science fiction

All posts tagged science fiction

If there’s one thing I’m ashamed of as a gamer, it’s that I didn’t jump on the indie bandwagon sooner. As you can probably guess, I’m a pretty materialistic guy, so it goes without saying that I like to own physical copies of games. For essentially that one reason, I avoided most indie titles for way too long. Sure, I played the odd game here and there, but my attitude was always: “my backlog of physical games is long enough as it is, why bother with digital releases”? Perhaps my other hesitation was that for the longest time, I associated the term indie with art games, which I was fairly certain were shallow and devoid of meaty game content. Anyways, a few months ago I finally upgraded my PC, meaning I can now catch up on the literal mountains of excellent games offered on platforms like Steam and GOG. As I explore this world, I realize that I was beyond wrong about indie gaming.  Without the restraints of focus testing, enormous budgets, and arbitrary interests from money obsessed publishers, independent developers are free to innovate in ways that you rarely see with large releases. Of course, finding gems usually means traversing an enormous sea of mediocrity, but user reviews are fairly good at steering you in the right direction. Luckily for fans of Xenomorphosis, the number of sci-fi themed indie games are near infinite. One of these games, Capsized, is a great introduction to this world.

Capsized Cover

Capsized’s illustrations fit the in-game graphics perfectly.

Capsized
Developer: Alientrap Games
Publishers: Alientrap Games (self-published), indiePub Entertainment, Inc. (iOS version)
Platforms: Steam, iOS (called Capsized+), XBLA
Release Dates: 2011 (Steam), 2013 (iOS), 2013 (XBLA)

Capsized Indie Video Game 2

Detailed environments like those in Capsized add such great atmospheric value.

Capsized was initially released for Steam in 2011, and was developed by Alientrap Games: a studio known for a sci-fi FPS called Nexuiz that was built on modified Quake engine tech. Initially developed by Alientrap’s Lee Vermeluen and Jesse McGibney as a university project, they later devoted their full efforts to the game after graduation. Lee’s role was as programmer, and Jesse’s was as artist. Although this was their first major commercial release, and they claim they had to learn a lot along the way, their inexperience is never noticeable when playing the game. Had you told me this was developed by a couple of ex-Valve employees wanting to experiment on their own, I’d have believed you.

Capsized Indie Video Game 12

Levels like this one have extremely floaty gravities, giving you an even more empowering sense of speed than usual.

Storytelling in Capsized is all told through short comic strips. Essentially, you play as a spacefarer who has crash landed on a hostile alien planet. You’ve been separated from your crew, so you must find them before you can rebuild your ship. Lee and Jesse felt strongly that there should be as little text as possible, so you’re mostly forced to learn the game’s mechanics on your own. I appreciated the freedom from tedious explanations, because at its core Capsized is a very arcadey game, and text would just serve to slow down the game experience. The developers are big fans of fast-paced FPS’, so they wanted to channel as much of that kinetic gameplay as possible.

Capsized Indie Video Game 5

The rocket in this image is being deflected by an object that you must destroy to beat the level.

I stumbled on Capsized when I saw a news story mentioning its imminent release on iOS. Captivated by its beautiful art style, I immediately searched for more details. After seeing that the game was described as an exploration-based sci-fi action platformer, visions of Metroid sprang to mind, and I bought Capsized almost immediately. Metroid is my favorite series of all time, so this was a no-brainer. Having now beaten the game, I now realize that Capsized bears a much more acute resemblance to a certain infamous European series. Whether the developers intended it or not (I doubt they did judging from interviews), Capsized feels very similar to the Turrican games. The game is split into separate missions, but each one feels like it starts where the last one ended, geographically speaking.

Capsized Indie Video Game 4

The night levels require you to use a flashlight.

Gameplay in Capsized is part exploration, but there’s never a dull moment. Enemies attack from all directions, sometimes in screen filling numbers. Throughout these levels you’re encouraged to explore every nook and cranny, because doing so will net you additional lives, shields, powerups, weapons, and secret collectibles. Each level has a different objective: some require you to defeat certain enemies, collect unique items, or simply traverse to an exit location. Because of the objective-based gameplay, the goals within Capsized‘s levels can usually be beaten in any order you choose. Generally, this means clearing every enemy from the screen to make the end-goal easily achievable, but there’s nothing stopping you from blazing straight from objective to objective and avoiding the majority of enemies. Bonuses and weapons don’t follow you from level to level, so there’s no disadvantage to expending all your firepower in each level. I’m one of those gamers who nervously saves all his good weapons until the end-game, so it’s a nice change of pace to not feel guilty about going Full Rambo at every possible opportunity.

Capsized Indie Video Game 15

Some of the chaos that makes Capsized so much fun.

Capsized has a healthy assortment of weapons to choose from. Other than the default rifle, there’s a rapid-fire gun, a missile launcher, a homing shot, a laser shot, a flamethrower, a grenade launcher, and a black hole generator. Ammo is plentiful, but should you run out, the default gun is still pretty useful. Some weapons also have an alternate firing mode, and the default gun even has a charge shot. To be honest, the regular firing modes were adequate enough that I never felt the need to rely on the alternates. In addition to the weapons, Capzised has an excellent grappling hook that can be used all times. This might actually be the best example of a grappling hook in a sidescroller that I’ve ever experienced. Before long, you’ll find yourself whipping around levels at lightning speeds, that is, until you fling yourself into a swarm of enemies. The grappling hook also serves as a sort of gravity gun, letting you pick up and fling objects at will. Should you need even more manoeuvring power, you have access to a jet pack with a finite supply of fuel. In some levels, fuel recharges infinitely when you’re touching the ground, in others, you must collect hidden fuel canisters. Strangely enough, there’s never an indication of whether a level has a finite or infinite fuel supply. I often found out about the infinite supply at the end of a level, which speaks to the usefulness of the grappling hook.

Capsized Indie Video Game 14

While capturing these screens, I noticed that the game adds a slight blur effect to your surroundings while you’re moving. This made it difficult to take dynamic shots that don’t look low resolution.

On paper, Capsized sounds like an oldschool platformer, but thanks to a realistic physics engine, it plays quite differently. Like in many modern indie sidescrollers, objects roll or bounce across the environment realistically when disturbed, so there are no canned animations. The benefit of this is that no two playthroughs feel the same, the downside is that platforming obstacles aren’t as meticulously planned as in older classics, and objects sometimes obstruct your path in annoying ways. You’ll often find yourself at odds with a corridor that’s obstructed by a misplaced object. On one playthrough, there was an object that I needed to complete a level, but it had managed to wedge itself into a wall. Consequently, I had to restart the level because the object was irretrievable.

Capsized Indie Video Game 10

The jet pack and grappling hook can both be used at the same time.

Other than the rare occurrence of objects getting sucked into walls, Capsized‘s difficulty is challenging, but reasonable. There are three difficulty levels: Easy, Normal (the default), and Hard. The controls will be instantly to familiar to people who’ve played their fair share of modern sidescrollers on PC. The WASD keys move your character, and the mouse controls the direction of your gun. Once you master these controls. the game becomes really fun. As long as you chip away at the enemies without pulling too many at once, chances are you won’t be presented with the Game Over screen, at least until you reach the final boss level, which is pretty difficult. Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s a rewarding ranking system that encourages you to replay each level. After each level, you’re given a rank out of 10 based on your completion time, secret items gathered, lives remaining, and difficulty level chosen. Should you finish a level really quickly with few to no deaths, you’ll get a high rank; there’s no need to kill any more enemies than absolutely necessary. In addition to the ranking system, Capsized offers replay value in the form of an Arcade option. In the arcade, you can choose between several game modes: a team death match against bots, a time trial where you collect oxygen canisters to stay alive, a horde-type survival mode, a mode in which you must survive with no weapons, and a deathmatch mode against human opponents. I still haven’t had a chance to try every one of these modes, but from what I’ve experienced, they’re both fun, and really challenging.

Capsized Indie Video Game 13

Capsized’s soundtrack, which I haven’t given its proper due, has a subdued ethereal quality that suits the game’s atmosphere perfectly.

As I mentioned earlier, the first thing that will likely draw most people’s attention are the beautiful visuals. The backgrounds have a detailed, hand drawn quality. Most levels feature a lush jungle setting rife with colorful flora and even harmless fauna. Although there isn’t much variation to the environments, you’ll fight at every time of day, so the lighting and colors change from level to level. In my opinion, rich environments are integral to exploration-based games, and in this area Capsized delivers the goods spectacularly. As I mentioned earlier, scattered throughout the environments are hordes of enemies. These consist of flying jellyfish, ferocious animals, and all manner of aggressive tribal natives. For the most part, individual enemies are relatively easy to kill, but put 20 together on one screen and the odds tend to balance in their favor. Their design is nothing you haven’t seen before, but they suit the game world perfectly.

Capsized is a game that I can see myself continuing to return to. The fast-paced action, non-linear levels, rank system, and arcade modes provide for a really fun and rewarding experience. After beating the game once, I re-beat it a month later and enjoyed the experience just as much the second time. The game is relatively short, but the length feels reasonable given the relatively low price point. Also worth mentioning is that in addition to the iOS port, there’s also an XBLA release, so the game is now available to most gamers. Here’s hoping that Capsized eventually gets a much deserved sequel.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Capsized-related images

 

For whatever reason, manga has been strangely absent from Xenomorphosis. This wasn’t a conscious decision, because I love (certain) manga. Unfortunately, my particular taste in manga accounts for maybe 5% of everything produced in the medium. Most of my favorite series originated in the late 80s and 90s, at a time when Japanese entertainment was considerably more infatuated with Western media than it is now. Franchises like Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator, Mad Max, and Rambo inspired a generation of Japanese characters, settings, and stylistic conventions. Now, anime and manga seem to be largely inspired by other anime, manga, and video games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it has led to the intensification of anime-centric tropes. Which tropes am I referring to? Well, to name a few: clueless, spineless male protagonists (and the girls who compete for them), angsty teenage heroes, plenty of fanservice (upskirts, bath scenes, perky boobs, etc.), lolis, otaku culture, pointless long-winded pseudo-philosophical speeches (sometimes in the middle of battle), etc. For the most part, I can’t stand these tropes, so I tend to choose series that have as little of them as possible. Of course, doing so is nearly impossible, so I’m usually forced to comprise. On the other hand, I love the creativity and incredibly skilled artwork found in manga and anime, so I’m happy to sort through the mountains of titles that don’t pique my interest for those one or two monumental gems.

As far as sci-fi comics are concerned, I think I can safely say that Japan has offered us more classic examples of the genre than the States has. One of the masters of sci-fi manga is a man named Tsutomu Nihei. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he loves Western media more than Japanese media, so the tropes I mentioned are mostly absent from his works. I don’t mean to imply that the only good manga creators are those that are influenced by the West; instead, I’m just suggesting that these days this is no longer the norm, so you’re guaranteed a different feel from the average series.

Knights of Sidonia Covers

The series is much grittier than the covers imply.

Knights of Sidonia
Writer: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
Publishers: Kodansha (Japan), Vertical (USA)
Magazine Serialization: Afternoon (2009-Present)
Featured Chapters: 1-15
US Release Dates: February 5, 2013 (Volume 1), April 16, 2013 (Volume 2), June 4, 2013 (Volume 3)

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 2

Opening the first issue with tentacle body-horror is always a plus in my books.

