xenomorphosis

All posts tagged xenomorphosis

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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Sadly, there are only a few full color renderings.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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

A couple of months ago I was worried that this blog had become too Aliens-centric; now I’m worried that it’s become too Prometheus-focused. Oh wait, Prometheus is in the same extended universe as Aliens, so I guess the blog is still caught in an Aliens loop. Oh well, with a name like Xenomorphosis, you really can’t fault me for spreading too much Aliens love. Today’s product review was way too enticing to pass up. We’re talking about a giant tentacle alien action figure that comes with a detachable “appendage” that’s expressly meant to orally rape a second action figure. Sorry if that sentence was a bit of a mouthful. Seriously though, the fact that this exists baffles me. This figure set would be right at home in some sleazy back alley erotic figure shop in Akihabara. Erotic figure shops: they probably exist.

Alien rape. In space.

Alien love. In space.

Perhaps even more baffling than the fact that this exists, is that it was a Toys”R”Us exclusive. Yeah, you read that right. While shopping for baby clothes at Babies”R”Us, you might as well pick up an alien rape toy before making your way to the cash. The second I saw this set announced, I knew I had to have it, and that it needed a write-up on this site. Because it was an American-only exclusive, it took some clever planning and some help from a few friends to get this exotic import delivered to my apartment in the far North (Canada). A friend of mine’s girlfriend happened to be planning a visit to Ottawa from the States. She was gracious enough to allow me to have this monstrosity shipped to her dorm, and to then risk bringing it across the border. This thing is basically a creepy sex toy, so it must have taken some real bravery on her part to involve herself in my scheme. To add insult to injury, she lives in an all-girl dorm, and apparently the set got its fair share of creeped out stares as it lingered in her room before her visit North.

In all seriousness, this is a pretty cool set. I just couldn’t resist poking some fun at the nature of it. I tease because I love. As I mentioned earlier, this set comes with two figures: a “battle damaged” engineer, and a trilobite. Just to refresh your memory, the trilobite was the large tentacle alien that impregnated the engineer at the end of the film. This set was specifically created to reenact that scene. As far as I can remember, the term trilobite isn’t actually mentioned in the film. According to Prometheus: The Art of the Film, the name trilobite was coined because the creature was partly influenced by the appearance of actual trilobites.

Trilobite vs. Engineer (Battle Damaged)
Manufacturer: NECA
Release Date: November, 2012
Height: 8.5″ (Engineer), 17″ (Trilobite)

As with NECA‘s pressure suit engineer figure, these figures are incredibly detailed. Aside from some minor changes, the engineer is nearly identical to the aforementioned pressure suit engineer figure that was released in September. The hands are flexed differently, there’s some burn damage on the upper chest and face, the mouth is open rather than closed, and the paint job is slightly darker. Other than that, you’re looking at the same figure. For whatever reason, the engineer feels sturdier this time around, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps it’s because the joints seem less stiff. As with last time, the figure isn’t very posable, but in its defense, it’s really only meant to assume one position. The burn damage and open mouth serve to accentuate NECA‘s craftmanship: each individual tooth is independently sculpted, and the scar tissue is rendered in minute detail. As I’ll explain shortly, the mouth is open for a reason…

Here you can see the feelers and "petals".

Here you can see the feelers and “petals”.

The trilobite figure is pretty interesting. From a distance it looks like a giant spider, but it has 7 large tentacles rather than 8 arms. The top of its body looks somewhat like an actual trilobite fossil. The underside of its body is the most interesting part. There are 6 petal-like protrusions that give the impression of the opening of a flower. Jutting from the petals are 6 whisker-like feelers. Although the figure looks like it’s fairly posable, in practice it really isn’t. The large tentacles are bendable, but they can’t be permanently bent into a new position. This seems like a big missed opportunity, because the figure could have been infinitely posable. In addition, the large tentacles are prone to dislodging from their sockets when you attempt to bend them. Luckily they fit back into place with ease. The overall detail is adequate, but not as impressive as the engineer. That being said, I’m probably just being  nit picky, because the trilobite is inherently less detailed than the engineer.

