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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Call 1-800-PKUNKRA for a Star Control II Sequel

Hey, here's some good news from The Pages of Now and Forever: The company run by the creators of the original Star Control is interested in doing a true sequel...and may have somehow acquired the legal rights to do it. Alex Ness, a producer at Toys for Bob, is asking fans of Star Control II to either sign an online petition or send him an e-mail asking for a sequel, in order to convince The Powers that Be to get one started. Not sure how much momentum this has, but it's good news nonetheless. The lackluster Star Control 3 was produced by different developers and thus wasn't really that good (although PC Gamer gave it a 90%....). A sequel done by the original developers, Fred Ford and Paul Reiche, would be better--and they've had fourteen years to think about it. I would heartily encourage everyone to both sign the petition and send an E-mail. Star Control II is the best PC game ever made, and its high time that it had a proper sequel.

In other news, a new version of The Ur-Quan Masters, the free open-source release of Star Control II, has just been released, and features a searchable starmap and assorted stability improvements. If you've never played the greatest PC Game of all time, then it's definitely worth the free download.


Games for people who don't like computer games: These usually fall into the puzzle genre.

It's only natural for someone like me to want to share something I enjoy like computer games with the people I care about. My parents live almost 6,000 miles away. What better way to keep in touch than to play games over the internet? The challenge: getting them to sit down at the computer and play. That aside, what game can I interest them with? Nothing too complicated, nothing with shooting, nothing with city management, um, that leaves board games converted into computer games. The first game I tried is Boggle: the dice game with letters. The box advertises internet play for up to 4 players, assuming you want to buy 4 copies of the game. I got mine at a discount store for $5. The disk can be shared in the same room for multiplayer, but not when your opponents are farther away in physical space. Now you have to drop another $5 to get someone to play with you. The box also advertises 4 new game styles, which I assumed you could also play over the internet. Not so, these are for single-computer play only apparently. When you try to play one of these new style games in multiplayer, an error pops up that says 'Insert CD', but when you do that, nothing happens.

The actual game play of the original-style Boggle game is kind of fun. You can type in your words and the board illuminates the letters as you go. It is much faster than writing them old-style on paper, and you can kind of cheat by hunting around for letter combinations that are hard to follow with your eyes but the computer knows are there. In internet-multiplayer mode you can't add computer opponents. And in all modes you play on a board-to-board basis, the scores are not accumulated, so you would have to do this by hand if you want a longer game. All-in-all "Boggle" is a fun game to play, but not surprisingly the computer version leaves the feeling as if something is missing -- maybe it's good game programming. I rate this game "not awful" if you can get someone to play with you and you don't have high expectations because 1) it successfully installed on the first try, 2) I got at least one game to work over the internet on the first try without reconfiguring network settings or firewalls, 3) It was $5 and I was bored, 4) my parents may at some point actually play it with me, and 5) it can be installed completely to a hard disk (if you don't want to play anything other than the original Boggle game) and is small enough to fit on a tiny laptop hard disk and passes time at the airport.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A "Quick" Multiplayer Game of Civ IV

On a Sunday in February, we began a multiplayer game of Civilization IV with BNG Possum (Roosevelt), Juliraptor (Peter the Great), a friend (Napoleon), and 3 AI players (random). We created a “Balanced” world, which is basically one continent with resources equitably distributed. We added one twist to this game by turning “Technology Trading” off. The potential benefits: the AI cannot share technologies with each other, hopefully, resulting in more “fair” gameplay. The potential pitfalls: if you get behind in the technology race, then you are stuck.

I decided to play as the Americans, in the spirit of “I could do a better job of running my country then these clowns we elected.” This was our first game with the new 1.52 patch that came out on Christmas Eve, and it was in my view a significant improvement, rasing the game from "Virtually Unplayable" to "Mostly Useable". My little Inspiron still suffered severe memory leaks near the end of the game, so hopefully the next patch will solve that problem once and for all. Still, if you've held off buying the game because you've heard (correctly) that it is unplayable on anything but monstrously expensive gaming rigs, you can probably now buy the game with some degree of confidence that it will work decently up until game year 1900 or so.

