Tl;dr: 4 stars. Suffers from some pacing problems in the early portion of the novel, and there are some gaps in the logic/character development that hurt it at times. If you can get past a slow start, it’s an intriguing World where virtual reality can mean that life might go on after death, but that might not be as glamorous as some people think.
Long Review, lots of Spoilers.
The book begins with our PC (Talon/Tad) going about his regular life as a game developer. He’s the founder of a small gaming company that got swallowed up by a mega-corporation (Kablammy), and he has serious reservations about the big company’s good intentions both with his future employment and with his game licenses.
These worries are cut short when he is struck by another car and killed. He wakes up to find himself in a character creation screen. The parent company that bought his out made a new game that will allow virtual uploads of entire personalities, meaning that they never have to die in the conventional sense. When someone is near death, they can be uploaded into the video game and continue to live onward.
This brings up an authorial choice and a problem. So, we need to understand the classes that the new player can choose. We have a few options on how to proceed. The first way is to do what Aleron Kong did in The Land, there is no real “class” system per se’, you just develop a build as you play the game and allocate stat points.
This saves you from having to do any lengthy exposition about the classes and move forward quickly, but has a disadvantage in that this works better in solo/hero books. If you want a party-oriented book, this doesn’t work out as well.
This is why having Runner be able to do anything becomes a huge problem in the third book of William Arand’s Otherlife Dreams series. Not very long into the first book, he’s already able to do pretty much anything, so the side characters become more and more useless. By the third book, the only purpose they serve is so he can pet his companions on the head and pinch their ears.
Jason Cipriano ran into the same problem in the Skeleton King series, because he allows players to do whatever they want, only they have a cap of ten active skills at a time. The problem it creates is that the teamwork feels non-existent, since they don’t really require each other to survive in it. I.e. a healer and a warrior you understand why they need each other, four healer/warrior hybrids? It’s not obvious what each one is bringing to the table that the other needs.
Another route you can go is one of two ways that Blaise Corvin chose. In the first, Delvers LLC, there are particular magic orbs which confer different advantages, some physical, some magical, some other. You have to focus on what you want to have happen before you swallow the orb, and then you meet with a creature that will go over your options. This means that there is a “build” system, but it’s also not narrowly confined. You can become anything you want if you find enough orbs, but the teamwork of the Delvers team requires specialization.
This is one option I like because it enables choices later on without requiring a huge frontloading of every possible class and combination.
In Luck Stat Strategy, Blaise gives the characters their classes already and uses the World to introduce their capabilities and the strengths/weaknesses of different classes and builds. This helps get to the action much quicker than Delvers, which requires a longer time to get going before they really understand what’s going on.
The downside to it is that if the characters are meeting randomly, it’s awfully coincidental that they manage to have perfectly balanced builds.
In Viridian Online, the game nudges players towards certain builds based upon their personalities, crafting unique quest lines and companions based upon the user’s personality, same as Awaken Online. This is also a useful system for moving quickly into the meat and potatoes of the story, even though if done wrong it can come across as heavy-handed, which is my complaint in the first book of Awaken Online.
My favorite thus far has been Luke Chmilenko’s system in Ascend Online, which lets players specialize after they’ve played the game for a pretty long time. This means when the choice arrives, they already have figured out pretty well what sort of tactics they enjoy and their play style.
Anyway, the point there is you get a lot of options about how you want to proceed on this crucial story-telling point, and each choice has benefits/drawbacks, depending on skill of execution and what sort of story you are trying to tell.
Domino goes for “big upfront choice”, and this means we spend a lot of time on the character creation screen. Like, a whole lot of time. This front-loaded exposition is done for a few reasons. The first is he wants to introduce us to the main character, who doesn’t really have a personality up to this point. So he needs us to understand what sort of person this is, how this person approaches problems, etc. The second is that he wants the later sections of the book faster, so we know things without a lot of explaining. The third is that he brings everything back, so the things you are told at the beginning of the book will play out in the end.
But unfortunately, this heavy front-loading causes some serious drag in the first part of the book, and it’s a problem we’re going to run into again.