Tsutomu Nihei is best remembered for the cyberpunk series Blame!, and Biomega, which were serialized in 1998 and 2004, respectively. Both of these series have a dark look, super violent content, and in the case of Blame!, sparse text and storylines that can be difficult to follow. Luckily, the art is so awesome in both series that you can pretty much enjoy them as standalone art books. Fast forward several years to 2009, which saw the introduction of Nihei’s latest, currently ongoing series, Knights of Sydonia. You’re probably thinking the same thing I did when first introduced to that name, “wait, isn’t that a Muse song”? The answer is yes; the Japanese sure do love to reference their favorite music.

Knights of Sydonia is definitely Nihei’s most accessible work to date. Compared to his earlier comics, the story is easier to follow, the characters are younger, the action is less violent, the art looks more streamlined, there’s more humor, and there’s a decent amount of fanservice. These choices might be enough to turn off hardcore Nihei fans, but let me assure you, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from KoS. Despite this being more streamlined than his previous series, KoS has gorgeous artwork, a compelling story that’s much deeper than it appears at first glance, likeable characters, mechs, and best of all, gigantic body horror.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 8

Sadly, there are only a few full color renderings.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 4

Nihei’s sci-fi designs, including this pressure suit, are always a joy to look at.

In the year 2109, while exploring outside the solar system, humanity encounters alien life. They dub the aliens “gaunas”. Gaunas are composed of a core that creates organic tissue refered to as placenta. Gaunas can take on any form they absorb, which means they often have a grotesque human appearance. They can form energy weapons with the placenta, but mostly attack with tentacle appendages that subdue their enemies. Gaunas can only be killed by first exposing their core, and then piercing it with a spear weapon known as a Kabizashi (the origins of which are explained later in the series). This is much more difficult than it sounds, because the placenta can regrow faster than you chip away at it. Gaunas form together to create “cluster ships”, which are the vessels they use to traverse through space. Cluster ships are often thousands of kilometers in length, and are composed of thousands of gaunas. Over 200 years after the first encounter with the gauna, they myseriously reappear and destroy the Earth. Humanity survives by fleeing in massive seed ships that escape in separate directions. KoS’s story take place on the Sidonia, one of the massive seedships, over a thousand years after the destruction of the Earth.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 6

As far as I know the Gardes are Nihei’s first attempt at mech design.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 1

The protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze, in a simulated mission.

At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to a teenager called Nagate Tanikaze, who lives alone in a hidden underground section of the Sidonia. His grandfather was his only companion, but has been dead for 3 years. Tanikaze decides to venture into the outside world, which is populated by hundreds of thousands of humans. He is immediately an outsider, but is mysteriously granted a spot in their pilot academy by the captain of the Sidonia. Humanity’s weapon against the gauna are mechs called “gardes”. Tanikaze spent most of his time underground in garde simulation chambers, so he is already an expert pilot. The story takes place through his eyes as he tries to integrate into society, and is tasked with aiding in the fight against the gauna, who have recently reappeared.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 13

Apparently Nihei studied architecture, which makes sense given his impressive environments that often contain challenging perspectives.

As you can tell from the previous paragraph, KoS’s story is fairly atypical for sci-fi manga, which usually take place on Earth in either a cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic setting. The concept reminds me more of a 70s sci-fi novel than of any manga I’ve read previously. That being said, fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will note some striking resemblances. Both series feature mech battles against an enemy whose true nature is very much uncertain. In both cases, a mysterious shadow organization calls the shots, and we’re led to believe that they know more about the situation and the nature of the aliens than they let on. Also, in both cases, the aliens continue to adapt to human tactics, meaning that no two battles are ever the same. One of my criticisms with KoS is that like in Evangelion, the battles against the aliens follow a pattern that is predictable to a tee. Essentially, the pacing of the story goes something like this: “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “rinse, and repeat”. Also, despite Nihei’s best efforts, I found the alien fights were almost always fairly dull. I’ve always wondered why mechs are predominantly found in anime and not manga. I think the answer is that mech action just lends itself better to film. When dealing with static images, the intensity of a mech battle is lost, and furthermore, it can be difficult to discern what’s happening on each panel. I don’t consider this a fault of Nihei, because I think he does the best job possible; it seems to be a shortcoming of the medium. Luckily, the series is scheduled for an anime adaptation, which I think will give the mech battles a better fighting chance.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 10

Had I drawn this, I probably would have been tempted to just copy and paste the mechs in the upper panel. Nihei, on the other hand, drew each one individually.

Back to KoS’s story; other than the tedium of the battles, I love the way Nihei handles the pacing. Each scene is relatively short, but never fails to add a valuable tidbit to the overall plot. To Nihei’s credit, there’s very little filler. The nuances are subtle, meaning that nothing is overly explained. There are no monologues, and almost no captions. Instead, you’re expected to glean story elements from visual cues, or from small interchanges between characters. For example, the other students initially don’t like Tanikaze. How do we know that? Is it because Tanikaze complains about how nobody likes him? Instead, we glean it from a scene in which he opens his locker to reveal that someone has put an “odor neutralizer” inside. Turning around, he sees some students covering their nose, implying that they think he smells. Again, Tanikaze never openly asks “why does nobody like me”? We discover this ourselves by paying attention to the visual cues in each panel. I found this approach really refreshing, especially compared to some manga/anime series, in which nobody ever shuts up… As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer when a comic writer imparts information from visuals rather than text whenever possible. KoS’s story takes some time to get into, and you’ll undoubtedly be slightly confused at first, but give it time and you’ll start to feel really involved. After reading the first three volumes, I went back and reread them. Not only were they a breezy joy to read the second time, everything made perfect sense and “felt right”.

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 3

This looks much more like a page from Blame! than most of the art.

As with any story, especially in the realm of manga, the degree to which you get absorbed into the work is largely dependent on your emotional investment to the characters. KoS’s characters are fairly one dimensional, and to be honest, we learn very little about each one, but I still really like the cast. It could be said that Tanakaze is somewhat bland, but he’s a huge breath of fresh air compared to most anime protagonists. He’s strong and capable, but not cocky. He’s friendly and innocent, but not overly shy. And, best of all, he actually seems happy most of the time, rather than angsty! Essentially he’s the exact opposite of a character like Shinji from the similarly themed Neon Genesis Evangelion. His classmates conform to typical anime character tropes, but I still enjoyed them. There’s the cute reserved girl, the loyal friend, the super outgoing girl, the wise superiors, and the shady rival. Slight spoiler warning: people die in KoS, and when they do, it feels pretty crappy. As expected, there are several girls who are romantically interested in Tanikaze, and of course, he’s mostly oblivious. Back to the loyal friend: this individual, who goes by the name Izana, is a really progressive character. Essentially, Izana is a hermaphrodite, and seems to lean towards different gender norms based on the situation at hand. Mostly, he/she seems to lean towards the feminine side, and is romantically interested in Tanikaze. I’m actually really rooting for the relationship between the two; the LGBT community would be proud of his/her character. On the other hand, KoS contains quite a bit of fanservice that might annoy progressive communities. I’m not going to lie, I like the occasional T&A in my manga, but even I find it slightly sketchy that there are a couple of instances where when women get killed, their clothes get ripped off in the process…

Knights of Sidonia Tsutomu Nihei 11

Tanikaze and love interest Hoshijiro.

As I mentioned earlier, KoS’s art is cleaner than Tsutomu Nihei’s previous works. There’s less use of crosshatching and ink splotches, which overall results in a look that’s less dark and muddy. Shading is accomplished with solid black ink rather than hatching. In the end, KoS has a more calculated, less chaotic look than Blame! or Biomega, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your outlook. After spending some time comparing KoS to his earlier work, I think Nihei’s artwork has matured, contrary to my initial reaction. In particular, I love the way he’s able to impart scope using the occasional zoomed out shot. Nihei’s understanding of composition is excellent, which leads to plenty of beautiful panels that feature mechs as small specks compared to the enormity of the Sidonia. A quote on the back of Volume 2 praises Nihei for his ability to render the beauty of empty space; I couldn’t agree more. In addition, Nihei does body horror like no other. It was actually his depiction of the flood in Halo Graphic Novel that rekindled my interest in Blame!. The gauna are giant hulking monstrosities that gush tentacles and embody human characteristics. Nihei’s depiction of body horror is second to none.

Knights of Sidonia is a series that I would recommend to any fans of sci-fi manga. The content, which might seem off-putting to longtime Nihei fans, is very much a step in the “Japanese entertainment will only sell if it has a teenage school setting”, but the end result is much better than you might expect. Despite the initial school setting (which actually goes away pretty quickly), the story is hard sci-fi, and contains numerous interesting sci-fi concepts in additions to the ones I mentioned. The writing, art and characters are all great, so I definitely plan to continue reading the series. Japan is already up to Volume 10 (Chapter 42), so we still have a long way to go to catch up. Luckily, the American publisher, Vertical, has committed to translating a new volume every couple of months.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Knights of Sidonia

 

At risk of betraying my age, the Genesis was the first system I ever owned. Sure, I have early memories of playing the NES at other people’s houses (or my accurately, watching others play), but the genny was all mine. Many of my best gaming memories were from the system’s punishing games and deep bass. Unsurprisingly, when I was older, and started to purchase older games, the Genesis was the first system that I chose to relive. At first glance, the genny was home to countless licensed games, as well as about a billion bargain bin sports games, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an endless treasure trove of excellent Japanese titles, most of which were brought to the West thanks to a company called Renovation. Among these niche games, the dominant genre was undoubtedly shooters. When I started collecting games for the system, many of the “top games for the system” lists included plenty of shmups. Thus, I stumbled upon classics like Gaiares, Lightening Force (Thunderforce III in Japan), Fire Shark, and others that I can’t seem to recall at the moment.

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 5

Boss fights in Hellfire range from relatively easy to brutally hard.

Needless to say, my endeavour to relive my Genesis-playing youth played a big part in crystallizing my then-emerging love for shmups. At this point, I now own most of the Western-released shooters for the system. They might not be as pretty as other 16-bit shooters, and there are some people who avoid 16-bit arcade ports altogether, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. This was an era of immense creativity and experimentation, especially as far as visuals were concerned. The environments, enemies, and (especially) bosses in 16-bit shooters are all over the map, and feature the sort of visual risk-taking that you don’t see as often these days. Trains with giant deformed heads attached? Spaceships in the shape of fish? Flying pharaoh head ships? Sure, why not? Many of the Genesis’ shooters came out in the first few years of its life-cycle, and today’s game is no exception. Released in 1990 in Japan, and 1991 in North America, Hellfire was one of several arcade ports for the system from legendary shooter developer Toaplan (who you might remember from my Batsugun review).

Hellfire Cover

Now this is some kickass cover art! Who wouldn’t buy this?

Hellfire
Developer: Toaplan
Publishers: Taito (Arcade), Seismic Software Inc. (Mega Drive), NEC Avenue (PC Engine CD-ROM)
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Arcade, PC Engine CD-ROM
Release Dates: 1989 (Arcade), 1991 (Japanese Mega Drive), 1991 (Genesis, European Mega Drive, PC Engine CD-ROM)

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 1

That transport ship looks quite a bit like Halo’s Pelican dropship.

