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I seem to be in one of my nostalgic Cold War moods. With that in mind, I've been having a lot of fun with skirmish games in Eugen's Wargame: AirLand Battle. I've discovered that the secret to enjoying the click-fest that is WALB is to not play for a "win" against the AI, but to just play the best you can, focusing on objectives of your choosing instead of trying to dominate the entire map - basically, "house rules". This eliminates the frustration of trying to win a frenetic real time battle, involving both air and land units, against an omniscient AI that can react a lot faster than you (why won't Eugen give us pause-able orders? ). So, by cutting down the action to a manageable level, the game suddenly becomes more enjoyable as a single player experience.
But the best part are the replays that come later. In my opinion, this is what makes Wargame ALB such a great game. Being able to go back and watch the action unfold in slow motion - where you can really appreciate the fantastic graphics engine, not to mention the battle sequences that seem ripped from a great war movie - makes for a riveting experience. It is a real shame that many casual Wargame ALB players seem to ignore this great facet of the game!
With the above points in mind, what follows is an example from my most recent skirmish match. This time I took the part of Norway against a randomly selected PACT opponent.
As I mentioned above, I like to make my own objectives. Even though this game was technically an "economy" match where players need to capture as many zones as possible for a victory, I ultimately found myself focusing on the control of just one zone which contained this place:
Seems like some sort of small business involved in shipping, based on all the trucks in the parking lot. It looks so neat and innocent there. Sadly, it wouldn't stay that way for long as a war was coming its way.
The battle began when I sent some IFVs with infantry to take possession of the facility, particularly what I termed the "administrative building" on the left side of the complex:
It seems the PACT had the same idea because a pair of Norwegian M48A5's caught some enemy APCs coming from the west. They engaged them successfully:
The PACT was not doing to be deterred, though. They brought in some ATGM armed infantry that really gave my tanks a hard time. In response, I brought in some air mobile infantry for support:
Almost as soon as these guys got off the choppers, they were heavily engaged by infantry from the nearby treeline:
Sadly, my infantry and tanks were quickly overrun, and the PACT launched a strong attack on the facility in general, and the administrative building in particular. Of course, my infantry was waiting for them and provided a suitable reception :
My Stormers performed well, using their anti-tank rockets to kill many SKOT-2As, and forcing the PACT infantry to dismount and launch an infantry assault from the fields opposite the admin building:
The fight got really nasty, with my infantry pouring on the fire against the PACT assault teams. In the following pic, you can see the heavy tracer fire, as well as a NATO fighter-bomber nailing some enemy infantry with rockets:
Sadly, my brave Norwegian troops couldn't hold back the ocean any longer; we lost the admin building, and then the whole facility. But we would not be deterred! I quickly assembled a new, combined arms force comprised of infantry and Leopard 1A1NO tanks. We attacked from the fields to the south:
Unfortunately, we met HEAVY resistance from PACT troops who must have dug in and reinforced very quickly. The volume of fire was intense:
One soldier is curled up in the fetal position on the roadside!
But my troops pressed on and advanced:
The opposition was still very tough, so I called in some air strikes:
Rockets right into the admin building!
And another air strike:
You can see the damage done to the facility already
Having softened up the PACT infantry, I started ferrying in a lot of air mobile infantry:
The facility was still pouring out the fire, so I disembarked most of my troops behind a screen of trees:
Some, though, I disembarked closer to the facility. It was such a hot LZ that the door gunners would blaze away with their MG3s while the infantry got off:
It was all starting to pay off. Slowly, my air mobile troops worked their way back up to the facility perimeter:
It became strangely quiet when we approached our old stomping grounds, the admin building:
It must have been a bad day for the Geiko Gecko
Looked like we had finally broken the PACT infantry! They were gone! We reoccupied the admin building.
But the PACT was not done yet. THEY now wanted the facility back and launched another infantry assault. Fortunately, I had two things going for me now: 1) the PACT air support was gone, and 2) the UH-1B Hueys that brought in my infantry were still hanging around and able to provide support:
Still, it was a tough fight. I took the risk of bringing in more air mobile infantry, but this time almost right on top of the facility. Again, this was a HOT LZ:
You can see an artillery or mortar round landing just in front of that squad!
It soon became clear I was reinforcing faster than the PACT. I soon had more infantry in the facility, along with some Leopard tanks:
The PACT tried one last assault on the (now burning) admin building, but met a lethal firing squad:
No good. It was still ours.
But they tried again. This time I used my artillery to put of a curtain of fire in front of the facility, which helped to hold them back:
The admin building is really showing some damage in this pic
And it was there that the game timer called the game...for the PACT. But like I wrote above, I wasn't paying any attention to the larger battle, rather I was just focusing on this one small slice of it. On that front I think I can say we won the battle...even if we lost the war.
And that is how to how fun with the skirmish mode in Wargame: AirLand Battle.
"My fellow countrymen. When you hear these words, the beginning of the fifth meeting between the United States and Russia in the Olympic War Games will be just minutes away." - The Survivor, by Walter F. Moudy
I crouch in the basement of an abandoned building, my heart thumping away in my chest like some out of control metronome. Knowing that death is lurking in every room, hallway, and shadowy corner, I fear to take my eyes from the red dot sight on my combat rifle for even a moment. It would only take second of distraction, truly less than that, for my part in this game to come to a quick and brutal end.
