Of Faster-Than-Light Travel

It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.

And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!

Alcubierre Drive:
Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.

The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.

The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.

FTL Drive:
The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.

Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.

Holtzman Drive:
This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.

Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.

Hyperspace:
Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.

In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.

Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.

Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.

Infinite Probability Drive:
The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.

Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!

Subspace Jump Drive:
Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.

The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.

Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.

TARDIS:
Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.

Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.

Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.

Warp Drive:
Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.

By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.

Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!

In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.

Final Thoughts:
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.

One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.

Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.

  1. Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
  2. That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.

Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:

This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!

Giant Robots (vol. 3)

As Smith said that ambiguous sequel known as Matrix: Reloaded, “More!” And what better way to start this latest list off than with an example from that franchise…

APU:

Concept by davpea1 at deviantArt

Starting off today’s list is the Armored Personnel Unit (or APU) from the Matrix trilogy. Making it’s first appearance in Matrix: Reloaded, it’s real c0ntribution came in Revolutions when every single unit in existence was used in the defense of Zion.

Hydraulically operated, the APU was run by a single operator who sat in a central cage and operated everything through a series of hand controls and leg straps, much like the Cargo Loader from Aliens.

It’s weaponry consisted of two 30mm cannons which are mounted on the arms. Loading these weapons required the assistance of an ammo carrier who would feed the ammo boxes into the back with the assistance of the APU’s crane. Due to its flexible reach, a single APU could defend itself from multiple Sentries without much difficulty.

During the battle for Zion, some 350 APU’s took part in the defense. Unfortunately, they faced overwhelming odds and all were lost. Though some were still functional even after their pilots died, their systems were rendered inoperative after the Hammer arrived on scene and detonated its EMP device.

Arm Slave:
https://i2.wp.com/ih2.redbubble.net/image.10793093.2886/flat,550x550,075,f.u1.jpgThis next example comes once again from the manga and anime world of Full Metal Panic. Officially, the name “Arm Slave” is short for Armored Mobile Master-Slave System, referring to their coordinated unidirectional control system. Basically, this means that a single pilot would be controlling multiple suits, either from inside a command mecha or from a remote location.

Built by the US in the fictional FMP universe, these powered suits went on to become the mainstay in every western army, giving new meaning to the term “mechanized infantry”. However, these mecha were featured chiefly as the weapons of Amalgam and Mithril, organizations to whom the main characters were members.

In the course of the story, every state produced its own variations of the Arm Slave and the design went through several generations. Beginning as smaller variants powered by internal combustion engines, the later models would feature cold fusion reactors and electroactive polymer muscles, making them faster, more mobile, and capable of much better performance. In terms of weapons, the Arm Slave is limited only to what it can carry, making many different configurations possible.

These include, but are not limited to, two 12.7 mm chain guns, two XM18 wire guns, a single 40, 57, or 70 mm smooth-bore cannon, a single missile launcher, or hand to hand weapons such as the M1108 anti-tank dagger or the GRAW-2 Monomolecular cutter. And given its raw power and strength, it can also attack with its bare hands and just bash things to death. Good to have options!

AT-ST:
The other famous walker from the original Star Wars universe! Designated as the All Terrain Scout Transport, the AT-ST was a bipedal walker that was created by the Republic for use in the Clone Wars, but saw more extensive service with the Empire during the Galactic Civil War.

Appearing in both Empire and Jedi, the scout walker was basically the reconnaissance version of the AT-AT, often serving in a support capacity during major assaults. However, in situations where the terrain was more dense and difficulty to navigate, as was the case with Endor, the AT-ST was considered more favorable. Hence why the Imperial garrison chose to deploy several in the field while keeping their AT-AT closer to the shield generator station itself.

In terms of armaments, the AT-ST carried a twin-blaster cannon on the front of its module, along with a light twin blaster and a concussion grenade launcher mounted one either side. While relatively fast and able to negotiate Endor’s heavily wooded terrain, its bipedal configuration and relatively thin armor made it vulnerable to the Ewok’s log traps.

Two were destroyed in this way, while another was commandeered by Chewi and two Ewoks and used to destroy a fourth. Without any walker remaining to provide cover, the garrison was quickly routed and all their speeders destroyed. Not a very good record of service, being beaten by furry wooded creatures and their flying logs!