Back to the plot, after asking some questions of the game’s moderator (Saint Peter), Talon gets transported into the “tutorial” section of the game, except it’s a part of the game that isn’t supposed to be seen by anyone anymore. This section was deemed too hardcore, so later players aren’t supposed to go there, but Talon is sent there. This glitch never really gets explained, except that it’s a way for Domino to set up the future conflicts of the game.
Talon discovers he’s on a rope bridge with a set of imps on the other side, waiting to kill him. He runs away and uses his spears reach to kill one of the imps, and then tries to run away, climb, and otherwise escape from the conflict.
He eventually gets killed by disembowelment, and from his initial gameplay style, he gets a high agility bonus.
After completing the tutorial level, he then gets introduced to the real game. He meets his roommate, (Kyle) who needs a special shoutout. In my review of Robert Bevan’s books, I really like that Bevan shows that many people face problems in their life because of who they are, and transporting them to a magical fantasyland isn’t going to remove their problems.
Thus, we meet Kyle, someone who was never too ambitious in his real life and is now, not that ambitious. He spends his time drinking and hanging out in the main town rather than questing or trying to level up. That leads to a walk about town meeting the new places and seeing the local residents, and that brings us to some problems.
So, the theme of Reboot is that people can be given a second chance and not realize it. This is kind of the opposite of Bevan’s storyline, where people are given a second chance and do nothing with it, a constant Stoic cycle of endless rebirths. This is also obvious given the names of things: St. Peter, the pagans are the bad guys, and we get to meet Lucifer later on. So we have a redemption story rather than a cyclic story, even if it takes a long time for the characters to realize that.
That’s all well and good. But he gets there with some personality setups that don’t make sense. One of them is Lash, a female warrior who doesn’t like Kyle because… well, there isn’t much of a reason given.
Everyone in the game that Talon meets is wealthy and well-connected. So, for some PR purpose, they decide to make someone poor into a permanent rebooted resident. But for a PR move, this makes no sense because Talon, an experienced gamer and game developer who worked for the company, had no idea that there was a video game. So who is the PR for? Likewise, since it’s a closed beta, (and this is a major storyline point), there is no one from outside of the company to even see what’s going on.
Likewise, everyone knows that Kyle, Talon’s roommate, was a rich kid in the real World who got drunk and wrapped his car around a tree. But why does everyone know this? It gets established that the only information that anyone knows is what is given out freely, so… how do they know this?
They then go out and start questing and adventuring, which is where they realize that the respawn rate is too low and that it’s really difficult to level. They also learn that you can kill-steal in this game.
This is where I thought Domino missed a big opportunity. One of his future conflicts is going to be over whether or not the Kablammy corporation is good or evil. So part of that conflict is that he’s not really dead like all the other people, but merely in a coma.
But there really isn’t a reason for Talon to suspect anything nefarious. However, if he noticed something as glaring as not having a properly set respawn rate, particularly for a town with not-that-many-pc residents, then he’d have a great reason for being suspicious. The game company would now have a permanent game designer that they could tap at any moment.
This same opportunity gets missed again in the sections where Talon’s genetic algorithm is being used to tailor the game. If Talon notices his algorithm is being used and realizes that he originally coded it for a WoW size game, (millions of players), and it’s instead a game with a very small number of PCs, that would up the suspicion of him vis-a-vis KaBlammy.
We know that their not-that-great at some aspects of the game, as what’s supposed to be a level 100 quest gets triggered by a level 5 explorer.
Anyway, we then meet the next problematic character, Izzy. Izzy is the only pixie in the game, which she has for an unknown reason. As a character, I know why she exists, but her personality is wrong for what her role is in the book. In the book, Izzy does performance pieces, fights in the arena, and basically spends her entire time attention-whoring. But if you talk to her, she gets super-upset about it.
This is the wrong motivation, a character that wants to be admired all the time and be a performance artist is not the same as a character who doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Imagine an incredibly quiet Kanye West or a Shia LaBeouf who hated the limelight. Doesn’t work. People who want to do performances and be admired love talking about one thing: Themselves.
If she’s out to be admired, she should have an entourage around her and wouldn’t deal with Talon because he’s not worthy of her attention.
