Sunday, December 31, 2006

Profile updated

So if you ever ask yourself "who the hell is this guy and why is he like this", you now have a little more information at your disposal in my updated profile.


War will be fought alone

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

War is terrible

Interview with Jim Shooter

For comics fans, as well as comics creators, he is one of the most polarizing figures in the business. Most respect him, most hate him but few can deny that his reign as Marvel editor-in-chief was both contentious as well as successful, with Marvel controlling about 70% of the market at the time of his departure.

A really interesting interview that gives a unique glimpse into one of the least understood men in the comics industry who is still the subject of debate almost 20 years after leaving Marvel.

You can read it here.

War is unavoidable

Friday, December 29, 2006

War is coming

I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I would say it is to wage war by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God has given us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Something I've noticed about superhero movies

Watching the FF-2: Rise of the Silver Surfer trailer again for about the 80th time, something occured to me about superhero movies: they're no longer self-concious.

Remember the first Punisher movie, the one where Dolph Lundgren refused to wear the Punisher's costume? For the longest time comic movies proceeded from two assumptions: ordinary people wouldn't get comics and so you needed to make the movie look as little like a comic as possible.

In the first X-men movie, the costumes are very military. And you almost never see anyone fly. The powers are really understated in that movie.

It struck me how far that has changed with this trailer. Johnny Storm just runs off a building, yells "flame on!" and he's on fire and flying.

Sure there was some "can he or can't he fly" in the first movie, but they didn't shy away from the costumes, the powers or even the taglines. He actually just says "flame on" and makes it sound like the coolest, most natural thing you could say when bursting into flames while flying off a building.

Bout damn time.

Powederkeg #3 released

Part 3 of my ongoing adventure series for the Prometheus Rising setting, Powderkeg Part 3 has been released.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Ok... I actually liked the first Fantastic Four movie... *for the most part*.

I hated what they did with Doom... but liked the actor who played him and by the end of the movie it seemed like he was, well, more Doom-ish than he had been in the movie.

But the rest was awesome. Good telling of the origin, perfect casting for all four principles, great special effects.

Good popcorn fare.

But today the trailer for Rise of the Silver Surfer has been released and all I can say is OH. MY. GOD.

This looks awesome.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Comics review: Dark Phoenix saga

The definitive arc of the Chris Claremont's epic 16-year stint (can you call 16 years a "stint" I wonder) was the Dark Phoenix saga. This is often called the greatest comic story arc of all time and featured a who's who of comic greats at the helm including: Chris Claremont (author), John Byrne (artist/plotter), Louise Simonson (editor) and Jim Shooter (editor in chief).

Unknown to any of us reading at the time, it was also the focus of a pitched battle behind the scenes as the creators fought with their editor in chief over how to end the story. Phoenix, in turning evil, had killed millions. Should she be punished?

Jim Shooter, always ready to impose his personal morality on the Marvel Universe threatened to fire the entire creative team if Phoenix was not punished. His initial proposal, that she be sent (effectively) to hell, banished to an asteroid where she would be punished for eternity, likewise had Claremont threatening to walk.

In the end Phoenix comitted suicide, at least allowing her a noble exit from the story and for a time it was thought, from the Marvel universe.

25 pages and counting

So despite taking a break from it for awhile this month to do some other projects the boss thought were pressing business, I have already passed the 25 page mark on Secret Project X-13.

I'm really excited about this one. Here's hoping I'm right everyone else is equally excited ;)

For those wondering, the two "other projects" I did this month were the final installment of Blood and Guts II (yep, I actually finished it after a couple of years, who knew), Blood and Guts II: On the Ground which covers tanks, fighting vehicles and small arms.

Like all the B&G II books its expanded over 1st edition.

The other thing I did was Part 3 of my ongoing adventure path for the Prometheus Rising setting, called "Powderkeg".

I'm interested to see how folks respond to this one, because it takes the adventure in the direction of the science fantasy elements of the setting, which some people seem not to like.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Comics review: Red Menace Part 1

As I've mentioned previously, I am a huge fan of the current run on Captain America, written by Ed Brubaker. He has taken the character back to his roots in many ways but also refashioned Cap as an actual soldier (anyone remember the 70's when Marvel sissified the super-soldier so much that they not only claimed he didn't kill but had NEVER killed? not even in WWII?).

Red Menace continues after the Winter Soldier story arc and features all the same supporting characters and even most of the villains. Red Skull, Alexander Lukin, Winter Soldier, Crossbones and Agent 13 all return.

Nick Fury is absent, having gone underground under mysterious circumstances and a new villain enters the mix, Red Skull's daughter, Sin.