In the year 2998, humanity has reached a period of prosperity, and has successfully colonized numerous planets. Suddenly, an entity known as Black Nebula appears and starts devouring stars until it eventually reaches one of man’s colonies. The Black Nebula is revealed to be a robotic dictator named Super Mech, who intends to eradicate all of humanity with his vast space armada. In the arcade and Genesis versions, the main character is a Space Federation member named Lance, who pilots the only space fighter craft, the CNCS1, against Super Mech’s forces. In the PC Engine version, Lance is replaced with a female protagonist named Kaoru. Generally I love the simplistic, far future settings of space shooters, but Hellfire story is about as far-fetched as they come. Only one space fighter craft left in existence? Seriously!? I get it, the society of the future is past the need for warfare, but keep at least… 3 space ships around for defense! Jeez.

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 3

The various directions of laser fire are color coded, which is really handy in tight situations.

Originally released in arcades in 1989, Hellfire was unique in that it was one of only two horizontal shooters ever developed by Toaplan (the other being the infamous Zero Wing). Toaplan are remembered for blazing new ground with their giant output of vertically scrolling shooters, but horis? Not so much. Most shooter usually have a gimmick, and Hellfire is no exception. In this case, the gimmick is the ability to change between one of 4 shooting directions on the fly. I say the word “gimmick” lovingly, because in the case of Hellfire, it’s implemented extremely well. At any time, you can switch between shooting forward-facing, diagonal, backwards, or vertical lasers. For the most part, this adds a nice layer of depth to the game. My only criticism is that you have to cycle through the shot modes one at a time, meaning that if you need to switch to a diagonal laser in a pinch, you may have to hit the “switch shot mode” button up to to three times. As I’ll explain soon, Hellfire has a brutal level of difficulty, so you’re often forced to know when to switch to a certain shot, even before a certain wave of enemies appears onscreen. Conversely, the various shot modes open up more possiblities than in your average shooter. When watching videos of other people playing the game, their way of clearing a certain area is often different from mine, and involves the use of a different sequence of shot modes. Either way, by the time you master Hellfire, you’ll look like a pro, because you’ll be switching to appropriate directions of fire even before enemies appear onscreen. To the game’s credit, the gimmick is pushed to its limits, meaning that you will be forced to not only embrace it, but master it as well. In my opinion, the sign of a poorly implemented gimmick in a shooter is when you can clear the game without ever needing to rely on it.

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 6

I love the Egyptian motif.

As I alluded to earlier, Hellfire is brutal as f**k. Your character sprite is fairly large, and has an equally large hitbox. Hitting walls will kill you, and as you collect speedups, you’ll be moving so fast that walls present a serious lethality. In the later levels, bosses spew out incredibly fast bullets, which wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to dodge if you didn’t move so freaking far every time you tap the direction pad, and if your hitbox wasn’t so ridiculously huge. Needless to say, one of my important survival strategies is to avoid as many speedups as possible. Two or three is the sweet-spot; any more and you’ll be smashing into all manner of enemies and walls. By far Hellfire‘s most punishing aspect is its continue system, which might be one of the most crushing I’ve ever seen. Dying at anytime in Hellfire means being sent back to a checkpoint, often fairly far back in the level (think R-Type). This will cause you to lose all your powerups, and won’t even replenish your smart bombs, should you have run out. Even worse, dying near the beginning of a checkpoint will send you back to a previous checkpoint! This is the video game equivalent of multiple choice tests where you lose points for getting the wrong answer. Being sent to a checkpoint with zero powerups means you’re pretty much screwed, that is unless you’ve memorized the game to a tee, which is imperative should you wish to finish it. In fact, I would almost recommend practicing levels without powerups, because doing so will ensure that when you do have powerups, the game will feel considerably easier. Luckily, powerups are relatively easy to come by, so starting a level without any doesn’t mean that you’re entirely screwed. Fully powered up, you’ll shoot 3 horizontal lasers, and 2 diagonal lasers. Don’t expect any screen clearing weapons of mass destruction. In terms of other upgrades, you can collect an option that flies around randomly and sometimes damages other ships, as well as a giant laser bomb that passes through every enemy, and clears the screen of enemy bullets.

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 18

Some of the machinery designs, like the one seen in this picture, are really well done.

By the time you’ve mastered Hellfire‘s levels, you’ll be able to (mostly) play through the entire experience without dying, which as you can imagine, feels really rewarding. The one saving grace in Hellfire‘s difficulty is that on the default “Easy mode”, you’re given 20 continues, which is more than you’ll realistically use. Most times, you’ll find yourself putting the game down in frustration well before you’ve blown through all 20 continues. The other available difficulties in Hellfire are Hard (which I really can’t comment on because there’s no way I was going to try it), and “Yea Right”, which is the difficulty setting you unlock when you loop the game. As hard as Hellfire is, it rarely feels overly cheap; most deaths usually feel warranted, with the exception of the ones where you run into walls as a result of the ridiculous speedups. Overall, Hellfire’s challenge is what kept me returning to the game, and you will feel like a pro if you can make it to the last couple stages. One last tip if you plan to stay alive past the first level: in the options menu, turn the fire mode to “rapid”. This is absolutely essentially considering the pathetic pea shooter you start with. Your wrist (and sanity) will thank you.

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 20

Tight corridors are a hassle when every time you click the direction pad you move a full ship length.

Scoring in Hellfire is relatively straightforward. Basically, you get points for shooting down enemies (duh), and collecting bonus points in the form of floating “B” tokens. Once your ship is fully maxed out, powerups will stop dropping, and will be replaced instead by B tokens. As you collect the B tokens, they will progressively give you more points, Eventually, if you collect around 10 without dying, their point value will max out at a huge bonus of 10 000 points per token. As you master the game, and are able to survive long periods of time without dying, you’ll collect enough of these tokens to continue getting extends. In the American Genesis version, the first extend is received at 70 000 points, and progressive extends are given at every 200 000 points. Should you play the game flawlessly, you can finish with around 12 or more lives. Although this sounds generous, remember that dying starts you back at zero, in more ways than one. Therefore, playing for score in Hellfire means not dying, ideally not even once, which is much harder said than done. I’ve played the hell out of Hellfire, and I still can’t beat the game, period. I can get to the last stage on a credit, but past that point it’s just too ridiculously brutal. Should you reach the final boss, his attacks are so fierce that I had a hard time surviving his final attack even with save states…

Hellfire Genesis Mega Drive 15

Hellfire’s soundtrack is mostly pretty bland and unmemorable.

Hellfire‘s visuals are competent, but far from the best you’ll see on the system. It holds its own compared to other early Genesis titles, but it looks pretty weak compared to later shooters like Thunderforce III and IV, M.U.S.H.A., and Bio Hazard Battle. The colors look too dark, the backgrounds are fairly bland, and there’s a general lack of detail. On the plus side, the graphics are really smooth, and are pretty much entirely devoid of flicker or slowdown. Although the environments are bland, I respect that they’re pretty varied. In particular, the second level’s Egyptian motif is really fun and original. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll explore a space station, an Egyptian-style temple, a pink organic planet, a swamp, another space station, and open space. The enemies are also fairly varied, other than a green mecha type that appears in waves in nearly every level. There are several larger enemy ships, which are nicely designed, and have weapons that animate independently.

Overall, I’d recommend Hellfire to any shooter fans that aren’t afraid of imperfect arcade ports, and any Genesis gamers that are looking for a challenge. The game is tough as nails, but it’s also really fun. If you step up to the challenge, you’ll find yourself spending countless hours on “one last try”. Everything runs really smoothly, and the 4-way firing mechanic is actually really well implemented. If there’s one thing I’d love to accomplish with this blog, its to convince sci-fi fans to give sci-fi themed shooters a chance. For newcomers, this might not be a great introduction to the genre, but considering that you can acquire it on the cheap, you can’t go too far wrong. So far I’ve been really impressed with Toaplan‘s Genesis output, and this is no exception.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images

 

For people who read this blog, M. Night Shyamalan is a director who needs no introduction. Originally revered for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he later met mixed reviews for The Village, and was then totally lambasted for Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. My feelings on Shyamalan are mixed; on the one hand, those last two movies deserve all the scorn they receive, on the other hand, I still think his first few movies, even including The Village, are pretty great. For many people, a new Shyamalan movie is going to be bad, whether they’ve seen it or not. I’m not trying to forgive him for The Happening or The Last Airbender, but I think his early track record indicates that he’s still capable of making decent movies. If anything, I think his directing is actually fairly solid, it’s his writing that’s really hit or miss. When it was announced that Shyamalan would be directing a sci-fi movie, I was cautiously optimism. If there’s one thing I felt fairly certain about, it’s that Shyamalan was under way too much scrutiny to try anything too risky with a new movie. For the most part, that assumption was correct.

After Earth Poster

Contrary to this flyer, the movie has almost no old Earth ruins, which I thought was a huge shame.

After Earth
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (concept)
Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo
Studios: Overbrook Entertainment, Blinding Edge Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 31, 2013

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 3

The natural environments in After Earth are beautiful.

The original concept for After Earth was conceived by Will Smith, and was originally planned to take place in the present day in a remote mountainous region. At its core, After Earth is a wilderness survival movie, which makes sense given Smith’s original vision. After changing the setting to the future, Will Smith proposed the movie to writer Gary Whitta, who some people might remember for writing the sceenplay for Book of Eli. Whitta liked the concept, and fleshed it out to a full script. The two then approached Shyamalan to direct the movie, and he happily obliged. The final script was co-written by Shyamalan and Whitta, but I’m not sure to what degree Shyamalan altered the original script.

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 1

Cypher buckles his son in before the crash, but doesn’t think to recommend that the rest of the crew do the same….

In 2025, humans leave the Earth due to environmental catastrophe. They then colonize a habitable planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime. At some point, humanity is attacked by an alien species. This species creates a bioengineered organism called the ursa, which can’t see, but can sense the pheromones that humans release when they’re scared. Humanity is set to be wiped out, that is until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) develops a technique that turns the tide of battle. This technique is dubbed “ghosting”, and involves a human eliminating their fear, thus becoming blind to the ursa. Cypher leads humanity’s military force, referred to as the ranger corps. His son, a teenager named Kitai, seeks to become a ranger. Cypher is always away, and barely knows his son Kitai. At his wife’s urging, he takes Kitai with him on a trip to a human settled planet. On route, they encounter a meteor shower, and are forced to land at a destination that the ship’s computer selected. This location ends up being Earth, which is deemed totally hostile to humans. The ship ends up crashing, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors. To make matters worse, an Ursa was being held in a cage onboard the ship, and has gone missing. Cypher is injured, so it’s up to Kitai to make a long trek to the other half of the crashed ship, which contains a device that can emit a distress beacon.

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 8

The action in After Earth is sparse, but it’s always nicely choreographed. Most of it features Jaden wielding a weapon that looks like the combi-stick from Predator.

The story has a nice oldschool vibe to it. If you like Planet of the Apes’ theme of humans exploring a far future Earth, After Earth‘s premise will likely interest you. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings is that there are a number of plot elements that are too convenient, or just defy science. First of all, when the ship crashes, Kitai seems to be the only person buckled into a seat, even though there is plenty of warning. The rest of the crew is jettisoned, other than Cypher, who miraculously survives. The fact that only father and son survive, for no decent reason, seems incredibly improbable. Another strange element is that apparently there’s isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breathe without respiration aid, and yet there are numerous thriving mammals, many of which are larger in the size than today’s species. Additionally, the flora is more vibrant than ever, but everything freezes over at night. Also, life has somehow evolved to be harmful to humans, and yet humanity has been absent for 1000 years. Anyone with a basic understanding of evolution knows that a species won’t evolve mechanisms specifically to counter another species if the two aren’t in contact. Anyways, expect to suspend your disbelief when it comes to these plot devices. Shyamalan also has a way of being way to blatant with his foreshadowing. Not only does this not have his typical plot twists, you can see most events coming a mile off.