Realizing that inaction could be as lethal as action, I prod myself forward, up and out of the basement and into a long room, one trashed by the calamity of violence that had descended upon this city like a cloud of despair. All seems quiet. I slowly creep forward in a crouch, quietly crunching the detritus of sudden abandonment beneath my combat boots like the fragments of a discarded beer bottle in a seedy back alley. My eyes never leave the long axis of my weapon for even a second as I carefully move into the unknown. As painful as it is, I need to always stay in motion so as not to make an easy target of myself.
Every now and then a shot sounds, but never nearby. Just where is always hard to say. What was that old saying about never firing a weapon twice? Like a flash bulb going off, the sound of gunfire fades as quickly as it startles, leaving nothing but the empty, whistling wind in its place.
I compel myself forward, eventually coming to a hole blown in the far wall. I sit there for a bit and just listen, for what I am not sure. The shuffle of boots? A magazine being snapped into place? Something. But I hear nothing. So I quietly enter the wall's orifice and emerge out the other side like from some obscene birthing process involving kevlar, gunpowder and malice.
The sun is brighter than it has any right to be on such a day like this. With annoyance, I quickly shield my eyes with my left hand that was bracing the barrel of my weapon. And then the realization of what I had done hits me. My left hand quickly returns to the weapon. Squinting, I push forward randomly. To a hill of rubble. Then amidst some abandoned cars contemptuously overturned by malignant overpressure. Nothing. No movement. No...body. Just the metallic tinkle of grit blown against machined steel. I sit there for a bit, not sure of where to go. Stay in the open? Head indoors again? Danger has become Heisenberg principle, and I have become Schrodinger's cat.
Boots. Running. A crack of a shot.
Another shot. From my left. Other side of the the car that I am sheltering behind.
Flight or fight kicks in, and suddenly I am breathless. I slowly inch around the front fender of the car. More shots and some tracers racing from left to right. A soldier running flat out, oblivious to my presence. Running right across my line of sight.
In a moment of clarity I understand that it is him or me. If not now, certainly later. And I hate him for that realization. For making me choose.
The target runs closer, and I take aim at a point of intersection between my weapon's barrel and his expected path two seconds hence. A lifetime.
My finger lightly on the trigger; my breath held. A fleeting sense of anticipatory boredom. The crack of three rounds leaving my weapon; the tinkle of brass casings hitting the ground. A crumpled rag doll a few paces to my front. Somehow, it seems a non sequitur.
Things become quiet again. I wait for my fallen target's previous foe, but...no. Scared off like a lone wolf, no doubt now looking for easier prey. Perhaps we'll meet later.
Without a second look at the crumbled form in front of me, I move off in search of danger. The game continues....
* * *
...And that pretty much sums up the opening moments of a recent "Hardcore Free-for-All Deathmatch" experience I had in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Seeing how I found myself in a game where four of the other five participants seriously outranked me by 20 or more levels, I didn't give myself a chance in heck of doing well. And I didn't - placed last with four kills - but I did have a memorable experience. Here are some brag clips:
I still have the scars from that darn car blowing up in my face.
I really have to hand it to Activision/Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer Games, they still know how to make a blockbuster of a game. I am really enjoying my time with CoD:MW3. Much more than I thought I would, in fact. After experiencing the large, impersonal battlefields in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, I am getting a kick out of the much more intimate MP battles of this game. Sure, when it comes to recreating WAR writ large, nothing can beat Dice's magnum opus. But if you are interested in something a bit different, something based on spec ops and small unit actions (a distinction that I believe a lot of CoD haters miss), MW3 nicely fits the bill.
Sure, it is easy to hate Activision and CoD - it is a mega-billion dollar franchise after all, and that never sits well with the "OWS" crowd that seems to occupy a big percentage of the internet, too. And it is true that Activision never seems to properly patch their mega-hit. For example, Black Ops suffered from a game killing "stat reset" bug that was never patched on the PC to my knowledge. Even here I noticed some odd errors, such as a subway poster that seemed to be inlaid into the tile rather than on top of it. There are also some UI oddities in MW3 that a proper PC publisher would never allow. So there is good cause for anger at a dev that publishes and runs. And then expects you to shell out more cash for DLC. And more again for a CoD spin-off. And again for a new CoD (no wonder why we have this 'blackout' campaign. Reminds me of Eve Online's recent troubles)! Regardless, the game is an example of master craftsmanship in the art of game design. I am even finding the graphics to be quite nice - just check out that screenshot up top. That is on medium-low. And it runs as smooth as silk. Some like to attack on CoD's aging engine, but...really? I think Activision has wisely chosen nice graphics with great performance on aging consoles.
There is something else that is catching my interest with MW3. Just as Starcraft II's e-sports focused multiplayer reminded me of William F. Wu's prophetic On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen, MW3's MP gameplay has reminded me of another notable science fiction short story called The Survivor, by Walter F. Moudy. Long before The Hunger Games, this 1965 story told the tale of one soldier's participation in the brutal "War Game Olympics" that were created so as to avoid another US - USSR war like the one that devastated the globe in 1998 (I must have been asleep). Instead of another world war, every four years the two nations would send their best 100 soldiers - comprised of eight 10-man squads armed with rifles and grenades, one light machine gun squad, and one mortar squad - to battle it out on live television in a specially created, symmetrically perfect stadium. The nation of the last man (men?) standing wins billions in "reparations". Interesting premise, right? It certainly is a darkly entertaining story.
