Sunday, February 24, 2013

Operation "Red Eye"

Up until now no maned craft has traveled beyond the veil of Kerbin. In fact, the only off-world landing made thus far occurred on the Mün (an endeavor which had mixed results). Regardless, it has come to time journey further out to other planets in orbit around Kerbol. The red and white planet, Duna, has been chosen. In preparation for what the press have dubbed Operation "Red Eye", several vessels have been specially designed and constructed.

The first of these was the Solar Sailor, a computer controlled scout vessel powered by photovoltaic panels and nine ion engines.  The spacecraft had already visited Mün and Minmus.  Through patient handling it even managed to cross paths with Duna.  Sadly, the meeting was short lived.  Solar Sailor didn't have enough xenon gas left to complete a breaking maneuvering.  It drifts endlessly now in the depths of space.  Never to be seen again.  

Next is Sky Hydra, a humble and still incomplete space station in equatorial orbit over Kerbin.  It serves as a staging point for all the resources need in Operation "Red Eye".

Already docked with it, is the Chancy Chariot's successor, Mega Mule. More massive than the station itself, this towing spacecraft has already proved its worth during a crisis which occurred during the installation of the fuel depot module onto Sky Hydra. The launch vehicle proved to be inadequate and as such ran out of fuel before making rendezvous. A small automated vessel (call signed Dog Tug) was dispatched to retrieve the fuel supplies, but it too exhausted its tank of RCS propellant before the remote operator was able to guide it back to the space station. Left with no other option, Mega Mule was dispatched and performed the recovery process with flawless efficiency. Now fully prepared, station and spacecraft await the arrival of the lander which will set down on the surface of Duna.

The next launch from the Kerbal Space Center is two fold in purpose. First, a crew module will be installed into Sky Hydra, making the previously automated station an inhabitable one. Second the lander component will dock with Mega Mule and transfer supplies and personnel. Operation "Red Eye" has begun in earnest.

The early phases go off without a hitch. Docking and transfer take time, but there are no major difficulties. The only major point of concern is the dangerous proximity of the lander's legs and engines to those of Mega Mule's rocket exhaust path. Luckily, all that is need is a little care when docking the lander to ensure safety during travel.

The amount of fuel expended in order to move so much material to an encounter with Duna is high.  Lengthy burn times send shutters through the crew compartments. The plotting calculations prove to be fairly accurate though, and Mega Mule (plus lander) are successfully brought into Duna's SOI less than three months later. A retro-burn is initiated. At this point the payload specialist makes a horrifying discovery. The cross feed between Mega Mule and lander had not been disabled resulting in an incorrect reading regarding fuel reserves.

The situation is critical. In an attempt to conserve dwindling fuel supplies, the gravitational influence of Ike is used to bring Mega Mule into an elliptical orbit around Duna. Swinging in close, all remaining fuel is pumped to the lander tanks. Mega Mule wont be going home, but at least the primary objective of "Red Eye" can still be completed. Detaching from the towing craft, the lander burns its periapsis down into Duna's atmosphere. Drogue chutes deploy...shortly thereafter the main parachutes go out. The four small thrusters kick in, bleeding off what excess speed remains. At 500 meters the lander is jarred hard as all parachutes fully deploy. Everything holds together though and the landing gear is lowered. Touchdown is at a comfortable three meters per second. Unfortunately, the lander has come down on a slope and tips onto its side, breaking a thruster off in the process.

For a moment it looks like Operation Red Eye is a failure, but the lander has one unique feature...the bottom of it is actually a rover. At about 15 percent throttle, the top of the lander is detached, sending it spilling out across the crimson sands upside down not far away. The smoke trails from the capsized lander look impressive, but the crew view it as nothing more than a terrible waste of fuel. The tanks were still half full, and there is nothing that can be done except to watch them slowly bleed off their remaining energy.

