Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dream Game

We all got them. Games we would love to see made. Some are more ambitious than others. Some would be logistically impossible to make. I've mentioned nine titles I would like to see that are mostly sequels with vague wishes for moderate improvements to graphics and gameplay. For this post though I have an idea for a game that if I really wanted to I could probably write down in detail. Perhaps even forge a design document should I feel so inclined. In the interests of post length I wont do that for now. Instead, I'll just give you the abridged version. So what is this game I'm getting at? know that series called Valkyria Chronicles? How about that but at sea instead of on land.
This summer (2012) has its share of wannabe blockbusters with the biggest, loudest and dumbest probably being Battleship. I could write an entire post on how basing films on board games is going to be the death kneel of the Hollywood movie industry (unless the space aliens turn out to be voracious hippos and their ship is full of shoots and ladders in which case it would be awesome), but I digress. We're talking video games here so with regards to Battleship it will probably generate interest in the big warships we all know and love. So, why not make a game to capitalize on the popularity? No, not a stupid hack cash grab that's yet another first person shooter. I mean something with some style and substance. We've have three titles all set on land why not have some action on the high seas? Looking a map of "Europa" it's not hard to see plenty of interesting locations for fleets of warship to clash.
It would be easy to keep the same "BLiTZ" system, just replace individual soldiers with ships. To maintain the unique charm have the captains of each vessel represent their respective units. Instead of classes like sniper, scout, shocktrooper, lancer and engieneer go with navy equivenlants like submarine, destroyer, cruiser, battleship and transport. Swap out tanks with aircraft carriers and you're basically all set. The water color design mixed with distinct art direction for each ship type could look gorgious to behold. Just look at this example battleship from the PSP version of Valkyria Chronicles.
Aircraft could play a big role for the first time. Since "in universe" aircraft don't seem to have been used extensively yet, leaving open an opportunity for new carriers to surpass traditional line-of-battle-ships (much like real WW2 history). Different types of fighter craft, dive bombers and torpedo planes could create greater variety and customization (throwing in ace pilots and quirky flight leaders wouldn't hurt either). Of course torpedoes, mines, depth charges, bombs, etc. could be upgraded throughout the course of the game and gun salvos could be spiced up by offering different kinds of ammunition. Off the top of my head we got armor piercing, high explosive, shrapnel shells, smoke canisters, star cartridges, incendiary rounds and fragmentation shot. Missions variety is not a problem either with mine-laying/sweeping, night battles, coastal bombardment, amphibious landing support, carrier duels, sneak attacks, commerce raiding and best of all Crossing the "T".
A change of location wouldn't hurt either considering we don't know anything about the eastern part of the Imperial Alliance. They could get caught up in an Asiatic Russian conflict similar to the the Russo-Japanese war. Maybe the Atlantic Federation has colonies in the area? Implementing deployment costs would bring an interesting new dimension to tactical considerations. Special Orders could make a comeback, and to improve on the basic formula a more robust AI along with divergent storyline would markedly improve on areas that have been sorely lacking in the series.
Now this is the part were you tell me that only hyper fast paced shooters sell anymore and nobody will fund anything but sequels to highly successful franchises least of all strategy games. To which I answer; yeah...I know my idea isn't good business from and investor standpoint thus this will probably never happen but hey...a guy can dream, right? Long Live Gallia!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wing Commander

With the recent release of titles such as Sol: Exodus and Evochron Mercenary the space combat sim is seeing somewhat of a revival. Thinking back I can recall some of the greats such as Freespace and Tie Fighter but the series which stands out in my mind most prominently is the Wing Commander series. Rather than making a post about the games themselves though I've decided to discuss the novels. Granted this is only tangentially related to video games, but please indulge me. I promise not to talk about the movie or cartoon.

Published first, Freedom Flight covers events in Wing Commander: Secret Ops (the expansion to the first game). Tonally it is much closer to the games than the rest of the books. Readers are given some insight into Kilrathi culture although they retain their cartoon villainy which always felt like what the creator, Chris Roberts, saw them as. Think Cobra from G.I. Joe or Skeletor from He-man and your on the right track. The story itself revolves around the defection of a Kilrathi noble, Ralgha nar Hhallas (a.k.a. Hobbes), and the rescue of prisoners from a race of technologically primitive avians. Interestingly enough, Blair (the player character in the video game) only makes a brief cameo while the hero of the story is Aussie pilot - Hunter. Personally, I never really held this entry in high regard simply because it's a bit bland in the action department. I does work well as a stand alone novel despite the drawbacks.