Dreadnought:

Concept by garr0t at deviantArt

Back to the good ol’ universe of Warhammer 40k with another installment! And this time around, boy did we bring out the heavy hitters! Here we have the Dreadnought, a heavy cybernetic mecha that is similar in concept to the Dragoon and Immortal from Starcraft.

Basically, whenever a Space Marine is mortally wounded in combat, they can have their remains transferred into one of these behemoths so they can keep on fighting. Entombed within the unit ceramite skin, the pilot controls the Dreadnought through a series of neural links from a command “sarcophagus”.

As a heavy mech, the Dreadnought’s primary function is that of infantry support. Its weaponry can take many different configurations, but often involves laser or gatling cannons mounted in the arms, missile launchers embedded in the shoulders, and additional launchers or cannons mounted over the head. Smaller weapons are generally mounted under the upper body for point-defense against lighter infantry as well.

Enhanced Powered Armor:
Enhanced_Powered_ArmorThis next example comes from the F.E.A.R. gaming universe. Known as EPA’s, these bad boys are the latest generation of powered armor to come from this universe and are by far the biggest and baddest of the bunch!

Much like its predecessor, the Elite Powered Armor, the Enhanced was designed for combat against both infantry and vehicles. For these purposes, it is armed with two GAU-19/A heavy rotary machine guns, one on each arm. In addition, it has three sets of rocket launchers, mounted in the shoulders and above the right arm, that launch homing missiles.

For strictly defense and maintenance purposes, the EPA also has an automatic repair system which activates when the unit is heavily damaged and a new shielding system. Although it does not have the ability to engage in melee attacks with its hands, it is still capable of generating powerful stomp attacks with its feet that send powerful shockwaves in all directions. Because of their power and obvious expense, these units are rarely encountered in the game, and only ever at the end of a level.

Gun X Sword:
Gun-X-SwordBack to the world of anime, this time for a robot that puts the swash in swashbuckling! Officially known as “Dann of Thursday”, this mecha comes from the anime of the same name and was the personal powered armor of Van, the show’s main protagonist.

Built to resemble its user, who is also tall and lanky, this mecha is unique amongst its peers in that it has no ranged weapons. All its capabilities revolve around its central blade, which while in compact form, causes the mech to resemble a giant sword. When in humanoid form, this blade can be wielded as a single sword, or broken down for use as two.

In additi0n, Dann has also has an electromagnetic shield which protects it from ranged attacks. This allows van to close ranks with enemy mechs and eviscerate them with his blades. But by far, the Dann’s greatest feature is its ability to heal its pilot once they enter the cockpit. Pretty handy when you need to recover from some wounds, or just shrug off a hangover!

Iron Giant:
iron_giantThere’s something to be said about a gentle giant, even if he is 40 feet tall and made out of solid metal. Taken from the 1999 Disney movie of the same name, the Iron Giant is distinguished amongst its peers here in that it is not only an alien machine, but a sentient one. As such, it is as much at home on a list of AI’s as it is giant robots.

Apparently, this robot was meant for first contact purposes, possessing the ability to learn and boasting some rather impressive defensive protocols. When activated, these weapons are capable of evaporating tanks, aircraft and entire platoons of infantry. However, as was demonstrated, these only become active when the robot is threatened, or he becomes angry.

And few things make an Iron Giant more angry than threatening his best friend in the world, which in this case was the little boy Hogarth Hughes. In addition to seeing past his massive metal frame, Hogarth taught him how to understand English and acted as his guide to the confusing world of humans.

Above all, the Iron Giant demonstrated a tremendous capacity for emotion. Aside from anger, he also demonstrated love, attachment and empathy. This last aspect was demonstrated when he chose to sacrifice himself rather than bring destruction down on the town of Rockwell (obvious allusion to Roswell). Having learnt that a nuclear missile was heading for him, he chose to fly away to intercept it rather than let it destroy everything and everyone around him. So sad when gentle giants are misunderstood!

Nova (Black Hawk):

"Blackhawk 1st test run" by pinksniperiii
“Blackhawk 1st test run” by pinksniperiii

Back to Battltech, once again for an Omnimech that is the workhorse of the Clans that employ it. Known as the Nova by its inventors, it also bears the name of Black Hawk by the Inner Sphere who captured one and began producing their own variants of it.

