Star Wars – The Old Republic: Movie Shorts

Star-Wars-The-Old-Republic-640x360It seems I’m always behind on these things! Yesterday, I came across this video entirely by accident, and realized it was one of the many movie shorts that certain parties had used to create a fan trailer for the upcoming Star Wars VII movie. Basically, its the intro movie for the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, and is a whole lot of eye-popping action porn!

A trailer which included all three SWTOR movies – The Return, Hope, and Deceived –  it has all the Star Wars action staples. These include Jedis and Sith battling it out with lighstabers, the smuggler with a Corellian ship, droids and armored soldiers fighting it out with blasters and detonators, and space-borne dogfights. And of course, the entire thing takes place to a classic John Williams score. Enjoy the movie!

Attack of the Clones. Here we go again…

Hello again! Here we are picking things up again with the Star Wars saga. Today, it’s the second installment in the prequel series, the ridiculously named Attack of the Clones. As I’m sure we all remember, Clones was the stuff of mixed reviews, some critics hailing its special effects and visual style, while others emphasized its flat dialogue and wooden romance.

But even more interesting was the fact that critics were torn over whether it was better or worse than the Phantom Menace. Not a good sign, and the butt of a LOT of jokes and debate. Hard to imagine that fanboys who were united in bashing the PM would find themselves fighting each other over which they thought sucked more!

But to be fair, there were some good points in this movie. So without further preamble, let’s get into it:

Plot Synopsis:
The movie opens with the crawl once again saying that there is a crisis. This time around, it’s the threat of Separatists – led by former Jedi Count Dooku – that’s making things problematic. And once again there is deadlock in the Senate over it. In any case, now-Senator Amidala comes to Coruscant to speak her peace on behalf of those who oppose taking strong measures, and an assassination plot gets underway.

This prompts the Jedi order to send two old friends, Obi-Wan and Anakin, to provide her with added protection. Their introduction is rather painful to behold, as the hormonally raging Anakin begins relating how he hasn’t stopped dreaming of her and tries to make awkward conversation with her. He also picks a fight with his mentor, Obi-Wan, over what their mandate truly is. In the midst of all this, Jar Jar breaks the fourth wall by looking into the camera and smiling at the audience – a sort of, “I’m still here, bitches” for all the fanboys to see!

In another bit of “things to come”, we also learn that Anakin has been having dreams of another woman – his mother. He dreams that something terrible is going to happen, but in the meantime, they must focus on Padme, who’s assassin is still out there. For some reason, they decide to “use her as bait”, which consists of letting her sleep in a window-filled room with nothing but R2 as protection. Didn’t Obi-Wan say they weren’t supposed to be investigating, just protecting? Oh well…

In any case, her would-be assassin sends a probe with some poisonous slugs to attack her. Obi-Wan and Anakin kill said slugs, and Obi-Wan jumps through the window to grab the probe and ride it. Wait, didn’t he say they weren’t supposed to be investigating? Why’s he so determined to follow this probe then? Anakin grabs a speeder, they fly like mad, and chase the attacker through the city. Anakin reveals that this woman is a shape-shifter, a fact which seems superfluous, but whatever. They also performs some stunts that defy the laws of physics, but that’s also unimportant.

After reaching a bar, Obi-Wan and Anakin chase her inside and begin combing the crowd. After a quick re-enactment of the scene from A New Hope (where Obi-Wan sliced off another thugs hand), they drag the shape-shifter outside and learn she’s subcontracting. But of course, her contractor kills her before she can say her name. Obi-Wan, who for some reason was willing to chase the shapeshifter across the planet, just lets him go…

The Jedi Council decides its time to send Padme home, and that Anakin is to go with her. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is to track down the assassin by himself, a quest which takes him to the world of Kamino. This decision to split them, far from making logical sense, seems more like an excuse to get Anakin and Padme alone. Why send a Padawan off on his own, especially when his master has such misgivings about his attitude and powers?