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 10

After Earth has a really cool prehistoric vibe, and what would a “land that time forgot” be without a volcano?

At risk of sounding too negative about After Earth, I’ll intersperese the negative with some positive. If you like sci-fi with planet exploration and survival, there’s a lot of fun to be had with After Earth. The environments are lush and interesting, evoking some of what people loved so much about Avatar. The vegetation and wildlife are really beautiful, and you get to see a range of locales. I love the concept of surviving alone in the wilderness, and to the movie’s credit, After Earth doesn’t skimp in this area; it pushes the survival theme to brutal lengths. Kitai deals with all manner of carnivorous wildlife, toxin inducing parasites, extreme weather conditions, and harsh topography. Central to the theme of the movie is Kitai’s journey to adulthood, and his desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. Instead of giving us the archetypal “tough kid”, Kitai is very fallible, and very much afraid of his harsh surroundings. On the flip side, he also doesn’t veer too far in the wimpy, overly incapable direction.

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 11

This is the most serious we’ll ever see Will Smith, and I totally bought it.

The human technology and clothing designs in After Earth are interesting, but far from mind-blowing. Movies like Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness have way more flashy visuals, and better designed sci-fi human environments. After Earth at least tries to be different, going for a slight retrograde theme, but ultimately it’s at a lower standard. Retro design elements in AE include spaceship interiors that have straw-looking doors and almost wooden support beams, civilians that wear loose robes, a sail motif in the city, and rangers that wear a 60’s/70’s style of spandex jumpsuit. Heck, even the term “ranger” sounds like it’s from a 60’s sci-fi book (Star Rangers by Andre Norton, to be exact). To the designers’ credit, I actually really like the look of the jumpsuit. It has interesting round edged patterns, and it changes color based on the environment.

After Earth Will Smith Shyamalan 7

I really like the design of the suit.

For most people, the make or break factor in After Earth will be the acting. In a risky move, Will and Jaden speak in made-up accents of the far future. Unfortunately, the accents ultimately come off sounding forced and awkward, and although they’re a noble effort, they’re likely to be really offputting for some people. Will Smith plays a hardline general with literally no emotion, which is really strange considering his typical roles. Some people might find his tone too stiff, but I personally felt there was a hidden depth to his performance. If anything it shows a range that I didn’t think he was capable of, and there’s plenty of subtle emotion hidden behind his rigid exterior. Conversely, my opinion of Jaden’s acting skills has lessened. I seem to remember really liking him in 2010’s The Karate Kid, but now I’m starting to doubt that memory. His performance in After Earth isn’t terrible, but he’s way too emotive. At any moment, he looks like he’s seconds away from breaking into tears. For some people, this facet of the movie might be enough to totally turn them off. In the pantheon of young actors, this is far from the bottle of the barrel; rather it hangs around the mid-ground. After Earth has several flashback sequences that serve to provide a bit more human drama to the film. They’re pretty unobtrusive, and do a nice job of adding depth to the relationship between Kitai and his father.

Overall, I had a pretty good time with After Earth. It has its flaws, but if you’re not too critical, and you like the theme of sci-fi exploration, I would still recommend giving this a chance. Shyamalan is one of those directors who has a mile long line of critics just waiting to say: “see, I told you so, this guy sucks”. Therefore, I don’t doubt that you will see plenty of reviews that are excessively harsh. Hating on Shyamalan is the hip thing to do, and After Earth is an obvious target. These reviews will not be written by sci-fi fans, which is why I hope I can still convince people who are interested in the premise to give it a shot. For sci-fi fans, this is at least worth a rental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets something of a cult following. It’s not nearly as bad as the first flurry of reviews would have you believe.

 

 

The Colony was one of those movies that crept up on me, hard. The first I heard of it was only about a month before release, which is kind of embarrassing for a guy who tries to stay somewhat informed when it comes to sci-fi. Furthermore, as I mentioned in my Oblivion review, hard sci-fi is a movie genre that’s actually fairly undersaturated, at least compared to other mediums, so my ignorance was inexcusable. Anyways, The Colony‘s trailer had me fairly optimistic. It had a desolate setting and a small crew, which is always a good recipe for sci-fi horror, and it stars Bill Paxton and Laurence Fishburne, each of which are legendary for sci-fi. The last time I remember seeing Fishburne in a sci-fi was Predators, a cameo that was the biggest highlight in what I thought was an excellent movie. Judging from the trailer, I knew The Colony was obviously made on a tight budget, which is fine for this sort of movie. Another movie that was made on a tight budget, and took place in a similar environment, was John Carpenter’s The Thing, my second favorite sci-fi horror anything of all time. Going into The Colony, all I could think was: “please, please let this be like The Thing“. My head was swimming in fantasies of deep cold body horror.

The Colony Poster

So far so good.

The Colony
Director: Jeff Renroe
Writers: Jeff Renroe (main), Svet Rouskov
Producers: Paul Barkin, Matthew Cervi, Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin
Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Zegers, Bill Paxton
Studios: Alcina Pictures, Item 7, Mad Samurai Productions
Distributor: eOne
Country: Canada
Release Date: April 19, 2013

The Colony -- Laurence Fishburne Bill Paxton 4

The lighting in the move is excellent, as evidenced by these photos.

The year is 2045, and humans have been living in bunkers underground due to environmental catastrophe. To combat climate change, humans built giant weather manipulating machines, but the machines backfired, sending the planet into a man-made ice age. As Sam (Kevin Zegers), the lead character, describes, “one day it just started snowing, and it never stopped”. Sam’s colony is led by Briggs (Laurence Fishburne), and Briggs’ fellow veteran and friend, Mason (Bill Paxton). Conditions in the bunker have gotten so bad, that anyone who catches a cold or flu is quarantined, lest they infect (and subsequently kill) others. If they don’t recover after a certain period of time, they have a choice between death, or a trek through the snow. Mason has become trigger happy, killing the sick rather than letting them take the trek; his increasing militarism serves as a point of tension throughout the movie. Partway through the film, Sam’s colony gets a distress signal from a neighboring colony. Briggs leads Sam and another young adult to investigate the situation at the second colony. The second colony has been eradicated; blood coats the walls. Eventually, Sam and crew encounter the menace, and the remainder of the movie is spent in heavy-duty survival mode.

The Colony -- Laurence Fishburne Bill Paxton 1

One of the only “future-tech” designs in the movie, the weather machines are really neat looking.

The Colony has a light pro-ecological message, which I’m always happy to see, but it’s really nothing to write home about. As any sci-fi fans know, ecological destruction is an incredibly common theme in science fiction. So common in fact, that I’m 90% sure that every Japanese RPG and anime of the 90’s took place in a setting where humanity had screwed up the environment. Maybe I’m just too engrossed in the genre, but is human-induced environmental catastrophe actually a unique concept for the average moviegoer? To be honest, I’m not especially surprised or impressed that the movie tackles this real-life issue. Perhaps if the movie had gotten into the real science involved, and been slightly more educational, I’d have been impressed, but as it stands, The Colony‘s take on climate change is too brief to qualify as a cautionary tale. It’s like when people say, “dude, this band is deep, they write about politics and real-world stuff”. Sorry buddy, but even the most uninformed people can tackle real-world issues; I won’t be impressed unless it’s done well.

The Colony -- Laurence Fishburne Bill Paxton 7

Sam’s girlfriend Kai, as played by Charlotte Sullivan, is an interesting character who I wish had gotten more screen time.

For horror fans, The Colony is shamelessly unoriginal. I say shameless, because this movie had so much potential. The acting is good, the screenplay is bland but solid, the special effects are decent, and the mood, atmosphere, and directing are all pretty good for a low-budget movie. So what ruins The Colony, at least for me? I’ll call it the Pandorum-effect. 2009’s Pandorum was one of those movies that had everything going for it. Like The Colony, I had high hopes for it, and everything was going great, that is, until the villains were introduced. Pandorum‘s villains were the worst kind of dull; they were essentially undead humans, although technically they weren’t undead. They jumped around and hissed like any good Gollum-reject should. I can understand the incentive to use cannibals; they’re cheaper to pull-off than more elaborate monsters or aliens, they’re guaranteed to be creepy, and they appeal to the never-ending hordes of zombie fans. However, for me, they’re about as dull as movie menaces can get. My two favorite sci-fi horror villains are xenomorphs, and the thing. Both are extremely original and well-designed. Cannibals in a sci-fi movie, on the other hand, are a sure sign of moviemakers that are afraid to take a risk, or are devoid of originality. If you haven’t yet surmised from my rant, The Colony‘s antagonists are of the cannibalistic variety. Remember the possessed forces from Ghosts of Mars? Well, The Colony features a nearly identical, but considerably more boring group of foes.

The Colony -- Laurence Fishburne Bill Paxton 5

The ferals. Although they’re mindless, they use weapons, which is kind of cool, I guess.

I’m giving The Colony a hard time, because like I said earlier, it had a lot going for it, but the cannibals were a huge let-down. If you’re the sort of person who really digs zombie movies, you might not be so put-off by this factor, but even then, many zombie movies have done this scenario much better. The problem with The Colony, is that for a movie that is primarily horror, the action and scares are way too short-lived. The movie could’ve used an extra 10 minutes of action and violence. Unfortunately, the brief thrills never manage to create much tension. There are two memorable scenes that sent a light chill down my spine (you’ll know what I’m talking about), but they were only just enough to wet my appetite.

The Colony -- Laurence Fishburne Bill Paxton 6

Bill Paxton’s acting has definitely improved since his Aliens days.

I’ve spent an awful lot of this review highlighting what I thought were The Colony‘s shortcomings. The thing is, it’s not a bad movie; far from it. It’s exceedingly average, which is too bad, because it could have been much more. No one element of the movie is handled poorly, but on the flip side, there are few standout moments. For all I know, the movie might be more enjoyable to viewers who haven’t seen much sci-fi or horror, but I really doubt my audience fits that description. This is a worth a rental if you liked movies like Pandorum, Ghosts of Mars, 30 Days of Night, or The Descent, and you’re okay with a duller example of the same concept. The sci-fi in this sci-fi movie is basically non-existent, so if you’re looking for a pure sci-fi experience, you’ll be disappointed. The Colony‘s problem is that it’s a decent film experience, but every concept has been borrowed from better movies.

 

When it comes to film, science fiction is somewhat of a confused genre. For the most part, this confusion can be attributed to the genre’s origins in cinema history. Early sci-fi movies were primarily of the pulp variety, meaning that audiences could expect an entertaining popcorn flick that was fun, but largely devoid of intellectual merit. Around the same time, authors in the world of sci-fi fiction were using the genre as a platform to explore complex philosophical concepts. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, this brand of cerebral sci-fi was brought to the cinema masses. Since then, certain filmmakers have used science fiction as an intellectual avenue, whereas others have continued the tradition of providing candy coated action flicks that are easy on the eyes and the brain. I don’t mean to imply that one avenue is better than the other; each has their place, and each can be equally enjoyable given the right circumstances. Director Joseph Kosinki’s movie Oblivion falls somewhere between the two camps. For those who remember, this was the guy who brought us Tron: Legacy, a movie that was drowning in eye candy, but relatively light on introspection and substance. Regardless, hard sci-fi movies (especially good ones) aren’t as common as the average person seems to believe, so I went into Oblivion with nervous enthusiasm.