Designed initially for infantry support, the Nova was unique in that it was built with hardpoints which allowed infantry soldiers to easily mount and dismount. As such, the Nova could function as a mech and a sort of battle taxi, ferrying infantry into battle alongside it.

In terms of armaments, the Nova was again unique in that it could be armed exclusively with energy weapons, 12 of them to be exact. However, in other configurations, it could be outfitted with machine guns, autocannons, gauss rifles, or even a sword. These would be mounted almost entirely on its arms, but also in two large clusters around the head.

Unfortunately, production of this model soon ceased after a unit was captured by Inner Sphere forces and duplicates fashioned. Believing that their mech design had been compromised, the Clans began to focus on other models to serve as their omnimechs of choice.

Sentinels:
This example is kind of obvious, surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. While I was never much of a fan of the comics, I did see a few episodes of the animated show, and these things certainly made an appearance! As a potential shout out, they were also featured in the movie X-Men: The Last Stand, appearing in the Danger Room as a simulation.

In the comic books and animated series, however, these massive robots made several appearances and were quite important to the overall story. Designed for hunting mutants, the Sentinels went through several different models. However, the most common were three stories tall, capable of flight, employed energy weapons, and had advanced sensors which could detect mutants.

In addition, their programming ran from the semi-intelligent, involving advanced tactical thinking and decision-making skills, to the fully self-aware. But of course, these were few in number, usually designed for the sole purpose of commanding other Sentinels (such as the Master Mold). Many Sentinels were designed to be capable of learning from their engagements, adjusting strategies to deal with mutants of varying ability.

Often serving as the antagonists in the X-Men universe, these robots were nothing if not a prime example of terrifying gigantism! Can’t believe I didn’t think of them sooner!

VF-0 Pheonix:
And last, but certainly not least, we return to the Macross universe for another example of an over-sized mecha! In this case, we have what’s known as a variable fighter, which is basically a mecha that is capable of transforming from an aircraft to a humanoid form.

As part of Earth’s plan to counter a Zentraedi invasion, the Pheonix was a merger of fighter designs with Overtechnology. Composed of titanium/carbon composite, space metal alloy and SWAG energy converting armor, this mecha is capable of operating in space, upper atmospheres, lower atmospheres and even underwater. It’s clipped wing air design also ensures a great deal of maneuverability when in flight mode.

In terms of armaments, the Pheonix prefers energy weapons to autocannons due to a lack of internal storage space. As a result, it comes equipped with either one VF-0A/D or two VF-0S fixed Mauler laser cannons, and multiple micro-missile launchers mounted in the shoulders and chest. In flight mode, it is also capable of carrying a GPU-9 35 mm gatling gun pod and up to twelve air to air or air to ground missiles or guided munitions.

The Pheonix also comes with the added feature of being able to carry reactive armor for added protection. In fighter mode, it has two seats, one for the pilot and one for a radar engineer, similar to the F-14 Tomcat. And like most variable fighters, it can also deploy in GERWALK mode (or Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-joint ), a sort of half-fighter, half humanoid configuration which allows for ground assaults and quick take off.

Coming soon: Video game reviews!

A short while ago, I did a review on my top ten favorite nostalgic games. I might have mentioned somewhere in there that this was an intro to a new segment I was thinking of getting into: video game reviews! Well, I’ve decided to take the plunge. In the next few weeks and months, I’d like to do full reviews on the sci-fi video games that have made an impact on me over the years, or that I’ve just taken the time to enjoy.

I’ve prepared a tentative list below and would like to know if anyone has any games they’d like to add. Keep in mind two basic criteria: One, it should be a sci-fi or fantasy game, or at least something that’s mildly futuristic (which is how I justified adding Modern Warfare to this list). And two, it needs to be something I have or will be able to get my hands on in the near future. But anything’s possible given time, so just make your suggestions and I’ll let you know if I can or can’t find it!

Thanks you and happy gaming! Expect the first reviews soon 😉 *Note that the list is a mock-up and the actual reviews need not occur in that order.

