Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Re-imaginings of Futures Past

Remakes are all the rage these days which makes me wonder why no developer has revisited the Wing Commander franchise.  With the success of War Thunder's free-to-play model and Star Citizen's fund raising efforts, you'd think it would be a no-brainier.  Then again, it's surprising how many people have never heard of Wing Commander.

If you're not familiar with the IP, it's basically World War 2 in space.  An alien race of bipedal felines, called the "Kilrathi," are stand-ins for the Japanese while humans, or "Terrans" (as they are called in-universe), are the Americans (although their ethnic diversity reminds me of the RAF during the Battle for Britain more than anything else).  Regardless, the game is really about dogfights and fleet actions, just in space instead of the Pacific.

I won't go into great detail about how to do a remake, mostly because someone else has done an fairly good job of laying out how to go about it.  For the sake of brevity, I will try to summarize some of the ideas presented in the link provided here.

Rather than spanning over a  hundred different solar systems, the area of conflict is narrowed to a pair of neighboring stars, Sol and Proxima Centauri.  Around the red dwarf orbits a lone planet.  A thick atmosphere allows only a dim haze of crimson illumination to filter down to a tropical jungle of dark colored foliage.  This is the home of the apex predators known as the Kilrathi.  Their large stature is the result of a low gravity environment, their "cats-eyes" a natural evolutionary adaptation to the low-light conditions, geological instability has resulted in steep mountain ranges and long chains of volcanic islands which in turn has contributed to the formation of their aggressive, warlike society.

A war between two stars might sound too small compared to the vastness of the original setting, but don't forget that space (even in the limited context of our own solar system) is really huge.  It's easy to think of various planets as being roughly analogous to places of conflict during the Pacific War; Mars as Hawaii, Mercury as the Aleutians, the Asteroid Belt as the Solomon Islands, Jupiter (with all it's moons) as the Philippines, Saturn as Malaysia and the moon Titan - Saipan.  Perhaps Uranus and Neptune could be Rabal and Truk respectively.  Pluto would make a good Iwo-Jima.

Of course, the link above goes into even more detail, especially regarding the individual pilots and fighter spacecraft.  The only major thing I'd like to add is the notion of the emperor (and imperial family) being non-indigenous to Kilrah.  The Kilrathi always struck me as being far too primal to naturally develop into a space-faring race.  If their technology and organization were the result of an "up-lifting" by another enigmatic race then things would make more sense (at least to me).  It was an idea suggested in the novels, but I'd like to see it more integral to the setting.

I also think a bit more strategic input would work wonders for the setting.  Looking at the pre-alpha footage of Enemy Starfighter, it's pretty clear that a lot is being done to innovate on the space flight-sim combat genre.  Being able to switch control from one spacecraft to another could easily be justified in-universe if the player character were a remote drone pilot.

In terms of graphics, I think there's a number of improvements that can be made.  Sure, detailed textures are great, but aesthetically I'd like to see some of the sleeker designs of the earlier games, rather than the boxy shapes that came later.  Battle damage tends to not receive the attention it deserves which is why I'd love to see ship models that allow wings to get ripped off, noses smashed in, and ruptured hulls bleeding trails of vapor.

Rather than heavily scripted missions with rigidly defined objectives, it would be great to see a more dynamic framework the adjusts depending on how well the player does during sorties (think Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, but with capital ships rather than orc captains).  As always, I'm going to lobby for the option to fly as the Kilrathi, if for no other reason than increased replay value.  Some kind of co-op multiplayer mode or asymmetric gameplay wherein some players fly fighters while others drive capital ships would be pretty interesting too.  Oh yeah...and the obligatory traitor pilot should be decided via random algorithm.  Then, maybe I'll have a chance to kill Maniac without getting court-marshaled.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

All Hands on Deck

First there were airplanes, then there were tanks, and now finally this Russian multiplayer online game developer is arriving at the warships aspect of their World War 2 era trilogy of combat sims.  For me, this is were things get really exciting.  Sure, I love dogfights and tank battles, but my real passion is naval warfare from Tsushima to Ten-Go.  Interestingly enough World of Warships reminds me a lot of something I played long, long ago...

