Sunday, September 16, 2012

Faster Than Light and Let's Play

You are the Captain, your ship has been recalled from mothballs; underpowered, undergunned, and with limited supplies you are on the run from an ever encroaching armada with information vital to the war. And yet you and the few officers you could scrape up into your crew are all that stands between victory and defeat. This is Faster Than Light.

If you want to watch my continuing adventures as Captain, I've included a Let's Play video to go along with this review. This is the first in the series so check out the channel as I upload the rest of the playthrough.

Faster Than Light or FTL is a space simulation by Subset Games, and the closest I think anyone has come to giving you the feel of actually commanding a starship in battle. Now it is definitely an indie game, funded by kickstarter in fact, and is defined by this fact. The graphics are pretty, but there's no 3D or photorealism, FTL is more reminiscent of X-Com than a modern space game(e.g. Star Trek Online or even Descent: Freespace). One of the great joys of these types of games is in customizing your ship, replacing weapons and upgrading systems, and FTL has a very clean and very intuitive method for that. But really, the core of being a Captain in the vein of Star Trek is being able to yell "More power to shields!" or "Divert power from Life Support to the Engines!" This is the game that lets you do that, without the dogfighting that is rather inherent in many of the other games of the genre. The music is again, reminiscent of games of yesteryear, but surprisingly well done.

The various weapon systems all have a unique feel, and there are vastly different strategies one can take, for instance focusing on missiles, or drones, or ion cannons, or even starting boarding actions, but all these must be weighed against their costs and weaknesses. You'll often find yourself weighing the options of upgrading various subsystems versus the possibility of needing the scrap for repairs or fuel down the line. And there's nothing more heartbreaking than having to make the decision on who to send to try and repair your life support systems while there's a hull breach. To lock them in to almost surely suffocate, or risk the whole crew by opening the airlocks and hoping they repair it before everyone dies.

-Intuitive Energy control and weapon system
-Really captures the feel of being the Captain of a Starship
-Lots of tactical options for how you want to play your ship
-You will become attached to your crew...and their inevitable heroic sacrifices
-Randomly generated universe means a different experience every time

-Not all of the tactical options are viable
-You probably won't live long enough to see all of them
-Crew positions are limited(if you have more than 4 crew, the rest are simply relegated to damage control/security)
-Limited events
-Randomly generated universe can screw you over

All in all it's an excellent game for the price, as long as one manages their expectations. The game is a roguelike, and one should expect to die, a lot. Do not expect it to be easy, death is death, and you'll be right back at the start if you encounter it.  It was an indie game and they accomplished what they set out to do, making for a very enjoyable product. But it feels like it could have been so much more, I couldn't help but think that with a basic trading module this could have become a wonderful sandbox game as well akin to Freelancer, or implemented more uses for large crews. And after a few playthroughs one gets used to the same sets of events to know what to avoid.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I read from Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey brings the over the top action and grit to the urban fantasy stage, with a healthy dollop of noir right on top. James Stark has spent a decade in hell fighting in the gladiator pits after being betrayed by those he thought of as his friends, taking on whatever demon or monstrosity that they could throw at him, and coming out stronger for it. Now he's back, with a key that opens any door and a knife stolen from a Prince of hell, and he's ready to take revenge on the people who sent him there. Now he has a new name, Sandman Slim, the Monster who kills Monsters.

So, we would be remiss if we didn't compare our anti-hero to his peers in the genre. Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, and Simon R. Green's John Taylor are the ones that come to the forefront. Well, here's what you do, kill their loves ones, send them to hell for 11 years, and release them when they're good and angry and just don't have any more fucks to give. Sandman Slim is the over the top, bloody adventure that reads as if Hunter S. Thompson and Robert E. Howard got together to write the most badass urban fantasy hero they could imagine.

While I try not to spoil much, it's pretty indicative that some of the first actions our protagonist takes on his return include mugging a druggie and cutting the head off one of his old friends. The drugged up streets of LA make for a fitting background for this revenge romp, and Sandman Slim does not disappoint. Our protagonist does not hesitate to brawl with angels and demons, all the while tearing up the streets and giving the finger to the magical oversight committee. 

On the other hand, it's certainly not a perfect novel, or anywhere near that. It feels a more than a bit unpolished, perhaps a result of the book seeming partly written in the middle of a drugged up rage. And although the side characters are interesting, they sometimes only get a little bit of the reflected limelight. We end up with barely sketched caricatures, when we really are rooting for these characters to step out and become three dimensional. Because the premise for so many of these are so promising, angels and devils and monsters all. There are loose ends galore and it almost feels as if we miss out of parts of the story that should be there. For example where the name Sandman Slim actually came from. The other issue is that for some, James Stark may simply not be a likeable protagonist. He does some pretty crummy things while learning to be a hero.