I’ve saved the best for last. When looking at the packaging for this set, there are three separate parts: the engineer, the trilobite, and a long detachable “member”. This member/penis can easily be bent into any shape. No curve is too nimble for this knob. If only the tentacles had been fashioned from the same material. One end of the penis fits into a groove in the underside of the trilobite. I can only imagine that it comes separately to avoid potential outrage from the parents of the one or two kids who chose to buy this sex trap from Toys”R”Us. Fear not, the head of the member fits snugly into the mouth of the engineer. Remember how I mentioned that the mouth is open for a reason? Yeah… To be fair, this set does re-enact an actual scene from the movie, so it’s not as if NECA was responsible for imagining this exotic display of affection between man and alien. That being said, I don’t specifically remember the penis looking so much like a penis in the film. Call it creative license, but the detachable sex object actually has a circumcised tip. As my roommate put it: “I don’t remember that level of detail in the movie…”

The trilobite looks sort of like an actual trilobite, but with large tentacle appendages.

The trilobite looks sort of like an actual trilobite, but with large tentacle appendages.

So, should you buy this perverse package? There are a probably a couple other people on the planet who will find this set as funny and appealing as I do. Like I said, the moment I saw this advertised, I knew I had to have it. Anyone who buys this will know exactly what they’re in for. You get a near perfect re-creation of the trilobite/engineer scene from the movie, so if that sounds interesting, don’t hesitate to make this purchase. As with anything from NECA, the figures aren’t flawless, but they’re pretty decent. Plus, I’m sure this will become extremely collectible, so if you’re smart, you’ll buy several copies and keep them in the packaging. Personally, I sacrificed my retirement income by opening the box to take some photos for you, my readers. Oh well.

As promised, I will one day return to Alien Rip-Offs in Film. Until then, please join the facebook page. I try to post a fair bit of sci-fi horror/sci-fi military news items, so it’s really the go-to place for random news posts that don’t merit a blog post.

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.

Whether or not you’re into tabletop gaming, it’s hard to deny that Warhammer 40k features some of the most beautifully grim art to grace the world of military sci-fi. To Games Workshop‘s credit, they know exactly how critical it is to nurture an instantly recognizable image for their product. For the most part, nearly every licensed w40k product features excellent artwork. I’ve always been drawn to the world of w40k, first as a fan of the game, and more recently as a fan of the novels. W40k might be my favorite extended universe ever. The scale is immense, the back-story is interesting, and the human inhabitants are a refreshing departure from the typical USA in space (which I griped about last post). W40k is a perfect blend of military sci-fi and horror, so expect to see a lot more coverage of it on this site.

Being a casual fan of the w40k universe, I’ve always loved the artwork, but never delved into the artists who brought the 40k world to life. Hence, The Emperor’s Might, a recently released w40k artbook, seemed like a perfect way to journey further into the fiction.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book -- Cover

The cover art is somewhat unimpressive

The Emperor’s Might
Author: John Blanche
Country: United Kingdom
Featured Edition: Black Library, October 2012

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 17

The Grey Knights looking cool, as always.

The Emperor’s Might was compiled by John Blanche, Games Workshop‘s resident art director. John Blanche is an amazing fantasy artist, and landed his current gig with GW way back in 1986. As well as contributing his own art to the 40k universe, Blanche also oversees all the contributions by other artists and sculptors, and ensures that they match the required tone and quality. It’s largely thanks to Blanche that w40k looks the way it does. I’d be willing to bet that the 40k brand wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it is if it didn’t have such cohesive imagery.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 10

I love this sheer size of the Ultramarine in this image. Dat gauntlet.