But anyhoo, things get kind of cool when Obi-Wan arrives on Kamino and learns that former Master Sifo Dyas ordered the creation of a clone army. This, combined with the fact that the location of the planet was removed from the Republic archives memory would seem to indicate that there is a conspiracy afoot. Obi-Wan then meets with the clone template, a bounty hunter named Jango Fett, and is convinced he’s found Padme’s would-be assassin. They fight, Jango escapes, and Obi-Wan pursues him to Geonosis.

Meanwhile, we get a string of scenes that are meant to elicit a romantic response. After following Padme around, complaining bitterly about Obi-Wan and professing his love in a series of ever creepier and wooden dialogue, Padme tells Anakin there’s no way. Why? She’s a Senator… Uh, what? Are Senators not allowed to date? Of course, Anakin can’t because he’s a Jedi, but the very fact that they’re talking about this would seem to indicate the feeling is now mutual. Seems sudden, but neither here nor there…

Arriving at Geonosis, where there’s a massive a droid-building colony, Obi-Wan gets into it with Jango and the Slave I. After thinking he’s killed him (Obi-Wan eludes death by copying Han’s hiding move from Empire), Jango proceeds to planet and Obi-Wan follows shortly behind. After wintessing a meeting between Dooku and the Separatists in which they plan their attack (using their droid and clone armies), Obi-Wan broadcasts his position and is then captured. He meets Dooku, who proceeds to tell him the truth, after a fashion…

He tells Obi-Wan there is a Sith in charge of the Senate, and that his plans are motivated to bring him down. He asks for Obi-Wan’s help, who in a move taken from Empire and Jedi, tells him he “will never join you”. Back on Naboo, Anakin continues to have bad dreams about his mom and decides he must go to Tatooine. He retraces her path, only to discover that she was taken in by some people from the movie – the Lars family, which includes the future Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

He learns she was taken by Sandpeople, and catches up with them just in time to watch his mother die, at which point, he and loses it! And I mean REALLY LOSES IT! In a scene we don’t get to see, Anakin takes out his lightsaber and kills the entire community of Sandpeople who kidnapped and tortured his mom, including the women and children. He returns to the Lars family dwelling and tells Padme of his mass murder, to which she replies that it’s no big deal.

I’m sorry, NO BIG DEAL?! Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, this man just confessed to murdering women and children and all Padme can say is that “to be angry is to be human”? What kind of sociopathic, enabling bullshit is that? Is she so into bad boys that she’s willing to overlook this first-time offense? Or are they in such a hurry to get to the next scene that she’s just got to forgive and move on? And why the hell didn’t the Jedi Order even mention this on his return? We all saw Yoda sensing it? C’mon people!

Alright, moving on… Back on Coruscant, the news of a Separatist army explodes like a bombshell, with Palpatine once again exploiting it for personal gain. Thinking he’s doing the smart and noble thing, Jar Jar moves that Palpatine get emergency powers – a la Octavian – and his first act is to create an army for the Republic. Why they don’t have one already is beyond me, but who cares? Point is, Palpatine has got his way, and Yoda and Mace Windu decide its time to get involved.

Anakin and Padme also get the distress signal from Obi-Wan and decide they will go save him. They arrive on Geonosis too and after a needless scene where they are almost killed in a robot factory, they too are captured. A scene ripped off from Gladiator follows, as they are reunited in a massive Colosseum-type arena to die in a public display. They escape and begin to wreak havoc, and are rescued just in time by the arrival of Mace and the Jedi Order. They fight to a standstill and are surrounded, when Yoda arrives with the Clone army and begins kicking some ass.

A big fight scene ensues on the open plains of Geonosis between droids and Clones, while Obi-Wan and Anakin chase Dooku down. He beats them both in a rather implausible scenario, first managing to cripple Obi-Wan without actually killing him or severing any of his limbs, and then cutting off Anakin’s arm (an obvious preview of the scene from Jedi). Yoda once again shows up to save the day, and in another scene from Jedi, Dooku does his lightning trick.