In the end, the best way that I can describe Sandman Slim is a gritty romp. As long as you don't expect a masterpiece, or a very original plot, then dive on in and enjoy this vulgar, bloody tale of revenge and ass kicking.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Growing up Geek: The Hermit Crab Races

So I figured that I'd add some of that maniacal laughter back into this blog, these stories may only be tangentially related to gaming, but they will definitely be funny. Because not only was I a geeky little kid, I was a geeky little kid in Florida, Dave Barry said it best in calling South Florida a magnet for weird.

There were of course, the hermit crab races. A game played in sailors bars, and best enjoyed, or perhaps only enjoyed after a copious amount of alcohol consumption. I recall that my mother, of infinite patience and no small amount of courage would take me as a treat. I had seen it once while on vacation and now requested it quite often. It was an open air bar along the docks, one where the sun and salt sea air mingled with the aroma of diesel fuel. Which makes the most wonderful rainbow patterns in water, although I don’t recommend trying it at home.
Perhaps I’m painting it as worse than it really was. This wasn’t exactly the dingy tavern where people outnumber teeth. It was filled with generally two types of people, the ones who actually worked the seas, usually on charter fishing boats or as yacht staff. And then the ones who had the money to pretend that they did while listening to Jimmy Buffet(a word to the wise, Thou shalt not take his name in vain) and getting drunk; the sea was their calling, the ocean their mistress, the waves mother to all, well, on the weekends at least. On the weekdays those Hawaiian print shirts were exchanged for much less exciting suits and ties. Still, it must have been a strange sight for them to see a five year old bellying up to the counter and demanding to see the hermit crabs. I can only be thankful that I was such a cute kid, otherwise I’m sure we’d have been tossed overboard.
Now, a hermit crab is not a very smart animal, nor is it easy to train(at least not by drunk sailors). Thus the hermit crabs, happy in their little shells, were plucked up, had a number painted on their backs, and were dumped in a bucket. There was of course no actual linear track, no, they were rather unceremoniously dumped out of the bucket into the approximate center of the table before they started their great escape to the false freedom of the edge of the table. In fact, their speed could be clocked at somewhere between snail and brain damaged sloth. But despite all of this, I was fascinated. Yeah, I think my mother caught on by then that I was a bit of a weird kid, as I faithfully cheered my hermit crab on to the finish edge, where if it was lucky, a slightly inebriated patron would catch it before it fell off entirely.
The slow and unlucky hermit crabs. Well, let us not talk about what happened to the slow and unlucky hermit crabs whilst amongst a bunch of drunken sailors. 

A small hermit crab
Less Sonic the Hedgehog than, 
Earthworm Jim sans suit.

Friday, January 13, 2012

PCs Ruining Everything - How My PC's founded the Kingdom of the Gnolls

Player Characters Ruining Everything. This is the first in what I hope to be a new series of posts, of the most insane, dubious, intentionally gamebreaking, and simply stupid things that PCs do. Bonus points if they have massive unintended consequences. So feel free to send in stories of how your PCs did their utter best to ruin things, and how you worked it out, preferably in a humorous way.

This one is actually two stories, how my PC's unleashed the ghoul apocalypse and founded the Kingdom of the Gnolls. For those that don't know what a Gnoll is, in DnD it's essentially a hungry gibbering hyena man, as illustrated by this picture here.

Now there was a war going on, and they were on a mission to take and hold a keep held by a rebel lord. I tried to impress upon them that it was a strategic position controlling the plains area and important to both sides. When that didn't work, I mentioned that it was on top of a burial mound filled with treasure.

To fill in the setting, they passed by some interesting things on the way there, just outside the city was an alchemist that had managed to create a bunch of ghouls and a few ghasts. They killed the alchemist, but due to a turning attempt by the Paladin most of the monsters were still alive<. The PCs of course, chose not to follow them...not enough loot potential. The actual loot in the alchemist's hut, well they burnt the place down with some of the lesser ghouls inside. As you will see later, the PCs go-to solution of BURN THE PLACE DOWN, will come back to haunt them later.

They also met a regiment of "Fearsome Orcs and Ogres" which were really a bunch of goblins and a 12 year old human orphan with an oversized helmet that had a sign saying ogre painted on the side. Just a little tidbit to explain how the war was being conducted(incompetently.
So the party had a very lucky druid survivalist character with them...same level as everyone else, but their survival rolls ended up bringing back enough food to feed a small platoon. So I end up rolling a tribe of gnolls as a random encounter one night, and because they had so much food, instead of alerting the rest of the characters, the person on guard just tosses a big leg of goat into the bushes when they hear the rustling and strange noises. Well, the gnolls decided not to attack...instead they're now following the party. And the party....they tended not to be very diplomatic to say the least, so there are plenty of dead corpses left behind. Which meant that the gnolls were happily following along as they got their meal ticket.

