It Must Stand for "For The Luv'a...!"

I had that review of Looper done for like a week before I finally managed to put it up. So what stopped me, huh? Well, there was some house painting, and Thanksgiving, but those are pretty temporary affairs when you get right down to it. No, if you really want to derail someone, and I mean just strip hours and hours and hours out of their day, you have to do more than just throw a holiday and some home renovations at them.

You have to show them FTL.

Ironically, none of your ships look anything like that.  Cover art, amirite?

FTL is a ten dollar game (actually $9.99) from Steam, a simple little resource management sim wrapped around a pretty basic space adventure. A Federation ship, carrying vital intelligence, has to traverse seven sectors of space to bring that information home, staying ahead of the advancing Rebel fleet. Each sector is made up of a random number of star systems, laid in out a random pattern, with your entry point on one side and the exit jump on the other. All you have to do is travel, from star to star, from entry to exit, and then jump away to do it all over again six more times.

But of course, it can't possibly be that easy.

Despite its apparently simplicity FTL is actually fiendishly difficult, primarily because there are just so many resources to manage. First you have your crew; you start with three, and can have up to eight. Do you want them to be excellent specialists, or decent generalists? Because your crew can be killed, by boarders, oxygen deprivation, fire of even just being in a room one too many missiles have hit. Then you have those systems your crew are working on; there are five (engines, shields, oxygen, weapons, piloting), all of which draw from your reactor, and three more (doors, sensors, autopilot) that work on their own. You can upgrade all of these systems, to varying degrees, and for every boost to the first five you also need to upgrade your reactor to produce more power. Then there are two more optional systems (drones, teleporter) you can pick up along the way. And you can have two different drones installed at a time (three on some ships). And there are three slots for ship augmentations, like faster-charging weapons or shields or jump engines. And you have three finite resources you have to keep an eye on, as well; fuel, which you consume one point of every time you jump, missiles, which can go clean through the shields that energy weapons have to batter down every time, and drones, which can provide a wealth of options. And then there's your scrap. Oh, the scrap.

If you want to upgrade a system, or your reactor, or purchase a new weapon, or hire more crew, or get more missiles or drones or fuel, you have to spend scrap. Everything you do, basically, costs you scrap. You will never have enough, unless you're doing especially well, at which point half the time the randomly generated stores won't give you anything worthwhile to spend it all on. FTL can be cruel, that way.

Ship on fire, key systems shot up, no missiles, section exposed to vacuum... Yup, that's FTL alright!

So, sounds a little overwhelming, right? Well, that doesn't even get into the events you'll roll up on your travels! Each time you jump to a new star, you'll encounter something new. A rebel ship? Pirates? Slavers? A drifting wreck? An asteroid storm? Solar flares? Distress calls? The game has an impressive library of random elements it can combine into an event, and many of them offer the player a choice. Interestingly, there's a sort of personal morality system at play. Do you accept surrender from your enemies, letting them live in exchange for sometimes-token offers, or do you slaughter them for their scrap and supplies? Are you a fearless pirate hunter, challenging them anytime you cross paths, or do you resort to piracy yourself when the opportunity arises? The game doesn't make any particular note of your choices, in terms of the reputation of your ship or the like, but it can be easy indeed to fall into the habit of constructing a persona for your ship's crew, and sticking to it as you advance. Will you uphold the ideals of the Federation, come what may? Or does survival trump all other concerns? It's completely up to you.

FTL is cheap, and simple to get started. It's a casual game, but definitely a solid one, if you like resource sim-style games. Be warned, though! Individual events are pretty short, a few seconds a moral choice, perhaps a couple of minutes for a particularly gruelling battle. As such, it's very easy to tell yourself you're going to play just one more, time and again, until you realize you meant to play 'just one more' ninety minutes ago. If you're the sort who's susceptible to its wiles, this game will most certainly eat your free time, one brief random encounter at a time.

And you'll love every minute of it!

Well.  Maybe not every minute.


And He'll Keep Looping Until He Gets It Right!