Oblivion - Tom Cruise Cover

Tom Cruise looking pensive near his amazing aircraft.

Oblivion
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek
Producers: Joseph Kosinski, Peter Chernin,Ryan Kavanaugh, Dylan Clark, Barry Levine
Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko
Studios: Radical Studios, Chernin Entertainment, Relativity Media, Ironhead Studios, Truenorth Productions
Distributors: Universal Pictures
Country: USA
Release Date: April 19, 2013

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 4

More of that amazing aircraft.

One of Oblivion’s strengths is a narrative that constantly keeps you on your toes. For the benefit of my readers, I’ll keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. As can be surmised from the trailer, Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise, is one of the few remaining humans on Earth. His task, along with his lover and communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is to protect several giant devices that are mining the Earth of its remaining natural resources. These natural resources are being sent to Saturn’s moon Titan, where the remaining human population resides. It’s the year 2077, 60 years after an alien invasion by the scavs (scavengers). The scavs destroyed the moon, which then altered the Earth’s gravitational pull, causing massive natural disasters and the loss of half the Earth’s population. Following the disasters, the scavs invaded, but were narrowly defeated by humanity. Pockets of scavs still roam the Earth, which is why Jack and Victoria remain behind to keep watch. Flying attack drones patrol the planet, thwarting any would-be threats to the resource extraction. Floating above the Earth’s atmosphere is a massive structure called the Tet, which acts as a mission control; feeding daily instructions to Jack and Victoria. As we see in the trailer, Jack discovers that a mysterious group of humans still reside on Earth, and things are not what they seem. “Things are not what they seem” is an effective descriptor of Oblivion’s screenplay. Although I’ve refrained from giving away any details, the later revelations are one the movies biggest selling points.

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 3

One of the mystery humans. Gotta love that mask.

As with TRON: Legacy, Oblivion is a beautiful movie to look at. Expect never-ending panoramas of pristine vistas, à la Lord of The Rings. I’d love to see which of the two spent more money on helicopter rentals. Most of the movie was shot in Iceland; the environments are impressive enough that I can’t imagine a better travel brochure. Apparently, Kochinski intentionally filmed most of the movie in bright daylight to the oppose the dark mood that is typical in sci-fi. I can safely say that this plan was a success, and that Kochinski manages to create an oppressive atmosphere even in plain daylight. In fact, the two main living spaces in Oblivion are almost obnoxiously open to sunlight.

Complimenting the cinematography, the costume, environment, and mechanical designs are excellent. Thanks in part to modern video game concept design (Mass Effect, please stand up), sci-fi concepts in film have gotten considerably better in the last five or so years. In particular, the Tet and resource harvesters look like they’re pulled from the pages of Mass: The Art of John Harris. They’d fit right in on the cover of even the hardest of hard sci-fi novels. Jack and Victoria’s clothing, equipment and living spaces have a light, clean design (think 2001: A Space Odyssey), whereas the mystery humans wear dark, rugged clothing and harsh respirator masks (think Mad Max). Finally, my favorite piece of design is the small, personal aircraft that Jack pilots. For me, the most memorable scene in the trailer was the one in which we saw the aircraft in free-fall. As a space shooter fan, my immediate reaction was: “damn, that would make a great ship for the next Cave shmup!”

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 1

The massive resource gatherers in the distance. This is a great shot.

Complimenting the sexy visuals is the equally sexy soundtrack. Throughout the entire movie, I couldn’t stop asking myself: “was this also done by Daft Punk“? For anyone who liked Daft Punk’s soundtrack for TRON: Legacy, Oblivion’s is so similar that I had difficulty distinguishing the difference. Expect plenty of synth melodies interspersed with “epic” orchestral sections. After some quick research, I discovered that French group M83 was responsible for Oblivion‘s soundtrack. This name should instantly ring bells for any electronic music fans, and to be honest, I think their ambient sound is probably better suited to film than a group who are known for catchy dance tracks. My biggest complaint with the soundtrack is that it often overwhelms each scene. For example, a simple scene involving Jack and Victoria swimming in a pool has to be accompanied by sweeping camera angles and music so epic it would put Braveheart to shame. Kosinski is so good at drenching viewers in style that he seems unable to tone it down, even when it’s completely unnecessary. The first 30 minutes of the movie involve Jack performing fairly mundane tasks to a never-ending background of larger than life music.

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 5

The monolithic Tet.

The performances in Oblivion are all top-notch. Regardless of your feelings on Tom Cruise’s personal life, he’s a really solid actor, and his portrayal of Jack is suitably empathy-invoking. Actress Andrea Riseborough, who I must admit I’d never heard of, provided my favorite performance of the movie in her role as Jack’s partner Victoria. Her character nature is such that you’re never quite certain of her motives, but she seems so likable that you feel guilty for doubting her. Without delving into spoiler territory, a second female character is introduced (Olga Kurylenko), and creates something of a love triangle. The two are so likable and respectable that I kept thinking: “Jack for chrissakes, please keep both of them with you, I don’t want either of them to get less screen time”. Both are great examples of strong female characters, which I’m always really happy to see in any movie. Finally, Morgan Freeman makes a minor appearance as, well, himself. Morgan Freeman is great, and we all love him, but I always suspect that one day we’ll find out that every movie he’s ever appeared in is canonically related, given that he plays the same character in each one.

Oblivion -- Tom Cruise 2

Unintentional base-jumping.

My biggest criticism with Oblivion is that the storyline wraps up way too cleanly. Nothing is left unexplained, which is a shame because, as viewers, we’re not encouraged to formulate any of our own conclusions. In my opinion, the best cerebral sci-fi movies leave enough clues that the storyline may be surmised, without explaining every last detail. In Oblivion, you’re explicitly told what’s going on long after you’ve already figure it out on your own. Furthermore, as a result of creating a clean and tidy ending, the last third of Oblivion feels way too rushed, and relies on an implausible plot device to reach a conclusion. I wish I could explain exactly why the ending wasn’t plausible, but sadly I’d be forced to wade into spoiler waters.

Overall, Oblivion is a really decent movie, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to literally anyone. The nice thing about sci-fi movies, as opposed to books, comics, and video games, is that everyone goes to see them, even your mom. Although Oblivion has its flaws, I doubt they’d prevent anyone from having a fun movie experience. As for us sci-fi fans, this is definitely a must-see, but unfortunately it comes oh-so-close, but just slightly out of reach of true classic status. You will have seen every story concept elsewhere, but to its credit, Oblivion repackages them in a nice chocolate coating.

 

 

Britain’s classic comic anthology 2000AD has treated comic fans to a consistent flow of science fiction-themed series since its inception in 1977. Thanks to the popularity of Judge Dredd, 2000AD is relatively known here in North America, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. Sure, everyone’s heard of the classic comic icons who got their start thanks to 2000AD, like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison, but they’re remembered more for their contributions to American comics than for their original works. Unfortunately, I fall into the camp of people who are aware of the magazine’s existence, but have little to no experience with it other than through Judge Dredd. Luckily, the rise in popularity of trade paperbacks has made many of these series available to us ignorant Canadians and Americans. Being the fan of military sci-fi that I am, I immediately bought the first compilation of 2000AD‘s Rogue Trooper series when I saw it on store shelves. Admittedly, my first introduction to Rogue Trooper was when the 2006 spinoff video game was released. I distinctly remember my reaction being: “what’s with this blue guy – he looks pretty lame”. Now that I’m older and wiser, I still think Rogue looks pretty lame, but luckily his character design doesn’t reflect the quality of the comic. I’ll be approaching this review from the perspective of a Rogue Trooper newbie, so you’ll probably get more value from this post if you’re also new to the series.

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Cover

You might recognize this layout from the Judge Dredd Case Files trades.

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01
Publisher: Rebellion
Volume: 1
Originally Serialized: 2000AD Issues 228-317 (1981-1983)
Main Writer: Gerry Finley-Day
Guest Writer: Alan Moore
Illustrators: Dave Gibbons, Colin Wilson, Cam Kennedy, Brett Ewins, Eric Bradbury, Mike Dorey
Release Date: May 2012

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Colin Wilson 3

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 — Colin Wilson

Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth 01 collects the first 89 issues of Rogue Trooper, as originally released in volumes 228-317 of 2000AD. Each issue is about 5 pages long, meaning the compilation has roughly 400 pages of content. 400 pages is pretty massive for a comic, so at the retail price, this compilation packs quite a bit of value. The quality and presentation are very similar to Marvel’s Essential or DC’s Showcase Presents trade paperbacks. The edition that I own is the May 2012 North American release, but there was also a UK release of the same trade back in 2010. 2000AD used to release their trade paperback in North America courtesy of DC, however, the recent North American 2000AD trades have been published by Rebellion, who are also known for developing the AVP FPS games (weird huh?). I find the quality significantly better than the DC editions. The covers are better, the paper quality is better, and there’s less of a guessing game as to what each compilation contains. As far as packaging and presentation are concerned, Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth 01 is excellent, and a step above similar types of compilations (Essential and Showcase Presents).

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Dave Gibbons

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 — Dave Gibbons

Rogue Trooper was originally serialized starting in 1981, and tells the story of a genetically altered super soldier called Rogue Trooper who is entangled in a perpetual war on the far future planet of Nu-Earth. Nu-Earth is so devastated by war that toxic chemicals clouds permeate its atmosphere. Thus, the average human must always don respiration masks, except when in sealed domes. Rogue Trooper’s enhanced abilities make him impervious to the lethal air, as well as to other means of chemical warfare. Two factions fight for supremacy of Nu-Earth: the Southers, and the Norts. Technically, Rogue Trooper fights for the Southers, but as a result of an ambush that killed all his fellow super soldiers (called genetic infantrymen), he has gone rogue in an effort to track down and kill the traitor who was responsible for leaking information that lead to the ambush. Thus, the entire story arc in Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth 01 follows Rogue’s exploits as he tracks down the traitor, and finds himself continuously aiding Souther troops along the way. Rogue’s only companions are the “personalities” of three of his dead squadmates. When a genetic infantryman dies, his consciousness may be placed in a “biochip”, which can then be installed into an infrantyman’s gear. The Southers have technology that can take the consciousness from these biochips, and implant them back into a physical body. Thus, Rogue’s three squadmate’s are technically still alive, however, the only abilities they have are that they can speak, and they can manipulate the article of equipment that they inhabit. These three squadmates are Helm, who inhabits Rogue’s helmet, Gunnar, who inhabits his rifle, and Bagman, who inhabits his backpack. Although Rogue could potentially have his companions resuscitated at any time, he’s dead set on tracking down the traitor first, which seems pretty selfish if you ask me. Rogue Trooper is a comic, and thus you have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to some of the more nonsensical plot points. Why doesn’t Rogue Trooper make it a point to resuscitate his comrades? Put simply, it’s because the main premise of the comic is that you have a soldier with talking gear.