Oh yeah, and hordes of AIM agents. I love acronym agencies. Heck I wrote abook about them. In Red Menace part 1 AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) is under assault not only by Crossbones and Sin, but the Winter Soldier and even a splinter organization, RAID (Radically Advanced Ideas for Destruction).

Under assault from all directions, AIM turns to... Captain America and asks for help. It's a great story and seems almost like something Stan Lee and Jim Steranko would have done in the 70's.

Adding to the fun, there is a second story in the Red Menace tradeback, a flashback story set in WWII, with Captain America, Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos attempting to stop the Red Skull from unearthing an ancient artifact buried in Latveria. This is one of the best Cap stories ever written, is drawn in the Golden Age style and has a VERY Indiana Jones type feel, with the Nazis looking for a mysterious artifact.

All in all, Brubaker's run continues to be golden. This is another great addition to an already impressive run.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas to all

Id like to take this opportunity to admit two things: first, I'm not particularly religious and second, I am a huge sucker for Christmas.

All of it. I love the crass comercialism, the shopping, the massive wave of video games and electronics.

And I also love the true spirit of the holiday. I'm not really religious but the closest I come is Christmas, when stories of the manger are in the air.

Ok, enough of that schmalz, here's another thing about Christmas I love: the insane engineering projects some folks transform their home into.

Fire hazard? Sure.

Annoying to your neighbors? Sure.

Psychosis inducing to live in? Definitely.

But who cares. It's Christmas-y!!

RPGNow changes (or I for one welcome our new OBS Overlords!)

If you're a regular PDF buyer, you've probably heard about the winds of change blowing through PDF distribution business.

The two largest PDF delivery sites, RPGNow and DrivethruRPG have merged. I have a lot of thoughts about this, most of which I will be studiously keeping to myself.

One thing I would like to point out right now though, is that RPGObjects now has an affiliate site. As part of the current changes, besides merging, the new OneBookShelf or OBS (which is the company RPGNow and DTRPG became when they merged like Voltron) added affiliate sites at ENWorld and, two of the largest fan sites on the net.

This allows people to shop from the site where they read a review of my AWESOME new book and support their favorite review site at the same time (since affiliates get a cut of whatever they sell).

Well some of the PDF manufacturers said "heyyy... that sounds kinda good".

So like those pods in day of the triffids, affiliate sites have started to spread, including to RPGObjects!

This means you can do all your shopping for PDFs, made by RPGObjects and others, directly from RPGObjects. By buying through the affiliate store, we get a nibble off everything you buy.

And of course if the PDFs you buy are actually made BY US... well that's even cooler.

20-07: Roll with the new

As Geddy Lee once said, "Changes aren't permanent, but change is".

It's 20-07 ya'll, time to roll with the new.

Pretty nifty huh.

If you disagree, let me know, one of the new changes is a comment box at the bottom of the page.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men #1

It's hard to warp my mind into the way-back machine to remember those days, but at one time, way back in 1975 (god that was 31 years ago wasn't it? I. am. old.) Chris Claremont was a young writer working on Iron Fist, a title created by Roy Thomas to cash in on a martial arts craze that was quickly dying down.

It was then that Len Wein tapped Claremont to head a revival of the rare Marvel title to be cancelled: X-men.

That's right, Claremont was at one time a 25 year-old intern just out of college given books designed to cash in on fads and books that Marvel was attempting to resurrect after being cancelled.

Of course, in hindsight, we can see this shiny hardcover Marvel Masterworks reprint of those heady days for just what it is: the beginning of one of the most storied runs in the history of comics and a book that should be on the shelf of every self-respecting library.

Claremont's run would wind up lasting until 1991, a 16 year tenure that still has not been matched in Marvel comics history (and given that most writers are given a 12 issue run on a book before being shuffled off to a different book these days, I believe the 16 year run never WILL be topped by a single writer on a single book).

But this reprint title lets us begin at the beginning. The title starts with Len Wein's Giant Size X-Men #1, which introduces the new team, including a cast of new characters destined to become pop culture icons not only in comics, but in hit movies as well: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Wolverine (who had previous appeared as a guest star in a couple issues of the Incredible Hulk).

These heroes form a huge team that includes the original X-men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast, Angel, Banshee, Havok and Polaris) along with some less familiar new-comers including Thunderbird and Sunfire.

Then the title moves to #94, Claremont's first as writer of the comic. Claremont puts his stamp on the book immediately, paring the team down considerably. Iceman, Angel, Beast, Havoc, Polaris and Sunfire all leave in the first pages of the work (along with Jean Grey but we just KNOW she'll be back).

This paring down will give Claremont the room to do what he does perhaps better than any other writer since Roy Thomas: give each member of his team a chance to shine as characters while still delivering on all the action comic readers love (especially in teams).