The war game is presented with all the color and commentary of a football game. Example:
"This could be it!" Bill Carr's booming voice exploded from the screen like a shot. "This could be the first skirmish, ladies and gentlemen. John, how does it look to you?"
"Yes, Bill, it looks like we could get our first action in the east-central sector. Quite a surprise, too, Bill. A lot of experts felt that the American team would concentrate its initial push on control of the central hill. Instead, the strategy appears to be - at least it appears from here - to concede the central hill to the Russian team but to make them pay for it. You can't see it on your screens right now, ladies and gentlemen, but the American mortar squad is now positioned on the north slope of the north hill and is now ready to fire."
His words were interrupted by the first chilling chatter of the American light machine gun. Tracer bullets etched their brilliant way through the morning air to seek and find human flesh. Four mortar rounds, fired in rapid succession, arched over the low hill and came screaming a tale of death and destruction. The rifle squad opened with compelling accuracy. The Russian line halted, faulted, reformed, and charged up the central hill. Three men made it to the sheltering rocks on the hill's upper slope. The squad captain and six enlisted men lay dead or dying on the lower slopes. As quickly as it had begun the firing ended.
"How about that!" Bill Carr exclaimed. "First blood for the American team. What a fantastic beginning to these 2050 war games, ladies and gentlemen. John, how about that?"
"Right, Bill. Beautifully done. Brilliantly conceived and executed with marvelous precision. An almost unbelievable maneuver by the American team that obviously caught the Russians completely off guard. Did you get the casualty figures for that first skirmish, Bill?"
Of course, no good "sporting event" would be complete without an instant reply (much like my brag clips above ):
Colonel Bullock spoke: "Bill, I want you to notice that man there - over there on the right hand side of the screen. Can we have a close-up on that? That's a runner, Bill."
He broke of when the runner to whom the colonel referred stumbled and fell.
"Wait a minute, folks. He's hit! He's down! The runner has been shot. You saw it here, folks. Brilliant camera work. Simply great. John, how about that?"
"Simply tremendous, Bill. A really great shot. Ed, can we back the cameras up and show the folks that action again? Here it is in slow motion, folks. Now you see him (who is that, Colonel? Ted Krogan? Thank you, Colonel) here he is, folks, Private Ted Krogan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here he is coming around the last clump of bushes - now watch this, folks - he gets about half way across the clearing - and there it is, folks, you can actually see the bullet strike his throat - a direct hit. Watch this camera close up of his face, you'll watch him die right in front of your eyes. And there he goes - he rolls over and not a move. He was dead before he hit the ground. Bill, did any of our cameras catch where that shot came from?"
"Yes, John, the Russians have slipped a two man sniper team in on our left flank. This could be serious, John. I don't think our boys know the runner was hit."
As you can probably tell from these two passages, The Survivor is a dark tale that is more than a bit revolting by how it treats the carnage as entertainment. Nonetheless, one has to stop and wonder if it is that far off the mark from contemporary gaming reality. Granted, there is a big - HUGE! - difference between watching real men die in combat as a form of entertainment, and gunning down simulated men in a video game. Still, I am reminded of Emanuel Lasker's quote about the bloodless conflict of chess boiling down to "what human nature most delights in - a fight." I think that is the point Moudy was making with his short story. For whatever reason, war, "a fight" in the words of Lasker, is a fatal attraction for mankind. And if we can no longer do it for real, or, if we no longer need to do it for real, we will then simulate it for the purposes of entertainment just because it is who we are: fighters.
The Survivor even addresses this point, albeit superficially and cynically:
...a mousy little man from the sociology department of a second rate university had spent ten minutes assuring the TV audience that one of the important psychological effects of the TV coverage of the games was that it allowed the people to satisfy the innate blood lust vicariously and strongly the viewers to encourage the youngsters to watch....
However, by the end of the story - something I'll leave you to discover on your own - it becomes clear that Moudy believes there to be no redeeming quality to violence, whatever the supposed noble purpose.
Does Call of Duty and/or other shooters represent some sort of militarization of society, as some contend (rather poorly, I would add)? I personally don't think so, especially when most Western nations have shrinking armed forces and a populace increasingly intolerant of any form of military activity, no matter how low intensity it might be (see: Afghanistan). Rather, I believe Lasker had it right. We delight in competition, and what is warfare but extravagant competition? And if that is so, shooters are merely extravagant competitions from the safety of our dens. Here's a thought: perhaps shooters are the ultimate indication not of the militarization of society, but of the demilitarization of society? In other words, our entertainment might seem violent only because our world has become uncharacteristically non-violent. What say you?
Regardless, one thing is clear: Moudy might have lived before the era of video games, but The Survivor suggests to me that he certainly would have understood the popularity of the shooter genre.
If you would like to read The Survivor, you can do so here.
