Kanaan Cluster League: Round 5

Opponent: Brad Lee
Deployment: Dawn of War
Mission: The Scouring

Librarian w/Terminator Armour
10 x Death Company w/Land Raider
10 x Death Company w/Land Raider
Death Company Dreadnought
5 x Devastators w/4 x Plasma Cannon
5 x Devastators w/4 x Lascannon

I was joking with Brad about his army design, which has no scoring elements; he said if an objective mission rolled up, his best bet was to go for the tabling! And lo and behold, the Scouring; let's see how a non-scoring force does in a six-objective mission, shall we?


Kanaan Cluster Leage: Round 4

Opponent: Will (Sisters of Battle)
Deployment: Dawn of War
Mission: Big Guns Never Tire (4 objectives)

Saint Celestine
Uriah Jacobus
5 x Seraphim
5 x Seraphim
10 x Battle Sisters w/Immolator w/Multi-Melta
10 x Battle Sisters w/Immolator w/Multi-Melta
10 x Battle Sisters w/Immolator w/Multi-Melta
5 x Retributors w/4 x Multi-Melta
5 x Retributors w/4 x Heavy Flamer

This looked interesting, and amusingly I was just talking with a friend about how I'd never yet faced off against Sisters. Annoyingly, it's tough even to track down their codex information these days, since it was only printed in a White Dwarf supplement. Know your enemy, indeed!  I didn't even realize Will was doing double FOC until after the fact, when I looked up where everything in his list fits in!


We... Will Be Watching...

I'm not sure, but I think X-Com: UFO Defense was the first serious computer game I ever played. That, or Warcraft. Before that there were a few basic things, like a flying shooter on the Commodore64 and the freeware Star Trek game that lived on bootlegged floppy discs, but nothing that even had a 'save game' option, nevermind a real story.

So you can imagine how nervous I was when I first learned about XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

It wasn't as though the franchise hadn't been through sequels and spinoffs before. Terror from the Deep was a slightly tweaked clone of the first game, while Apocalypse went so far in its own direction as to be virtually unrecognizable as a part of the same universe. Then there were Enforcer and Interceptor, poorly received forays into other genres. So while the thought of a modern X-Com game, with all the advances of twenty-some-odd years of video game development behind it, was thrilling, the franchise's rather checkered history made me understandably wary.

Having completed my first play-through of XCOM, on the PS3, I can honestly say... it's good.

That sounds bad, I know. But honestly, I really enjoyed this game. The controls are solid and intuitive, the enemy AI is good without being an obvious cheater, and the customization options are amazing. The new class and skill systems really helps make your soldiers individually useful, rather than just being a faceless horde differentiated only by who is carrying the heavy plasma and who is carrying the blaster launcher. Armour finally means something, as do medpacks, since alien weapons won't just casually one-shot every soldier they hit. The aliens themselves are much more intimidating, which is given an in-game shout-out when engineers test-firing the laser and plasma rifles for the first time use cardboard standies of the original Sectoid and Muton soldiers as their targets. They dropped Time Units in favour of a much more straightforward 'Move/Action or Action' setup. There's a variety in the missions, with standard 'kill them all' fights interspersed with escort, bomb disposal and 'rescue civilians' terror attacks. And the video cut-scenes finally give a peek into the world of the characters, though admittedly it's one that raises as many questions as it answers. Sure, it's chilling to watch them react to an alien attack on Washington, but what exactly are American politicians and military officers and citizens saying about that, afterwards? I suppose it might be a bit much to ask, to have this world expanded to such a degree. But hey, you opened this door, XCOM. You can't blame me for trying to push through it.