This issue also sees the introduction of character arcs new to the X-men that will be staples of Claremont's entire 16-year run. Wolverine and Cyclops can't get along. Scott and Jean's love affair. And Cyclops' emergence from Xavier's shadow as the true leader of the team.

In issue #95, Claremont continues to pare down the roster of his new team but in a decidedly different way: Thunderbird dies.

The harcover ends with a fight with the Sentinels, introducing another of Claremont's central themes that helped to turn the X-men from a cancelled book about student-heroes into Marvel's top-selling title: The X-men are outsiders, a racial minority who are not superheroes by choice. They're freaks by an accident of genetics and most would much rather be normal folks instead of costumed vigilantes.

Finall Claremont introduces the Shi`ar and Lilandra, presaging the many science fiction overtones the series will carry.

In short I can't recommend this title enough. Not just for comics fans, for anyone who likes to read. It's a look at the beginning of a pop-culture phenomenon and the defining of some truly iconic characters by a legendary writer at the beginning of his career.

One childhood on the way...

So I went a little crazy and ordered almost 70 comics from the 70's.

Sounds like an oldies station "70 hits from the 70's coming up, after these messages!"

I snagged a complete run of the Invaders, the classic Roy Thomas comic about Captain America, Human Torch and Namor fighting Nazis in WWII.

Also a big chunk of Chris Claremont's run on Marvel Team-Up, including team-ups with Iron Fist, Black Widow, Shang Chi and Nick Fury.

Finally, I got a bunch of old Power Man/Iron Fists, including the entire Claremont/Byrne run and a chunk of the Mary Jo Duffy run.

I got low-grade copies, average quality Good and spent less than a dollar each for almost every one of these so I can, you know, READ them.

That said, I haven't read any of these since the 70's so I'm curious to see what doesn't hold up for me now. I have memories of all of these as AWESOME.

Will I find Baron Blood's battles with Union Jack as cool now as I did then? Will I be as wowed by Nick Fury shooting Spider Man in cold blood and leaving him lying in a pool of his own blood?

My gut tells me HELL YEAH, but we will see. Maybe some childhood memories should stay in childhood? Here's hoping the answer is no.

The image is from the new Ed Brubaker Captain America run (which is AWESOME) and which includes a lot of cool beyond belief flashbacks to the Invaders, part of what triggered this nostalgia kick in the first place. Also should give an idea how cool (and scary) the Invaders were when they were kicking Nazi ass.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

I might need to find a comic shop...

... or subscribe.

Just got the next two tradebacks of Ed Brubaker's Captain America run, with the *awesome* title "Red Menace" and all I know is, I can't wait for the tradebacks on these I don't think.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

And now... your starting lineup!

Tis the season

My Christmas shopping is done. For the rest of you, it's crunch time.

Since I'm a hell of a guy, I thought I'd help.

For the role player

Since I write RPGs and know tons of gamers, let's start here. One caveat, Im not pimping any of my stuff here, I figure I do that enough in my own weird historical-essay-posting way.

Thieves World (Green Ronin)

One of the best RPG books I've read in a long time, this will be a sure hit for that gamer you know itching to start a new campaign (it also makes a great hint if you would like your DM to run Thieves World so you can play it).

It's got solid mechanics and a really nice set of magic rules that were drawn from the Sovereign Stone campaign setting, one of the first (and still one of the best) d20 books I ever bought. But the GR team adds some wrinkles to those rules, making them even stronger.

Conan RPG (Mongoose Publishing)

This is one of the best designed game settings for any system period. The fact that it brings to life my favorite all time fantasy setting to vivid life is pure (and oh so sweet) gravy. Some nice combat rules that add flavor to the rules and yet another alternate magic system to make magic both dangerous and unreliable.

Plus this book is just flat out gorgeous. Also, for the gift-giver on a budget, there's a pocket version out that comes a little cheaper.

Call of Cthulhu d20

This is a little older but can still be found for a fairly reasonable price. An excellent modern game, an excellent 20's game and an excellent horror game. It has it all. Maybe the best d20 Monte Cook has done (other than, you know, writing the 3e DMG).

For the video game player

You can probably guess what I think would be good picks here, and since I've just gabbed about FF XII, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Dragon Quest VIII, I'll throw in a couple of PC games this time.

Civilization IV

I have been a fan of these games from the beginning. They're the best turn-based strategy games ever designed for the PC. Period.

That said, Civ III was something of a disappointment. More is not always better, and though the graphics improvements were nice, Civ III just took TOO LONG to play. Im not in high school anymore. I have a life that I can't duck as easily as homeroom (and all the classes that came after).

Civ IV improves on Civ III's graphics (by a mile or two) but also makes the game shorter, more fun and more engaging.

