Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

To Be Announced...

...more commonly abbreviated as "TBA," is a rare thing when it comes to triple-AAA game development.  Generally, once a big budget game makes its debut a release date shows up at the end of the video (or bottom of the banner).  Sometimes it's an exact date, other times a vague window like "spring of 2016," "Q4," or at the very least "coming soon" (as is the case with Paradox's science fiction themed grand strategy game Stellaris.  However, when it comes to indie developers, these kinds of target dates sometimes don't apply.  Simply put, for some indie devs the game will come out when it's done.  So, what are a few noteworthy examples?  Well...I'm glad you (I...?) asked because there are five titles in particular that have been percolating at the back of my mind, even though I have no idea when I'll actually (if ever) get to play them.

I mentioned this one about a year ago on this very blog.  Quick recap; it's a retro-future sci-fi horror game set on the moon.  Gameplay features a lot of rogue-like elements including procedural generated zones and perma-death.  For a while it seemed like the game had become vaporware, but an interview with the head of the studio last summer revealed that the game was still under active development.  One wonders if the team played Alien: Isolation or, more recently Soma, and decided to rework some of their ideas in order to avoid making something that would feel like nothing more than a cheap knock-off.  Whatever the reason, I hope I can try this game out sooner rather than later.

Aside from having some really cool promo artwork for sale, this space combat flight-sim has been quietly in the works for quite long time.  Supposedly, it will support virtual reality headsets with an in-cockpit view.  In addition to dogfights, players will be able to take command of fleets by going to a slow-mo tactical view and issuing order to supporting strike craft and even capital ships.  The sound effects are really good, and the graphics have been steadily improving with each new set of screen shots released.  I really want to purchase a copy of this game and take it for a spin, but I'm not sure I'll buy a flight stick or one of those 3-D helmets though...

Similar to the previously mentioned title, this is also a space combat flight-sim.  What makes it unique though is the graphics style.  It borrows the old rotating bitmapped sprites used in games like Wing Commander I and II, as well as Privateer.  On the other hand capital ships are fully rendered using more modern polygonal models and textures, which is probably a good thing since that was one of the weak points of those classics.  Also, unlike any of the other titles mentioned here, Wings of Saint Nazaire has an alpha build that anyone can download from the official website for free.  Like a lot of unfinished games (such as Besieged and Kerbal Space Program) development has become somewhat bogged down in the conversion to Unity 5.0, but once that hurtle is cleared development should continue.

Originally I was going to talk about a title called Slain, but it seems that game has gotten a release date (according to the Steam page, "Prepare to be slain December 9th").  So, I'm going to talk about Death's Gambit instead.  The development team is basically pitching it as a side scrolling Dark Souls.  It's not the first game to try this.  The upcoming PSN exclusive Salt and Sanctuary is pretty much being billed as the same thing.  That said, watching gameplay footage of Death's Gambit (or Slain for that matter...) remands me more of Ghosts and Goblins, Ghouls and Ghosts and even old 16-bit and PSX era Castlevania titles.  Regardless, this game is (according to the official website) coming first and foremost to the PC.

I've thrown up some gifs for this little pixle-art gem on my reoccurring end-of-the-month video game gallery posts already, but since that particular blog entry lacked any kind of explanation, I though it would be wise to elaborate on it here.  Once again, this could be thought of as an isometric Dark Souls, but to call it such might be a great disservice.  Eitr (as the old Norse word implies) is dominated by a strong Scandinavian-themed setting, but don't expect to play as a horned helmet wearing viking.  Instead players are in control of a rather capable looking shield-maiden.  That, plus the perspective makes it feel a bit like the original Diablo or the backer alpha build of Hyper Light Drifter.  There's also another game much like this called Perish, but since not much information is available for that game yet I've decided not to give it a separate spot here.

There was one more high profile game that I was going to mention on this list, but I can't quite seem to recall what it was exactly.  Something about skies...Oh couldn't have been all that important or highly anticipated...