The fight ends with a stalemate, Dooku runs with Padme shooting at his ship. Once more, a scene from the originals is at work here, this time from Empire when Leia was shooting at the Slave I. But Dooku escapes, makes it back to Coruscant and tells Sideous (Palpatine) that the war is happening, as anticipated. He meanwhile sends the first batch of clones on their new Star Destroyer look-alikes, and Yoda laments that the Dark Side has fallen and “The Clones Wars” have begun.

The movie ends with Padme and Anakin back on Naboo, where they’ve decided to get married after all. But since it’s a secret wedding, the droids are the only parties in attendance. THE END!

What didn’t work:
Well, where to begin? I shan’t dwell on the wooden dialogue or the horrid lack of romantic tension, since those are the popular whipping posts of most critics when it comes to this movie. Instead, I’d like to stick to some of the more obvious weaknesses, those that become more clear with hindsight.

  1. The Set-Up: Things get rolling when we learn that an assassin is trying to kill Padme, presumably because she’s the voice of moderation between the Republic and the Separatists. However, things get really implausible, really fast. For one, why the hell did Jango Fett subcontract anyway. Why not simply kill her himself? And why did this lady use poisonous bugs when a simple bomb would have killed Padme instantly? We saw how easily that probe flew to her window, so why the slow, stupid and easily thwarted approach? Then came how Jango’s involvement led Obi-Wan on his wild goose chase. The only reason he knew to find him on Kamino was because he used a dart which was manufactured there. The only reason he know to fly to Geonosis was because Jango mentioned it to him. And why was Jango pulling double duty with the whole assassination thing anyway? If the Kaminos are such good cloners, anybody’s DNA would do and they could just enhance it. Having him do that and eliminate Padme was just a way to tie the two plots together really and make sure Obi-Wan could find out all that was going on.
  2. Love-Story Contrivances: I know, I said I wouldn’t mock the terrible dialogue, which I won’t. To me, the real weakness here was just how contrived and unnatural the whole love story seemed. Aside from a brief, age-inappropriate meeting ten years before, Anakin and Padme are practically strangers. Having Anakin say that he’s loved her ever since they met was completely forced. On top of that, the way they are sent to Naboo together and all the scenes of them doing lovers things: boating, playing in open fields, eating and retiring to the hearth – are all obvious attempts to try and force a sense of romance. That’s the key word here: force (no pun intended). Between Anakin constantly announcing his feeling for her and all the idyllic scenery they take in, it’s like Lucas was behind us constantly saying “Look, they’re in love!” In the original movie, Lucas took his time to build up the romance between Han and Leia. In the beginning, they couldn’t stand each other, but this concealed some genuine tension. In time, this flourished as they got to know each other and began to start acknowledging each others strengths. In the end, it was clear that their different backgrounds and personalities is what led to their attraction. Throw in some genuine crisis, and they realized they were in love. See? That’s a love story, not this!
  3. Unsubtle Dialogue: Again, said I would avoid talking about the wooden dialogue. Which I am, sort of! My gripe here is just how unsubtle and (again) forced it all was, which is something the critics really didn’t get into. Examples: in the beginning, Anakin announces that he loves Padme when talking with Obi-Wan and Jar Jar. When talking to Padme, Anakin announces that Obi-Wan is an unfair master who’s too hard on him. When sitting around the fire, Anakin announces how much he loves her. Finally, she announces her feelings back. And in this, they are hardly alone. All throughout the movie, actors announce what’s going on as a means to convey what’s happening and to make the audience feel the requisite emotions. Never is time taken to convey feelings, mood, or establish tension the old fashioned way. And this just makes for a bad movie! As Robot Satan said in Futurama: “You can’t have characters just announce their feelings! That makes me SO ANGRY!”
  4. Way Too Much: In the documentary of the making of Phantom Menace, there is a lovely scene where Lucas and his people are watching the screening and there’s this moment of “uh-oh” at the end. They then discuss how Lucas did too much and how that brought down the ending. You’d think between movie one and two, he would have learned from this, but no! In this movie, he tried to do way more. On top of showing how romance developed between Padme and Anakin, he’s also shoved in a big ol’ preview of Anakin’s descent to the Dark Side, how the Clones Wars started, and Palpatine’s evil rise to power. A lot of critics jumped on this, saying that the movie was too long and suffered from a sense of duty. And in that, they were profoundly right! Duty is another key word when describing this movie. Having spent movie one showing where Anakin came from, they now had to preview his fall, where the twins came from, and how the Clone Wars started all at once. And it made for a sloppy feel, with too much happening and things bouncing around from one thing to the next without any of it getting enough development.