This might be the best version of my favorite strategy game.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms X

For your console turn-based strategy fix, look no further. Another venerable series, this takes the time-tested formula of united three kingdoms China and adds a role-playing element or two into the mix, making the game even more intriguing.

In this version you can play any officer in the game and you won't always be the boss. You can play the entire game SERVING a computer officer, trying to earn prestige by diligently performing your lord's assignments and hoping to be given a military command.

Of course you can also blow off your boss' instructions and slack, spending your time dueling and raising your personal fame (either just because you're that happy go lucky of an adventurer or because you plan on being your own boss some day).

For the reader

My other big passion, I love buying books for friends, introducing them to something good.

Astonishing X-Men

These are out as individual issues but also tradebacks. These days I prefer tradeback collections to getting comics monthly, mostly because I have a life and can't be bothered to trek to the comics store every Wednesday.

That said, I flat-out gave Marvel my credit card and subscribed to this one cause I couldn't wait. Joss Whedon writes the X-men? Joss Whedon brings back Kitty Pryde and Colossus to the X-men? I am so there.

And apparently I am not alone. As the Buffy scribe nears the end of a two-year run some are already calling one of the X-men's finest EVER, the book is consistently Marvel's single highest-selling title.

Inside Delta Force

A serious look at a very serious group of men, this inside look by one of the group's founders is a riveting read. Interesting, enlightening and sometimes a little scary. The author of this book is also the technical consultant on The Unit, a show that I will tune into again and again.

For the couch potato

Clerks II

A sequel to a classic? Bad idea. But as Ben Affleck (playing himself) informed us in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back "Sometimes you have to go back to the well".

Good Will Hunting II: It's Hunting Season this ain't. Dante and Randal (and Jay and Silent Bob) are back, and this time it's personal. No wait, this time it's in color.

And since the Quick Stop and the Video Store where they worked has been burned down (Randall: "Was it terrorists? Oh... I left the coffee pot running again didn't I...") our intrepid Inaction Heroes have found gainful employment at a Mooby's (and fortunately no angels of death show up).

It's just as funny as the original, perhaps raunchier and with an honest to god United Colors of Benetton dance number set to the Jackson 5's "ABC".

If this is going back to the well, sign me up for a regular shipment of the water.

Sleeper Cell

If you like 24, or the Unit, or just good well-written adult drama, you will love Sleeper Cell, a 10 part mini-series that debuted on Showtime but is now out on video.

Oded Fehr (of the Mummy movies) is flat-out AWESOME as the smart, charming terrorist cell leader who doesn't know his tight-knit group has been infiltrated by a Muslim former Army Ranger turned FBI agent.

It's a great series with a great ending.

Well, there you go, I did my part to help you be the ultimate santa, hope this helps at least one panicked gift giver out there.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Video Game Review: Dragon Quest VIII

I recently bought a new copy of this game, which I had rented previously. As I'm going through it again I just wanted to say if you haven't played this excellent RPG yet, you definitely should.

It's a classic Square Enix RPG, offering over 100 hours of gameplay, some great mini-games (such as a monster arena and collecting coins in return for rare treasures) and a very engrossing alchemy system that allows you to make items that can't be bought anywhere else in the game.

Each character has 5 skills, some of which involve weapons and some character traits. For instance the hero (that's his name, unless you change it, "Hero") has a Courage skill, Yangus, the reforming bandit, has a compassion skill, and Jessica and Angelo both have a sex appeal skill that is both useful in adventuring and hilarious.

If you've never seen a giant man o' war lose an action being smitten with an adventurer, well it's your loss not mine.

The game features beautiful cell-shaded graphics that look great, if a bit cartoony.

One last point for those who haven't yet tried Final Fantasy XII, there's a demo disc for that game included with Dragon Quest VIII.

Another plus for DQ VIII is its price, currently for sale at the most excellent price of $20. For a game this good that has over 100 hours of play, as well as a demo disc, that's a great price.

Up soon: in the review department I have a couple more Captain America tradebacks on order, so look for more comics reviews. Also I'm working on the 3rd part of my Prometheus Rising adventure, the Powderkeg, so expect a preview of that shortly as well.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Sneak Peek #6 Blood and Guts 2: Deep Blue Sea (working title)

It's somewhat fitting that I post this next preview on December 8th, the day after the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, because really, no one realized, three years into WWII that the naval war would be a carrier war.

But on December 7th the United States was put into a position where it would have to rely on its carriers and its submarines for the early part of the Pacific war. Their ability to strangle the Japanese navy both militarily and economically with these two forces would change history.