I love gaming-related merchandise. Not only because it is indicative of a thriving game community, but also because it gives the gamer something tangible to hold on to and remind them of their ethereal passion in a material world. Plus, some of this stuff is just plain cool.
Here’s some of the cool swag associated with Blizzard’s StarCraft ][:
While nowhere near as plentiful as 40K fiction, the StarCraft community is enjoying a growing library of its own. While I have found some of the earlier material to be amateurish, since the release of StarCraft ][ Blizzard has begun enlisting the help of such practiced authors as William Dietz and Graham McNeill. Could a screenplay be far behind?
In addition to fiction, the StarCraft community has also been putting together player guides to help new players become competitive as quickly as possible:
For example, The Shokz Guide, authored by a #1 ranked Diamond player, is:
“the complete Starcraft 2 Mastery Guide. The Starcraft 2 Guide is an in-depth guide teaching you how to master the Terran, Protoss, and Zerg. Learn the top strategies and play styles of all three races to earn your way to #1 rank Diamond.
The Starcraft 2 Guide teaches you every aspect of the game giving you the advantage against any opponent. The Guide has the top strategies used by the pros so you can learn how to micro and macro like a diamond player and take over your diamond division.”
Besides being a great PC-exclusive game, StarCraft II is also thoroughly unique by being the soul software package designed from the ground up for professional gaming. Being both a game and a e-sport, it was only inevitable that Starcraft II gets it own line of licensed pro-gear. Check it out:
StarCraft ][ SteelSeries Zboard Limited Edition Keyboard
This keyboard boasts:
“dedicated short-cut keys, complete key remapping for full keyset customization and beautiful game graphics that will enable quick mastery of the game, increase the users' actions per minute (APM) and deliver unparalleled levels of engagement.”
Or, for those with a bigger budget or more dedication to going pro:
Razer Marauder StarCraft II Gaming Keyboard
This snazzy keyboard is a:
“full-featured, tournament ready keyboard with an extremely compact design. The Razer Marauder's elevated keys are perfected for rapid commands and improved gaming performance. Your increased performance is monitored by an all new APM (Actions-Per-Minute) Lighting System that provides real-time performance feedback through changing color hues for a completely immersive gaming experience.”
Then there is....
Razer Spectre StarCraft II Gaming Mouse
Yes, this mouse is as uncomfortable as it looks, but it is also:
“a lightweight, five button mouse that is ideal for gamers that prefer precision and control for an RTS. The adjustable button force combined with the ultra-large non slip buttons allow a substantial increase in your APM (Actions-Per-Minute), which will be monitored by the newly developed multi-color APM Lighting System.”
You need a mousepad to go with your Razer mouse, right? So, here you go:
SteelSeries QcK Limited Edition StarCraft II Terran Marine Mousepad
“The SteelSeries QcK has been used by professional gamers all over the world and has been used to win more tournaments and competitions than any other mousepad on the planet.”
'Hyperion, this is mission control….':
Razer Banshee StarCraft II Gaming Headset
“The Razer Banshee features a newly developed, multi-color APM (Actions-Per-Minute) Lighting System™ that provides real-time feedback about the player's performance in-game. The Razer Banshee is equipped with a configuration utility for customized adjustments of equalizer, pitch and volume. Other special features include a detachable microphone boom for easy transport and a comfortable circumaural construction….”
Revolution Overdrive: Songs of Liberty Vinyl w/ iTunes
Can’t get enough of the game’s interesting soundtrack that mixes sci-fi with country-rock? Well, now you can own an actual Vinyl print with the ability to download the digital version from iTunes:
“This StarCraft II Collectors Vinyl features never before released music from Joeyray's Bar. Printed on a dual sided picture disk, this high quality collector's item is ready for framing or playing on that old record player. Each album comes with an iTunes gift card allowing you to download the full digital version of the music onto your computer or favorite MP3 player.”
Let’s be honest: most gamers live in t-shirts. Fortunately, J!NX has come out with a line of premium quality StarCraft t-shirts that sport a bunch of interesting and clever designs (the above Zerg energy drink – Feel the Rush! – tee is one of my favorites ).
Prices range from $19.99 to 22.99, depending on size, gender and basic or premium quality.
As the StarCraft renaissance is just getting under way, it is safe to assume the range of products is only gonna grow (personally, I am awaiting the announcement of a range of miniatures…but GDW might draw the line there ).
Have you ever purchased video game related merchandise?
Ever since I first downloaded the demo late last year, Starcraft II has proven to be a compelling PC gaming experience for me. Starcraft II is one of the few recent examples of what a true PC-exclusive title can be. Unlike the flurry of 2011’s high profile console ports that merely provide enhanced graphic option for PC gamers, Blizzard’s platinum RTS title oozes the type of deep quality that can only be achieved when a game is single-mindedly designed for our beloved PCs from the ground up, without any compromises being made for other platforms along the way. The graphical user interface, the intuitive responsiveness of mouse and keyboard controls, the map making and modding possibilities – all of it screams “PC EXCLUSIVE!” in a way that only truly authentic PC title can. I honestly can say that before the gameplay even hooked me, the high sheen PC polish of Blizzard’s magnum opus did. PC gamers just don’t get this type of product very often anymore, and I was more than happy to give Blizzard my money for reminding me what PC gaming once was all about.