  5. Recycling: But alas, all of these faults could have been mediated had it not been for the fact that there really didn’t seem anything new about these movies. All throughout, there is material which seems to serve no purpose than to satisfy origin stories or recapture elements of the first three movies. In Clones, Boba Fett, Luke’s surrogate parents, the Death Star and Vader’s robotic arm are all previewed, and that’s on top of the Clone Wars and the romance plot. Once more it’s like Lucas is behind us saying “Look! That’s how it happened!” But like everything else, it just feels forced. Why not let new characters have their time in the spotlight? Why is it necessary to use every character from the first three movies? And another thing, this movie, more than in the first, uses scenes from the originals like never before. I mean, its one thing to rip off other movies, like the arena scene from Gladiator, but Lucas was even ripping off himself! The scene in the bar where Obi-Wan cuts off the hunters arm, the scene where Obi-Wan hides his ship on the back of an asteroid, the scene where he tells Dooku he won’t turn, the scene with the lighting bolts, the scene at the end where Padma is shooting at Dooku’s ship. All of these are clearly meant to recapture the feeling of the original Star Wars, but they fell short for the simple reason that audiences wasn’t nearly as emotionally involved. There’s paying homage to an original, and then there’s recycling, and this was the latter!
  6. Lazy Shooting: Something else which became apparent by this movie was the lazy way in which it was shot. After Phantom, It was already obvious that Lucas loved to cram as much CGI into every frame as possible. Hell, that much was obvious with the Star Wars Gold Editions! But if you watch the movies again, pay close attention to how EVERY SINGLE scene is shot. In these, you have the actors either walking slowly across the stage or sitting down. Always. Two cameras capture all of their dialogue and exchanges, Camera one, camera two. Always. If they are walking and talking, they will always stop, turn, and go back and forth between camera one and two. Meanwhile, all visual effects and background are provided by a green screen and all CGI characters are represented by colored lights. There are virtually no props, no stand ins, and a minimum of real actors. This, I have learned, reflects Lucas’ preferred way of directing. He sits in his chair at the edge of the green screen and drinks his coffee while the actors interact with each other or lights which tell them where to look. They walk through, stop, turn, or stay seated, do their lines, and his two cameras capture everything. Action shots are handled in much the same way, with only the occasional close-up or distance shot. Unless of course the entire sequence is animated by CGI, which they usually are!
  7. Strengths? Not so much: The strong points about this movie, the ones that critics hailed, mainly had to do with vision and special effects. But here’s the thing: Lucas’ vision in this movie consisted of CGI environments that all seemed to be taken from other movies or real locations. That doesn’t seem very bold or original. And what’s more, even the special effects weren’t so innovative. Clones was launched during the summer of 2002, right about the time that Spider Man, Minority Report and Men in Black 2 were released, all of which made impressive use of CGI. So really, what was so stunning and unique about this movie’s visual effects? And if action was something else about this movie that people liked, consider that it came out at the same time as The Bourne Identity and XXX as well.  So really, this movie was not a stand-out, smash-hit, summer blockbuster. If anything, it was one hit in a summer full of them.

Well, that about covers the weaknesses of this movie. I did my best to avoid the cliched, beaten-to-death talking points, and yet I still feel I hit on them quite a bit. And I really went long there too didn’t I? And yet, I haven’t even mentioned what bothered me personally about this movie. But to do so means ditching all the civilized critique stuff and going all the way back to summer of 2000.

In was back then, between the first two movies movies, that Lucas seemed to be pulling an about face. A year after the Phantom Menace debuted, reassuring rumors began to circulate that Lucas claimed its sequel would be more dark, more realistic and more gritty, kind of like the way Empire was to the first movie. However, these hopes were shot when Lucas announced that the second movie would be a romance story at that Jar Jar would remain in the picture.