  1. Knights of the Old Republic
  2. The Sith Lords
  3. Star Wars: Force Unleashed (I and II)
  4. Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri
  5. Halo (1, 2, 3)
  6. Starcraft (and Brood War)
  7. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
  8. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  9. Modern Warfare (1, 2 and 3)
  10. AVP (2010)
  11. Wing Commander (I, II, III)
  12. Wing Commander Privateer (1 and 2)

More Giant Robots

Welcome back. I had a lot of fun with the last installment, so here’s another! Updated, expanded, and with plenty of additions. Ah, screw it! Let’s get to it.

Immortal:
Back to the Starcraft universe for a sequel. Much like its predecessor, the Immortal was a vehicle for severely wounded Templars who still wanted to serve. Developed shortly after the Brood War, the Immortals replaced the aging Dragoon design and improved on it in many ways.

In terms of armaments, the Immortals boast two phased disruptor cannons which pretty much doubles their firepower. Their chassis are heavily armored and of course boast shields that can even withstand attacks from heavy artillery.

The Immortal’s one weakness is that their shields are only activated when they are hit by heavy munitions. In addition, their weapons are best for ranged attacks. This makes them somewhat vulnerable to close encounters with small arms fire and auto-cannons.

Mad Dog:
Another classic mech from the Battltech universe. Much like the Mad Cat from the last installment, the Mad Dog is another omnimech. It’s configuration, which appeared to Inner Sphere forces as a bird of prey, earned it the nickname “Vulture”.

Heavily armored with a n8 and a half ton ferro-fibrous shell, the Mad Dog is still fast and maneuverable, able to run at over 85 km/h. In its standard configuration, it carries two large pulse lasers in the arms, two medium ones (typically mounted underneath) and two shoulder mounted missile launchers.

Quick, powerful and versatile, the Mad Dog is well represented in the armies of every Outer Sphere Clan. In fact, the Mad Dog and Mad Cat are so close in design that they are often fashioned for the same mold. They often serve alongside each other for mutual support in the field of battle.

Madox-01:
When it comes to big, mechanized war machines, much like many cool inventions, the Japanese seem to have the market cornered. But what do you expect, they got their first and pioneered the whole concept. And this example is one of the many originals shows to popularize it.

Taken from Metal Skin Panic, the Madox-o1 was a prototype mech design built by the Japanese Self Defense Forces for use against tanks. Armed with a large caliber minigun, a chainsaw, a grappling claw, and can also carry an assortment of missiles. It is deployed by helicopters to a field of battle, but is also capable of running speedily to wherever it needs to go.

In the story, it becomes the property of a mechanic who climbs into the mech and “merges”, meaning that the machine comes to recognize him as its controller and won’t let him leave. As a result, Koji – the mechanic – is stuck with the machine and forced to defend himself when the authorities come looking for it. But in time, it is agreed that the best thing for all sides is if Koji works for the government and uses the machine for good. Everybody’s happy!

Metal Gear Ray:
Since these guys are so damn good at producing mech designs, I just had to return to the Metal Gear franchise! Picking up after the first game, this next example comes from its sequel: Sons of Liberty.

After the events in the first game, the world was apparently flooded with designs for the Metal Gear Rex. As a result, Ray began as a proposed countermeasure design, an amphibious design produced by the US Marine Corps. Because of this, Ray was the first Metal Gear that was both amphibious and not specifically designed for nuclear warfare.

Originally intended to be operated by a single pilot, the final Ray design was completely unmanned. Its primary armaments consisted of two machine guns, anti-tank and anti-ship missile banks, cluster bombs and a water jet cutter. Its smaller frame and lighter weight also meant it a lot speedier and more agile than its behemoth cousin, Rex.

MSZ-007 Gundam:
Speaking of anime and Japanese robots, the next examples comes from a similarly old-school show, Gundam! Known as the Mass Production type Z Gundam, this “Mobile Suit” is one of the more popular mechs from the series. And for good reason!

In addition to being able to fly on its own without having to transform into a fighter configuration, this mech also carries a beam rifle and can get into hand to hand combat with its pair of beam sabres. Just because you’re a futuristic robot suit doesn’t mean you can’t go samurai on your enemies asses!