The turn of the book is when Talon meets Lucifer, (spelled Luc1f3r), and the plot kicks into gear. Lucifer knows that Talon isn’t actually dead, and Talon has learned that there is a system that will allow people from the real-World to communicate with people in the video game. Talon wants to talk to his younger brother and find out what’s going on since he’s gone into a coma.
Lucifer proposes that Talon become one of his disciples of the Fallen Angels. Unfortunately, the last group of Fallen Angels were wiped from the game, meaning they were permanently deleted from the servers.
Unfortunately, that creates some problems for the game world. I.e. one of the pivotal points in the game is that the game periodically “resets” the World. This is one reason why Kyle never takes the game very seriously, because he expects to be reset at any point. From a story perspective, Domino wanted this to explain why even though the game has been around for 9 months, the highest level person is only level 5.
But this kind of creates a problem. Because if they are just on a server as digital characters, and the server resets the players, then every player getting reset would lose their memories up to the point of the reset each time it happened. None of the players should have any memories beyond passing the tutorial, assuming that’s what the game resets to each time.
But since Kyle talks about playing different characters and everyone seems to remember events from past events, that doesn’t happen.
Anyway, Lucifer proposes that Talon break into the main security section of the city and steal the artifact there. He gives Talon a mystical disk that will help him get past security, and tells Talon that there will be a major event that will give him an opening.
This creates another problem for me. Why would the game makers put an access point, within the game, that could change the game World? It’s why I like the idea of putting him as a potentially permanent game dev as an idea. Then, there would be a section specifically for him to upgrade the game, but only dealing with lower level stuff like NPC spawn rates and his algorithm.
Lucifer tells him that there’s a section meant for whenever devs higher up in the food chain die to rewrite the game, and he goes there to find out about the locked off sections. It would explain why that interface exists and why Lucifer is interested in Talon.
There’s kind of another annoyance with Lucifer, and that’s the backstory is that she is supposed to be an eight year old girl who died of cancer. But… eight year old girls dying of cancer don’t learn C++ in their spare time, and aren’t elite level hackers. That backstory makes no sense for a lot of reasons, like why would anyone want an eight year old in a video game that features pornographic areas and combat as the core mechanics?
Anyway, after meeting Lucifer, Talon goes ahead with the plan, after dragons come back to life in the game. Lucifer tricks Talon and the disc that he gave Talon allows him to teleport into the main security room of the video game and steal the artifact that protects the city. He then gives Talon a set of gifts, one of which is 100% pain and the other is the ability to attack within towns.
To commiserate the first gift, he stabs Talon in the hand, and Talon agonizes over a cut that even though it only takes 5% of his health, hurts him considerably. Talon escapes the city with Izzy and the townfolks help, who don’t realize what’s going on, and finds out that Lucifer planned a full-scale invasion of the main city, even summoning an old god up that the city artifact kept in check.
When Talon confronts St. Peter with the events that have happened, St. Peter tells him that the only way to save the game is to hit the reset button. Talon doesn’t want to do this but… eh.
The problem is that Talon has leveled up in basically a single day or so if I have the game time correct. So his attachment to his skills is hard to grasp, as the opposite of this is that his entire town gets run over by pagans.
Not to keep harping back to Luke Chmilenko, but one of the things that I like about it is the initial levels are easy to learn, but once you get your class, everything becomes more difficult. I could see how wanting to risk it all on something that took months to earn makes sense, but risking it all on something you earned last night?
Anyway, this is the heroic stand where he decides that everyone should rally together and treat the game as real. He moves the game out of beta-stage, which means that it’s now not possible to reset the game characters. The game goes on as a stand-off between the invading pagan army and the newb players and NPCs of the town.
You can guess what happens, but if I have another complaint, it’s that the quest is supposedly a “level 100” quest. That means it should have been completely impossible, beyond the realm of all hope for a newbie. Yet the actual way to beat the god, and the low-level army with him turns out to be not-very-difficult at all.
So the book definitely stumbles in some places, but if you can forgive the slow start and few minor problems, the book turns into a detailed game World full of adventure and interesting characters. The idea of being an afterlife beta-tester is certainly intriguing, and with some character motivations and game mechanics ironed out, the rest of the books in the series have a strong foundation to build on.