary on modern Chinese culture and industry – China is famous for making the everyone else’s products and poses the question: what is China’s Coca-Cola? Is China just the workshop for America’s great corporations? This imbalance is summed up in one borrowed quote that is the mainstay on the rear of every iPhone: “Designed in California. Made in China”. Returning to the point, I did buy into why the Chinese government would desire a cultural icon of its own design, and not just making, but modern China is also the only country feasible today that could construct a project such as the aforementioned Zoo, and on the gargantuan scale required.

Naturally with a “Great Zoo of China” being built essentially for bragging rights about Chinese culture, and the immense secrecy around the project, and the sticker on the cover selling the book as “Jurassic Park with dragons”… it came as no surprise to find that the Zoo was stocked with genetically engineered dragons. I was not unimpressed with the rationalisation that the lone dragons that pepper history were in fact real dragons scouting the surface of the world at periods where the temperature was at its highest. The suspension of disbelief required for this story to hold water was by no means insurmountable. Even the science used to contain the dragons – electromagnetic emitters linked to neural implants that train the dragons to steer clear of the zoo limits, but also to hate their captors – is not unimaginable in 2016.

The cast of characters in The Great Zoo of China revolves around the party of Chinese experts and government officials that are showing off their new project and the selected members of the American press that are their guests. The focus is on protagonist Dr. Cassandra Jane “CJ” Cameron and her brother Hamish; CJ being the requisite reptilian expert who decodes the behaviour of the inhabitants of the zoo. The rest of the party seem more ancillary; the US ambassador, the director of the Zoo and a CIA agent are there seemingly because they’re expected to be there – the main characterisation is focused on CJ, who is confident and knowledgeable (and a bit of a gung-ho Lara Croft when the need arises) whereas her brother is a laid-back and casual dimwit with a heart of gold. In an interesting commentary on the militaristic nature of China’s society, the main adversary is not the Zoo’s Director but the Chinese military, led by the brutal and cold General Bao, whose zealous desire to protect China’s reputation from the disaster that befalls the Zoo leads to several atrocities that punctuate how important the Zoo is to Chinese national prestige and how it must be protected, despite the body count.

Interestingly there is some attempt to characterise some of the dragons and add some personality to them. However, I did find the dragon characterisation considerably more simplified, despite their purported intelligence, so I found myself caring less for individual named dragons. Ultimately, a dragon is a dragon, though the classifications and tribal nature of the different types of dragon did help differentiate them.

Structurally, The Great Zoo of China was pretty formulaic; though I hasten to add that being formulaic is not necessarily a negative. I’d say it was enjoyably so – we’re quickly introduced to the Zoo, the science, the dragons, the technology… that inevitably goes awry, leading onto a pretty action-packed and exhilarating adventure around escaping the Zoo and the Chinese military forces who are adamant on covering the whole catastrophe up. It certainly plays right into the mould of action movie-esque prose; Reilly has crafted some unchallenging but also evocative prose and the story blisters along. There’s a few moments where the story, rightly, catches it’s breath for a moment and there’s also a moment where the homogenous group of American survivors splits up with CJ and Hamish taking charge of each group. This works as it allows the narrative to split between the two groups as they take different paths, which is refreshing and allows a bit more exploration of the setting. Ultimately, the book is a bit of a flash in the pan but I’d stress that this isn’t necessarily bad; it’s an easy, refreshing read that does little to challenge the reader but it’s certainly an enjoyable action rollercoaster. Sure it feels a bit derivative and the narrative does seem predictable, but is that such a bad thing? I certainly enjoyed the ride through the world that Matthew Reilly creates here.