In addition to being able to run at high speeds, its thruster packs provide a whopping 1.53 G (73900 kg) of thrust. This makes it capable of operating in air, space and on land. Its diverse weapons capabilities also mean it is able to perform ranged and hand to hand attacks. In short, its versatility makes it popular, and pretty damn cool to look at!

Robocop 2:
Also known as “Robocain”, this monster appeared in the sequel to Robocop and was intended as his successor. In the midst of the police strike in the second movie, OCP intended to fully replace the police force with cyborgs. All they needed was a human brain to make the prototype work… again.

Unfortunately, due to some tampering from a rather ambitious OCP exec, the brain came from former drug kingpin and Jesus wannabee Cain. Rather than protecting and serving, he saw this as an opportunity for quasi-godhood. Heavily armed, armored, and clearly nuclear powered by the symbol on the right side of the chest plate.

And who wouldn’t feel like a god with this kind of firepower? Though somewhat cumbersome and easy to trip up, the Robocain suit had all kinds of advantages. A rotary cannon was its main article, mounted on one arm, while a shoulder mounted autocannon added some punch. While its right hand was articulated, its left was little more than a hydraulic fist. Hard to describe, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’d understand.

At the end of the movie, Murphy and Cain get into it, with Murphy being heavily over-matched. In the end, he managed to defeat him by having his partner distract him with a vial of nuke (the designer drug he invented) and then jumped on his back and ripped his brain out of the head assembly. A grissly death, but a fitting one for a criminal madman with a god complex!

Tripod Walker:
I always say there is nothing like a classic, but when it comes to giant robots, this is the cat’s ass of classics! Taken from H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, the tripod walker was the proposed design of what an alien attack machine would look like. Tall, tripedal, and using heat rays to annihilate everything in their paths, these robots served as an inspiration for countless other franchises and genres of sci-fi.

In the novel, Well’s describes his creation as follows: “Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles… Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone.”

From this basic description, movie makers and conceptual artists have through several renditions. The latest, which were featured in the Stephen Spielberg remake, were updated to look sleaker and more modern; in essence, less Steampunk-y. However, they retained the same basic design, consisting of a central “head”, three legs and a series of beam emitters mounted underneath.

Zentraedi Battlepod:
As artists concept, by VulnePro at deviantArta finale, it’s back to the Robotech universe with the Zentraedi Battlepod. Built by the alien race that are the main antagonists of the show, this battlepod is essentially a mass-produced infantry mech and the mainstay of the Zentraedi forces.

Known as the Regult within their own ranks, this mech is fast, maneuverable, and highly versatile, especially when compared to heavier mechs like the Tomahawk. It lightweight and chassis-mounted thrusters ensure that it can make high jumps and operate in zero gravity.

It’s weaponry is also more sophisticated than the average human design, which includes two quadruple-barreled medium beam cannons, two single barrel light cannons, and two light pulse beam cannons mounted on the back of the head.

However, the Battlepod has a discernible weakness, which is its light armor. Although this makes the pod faster and more maneuverable, especially in space, it is not capable of withstanding direct hits from autocannons, missiles or lasers. In the end, the Battlepod’s greatest quality is it’s quantity. Later generations would be upgraded to include heavier weapons and armor, but for the duration of the First Robotech War, Zentraedi forces were stuck with this one.

Well, that was fun, again! Bring on the suggestions, I still got a few to work through. See you next time!

GIANT ROBOTS!

Forgive the all caps, but with a name like this, you gotta go big! Thanks to a helpful suggestion from a respected colleague (thanks Rami!), I’ve finally found the latest for my series on conceptual post. And I think my reasons for going with it are clear. Whether we are talking about mechs, mechas, walkers or sentient machines, giant robots are just plain cool! And here’s a list of some memorable ones from various franchises that have come down to us over the years:

AT-AT Walker:
It’s only right to start the list with a classic example from the classic franchise. Though I’m sure this giant needs no intro, I’ve recently come to learn that there are some people who really haven’t seen the original trilogy. Yeah, I can’t believe it either!

Known officially as the All Terrain Armored Transport, this beast was the Empire’s weapon of choice for digging Rebel troops out of fortified emplacements. It’s size alone made it an intimidating sight to behold, which was kind of the point! But in case that wasn’t enough to make people run, it also packed quite a punch.