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Back when 343 Industries was finishing up work on Halo 4 I got a chance to sit down and watch their live-action web mini-series, "Forward unto Dawn".  At the time I was mildly entertained, but put little thought into it beyond that.  However, I recently got around to watching the entire thing as a single hour-and-a-half film and found it still holds up surprisingly well.  I should stress this is coming from someone who has read their fair share of military sci-fi.  Names like Heinlein, Card, Weber, Scalzi, Haldeman and Forstchen are familiar to me and (while I've only played the first two Halo games) I've read the first four Halo novels from cover to cover.  So, what makes Forward unto Dawn special?'s difficult to point to anything in particular, rather, what makes it great is a culmination of spot-on casting, deftly applied cinematography, and a unconventional script.

Starting with the last one first, the normal way to approach a movie adaptation of Halo would be to cast Master Chief in the lead role with a Covenant Elite or Brute as the primary antagonist.  Some Precursor artifact would be the token McGuffin and the context of the war would be established via an opening montage.  Instead, we see events as a flashback through the eyes of military cadets being trained to fight a nebulous group of insurrectionists.  For the sake of brevity some of the cast fall into stereotypical roles such as the book-smart Asian, aggressive red-head, and stuck-up blonde.  On the other hand the characters with more screen time, such as Lasky and Silva, are much more three dimensional.  There's also a lot of buildup before the action really starts, and Master Chief himself doesn't show up until well past the halfway mark which (all things considered) is kind of a bold move.

The visuals are also surprisingly good.  Because of budget constraints the director couldn't rely on CGI special effects all that much.  Props are also authentic looking thanks to work done be WETA back when this was going to be a Peter Jackson production.  The Covenant are kept mostly hidden or shown only briefly which makes them far more threatening than their cartoony presentation in the games.  That said, there's still a lot interesting use of color pallets.  I especially liked the juxtaposition of the muted academic environments with vibrant battle scenes.  The image of a shimmering warthog racing down a densely forested road in the pitch-black night speaks to the quality of the lighting as well.

In order to emphasize the size difference between SPARTAN-IIs and ordinary people, actors of small and slender build were deliberately selected for Hastati squad to contrast with the actor portraying Master Chief - who stands over six feet eight inches tall (203cm).  Age, also a key theme, is well represented in the casting.  The cadets all look appropriately young which help setup the ending surprise that their rescuers aren't any older than them.  Performances are generally good, with the one noteworthy standout being Cadmon (Lasky's older brother).  Of course April Orenski's look of utter and complete mental exhaustion shortly before the credits role is priceless too.

When you consider all the different movie adaptations of video games that have been made over years (and how poorly most of them have been) Forward unto Dawn is refreshingly well done.  I would by no means call it a modern cinema classic, but when you consider the budget, original source material and the simple fact that it was released for free then this film is definitely worthy.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Discrepancies Between Worlds

Kerbal Space Program does an admirable job of modeling astrophysics and spaceflight, bu it does differ from the real thing in some significant ways.  In the interests of promoting clarity, I've made a list of seven aspects where the Kerbal universe differs from our own.

1.) Orbital Decay
One headache the crew of the ISS has to deal with on a regular basis is a constant (albeit slow) drift toward the Earth.  It's the result of friction caused by the ever so slight uppermost atmosphere, which (unlike Kerbal Space Program) doesn't cutoff at an exact altitude, but instead gradually decreases the higher you go without completely disappearing until a rather extreme distance from the planet.  Even orbital bodies without any atmosphere are subject to solar winds that slowly change the flight paths of small objects such as satellites.  Obviously the designers of KSP decided to leave this particular feature out since it adds nothing to the experience other than annoying "maintenance" in the form of orbital correction burns.

2.) Axial Tilt
Pretty much every planet in out solar system spins at an angle; Earth is titled 23 degrees, while Neptune is 30. Uranus is practically rolling around Sol.  Unlike humans, Kerbals can enjoy planets that are universally on an even keel.  Granted, some have rather off-kilter orbits, but players can (thankfully) always burn east to get a nice alignment.  Much like the previous difference, this was done for convenience of play.