World War II: Carrier War

As WWII consumed Europe, the mighty British Royal Navy sought to attain control of the vital Mediterranean Sea. Their principal opponent in this was the navy of Axis Italy. Despite several victories over the Italian Navy, the Italians kept the bulk of their ships safely in harbor under the naval doctrine of a “fleet in being”. This requires an enemy power (in this case the British) to devote substantial forces to counter the “fleet in being” without that fleet ever needing to risk itself in the open ocean. The doctrine was deemed especially sound since it was impractical for the British fleet to come into port to seek out the Italian fleet, since their ships would be easy pickings for ground-based artillery.

In response to this, the British Navy came up with a daring, brilliant plan that would alter the course of history in a most unforeseen way: they would use aircraft launched from a carrier to destroy the Italian fleet in port. This surprise attack on Taranto, Operation Judgment, was conducted by just one carrier group, the HMS Illustrious, overloaded with planes from HMS Eagle. She was defended by 2 cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 4 destroyers and on November 11th, 1940 the carrier launched 21 Swordfish Torpedo bombers which sunk 1 Italian battleship and damaged 2 others. This blow crippled the Italian fleet and caused them to move their ships to more secure ports in the north, opening up the Mediterranean to British control.

That one carrier was able to inflict such damage to a fleet in port was not lost on naval planners but the Japanese Navy in particular studied this attack with intense interest. Ultimately the lessons learned from the Battle of Taranto led the Japanese Navy to formulate the plan to attack the much more formidable American Navy in its port at Pearl Harbor in a classic Japanese high-risk, high-reward decapitation attack. Using 6 carriers rather than one, they would catch the American battleships in port and achieve a level of naval dominance that would force the Americans to the negotiating table and grant the Japanese Navy control over the Pacific.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

On December 7th 1941, 7:53 am (Hawaiian time) Japan put the lessons of Taranto into practice against the American Navy, moored at Pearl Harbor. For this attack the Japanese would use 6 carriers not one and launch 441 planes at their targets rather than 21. This was Taranto taken to its logical conclusion. The primary attack was a tight grouping of battleships nestled between two islands in what was called “Battleship Row”. Of the eight battleships on Battleship row, four were sunk (USS Arizona, California, Oklahoma and West Virginia) and four were damaged (USS Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Tennessee). Despite bearing the brunt of the assault, an astounding six of these vessels would eventually see action in WWII (only the Arizona, which was ripped apart by a magazine explosion and Oklahoma, which capsized before sinking were beyond repair).

If Taranto and Pearl Harbor had not already shown decisively that the carrier had supplanted the battleship as the most potent weapon in the modern naval arsenal, the remainder of WWII drove the point home again and again with brutal clarity. While battleships spent the majority of the war bombarding shore positions in support of amphibious landings, carriers fought and decided every decisive engagement of the war between the United States and Japan, with planes from the carriers engaging their opposite numbers and large task forces of cruisers and destroyers on each side acting as pawns and knights to protect their carrier queens.

In the Battle of Midway, considered by many naval historians to be the pivotal battle in the Pacific campaign, three American carriers protected by 50 support ships engaged four Japanese carriers and seven battleships, along with 248 supporting ships. While the great Japanese battleships labored to even get to the site of the battle, the carriers dueled, with one American carrier and four Japanese carriers being sunk. Having achieved parity with the Japanese in number of carriers, the Americans were immediately able to go on the offensive and invaded Guadalcanal almost immediately. Japanese battleship hulls under construction were converted to carriers as rapidly as possible but the damage was done, the Japanese were not able to match American industrial production and soon fell behind in the carrier arms race and would never catch up.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A bit about the Infinity Engine by request from comments

Edge asked in the comments for a little more information about how Marvel Ultimate Alliance plays. Apparently "button mashy" wasn't a very insightful analysis, go figure ;)

The engine used for MUA is called the infinity engine, which was created for Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance and adapted for: Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance II, Champions of Norrath (and its sequel return to arms), Fallout Brotherhood of Steel, X-Men Legends (and its sequel Rise of Apocalypse) and now finally Marvel Ultimate Alliance.

Basically the infinity engine was designed to provide a Diablo-style button mashing and barrel smashing experience on the play side and it does this very well. In fact this is the real heart of all the games made with the engine in a lot of ways, if you liked Diablo, if you like killing things and taking there stuff while pressing the buttons a lot, you will probably really like any game made with this engine and they seem to come out like once a quarter.

On the character creation side, you get 1-3 skill points each level (1 at levels 1-8, 2 at levels 9-18 and 3 at levels 19 and up usually) and each ability costs 1 or 2 skill points to "level up".

Since each character in one of these games typically has 10 powers or abilities, and each ability can rise to level 10 (requiring about 15 skill points), you can see that it's possible to create radically divergent characters.

You also gain HP and mana (called "energy" in the three supers games and Fallout) for rising in level.

