Video Game Review: Stellaris vs. Master of Orion (Remake)

Stellaris has ruined other 4X space games for me. The Original Master of Orion (MOO) and its sequel MOO2: Battle at Antares, have long been the venerable masterpieces of the space exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination genre. Since the mid-90s, they’ve been the standard for other 4X games to aspire to. I was excited to hear that WG Games was planning a remake of MOO and I even signed up for the Early Access a few months ago. I enjoyed it for a few hours, but it really needed some work. It was a pretty game with a high production value, but it was lacking the soul of a good 4X. It just seemed like a rehash with pretty pictures, music, and voice actors.

A friend, the owner of this blog, turned my attention to Stellaris and I immediately started following its production, reading programmer’s logs, and watching YouTube videos of game play while excitedly waiting for the release.

Stellaris
A medium-size (600 star) galaxy in the late game.

I look to Metacritic and Stellaris’s 78 boggles my mind. Steam reviews are a little better at 85. Curious, I looked at what the professionals and users who gave it the worst ratings had to say. The overriding argument from most people is that Paradox Interactive sold us an incomplete game that “was barely out of beta.” Some of these reviews rated the game 0/10 for this reason. Really? 0/10? The art is beautiful, the music gives the perfect ambiance to a sci-fi epic, the event writing is creative and top notch, the sheer number of variances and attention to detail to create an infinitely replayable game is obvious. A lot of hard work went into this game and it shows, so I chalk these naysayers up to bitchy, entitled gamers. Stellaris is not No Man’s Sky that promised the universe and gave us 18 quintillion star systems of the same lameness and even that deserves much better than a 0/10 (trying not to be too judgmental, but it was really boring after the first two hours)!

Stellaris was an amazing game from the start and continues to get better! I guess there are two (probably more) thoughts out there about Paradox Interactive’s business model for games. The minority, which gave it a 0/10 believe that Paradox sells us a beta game and then continues to patch it to get it up to the game it should have been at release. I believe the majority though believe that Paradox puts out some of the best strategy games to be had on the PC and then continues to improve them through free patches (upgrades in my opinion) and amazing paid DLC. So far with Stellaris, Paradox has completed two major patches (Asimov and Clarke) and one forgettable DLC that introduced sentient plant life to the galaxy – I’ll wait for a Steam sale for  that one.

I’ve invested 466 hours into Stellaris… A bit of that time may be while it is paused and I’m running around after my kid, but it is safe to say I’ve put some serious time into Stellaris. I am very excited for the third major patch coming soon (Heinlein) which will refine some game mechanics, but also provide some significant new challenges that will compel me to play another 40+ hours. I got my $60 worth of entertainment.

I’ve played dozens of games of Stellaris, always as my homebrew scientifically enlightened United Nations of Earth. I would say at least half of them I have lost. While I may be momentarily infuriated, I can usually think back and know exactly the moment I made the wrong decision and lost the galaxy. I never feel too bad about it, because the game can be very unforgiving of mistakes – kind of like space. I always go back for another game though, because I love the game – win or lose.

So, back to the new MOO. While waiting for the Heinlein patch, the official release of MOO happened. I played and won two games in 21 hours as the Psilons, earned 37 achievements, and am about over it. It is pretty, but it just lacks the epic depth and soul of Stellaris.

I’ve played a lot of 4X games (Very much looking forward to CIV6!) and have always longed for a space strategy game that I could love as much as the MOO of my youth. Paradox has given that and I expect Stellaris will continue to deliver hours of entertainment for many years to come.

Book Review: Have Space Suit Will Travel

I was a bit of an awkward kid growing up.  I played sports but I wasn’t the most athletically gifted kid – physically fitness came a good bit later down the road.  I was the type of kid who had a few friends who I was loyal but otherwise flew under the radar at school.  I wasn’t unpopular or even unhappy, but no one really went out of their way to hang out.  Instead, I tended to spend a lot of time in the library checking out books.  I liked books like Encyclopedia Brown and Lassie – but in the sixth grade, I discovered a book which changed my life and started my life-long love of Science Fiction.  It was called Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.

Have Space Suit Will Travel was a young adult book written by one of the acknowledged masters of science fiction in 1958.  Heinlein himself was a fascinating character, a graduate of the Naval Academy who served on an aircraft carrier in the 1930s and then worked as a civilian engineer supporting Naval Aviation during WWII.  Extremely prolific and always trying out new things, he had amazing range.  This is the guy who wrote Starship Troopers, beloved by the military – and also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, a provocative book adored by the counter-culture movement in the sixties.

Have_Space_suit
You don’t get more retro than this book cover

I loved all of Heinlein’s books but his young adult books – with Space Suit being my favorite – were the works of his I enjoyed the most.  Space Suit is about a teenage guy named Kip Russell, a budding engineer, who wins a decommissioned space suit in a contest.  He restores it and then one night he is abducted by an alien and taken to the moon where with the help of a young human girl, he escapes.  This starts a series of adventures which of course eventually leads to Kip having to save the world.

The world of Space Suit and the rest of Heinlein’s YA is quintessential 50’s science fiction.  It is full of lantern-jawed heroes, beautiful women scientists, precocious children, and certainly lots of ray guns and rocket ships.  They are unabashedly patriotic and a complete throwback to the mythic ideal of the 1940s-50s Americana.  Good versus Evil and absolutely no shades of gray required.