The prologue and main story of End Run are written by different authors. As a result there is a jarring transition in style about a quarter of the way through the book. That said I really enjoyed the action in this one. Lots of battles featuring fighters, capital ships and a chunk of ground pounding too. Always good to see a little internal conflict to up the stakes. The ship captain which is at the center of this conflict reminds me a lot of Captain Queeg from the WWII movie "The Caine Mutiny." There is also tensions between marines and navy personal. It has a romance subplot that (while cheesy) does give the story more emotional weight. The Kilrathi come off as being a bit dumb in this entry, but overall the plot moves which kept me hooked until the end. I should also note that I found the focus on a single outclassed escort carrier interesting the first time, but not so much all the times after that.

A lot of major events happen in Fleet Action. For lack of better word the story is "epic" and spans a large number of characters as well as locations. The basic story arc revolves around the Kilrathi faking an armistice agreement in order to give themselves a chance to prepare an overwhelming surprise attack on Terra. Of course it's up to our plucky heroes to reveal the truth and convince those gullible politicians that it's a trap. Just replace Admiral Ackbar with Admiral Tolwyn and your on the right track. Exciting? Yes. That said I couldn't get into this novel as much as some of the others. Something about the pacing or perhaps the fact that Wing Commander has always been more about the grim and gritty personal experiences of unique individuals rather than grand sagas in a space opera backdrop. I will give this book props for pressing the threat of a third mysterious race.

Heart of the Tiger deserves praise simply because it's a adaption of Wing Commander 3 and sticks very close to the plot without the author feeling the overpowering need to add his own artistic spin. Unfortunately, I don't particularly like the direction the original creator, Chris Roberts, decided to go in. Frankly, It feels like he's channeling a bit too much Star Wars as well as throwing in some implausible story twists to boot. Hobbes turning out to be a double agent really stands out as a plot contrivance. I guess you could argue that the Temblor bomb is supposed to be a nod to the atomic weapons used on Japan at the end of WWII (just swap nuclear with tectonic), but all I could think of at the end was Death Star trench run. To his credit Forstchen makes the battles intense as ever. He does a good job of giving the Kilrathi an almost tragic quality to them at times despite the fact that they are the antagonists. It's also nice to see the trilogy close with an end to the war.

A novelization of Wing Commander 4, Price of Freedom is the first entry in the series in which the Kilrathi are not the main antagonists. It's interesting to see the internal conflicts of the Terrans play out. But the absence of everyone's favorite fur-balls makes everything a bit more generic sci-fi. I also can't help but feel that Tolwyn's role in the story has more to do with the fact that the actor portraying him is Malcolm McDowell than anything else. Regardless it does give the character a much more tragic angle to his story arc. Enjoyable if you want a more European spin on the "WWII in space" genre that is Wing Commander. I could have done without the return of Maniac. Wasn't he killed at the end of the previous story? I guess he has his fans, but I could have done without the guy. He gets annoying after a while. Again I wonder if he was resurrected simply because the actor that portrays him, Tom Wilson, has some recognition as a comedic individual in what is otherwise a dark story.

Action Stations is my personal favorite in the series. Yes, it rips off real life history like crazy and yes the action doesn't really get going until the third act, but I feel like this story of how the conflict began added a missing dimension to Wing Commander. The Kilrathi are made into much more plausible foes rather than cardboard cutout suicidal faux-demons. They have a cast of slaves made up of conquered races which handle the drudgery while the cats can bathe in the glory of battle. Readers also learn that the Kilrathi became a spacefaring race by being gifted advanced technology from a benign race which they promptly betrayed. I loved the detailed discussions of carrier operations in space along with other sci-fi gadgetry, but this did result in some contradictions in terms of what technology became available at what point in the conflict. I guess you could argue for a canon rewrite, but I can see why some nit-picky fans might get annoyed with the inconsistencies.