There's a few ability scores as well, Stamina or Endurance that determines how many HP you get per level and how fast you recover HP, Focus which determines how much energy or MP you gain per level and how fast it recovers, Defense, how easily you shrug off damage and Fighting, how much hand to hand damage you inflict.

Here's another Diablo "homage" in the infinity engine, if you think about Diablo's four ability scores (Strength, Vitality, Magic and Dexterity) you've more or less got the Infinity Engine down, just sub Defense for Dexterity.

And then of course there's your standard magic items (yes even the superhero games have magic-items) to further enhance your character abilities.

To these already impressive list of customization options that are in every Infinity Engine game, Ultimate Alliance adds a few new ones. Each character in Ultimate Alliance has 4 different costumes, and each costume adds three abilities to the character.

In other words, Captain America has 10 powers that are the same no matter what costume you give him. Things like Shield Throw and Patriotism (that temporarily buffs the entire party).

But he also has 4 costumes, and each costume has three seperate abilities. So if you play "Classic Cap" you'll have a few different wrinkles to add to the character than if you play "WW II Cap" or "Ultimate Cap".

Also you can have radically different teams. There's 20 playable heroes but you can only have four in your party at any given time. Obviously you want a team roster that compliments each other, a ranged attacker like Cap, who also has some party-wide buff abilities, works well with other characters who inflict physical damage. Spider-man, with his ability to web targets and stop them from closing on the group, works well with a ranged specialist and so forth.

Finally your TEAM gains levels, with team levels determined by Reputation rather than XP. Your team can gain abilities just like a character, giving you bonuses to damage, or energy or defense or even XP while those specific four heroes fight together.

And one of the abilities of the "team as character" is to add a "bench", allowing you to add additional members. You can have four players in play at once but sometimes an extra hero is handy when one falls in battle, or for fighting villains who need a certain power (perhaps an all flying team).

So as you can see, on the character side there's a LOT to tweak and min-max to try and form the perfect party and a lot of the heroes can go in different directions. Depending on the powers you take, Iron Man can be a devastating close-in fighter or a skilled sniper blasting enemies from afar with energy attacks.

Compared with OTHER Infinity Engine games, Id rate Ultimate Alliance pretty highly as well. Champions of Norrath, set in the world made famous by the Everquest MMORPG would be the best in my opinion, with Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Dark Alliance II comining in tied for second.

Champions of Norrath II Return to Arms and the two X-Men games were ok... and the original Dark Alliance, along with Fallout are great games but just to short for me to recommend buying them. I would strongly suggest renting them though.

So, there's my exhaustive run-down on the Infinity Engine and its many games.

Hope this helps and that it was an enjoyable read.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Video Game Review: Marvel Ultimate Alliance

It has been ages since I have been as geeked for a game as I was for Marvel Ultimate Alliance.

Even FF XII. Sure, I was *anticipating* FF XII and preordered it, and the strategy guide (I see no point in playing an FF game without one lol) from Amazon a few days before launch.

But I wasnt surfing the web desperately looking for who I was going to be able to play and watching gameplay videos on gamespot for the month before launch, like I did for Marvel Ultimate Alliance.

The reason of course, is that MUA melded TWO things I love: comics and RPGs.

As most of you probably know, I'm also a huge fan of superhero RPGs.

Finally, I had played the X-Men Legends games by this same manufacturer and enjoyed them both.

So this game really had my nerd heart beating in a way not many things do.

So, now that I've detailed in excruciating (and possibly disturbing) detail how much I wanted this game before launch, how is it now that I have it in my hands?

The answer is pretty damn good. Not the greatest game ever. But damn good.

It's a little too button-mashy for me to play in large doses. Basically you wander around and savagely beat down anything that moves. Then after the fight you break open crates for health, energy and "shield credits" which look like big gold pieces.

Yes, you're playing the Avengers and you break open crates for cash (in gold pieces no less). And yes, I happen to think that is AWESOME.

Occasionally you have a boss fight, which tend to be interesting because those ARENT just button-mashing, they're puzzles you have to solve, FOLLOWED by button mashing. The short story is that most of the bosses, think, Ymir the Asgardian Frost Giant, or Galactus, are more or less invulnerable, so you have to solve a puzzle, which will then allow you to hurt the monster.

Here's an example: at one point you fight Tiger Shark underwater. Since he's actually a native, he basically swims around you, pummeling you at will, much too fast for you to connect with him, even with ranged attacks.

Fortunately there's a couple of drains in the room, activate them, he gets pulled to ground level, and THEN you can waste him.

In short, I like this game a lot, like the different elements it offers, such as the mini-games where you play comics out with individual characters. There's also a trivia mini-game in each act, that rewards your characters with XP.