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Colin Wilson 2

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 — Colin Wilson

Rogue Trooper is the brainchild of writer Gerry Finley-Day, who is an excellent “ideas man”. Other than the awesome artwork, Rogue Trooper‘s biggest strength is that each issue contains some of the most original concepts you’ve ever seen in military sci-fi. For the first 30 or so issues, each story is relatively self-contained, and features the introduction of a new type of threat that Rogue must thwart. Among the concepts are gigantic blackmare tanks, flying decapitators, kashar drill probes, nort cavalry raiders, hard arrow rain, sealbursters, snow troopers, hallucinogen-spraying dream weaver commandos (my personal favorites), militant computers, bio-engineered ape warriors, the paragliding sun legions, and many more. Don’t worry if you don’t know what any of that means, what matters is that each enemy sounds cool. The creativity is really fun, and manages to feel somewhat gritty, but in a lighthearted way. To be honest, the tone reminds me quite a bit of the original G.I. Joe comics, albeit with much more death. For whatever reason, I was expecting the same level of graphic content from 2000AD as you would expect from Heavy Metal, but I was mistaken, because Rogue Trooper skews quite a bit younger. The violence is a step above your average American comic from the early 80’s, but there’s almost no blood, and there’s definitely no nudity. I would imagine the target audience was teenagers.

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Colin Wilson 4

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 — Colin Wilson

Although Gerry Finley-Day’s ideas are great, the narration is about as old-school as they come. Every single action has to be explained either through dialogue or monologue, and to be honest this style was a big deterrent for me. Expect a lot of: “to thwart this bad guy I’ll need to reach into my tool belt and fetch my mines”. The degree to which you enjoy Rogue Trooper will really depend on how well you can stomach this style of writing. Personally, I can (sort of) handle it because I’ve read many comics from the 60’s and 70’s, but if you’re fairly new to comics, you’ll likely find the writing pretty impenetrable. Furthermore, the self-contained stories make it really difficult to get invested in the overall plot. We know the traitor is the main bad guy, but it’s hard to feel all that much animosity towards him, because we don’t know who he is or if he even exists. If anything, Rogue seems like the real monster for not reviving his squadmates! Not that you’ll care for them too much, because every character is extremely one-dimensional. Gunnar is reckless and violent, but Bagman and Helm have virtually no personality, and are completely interchangeable. As the series progresses, the story arcs start to become longer and more interesting, but don’t expect to feel involved until at least two-thirds of the way into the book. To re-iterate, the concepts in Rogue Trooper are really fun, but the storyline is very straightforward, even compared to other comics of the early 80’s.

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 -- Dave Gibbons 7

Rogue Trooper Tales of Nu-Earth 01 — Dave Gibbons

Fortunately, the artwork is fantastic. The first few issues were illustrated by Dave Gibbons, who you might remember for a little-known comic called Watchmen. I’ve always loved his line art. Everything looks so tight and crisp. The proportions, perspective, shading, and actions are all excellent. In addition to his technical prowess, I really dig his character designs. Expect plenty of gas masks and interesting military outfits. That being said, I really don’t like Rogue’s design. The shirtless look is unoriginal, his helmet looks way too big and dorky, and he has a lame mohawk, which I guess was slightly more novel in 1981. This might be the only comic where every character looks better than the protagonist. In addition to Dave Gibbons, artists Colin Wilson and Cam Kennedy are also featured prominently. Somehow, they manage to match, and maybe even exceed Gibbon’s illustrations. Their style is so similar to his that it’s almost difficult to tell them all apart. I still can’t believe how much talent they managed to cram into these issues, and I’d rather not have to choose a favorite artist out of the three. Lets just say that if you’re visually oriented, and you like military sci-fi, Rogue Trooper is a treat for the eyes. Featured to a lesser extent are Brett Ewins, Eric Bradbury and Mike Dorey, all of whose art is also good, but less memorable due to their more limited contributions.

Overall, Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth 01 is a series that you will either really love, or find really boring. The degree to which you enjoy it will depend on how much you like the pacing of silver age comics, and how much you love lighthearted military sci-fi. By today’s standards, this is a fairly shallow comic, but the art is amazing, and the creativity is overflowing. If you were a fan of the series back when it was originally serialized, this a great edition, and a no-brainer if you’re looking for a nostalgia trip. The storyline was starting to get much more interesting by the end of the series, so I’ll personally be keeping a look-out for Tales of Nu-Earth 02 when it eventually hits store shelves. Despite my criticisms, this is probably the best bang for your buck if you’re looking for a military sci-fi comic.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Rogue Trooper: Tales of Nu-Earth 01

 

 

 

Ever wondered what would happen if Blade Runner went on a drug-fueled nightmare rampage? Look no further than Frank Miller’s miniseries Hard Boiled, an early 90’s twist on Philip K. Dick’s classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep. If there’s one term I wouldn’t associate with 90’s comics, its subtlety. For the most part, everything was big, in your face, and edgy; Hard Boiled is certainly no exception. That being said, HB is clever with its edginess. If anything, it reads like a satire of violence and sexual imagery in modern pop-culture. Either that, or Frank Miller just really gets off on good old ultraviolence. Complimenting Frank Miller’s writing is the amazing artwork of Geof Darrow. Darrow’s artwork is easily some of the most detailed line-work I’ve ever seen; it’s pretty incredible. Combined with colorist Claude Legerist, the art looks like a fusion of Moebius, with the most detailed manga technology concepts you’ve ever seen (think Battle Angel Alita).

Hard Boiled -- Cover

Hard Boiled — Cover

Hard Boiled
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Geof Darrow
Colorist: Claude Legris
Letterer: John Workman
Editor: Randy Stradley
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Country: USA
Featured Edition: Dark Horse TPB 1993
Original Release Dates: September 1990 – March 1992 (3 issues)

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 11

There’s an unwritten rule in Hard Boiled that every panel must include at least one item of real-world (or semi-real-world) merchandise.

Set in a near-future, albeit clearly dystopic, Los Angeles, Hard Boiled tells the story of an “insurance investigator” called Carl Seltz who seeks out various target individuals. Within the first few pages of the comic, we realize that Carl Seltz must be a cyborg, or perhaps an android, and that he actually works for a major corporation. Carl Seltz lives in an ideal suburban home with a wife, two kids, and a dog. To add to the general vibe that there’s something “off” about Seltz, we see him sleeping with his wife while his kids stand nearby, and then the kids proceed to dope him with some random narcotics… Typical suburban stuff, right?

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 4

I could go for a mermaid massage about now.

As I mentioned in the intro, HB makes no pretenses at subtlety. The future vision of Los Angeles is clearly cyberpunk-inspired, and therefore rampant commercialism and evil corporations ooze out of every frame. Every panel is literally packed to the brim with variations of real-world products and brands, albeit with a satirical twist. For example, in one scene, a medical apparatus appears to be powered by baby fetus’, M&Ms, Snickers, and Baby Ruths. Perhaps I’ve been jaded by the dozens of cyberpunk movies, books, comics, and games that have been released since 1990, but the overabundance of brand parodies in Hard Boiled was almost too gratuitous for my tastes. We get it, the future will be overwrought with rampant, hopeless advertising and disposable pop culture, but do you really need to include a Coca-Cola can in every second panel? Then again, Hard Boiled seems to intentionally revel in exaggeration and tackiness.

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 9

If you look really closely, Waldo is snuggled halfway between a prostitute and drug addict.

Carl Seltz/Nixon might not be a superhero, but he sure takes a beating like one! Hard Boiled is about 10% dialogue, and 90% action. Of the action scenes, nearly all of them feature Nixon either being thrown through a building, bus, or subway, or throwing another character through one of the aforementioned inanimate objects. I thoroughly enjoyed the action in HB, but we warned, it’s pretty damn violent. I’m fairly desensitized to fictional violence (but not to real-world violence, those are two very different things), and even I found the comic hard to stomach at times. Hard Boiled manages to fit more dismemberment and gore into its panels than almost any other comic. Frank Miller and Geof Darrow clearly set out to raise the bar for comic violence as high as they possibly could.

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 13

In the time it must’ve taken to draw this splash page, other artists probably could’ve illustrated an entire issue of a comic.

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 7

It wouldn’t be cyberpunk without plenty of riot police.

As if the violence wasn’t enough, nearly every second panel is chalk full of random sex and nudity. Within the first few pages, Nixon is smashed through a building in the “Pleasure Sector” of town. Nearby is a cage full of debauchery; as spectators watch, couples have sex, all while dominatrix-like women walk around with chainsaws and dismember the couples. What I love about HB is that every splash page is so full of detail that numerous stories are implied through events in the background of each scene. I’ve seen Geof Darrow’s artwork aptly described as being like a Where’s Waldo book; the only difference is that most of HB’s denizens are either naked or taking drugs. Although Hard Boiled is short, you can easily spend ten minutes per page absorbed in details.

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 1

This is a good look for Harrison Ford.

My favorite comics are able to tell a story visually without having to rely heavily on monologues or dialogue. Hard Boiled does an excellent job in this regard. There’s actually very little text, but the narrative is able to flow nicely thanks to clever angles and visual cues. Frank Miller is an excellent visual storyteller, and he only includes as much text as is absolutely needed. This was nice and refreshing, especially after the last comic I read, which felt the need to explain every little detail.

Hard Boiled -- Frank Miller Geof Darrow 14

Nixon’s probably in need of an oil change about now.

Overall, I would highly recommend Hard Boiled to anyone who’s interested in cyberpunk (duh), or anyone who appreciates experimental storytelling in comics.The average sci-fi fan will definitely appreciate the artwork, but the extremely graphic content might turn-off even fairly hardcore genre fans. HB is unforgiving with its gratuitous display of sex, drugs, and violence, but these acts are never glamorized. Instead, the story serves almost as a cautionary tale against overindulgence in these vices. There’s nothing particularly sexy about an enormously fat man being massaged by naked android mermaids (yes, that actually happens). I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Hard Boiled’s political message is especially clever; every cyberpunk tale cautions against the overabundance of various vices. Also, it could be argued that Hard Boiled revels a little too deeply in the content that it parodies. Regardless, the readers of this blog can probably handle HB’s hardcore content, so I recommend reading it if you haven’t done so already.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Hard Boiled

I vividly remember a discussion on a gaming podcast a few years ago about how the overabundance of collector’s editions has gotten ridiculous, and that it makes absolutely no sense for the first game in a series to get a special edition release. According to the hosts of the podcast, a franchise should have to prove itself before it can be deemed worthy of a collector’s edition release. Well, if any series is more than deserving, it’s StarCraft. Personally, I love collector’s editions, albeit only when they’re done well. Since they’ve become the norm, it isn’t uncommon for publishers to make a quick cash grab by releasing a sub-par package with a bloated price. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Collector’s Edition. Unlike many recent special editions that feature unique but forgettable trinkets, HotS plays it safe by including the standard special edition fare. Specifically, you get a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray combo, a soundtrack, an art book, a mouse pad, and a few exclusive digital avatars. As far as I’m concerned, the art book and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. HotS also has a digital special edition: the Digital Deluxe edition. If you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, I recommend the collector’s edition. The digital deluxe edition is nearly the same price, but only includes the digital avatars. This review will make frequent mention of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, so if you haven’t done so, I recommend reading my review of it here.

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm Collector's Edition

The mousepad has a nice cozy spot on my desk at work.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: March 12, 2013

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 8

Kerrigan’s detailed facial expressions really add to the believability of her character.