The Emperor’s Might focuses on the exploits of the space marines. This isn’t the definitive 40k art book, but it is readily available, which can’t be said of books like The Art of Warhammer 40, 000, which are more all-encompassing, but are sadly out-of-print. Every space marine chapter gets its due in over 140 pages of high quality color prints. The quality of the images in this book can’t be understated. The colors are vivid and crisp. The hardcover binding feels solid, and fortunately survived the abuse I subjected it to in an effort to produce the scans for this post.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 18

My favorite image. Reminds me of Simon Bisley.

I can’t fault the quality of the package, but the price of the book seems somewhat steep considering the amount of content within. Then again, this is Games Workshop, so I can’t pretend to be surprised by a company that routinely gouges its customers’ wallets. For the same price of this artbook, you could probably buy a couple of plastic terminator units.

My biggest annoyance with this book is that it’s an artbook that barely credits the artists within! There is literally no way of knowing who produced each work without consulting the internet, or searching futilely for a scribbled autograph. When I open an artbook, I expect at the very least to be told the names of the featured artists. It would also be nice to see the title of each piece, and a date. The Emperor’s Might provides none of these details. The only mention of the artists is in a small piece of text at the back of the book, in small font along with the copyright information… I understand that the limited space was devoted to art instead of text, but it would have been relatively easy to include a proper index of the artists responsible for each piece.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 3

Possibly the most detailed w40k piece ever.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 9

This was the cover of one of the Space Marine codexes.

I purchased The Emperor’s Might because I wanted to acquaint myself with the artists of the 40k universe, but I found it difficult to do so considering the lack of proper credits. I’m sure that die-hard 40k fans are already familiar with the artists of their favorite expanded universe, and thus don’t need a set of credits, but this is still unfair to casual fans like myself. Irregardless, the artwork is still superb, so I wouldn’t discourage anyone from purchasing the book based on this sore point, but it is disappointing.

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 19

Dark Angels.

The artwork ranges from the early beginnings of the w40k brand to the present-day. Had the dates of the pieces been provided, it would have been interesting to see the evolution of the 40k world in concrete terms. About half the paintings feature portraits of individual Astartes, many of which are primarchs or individuals of high rank. Anyone who plays as space marines will instantly recognize many of the paintings from various codexes or rule books.

My favorite pieces of art are the large 2-page spreads that feature massive battle scenes. They epitomize what I love about w40k: massive bloody space conflicts performed on an epic scale. I recognize one of these pieces as the cover art for the UK Death Metal band Bolt Thrower‘s 1989 album Realm of Chaos, so I would assume that several of the other 2-page spreads date back to this era. I still remember being transfixed by issues of White Dwarf as a kid in the mid 90’s; apparently my tastes haven’t changed with age…

Warhammer 40k The Emperor's Might Art Book 2

This was the cover of Bolt Thrower’s Realm of Chaos

As well as the color portraits and battle scenes, there are also a number of black and white images. Although the quality of these meet the standard of the rest of the book, I’ve always preferred w40k’s color paintings. There are even a few pages of landscapes, which seem almost out-of-place without at least one space marine in sight. The book apparently features never-before-seen artwork, but without any index I can’t begin to guess which images these are.

Overall, I would still recommend this book, but don’t make the same mistake I did and expect to learn more about the artists of the 40k world. My ideal book would not only list the artist credits (as a bare minimum), but would even include some back story about each piece, or each artist. Oh well, knowing GW, they may one day release this fantasy book of mine, and subsequently charge $200 for it… As always, please join the xenomorphosis facebook page, it could always use some more love. I plan to do more artbook reviews, so stay tuned.

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 my favorite pieces from The Emperor’s Might

Last week you got an action figure review, now you get a book review. I’m eclectic. The Forever War should be instantly familiar to most sci-fi fans. Because it’s fresh in my mind, I thought  I’d flesh out my opinions on it. TFW is respectably dark and grim, so I feel that it’s a fitting selection for this site’s first instance of literary coverage. It’s also a Hugo and Nebula award winner, which speaks for itself.

