Tag Archives: science-fiction

Retro Game Review: Halo

Man, this game is old… Oh man! I am old!

halocombatevolved530Old enough to remember when Halo was first announced. At that time Half-Life and Unreal were the big first person shoters of the day that everyone had to have played. (Though I admit I never played Unreal.) Call of Duty and Battlefield didn’t even exist yet, though there was the Medal of Honor series, which quite likely many of you never heard of. It was the time before the decade of World War II shoters and science-fiction was really the big deal, continuing the tradition of Doom and Quake. The first screenshots were just mind blowing. Because it had outdoor areas that didn’t look like total crap! The first videos of the Warthog jeep were just out of this world. The hype was on almost instantly. When Microsoft bought Bungie and announced that Halo would be the launch title for their Xbox project, it really ruffled some feather. The internet was much smaller back in 2000, but there was still plenty of nerd rage in which I heartily participated. In 2001 the game was released and a huge success, and a few years later we actually did get a PC port of the game. In 2012 followed the 10 year anniversary edition with improved graphics for Xbox 360, which I did get used last year. This review is based on my recent playthrough of this version and how it plays now, looking back at the game 13 years later.

When I first played the game, I really quite liked it a lot. Not quite as much as Half-Life or Half-Life 2, but still a fun game. And when I later got an XBox 360 I also got Halo and played through another two times. So this one it was probably my fourth playthrough of the game. I played it on Hard. The one above Normal and below Very Hard. The game doesn’t call it like that, but I already feel too old to learn all the fancy difficulty names games have these days. It was hard. The one with the two swords, but without the skull. And I have to admit, that game is really terribly boring. Okay, in the games defense, I played it the fourth time and I have an exceptional memory for environments, so I always had a pretty good idea what would be behind the next corner and where all the surprise enemy spawns would be. But still, it’s mostly a straight corridor shoter where you run down these big long hallways. These very, very long hallways of constantly repeating copy and paste segments. And playing on Hard meant I died a good number of time and checkpoints are not nearly as tight as in recent Call of Duty games, so effectively I probably ran down twice as many corridors as the actual level length. On top of that, Halo is also very effecient at recycling levels. Usually you have to fight your way from point A to point B, then there is a cutscene and you have to go almost all the way back to A again, this time with different enemies. Generally I like the idea, as fighting your way out of the base you stormed makes perfect sense. But since there is such an excessive amount of copy-paste corridor segments it really becomes very repetitive, as the levels are also pretty long.

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Why Mass Effect is my favorite fantasy game

Most people are under the impression that Science-Fiction and Fantasy are very easy to tell apart. One has space ships and lasers and the other has swords and magic. But when you look a bit deeper, neither genre is actually described acurately that well. There is plenty of sci-fi, like for example Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, which have neither starships nor lasers; just as there is fantasy with barely any swords, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or with very little magic, like A Song of Ice and Fire. And then you have something like Star Wars

The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is instead one of themes and narratives. Sci-fi is a genre that deals with technological progress and how it might affect our life in the future. Fantasy on the other hand deals with worlds that always have been fundamentally different and usually explore how our past could have turned out differently if some basics facts of life had been different; most commonly the addition of magic and monsters. And if we go with this definition for sci-fi and fantasy for now, it’s easy to see why Star Wars quite firmly falls into fantasy and isn’t really sci-fi at all. In this universe, the technologies of space ships and lasers have been around for thousands of years and different species from different planets living side by side just as long. There is neither technological progress nor social change, everything stays as it always has been. The story itself is the classic fantasy plot of the Hero’s Journey, about fighting a dark lord and his evil legions with magic and courage. Technology is not used as new tools to deal with old problems.

Now the Mass Effect series would seem quite different on first glance. It’s not set long ago in a galaxy far, far away, but is about humans from Earth just a little more than a century in the future, who just discovered advanced technology and met other intelligent species for the first time within living memory. And the writers went to great length of effort to include the most recent discoveries of physics and technology as part of the explanation how stuff in this world works. That all looks a lot lik science-fiction. But once you start looking a bit deeper and look at the themes and plot elements, it really turns to be a pure fantasy story at heart for which the technological elements are really almost entirely decorative. Very much like Star Wars, which isn’t a coincidence. A few years before developing the first Mass Effect games, the developer BioWare had made a huge commercial and critical success with the Dungeons & Dragons based series Baldur’s Gate and continues their amazing rise to probably the most important roleplaying game developers in the West with the Star Wars game Knights of the Old Republic. However, at that point they stepped away from doing licensed games and created their own series with their own setting. Dragon Age as a successor to Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect for KotOR. Particularly the first game resembled KotOR greatly in style, presentation, gameplay, and controls. But, as I know want to show, it also is really a fantasy story at heart as well. Obviously total spoilers for all three Mass Effect games below:

  • The games have six character classes. Three pure and three hybrid. The Soldier, Engineer, and Adept are really the same thing as Warrior, Rogue, and Mage.
  • The main villains are the Reapers, who are immortal beings from outside the galaxy of incredible power whose sole purpose is to kill all living people in the galaxy. A classic demon invasion plot.
  • Their main soldiers are the husks, which are made from the bodies of their victims, and are basically zombies.
  • The plot of the first game revolves around a powerful madman with strong magic powers collecting ancient artifacts, which he then uses in an attempt to open a portal to the distant realm of the reapers and allow them to invade invade the galaxy. An evil sorcerer opening a gate to hell to summon an army of demons is an old fantasy classic.
  • On the search for the artifacts, you encounter an ancient immortal creature that has been living in the deepest chambers below the ruins for tens of thousands of years and is telepatically controlling the villagers of a nearby settlement and sends them to stop you.
  • Later, in a different ruin on a different planet, you encounter an old artifical intelligence, which is basically the guardian spirit of the place, which tells you how to use the artifacts to stop the evil sorcerer from summoning the demonic army.
  • Right at the start of the second game, the hero is killed, but two years later brought back to life with magic! I mean with SCIENCE!!!
  • At the end of the game, the hero and the team of companions have to travel through an ancient and mysterious portal to find the lair of their enemy. To do that, theh first have to find a special key that allows them passage through the portal without being destroyed like the hundreds who tried to pass through it before them.
  • They find that special key in the very heart of the gargantuan corpse of one of the ancient demons. Where of course it’s spirit is still present and turned the earlier explorers into zombies.
  • When they finally make it through the portal to the villains lair, it all looks as if they have travelled right into hell. And inside the lair they find a gargantuan monster that is being build from the bodies of thousands of humans.
  • In the third game, all the Free People have unite to find an ancient artifact that may be the only way to stop the demons. And of course to do so the hero has to assault the main base of the demons and confront the god that controls it all.
  • At one point, you need to get the Krogans on your side, butt they agree to help only under the condition that you cure a terrible disease that has been spread over their world as punishment for their endless invasions and conquests of other planets. Basically, they want you to life an ancient curse laid on their ancestors.
  • To do so, you have to access a science station on their planet where one of your allies will produce a cure and use the station to spread it over the entire planet. Said cure can only be made from the blood of a single Krogan woman, who also happens to coincidentally be one of the very few high priestesses of the ancient religion.
  • However, you can’t reach the station, as it is build behind an old abandoned temple, which is currently inhabited by one of the immortal demons. So what you do is to start the ancient machines that the Krogans used to summon the great titanic creature they revered as a destroyer and mother of the most terrible monsters on the planet. You really perform an ancient ritual to summon one of the old pagan gods, who arrives to destroy the demon!
  • On another planet, you discover that the most advanced species with the best technology and magic powers have actually been altered by an even more powerful but now extinct race of creatures. They also have another one of the artifical intelligences hidden inside their great cathedral, who is like a messenger from their old gods, who has been teching them all the secrets of their technology.
  • In addition to the demon army that wants to destroy the world and take everyone back to their realm, there is also another antagonist who believes he has the power to make the demons his slaves and through them become the ruler of the galaxy.

It may be a sci-fi setting, but the main story and many of the side stories really are fantasy stories through and through.

I freaking love Star Wars!

I don’t have any true insights to share right now. But it’s May 4th and I’ve got plenty of Star Wars art on the tumblr pages I am watching for classic pulp fantasy and sci-fi art and it got me all hyped up again. And as any semi-regular readers will know, I just love Star Wars to no end. It’s pulp entertainment at its very finest. The old trilogy manages just the perfect blend of a completely outrageous and preposterous world and plot and taking itself still completely serious without making jokes about itself. (It’s the moment when the new movies try to crack a joke that they are at their lowest.) It’s far from infantile nonsense, but instead I see it as a story that is all about emotion, with the plot being a rather secondary thing. It doesn’t make much sense, and often it’s outright silly. But it’s silly only on a rational level, when you try to explain things logically. When looked at as a story that does not work by logic but by emotion, it works perfectly.

I remember quite well when I saw Star Wars for the first time. I was 10 when we moved to another city and a few months later I went to visit one of my old friends for a weekend. My dad dropped me off at the train station where my friends mom picked me up, but before we went to his home, my friend first had to get a new toy from the store next to the train station. And it was a Star Wars toy, which didn’t mean anything to me at that point. So once we got home, he showed me all his other Star Wars stuff and it all looked and sounded really fascinating, completely different from anything I’d seen before. It wasn’t anywhere like Star Trek at all. So we got permission to watch Star Wars on video on a tiny TV in his room later that evening. That stuff was totally amazing. And the next day we also watched The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Best weekend of my life! Fortunately, it was 1995 and in 1997 the special edition was rereleased first in theatres and then on video. And of course I got my parents and my brother to go see them and we got them on video for christmass that year. And I’ve stayed with Star Wars ever since. Watched the movies dozens of times, and played X-Wing and Tie Fighter on our first computer to complete exhaustion. My brother and I probably read all the novels that existed at the time, we played Jedi Knight, and Knights of the Old Republic, and my brother got a small stack of comics. And lot’s of posters. Actually I have to admit I don’t care for the new movies at all. I might not even go to see them on release, but unless the reviews are disastrous I’ll probably get around to watch them on DVD some day. Call me old, but I grew up on the stuff that was made in the 90s and early 2000s and that’s the only true way Star Wars is done for me. There are still gems of course. The Knights of the Old Republic comics are amazing and I even love playing The Force Unleashed, even though the story is one of the dumbest things ever written for Star Wars this side of Dark Empire. But even if I don’t really care for most of the things released in the last 10 years, I still love Star Wars and probably always.