There's this scene in Looper, about halfway through the film. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing the same character, Joe the Looper, separated by thirty years of life experience, sit down in a diner. Gordon-Levitt starts to ask about Willis' memories, his understanding of their shared existence, particularly as it diverges further from the past Willis remembers when he was Gordon-Levitt. Angrily, Willis cuts off the questions, declaring he's not there to talk about that; if they try, then it's only a matter of time before they're trying to make diagrams out of straws on the tabletop.

It's an amusing line, and somewhat self-aware, but it's important because it represents the views of the creator. Rian Johnson, the writer-director and therefore basically the authority on the film, has made it quite clear that he had always intended to make a movie that involved time travel, but not a time travel movie. There would be no neat 1985/1985A drawings on chalkboards, no predestination paradoxes trying to rescue doomed loves, no men in terrifying rabbit costumes and none of whatever the heck Primer is. At the end of the day, Looper is about a guy, a functional junkie who's happy being a trigger man for the mob, whose life suddenly gets turned completely upside-down and who has to finally take a good, hard look at himself and justify his choices.

It just, y'know, happens to involve time travel, and telekinetic mutants, and a plot to kill a future criminal overlord while they're still a child.

I wonder if Willis insisted on getting the cooler gun...

Set in 2044, clearly in the midst of the collapse of western civilization, Looper is seriously bleak. Everyone seems to have weapons, and no hesitation about using them, with petty thieves getting gunned down in the street and not a single eyelash batted. Nobody, however, has much of anything else; food, clothes, housing, it all seems to be in decidedly short supply. For Joe, his best friend Seth and the other Loopers, however, things couldn't be better. Young men of limited horizons and simple appetites, the Loopers are paid well to execute prisoners sent back by the mob thirty years in the future, on the understanding that they too will eventually be sent back to keep the precise information regarding time travel a secret. When that happens, one 'closes their loop'. The payday is bigger, much bigger, the Looper is let out of their contract, and are set loose with the knowledge that they have about thirty years of guaranteed survival to enjoy before someone comes to send them back, bag on head and gold bars strapped to their backs.

Of course, if it were really that simple, there wouldn't be much movie. Instead of simply being sent back and dealt with quickly and cleanly, the older version of Joe manages to arrive unhooded and unrestrained, and with the help of just a moment of hesitation turns the tables on his younger self. This sets off the plot of the film; old Joe is looking for the identity of the Rainmaker, a brutal criminal crime lord in the future who's been closing all the loops, so he can stop them before they're too powerful. Young Joe is looking for old Joe, since if he fails to close his loop he'll have to answer to the present-day representative of the Rainmaker, Abe. And Abe and his lieutenants are looking for both of them, to kill old Joe or to use young Joe to find him, in a none-too-gentle fashion. This three-way chase sequence drives the overall plot, but it's young Joe's slowly-unfolding realizations about himself that propel the story.

Despite being slathered in makeup to try and look like a young Bruce Willis and called on to occasionally imitate the venerable action movie superstar, Gordon-Levitt turns in a truly impressive performance. Joe isn't stupid, just short-sighted; a child of the streets, at a time when the streets are as dangerous as they've ever been, he's never had any use for a long-term view. But as he confronts his older self, the choices he's made and the choices he's going to make, and interacts with a few other, key characters, including a slightly precocious child and a few of Abe's lieutenant's, he starts to develop a sense of himself and where he fits into the wider world. Gordon-Levitt plays young Joe with a fine mixture of swaggering street-tough, recovering junkie and frightened victim-to-be, trading time among these aspects but never letting any one of them overwhelm the others. It's a good, nuanced performance, in a role that could easily have just settled for someone doing a decent Bruce Willis voice and playing the cliched Gruff and Stoic Killer With a Good Heart. Joe's not a monster, but he's not a hero either, and Gordon-Levitt plays both sides of it quite nicely. He does it so well, in fact, that the ending seems comes at you straight out of left field, but after even just a second's reflection it's entirely obvious. The more I see of Gordon-Levitt, the more impressed I am.

For instance, I'm impressed by his ability to act wearing an entire second face.