On the other hand, not everything has necessarily changed for the better. While the customization options for the individual soldiers have expanded hugely, a lot of your other options are sharply curtailed. You can't have multiple bases in multiple locations. There are fewer research topics, and they're more tightly focused than before, when it really felt like you were trying to figure out every aspect of an alien civilization. No researching Alien Entertainment nowadays! There are a lot less alien encounters; compared to the first game, where you could regularly shoot down a UFO and send out a Skyranger at least once a week, it's not uncommon to have the better part of a month go by before there's an attack. And you can only have one encounter at a time, unlike before when, with a couple Skyrangers and a few squads of well-trained soldiers, you could be taking on two or even three crash sites consecutively. XCOM is a much smaller, more tightly focused game than its rather sprawling predecessor, for good and ill.

But with all its faults, it's still a really solid, really fun game. It's also more of a story of human resistance, with your base's chief scientist, engineer and operations officer discussing what they've learned and what their next objective should be. The cut scenes make XCOM feel like you're really participating in saving the world, though the few times those characters address you directly raise a host of questions about just what you, the Commander, are doing.

If you like turn-based, squad-level strategy and resource management games, you should pick up XCOM. It's a little thinner than the first game, but still miles ahead of most of what's out there these days, and it's streamlined enough that you can pick it up on the fly, though first-timers will still probably want to set the tutorial on for the first run-through.


It Never Ends, and Other Furmanisms

Cultural creations are inextricably products of their time. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield wouldn't have been thinkable a few decades earlier, and would've been considered hopelessly outdated a few decades later. Contemporary action-genre movies of the mid-to-late nineties, like Robocop and Predator II, were these bizarrely dystopian tales of the immediate future, which you could never get away with outside that bleak cinematic moment. But I don't think any other medium is quite as susceptible to the vagaries of time as comic books. The comics written in the Silver Age and the Dark Age couldn't have been written any other times; you couldn't have The Dark Knight Returns unless you already had Adam West dancing the Batusi, and you couldn't stick a skull on The Shadow's chest and call him The Punisher.

Which makes Transformers: Regeneration One: Volume One a slightly surreal reading experience.

Parts of it still fit normally with what's accepted as appropriate in a  modern Transformers comics, and modern comics in general. Indeed, much of the Cybertron-based plot is pretty clearly reflective of what's going on in a similar kind of situation in IDW's own Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye line. A disillusioned Optimus, at loose ends after the war's end. The attempt to integrate Autobots and Decepticons, undone by unrepentant and unreconstruced Decepticons. Key Autobot characters chafing under peace's demands, and setting off for adventure in the wider cosmos. Heck, the reappearance of Grimlock a few issues into the volume coincided with his and the other Dinobots' reappearance, after a three year absence, in the core IDW books; they called it 'Dinobot Month'.

But then, right there in the middle of it all, there's Berko, and the Cosmic Carnival. And you're like oh, right. Marvel's Transformers universe was weird.

Returning to that universe can be kind of hard, particularly after having read 'realistic' Transformers stories for so long. It has, after all, been twenty-one years since the last Marvel Transformers comic, '#80 in a 4-Issue Limited Series' as the cover so glibly put it, came out. There are committed TransFans running around today, who know everything firsthand about three completely distinct iterations of the franchise, who weren't even alive when this thing ended, nevermind when it began. And for those of us who did read it at the time, two decades of growth and change as readers makes it tricky to fall easily back into a world where Megatron and Ratchet are magically connected because of a transporter accident, and where something like the Neo-Knights still lingers in an otherwise superhero-free fictional universe.

So, it's weird, and it's heavily nostalgic. But is it actually any good? Honestly, only if you've followed the Marvel series, either during its original run or by picking up the reprinted trades IDW has put out. If you don't know about things like the Last Autobot, and Circuit Breaker, and the effects of Nucleon, and what the Ark is doing under a lake in the Canadian north-west, and the Underbase Saga, you are really not going to get a lot out of this. It relies to a huge extent on prior knowledge on the part of the reader, and while it's full of old Marvel-style asterisks pointing out what happened and what issue it happened in, that isn't a sufficient substitute for having read those issues yourself. It'd be like starting Star Wars with Return of the Jedi; sure, you could, but without two movies of sexual tension the Han-Leia relationship is going to be totally flat, and the Vader/Luke dynamic is going to be about as bad.