If you still haven’t played StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, you might want to avoid this spoiler heavy paragraph. WoL ended with Jim Raynor teaming up with Valerian Mengsk, and then successfully using an ancient artifact to turn Sarah Kerrigan back into a human. HotS starts shortly after the events of WoL. Raynor and Kerrigan are still on Char, and Valerian Mengsk is testing whether Kerrigan still has the ability to control the swarm (hint: she can). Soon enough Arturus Mengsk crashes the party with a battalion of troops intent on killing Raynor and Kerrigan. Kerrigan escapes and manages to meet up with the Hyperion, only to find out that Raynor has supposedly been killed. Devastated, she summons the zerg swarm to destroy Arcturus Mengsk.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 26

No other game gives you control of an alien force in as gratifying a way StarCraft.

It isn’t exactly a secret that HotS has you playing the bad guy (or more accurately, the bad girl). Mengsk might be an evil dictator, but Kerrigan goes to extreme lengths to see him dead. To amass an army large enough to kill Mengsk, Kerrigan must unleash the zerg on countless planets, at the expense of millions of civilian lives. Although I’ve never seen this scenario explored in a video game, the original Dune books had a protagonist who was responsible for at least as much bloodshed. I find this angle more interesting than your standard good vs. bad scenario, but I’m still unsure of how I feel about Kerrigan as a character. I don’t tend to like the “badass chick” archetype who’s always in a bad mood and scowling, and Kerrigan definitely fits this mold. On the flip side, Kerrigan is about as strong  a female lead as they come, and to be fair, she has a reason to be pissed. Every once in a while, we see a hint of her soft side; it was these scenes that made me feel sympathetic towards her struggle, and did the best job of developing her as a multidimensional character. Unfortunately, these scenes were too few and far between, and I feel like Blizzard fell just short of creating a truly unique video game protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, Kerrigan is still one of the deeper video game protagonists, but I feel like she wasn’t explored to her full potential. Like it or not, Kerrigan appears as a playable character in nearly every mission, so prepare to spend a lot of time with her.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 4

HotS has plenty of lovely assets.

Like in WoL, you spend downtime between missions hanging out on your ship. This time around, your ship is a massive living organism called the Leviathan, and your crew is a hodgepodge of alien misfits. Your crewmates show up one by one throughout the game, meaning that the ship is a fairly boring place for the first dozen missions. Initially, I found the ship sections much less interesting than in WoL, but as time wore on, and more characters appeared, it became nearly, but not quite, as interesting as WoL’s Hyperion. The Hyperion had more rooms to explore, and more objects and people to interact with, but HotS’s alien freak show has its moments. Among the new cast is a creature called Abathur who creates new zerg mutations. Abathur quickly became not only my favorite new character in StarCraft, but one of my favorites in all of video games. He’s basically an unwittingly sinister version of Data from Star Trek: Next Generation. Although he’s essentially emotionless, he often becomes jealous of foreign zerg mutations that he’s incapable of creating himself. As always, Blizzard‘s character have superbly written dialogue, which is well delivered by their voice actors. Perhaps by biggest complaint is that spending so much time with the zerg really diminishes their mysteriousness, and the fear factor. The zerg are no longer scary, which I guess was inevitable.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 11

This giant swarm host is one of Hots’s excellent boss battles. Pausing to take a screen cap nearly resulted in Kerrigan getting fried in alien bile.

For fans of violent alien swarms, no other game puts you in the hot seat quite as nicely HotS. Nearly every one of HotS’s 27 missions has you amassing at least a hundred units and then wreaking havoc, which is as satisfying as it sounds. Like in WoL, Blizzard does an awesome job of providing unique mission scenarios, most of which subtly introduce you to a new zerg unit. Overall, the difficulty felt more challenging than in WoL, which seemed appropriate given that many gamers have been playing StarCraft II for over two years now. One mission in particular does an excellent job of showing off just how skilled Blizzard are at their craft. The mission is essentially a boss rush; giving you control of Kerrigan and a small band of zerg as she tackles three massive bosses. The bosses are super challenging; forcing you to memorize attack patterns and utilize every ability in Kerrigan’s arsenal. This mission does a great job of showing off just how well individual units control; in fact, you feel like you’re fighting a boss in World of Warcraft.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Luke "Mr. Jack" Mancini

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Luke “Mr. Jack” Mancini

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 17

One mission has you controlling the Hyperion in a fun mini-game-like space sequence. I really appreciate that Blizzard takes the time to incorporate all kinds of unique gameplay elements in the single player that can’t be experienced online.

In the review I wrote for WoL, I mentioned that although I thought the art design was mostly really good, the cartooniness was a little bit much at times. In HotS, the design is as cartoony as ever,  but I think I’ve started to embrace it. HotS’s colorful pallete is actually fairly refreshing compared to the muted greys of many modern military sci-fi games. Actually, HotS’s pre-rendered cut-scenes (which are as excellent as always) are much darker and grittier than the in-game engine, and look a lot more like the aforementioned games. Maybe it’s because the game features fewer humans, but there are a lot less soul patches and cycling shades this time around. That being said, Zeratul still looks like a reject from a kids fantasy cartoon.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Peter Lee

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Peter Lee

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 5

Meet Abathur, my new favorite character in the StarCraft universe.

Included with the collector’s edition is a really impressive 140-page hardcover art book. I say it’s really impressive because I’ve never seen such a high quality art book included with a game. The cover has an embossed design, and the paper is nice and glossy. A grand total of 25 artists are featured, and surprisingly, the editors actually took the time to list which artists were responsible for each piece! As I’ve mentioned in previous art book reviews, it’s fairly rare for gaming art books to give proper credit to their artists.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 22

Once you complete the single player, you can replay the missions with new added twists.

There are three sections in the art book: one for each race. As expected, Blizzard can afford to hire excellent concept artists, so the quality of each piece is top-notch. Because the game is centered around the zerg, they get the most attention. Since their inception, the zerg have really taken on a look that sets them apart from the creatures they were inspired by (xenomorphs and tyrannids). Increasingly, the zerg design has become less about organic goo, and more about armor plating, jagged teeth, spines, and claws. Essentially, the zerg have started to look more like dinosaurs, which isn’t a bad thing. My favorite part of HotS takes place on ancient world, where the zerg predecessors, called the primal zerg, roam free. The primal zerg are even closer in appearance to dinosaurs, and their world is composed of lush, prehistoric tropical environments. Artist Peter Lee’s illustrations of these environments are my favorite concepts within the book. Even his “rough sketches”, as they’re labeled within the book, look incredible.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Brian Huang

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Brian Huang

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 16

Kerrigan facing her demons. Blizzard proves some of the best pre-rendered cutscenes in the industry.

Also included with the collector’s edition is the soundtrack to HotS. As I mentioned in my WoL review, StarCraft‘s soundtracks have always been excellent, and this is no exception. The soundtrack is composed of equal parts orchestrated segments, and equal parts moody electronic sections. I’ve never been a fan of big, bombastic orchestrated soundtracks, but as video games have gotten bigger, they’ve increasingly becomes the norm. Personally I prefer the ambient electronic portions, but I might be in the minority with that opinion. Either way, the soundtrack is really well done, and it’s gotten a fair degree of airtime in my car.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 19

Seveon of the 27 missions are bonus “Evolution Missions”, that have you picking between one of two possible upgrades for a given unit.

In addition to the soundtrack, the collector’s edition also comes with a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray. If you’re expecting a full making-of HotS, you’ll be disappointed, but as a bonus it still has a certain degree of entertainment value. There are two featurettes that give you a glimpse of the making of the game: a section on the cinematics, and a section on the recording of the audio voice-overs. Both of these sections are of the same quality as any of the best making-of documentaries, which is too bad, because they left me yearning for more! Also included is a section on the eSports legacy of StarCraft, which is basically a fan-made swansong to the community, and an in-depth explanation of how to use the in-game map editor. Both of these segments were well done, but I would’ve easily traded them for more making-of. The video also includes your typical extras like trailers and production stills.

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book -- Joe Peterson

StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm Art Book — Joe Peterson

Starcraft II Heart of the Swarm 25

Meet the Leviathan’s crew. Although I can understand why Blizzard had to make the zerg more human, I think it would’ve been more fun had they been more evil.

Like I said in my WoL review, I’m a pretty average online player, so I can’t comment with any authority on the balance of HotS’s new online units. The protoss get three new air units: the Mothership and Oracle, which are both support units, and the Tempest, which is a long range attack ship. Terrans see the return of hellbats: flamethrower wielding mechs that deal splash damage, and the new widow mines, which are fast moving, mobile mines that are cloaked when set in the ground.  Zerg get vipers, which are air attack units with support abilities, and swarm hosts, which are units that spawn multiple, zergling-like units from crevasses on their back. Apart from the new units, the online experience hasn’t changed a whole lot since WoL. There are a bunch of new unlockable portraits and achievements, but other than that you’re looking at the same multiplayer options and interface from WoL. Some of these rewards are incredibly hardcore to achieve compared to the standards of other games; for example, the Queen of Blades character portrait requires that you win 1000 1v1 online matches. Also, a word of warning: although the online matchmaking is supposed to pit you against players who match your level of experience, everyone playing HotS had to start back at level 1, so expect to get your ass handed to you by scores of StarCraft II veterans.

Although HotS is an expansion, had this not been a Blizzard game, this could easily have been a numbered sequel. Blizzard likes to make massive leap forwards between numbered releases in their series, but the jump from WoL to HotS isn’t far removed from something like Gears of War 2 to Gears of War 3. In fact, this is almost a bigger jump, because you’re in control of an entirely different race and cast of characters than in the previous game. If you enjoyed WoL, you probably already own this game, but if you’re on the fence, I recommend it highly. Furthermore, the collector’s edition is worth the extra cash. The art book and soundtrack could easily have been stand-alone-releases. Like I said with my WoL review, if you’re into military sci-fi and you haven’t given StarCraft a chance, you’re really missing out. Even if you don’t care for the competetive experience, the single-player campaign is excellent, and provides plenty of replay value.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm-related images

For anyone who was gaming in the 90’s, StarCraft was a cultural phenomenon that was near unavoidable. If for whatever reason you weren’t playing the game, you had at least several buddies who were, and who would talk about it endlessly. My favorite memory of SC happened when I was in junior high. A friend of mine and I were talking about StarCraft on a bus ride home, and were overheard by another friend who was sitting nearby. Our other friend was a hockey prodigy; a super jock. Overhearing us, he mentioned that he played Starcraft from time to time, and asked if we’d be interested in playing against him online. Furthermore, he encouraged us to team up against him. Neither of us had ever imagined that this sports hero had any interest in video games, so we thought it would be an easy victory. Later that night, he set up the match, and told us he wouldn’t attack until we were both 100% prepared. My close friend and I had one half of the map to ourselves, while he had his own half of the map. Finally we were ready to attack, and ventured into his half of the map. To our horror, his half was the ultimate zerg nightmare! After 20 minutes of play, he had managed to fill every single available space with the most perfect, symmetrical base I’ve ever seen, even to this day. Every square inch of space was filled with zerg structures, all laid out in perfect order. Obviously we were obliterated. Everyone was playing StarCraft, probably even your mom and/or dog.