Willis turns in a less nuanced performance. With thirty years of experience as a killer for the Chinese mob, a revenge plan in his head and no ties to anyone in 2044, he's mostly just a killing machine. Think Clint Eastwood, at the end of Unforgiven. But even then, he manages to put in a couple of nice, emotional beats. Old Joe had a wife in the future, the loss of whom he feels very deeply, and despite his singular focus on ending the threat of the Rainmaker before it begins, after he guns down his first lead he really sells the depth of his horror and disgust at murdering a child, in cold blood, for nothing.

Looper is a rock solid action movie, with some really good ideas and an actual heart, a rare thing these days. There are some beats that are obvious, such as young Joe picking one of the three target houses to lie in wait for his older self and, of course, forming a relationship with the child there. Some cliches, you just can't get away from. But overall the movie is sharp, willing to tread strange new ground both as an action movie with science-fiction elements and a science-fiction movie with action elements. It has a certain timelessness to it, simultaneously racing along and feeling like it could have already run for hours. The sets are well designed, futuristic but not so much that they seem fake, a space designed rather than lived in, and there some nice, subtle touches that make it clear that while this isn't our world, it could be, down the line.

I must offer a warning, though. Despite the writers' disdain for straw diagrams as expressed by Willis, it's hard not to try and make sense of the conflicting timelines. Go ahead, but realize that things are not going to line up neatly. This is the sort of time travel where effect can precede cause, even incite cause in the first place, and there are elements of the final timeline that are blatantly paradoxical. Since none of the characters in the film are scientists this isn't really addressed, becoming neither a problem nor a source of technobabble, which is ultimately the best way to handle it. It just is; the universe is, as the saying goes, not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. But yes, the timelines of certain characters, and particularly the entanglement of Joe and the Rainmaker, do create something of a puzzle to chew over after you leave the theatre.

But, only well after you leave. Because when you first walk out of the theatre, I can pretty much guarantee you'll be focused on one of two things. Either you'll be thinking about Joe's character arc, or about what happened to poor, dumb Seth...


Escalation in Alpha Prime - Week 5

Opponent: Owen (Space Marines)
Deploymenet: Vanguard Strike
Mission: Crusade
Point Level: 1500

Chapter Master w/Jump Pack, Digital Lasers, Hellfire Rounds, Combi-Melta, Relic Blade
Captain w/Artificier Armour, Digital Lasers, Hellfire Rounds, Combi-Melta
10 x Tacticals w/Flamer, Missile Launcher
10 x Tacticals w/2 x Flamer
Venerable Dreadnought w/Multi-Melta, Powerfist, Drop Pod
Venerable Dreadnought w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, Missile Launcher
Venerable Dreadnought w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, Missile Launcher
Vanquisher w/Hunter-Killer

Oh, come on, Vanguard Strike again? Why is a one-in-three chance turning up so regularly!

Owen was a bit of a kid, which a strange little hodge-podge of an army, much of it clearly still in the process of being built and painted. Which I think goes some way towards explaining what happened this game. I don't condone clubbing seals, but nobody learns except through trial and error in the game. Trial and disastrous, disastrous error.

I won the roll-off, and deployed the following:
Shas'El w/Twin-Linked Missile Pods, Airbursting Fragmentation Projector, Hard-Wired Multi-Tracker, Hard-Wired Blacksun Filter
3 x XV8 w/3 x Plasma Rifle, 3 x Missile Pod, 3 x Multi-Tracker
2 x XV8 w/2 x Plasma Rifle, 2 x Missile Pod, 2 x Multi-Tracker
3 x XV8 w/3 x Twin-Linked Missile Pods, 3 x Flamer
8 x Fire Warriors
8 x Fire Warriors
8 x Fire Warriors
5 x Pathfinders w/Devilfish, Disruption Pod
2 x XV88 w/2 x Advanced Stabilization System, Team Leader, Target Lock
2 x XV88 w/2 x Advanced Stabilization System, Team Leader, Target Lock
Hammerhead w/Railgun, 2 x Burst Cannons, Multi-Tracker, Blacksun Filter, Disruption Pod
Aegis Defence Line