When asked about the fans hopes for something more adult and dark, he casually dismissed these and other criticisms by saying that Star Wars had always been a “Saturday morning serial for kids”. This above all else seemed to annoy me, and countless other fans, since it now seemed apparent that Lucas really didn’t care what his age old fans and was going to continue to do the things that was making the new movies incompatible with the old.

However, after movie two he seemed to sit up and take notice of just how annoyed the fans and critics were getting. With one movie left in the franchise, he seemed determined to give these objections some due before the sun set on the prequel trilogy. Of that, more next time. Stay tuned!

 

Top 10 Most Nostalgic SF Games

Hey all. The other day, a revolutionary idea came to me. What with all the other sci-fi stuff I cover, why haven’t I made any mention of sci-fi videogames? Not sure, really, seems kinda obvious now that I think about it. God knows I love talking about the stuff that inspired me, and I’m not ashamed to admit it that sometimes, those things have been games.

Whether they were first-person shooters, space combat simulators, or strategy games, there are some games which have stuck with me over the years. It might have been their cool game-play, inspired backstories, or classic sci-fi elements. Who knows? Point is, I liked them then and, with some exceptions, I like them now.

Anyway, here are the top then that stand out in my mind, in ascending order:

10. Halo 2
Granted, this game has not been with me too long, as I came to it a bit late in its existence. But I still count it among my top sci-fi nostalgic classics. And in that, I am hardly alone! For gamers, Halo 2 was one of the most anticipated sequels of the last decade. Combing kick-ass gameplay, a cool storyline, and some badass weapons and vehicles, Halo 2 remains a game that I can play over and over.

My favorite missions are the earliest ones when the Covenant are assaulting. Room to room and street to street combat with automatic weapons is much fun! And commandeering a Warthog and joyriding through the transit tunnels of New Mombasa? Pure action gaming art! And while I never really got into the multiplayer thing too much, I have to admit that it’s both extensive and endlessly entertaining.

In addition, I found the storyline highly respectable. In addition to having a classic sci-fi and space opera feel, it contained some genuinely respectable themes and plot devices. The whole backstory about the Forerunners was interesting; but then again, anything involving an ancient and extinct species who’s technology still litters the Galaxy is cool! And the way the Covenant theocracy was following what they believe to be the path to salvation, when in fact they were walking headlong into their graves – tell me that’s not significant!

9. Doom
Granted, it didn’t have the most inspired storyline, but do you think a 16 year old boy gives a damn about stuff like plot and character development? No, he cares about shooting guns and blowing shit up! And that’s precisely what this game was good for when I was a surly teen looking for some fun and adventure on my PC.

And in a lot of ways, this game was a pioneering piece of software. It’s first campaign was made available through shareware, it was one of the first first-person shooters of all time, and it established a new standard when it came to gore and violence.

Thousands of others would follow, each following Doom’s example of a varied arsenal, raw firepower and bloodletting! It was also spawn a slew of sequels, comics, and RPG, and even a horrible, horrible movie. It also provided me with the means to mispend my youth. Good job Doom!

8. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Speaking of time poorly spent, I can’t tell you how many hours I dedicated to playing this game when I first got it. As I recall, I was in my early 20’s at the time and living in a tiny bachelors apartment in Ottawa. One day this game came in the mail courtesy of one of my best friends (thanks Chi!). I spent the next three days playing it all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and maintain some semblance of a life.

Yes, it was just that addictive. And all because it combined quest-based gameplay with lightsaber duels, a detailed universe, and a genuine Star Wars-esque storyline. Granted, its replay value is a little shaky given that most of the fun comes from completing quests and uncovering the whole mystery plot, but I still found ways to waste time with it!

Another appealing feature about this game was the fact that it took place during the Sith Wars, something that gets mentioned in the expanded universe but never really covered in any detail. So while you’re playing, you get the added benefit of having some important background info filled in for you. If you’re a Star Wars geek, which I admittedly am, this is kind of a big deal…

7. Starcraft
Granted, it took Blizzard FOREVER to make the sequel, but they been busy, what with Diablo, Warcraft, and all their various sequels. And in the meantime, they did give us that fantastic expansion pack to tide us over.