The PC's finally get to the keep, which is a large fortification with a pretty epic battle that they fight both upstairs storming it, and in the dungeons where all the former soldiers are now prisoners and are being forced to mine out gems and artifacts. The PCs actually pulled off some smart moves to take the place, using cover, subterfuge and planning out avenues of attack. I was well ready to reward them richly for this.

Well, they beat the guards and orc mercenaries occupying the keep, but have the bright idea of using the storehouse/barracks as a funeral pyre. Before they checked out if there was anything worth keeping inside the place...and then things start to go sour for them. They now have about three dozen prisoners, former soldiers of their employers actually, who are unarmed and now starving. The plan to occupy and hold the keep was rapidly going downhill, despite some of the non-good characters suggesting that the prisoners be sent on a march to certain death through a war zone back to friendly lines. Even the good characters were starting to question how to deal with them when it was revealed that even with pooled rations and lucky survival roles the PCs as well as the prisoners would begin taking damage from starvation before they made it back.

That night a group of assassins(from a former employer that they screwed over, but that's another story) hit them, which they beat off, barely, I think all the PC's were down to single digit HP or unconscious. But the last two assassins, who decided that they weren't being paid enough, run out into the night, where the gnolls have been getting hungry over the past few days because, well...where are all the dead bodies the adventurers usually produce!

The gnolls eat the last two assassins and the PC's decide, hey, you know what, we're going to starve or the gnolls will eat us if we stay here. So let's give the keep to the gnolls! So they give the keep to the gnolls, at this point I gave them a little reminder about the strategic importance of the keep to the area, but they decide to just book it.

Well, they finally get back to the city they had started from...which is now a burnt wasteland as ghoul fever rampaged through the place(remember those ghouls/ghasts that they didn't think were worth chasing down). Essentially a minor zombie apocalypse had played out in their absence. Which eventually burns itself out, but took the city state out of the war. And so we come to realize, that as the war ends, both sides have been devastated, and the PC's have given the most strategic piece of real estate...AND a tomb filled with all sorts of wonderful treasure that I had rolled up for them to take, to the Gnolls....

And that is how my PC's created the Kingdom of the gnolls

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe

Dark Jenny is the third in Alex Bledsoe's Eddie LaCrosse series, now I've actually been thinking about how to review this, since to really delve into it runs the risk of spoiling all the little twists and turns that Bledsoe has added. On the other hand, given that the novel is a pastiche of Arthurian legend as seen through the eyes and grit typical of a LaCrosse story, we all know how it's going to end.

Alex Bledsoe set out to retell the King Arthur(Marcus Drake) story and fit it into the Eddie LaCrosse universe, where good women die and sell swords get the short end of the stick. Which really creates the conundrum of whether to take this as a story of Arthurian legend in LaCrosse's style, or an Eddie LaCrosse novel that takes place in its version of Arthurian legend.

Taking it as the former makes for a good story. Some of the tension is lessened by the framing device and the fact that we know the general results of the fiasco, however it's the journey that matters, and it's one hell of a journey. Although it seems that every author takes their shake at rewriting the myth, what shines here are the well written characters that evoke love, hate, or awe, which are one of Bledsoe's strengths. These characters that we know from the legend are brought to life in a way that is quite fitting with the atmosphere of the LaCrosse universe. There are of course the trademark anachronisms that populate the LaCrosse universe, their version of Merlin for example throwing in a nice bit of levity into the book. And the twist on the tale that is woven into it is both respectful to the tale and logical to the fantasy noir nature of the novel. By itself, and in that respect it is well written and a novel take on the King Arthur mythos.

Viewing it as an Eddie LaCrosse novel is where I have a few issues with it, if only in comparison to contemporaries and to the other books in the series. The genre of fantasy noir, or the dark mirror of urban fantasy(perhaps fantasy urban? urban elements in a fantasy world) has certain authors that have put their mark on it. Glen Cook's Garrett PI series for example, or Martin Scott's Thraxis series, a benchmark that the first two Eddie LaCrosse books have met or exceeded. One of the features that crop up however, is a general progression of world and story, an accumulation of allies and enemies, and by virtue of the framing device of Eddie telling the story over drinks, we really don't see much of that. It's a recounting of a chapter that is now closed, and as such feels almost independent of the greater Eddie LaCrosse universe. In another series I would say that this makes it a good entry point for new readers, but the first book of the series is simply so strong that I would always recommend them to start there.