3.) Weight Distribution
Sadly, not every difference is there to facilitate enjoyment.  Rockets in KSP have an annoying habit of flipping out of control shortly after launch.  This is largely the result of changes in weight distribution.  In KSP rockets drain propellant from top to bottom which causes an increasingly uneven allocation of mass throughout the vessel.  Real life rockets circumvents this problem by having the oxidant and fuel stored in separate tanks, one atop the other.  Unfortunately, the only feasible solution in KSP is to manually pump propellant around in order to sustain a relative equilibrium.

4.) Asparagus Staging
On the other hand, players do have a fairly useful engineering technique that has yet to work in reality.  Specifically, on Earth feeding fuel from one booster to another introduces all sorts of problems.  That said, the issues associated with asparagus staging are not insurmountable.  In fact, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Rocket is attempting to utilize a variant on the principle.  Weather or not it can be done successfully has yet to be seen, but perhaps it will be a case of fiction turning into reality eventually.

5.) One-Tenth Scale
In large part due to the limitations of the game engine, the size of planets, and the celestial distances between them, are represented in miniature.  While somewhat compensated by rocket performance characteristics, this design choice does cause some significant scientific oddities such as the density of Kerbin.  How does the Kerbal's home world generate so much gravity?  Is everything beneath the crust made of osmium?  Kerbol (the star) is only big enough to be a brown dwarf.  In our solar system the moon is more than twice the diameter of Kerbin, while the Earth is about the same volume as Jool.  I thought it was a long way to Eeloo as is...can you imagine trying flying the distance between Earth and Pluto in KSP?

6.) Damage
A disturbing truth about spacecraft is the thickness of the hulls, which tend to be somewhere between tin cans and aluminium foil.  In the case of damage, words like "tearing," "crumpling," "shearing," and "tattering," definitely apply.  For better or worse this sort of thing doesn't happen in KSP.  Craft are a collection of parts that are either fine or vaporized, depending on how much force they are subjected to.  The result is crashes that look like a bunch of firecrackers mixed with toy blocks, rather than mangled heaps of twisted wreckage.  Granted, accurate damage modeling is still something the video game industry (as a whole) is struggling with, so it's hard to blame KSP for being neglectful in this regard.

7.) The N-Body Problem
Figuring out how gravitational influences interact becomes exponentially complicated as the number of objects increases.  Obviously a single object is trivially easy, and two translates into a rather elegant little mathematical equation.  Go beyond that though and things start to become a real headache.  So much so, astro-navigation is done in large part by customized formulas designed to approximately model the real thing with a regrettably slight degree of inaccuracy.  Commonly called "patched conics," KSP opts not to use this and instead sets all planets and moons "on-rails," while using the aforementioned elegant equation when necessary.  The result is a bit bizarre with spacecraft suddenly transitioning from one parent body to another rather than gradually being drawn in by gravitational influences.

Of course, I haven't even touched on life support, but since Kerbal physiology is still shrouded in mystery.  It's impossible to say what their needs and tolerances are.  Heck, only recently was it revealed that they weren't a mono-gender species.  There are also mods that add in life support, and address many of the above mentioned differences in an attempt narrow the gap between game and reality.  How you feel about it is entirely subjective, but personally, I play vanilla KSP since the game is still under active development.  For now, I'm content to simply see where developers take us.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Four Flavors of Soma

It seems like every Youtuber and their pet dog is playing Frictional Games' latest entry in the horror genre.  So, I decided provide a select list of noteworthy LPs.  It's interesting to look at these videos from a sociological perspective.  Even though all four individuals are getting the same basic experience, their approach, reactions and commentary have an interesting mix of differences and similarities.

First off is the out of touch reviewer of horror games over at Kotaku.  All I can really say is it's a good thing that video game website doesn't give out numerical scores...

Up next we have a wisecracker who normally doesn't play scary games on his channel, but is making an exception for this one.  While I don't always like his videos at the very least he always seems to have something to say...

Moving on, this LPer is in a lot of ways the diametric opposite of the previous two - a cautious observer who enjoys a mixture of sci-fi and horror like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Last, but not least, is the "Queen of the Let's Plays."  Note that she flashes back to the opening of the game in the second part of her video series in order to avoid pre-release spoilers.