AT-AT cross-section

Although they were invented by the Republic during the time of the Clone Wars, the AT-AT didn’t emerge as a weapon of terror until the time of the Empire when it was resurrected by General Veers. During the Battle of Hoth, her personally led a force against the Rebel Echo Base and overwhelmed its defenders. Its armor proved too strong for conventional blasters, and its weapons were devastating once they were in range.

Under Luke Skywalker’s command, Rogue Squadron was able to destroy one using their tow cables while Skywalker destroyed another using his lightsaber and a concussion grenade. However, this did not stop Veers from destroying the shield generator and reaching Echo Base in the end. On Endor, an AT-AT would make an appearance guarding the Imperial shield generator.

Broadside Battlesuit:
Finally, I’ve found an excuse to use something from Warhammer 40k! It’s a little hard to incorporate ships when the focus is really on cool battlefield stuff. But hey, the sign says Giant Robots, so we’re all good!

The Broadside Battlesuit is the Tau Army’s heavy hitter, marrying the concept of a tank with that of an infantryman. Armed with two arm-mounted missile launchers and two rail guns on its back, the Broadside is more like a mobile artillery piece than a mechanized suit of armor.

But of course, it also has a thick hide, which is a necessity given the mighty kickback of its weapons. Though they are comparatively slow and have no jetpacks, like other Warhammer mechs, they are able to entrench and kill their enemies from a distance.

Destroid Tomahawk:
Speaking of walking tanks, this next example comes from the Robotech universe and is the mainstay of Earth’s mecha forces. Big, bad, heavily armed and armored, the Tomahawk is essentially a walking version of the main battle tank.

In terms of armaments, the Tomahawk carries just about every weapon under the sun. It’s two heavy beam cannons constitute its arms while two missile launchers make up the shoulders. It also carries two head-mounted machine guns, two gun clusters in the lower chest consisting of an auto-cannon, flame thrower, laser and direct-fire mortar. On top of all that, it also has an outboard missile launcher over its right shoulder.

Measuring almost 13 meters in height and weighing a whopping 31 tons fully loaded, this beast is still capable of running at 88 km/h. It also came equipped with vernier thrusters, making it capable of limited space operations. Unfortunately, its size and weight made it somewhat cumbersome when engaged with Zentraedi Battlepods (see below), which is why the design was eventually abandoned in favor of lighter designs.

Dragoon:
You know, I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned Starcraft in the context of one of these posts. Bout time really! And as a primary example of something cool from this universe, here’s the Dragoon! Much like other examples on this list, this machine requires an organic operator, or at least parts of them…

A quadrupedal attack walker employed by the Protoss, the Dragoon was considered a second chance for templars who had been seriously wounded in the line of duty. These pilots would generally be submerged in a fluid-filled tank in the Dragoon’s interior and operate it through an “essence translator”.

The Dragoon’s main weapon was of a centrally-mounted cannon which fired phases antimatter at targets. Combined with the units speed and maneuverability over unstable terrain, the Dragoon was a highly effective fighting vehicle and played a crucial role in the Brood War. It was due to this success that other factions, such as the Dark Templars and the Confederates, attempted to copy or adapt the designs for their own armies.

Fuchikoma:
Also known as “Tachikoma”, these walker/rollers are essentially tanks that are used by police in the manga series “Ghost In The Shell”. Heavily armored, packing serious weapons and run by a simple artificial-intelligence, these robots can act independently but are generally used for fire support.

Every unit is based on the same quadrupedal configuration with two three-fingered hands which double as machine guns. They carry their sensor equipment in their “heads”, which consists of a large main lens and two sensors mounted on the “mouth” below. Heavier weapons can also be mounted on the underside, which can either be a heavy machine gun or a grenade launcher.

In addition to their firepower, the Fuchikoma is also highly versatile. They can handle many different types of terrain, are able to walk up walls, rappel, walk, extend wheels from their feet and drive, and are also even submersible. After missions, the AI’s also share their experiences with all other units so that they can learn and anticipate different scenarios.

Goliath:
Back to Starcraft for another prime example of supreme robotry. And fans of the Marine campaign will certainly recognize this one. Officially, it is known as a Terran all-terrain combat walker. But to those who fight alongside it, it’s known simply as a Goliath.