Again, I feel some of the ancillary characters are treated as such, and feel a little disposable, but the deaths are pretty gruesome and don’t pull any punches, reflecting the visceral nature of the threat of the dragons. It’s refreshing, too, that Reilly decides his dragons will not be the archetypal majestic creatures but much more reptilian and certainly less graceful than the myth of dragons would have one imagine. The realist tack taken, especially given the genetically-engineered nature of the creatures, is well done. But, like all summer blockbusters, some of the escapes, near-misses and such are little too convenient and stretch the plausibility a little. While there’s plenty of room to flesh out some of the characters and their motivations and backstories, there’s enough, especially with CJ and Hamish, to hook me and drive me to see the story through.

I did have a few niggles. The prose was a bit trite in places, and one thing I found annoying was the quite heavy use (in the beginning especially) of overt brand names. A character checks his email on his Samsung phone. Another takes photographs with his Canon EOS 5D DLSR camera. Another swaps his AK-47 for his Heckler and Koch MP-7 assault rifle with M40 grenade launcher. What purposes does being so specific serve? What material difference does the brand of smartphone have on the narrative? I felt, despite the inference of the author’s enthusiasm, it got in the way, especially at crucial early parts of the book where my attention shouldn’t be diverted by needless detail. Unless the Samsung Galaxy had a magic, dragon-repelling speaker as standard, just use a generic term like “smartphone”. Fawning over these details that added nothing to the story did slow down the relentless pace that was otherwise gutsy and full of momentum.

The book also features representations and maps of the area, and depictions of some of the displays and whiteboards that held pertinent information referred to in the prose. I felt these were, also, impeding of the plot ultimately, and I rarely spent more than a couple of seconds looking at each. In black-and-white, the fidelity wasn’t enough that they added anything more to the descriptions in the text and. If I were to be honest, I did feel a little let down that the text appeared to be vague enough to need these illustrations; if the author couldn’t describe what they wanted well enough to require an illustration, then it’s a bad sign. However, I did feel that once I read the corresponding section I gained enough to piece it together; either way, the various illustrations and maps just seemed extraneous.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and I appreciate that the comparisons to Jurassic Park were inevitable. And maybe it wasn’t a heavyweight or literary outing but it was enjoyable while it lasted. There’s a core message behind it – of China’s place in the world and the pursuit of national pride at all costs – that does resonate and I appreciate the exploration of. So, The Great Zoo of China was, for me, a pretty relentless, engaging and thrilling adventure with an intriguing concept behind it and, after taking a punt on it, I’ll definitely check out some more of Matthew Reilly’s work in the future!

Buy The Great Zoo of China on Amazon UK

Reviews

Review: Tomb Raider (PC/Steam)

I picked up Tomb Raider recently, intrigued to see the modern take on the venerable puzzle-platform game from years ago. However, I very quickly found out that this game was, indeed, cursed.

My first impressions were almost encouraging – a glossy opening cinematic that transitioned into a peculiar scene of the “new” Lara Croft hanging from mid-air. I’d have done better to leave her hanging and found a good game to play. One thing I can’t fault Tomb Raider on is the visual quality – indeed, the setting and underlying backstory are what kept me going for twelve hours. The setting of the mysterious island of Yamatai, and the particulars of the “curse” that keeps survivors of the various shipwrecks marooned intrigued me, and I felt it was well-realised, though it’s easily said that the visuals are the most important part of any (interactive) movie.

That’s the positive stuff out of the way.

While the backstory to the island and setting were quite nicely built up throughout the course of the game, transitioning from coastal forests to ruined native villages to the epic, sweeping structures built by more modern inhabitants of Yamatai, the writing elsewhere was sorely lacking. Tomb Raider positions itself as a fresh reboot of the franchise, and the “origin story” for Lara Croft. The Lara presented here is utterly insufferable, she suffers a total victim complex and spends almost the entire game talking aloud to herself about her surroundings (the game’s lazy means of reminding the player of the current objective). Her voice actor is also pretty awful, completing the impression that this Lara is the archetypal woe-is-me, naïve, rich girl with the requisite amount of daddy issues. There’s a clear dichotomy between “cutscene Lara” and “game Lara”; in a cutscene, Lara has major moral concerns about having to kill a man, but happily spends the rest of the game gunning down dozens of insane island folk. How does she suddenly acquire this bad-assery? Because the plot demands it. Why do the various injuries not cause Lara any impediment on her journey until the plot demands it in a very contrived manner? You guessed it! Quite astutely, later on, one of the underdeveloped companion characters Lara is inevitably tasked with rescuing states that “it’s all about Lara”. There’s plenty of instances where the game’s writing tries very hard (and very crudely) to force the player to empathise with characters because the plot demands it. For these reasons, narratively I found Lara utterly unrelatable as a character. At its root, Tomb Raider seemed to me to play out like a poor imitation of classic exploration and adventure films – a “budget Indiana Jones” for sure.