I approached this game with the idea that I would focus on technology first and everything else second. Technologic research can be optimized by having a good economy and devoting most of your income to research, building libraries, building wonders with technology bonuses, and by improving research rates in cities by having special citizens and Great Scientists. The Civilopedia also states that you can speed research by adopting certain civics like Free Religion and Representation.
4000 BC (Juliraptor): It's the dawn of time and Moscow is founded! The mighty Russian people entrust me, Juliraptor, with their fate (those fools!).
875 BC (Juliraptor): Barbarians overrun St. Petersburg (my second city, which I was gifted by friendly natives far from my capitol, Moscow). Hapless villagers scream in terror! I vow vengeance!

500 BC (Juliraptor): My rampaging horse archers take back St. Petersburg. Along the way, I find that the Americans have built up around my territory. My four scouts (two gifted by friendly natives) have explored almost the entire continent, encountering Isabella of the Spanish (AI) and Saladin of the Arab nation (AI).
200 BC (Juliraptor): The Americans continue to annoy me by building in the territory that I had staked out for mighty Russia (didn’t they see the signs?). I am almost completely blocked in now. I am building along the coast, and because my cities are not in a block but are strung out into a boomerang shape, I am drowning in maintenance expenses. I declare Judaism my state religion to get some happy smiling faces. I discovered this religion a few years back, but now it has spread sufficiently across the land and even into foreign lands.
75 BC (Juliraptor): I liberate Samartian from the barbarians. This city is located next to a stockpile of furs that will someday make a lot of Russians very happy. Also this year, I was declared a “heathen” by the Spanish because of my state religion, but I take no notice, and start building an army of horse archers at the border closest to Spain, in preparation for the “great cleansing”.
175 AD (Juliraptor): I found my second religion, Christianity. So far, everyone is getting along fine.
960 AD (Juliraptor): I finally convert to Hereditary Rule to get +1 smiling faces.
1350 AD (Juliraptor): I finally build my second wonder, the Hagia Sofia! Unfortunately, my hefty maintenance costs are causing my economy to struggle. So far, research has proceeded at >60%, but I have not been able to compete culturally. Someone keeps building all the wonders before me!! But I put on a brave face as I begin research on Gunpowder. I’ll take that culture by force if I have to!
1480 AD (Juliraptor): My economy is picking up slightly, but because of my poor culture, I have fallen firmly into 3rd place.
1580 AD (Juliraptor): I start research on Military Tradition to get my special unit the Cossack!
1585 AD (Juliraptor): My first Musketman shows a roaming barbarian what it’s like to be a smoldering crater! Now that I’ve got a military advantage, I start focusing on culture and civics.
1640 AD (Juliraptor): A golden age enlightens the Russian people! And I decide to finally give my servants paper so they can write all of my witty thoughts down for posterity.
1660 AD (Juliraptor): Let them have newspapers (Printing Press) with their morning gruel! I also build my first ship this year. It won’t be much use in a single-continent game, but ships can be used to bombard coastal cities. Also, the first person to circumnavigate the global gets a naval movement bonus (and the fame!).
1700 AD (Juliraptor): The glorious ruler of Russian finally decides to edgicate his people (by researching Education).
1725 AD (Juliraptor): My first Cossack obliterates a barbarian warrior!
1750 AD (Juliraptor): My economy is finally improving. How did I do it? Well, as the great, all-knowing, all-powerful ruler of Mother Russia, I’ll tell you… I built several banks in my larger cities, I built courthouses in outlying cities to reduce maintenance costs, I researched some technologies which give bonuses (such as double $ from villages), and I switched to Free Market (which gives +1 trade) and Free Speech (which gives +2 gold from towns).
1780 AD (Juliraptor): The Americans convert to Emancipation, and now my people want their freedom! This is causing much unhappiness, and I begin researching Democracy.
1800 AD (Juliraptor): After a brief revolution, my people are free! (I finish researching Democracy, which gives the option to adopt Emancipation).
1812 AD (Juliraptor): I finally circumnavigated the globe – oh, the glory!! A text message announces the news to the globe and the accolades come pouring in!
1828 AD (Juliraptor): I discovered a barbarian city in the tundra wastelands to the south of my borders. Cimmerian is quickly liberated by Russian cossacks. St. Paul my first prophet is finally born this year. And he is sent to build his Temple of Solomon in St. Petersburg, the home of Judaism. I will get a monetary benefit for all city with Judaism.
1834 AD (Juliraptor): I discovered that the French have been quietly expanding near my territory and into the center of the continent. My unfortunate position means that I have a much smaller nation that the other two human players, and explains why my score has dropped to third place.
1858 AD (Juliraptor): I build my first infantry, a powerful unit. With the research of Assembly Line I can now upgrade my musketmen at a cost of 205 gold. But I don't sweat it because I'm making 100 gold/turn -- an amount that is growing rapidly as I build Marketplaces, Courthouses, and Banks. The French declare war on the Arab nation.
1866 AD (Juliraptor): I found Tver' in the last remaining unclaimed wilderness. I switch to the civic State Property to balance the maintenance costs of having a stretched out nation, and my available gold/turn increases by 30/turn.
1912 AD (Juliraptor): My people finally get electricity -- let them have their coffee makers and televisions!
1921 AD (Juliraptor): The French have decimated the Arabs, and I quickly grab the last Arab city for my own.
1950 AD (Juliraptor): The French want a defensive pact, so we can jointly take down the Americans who are quickly working towards a Space Race Victory. There are only 100 turns left! The French plan is to cut of American access to the coast. My plan is to pillage some farms, which actually turns out to help my score a bit -- I get some income and the GNP of the Americans decreases putting me in first for GNP. I know that I can't compete against the raging American army (with its specialized Navy Seal units that I see inside cities lining my borders), and my nation is too strung out to easily defend. I have a border longer than the US/Canada border and I feel as well prepared for a war with the US and Mexico.
1976 AD (Juliraptor): The Americans declare war on us, and attack the French. And I start pillaging and terrorizing cattle.
1982 AD (Juliraptor): The French and I trade a city, so that the French can airlift troops in behind my borders -- hopefully in a surprise attack, but even this ploy does not keep the Americans from winning the Space Race Victory. In a few years, I eventually lose. What went wrong? Well, I was in a weak position on the map, I didn't have enough territory, or a defensible border, and I had no oil until I researched Plastics (in order to build offshore platforms) which was way later than either the Americans or French, and thus my military was considerably weaker. I did OK in the technology race, and wasn't that far behind the Americans (BNG Possum), but I was cut out of the Wonder-building race early on as my cities didn't produce as quickly as both the Americans and French. If you want to know how to actually win, then I suggest reading BNG Possum's tips below for successfully dominating everything in Civ IV... although rumor has it, he got lucky (the really dumb kind of lucky).
BNGPossum: Unfortunately, I can't do a proper play-by-play because I didn't have the patience to take notes when we were playing. Juliraptor has already revealed the ending, so I'll just offer some “strategery” thoughts.I did a number of things differently for this game than the way I usually play. Where's the fun in doing things over and over again? (Answer: There isn't any!) Although I generally favor wiping out opponents early and often I decided that since the American special unit and preferred civics don't pop up until late in the game, this seemed like a good game to go for a longer-term approach—aiming, appropriately enough, for a Space Race victory. There are are two reasons why I won, one big and one minor:

The main reason why I prevailed is simply because I did get lucky (really lucky, hopefully not the dumb kind). I'm a firm believer in the concept of "Fortune Favors the Bold". So, instead of keeping my two starting warriors closer to home for defense, I recklessly sent both out exploring. It paid off, big time. Warrior 1 found another settler unit in a goodie hut, and Warrior 2 found a scout unit in a goodie hut, who promptly found another settler unit and another worker unit. [Yet more proof that it always pays to see what's over the next hill....take that, opponents of human space exploration!!!] This gave me a huge early advantage. A good rule of thumb is that every city should produce two more cities and support two worker units, one for regional improvements and one for local improvements. That generally takes a while, at least until the beginning of the first millenium. Because of bold exploration helped by sheer dumb luck, my civilization had already reached this level by 2000 B. C., about a whole 2000 years ahead of time. The rest of the crowd never caught up.

The minor reason that I won is that I kept a bunch of obsolete units near the French border, which because of my relentless cultural expansion meant that I had a bunch of guys with pointy sticks watching my tank-wielding opponent. Useless, but they kept an eye on the French border cities. Sure enough, when my space ship components started to be launched, my guys with pointy sticks noticed a massive French military build up near the border. Napoleon was surging his units in order to stage a last ditch attack to beat me before I launched the Constitution to Alpha Centauri. The best defense is a good offense, so when I noticed the massive military buildup I stole a page from the NATO playbook and immediately salvoed my entire nuclear arsenal at the border cities. This gave me tactical surprise and control of the battlefield, and caused a lot of curse words over the chat line. Napoleon's heavily damaged calvary and tank units were easy prey for my gunships, stealth bombers, and (especially) my heretofore secret modern armor. Those modern tanks sure do pack a wallop. Twenty turns and eight lost cities later, the French sued for peace to stop the onslaught, but it was too late. The Consititution was on its merry way, and secular democracy would now be forever safe from plagues, asteroids, and marauding French and Russian-types. At least, until the colonists get eaten by Centauri mindworms...