In any case, Starcraft has to be one of the most infinitely replayable games in the history of real-time strategy games. It’s creative, got a good storyline, and some genuinely awesome characters. The Terran Marines are delightful hicks, the Protoss religious zealots, and the Zerg horrifying beasts. What’s not to like? And let’s not forget the multiplayer, which kept gamers entertained for years after the original release date.

And as I said, the expansion pack was really great. As if the original storyline and units weren’t enough, they managed to make some truly worthy add ons with Brood War. I especially loved the Medics and the Dark Templar, the former making Marine shoot em ups more effective, and Dark Templars who’s dark look and hyperblades were just so cool. But the storyline was still what I liked best. Terran exiles, invading aliens, complicated alliances, double-crosses and intrigue. Can’t wait to see how what happens in SC II. Just need me a faster computer before I try to play the damn thing is all!

6. Command and Conquer
Speaking of real-time strategy games, the next up is the classic Command and Conquer! Though I didn’t take to the sequels so much, I thoroughly enjoyed this baby for like a whole summer between grades 11 and 12. And much like Starcraft, the multiplayer was the icing on the proverbial cake, taking all the guerrilla fighting and strategizing to new heights.

And the storyline, once again, is something which I certainly appreciated, being an alternate history and all. To break it down, the story takes place in a world where Hitler never came to power in Germany and Stalin became the big menace of the century in his absence. Once he was defeated, a global coalition known as GDI (Global Defense Initiative) was formed.

And in a way, the game predicted the “war on terror” a bit early, predicting that this coalition would have to fight against a multinational terrorist organization (Brotherhood of Nod) for global supremacy. This war was triggered by the arrival of an alien substance, known as Tiberium, to Earth, an organic-mineral compound that is also radioactive. Pretty cool, real science fictiony when you get right down to it. And the varied units were also neat, each side having their own distinct soldiers, vehicles and special abilities. These made things like rushing virtually impossible, as all units had their own strengths and weaknesses, and could not therefore make offensives unless they had support.

5. X-Wing
Another classic game and one of the most popular flight simulators of all time. Maybe it was because it combined space dogfights with the Star Wars universe. Maybe it was because every kid who grew up with the franchise wanted to fly X-wings and take down the Death Star. Who knows? Point is, it worked, and I for one got a real kick out of it.

Taking place before and during the events of the original movie, X-wing follows the exploits of a Rebel pilot who fights for the Alliance in a series of campaigns. These include raids, escort missions, seizure operations, reconnaissance, and ultimately, large scale assaults. While most missions involve piloting the venerable X-wing, you also get to fly A-wings, Y-wings, and even B-wings (in the expansion pack).

Over time, these campaigns culminate in an attack on the Death Star from the end of the first movie. In the expansion pack, the story continues with the evacuation of Yavin and the search to find a new base of operations, eventually leading to the establishment of a base on Hoth. These events, which took place between movies one and two, are fertile ground and get a good showing here. The same is true with all the early events of the franchise, stuff we hear about in the original movie and expanded source material, but never got to see.

One of the coolest things about this game was the details. When assaulting enemy ships, you could disable them as well as destroy them. This could include disabling subsystems with ion guns or missiles, or targeting things like engines and weapons and destroying them. When assaulting capital ships, you were also able to take out weapons and missile turrets, not to mention shield arrays. This made for a more realistic gameplay, something which other space combat games would emulate in years to come.

4. Wing Commander II
Coming in fourth on this list is the second installment in the Wing Commander series. Another space-combat simulator, this game emerged at about the same time as X-wing and was, at least in my neighborhood, its chief competitor for all the mispent hours we would play games!

In truth, I’m kind of hard pressed to pick one game in the series, since I loved the first three games. But when it comes right down to it, I think I spent the most amount of hours on this one, so WC II for the win! Picking up where the first one left off, this game in the series is set aboard the TCS Concordia and follows the exploits of the series’ protagonist Capt. Christopher Blair.