Of course, there are other reasons for my growing infatuation with Starcraft II. As a 40K purist, I had allowed my bigotry to keep me away from the original Starcraft as the similarities were just too great for me to ignore. However, I have to say that SCII has caused me to be more open-minded in this regard. Perhaps it is the cinematic way that Blizzard has managed to realize its sci-fi vision, or maybe it is merely due to the fact that Relic’s Dawn of War II has fallen far short of the glory of its predecessor, leaving me empty handed and desperate (<cough> console port <cough>, but I found myself embracing Blizzard’s tale of “rednecks in space” locked in perpetual war with the nasty Zerg and inscrutable Protoss. Starcraft II might have begun as a 40K tribute game, but I believe it has now forged its own equally compelling narrative. In some ways it may even be superior as, being limited to three primary races and a core cast of characters, SCII’s tale is far more intensely focused (I hate to say it, but I am slowly beginning to abandon my push for a 40K movie in favor of a SC movie!).
And then we come to the gameplay. Well…do I really need to go into that when there are more than 200,000 Youtube gameplay videos currently available? As a RTS, Starcraft is supreme. Even though it operates on the time-tested but basic gameplay principles of base building and rock-paper-scissors combat, there is as much depth to a session of SCII as there is in chess. It is so friggin’ deep, that I routinely get my head handed to me by both the scary-tough AI, as well as by devotees who seem to have been playing the game since birth. Like chess, you don’t play Starcraft II as much as you devote you life to getting good at it one match at a time.
Which brings me to the ultimate reason why I love this game: the dedicated community. I have always said that for me, gaming isn’t about the games; it’s about the community that springs up around the games. And outside the dedicated community of chess, I have never participated in a gaming community that is so hardcore about its passion. And I am not even just talking about fanbois, either. I’m talking about the burgeoning community of professional Starcraft players.
This facet of Starcraft is what really fascinates me. Sure, we’ve all heard about South Korea being the home of professional SC gamers, but most people just sort of viewed that as a national quirk. Well…it’s not. With the arrival of the North American Starcraft League (NASL), Starcraft as both a game and a professional sport is quickly becoming reality here, too. For example, recently the Wall Street Journal did a story on a new trend known as “Barcraft”. And then Forbes did a piece of the allure of e-sports and even interviewed one of the top Starcraft players in the world.
Welcome to the 21st Century, where the physical sports of the analog era are slowly replaced by e-sports of the digital era….
This promise of pro-gaming has obsessed me for quite some time; really, since I read William F. Wu’s 1979 short story, On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen. In the best tradition of prophetic science fiction, Mr. Wu sketched a future where professional gamers fought with computerized wargames for profit and glory…and sometimes more. The story focused on two top competitors, Wendell and Richard, whom, because of an accident involving some experimental VR helmets that Richard had cooked up to take their wargaming to the next level, become psychically fused together. How’s that for an unbeatable tag team!
Now, I don’t know much about Mr. Wu, but I suspect he must have been quite the gamer himself because of his relatable depictions of the gaming mentality. Take, for example, this wonderful scene where Wendell recalls the early wargaming he and Richard engaged in as children:
And Wendell and Richard were two ostracized, introverted kids in an upstairs bedroom, setting up toy plastic knights. A carefully tumbled landscape of books, boxes, and blankets on the floor formed rugged peaks, treacherous valleys, and unscalable castle walls. Set aside, stacks of various histories provided countless scenarios and suggestions for their vivid visions.
‘Okay,’ Richard announced, from his own side of the floor. He had his back to Wendell and was maneuvering nine thirteenth-century men in armor down the cascading folds of a blue blanket. ‘Mace-face is leading his puny band down into the valley now, sneaking up on the camp down there.’ Carefully, he lifted a large armored individual with an upraised mace, and knocked over a sentry with it.
‘The Norman cavalry is having trouble,’ said Wendell, from his side of the room. He wheeled about seven toy knights, actually from the War of the Roses, and sent them into retreat. They didn’t resemble Norman cavalry at all, but they did have horses and lances. ‘The Saxon shield-wall had held, and reforms while the Normans regroup for another attack.’ He knew Richard was listening with only the barest of attention, just as he was, but that didn’t matter. This way, they could enact whatever battles and time periods and strategies they wanted. This included manipulating defeats into victories, and deciding on their own who would live and die. Both of them always won and the victories were always shared.
Richard sat back suddenly and considered. ‘All of these kinds of people were descended from Roman tradition – mixed up with the Franks and other barbarians, of course. I wonder what would have happened if some descendants of Carthage had lasted into medieval times.’
‘Yeah,’ said Wendell, without interest. He was trying to form a new shield-wall on the fold of a bedspread with nine Saxons and two temporary-converted Vikings, who looked similar enough, but they all kept falling down.
‘No good, I guess,’ Richard continued. ‘Even if Carthage had survived the Romans, the Vandals went through later anyway. So did the Arabs, too.’ His voice grew pedantic. ‘Jebel Al-Tarik invaded Europe from Africa in 711 – the easiest date to remember in all history.’
Being boy grogs, an argument soon broke out about whether “Carthagians” or “Carthaginians” was the correct pronunciation. Before long, the two are wrestling on the ground…but then tragedy strikes!