If you did read the old Marvel run, however, this is more of the same. Whether that's good or bad will depend on whether you prefer your Transformers dealing with the politics of post-war reconstruction and trying to rediscover their spiritual roots, or palling around with superheroes and hitching a ride on a Cosmic Carnival.

Me? I'll take one of each, please!


Everything Old is New Again

Behold, the cover of World's Finest #12, on sale May 1.

So, that lasted a year; longer than I'd actually expected it to.  And frankly, longer than it deserved to have lasted.  Power Girl's nu52 outfit was brutal, from her weird 70's hair to the bland white onesie to the loss of her boots.  And sadly, they changed her character just as badly.  Here's hoping the return of her old costume heralds a return of her old character!


Kanaan Cluster League: Round 3

Opponent: Space Marines
Deployment: Dawn of War
Mission: Crusade
Warlord: Strategic Genius

Unfortunately, I didn't catch my opponent's name this time around. Which is silly, because he was a damn nice fellow; speaks poorly of my manners for not formally introducing myself.

Anyway, round three, and my team had some ground to make up; we'd lost three of five matches last week, one of them for control of our spaceport. With it, we could attack almost any tile, regardless of whether we held the adjacent piece. Without it, we were at the mercy of a team that held three of four spaceports, the fourth sitting unclaimed to date. Unwilling to risk such an obvious tactical threat in the core of our territory, my Tau cadre paused its advance, and turned its full might on the single enemy tile in the heart of our gains.


Kanaan Cluster League: Round 2

Opponent: Trevor Engle (SM)
Mission: The Scouring (sort of)
Deployment: Vanguard Strike
Warlord: Princeps of Deceit

Can I just say, Princeps of Deceit is the worst?  If you're going second, it's actually, literally useless; it can't take you out of your deployment zone, and you can't use it to counter Infiltrators.  Seriously, this trait is awful.  I can not wait until the new Tau codex comes out and we get warlord trait tables that aren't mostly full of things that are actively working against the nature of the army.

There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity, Actually

This is disappointing, but hardly surprising.  According to The Popehat Signal, Games Workshop is in the process of bullying a self-published author.  MCA Hogarth's "Spots the Space Marine" has attracted the attention of GW's legal counsel, which has claimed trademark infringement and threatened, well, basically Exterminatus on her.  Nevermind that 'space marine' is a thoroughly generic term, used in a wide variety of situations, and in no way unique to Games Workshop's own Adeptus Astartes; when did a shaky basis to a questionable claim ever stop a large company from trying to intimidate smaller producers into giving up without a fight?

Emails encouraging GW to do the right thing can be sent to legal@gwplc.com, and GW can be reached on Twitter at VoxCaster. 

Whether a company that's consistently shot itself in the foot with regards to customer relations for years, however, will balk at a threatened boycott is anyone's guess...


Oh, You and Your Right-Angle Lasers

I'll admit up front, I never really got into the works of Leiji Matsumoto.  I watched Galaxy Express 999, but Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock and his spinoffs just slipped by me somehow.  So, I'm not entirely versed on whether this is going to be true to whatever canon exists.

What I am entirely versed on, however, is that this looks amazing!  There is no anime movie I'm waiting for more than the next Rebuild of Evangelion, but this thing is a solid second, and making a respectable attempt to fight for first!  The style, the space battles, the swashbuckliness of it all, it just works so well even in a forty-six second trailer!

Space Pirate Captain Harlock is set to premiere in Japan later this year.


That's a Falling Solar Mirror, For the Record.

One of the nice things about getting into a series late is that the wait between the last book you read and the next book to come out is pretty short. Which is why, not long after thoroughly enjoying Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, I found myself picking up its sequel, Caliban's War.