For me though, Space Suit was a life changing event.  I really admired Kip – his resourcefulness, his bravery, and his good-hearted nature.  Honestly, he was my first literary hero.  I ended up checking out every Heinlein book in my school’s library that year and read them all.  It was the very first time I can recall ever losing myself in another world, a world which to this day I wish I could exist.

I’m not sure how well the book would sit with the younger crowd nowadays.  I recently reread it in on a long afternoon and it really feels like an artifact from a different era.  But honestly, Heinlein’s books nowadays read more like a science fiction version of Aesop’s Fables.  It you are looking for a series of science fiction books to give to your kids which are good clean fun yet preach lessons about hard work, loyalty, honor, patriotism and compassion – you could hardly do worse than these treasures.

Podcast Review: Hadron Gospel Hour!

There are few things in science fiction and fantasy history which I enjoyed more than Mystery Science Theater 3000.  On the surface, I enjoyed the humor and banter of the human and robot casts as they were forced to watch and comment on the most horrible and cheesy genre movies of all time.  But more than that, I really enjoyed the take no prisoners raise the black flag attitude of the show.  Nothing was sacred and everything was delivered with wink and a nod – more than anything, MST3K was the wittiest show around and I miss it dearly.

But I don’t have to miss it so much anymore because one of my new favorite podcasts, Hadron Gospel Hour, is setting the standard for wit and hilarity.

Hadron is a high productions value series which styles itself as an audio science fiction/comedy adventure hour for weirdos and other living things – and boy it’s not lying.  It follows the exploits of mad scientist, Doctor FrancisOSc9XVbV Oppenheimer Valdini and kidnapped IT guy and part-time indie filmmaker Mike Wilkinson as they try to save the multiverse.  There is an entire cast of bizarre companions who join them on their journey but I would remiss if I didn’t mention my two favorites, an acerbic tongued AI named Ashley and an overly enthusiastic ‘just happy to be here’ Higgs-Boson particle named Higsby whose oft-stated tagline is ‘this pleases me’.

The show lists it’s influences as The Monkees, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who, Thrilling Adventure Hour, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Young Ones, and 70’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons – and I would be remiss if I didn’t add MST3K.  The show is chock full of one-liners, throwbacks, storylines, and references to the entire panoply of science-fiction/fantasy fandom and culture.  It isn’t afraid to poke fun at all of it with a gigantic stick.  However, it is done from a place of love.  They want you to laugh along with them as we journey through not just the multiverse but the entire culture of Geekdom.

This show isn’t for everyone but if you’re reading this blog, I strongly suspect you might be exactly the target audience to join Oppenheimer and Mike.  This show is full of gracefully delivered wit and irreverence –  something which the world needs.

Book Review: The First Law series

What if I told you there was a fantasy book which had a story as expansive as Lord of the Rings, as bloody as Game of Thrones, and had dialogue in it which seemed like it came straight from the mind of Quentin Tarantino?  Would you be interested in such a book?

You ’re in luck because that is exactly what you get with Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series.

The First Law series is a gritty low-fantasy world which is dominated by struggle between the European-style Union versus the Persian-style Gurkish Empire.  There are other lands mentioned including a northern land of Viking-like barbarians who figure prominently into the storyline.  There is magic in this world but it is exceedingly rare and seems to largely have passed out of the collective conscience as the timeline transitions to more enlightened times.

The setting is unimportant though because the real stars are the characters.  These aren’t your typical fantasy archetypes – Abercrombie serves up a reprehensible group of morally bankrupted rogues and assorted nasties.  There is the vainglorious and selfish Union officer, the half-feral Gurkish woman with a penchant for murder, and the highly unconventional and arrogant Wizard.  The best two characters are the crippled mess that is the King’s Torturer – a dark hearted bastard who is brilliant, angry, and utterly ruthless – and a Viking Berserker who is trying to be a better man but has a little bit of a rage issue.  In the spirit of all good fantasy, this highly dysfunctional group of monsters gets the job to save the world.

 

There are three books in the main trilogy and frankly, I shotgun read all three within a week and a half because they were that damn good.  Despite the unsavory nature of the characters, I ended up caring deeply about their fates despite the darkness of their methods – hell, maybe because of them.  These books are extremely funny but in a gallows humor kind of way – raised up by cinematic dialogue which owes more to Reservoir Dogs than The Hobbit.  Seriously, the only series of fantasy books which has dialogue this good is the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch.  And the final 100 pages of the last book were the kind of gut punch which authors rarely indulge in anymore but you couldn’t imagine it ending any other way.  The final scene is the most perfect fantasy book scene I have read.9780316387316_p0_v1_s192x300

As good as the trilogy was, Joe Abercrombie wrote three additional standalone novels set in the same setting which occur after the events of the trilogy and they were even better!  The follow minor characters from the trilogy and their adventures in the changed world.  The second of the stand alones was a book called The Heroes and it is set over a three day period where the Union and the Viking Northerners fight a battle and it is among my favorite books of all time.  It is the only book in recent memory which I have read which actually caused me to tear up.

As you can tell, I’m a bit of an Abercrombie fan boy but seriously, these books are really good.  Lots of people are trying to write ‘darker’ fantasy fiction but honestly, this guy’s books are the real deal and you want to read an adult fantasy series about hard hearted men and women saving the world through murder and mayhem, doing what needs to be done – if you laughed when Marvin got shot in the face in Pulp Fiction and wondered what that scene would have looked like if Vincent was holding a crossbow instead of a pistol, than this is the series for you.