The Forever War -- Centipede Press US TBD

The Forever War — Centipede Press, US

The Forever War
Author: Joe Haldeman
Country: Unites States
First Edition: St. Martin’s Press, 1974
Featured Edition: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009

The Forever War -- Eos US 2003

The Forever War — Eos, US 2003

The Forever War, written in 1974 by Joe Haldeman, is one of those books that I had always meant to read, but just kept putting off. My loss, because TFW easily matches its hype. Heralded as one of the greatest military sci-fi novels of all time, I’ve always pictured it as sharing a podium with Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, and Armor by John Steakley. What’s strange about my aversion to TFW, is that the two aforementioned novels are two of my favorites of all time. I can still vividly remember the first (and only) time I read Starship Troopers. I couldn’t have been more than twelve-years-old, and I eviscerated the book during a two-day period when I was home from school due to illness. I can’t remember any other book that I felt so sad to have finished. I wished there had been a sequel so I could ocntinue reading. Armor was another novel that I read in a couple of days. I’ve never felt so much empathy for a character in a sci-fi novel. And as I’ll soon explain, Armour and TFW share similar themes of alienation.

The Forever War -- Hayakawa Publishing Japan 1985

The Forever War — Hayakawa Publishing, Japan 1985

Although The Forever War and Starship Troopers are often mentioned in the same sentence, their tone is quite different. Starship Troopers is decidedly grim, but the underlying message is unashamedly pro-military. TFW, on the other hand, leaves the reader feeling that the military apparatus is relatively pointless, and exists only to keep the civilian populace in check. As every piece of promotional material for TFW will tell you, Joe Haldeman served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his contributions. TFW parallels Haldeman’s disenfranchised sentiments towards war, and the subsequent alienation he felt upon returning home as a veteran. Every time I’ve seen TFW mentioned, this fact has been heavily espoused. What I find slightly irritating about these sentiments, is that they make it seem as if it’s rare for science fiction to deal with real world issues. As all sci-fi literature fans know, every good sci-fi novel is a subtle reflection of its author’s beliefs, and is influenced to some extent by their real-world experiences. Maybe I was born way too late, but I don’t find it especially impressive that when writing a war novel, Haldeman channeled his personal sentiments on the matter. I mean no disrespect to Haldeman, I just don’t see why others find it so impressive that TFW is a sci-fi novel that explores real-world issues.

The Forever War -- Polaris 1996 Czech

The Forever War — Polaris, Czech, 1996

In the late 20th century, humanity has found wormholes called collapsars that allow them to travel across vast interstellar distances in a split second. Haldeman doesn’t spend too much time explaining these collapsars, but after some digging, I realized that collapsars are really what we now call black holes, which was a term that hadn’t been popularized in 1974. While travelling through these collapsars, humanity meets what seem to be a hostile alien race, which they dub the Taurans. William Mandella, a physics student, is conscripted along with a group of other physically fit, genius academics to engage the supposedly hostile alien race.

The Forever War -- Mondadori Italy 2003

The Forever War — Mondadori, Italy 2003

To be honest, I found the book’s first act to be somewhat dull. The soldiers are transported to a hostile world to learn how to operate powered armor suits under hostile conditions. These suits were obviously inspired by Starship Troopers. In fact, the entire segment felt like a weak version of ST’s training section. As with many science fiction novels, the humanity of the future is especially promiscuous; male and female soldiers alternate sexual partners every night. Although this might be the military’s ideal answer to the stress of army life, I would imagine that in the real world this would result in a considerable degree of conflict and tension. Because sexual promiscuity is so prevalent in sci-fi, I’ve always wondered, is this a result of sci-fi authors’ unfulfilled sexual desires, or were the sci-fi authors of the 60’s and 70’s just a bunch of free-loving hippies?

The Forever War -- J'AI LU 2001 France

The Forever War — J’AI LU,  France 2001

After receiving the requisite training, Mandella and the crew are sent through a collapsar to engage the Taurans in the first ever on-land encounter. The battle turns into a massacre; the Taurans are virtually defenceless, and are obliterated by the humans. Haldeman doesn’t shy away from graphic detail. The following excerpt describes the humans’ first violent encounter with a group of harmless animals on the alien planet: “Whenever the laser had opened a body cavity, milk-white glistening veined globes and coils of organs spilled out, and their blood was dark clotting red”.