Still caught on the slope the rover roles uncontrollably into the lander wreckage threatening to damage the power supply. Luckily, a little well placed RCS thrust and a fully powered ion drive roll the rover clear of the deathtrap. Two Kerbonauts are on the surface of Duna and the rover, now referred to as Crust Crawler, is ready to explore the planet. Not far north is a polar ice cap.  Time to set off.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Games that Never Were

There are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of video games that have been canceled midway through development. A lot of these titles are ports of titles that already existed on other consoles, or else were movie tie-ins deemed unworthy of publication. Conversely, a few prototype cartridges of unreleased titles for systems like the Atari 2600 or NES have become highly valued among video game antiquarians. Then you have interesting anecdotes such as the history of Irrational Games. Three titles; The Lost, Deep Cover, and Monster Island were made by Ken Levine and crew but never saw publication (despite being more or less playable!). Perhaps the company name is all too accurate? Here are five more games I'd like to highlight:

Now with 50 percent more "itchy tasty"
Resident Evil 1.5 is one of those titles that horror purists have been craving to play. Personally, I like Resident Evil 2, Nemesis and 4 over Zero, the un-remade original or Code Veronica. Blasphemy to some, I know, but those are just my tastes. That said biker girl Eliza Walker does look like a cool character and there were a number of things implemented here that never made it into any of the later titles in the long running franchise. Supposedly, a mostly complete build (painstakingly restored by a group of dedicated fans) is freely available on the internet.
It's never a good sign when the box art has an
integrated discount inscribed on the cover
Most uncomfortable clothing EVER!
Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans and Starcraft: Ghost. The former was Bizzard's attempt at a point-and-click adventure game. The story was based around you controlling a young orc intent on reclaiming his heritage and leading the Horde to victory over the Alliance. Meanwhile, the latter was a third person shooter and had players controlling an elite "Ghost" operative in a trademark sci-fi backdrop known for RTS games. Lumping both these together might sound strange, but to me they're really the same in that both represent Blizzard's attempts to stretch their genre wings only to have them clipped before takeoff.

Rage count may vary...some primal settling might occur...
Primal Rage 2. Apparently there was an arcade cabinet of this game available for play at a miniature golf course in California, beyond that the game supposedly featured a number of new plastic action figure looking humanoid fighters to choose from (as opposed to the rubber dinosaur like beats of the original. A bone dragon planed for the first game (but never implemented) was the last boss. Regardless of how good a fighting game it was, I would have liked to play the new version of Vertigo, the fanged bite on that poisons blue frill-necked snake/lizard had one heck of a reach. Oh well...

Elveon is...well...if you've ever played an cult classic 2001 PC title called Severance: Blade of Darkness then your most of the way there. If not then maybe Dark Souls or Demon's Souls would be the next closest thing. To cut to the chase Elveon was supposed to be a third person fantasy combat game with priorities placed heavily on animation and physics. I would say that I was really sad to hear it got cancelled except it never officially was. It just sort of disappeared sometime around 2008 with no word since. Talk about vaporware...

Elf on elf action doesn't mean what you think in this game
On the upside game play for pretty much all the stuff I mentioned above can be seen on Youtube. If you click on the game title at the beginning of each paragraph (except the first and last).  It will take you to one such video. You can also find out a lot of additional information do a little searching around on the internet. That's really just the tip of the iceberg though. Not just for the games I mentioned in this blog post, but also for all the games that never were, and for better or worse probably never will be.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mediocre Mickey

With the collapse of Junction Point Studios the saga of Epic Mickey has come to an end. To say that the name of this particular series is a misnomer would be a sever understatement. Yes, legendary game designer Warren Spector was at the helm of the project (In case you don't know he was the producer for a number of high profile titles such as, Wing Commander, Ultima, System Shock, Des Ex and Thief), but he, for whatever reason, was unable to call up his previous greatness. Strange considering the resources at his disposal. Over one-hundred employees backed by funding from Disney Interactive and access to the archives of the biggest animation company in the world. Despite having more support than a developer could ever realistically hope for, both Epic Mickey and Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two were lackluster games at best. Neither had particularly engaging story hooks. The pacing was sluggish and the gameplay antiquated. Technical issues plagued both titles and the second entry suffered especially grievously from frame rate drops.

So, all this got me thinking about what a goldmine of material exists in the vaults of the Disney empire. I can't understand how a talented veteran of game design could squander such a virile opportunity. Now, I know what some people might think. Disney, outside of Pixar, is just a bunch of kid's films, right?  Well...yes...the majority of Disney's stuff is cartoons, but there's some real gems that you might have forgotten about, or possibly never heard of.