As they rapidly approached their usual stalemate, someone’s foot flicked into a battlefield and knocked over a few miniature stalwarts. Instantly, they both froze.
‘Whose was it?’ Richard panted, holding an awkward pose.
‘Yours, I think.’ They untangled themselves gingerly and returned with extreme care to their battles. Fallen fighters were resurrected, to be killed according to their plan instead of by accident. Although their backs were turned to each other, they repaired the damage with a shared reverence, and in silence.
There’s something about that last sentence that always strikes a chord inside me. Maybe it’s my own poignant memories of similar wargaming with toy soldiers. Or maybe it is just the recognition of a gamer mentality in the making. On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen is filled with such descriptions; ones that any dedicated gamer will instantly relate to.
Now, just what were these futuristic computer wargames like? Well, they were very sophisticated:
The computer bank already held incredible amounts of information – the terrain and weather of the real battles, the morale of the troops, the military capabilities, and the psychological profiles of all individuals that were on the historical record. Minute technological details, such as the composition of stirrups and the age of leather, could win or lose battles.
Now, the Gamers only controlled two factors completely: they replaced the supreme commander in decision making, and had the advantage of aerial viewpoint over all the significant territory their troops could have seen. They were limited to reality in factors such an on-field communication, mobility, and the availability of friendly forces. Lastly, ‘chance’ factors were also included, to account for unexpected performances, good and bad, on the individual level.
Wow! I think Mr. Wu just described the Total War series! But considering this story was written in 1979, it is to be appreciated that he basically anticipated the contemporary PC gaming genre know as ‘real-time strategy’. Cool. The above description also makes you appreciate the truly sophisticated RTS games we all take for granted these days. Heck, in the story, 2 on 2 multiplayer matches were considered to be a major technological breakthrough!
Mr. Wu even anticipated the value of youth when it came to achieving high Actions Per Minute (APM), the dexterous ability to get your fingers dancing on the keyboard so as to more quickly issue orders to your units:
Kirk Emerald was Director of Trustees in the Gaming Masters’ Guild. More than that, he was a codeveloper of the original game machine and the acknowledged champion of the early contests. The games in the first several series of machines had been slow and studied compared to the current ones. As the games grew faster, the best players became the younger ones. Kirk Emerald had already been middle-aged when the game was developed, and quickly found his reflexes too slow for the later models.
I feel your pain, Mr. Emerald.
The following is a description of a quick practice match played by Wendell and psychically-imbedded Richard, along with Wendell’s new teammate (for one of the new 2x2 machines!), Terri. Notice how Mr. Wu is basically describing the core gameplay of any number of modern RTS titles:
As soon as Wendell was settled at his console, Terri activated the game.
The screen read: ‘Ain Jalut, 1260 A.D. Ilkhan Mongols.’ Several names followed, and a list of Victory Conditions and odds. Wendell was the second-in-command, leading one wing of cavalry.
‘Hulagu,’ said Richard, identifying the Ilkhan himself. ‘The Mongols, as always, have a totally mounted force. Important: up to this point, they are undefeated. Consider an overconfidence factor programmed into the game.’
‘Mm – inconsequential to an all-mounted contest. Open desert country, slightly rolling.’
Wendell’s fingers wiggled nervously over the keyboard as the minute of orientation dragged by. This would be a rough one for him, demanding skill from his weak points. He felt like consulting Terri, but negotiations conducted through the contractors with the opposing team had produced the agreement that no talk would be allowed between partners. Speaking would eliminate the factor of on-field communication, which had always been important.
‘Opposition,’ said Richard, ‘Victory by Mamluk Egypt, under Baibars. He himself is part Mongol and produces this first major trouncing of the Mongol army by utilizing their own style of war against them. Speed, surprise, mobility, discipline.’
‘Right.’ Wendell had all of this in him somewhere, but having it spoon-fed relieved him of both the pressure and energy of trying to recall it. He squirmed in his seat as the final seconds approached.
‘Go!’ screamed Richard.
The two sides closed fast and kept moving. Terri worked quickly and easily, setting up one side of a pincer movement. Wendell was ill at ease in the open, slash-and-run conflict. Repeatedly out-maneuvered, he failed to bring about the second wing of the pincer. She was probably annoyed, he thought, as she reconsolidated her wing.
‘Back. Wheel about. Faster. No, faster.’ Richard’s voice was quick and steady.
Wendell tried to set up a defensive posture, but the enemy’s mobility on the open land could outflank any stand. ‘I’m still no good at this,’ he thought to Richard. Fleetingly, he remembered again: Richard was the undisputed number-one.
‘Attack. What are you waiting for? C’mon!’
‘Lemme alone,’ Wendell thought in a snarl. He brought his chaotic squads into reasonable order, trying to use Terri’s more successful units as a buttress. She recognized the effort and helped with a long, sweeping charge which momentarily broke the enemy’s pressure. The battle, made up of charges and sudden wheeling flights to regroup and charge again, rolled over the wide areas of terrain, always moving. Lathered horses whinnied and screamed in the distant edges of Wendell’s attention.
‘Stop trying defense,’ Richard said angrily. ‘Cavalry is an offensive weapon, you know that. Take….’