In the end though, it is a strong retelling of the Arthur tale in a fantasy noir style and with a good dose of both grit and playfulness. On the other hand it doesn't actually advance Eddie's life much and can likely be read out of order without too much worry. If you've been following the LaCrosse series then go ahead and get it, you'll enjoy it. If you haven't been following the series, start at The Sword Edged Blonde, and move on from there.

Friday, January 6, 2012

5 Childhood Cartoon Knockoffs Gone Wrong

My list of 5 horribly, horribly bad cartoons that we were exposed to as children. These are shows with really, little to know redeeming value, often cliche knockoffs trying to pick at the popularity of the shows we actually wanted to watch. Either way, we all cringed when they came up in the Saturday morning lineup. So here are my top, or rather, bottom 5 picks for the worst cartoons that we suffered through.

5. Street Sharks - TOTALLY JAWSOME. Remember shouting that catch phrase out? No? Well me neither, because it was unabashedly idiotic. A blatant knock off of the fondly remembered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, without any of the charm. Four conveniently color coded mutated brothers fighting crime and mad science. Oh, and add in a healthy dose of EXTREME! to the mix, as each has their own EXTREME sport and accessories. One can just imagine the creative process behind this series, "Turtles are making money, we need to get in on this! Quick, pick an animal, and make it extreme! The kids are into that aren't they? We can make them extra edgy, ohh yeah, skateboards, roller skates, bikes!" And in the end, they succeeded in making a particularly toxic melange that is recalled by 20 somethings to this day as the sucky show that was on when you didn't have any other decent choice.

4. Mighty Ducks - HERE COME THE MIGHTY DUCKS. Please, hide your children. So this came out at the tail end of the Mighty Ducks movie popularity, and had the appropriate quality of something coming from that end of a duck. Now, think back to the Mighty Duck movies, inspiring tale of underdogs, Emilio Estavez as the inspiring unorthodox coach, kids overcoming their issues and rising to the occasion. Okay, now replace all of that with: Aliens, anthropomorphized ducks, and a horribly overused plotline of "brave resistance fighters who have fled their evil oppressors to earth." And you have the Mighty Ducks cartoon. The only resemblance to the movie is their name and the fact that hockey is vaguely intertwined with, well I'm at loathe to call it a plot. Because coincidence of coincidences, hockey is a way of life for our alien heroes, thus we have vaguely hockey themed armor, a cast of insipid characters and aliens trying to play hockey. That anyone watched this show for more than a single episode thinking: "Oh hey, a cartoon version of the Mighty Ducks" and then cringing in absolute soul crushing horror as the realization settled in, boggles the mind.

3. Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century - Okay, so as much as I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories, this series was just unnecessary. This is another show where one can imagine the creative process, "Sherlock Holmes is a classic! And Educational! Parents will MAKE their kids sit down for this. But we gotta add in Robots and gratuitous 3d. Oh, and it needs to be set in the future. And let's add in a female lead just for kicks and giggles." And thus, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century was born. If one stripped away the setting, and the 3d sequences, it might have made a good show. Instead, they tried to rehash old Sherlock Holmes plots with the added FUTURE elements. It simply did not work as intended, and the result was something that comes off as horribly dated and seemed to talk down to the audience at every step of the way.

2. Challenge of the GoBots - Do I really need to go into these? GoBots, for when your grandmother wanted to buy you those transforming robots and picked the wrong ones. Bog standard "formerly peaceful good rebels fighting their evil counterparts as the battle comes to Earth" plot, with the added horror of the fact that the Gobots were actually former flesh and blood beings implanted inside the robots. Yes, an extra serving of nightmare fuel for the GoBots. Just like you really would rather have had a real Transformers toy, you wished for the real Transformers cartoon when this came on.

1. Sonic Underground - There were good Sonic the hedgehog shows, there were decent Sonic the hedgehog shows, and then there was this crap. Because we all knew from the game that sonic was in a band, with his brother and sister, and heir to the kingdom, oh and they all sported bad 80's hair and sung at their enemies to defeat them. No? But, that was the premise of this piece of failed animation that found its way onto our TVs. The bog standard plot could even be slightly forgiven taking into consideration the source material, but the decision to have the main character in an 80's hair band and fight by music, that nothing can excuse. It feels like another of those: "What are kids into these days!" brainstorming sessions that came up with exactly the wrong thing. Now the reason this makes the top of the list is not simply the incredulity of the plot, but the fact that it had such potential to be a good show. They had the examples already of the atmosphere a good Sonic show needed, the animation for this was in fact better than most of the other Sonic series that had come out, and the theme song was surprisingly catchy. But, it failed to deliver, firstly by talking down to the audience with the whole fight evil with music thing, and secondly by pretty much ignoring the whole spirit of what made Sonic...well, Sonic.

There you have it, my bottom 5 childhood cartoon knockoffs. Disagree? Have fond memories of these? Well, let me know in the comments.