Starting with animation we got the classic "Fantasia" (not the one with the gimmicky "2000" attached to it).  At the theater this collaboration of symphony music and elegant imagery has many evocative moments.  Ultimately, it was a financial failure, but Walt Disney himself said that he did not regret making the film.  As far as I'm concerned he was right because there is something timeless about the scenes as they are presented.  Regardless of how you feel about the film, some of these locals would have been incredible fun to explore in a video game setting.

Another overlooked entry is the "Black Cauldron". Originally a series of novels, this story has also been made into a adventure game by Sierra. Aside from having an usually grim look and feel there were a number of edited scenes including a sentient cloud of flesh devouring mist. The undying "Cauldron Born" and pain-wracked Horned King, in particular, are truly frightening advisories.  Especially when compared to many of the comical foes in more recent Disney films. Sufficeth to say video game villains don't get much more antagonistic than these guys.

 On the flip side there is a live action sci-fi Disney film that comes to mind. No, not "Tron"...although that might make for a fun game too. The movie I'm thinking of is the "Black Hole". Somewhat corny by modern standards, it still has a lot of video game potential; a brainwashed crew led by a mad genius, killer robots, laser gun fights, a massive cathedral-like starship on the edge of a maelstrom in space and time...what's not to like? The designers of the original Dead Space even specifically mentioned the look of the USG Ishimura being inspired by the Cygnus. 

Moving on we have Dragonslayer, a co-production by paramount and Disney featuring virgin sacrifices and one of the best pre-CG dragons to be put on film. Perhaps the most interesting part of this particular piece of IP is it's de-constructive story which in some ways weakens the film, but ultimately would be repeated with much greater success when G.R.R. Martin began writing his landmark series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire.  Plus is there, or has there ever been, a dragon with a cooler name than Vermithrax Pejorative?  Literally the dragon's name is Latin for "The wurm that makes things worse."

All these resources and more existed for Warren Specter to use. He had the entire Disney library at his disposal. Yet neither him, nor anyone else working at Junction Point Studios were able to do more than crank out a pair of dull third person platformers. Even worse still they were given a second chance and still ended up producing another utterly forgettable product to toss on the junk pile of Mickey merchandise. I would like to call it an "Epic Fail Mickey," but the truth is both games aren't really that bad, just bland and unremarkable. I can't even say they overreached and fell because it's really more like they never even tried to live up to anywhere near their full potential. Bleh!
Now this is epic!


Friday, February 8, 2013

Macro Transactions

I remember going to the Disney Land amusement park in California about two decades ago and thinking it was strange that the video arcade near Space Mountain required everyone to pump quarters into the machines to play.  Didn't everyone in this arcade already pay a lot of money to get into Disney Land?  Therefore the games should be free, right?  Wishful thinking from a naive boy, I suppose.  Disney, at least during Eisner's reign, was driven by maximizing profits above all else.  It nearly ruined the company, which leaves me convinced that obsessing over short term profits has a destructively high cost down the road.

What am I getting at here?  Well, looking at the direction micro-transactions are going, I can't say the situation between companies like EA now, and Disney then, are all that different.  As Jim Sterling put it, "pay-to-play has become pay-to-pay."  It's a system driven by unrestrained greed.  Now, I know there's someone out there that's going to drag up the old argument  "So what?  EA is a business and businesses got to make money."  Well...sure, but such an excuse could be used to rationalize pretty much any abusive practice.  "Got to dump these toxic chemicals directly in the river 'cause it's too expensive to dispose of  them properly," or  "Minimum wage is too high so it's time to exploit child labor markets in third world countries."  Plus, I have to ask what steps do these companies take to keep their accounts in the black?  FYI, executives giving themselves multi-million dollar bonuses at the end of every year isn't the best way to ensure a financial healthy corporation.

All this is trivial though compared to the real harm that's being done to the game industry.  The true crime on display here is the degradation of the craft.  Yes, developers need to turn a profit otherwise they can't eat.  No, that doesn't mean that they should custom tailor their game to adhere to some "successful" business model.  I put success in quotes because it's a fallacy to assume that if something works once, it's guaranteed to work again (I'm looking at you World of Warcraft copycats).  Consumers aren't dumb.  Okay...some of them are, but generalizing everyone who plays video games like that is simply stereotyping and egregiously wrong.  Sooner or later all but the most clueless learn to spot PR bullshit, over hyped trailers, broken DRM schemes and paid DLC that consists of stuff once called cheat codes or new-game-plus (you trophies, except they're actually useful).  Its gotten so bad I'm not sure a new generation of hardware is going to turn around general feelings of disillusionment.  

That said, I don't think there will be a crash like in 1983-1984.  Rather we're more likely to see a much slower grinding down of the industry.  38 Studios, THQ and Junction Point are just some of the most recent casualties.  I also suspect that if current trends continue in a few years indie games (not so bad) and Skylanders (not so good) will be all that's left.   How did it come to this?  Well, the only thing I can say is maybe that kid in Disney Land wasn't so naive after all.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Next XCOM

Whether it be called "Enemy Aware" or "Terror from the Sky," I'm really looking forward to playing Firxas' next entry in their turn based strategy series. Personally, I feel that the gameplay is top notch and many of the things that people complain about online are not flaws, but rather design choices made to improve the overall experience. However, I do think there are a few tweaks and refinements that could be made to improve the formula. Here are the suggestions I would like make:

1.) Emergency Reinforcements
Considering the original XCOM allowed for squads starting at 14 and going up to 26, the new limits of four to six feel a bit small.  I realize the reason for tiny teams of operatives though.  The idea is to create attachment to each person in the field by making him or her a valued member of the group.  So, in order to not undermine this theme, here is my suggestion.  Allow a special action in which the player can call in a small back up team if all but one or two XCOM agents are incapacitated.

2.) Base Defense
This was in the first three main series games, but got cut from the remake because they couldn't get the AI to function correctly.  I'm not sure what the problem was exactly regarding that, but I would love it if they found a way to work it back in.  Aside from adding to mission variety, part of the appeal of base defense comes from getting to using automated defense systems you built over the course of the game.  Not to mention it adds to the feeling of escalation as the conflict climbs to ever greater levels of intensity.

3.) Exotic Battlefields
Alien base raids are great, as is assaulting UFOs.  Some of the DLC includes a midair battle over China.  Sounds great!  Lets have more of that, and while we're at it, how about taking the fight to aliens in their home dimension (or off-world base)?  The first XCOM game had a final mission to Cydonia, Mars.  And XCOM: Apocalypse had ten separate raids on facilities located in an alien dimension.  Granted, I imagine that the level designers didn't want to waste precious resources creating lots of strange looking locals, so how about having soldiers stumble on mock-ups of human buildings which the aliens use for experiments and training?  It would be so cool and bizarre to stumble on a generic looking house (complete with white picket fence) in the middle of an alien environment.

4.) Air Duels
I'm not sure how to best approach this one.  It definitely feels like there needs to be more to air combat.  Ideally something in which the player has more control would be great.  It would also be nice if we could gang up on UFOs or even create dynamic dogfights and furballs rather than just seeing an abstract screen in which two flying vehicles simply engage in the the equivalent of a drunken punching match.  Yes, I know the first game and the followup sequel were about the same in terms of complexity, but that was almost 20 years ago.  Time to make some improvements to the way interception missions play out.

5.) CQC
Maybe it's just me, but I found pistols to be fairly useless.  I know there are a few situations where they come in handy, but I still feel like the whole secondary weapon slot was underutilized.  Why not have it possible to include some unique alternative weaponry like the toxic dart guns from XCOM: Apocalypse?  They were some uniquely effective devices to use against enemies.  Plus, melee weapons for XCOM agents are completely nonexistent.  Come on game!  I want to be able to bayonet a Muton (living to brag about it can still be optional of course).

6.) Hybrid People
So, the aliens keep capturing humans for experimentation, right?  It's also established through autopsy reports that the aliens have incredible control over organic cell structures.  They've also modified other species of aliens to suit a variety of tasks (Mutons/Floaters are probably the best example).  If all this is the case we should get to see a kind of converted human made to serve alien needs.  Perhaps a hybrid sectiod/human DNA mix would be appropriate since that particular type of individual exists in the the third installment and was mentioned in text sources as far back as the first game.  This would also allow for the overarching narrative to continue exploring and expanding on ethical dilemmas which the named members of XCOM grapple with via dialogue snippets throughout the game.