The Forever War -- Elmar Netherlands 1978

The Forever War — Elmar, Netherlands 1978

The most interesting concept of the book is introduced after this first skirmish. Because the collapsar has transported the humans thousands of light years away from Earth, the subsequent time dilation means that in the period of two years for Mandella, dozens of years have passed back home. The time dilation also means that the Taurans have significantly more time to develop new weapons and methods of warfare. Upon returning home, Mandella and the woman he loves, Marygay Potter, realize that time hasn’t treated the Earth kindly. The Earth is unified by one government, and it exists primarily to fuel the war effort. Resources are scarce, meaning that everyone lives in government sanctioned poverty. I would imagine that Haldeman patterned this society after that of Soviet Russia. The conditions are akin to America’s worst impressions of communism, circa 1974. Furthermore, due to an overabundant population and limited resources, people are encouraged to be homosexual. I’ve never seen this suggested as a method of population control, but it’s certainly interesting. Mandella and Marygay, both of whom are pacifists, can’t adjust to the Earth of the future, and thus decide to rejoin the war effort. The theme of alienation is core to this novel. Mandella’s experiences are said to mimic the alienation that Haldeman felt when returning home from Vietnam. The time dilation exists as the perfect literary mechanism to subject Mandella and  Marygay to constant “future shock”.

The Forever War -- Gollancz 2010 UK

The Forever War — Gollancz, UK 2010

The rest of the novel has Mandella and Marygay being sent to various battlefronts, each of which are thousands of light years away. As a result, they constantly return to an Earth that has left them far behind. I find this concept ridiculously interesting. Without delving into spoilers, from the age of twenty to twenty-five, they experience hundreds of years of human progress. The war seems to destined to last forever, hence the term The Forever War.

I can only assume that like Mandella, Haldeman is a pacifist. For this reason, there were only a few segments of the book that really delved into the actual warfare. Readers who are looking for pure action would probably be best served elsewhere, but there is at least one really satisfying battle at the end of TFW. Haldeman devised a unique arsenal of far future weaponry for TFW. The weapons range from “finger lasers”, to mines that are sensitive up to a one kilometer radius. I really love when authors get creative with weaponry, and I wish modern military sci-fi wasn’t so dominated by “20th century marines with 20th century weapons, but in the future!”

The Forever War -- Ballantine Books US 1976

The Forever War — Ballantine Books, US 1976

I would recommend TFW to any sci-fi fans, and almost any literary types in general. The core concepts really transcend pure sci-fi, so fans of military fiction will also feel right at home. My only word of caution is that the book contains a considerable amount of actual science. Haldeman was trained as a physicist, so this is real science fiction through and through. For anyone interested in theoretical methods of counteracting the pressure differentials caused by traveling at up to 25 gees, you’ll find plenty of intellectual entertainment. Even though I sometimes have a hard time understanding it, I love when sci-fi delves into real science. That being said, there’s a healthy dose of social science fiction at play, which should please those who are inclined towards the humanities. I’m also a sucker for a bit of romance in my sci-fi, so I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the relationship between Mandella and Marygay. The ending alone is enough to rival any romance movie.

Perhaps TFW’s greatest strength is that it introduces so many interesting ideas, all while keeping an interesting narrative. Although TFW may not have been as influential as Starship Troopers, it obviously contributed it’s fair share to the world of military sci-fi. This book entertains on so many different levels, not the least of which is the desire for war in space. Basically, if you’ve found this site, and you haven’t read this book already, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

As always, you can contact me by email at xenomorphosis@gmail.com, or on the facebook page. The next installment of Alien Rip-Offs in Film is still incoming; creating it is a pretty tedious process. Later space cadets!

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 different editions of The Forever War