Like the first book, this one is just a monster of a tome. It's over six hundred pages long, which would be impressive enough on its own, but those pages are 6"x9", and there's not a lot of wasted margin, header or footer space. For the sheer amount of story they contain, each of these books could have been split in half as a standard mass-market paperback, and you would not have felt cheated.

Caliban's War picks up eighteen months after the conclusion of Leviathan Wakes. The protomolecule is still on Venus, and despite being watched by basically everyone and every institution with an even tangential interest in science, it's utterly inscrutable. In more mundane developments, the UN and Mars are both trying to hold on to Ganymede, breadbasket of the Outer Planets, and are about one sudden twitch away from an open shooting war. The Outer Planets Alliance, given at least some status at the end of the last book, has spent the intervening time establishing itself in its sphere of influence, minting money, directing relief supplies and keeping the peace. And with the only available warship in the area, the OPA has been turning to James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to do just that. The fragile peace is shattered, however, when what looks like a protomolecule-based monster slaughters first a UN and then a Martian military outpost on Ganymede; with each side thinking the either has finally stepped over the line, the space forces start shooting, blasting each other to pieces and doing major damage to the infrastructure of Ganymede in the process.

This is about where Caliban's War introduces its new characters. Praxidike Meng, a botanical geneticist on Ganymede. Roberta 'Bobbie' Draper, a Martian Marine and sole survivor of the monster attack on Ganymede. And Chrisjen Avasarala, a high-ranking UN bureaucrat and something of a power behind the throne of the Secretary-General. When Meng's daughter is kidnapped, along with all the other children on Ganymede with a particularly rare genetic immune deficiency, just ahead of the monster attack that Bobbie barely survives, the story really gets started. Like Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War is about the way enough little things can trip up the biggest plans; one more missing child on collapsing, war-ravaged Ganymede might seem like nothing, but it's the loose thread that sends Holden and his people right back into the thick of things.

Caliban's War is a good read, but for all its heft it feels in some way insubstantial, particularly compared to its predecessor. Partly, it's a function of the placement of characters. With Holden and Miller in the first book, the viewpoint characters were always on the front lines of the story. It was a conspiracy story, so of course they didn't know everything, but it always felt like whatever was happening that was important, one of those two men were involved. Unrealistic for a story concerning the fate of the entire solar system? Oh, certainly. But narratively compelling. In this book, however, while Holden and Meng are pretty good at being front and centre, there are also major political and military actions taking place that they really play no part in. And Avasarala and Bobbie are even worse, frankly. Each spends about half the book spinning their wheels while the other is in their element, which makes their sections drag when they're out of place. Bobbie's adventures on Earth are interesting enough in their own right, but rarely relate to anything besides character building, while Corey makes the frankly insane choice to remove Avasarala from her spheres of political influence towards the last third of the book. It makes perfect sense on the part of the characters, but it kills most of her narrative momentum.  She's basically reduced to sending cryptic video letters to her allies and offering the odd bit of sage advice to the others, and it's a serious waste of an interesting and powerful character. On the other hand, without removing her from Earth, it would have been tough for Corey to link her into the main plot with Holden and Meng. In that case, though, perhaps Avasarala should have been redesigned earlier; replacing her with, say, the already space-based Admiral Souther might have gone a long way towards bringing home the immediacy of certain sections that otherwise fall a bit flat.

It might sound like I didn't enjoy this book; that could not be further from the truth. Caliban's War might not be as strong as Leviathan's Wake, but as I reached the end I understood why; Corey is writing a trilogy. The back of this book contains a small excerpt from Abaddon's Gate, and even from what little we see it's hard to imagine how this story could continue past that volume without radically, perhaps even fundamentally, changing its tone and focus. So, a trilogy. And what is always the weakest point of those? Yes, the middle book. Limited set-up, limited pay-off, because the former's all been done in book one and the latter's all being done in book three. Knowing that, being able to judge the book in context, I actually revised my opinion up a notch or two. All things being equal, Corey has pulled off this midway book quite nicely. If you enjoyed Leviathan Wakes, you should definitely enjoy Caliban's War.