‘Shut up,’ Wendell thought. He took two good swipes at the enemy flank, but then a concerted enemy charge separated him completely from Terri. A second later he was in full retreat.
‘Satisfied?’ Richard growled. Terri’s force quickly collapsed under the undiluted assault from the other side. Still, her facility with this command remained obvious, even in defeat.
‘Victory Conditions, Mamluk Egypt,’ came on the screen. The elapsed time was remarkably short, even for this kind of battle. All four players audibly relaxed and leaned back, their faces bathed in the phosphor sheen of their screens.
Total War, Starcraft, C&C…you name the RTS game and Mr. Wu described them about twenty years before they existed. Remarkable!
Mr. Wu even touches upon the now common – when this story was written, the debate didn’t exist! – argument about the ethics of gamers delighting in such violent fare:
‘Doesn’t it seem odd that we keep reliving other people’s lives, and killing them over and over? It’s all such total fantasy. And kind of disrespectful to them.’
Terri nodded. ‘Of course. It’s just a game. Gaming Masters are some of the craziest fantasizers around. Isn’t it obvious?’
‘No,’ Wendell said slowly. ‘Maybe not to me. I knew it was true for me, but I guess I didn’t think about how anyone else thought of it. It is disrespectful, though, don’t you think. Kind of arrogant.’
‘We’re all crazy that way. That doesn’t mean it’s serious.’
I would just amend Terri’s statement to read PC gamers are some of the craziest fantasizers around. Isn’t it obvious?
I think you can see why I instantly fell in love with this story when I first read it so long ago. Perhaps more so than any other story I have ever read, On the Shadow of the Phosphor Screen captures the essence of not just the mechanics and mentality of gaming, but also the slowly approaching reality of professional gaming as well. It is a true masterpiece of science fiction. And now we are seeing the very beginnings of Mr. Wu’s vision become a reality, and I, for one, am very excited.
Master Gamers’ Guild…here we come, but with Terran Marines and Zerg instead of Mamluks.
BTW: Here's an example of pro-SCII gameplay and coverage:
...coming to a sports bar near you.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
It's almost here. You know what I'm talking about: probably the biggest game launch of the year. After four years of development, and countless video teases, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is almost out the door. Excited yet?
I confess to being more excited than I thought I would be. I never played the original DX - my head was too buried in wargaming at the time to pay attention to a sci-fi shooter - but after reading a bunch of DXHR-inspired articles about what made it so great, I can see it's enduring popularity. It certainly sounds likes a great game, and I hope DXHR can fill its shoes (PC Gamer's review would indicate a big yes on that ).
I think my excitement for DXHR extends beyond the game, though. Lately, I've been taken a liking to the cyberpunk genre in general. Cyberpunk is a strange genre in that is seems to have legions of fans, but is thinly represented in literature, movies and gaming (gaming - how ironic). Perhaps Jack Womack was correct, maybe 'cyberpunk' never existed as an actual sub-genre, but merely as a marketable idea inside the heads of lazy lit journalists? Could be.
But I don't think it's that. I think cyberpunk is so thinly represented for the same reason that quality sci-fi in general is under-represented in mainstream culture: you can't just slop it together with CGI or wring it out of a ridiculous after school plot line. What I am finding so fascinating about cyberpunk is that, at its heart, it has more in common with The Maltese Falcon than it does with Battlestar Galactica. Cyberpunk is heavily driven by character and vibe, and by creating believably flawed anti or reluctant heroes who need to survive in a magnificently broken society. That's where the magic comes in. There is far more Sam Spade in a good cyberpunk tale than there is Cmdr. Adama.
Speaking about "magnificently broken societies", cyberpunk also does something that science fiction in general used to be known for: it tries to anticipate the future. I say "used to" because a lot of science fiction does not do this anymore, at least not beyond the trite predictions of "robo...", pardon me, "droids" and "space travel" (and really, are those even predictions anymore?). If you look at such prominent 'sci-fi' as Star Wars and Avatar, you realize that you are really looking at a genre that is now populated by far more fantasy tropisms than it is by the dreamy-eyed Cassandras who once made up the heart and soul of science fiction.
I am discovering that cyberpunk seems to be immune from this corruption and manages to successfully harken back to the sci-fi of old when the genre was as concerned with societal commentary and detailed technological prognostication as it was with telling a good story. I tell ya, after living on the thin gruel of what passes for sci-fi these days, tasting a rich cyberpunk stew can be heady stuff! Exciting, even. (Remind me to revisit the strangely alluring Ghost in the Shell anime.)
Anyway, those are just some ruminations I had as I begin to dive deeper into a sub-genre I never paid much attention to. Isn't it remarkable what a good game can do? How it can fire the imagination and send you off on an intellectual journey that you never expected? That's why I'll always be a gamer....
Speaking of cyberpunk gaming, I have been spending some time in Mode 7's excellent Frozen Synapse. What a surprise, right? Don't blame me, blame the dearth (but soon to be flood) of cyberpunk-related gaming. I mean, short of revisiting the original DX - something I just have no interest in doing - what other cyberpunk games do we have?