This is something that set the WC series apart from other space-combat simulators, which is the story-driven and personal nature of the game’s story. Even though the protagonist wasn’t given an official name until the third game (gamers got to use whatever name they wanted), everything centered around the life of this one person, their experiences being yours and helping to shape the course of the game.

In short, after being humiliated and demoted due to the destruction of your former ship, the Tiger’s Claw, you are relegated to a backwater assignment aboard a space station. You remain there, until the TCS Concordia shows up in-system looking for help. After defending her, you are transferred aboard her and become part of its campaign to fight the Kilrathi for control of the Enigma sector (if this is starting to sound familiar, then chances are you read my blurb on the Tiger’s Claw in the Cool Ships series).

In any case, by game’s end, you clear your name, defeat the Kilrathi, and gain control of the sector. Much fun! And because it was personally focused, you find yourself getting emotionally involved and being that much more concerned with winning each mission in your campaign. And of course, as with the first game in the series, this one also had spinoffs which added to the fun as well.

3. Wing Commander Privateer
Though this game bears the WC name, it was more of a spinoff than part of the series. And that’s one of the things I loved about it. Though connected to the main storyline, it was a standalone space combat simulator with a story of its own, and which delved into the world of pirates, smugglers and privateers.

Arriving in my game pile between WC II and just after Doom, I spent the better part of a year playing this game because it was just so replayable! What made it fun was the fact that with this installment in the WC universe, you were a private contractor, you pulled missions for hire, and you used your money to upgrade your ship and buy new ones altogether.

You also got to choose your focus in the game. You could become a merchant, a mercenary, both, and add to that with a little pirating and illegal trading. And of course, there was a larger story set to the backdrop of the Confederation-Kilrathi war and your own drive to get rich. Basically, it involved an ancient ship that was roaming around the quadrant, killing ships on both sides. If you chose to partake of this campaign, you followed clues, pulled jobs, and pieced together the mystery of the ship until it was destroyed.

But above all, the most cool aspect of the game was the richly detailed universe. There were literally dozens of systems and planets for you to venture to, as well as space stations and pirate hideouts. Every place had its own feel and aim, and the jobs you could pull on any given one were suited to match. Years later, I would remind myself of this game when it came time to develop my own sci-fi universe (again, the one I used to write Legacies).

2. Descent: Freespace
One such game was the smash hit and personal favorite of mine, Descent: Freespace. Released in 1999, this game remains one of the best fighter simulators I have ever seen. And I’m hardly alone in thinking that, seeing as how several games (including the online BSG game) have used its engine as a platform. Much like Half Life 2, this game has had many imitators and borrowers due to the sheer wickedness of its design.

But again, one of the things that I loved about this game was its backstory. Set in the 23rd century, the GTA (Galactic Terran Alliance) is at war with an alien race known as the Vasudans. This war has been ongoing and spans several star systems, with losses numbering in the millions. However, all this changes when a new race, known as the Shivans, appears suddenly and begins attacking both sides indiscriminately. After several attacks, the GTA and the Vasudans agree to put aside their differences and focus on this common threat, as the Shivans are clearly not playing favorites.

Also, the Shivans possess vastly superior technology. Their ships are shielded – something neither side has – and are very difficult to track on sensors. Their capital ships are also very tough and hard to disable, and their largest vessel, the Lucifer (expect to see it in the next Cool Ships installment) seems invulnerable to conventional attack. As a result, much of the game is spent conducting intel gathering and raids to procure pieces of the aliens technology. And things really escalate when the Lucifer discovers the location of Vasuda Prime and Earth.

What I loved about this game was how much it reminded me of Babylon 5 and the whole Earth-Minbari war, how Earth Force found itself so outmatched and struggled to try and find a way to beat Minbari technology. I often wondered if the game designers had been inspired by it, given the common elements. On top of that is the fact that you never really get to learn why the Shivans are attacking, or even what they look like. The mystery of who and what they are remains well into the sequel.