I freaking love this stuff!

So here have probably the best movie scene of all time:

This is just the greatest stuff ever made. Sorry, Mass Effect, Ghost in the Shell, Dark Sun, and The Witcher. Star Wars is still so much more awesome.

Why Venus is the coolest place to go to

Everyone is still excited about Mars. And I can remember how 20 years ago it really was the big thing to do in space. Everyone was wondering if there was or is water, and perhaps there are some tiny bugs or mosses living in cracks in the ground and things like that. But now we had a lot of probes on Mars that did really well and even had a close up shot of a bit of ice under the red dust. Reaction was “huh, that’s pretty neat”, but didn’t really seem like such a great discovery anymore, with much more interesting stuff going on the Jupiter and Saturn moons and planets around other stars. And even after a decade of combing the desert of Mars, other than ice we ain’t found shit!

Hunting for life on Mars has for a very long time been more about searching for traces of microbial life on Mars from billions of years ago. With some hope to find tiny fish on Europa or Enceladus and methane rivers on Titan, Mars really looks pretty boring now. No real need to get any scientists on the ground there to research microbes anymore. So getting people on other places than Earth and the Moon is really mostly (or entirely) because we could and it would be cool. So let’s scrap going to Mars, that place sucks. Venus would be so much cooler to go to.

venusNow the big problem with Venus is that the surface is about 470°C hot and air pressure more than 90 times higher than on Earth and enough to crush almost all submarines. Also, the atmosphere consists mostly of Carbon Dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which likes to form sulfuric acid. Which makes Venus the worst place to land on in the entire solar system, other than the surface of the sun. However, you don’t have to land on it when you could also cruise around in an airship high up in the clouds. And then it’s actually probably the nicest place for humans in the solar system other thab Earth.

  • At a height of about 50 km above the surface, the air pressure is similar to that found on Earth at sea level, with temperatures around pleasant 20 to 30°C.
  • The atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which are both not harmful to humans. You would suffocate because there is no oxygen to breath, but that luxury is found nowhere except on Earth.
  • This only leaves the sulfur dioxide as the remaining nasty environmental factor, but when sulfuric acid reacts with organic matter, it leaves behind pure carbon. Carbon fibre, carbon nanotubes, and graphite are all modern materials that people get quite excited about and they all happen to be really just pure carbon. (Carbon fibre is mixed with fibres of other materials, but there are surely options that also don’t react with the acid. Some metals, like titanium, will react with the acid, but then form a thin layer of oxide on the surface which seals the metal and keeps the acid away.
  • While there are almost no oxygen molecules in the atmosphere of Venus, most of it is carbon dioxide. If you can split the carbon dioxide, you get oxygen to breath and carbon to make replacement parts for your carbon airships.
  • Even 50 km above the surface, there is still so much atmosphere above you that it helps block radiation from the Sun, which on the Moon and Mars would be a lot nastier even though they are much farther away.
  • The atmosphere also makes the whole landing part a lot easier. Landing on the Moon is easy because it has very little gravity. Landing on Earth is also easy, because you can use parachutes and wings to gently float down to the surface. Mars has lowe gravity than Earth, but still quite a lot, but also barely any atmosphere, which makes landing pretty rough. Robots can handle it, but with current technology any astronaut would feel like being in a plane crash. Or not, since he’d probably dead. On Venus, you have all the nice atmosphere so you can use parachutes to slow you down. And best thing, since you don’t actually go to the surface, you don’t have to land at all. If your airship goes down a bit faster and ends up lower than you aimed for, it will just bob back up to the altitude it was meant for. (Unless you get too deep and crushed and baked.)
  • One of the best things about Venus is that it has a similar size and mass to Earth, which means it has also a very similar gravity. Even 50 km above the surface, the pull of gravity is almost the same as on the ground, which for Venus is about 90% of the gravity we experience on Earth. Floating around for a few minutes is fun, but low gravity does all kinds of unpleasant things to muscles, bones, and circulation over time. In an airship on Venus that would not be an issue.
  • A trip to Venus is also shorter than a trip to Mars. Not hugely, but cutting a 550 day trip down to 450 is still 100 days not hanging around in space doing nothing. Carrying around 20% less food will also make the engineers very happy.

Really, the only annoyance about Venus is the sulfuric acid, which really is only a big problem when you get it on your skin and in your lungs. Which is sad, because otherwise you could go paragliding on another planet with nothing but a breathing mask. If weather is good and there are no acid clouds nearby, you probably still could get out on the roof without a full suit, enjoying the sun for a few minutes. Having irritated skin for a week and a minor sunburn would be totally worth it.

So yeah, forget about Mars, Venus is so much more fun.