Besides, who needs an excuse to play FS! The game is fantastic above and beyond any cyberpunkery connections it might have. Take, for example, the following multiplayer game where I pulled off a win without losing a single man. It was the perfect op. Here's the set-up:
As usual, I'm green and my opponent is red, and we each have two machine gunners, one grenadier, and one shotgunner. This is also a "dark" game, meaning that after the initial set-up, we can't see each other's units without LoS.
Upon seeing this set-up, I knew I was screwed. As can be seen above, my opponent's starting location put him in a virtually unassailable corner. But even worse than that was the fact that he also had a camper's dream just south of him. I knew just by looking at this set up that he would rush towards the cover south of him, set up camp, and just wait for me to march right into a firing squad of death. What to do?
Considering my options, I realized my only hope was to count on my opponent's passive camping and use that against him by launching a flanking attack. With that in mind, I decided to try and send a team as far north as possible, with the hope of getting in behind my opponent's position via the single door that led into the complex the guarded Red's cozy corner:
So this is what I did:
I sent my grenadier to the safest portion of the map, the extreme south. I told him to take shelter behind some cover and just keep his eyes open for trouble (I was not expecting Red to move beyond his Camper's Delight, though). If an opportunity presented itself and he could get close enough to launch his grenades, he might be able to make a lot of trouble later in the game.
Then I designated one MG to probe the center. I figured he was a dead man, but I needed to know if Red really was going to camp out in the center.
Last, what would become my pride and joy: my strike team comprised of a machine gunner and a shotgunner. These two would work wonderfully together (the MG would cover mid-range while the shotty was lethal short range) as they made their way up the map into unknown dangers.
If all went well, before Red knew what was happening, he would be flanked from above and I could roll up his position with a minimum of fuss.
The plan, quite literally, goes into motion:
Here we see the opening seconds. As expected, Red has camped around the defensive terrain, with his grenadier being the most forward unit. Truthfully, I could have lost the game right here but didn't due to luck. Red's grenadier made the mistake of launching a grenade into the central building (where you see the explosion above) as my MG probe was taking up position and my shotty was passing through on his way to link up with the other member of his team. If Red had ignored the building and just aimed for the corridor, he probably would have caught my MG, and perhaps (but doubtful) my shotty, in the blast - which would be like losing a Rook early on in a chess game. Could I compensate? Maybe, but it would be sure difficult. I was just plain lucky here as I didn't think he would be that aggressive with his grenadier.
A few seconds further into the match. As we can see here, my MG probe has taken up position in the center passage, daring someone to wander into his line of fire (he would probably win the engagement as he has steady aim from laying in wait, while a target would be at a disadvantage from moving - the geometry of the terrain really helped me here), while my strike team has successfully made it to the top of the map. Remember, this is a dark game, so I could not see any of his units unless I had LoS, so I did not know what awaited me here (especially that one Red guard waiting up north in the building). I had a hunch that Red had most of his units camping with the grenadier from a few flickers of LoS, but that was it.
My strike team crept into position to clear the first northern building from the window on the right side. While my MG covered him, my shotty edged up to the window and looked inside. Tango detected! Bam! Tango down! Room clear!
Now I would have to hurry. Red would clearly realize his flank was being penetrated. How would he respond?
No time to waste! "Batou! Saito! Enter that building and clear it!"
I ordered my shotty not to stop after entering the building, even if he spotted an enemy in the adjoining room. Why? Since he was moving, he would be at a disadvantage to any Red guards laying in wait. So just keep moving and hide in the southern corner of the room so as to avoid any openings where Red might get a clear shot from a safe range. Fortunately, my guess was right as Red had posted his shotty outside the window at the far left. Okay, another tango needed to be taken down. The solution was clear: my MG would out-range his shotgunner. I just needed to bring him and zap the bad guy.
Meanwhile, I retreated my MG probe behind a central building and decided to make him a reserve in case my strike team's MG ran into trouble or Red decided to rush me.
Last, smelling that Red was distracted up north , I had my grenadier creep to the edge of the southern building and prepare to harass Red's campers.
This was an exciting few seconds, with explosions everywhere! Boom!
First off, my grenadier managed to quickly sneak around the corner of the building and fire at Red's camping grenadier. But here's the kicker: just as I fired, Red's grenadier fired a sneaky round that cleverly passed through the small crack the existed between two buildings, nearly killing my reserve MG (right blast). He then moved forward with the intention, I suppose, of firing a round into the room occupied by my shotty. While Red's grenadier moved out of my kill zone by pure luck, his MG must have spotted me and charged RIGHT INTO THE BLAST ZONE (left blast). So while I didn't get my primary target, I accidentally killed Red's last MG unit, leaving Red with a shotgunner who was about to go down, and a grenadier who was doomed without support. This just became a mopping-up op.
Orders were simple: My strike team MG would rush in and zap Red's shotty from a safe distance, while my grenadier would continue to randomly fire shells in the general area of Red's grenadier. Maybe I would get lucky.
My MG zapped Red's shotgunner....
...follwed by Red's grenadier running past the window my shotgunner was waiting to use as a firing portal. Bam! your dead.
Come to think of it, my shotgunner got the most kills this game. Good work!
I didn't realize until I watched the replay that I had won this game without a single casualty! Granted, my opponent was a new player, but I still take pride in this flawless operation.
Here's the video replay: