December 9, 2015

0 AD Alpha Syllepsis … A Great Improvement!


Wildfire Games released its latest version of a game I’ve been avidly following, 0 A.D. Alpha 19, codenamed Syllepsis. After a couple of evenings trying it out, I have to say there are some fantastic improvements and new features to have fun with:

First off, there’s a new gameplay feature: capturing buildings and siege units. This is a load of fun, and fondly recalls to mind another small-press yet very enjoyable game, Haemimont’s Nemesis of the Roman Empire: the Punic Wars. In the latter game, an extra level of challenge was added by requiring you to defend various buildings across the map lest your enemy cut your supply line or gain a vital resource you needed.

Capturing in 0 AD does something similar, as now there’s always a risk of the foe capturing isolated town centers, towers, and even siege units that are cut off from their escorts. There’s a satisfying feeling of poetic justic when you take the Briton’s battering rams (seems the AI favors rams with the Celtic factions) and using them against the foe.

Capturing also speeds up the game a lot, as you no longer have to stop to build new town centers to replace enemy ones you’ve destroyed. The need to guard your own from capture also adds a breathlessness to the game’s pace as you shuttle armies back and forth  between threatened centers.

Formations and Pathfinding Improvements
The developers have redone the formations and pathfinding AI, and there are now some improvements and interesting tactical wrinkles. This 19th alpha version is still bugged, as the developers clearly warn, but overall I see improvements.

One interesting wrinkle of the new patfhinding/formation AI (they’re inextricably linked) is that units go out of formation whenever they build or repair, and skirmishers break formation in combat since that is indeed their job. So another challenge of the game is that you have to remember to re-form your units ever so often in combat, which for me makes it feel closer to actually having to command an army. Formations count for a lot in upping offensive and defensive power.

Going out of formation also makes movement much faster, specially when going through forest or around obstacles. Again, this makes sense: an army wouldn’t be able to stay in formation in a forest.  The game also runs with far less lag now thanks to these improvements.

Unfortunately, there is still a bug with  movement, and it tends to come up when moving through thick forest. The one time the game crashed on me, it was I tried to force an army through forest toward an enemy town center. I had a save game just prior to that, and when I tried chewing through the forest instead (by gathering wood from it), the crash did not repeat. Seems the best way to deal with thick forest is to do as the Romans did on the Rhine – they cut roads through them.

You can watch the new features preview video and download the game here.

December 8, 2015

Sword and Sorcery … with Rockets


Sword and sorcery with rockets. That’s what she wrote, and I just found out today would’ve been her 100th birthday. Who? Leigh Brackett, that’s who.

This won’t be the first time I’m saluting Brackett on this blog, and it likely won’t be the last. I’m STILL waiting for a proper Eric John Stark movie. When it finally gets made, I hope it’s handled much better than Disney’s failure to realize the potential of John Carter of Mars. (The House of Mouse execs totally missed what made the movie special to SF fans – and they missed the fact that they’d released the movie on the centennial of the novel it was based on!)

Anyway, back to S&S. Leigh Brackett was best known for her ‘planet adventure’ stories, set on fictional versions of Mars, Venus, and extrasolar planets (e.g. Skaith). Beginning as a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Brackett rather early on made a resolution to be a science fiction writer. She hit her stride in the 40s and 50s, and continued writiing into the 1970s. Her last project was to draft an early version of the script fro Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Brackett used scientific ideas in her stories with a light and often wavy hand. She was never a hard sci fi kind of writer. Instead she specialized in character and atmosphere, all tied together with very tightly paced plots. She brought the hard-boiled vibe of the 1930s detective stories into her F&SF, with hard-hitting results. She had very punchy ways of describing characters, almost impressionistic yet incredibly brief.

Her heroes were definitely in the old-pulp school of S&S: tough and two-fisted, scarred, honorable but with moralities well off from the norm. Take her signature creation, Eric John Stark: Stark is a fighter on the level of REH’s Conan, a feral child like Tarzan, but with a very hard-boiled personality that’s not without idealism. He’s been an outlaw, and when we first encounter him in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (aka The Secret of Sinharat), he has just been a mercenary aiding native rebels on Venus, and is wanted by the law for it.

Queen of the Martian Catacombs goes on to involve Stark in a secret plot to restore power to the Ramas, a civilization of immortals who steal bodies from the young and able and transfer their minds into them. There’s a mad ride through a sandstorm, swordfights, secret tunnels and hidden wells, and all of it happens against the  backdrop of Brackett’s splendid vision of a dying planet. Save for the dying planet bit and the fact that the protagonist is explicitly called an Earthman, this could’ve been sold as a straight sword and sorcery piece.

But it wasn’t. Brackett’s first love had always been the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not the Hyborian Age. Her sword and planet stories combine the very best of what we liked in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs: vivid worlds, sparely-drawn yet memorable characters, stories that whisk you away into another place and time and leave you breathless before the end. Brackett wrote magic.

And that’s why I’m blogging about her on her 100th birthday, because so many F&SF fans now have never read a Brackett story nor even known her name.

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