I’ve often held that StarCraft is the most perfect, balanced competitive game of all time. Every race plays completely differently, but somehow there’s no one race that’s obviously overpowered. Announced back in 2007, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty had the biggest shoes to fill. Personally, I was just happy the series was getting a sequel, but it was obvious that this game would face perhaps more scrutiny than any game ever. Due to my lack of a gaming PC back in 2010, when SCII:WoL was released, I was only able to play the campaign recently. Now, I’d like to emphasize that this post will be focusing mostly on the campaign, and from the angles that Xenomorphosis knows best: sci-fi horror and military sci-fi. I’ll leave the technical aspects of multiplayer to the thousands of pro players who undoubtedly know ten times more than me about the specific mechanics and subtleties of the game.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty Cover

There are some really great variations of this cover floating around on the interweb.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Featured), Mac
Release Date: July 27, 2010

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 26

A massive battle featuring several new units, including titans and medivacs.

Four years after the events of StarCraft: Brood War, Jim Raynor, space cowboy, is still being hunted by Arcturus Mengsk, emperor of the dominion (the current government). Mengsk also happens to be the man responsible for betraying Kerrigan (Raynor’s love interest) to the zerg. Kerrigan was abandoned on a hostile planet by Mengsk, and was turned into a powerful zerg hybrid: the Queen of the Blades. Raynor is set on restoring Kerrigan to her former self, and has started a rebel group called Raynor’s Raiders who are dead-set on overthrowing the Dominion, and putting Mengsk to justice. Meanwhile, an old friend of Raynor’s, Tychus Findlay, who took a fall for Raynor and subsequently spent the last decade or so doing jail time, has mysteriously appeared. Findlay is by far the most interesting character in SCII:WoL, and it’s never quite clear what his true motives are. Findlay has apparently been contracted by a mysterious group called the Moebius Corporation to retrieve valuable Xel’naga (an ancient race in SC lore) artifacts. Jim agrees to help him, because he needs the cash to fund his rebel efforts. There are several other major players in SCII:WoL, and each one is superbly voice acted and has a memorable personality. SCII:WoL all takes place from the perspective of the terrans (humans), so don’t expect any zerg or protoss missions (although there are actually a few).

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 4

Many of the units from the first SC, including the medics pictured here, are included in the campaign, but aren’t playable online

SCII:WoL’s backstory is rich and interesting, especially for a series that is predominantly known for its multiplayer, and could easily sell millions of copies without any single player whatsoever. Lucky for us, Blizzard cares about providing an excellent single player experience. SCII:WoL is by the far the best example I’ve ever seen of narrative in an RTS game. During the current console generation, in-game storytelling in first person and third person action games progressed immensely, to the point where the games that do it poorly stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking at you Aliens: Colonial Marines). That being said, with the popularity of console games this generation, the RTS genre has fallen a bit to the wayside. I can tell you exactly how narrative is usually dealt with in action games, but in RTS’, not so much. There’s no obvious mold.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 14

As always, Blizzard delivers kickass cutscenes.

SCII:WoL has over 4 hours of scripted cutscenes, but the degree to which you watch these is often at your discretion. Many of the cinematics take place when you optionally engage with characters in-between missions. Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion, serves as an in-between mission hang-out area where you can explore various sections of the ship, engage in conversation with characters to learn more backstory, or spend credits to earn unit upgrades. I really enjoyed these periods of downtime between combat, and the superb quality of the dialogue during cutscenes in the hyperion was always worth checking out. I’ve come to realize that the games I become the most addicted to are those that intersperse intense action with “downtime”. RPGs do this by having you explore towns in-between dungeons. Essentially, SCs missions are like dungeons, and the hyperion is your town. About three quarters of SC’s cutscenes are experienced optionally in the Hyperion, so you’re missing out on a lot of story if you skip these sections.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 19

The environments in the campaign are really attractive.

Other RPG-like elements that SCII:WoL incorporates are optional missions, and upgrades for your army units. The optional missions don’t feel like optional missions, because the same level of care was put into them as any mainline mission. There are at least two occasions where you have to chose between one of two story options to progress, although apparently the ending of the game is the same regardless of which decisions you make. The upgrade options allow you to spend credits that you earn in missions to purchase enhancements to your units. Don’t expect any intricate upgrade trees, but the ability to upgrade does let you customize your army to fit your play style, albeit to a small extent.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 10

The cantina; one of the many areas of the hyperion where you can gather information and purchase upgrades. The arcade cabinet at the left features a playable shooter!

Nearly every mission in the game has bonus objectives. Completing these objectives gives you access to zerg or protoss research credits that can be spent on an additional set of upgrades. The bonus objectives add an extra level of challenge to the campaign missions, and are often required if you wish to earn all the game’s achievements. The achievement system in SCII:WoL acts like an even more difficult set of bonus objectives, often challenging you to beat missions in a certain time-limit, or perform difficult feats of strategy.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 18

Unique mercenary units can be recruited and purchased in the campaign. These act much like Warcraft III’s hero units, but are much more expendable

The original StarCraft was a game that borrowed heavily from Warhammer 40k, at least visually. To be honest, that’s never bother me very much, because at least they chose a great look to emulate, and did a good job of emulating it. Looking back at SC, it was actually a fairly dark game. Although some of the characters were tongue-in-cheek, the color palette was dark, and the game had a (mostly) gritty realism. Structures looked worn out, units exploded with gore when you killed them, and the zerg were probably the best rip-offs of xenomorphs around. Furthermore, some of the cutscenes acted out like pure homages to Aliens. That all brings me to SCII:WoL, which looks great, but is infected by what I’m going to dub the “WarCraft Taint”.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 7

Missions can be selected from the bridge of the hyperion.

So what is the WarCraft Taint? When StarCraft came along, Blizzard took great lengths to distinguish the visual style from simply being “WarCraft in Space”. To differentiate it from WarCraft, Blizzard made StarCraft darker and grittier. Several years later, Warcraft III was released, and the Warcraft Taint began. Blizzard is a company that’s excellent at producing graphics engines that perform nicely even on computers with low specs. WarCraft III was a great example of this design philosophy. To achieve this goal, they designed an engine that had a distinctly cartoony look, rather than try to achieve the highest end graphics. Everything was colorful, rounded and blocky, which was fine for WarCraft, because it was always a cartoony series.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 8

The new marauder units, as featured in the armory.

Fast forward several more years to World of Warcraft. WoW is an example of the cartoon style taken to extreme lengths. In retrospective, much of the concept design is fairly sketchy, for lack of a better term. For what it is, the game looks fine, but it’s essentially generic fantasy art done in a childish style. Yes, I know this opinion is super controversial, but I’ll stand by it. Heck, an entire race is made up of cows that walk on two feet and ride around on fat dinosaurs. It’s great Pixar material.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 22

The zerg hives are always fun to look at.

StarCraft II, on the other hand, still retains much of the “gritty sci-fi” look that the series is known for, and is overall an excellent looking game, but the Warcraft Taint rears its ugly head every so often. For example, much of the protoss design has gotten more colorful and exaggerated, and the human characters in particular look like stereotypical comic archetypes. Actually, I’m going to go on a limb and say that the human character design is mostly awful (the people, not the units). Raynor looks like Kid Rock, Gabriel Tosh is your typical “rasta guy” with dreadlocks, Rory Swann looks like a dwarf, Valerian Mengsk looks like the main bad guy from Shrek, Kerrigan is a chick with dreadlocks (which was oh so cool in the 90’s), Zeratul has a really silly looking bandana covering his face, and nearly every male character has either a soul patch, cycling shades, or goggles. Basically, the cast is a mishmash of the most rad looking dudes from the 90’s, which as you can imagine looks pretty lame circa 2010. Furthermore, the Warcraft Taint managed to work its way into some of the cutscenes; there’s one in particular where Zeratul and Kerrigan battle it out by launching fireball-like projectiles at each other. During this sequence, I felt like I could easily have been watching a WoW video. Anyways, SCII still looks really good for the most part; it’s just unfortunate that Blizzard has allowed its cartoony sensibilities to creep into its “grittier” properties. Remember, this is the studio that was most recently known for introducing kung fu pandas into its flagship franchise.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 6

The laboratory, where you can purchase upgrades.

The gameplay in SCII:WoL is as excellent as ever. As usual, gameplay consists of gathering resources, constructing buildings, researching upgrades, and training an army to attack the enemy, all while fending off enemy attacks. The campaign missions always manage to incorporate unique scenarios, meaning that they never play out like your typical online multiplayer match. For example, one mission has you completing objectives while avoiding intermittent flooding by lava, another has you hijacking trains that appear at varying intervals, and another has you stealthily playing as Nova (from the unfortunately cancelled StarCraft Ghost). The variety is really impressive, and each mission finds a way to cleverly teach you how to control a new terran unit. Essentially the entire campaign acts as a comprehensive tutorial on how to play as terrans. Perhaps my only gripe with this, is that the campaign is a little too heavy on tutorial, and would have benefited from having more of the challenging, post-tutorial missions. By the time you finish learning all the new units, the campaign is essentially over.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 1

A really cool feature in the campaign is that you can summon troops via drop pods. I really badly wanted this in the multiplayer.

Instead of just rehashing the units from the original SC and its expansions, 40% of the units in SCII:WoL are brand new. Terrans get new units like the titan (giant mechs), banshees (fast airships that are good against ground units), and my personal favorite, medivacs (air transport ships with healing capabilities). Protoss get units like the stalker (essentially the new dragoon), immortals (also like dragoons), collosi (giant mechs that shoot death rays), and probably the coolest new addition, motherships (which look exactly like you’d expect). Zerg players now have roaches (burrowing units), infestors (spellcasters that can infect units), and nydus worms (giant burrowing worms that spout out zerg units). Personally I like the new additions, but I’m sure a more seasoned player could tell you exactly which units were nerfed, are too overpowered, etc. It’s just nice to see that Blizzard took a risk by switching up the units so drastically.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 5

Every single mission loading screen has its own awesome illustration. This is the full view of Raynor’s flagship, the hyperion.

As usual, SC: WoL’s multiplayer can either be played online or against AI opponents. Unlike in the original StarCraft, its now extremely easy to join a match, albeit at the expense of match customization options. Essentially you join matches in a “quick match” style, rather than picking from individually hosted games. For whatever reason, Blizzard dropped LAN play from SCII:WoL, which is a shame, because many of my fondest memories of the original were from playing at buddies’ houses. Apparently tournament players are pissed, because they have to rely on unreliable internet play, even when competing from within the same room.

StarCraft II Wings of Liberty 23

After completing the campaign, there are additional challenge missions. This game is packed full of content.

Other features I haven’t had time to mention are the Arcade, and the soundtrack. The Arcade allows you to download various mods and game modes, and presents them in a nice, easily manageable interface. Blizzard does a fantastic job of engaging with its community, and the arcade is a clear example of that engagement. Last but not least, SCII:WoL’s soundtrack is fantastic! It’s mainly comprised of moody jazz or electronic arrangements, with a healthy dose of electric guitar interspersed. It perfectly captures the space cowboy vibe of the series, and I must say, I’ve been really appreciating the soundtrack as I play online.

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I’m loving SCII:WoL, and I think it’s an excellent game. Like the first game, I know I’ll be playing it for years to come. Even if you’re not into RTS’, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the campaign if, like me, you dig alien infestations and badass marines in power armor.

Clicking this link will bring you to this product’s Amazon page. Should you choose to purchase it, I will get a small commission, which will then be reinvested into the site. Although I’m including this link, my review’s and opinions will never be influenced by the opportunity to make a commission. This site is a labor of love, but costs money to maintain, so think of any commissions as a donation to the site.

Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty-related images