Designed to provide support for troops in urban settings, the role of the Goliath expanded to providing infantry assault in all terrains and conditions. Employed by just about all sides during the Guild Wars, the Goliath became the backbone of Confederate forces against the Zerg and Protoss.

Composed of neosteel alloy, the Goliath’s exterior is highly resistance to small arms fire and most munitions. It’s weapons consist of two arm-mounted autocannons, two shoulder-mounted missile launchers. With the arrival of the UED during the Brood War, the Goliath’s design was upgraded with a belly-mounted machinegun and improved missile range. By the time of the Second Great War, the design was retired in favor of updated designs.

Metal Gear Rex:
Seems like a fitting name when you look at that gaping maw doesn’t it? And given its size, shape and terrifying power, the comparison seems even more apt. The focal point of the Metal Gear game series, this behemoth was a prototype weapon developed by DARPA and Arms Tech for the US Armed Forces.

Based on stolen designs from the former Soviet Union, Metal Gear was a revolutionary concept for a “bipedal tank” which would be capable of carrying nuclear weapons. After decades of toying and production, the end result was Rex.

In terms of armaments, the Rex has two 30 mm rotary cannon, a compliment of anti-tank missiles and 100 megawatt free-electron laser. However, its biggest surprise comes in the form of a massive shoulder-mounted rail gun which is capable of deploying stealth nuclear warheads. So in addition to being able to gallop into the field of battle and level everything in its wake, it was also capable of nuking an enemy city from several kilometers away.

Scary! I want one! Several version of Metal Gear would appear in the subsequent games with various modifications. But that’s something for another post (or more) 😉

Timberwolf:
No list of giant robots would be complete without at least one example from the Battletech universe. And here it is! The Timberwolf, otherwise known as the Mad Cat. Fast, heavy and quite formidable, this vehicle puts the “mech” in omnimech!

According to the series, this vehicle was the first omnimech to be encountered by the Inner Sphere Clans invaded. It was here that it earned the name “Mad Cat”, being similar in design to both the Marauder (MAD) and Catapult (CAT). It’s rare combination of speed, heavy armor and armaments also led to this designation. Apparently, this combination is quite rare!

In its primary configuration, the Timberwolf packs a good balance of energy and projectile weapons. It’s main armaments consist of arm lasers and two shoulder-mounted missile pods, both of which are effective at long range. It also carries two medium lasers and a medium pulse laser for close range combat, and a set of cockpit mounted machine guns for point defense against infantry.

Though it has no jump jets, the Timberwolf is capable of running at over 80 km an hour and is capable of some nimble maneuvering. It’s composite ferro-fibrous armor also mean it can withstand several directs hits from enemy fire.

Unicron:
You know, I’m loathe to use the same example twice. But hey, the name says Giant Robots, and Unicron is nothing if not both of these things! Taken from the Transformers movie (circa. 1986), this big bot is the biggest bot in the universe, and an appropriate one to end this first installment on.

Also known as the “Lord of Chaos” and “Planet Eater”, Unicron is essentially a planet-sized transformer who goes about the universe consuming stellar objects. These can include planets, asteroids and even stars.

Powered by an array of massive quantum computers, Unicron is dedicated to being a force of uncreation, traveling across universes and consuming all he can to bring about an end to all existence. In addition, he is apparently able to confer powers on lesser beings, using the impressive technology which powers him to upgrade other machines.

In the end, the only thing that could stop him was the Matrix of Leadership, which contained the essence of his equal and opposite – a being known as Primus. Being a creature of destruction, such a creative power could only be seen as a threat. And it certainly was! In the end, the Matrix was opened inside his hull and unleashed a force which completely consumed him.

Well that’s all I got for now. Hope people enjoyed this little display of oversized automatons, mechanized vehicles and massive war machines. And like the song says:

“You dig giant robots
I dig giant robots
We dig giant robots
Chicks dig giant robots
Nice.”
-theme song from Megas XLR

And it’s true aint it? Except for the part about chicks, I can’t say with any authority that they actually dig giant robots. But I know I do! See ya next time.