Posted by Juliraptor and BNG Possum.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Timely Review of Freelancer

Well, you can never let it be said that we don't provide timely reviews here at SRV. I recently finished the single-player campaign in Microsoft's space combat simulator Freelancer, which came out in...March 2003. Since the game is three years old and has been dissected in some detail already, I'll be lazy and just confine this to some brief comments.

Wing Commander is still the best space combat game ever done. From the epic missions to the storyline that draws you in to the desparate struggle between the Kilrathi and humanity, Wing Commander remains a certifiable masterpiece. So, needless to say, I'm a huge fan of Chris Roberts' computer games (though, not his movies...yech). When I first heard of Freelancer in 1998 or so I was therefore really interested. Then the game experienced about 1 jillion delays, and then Microsoft decided to replace Roberts as the designer after buying Digital Anvil. Reportedly, much of Roberts' design was jettisoned in the process. Would the game be any good?

The answer is a resounding yes. Considering the game's protracted develoment cycle, that's nothing short of astoninshing. There's a lot to like here, including:
  • The involving and detailed science fiction game backstory;
  • The large and expansive universe, which was also put to very effective use (and was fun to explore!);
  • The great character animations, including some impressive lip sync effects;
  • The excellent voice acting;
  • The graphics still hold up pretty well three years later; and
  • The engaging plot, which really pulled you in and gave you the feeling that you were alone against the universe and on the run.
Kudos to the producers, who took a game that could have been a disaster and made it quite good. I especially liked the beautifully interactive universe and the wrecked space vessels full of goodies.

But...the game did have some issues. Some of these have been covered by others, so I'll focus on the lowlights:

  • NO JOYSTICK SUPPORT! Whoever thought this one up deserves to be hit with a rubber chicken. I'm not complaining from the fact they made the game mouse-friendly; there's nothing wrong with that. What I'm complaining about is that the you didn't even have the option to use a joystick! This one oversight/monumentally bad decision/terrible idea/boneheaded notion was my biggest problem with the game. Talk about alienating your built-in fan base. Without the ability to use my trusty rusty WingmanForce3D, this game was significantly less fun for me. Note to the brainless executives who thought that eliminating the best peripheral device for space combat sims from their space combat sim would boost sales: Two of my friends didn't purchase the game simply because it didn't have joystick support.
  • The single player campaign was a little on the short side and felt a bit rushed at the end. Not really a complaint, just an observation.
  • I could go on for a few pages here about how the solar systems portrayed in the game were very, very, very scientifically inaccurate, but in honor of April Fool's day, I'll pass.
  • The designs of the ships were really bizarre. I guess the best thing to say here is, "They tried." The game's producers must have told their art department to take every previous space combat sim and do the exact opposite, with decidedly mixed results. To be fair, since the ships were being transported up and down by space elevators, they didn't need to be aerodynamic, and real spaceships don't really need to be aerodynamic either. Plus, they really did make an effort to give every clan a distinctive spaceship style. However, they really didn't succeed in pulling it off. Maybe I know too much about real space vehicles or got too used to Wing Commander-style ships, but most of the spaceships were visually unappealing or even offputting. My "favorite" was the ship with a cattle catcher on the front. Gak.
  • Did I mention that the game didn't have joystick support? Did I mention what a seriously stupid idea that was? Good.
Despite these minor quibbles, this is the best space sim since Star Trek: Bridge Commander. If you see a discount copy in the bargain bin or a used copy on eBay, I would heartily encourage you to snap it up.

On a side note, the fact that Microsoft didn't include joystick support in Freelancer, quit making the Sidewinder series joystics, and (if CGW can be believed) is poised to not even include joystick support in its XNA architecture has me worried. Although I find it hard to believe that they'll remove joysticks completely, especially with Flight Simulator X on the way, stranger things have happened.