One of the first games I ever played was on my cousins Intellivision.  It bore the rather self-explanatory title, Sea Battle.  This might sound a bit silly but as far as second generation consoles go, the game was surprisingly deep.  Two players face off against each other among a chain of islands in an unnamed ocean.  Thirteen ships are available for deployment from each player's respective harbor.  Up to four squadrons (consisting of up to three different vessels) can be formed and while the number and position of all active ships is clear from the strategic map, the composition of each squadron is something that each player decides in secret via the the controller inputs. When two rival squadrons get close either player can choose to start an engagement at which point the map zooms in and combat begins. Ships are true to their class in that battleships are tough, PT boats are maneuverable, and submarines use torpedoes instead of guns. Additionally, torpedoes go in a set direction hitting the first thing in their way, while guns, on the other hand, have a target zone that can shoot over land or even other vessels. Sinking happens when a ship takes too much damage from either enemy fire or do to running aground. Players can choose to disengage, but must survive 15 more seconds of combat after opting to withdraw.  Otherwise, the battle ends once one side has been completely annihilated.  

Damaged ships can be repaired and squadrons reorganized at their home port (up to a total of three time per side).  Special minelayer ships can spread up to four invisible minefields that damage or destroy enemy vessels should they pass through the area.  That is, unless the other player has a minesweeper in their squadron.  Total victory is achieved by one side maneuvering either their carrier or troop transport into their opponents harbor.  In this way it's theoretically possible to win without ever engaging the enemy fleet.  Obviously if one side looses both of these strategically important vessels, victory seems impossible.  However, it's actually still a possibility.  When both the carrier and troop transport on each team has been destroyed, the game enters a "sudden death" mode whereby the first player to sail any of their surviving ships into the opposing harbor wins the game.

There's also a number of subtle touches like the speed of squadrons being affected by the slowest ship.  Minesweepers, in particular, move at a snail's pace on the strategic map while clearing out mines.  Hence, it's possible to make educated guesses as to the composition of enemy squadrons.  Weapons have different range and damage ratings depending on the ships class, and even have little details like acceleration ratings.  As you can probably guess, battleships hit hard and have a lot of range, but aren't exactly agile.  Then again some of the other aforementioned vessels are generally weak in combat, but have valuable roles when it comes to the strategic part of the game.

I can only hope that Wargaming and Gaijin Entertainment take some of the lessons of this old game to heart.  Granted, Sea Battle had certain limitations necessitated by the hardware.  Still, I think that this old game really shined at a conceptual level.  At the very least I'd like to see submarines and auxiliary ships introduced to World of Warships.  I know submariners tend to think of themselves as the "silent service," but that doesn't mean they play a less important part than other aspects of naval warfare.  Besides, if video games had combined fleets that included submarines 25 years ago, I don't think it's too much to ask for them now.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Flip the Role

A lot of great video games let you play the good guys.  A few good games like Dungeon Keeper and Tie Fighter let you play as the bad guys.  What I really want is more quality games that show both sides of the conflict.  Not just in the sense of an abstract opposition faction with a re-skin of the same basic unit types, but rather a complete shift in priorities to reflect the cultural lens from which the world is viewed.  Here's a trio of examples to illustrate what I mean.

Wing Commander has let players fly for the Terran Confederation in every game of the franchise.  Only two shoddy spin-off titles, the plot deficient Armada and Arena, have let us fly as the Kilrathi.  That might not sound like much of a difference to care about.  After all, space combat flight-sims play fairly similarly regardless of which side the player is on.  The thing is the Kilrathi are a race of humanoid felines with social structors built around a strict code of honor.  Ritual sacrifices to the war god Sivar must be made, the emperor must be respected, and the clan's integrity must be preserved.  This might be jarring to players that have gotten used to just maximizing their kill score, but when you get down to it every sortie has it's mission objectives.  It just so happens that when the Kilrathi fly they have different priorities than the Terrans.

Gemcraft is, in my humble opinion, the best tower defense game ever made.  It has a lot of strategic and tactical variety, as well as a cool ambiance.  The storm ravaged landscapes, long abandoned ruins, and a faceless (yet ever present foe) grabbed me from the first entry in the series.  So, instead of plopping colorful gems into towers and pit traps, how about being the one who gets to send those insect-like waves of swarmers, reavers and giants?  The notion of flipping tower defense on its head isn't a new one.  The Anomaly series is basically built around the concept of a "tower offense" game, but it isn't a true reversal of the genre nor is it set in a fantasy themed world.

The Legend of Zelda has a long standing traditional of telling the story of the green garbed hero Link.  Recently, there's been a groundswell of requests for chance to play as princess Zelda (or a female version of the protagonist).  While I like the idea of a female warrior of humble origins rescuing a male prince of great import, I'd much rather take the concept in a direction different than what basically amounts to gender swapping.  Instead, I want to play as a young Ganondorf.  It would be easy to cram his quest for the tri-force of power onto the larger chronology by setting the game before Wind Waker.  Plus, the notion of this ambitious desert nomad wandering bandit infested dunes and plundering ancient tombs has a certain appeal to me.

The last suggestion might sound like a stretch since Nintendo isn't the kind of company that supports malicious gameplay...or are they?  Don't forget about Wario.  If he can get his own collection of games I don't see why Ganondorf can't get at least one storied adventure.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Wings of Mercy

Getting stranded in space is never fun.  Low Kerbin orbit might not sound that far from home but if you don't have any engines or fuel it might as well be the far side of Eeloo.  How did end up there?  Well, lets just say being a Kosmonaut for the Arstotzka Space Program isn't all it's cracked up to be.  In defense of my former country though they did offer to add 50,000 in funds to the Kerbal Space Agency provided they could get me back down in one piece.  The thing is though the timing couldn't have been worse.

You see...after the success of the Forager 1 and 2 automated probes, along with crewed missions to Kerbin's moons, the mission planning department over at KSP had been going through some restructuring in preparation for more ambitious ventures.  Namely, the administration department had scraped a lot of older vessels in order to reduce operating expenses.  In fact, the only vehicle they had on hand at the time capable of of performing a rescue mission was the two-seat aerospace plane Sparrow.  It wasn't a great design (in all honesty) considering the thrust wash from the Sparrow's twin "thud" engines had a bad habit of melting the tail off during sharp turns.  The engineering team eventually figured out a way to get around this particular problem though by removing the thrusters altogether and replacing them with a single "swivel" rocket motor.  They also planned to launch it just like a rocket, vertically on the launch pad.  This Sparrowhawk, as the designers re-designated it, had a fat cluster of boosters strapped to it before being rolled out of the VAB.  All they needed at that point was a pilot crazy enough to fly it.  Valentina was already out on assignment in the Sun Chaser performing aerial surveys of Kerbin, and Bill'n'Bob had been earmarked for the upcoming asteroid redirect mission.  That left only one qualified Kerbonaut for the job - Jebediah.

Jeb was a household name, even back then, for his exploits on the Mün (not to mention being the first Kerbal to set foot on Minmus).  True to his reputation, no sooner had he blasted off than he had to manually adjust the thrust limiter on the "mainsail" in mid-flight in order to keep the whole thing from flipping end-over-end.  By the time Jeb made rendezvous with me a couple of hours later (and 80,000 meters up), he had shedded everything except for the Sparrowhawk spaceplane itself.  I still remember the big wide-eyed grin on Jeb's face from the front cockpit as he coasted up to my dead command module.

"Hey, you coming over, or what?" was the first thing he said to me via the com.  Eager to be free of my orbital prison, I threw open the hatch and floated the 50 or so meters to the Sparrowhawk.  For a brief moment I felt ecstatic, but that feeling quickly changed to dread once I had climbed in the rear cockpit and glanced over the gauges.  Sparrowhawk was running on fumes.

Jeb didn't waste any time though, as soon as I was strapped in he used a combination of RCS and what little fuel left in the tanks to bring us down in a high altitude re-entry fireball over the Kerbal Space Center.

"How we doing?" Jeb asked me, too focused on the controls to take note of the temperature readouts.

"Uh...fine," I answered.  "Except the front landing gear is glowing red hot.  Who's idea was it to use a fixed landing gear instead of a retractable wheel?"

"I don't know," Jeb replied as flames roared around us, "but you can tell them all about it after we've landed."

By then we had overshot the Space Center and Jeb was bringing us around over the ocean.  I could tell by our airspeed and altitude that we weren't going to make it back to the coast.  My heart sank, but Jeb just kept on grinning.

"Hope you packed a T-shirt and sandles," he yelled as he banked the Sparrowhawk into a shallow glide toward one of the nearby islands.  I watched in awe as Jeb bled the RCS tanks dry maintaining our velocity.  We made directly for an old abandoned runway nestled near an island beach.  Like a pro, Jeb pulled up just as we made landfall and after killing off the last of our remaining momentum set us down on the edge of the runway.  Despite the smooth landing, I heard Jeb curse as he hit the wheel brakes, bringing us to a gentle stop.

"Hey," Jeb called as he looked back over his shoulder at me.  His face was serious for the first time the entire mission.  "Can you hoof it on over to that control tower and see if they got a working radio to call in a pickup?  I spilled my drink all over the communications equipment when we touched down."

Now years later, I'm piloting the Clydesdale, an Orbital Utility Tug (O.U.T.) as we started construction work on Kerbin's first asteroid space station.  It's not the most glamorous job, but at least I'm back in the saddle...and besides...I'm no Jebediah Kerman.