Finally, you can build your own supers team from a roster of 20 playable characters, customize them with different costumes (so you can be the classic red and blue Spidey or the venom-y black suited spidey) and even find "magic items".

The only real "problem" I have with this game, and Im not sure it's the game and not me, is that I can't really play it in large doses. After about 30 minutes of button mashing, Im tired of the experience (it really is mindless and light) and ready to read a book, or play FF XII.

Still, I keep coming back to the game, and always delight in each new costume or hero I unlock, and I am committed to beating the game, just so I can unlock Nick Fury and then play the game AGAIN.

In short, it's a really really good game in a beer and pretzels way, not sure I'd call it a great game but certainly a worthy addition to my console library.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Sneak Peek #5 Blood and Guts 2: Deep Blue Sea (working title)

Early 20th century: Rise of the Dreadnoughts

As the 20th century dawned, vessels that would look familiar to our modern eyes as battleships began to be built: steel hulled, with cannons firing explosive shells arranged along the centerline of the main deck. In 1906 however, every one of these early battleships was rendered obsolete when the British Navy launched HMS Dreadnought. At 20,000 tons, with oil-powered turbines for speed and an array of 39 big guns she single handedly changed the balance of power in naval warfare. Battleships of the day were instantly designated “pre-Dreadnought” and “Dreadnought” as every navy in the world consigned their old-guard battleships to defensive actions and began to design ships capable of combating this radically new British design.

In the Russo-Japanese War, these new design philosophies were put to the test on the open sea and it was shown that the newer naval vessels far surpassed what had come before in speed, armor and firepower as the Japanese navy’s newer vessels soundly defeated the less modern Russian navy, leaving dozens of ships on the ocean floor.

World War I: War of the Dreadnoughts

Despite the tremendous advances in sea power acquired by the German and British navies in the build-up to the First World War, their navies were largely concerned with bottling one another up. The British thus dedicated the bulk of their dreadnoughts to a commercial and military blockade to hold the German fleet close to shore. Finally, in late May early June of 1916, the German fleet attempted to break the blockade, resulting in the largest naval battle of World War I: the Battle of Jutland. On the 31st of May the battle was engaged and it was enormous, involving over 250 ships. In the end fourteen British and eleven German vessels were sunk, many going down with all hands resulting in a tremendous loss of life. Though both sides claimed victory, the British achieved their objective of bottling up the German fleet and preventing German mercantile shipping, while the Germans failed to achieve their objective of breaking the blockade.

Near the end of WWI it became clear that air power had a critical role to play in naval operations, especially with regards to anti-submarine warfare. The British Royal Navy had begun experiments with converting merchant vessels into seaplane carriers. For these primitive carriers, the use of seaplanes was essential, since craft could take off from, but not land on these early flight decks. Seaplanes would lift off from the carrier, perform their mission, then land in the sea alongside and be lifted back into the carrier by crane. These experiments were promising enough that the first ship built from the ground up as a carrier, HMS Ark Royal was commissioned in 1914, serving in the Eastern Mediterranean throughout the war.

In 1917, as the war was drawing to a close, the first aircraft carrier designed for land-based fighters to take off and land from was commission, the HMS Furious. Carrying 7-10 Camel fighters, she only took part in a single operation during the war but that was a success. Landing on her deck was extremely dangerous and unpredictable, making Furious difficult to use reliably but naval planners clearly saw the potential, indeed even the necessity of using aircraft to supplement naval forces.

Interbellum: Between Wars

In the period between WWI and WWII, research into naval aviation increased tremendously. Some of this focus on aircraft carriers was a recognition of the importance of naval aviation but some was artificial. The Washington Naval conference was a postwar attempt by Britain, the United States, Italy, France and Japan to limit the power of their navies (Germany was not a part of this agreement since the Treaty of Versailles limited the strength of its navy tremendously). It was thought this would reduce tensions between the great powers. This treaty stipulated tonnage limits, weapons limits and, most importantly, forbade the powers to upgrade their ships except at twenty year intervals. Meaning naval power would only be upgraded (in theory) every twenty years and at a one-for-one basis (each new ship required an outmoded vessel to be destroyed). An important consequence of this was an increased emphasis on aircraft carriers by all nations bound by the treaty. Although the ships themselves could not be upgraded, the treaty placed no limitations on upgrading aircraft, allowing carriers to be effectively upgraded by including more modernized planes.

As it turned out however, the treaty did not last long enough to have a major effect (other than encouraging the construction of aircraft carriers). France and Italy withdrew from the treaty in 1930 and when Japan withdrew as well in 1934, Britain and the United States dissolved the treaty as all parties began to upgrade their navies. The build-up for the Second World War had effectively begun.