But even without all that, the gameplay itself was nothing short of awesome. The missions were realistic, the ships were realistic, and the space combat was realistic (and detailed). I’m not ashamed to admit that this game actually formed part of the basis for my own sci-fi creation, the novel Legacies and the kind of universe it was set in. Being gritty and realistic, I thought I’d found my perfect muse, and did my best to adopt, if not outright copy, a lot of its feel.

Ah yes, and according to an article I read recently, it appears that there might be a third installment at some point in the future. Efforts have kind of stalled, but apparently the developers who worked on the first two games said that they “would kill for a chance to develop Freespace 3.” Given how the sequel ended on a cliffhanger and just how kick-ass this series is, I count myself among them! Tell me who’s gotta go, I’ll take care of ’em!

1. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Finally, coming in at first place, is Sid Meier’s sci-fi spinoff, Alpha Centauri! Much like the Civilization series which bore his name (and which I adored!), this game was a turn-based strategy engine that focuses on civilization building and conquest, with the player choosing a faction and then ensuring that they become the dominant force in the game.

However, what set this game apart from the Civilization ones was its uniquely speculative and futuristic undertone. Based in part on the Civ games, this story is basically an extension of the original series, where games would end when a player either conquered the world or won the space race by sending a colony ship to Alpha Centauri.

But far from just picking up where these games left off, this game revolves around the idea that Earth was abandoned by the people on the colony ship because of its rampant overpopulation, war, famine, chaos and environmental destruction. This puts the stakes much higher, as the mission is not just to colonize but ensure the survival of the human race.

The story begins with the colonist splitting into five factions before they make “Planetfall”. These include the Morganites (a bunch of monopolistic capitalists), the Gaians (environmentalists), the Hive (totalitarians), the Believers (religious zealots), the Spartans (survivalists), the University (rationalists), and the Peacekeepers (humanitarians). Together, they represent the entirety of the human race, all its particular drives and obsessions. Their struggle clearly mirrors of that of humanity in the present day world.

On top of all that, there’s a planet-wide organisms which is made up of pink fungi and “mind worms”. This organism, as a whole, grows and evolves towards super-sentience every few million years as the planet’ sun reach perihelion. Naturally, this has coincided with the arrival of the colonists, and therefore poses a threat to their survival. So in addition to dealing with the threat of the other factions, there is added threat coming from the planet itself.

In the end, there are any number of ways to win the game. You can conquer the other factions, in which case it is reasoned that you will be able to face the growing threat from “planet” unimpeded. There is a an economic victory, in which a single faction corners the “energy market” (energy being the basis of currency on this world). Then you have diplomatic victory where you basically ally yourself with every faction left in the game, followed by the “transcendental” victory where you become the first faction to achieve union with the planetary organism.

This last option is the biggest and best, being the one that deals with the biggest problem of what to do about the planet and in such a way that ensures humanity’s virtual immortality. By merging humanities consciousness with the planetary organism, you not only achieve a degree of immortality, you also help ensure that the organism won’t regress this time around. And it gives you the highest final score, which is why I always preferred it.

And then there’s all the cool units you get to make. As with the other Civ games, new technologies give you the ability to craft new units. This grows more complex and varied the more technologies you unlock, giving you the means to equip units with new weapons, armor, and special abilities. But the best thing about this game, aside from all the classic sci-fi elements, is the inspired nature of it all. Some serious thought went into the technologies you research, as well as the philosophical models you can adopt.

I’m telling ya, its like some serious sci-fi geeks got together, read all the classics, swallowed the works of Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, and then waded through the theories of Einstein and Hawkins. This game was a favorite of mine during the early 2000’s, and recently, I managed to get an a copy of it through Amazon.com and have been wasting time on it once more. I’m a happy manchild!

Okay, now I’m feeling kinda weird, geeky, and like I got some serious wasted time to make up for…  But hey, I’m not sorry! Like most people my age, I grew on the dubious combination of television, movies, and video games, with a few genuine experiences thrown in for good measure. If we can’t appreciate the stuff we wasted our youth on, then what good is it? Until next time 😉