The disruption pods were the post-FAQ ones, a change Coulton, who happened to be passing by, was unspeakably grateful he hadn't had to face the previous week. On the other hand, the new rulebook FAQ had nixed the idea of spreading the Aegis out, which meant I didn't have quite the scope for my defences, anymore. That wasn't too much of a problem, though. I put it in the centre-right, stretched out to cover most of my army in its traditional three-point configuration, with the third group, consisting of a squad of XV88s, the stronger Fireknives and a Fire Warrior team, sheltering behind a bit of natural terrain and the Devilfish. I placed my objective there, and handed off to Owen for his deployment. He put one of his dreadnoughts in a tower-top, with the other on the ground behind the double-flamer squad and the artificier captain off to one side, while the third waited for its drop pod to touch down. The jump pack captain and the other tactical squad took up a central position, and the Vanquisher deployed on the left corner of his zone. Again, night fight and seize rolls failed to kick in, and the game was afoot!

Amusingly, despite directing four twin-linked railguns at it, the Vanquisher ultimately succumbed to nothing more than the missile pods stripping off its hull points with glances. Well, the important thing was that it died; who killed it was a decidedly secondary concern. With the only really heavy artillery gone, I hunkered down to weather the fusillade of dreadnought return fire, my forces spread out as widely as possible to limit the drop pod's landing options. Happily, said drop pod managed to scatter clear off the table, which isn't something its inertial guidance systems protect against. Like Typhus the week before, the dreadnought with the multi-melta found himself landing smack in the back corner of the board, as far from the fighting as it was possible to get.

Owen didn't have much better luck with the rest of his turn. The save-enhancing disruption pods proved far too much to get through with just a handful of shots, and both the dual-flamer squad and the missile launcher squad were too far out of range to contribute, save for the missile launcher, which missed. Without scoring a single kill, Owen ended his turn.

The game was brutally lopsided, far more so than even the previous weeks, not least because of Owen's poor strategy. Rather than combat squad the tacticals, which would've given him two squads to hold the objective, he kept them together, meaning they were easy picking for a concentrated torrent of fire. My XV88s trained their railguns on the dreadnoughts, though a combination of poor shooting and good cover saves meant only the multi-melta dreadnought ever went down, while everything else that could simply obliterated the squad on the objective. Hesitating, Owen started his second squad back, which was probably the worst thing he could've done; if they'd pushed on they might've survived long enough to hit my lines, at which point even just a handful of Marines are a serious problem, but by pulling back they just gave me that much longer to shoot at them outside their own optimal engagement area. By turn 4, both Tactical squads were gone, leaving Owen incapable of holding the objective and in possession of just two dreadnoughts, against which the vast majority of my cadre's striking power remained available. With no way to win and several consecutive miracles needed even just to tie, Owen offered to surrender. And of course, being the enlightened Tau commander I am, I was perfectly content to accept my opponent's withdrawal from the field, even with such precious items as a pair of Space Marine dreadnoughts, to preserve Tau lives.

Running Total: 3-1-1

Escalation in Alpha Prime - Week 4

Opponent: Coulton (Chaos Space Marines)
Deployment: Vanguard Strike
Mission: The Emperor's Will
Point Level: 1300

Daemon Prince w/Mark of Tzeentch
7 x Chaos Space Marines w/Plasmagun, Mark of Nurgle, Rhino
7 x Chaos Space Marines w/Plasmagun, Mark of Nurgle, Rhino
7 x Chaos Space Marines w/Meltagun, Mark of Nurgle, Rhino
5 x Terminators w/5 x Combi-Melta
5 x Havocs w/2 x Lascannon, 2 x Missile Launcher
5 x Havocs w/2 x Lascannon, 2 x Missile Launcher

You would not believe how grateful I was not to see a Land Raider anywhere in that list. I don't know what it is about Land Raiders; Imperial or Chaos, I just cannot shoot those darn things down. And I've run into no small number of Chaos players who bring one of those mobile bunkers along as a terminator delivery system, which pretty reliably ruins my day.