In terms of the franchise, the poor writing goes against the game in that it would be extremely simple to swap Lara Croft for any generic adventurer; indeed, one of my biggest wishes with this game is that the developer had embraced the setting, and the mediocre story, and just put their own character in; the use of the Tomb Raider intellectual property in such a mediocre and generic outing seemed to do the franchise a disservice. I feel personally, the story was underdeveloped; too often it felt like a checklist of adventure movie tropes, some of which (the surging river and rickety crossing for one) were poorly disguised.

In preparation, I watched Yahtzee Croshaw’s excellent review, and in terms of gameplay I’d wholeheartedly agree with his main points: the developer throws in mechanics that are transient at best. A great example would be the “hunger” mechanic, which drives the game through the first level, and leads the player to acquiring the bow and shooting a deer for food, as Lara incessantly complains about being hungry. Once out of this area, the hunger mechanic never troubles Lara again – there’s nary a “stamina” meter nor a health benefit to encourage the player to keep that in mind. The only reference I found to “hunger” later on, for instance, was great big orange cool boxes full of food that serve to merely top up experience points for the obligatory levelling-up system. The levelling system itself seemed amoeboid at best, there was certainly no subtlety, just three broad (and linear) skill “sets” to steadily unlock; same core, extremely simplified mechanic applies to weapon upgrades through “salvage”. Neither of these systems seem completely cohesive with the main game at all.

This game is “cinematic” gaming at its worst: there’s pretty much one linear path the game forces you down, from one set piece shootout or dodging sequence to the next, playing out like a movie the player has a distant level of control over, and several immersion-breaking allusions to the attempts at adding interactivity to this cinematic experience. All “climbable” surfaces are mysteriously painted white, for instance, and craggy rocks are a standout sign in an otherwise-well-realised world that you’ll eventually be expected to climb up there. The game seemingly wants the best of both worlds, and ends up with neither. Each area has a set amount of collectibles, but there is no real incentive to waste time looking for these; they’re neither required to advance the story nor provide any real fleshing-out of that story. Like most of the mechanics, they feel thrown in to give the player “something to do”, and little else. Even the titular tombs themselves are tertiary to the plot; they present infrequent puzzles that offer rewards that add nothing to the story. To even call this game Tomb Raider is almost a falsehood with so little amount of actual tomb raiding.

The overarching feeling while playing was that Tomb Raider was an immense missed opportunity. So much more could’ve been done with both the setting and the franchise; instead, a pretty average, standard, cookie-cutter game at best is presented. This could’ve been a definitive remake of the original game, exploring it from a new angle; however, the developer instead chose to make a pretty run-of-the-mill, generic adventure game with the Tomb Raider name slapped upon it for a quick buck. It’s like there was a half-hearted attempt to make a truly thrilling and enjoyable adventure here, but the developer got lazy. I get the parallels to Uncharted, but lacking a PlayStation or experience with those, I can’t comment further. Overall though, while Tomb Raider wasn’t a broken game, it’s competency and mediocrity at its best do doom it when considered as a continuation of a revered franchise. It’s just a shame this game wasn’t left dead and buried, though I luckily only paid £5 for it. Don’t pay more.

Buy Tomb Raider on Steam