While not my favorite entry in the series I really like the direction this post-Kilrathi-war-story was heading. Characters and situations seemed more believable than ever before. The black and white morality had been somewhat phased out in lieu of more shades of grey. Overall the Wing Commander universe felt like it was growing up into a more thought provoking setting than it had been in the past. Kilrathi and Terran working together against renegade elements in small proxy wars had great potential to take the Wing Commander series from its WWII copycat roots to a more Falkland Islands inspired conflict. Sadly, co-author Andrew Keith passed away ending this planed trilogy rather abruptly. Yes, I know it says William H. Keith on the cover. That's actually the author's brother and an incredibly massive typo on the part of Baen Books. False Colors indeed. Perhaps Forstchen will continue the series when he gets tired of writing alternative history books with Newt Gingrich?

There are also two (three if your counting the unpublished third entry) novels based on the movie (sorry...I know I said I wouldn't talk about it again but I kind of had to...). I won't bother to go into detail on them partly because I feel like the new author, Peter Telep, failed to grasp what was good about the earlier novels...or the games for that matter. Then again rebooting the franchise didn't fundamentally work either because it tried to return to that Saturday morning cartoon level of complexity when fans of the series had outgrown that and newcomers were more into first person shooters or real time strategy games. Space combat sims haven't changed much over the last decade which hasn't done the genre many favors either. That said I still think there's a place for this series in the vein of Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest or maybe even Battlestations Pacific. That's a post for another day though so I will end it here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Zombie Apocalypse

According to people who have a flimsy grasp of Mayan history and culture 2012 will mark a cataclysmic event. Since the threat of nuclear obliteration has been somewhat lessened recently asteroids from space have become another popular idea, after all it's what wiped out the dinosaurs. Diligence on the part of NASA and other space agencies though has made that an unlikely outcome. So, doomsday scenario predictions have gravitated from destruction without to destruction within. What better way to to convey such an event than with the walking dead?

Media loves these guys. There is a small library worth of literature written about them; Plague of the Dead, Monster Island and World War Z just to name a few. Movies first introduced them in their modern incarnation with Night of the Living Dead back in 1968, but the big breakout surge in popularity came with the arrival of 28 Days Later. In the table top market there are board games - Mall of Horror, pen and paper RPGs - All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and card games - Zombies!!! Truth be told though this particular brand of undead is most prevalent in video games.

That's not to say they're a recent addition. Zombies have been in video games for a long time, but they have seen a major upsurge. From the indie titles such as Last Stand and Plants vs. Zombies to big budget productions like Resident Evil and Dead Rising there is a wide range of genres in which these guys hold center stage. You can find them online with Left 4 Dead and in educational software such as The Typing of the Dead. It gets worse recent years zombies are starting to turn up in games they don't seem to belong in. Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption and even the remake of Choplifter have these shambling menaces in them.

Its almost as if they were rising, spreading, infecting and devouring video games. For awhile now there has been an outcry on the internet to get rid of these things. But it hasn't impeded their proliferation. One wonders if and when a time will come in which a game or piece of DLC not featuring zombies is the exception. At the very least the presence of zombies in video games has become an epidemic. A real zombie apocalypse may never happen, but for the video industry it may very well bring about a digital entertainment end of the world crisis.

They're everywhere!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Quick time events (usually referred to as "QTEs") have a long and very mixed relationship with video game design. From Dragons Lair in the 1980s to Viking (and very soon Asura's Wrath) QTEs are a fairly common feature. I'm of mixed feelings when it comes to QTEs though. On one hand the stuff happening on screen is usually pretty cool, but on the other hand the player isn't really doing all that cool stuff. Rather it's just a "push button to continue cutscene" deal and frankly I find that rather archaic.

It doesn't have to be that way though. I would be more than happy to see greater flexibility in QTEs. It's embarassing to think that Resident Evil 3: Nemesis back in the PS1 era did a better job in some ways than more modern counterparts. Rather than simply having one choice why not give the player two or three? I'm not talking about simply changing up button prompts. What I'm talking about here is having several prompts simultaneously popping up onscreen each having a differing results depending on which the player inputs. This might make it more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a true QTE, but I think it would be a lot more fun.

I should clarify that I'm not a atychiphobic, I don't have a crippling fear of failure. That said I don't have some kind of crypo-sadistic agenda either. If players can't make up their mind then they deserve to have the flow of their gaming experience come to a sudden and brutal halt. What I would like to see though is more options, more variably and most importantly more replay value. No need for Kratos to kill cyclops the same way time and time again. As the proverb goes "There's more than one way to skin a centaur" after all. I might have misquoted that but you get the idea.