We rolled off and I got to go first, which pleased me to no end. I deployed along the lower-left corner, rich in hills and forests, an ideal defensive area even before I spread my Aegis line out through it. I went with my standard arrangement, XV88s in the wings with a squad of Fire Warriors and a Fireknife team, my Hammerhead, the third Fire Warrior squad, my commander and Deathrains in the middle, and my Pathfinders deployed as the opportunities of the table present themselves. In this case, they ended up midway between the middle and lower-right wings, with their Devilfish sheltering that XV88. In return, Coulton laid out a line of Rhinos, Marines huddled inside, around the centre of his diagonal, the two Havocs on a ridge along the right table edge, the Daemon Prince sheltering behind the tanks and Typhus and the Terminators in reserve. Each of us laid down our objective, my just behind my Aegis on the upper-left diagonal, Coulton in a forest along his board edge, and with no help from Night Fight and no success on seizing, we were off.

I got off to a respectable enough start, wrecking the Rhinos with the combined fire of pretty much everything I had that could draw line of sight. One of them exploded, but failed to wound anything inside. The only real exception was my Hammerhead, which managed to drop a submunition dead-centre on the heads of one of the Havoc units, costing them their sergeant and one of their missile launchers. Somewhat staggered by the savagery of a proper Tau alpha strike, Coulton's own first turn was rather lacklustre. His Havocs fired on my Devilfish, which had a 4+ Flat Out cover save, and achieved precisely nothing. His Daemon Prince rumbled forwards, along with two of the Marine squads, while the third headed up towards the objective. With no small amount of reluctance, he handed the game back off to me.

Turn 2 was significanatly less impressive, for the simple fact that I'd run out of big, fragile targets, and was stuck dealing with small, fragile targets instead. The Rhinos had been fire magnets, targets as obvious as they were incapable of surviving such a beating. The dismounted Marines, on the other hand, were a lot better at obscuring lines of sight, leaving parts of my army unable to draw a decent bead on anything. Still, I gunned down the upper-left Marine squad, and took down the Daemon Prince, while taking a model or two out of the squad moving for the objective. Coulton's admittedly rotten luck continued, as Typhus and the terminators, attempting to deep strike close enough to pose a very serious threat to my army, managed to land on the heads of a few of my guys. They weren't lost in transit, a result for which I would not have blamed Coulton for flipping the table in frustration, but all that meant was that they landed nice and safe in the far back corner, no threat to anyone for several slow, foot-slogging turns.

As the game continued, the losses grew steadily more one-sided. Coulton's Havocs just could not perform, failing to hit the Devilfish, or to penetrate, or just being frustrated by the Flat Out cover save. In fact, he invested considerably more effort into destroying it than it really warranted, particularly since the Hammerhead was still flying around, dropping submunitions on the Marines in the trees. His second Marine squad was gunned down, leaving me basically in control of two-thirds of the table. Unfortunately, this wasn't a kill points mission, it was an objective game, and I'd forgotten one very important detail; Chaos Space Marines are Fearless. No matter how often I plinked away a model or two, the survivors would not break. I would absolutely have to shoot them clear off the objective, and I realized I didn't have the firepower to do it. But that was okay, since I had First Blood, and Linebreaker is notoriously difficult to achieve in Vanguard Strike. All I had to do was hunker down and wait.

But apparently Typhus was more than a little upset by being left out of the game for so long. Finally charging into the fight, he and his terminators managed to catch my commander and a squad of Fireknives, who I'd been moving up to try and put more pressure on the Marines in the woods; a telling miscalculation on my part. Typhus of course easily dealt with a couple of battlesuits, wiping them off the board before they even got a chance to strike, and earning Coulton Slay the Warlord. Seeing victory slip through my fingers, I tried to bull my Hammerhead across the open space for Linebreaker, but it had been hanging around the rear area, and covering that space was just too much for it, especially since I still needed it firing on the off chance it could deal with the objective-holders. No such luck, however, and when the game ended it turned out that, despite having lost nearly everything he'd put on the table, Coulton's tenacity had managed to earn him a solid draw. Both of us had a single objective, and both of us had a secondary, with the tiebreaker unclaimed by either player.

Let this be a lesson, then. No matter how well things are going, no matter how clearly the dice are favouring you, you can never be too prepared by an appearance from good old Murphy and his law.

Running Total: 2-1-1