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 😉

The Alien Graph

The Alien Graph

Behold! After a few days of contemplating what I said in the Ancient Aliens post – you know, about how alien’s technology and moral capacity are often interrelated in sci-fi – I realized I needed to put it into graphic form. And as I said in that post, if we are to consider technological advancement as one axis and level of benevolence as another, then the outcome would look something like this:

click to enlarge

The design is based on the Zombie graph that’s been floating around the internet for some time. There, the designer placed different Zombie movies based on two criteria: intelligence and speed. In much the same way, I’ve designed a graph for aliens that is based on two similar criteria: technological advancement and level of friendliness.

I selected aliens that I thought best represented the range of development and behavior in the sci-fi genre. I also included as many franchises as I could think of, just off the top of my head. I certainly wasn’t scientific about it, just relative and to the best of my abilities. And when I was done, I noticed an interesting pattern…

Hostile/Advanced Aliens Rule!:
For example, notice how the vast majority of races from your well-known franchises (Star Trek, B5, Stargate, Star Craft, AvP, Halo, etc) fall into the upper left quadrant. This is the area where malevolence and technological sophistication combine in varying degrees. By contrast, the second largest concentration of races occurs in the advanced/benevolent quadrant, again to varying degrees. Almost no races fall into the nascent (i.e. primitive) quadrants, be they hostile or gentle.

On the one hand, the Xenomorph from Alien and the Arachnids from Starship Troopers both fell into the technologically backward category (technically), and were both classified as malevolent because of their innate hostility to foreign organisms. The Na’vi, from Avatar, were the only alien race that fit the bill for technologically nascent and benevolent. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that could stack this analysis in a different way, but like I said, this was off the top of my head.

The Zerg, I have to admit, were a bit of a conundrum for me. While they are technically a race that does not employ technology per se, they are highly advanced in terms of their biological evolution, to the point where they rely on specialized creatures in the same way that humans rely on machinery. But then again, that’s all for the sake of ensuring that the different factions in the video game are evenly matched. It’s not meant to be a realistic assessment. Much the same is true of the Xenomorphs. While they do not employ tools, fly around in spaceships, or use guns, they are nevertheless an extremely evolved organism that is capable of besting humanity in any contest.

And just to be clear, the middle point of the graph (0,0, where the axes meet) is where humanity stands now in terms of moral behavior and technological development. Sure, some say we’d fall into the evil quadrant, but I tend to believe that humanity is morally ambiguous, neither too good or too evil. Where aliens fall into the spectrum in most sci-fi franchises is meant to reflect this. Much the same is true of technological prowess, where aliens are classified as “advanced” or “primitive” solely in comparison to ourselves.

This all might sound anthropocentric, but that’s the point, isn’t it? These are stories written by human beings for other human beings. All the references, symbols and measuring sticks come from inside us. So in the end, aliens themselves, as represented in our best science fiction, also come from inside ourselves. Their values, their tools, and even their appearances are all constructs of what is familiar and accessible to us. In short, they are merely tools with which we measure ourselves, both morally and technically.

Conclusions:
Well, right off the cuff I’d say the reason we prefer our aliens hostile and advanced is because it makes them seem more threatening and scary that way. Clearly, this makes for a more interesting story. While an alien race that is kind, innocent and backwards can make for an effective tale about the evils of colonialism and imperialism and how one can easily find themselves on the side of evil, these seem to be fewer and farther between. I’d say this is most likely because moral allegories are less intriguing than action dramas. Or maybe just prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys. Let someone else serve as the allegory for evil, selfish and runaway imperialistic behavior!

In addition, there’s the very real possibility that humanity will be making contact with an intelligent life form at some point in the future. And when we do, it’s likely to be the most awe-inspiring and frightening of experiences. When it comes to the unknown, ignorance begets fear and we prefer to err on the side of caution. So it would make sense that whenever we think of aliens, even if its just for the sake of fiction, we would naturally prefer to think of them as both learned and potentially hostile. If indeed aliens serve as a sort of projection for humanity’s own thoughts on itself, than pitching them as potentially hostile beings with advanced technology represents our own fear of the unknown.

In any case, if there is life out there, all these questions will be resolved in the distant future. Hell, maybe even the near-future. If some theorists are to be believed, aliens have already made contact with us and might even be walking among us right now. Granted, most of these people are hanging around the 7/11 with tin foil hats on, but they can’t all be crazy, right?