In this period between wars the navies of all sides built up their forces both in terms of aircraft carriers and in ever-larger dreadnoughts. The British Royal Navy constructed the following carriers between WWI and WWII: HMS Eagle (1920), HMS Hermes (1924), a totally rebuilt HMS Furious (1925), HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious (1928-1930) and finally on the eve of WWII one of the most famous and beloved British ships of all time, HMS Ark Royal (1938).

The United States constructed its first carriers during this period, making remarkable strides in carrier construction. Indeed many of the carriers constructed during this period became famous for their service during WWII when they were forced into the limelight following the destruction of the bulk of the American battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor. It is often (and truly) said that these well-designed carriers saved the United States from a forced armistice with Japan during the early days of the war. The carriers constructed by the U.S. between wars were: USS Langley (1922), USS Lexington and Saratoga (1925), USS Ranger (1934), USS Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet (1937-1941) and USS Wasp (1940).

Japan also made great strides in carrier construction between WWI and WWII including the following vessels: Hosho (1922), Akagi (1927), Kaga (1928), Ryujo (1933), Soryu, Hiryu and Shokaku (1937). All of these except the experimental Hosho would take part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Due to the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and the need to rapidly build up its armed forces across the board in the preparations for WWII, Germany did not start its carrier, the Graf Zeppelin until after the start of WWII and it was never completed.

On the battleship front, once the Washington Treaty was abandoned, naval planners began to build even larger dreadnoughts than before, still believing that the dreadnought was the key to naval supremacy. As part of this effort, the accomplishment of the Japanese Navy in constructing the two largest battleships yet designed, the Yamato and the Musashi was particularly noteworthy.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Video Game Review: Final Fantasy XII

So, in a previous post I mentioned how a recent spate of game-buying for my PS2 (which, for a console supposedly on its last legs had a HELL of a year gamewise).

Having just finished the first of the three games I bought (FF XII), I thought I'd give a review of the game.

For those unaware of the series, the Final Fantasy games have been around in the US since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, that thing you played Mario on. The games then jumped to the Playstation and then the PS2.

Although this is labeled #12, there have been less games than that released in the US.

They are known (the more recent ones, especially since FF VII saw the jump to the CD-ROM based Playstation gave the designers room for full video cut-scenes) as part game, part interactive movie.

This is sort of a divide in the fanbase for the series. Some people (like me) became MORE interested as the games evolved into hybrid movies and games while others lost interest.

The games have also become EXTREMELY long, typically promising over 100 hours of gameplay if you wish to explore all the options of things you can do. In other words, you can play the game in a linear fashion and complete it much more quickly (typically in about half the time) but if you wish to really explore, there is always a wealth of things you can do.

In some cases these other things you can do are full blown mini-games, such as snowboarding (FF VII), Magic the Gathering style collectible card games (FF VIII) and a water polo type game, but played underwater known as Blitzball (FF X).

Still, even if you complete the games as directly as possible, the games usually take about 50-60 hours to play, or about twice what a game of Diablo would take take you, so it's a long haul.

Again, this is a love it or hate is situation in most cases. For the casual gamer, who wants to play a few hours a week, they typically don't want to sink a YEAR or more into a game.

But on the whole, the Final Fantasy series is best described as venerable, with many of the current games among the highest rated for their platforms. Using Gamespot as an example, FF VII and VIII received 9.6 out of 10, FF X receive 9.3 out of 10 and FF XII received a 9 out of 10.

To use an even MORE respected outlet, Weekly Famitsu in Japan gave FF X a 39 out of 40 and FF XII scored the magazine's first ever perfect 40 out of 40.

So how does FF XII stack up?

Well pretty damn well. Having just completed the game, I found the story and characters less engrossing than FF X. However, the gameplay is really really solid, with a return to frenetic real time battles found in many other Final Fantasy games, such as VII, VIII and X-2 (yes there was a sequal to X and no they didn't make that game FF XI, deal with it).

I'd also say this might be the longest Final Fantasy game ever. I completed the game in 114 hours and completed about half of the optional material in the game.

An interesting turn for the series, FF XII is almost a move toward the dreaded (but highly successful) Action RPG genre pioneered by Diablo (and copied by about a quadrillion games since then).

Even in the realm of the game's mini-games, the majority of them are "hunts" for monsters so vicious they have bounties on their heads. That said, there are also two mini-games that are completely non-violent, including a rumor-mongering mini-game and a fishing mini-game.

On a 10 point scale Id give the game a 10, but Id still rank it below the BEST game in the series, FF X, which is probably the finest console RPG I've ever played (and would be tied with Diablo for the best electronic RPG ever imo).

Upcoming (whenever I finish the game), a review of Marvel Ultimate Alliance for the PS2.

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