Friday, March 21, 2014

Game Review: South Park: The Stick of Truth South Park: The Stick of Truth was like Final Fantasy 7 and Diablo 2 moved to South Park and had a baby, with some of the puzzle elements of Sanitarium and the button mashing of Dante's Inferno (the game, obviously) thrown in. Needless to say, it was by far one of the best games I've ever played.

Naturally, I expected a great storyline and hilarious writing. It did not disappoint on that score. It was like a long episode of South Park. However, I was genuinely impressed by the game play, which I'll discuss. I'm trying to avoid spoilers. Without any connection to South Park whatsoever and a standard, yet predictable, fantasy storyline it would have still been a good game. Not a great game, but a good game. It borrowed (and satirized) elements from many different RPGs. The fast travel, for example, consists of calling Timmy to pull you somewhere.

The story begins, like most, with character creation. You assume the role of the new kid who moves in next door to Butters, who soon takes you to Kupa Keep (Cartman's backyard) where you join his forces. Like most fantasy RPGs, you get to pick a class, like fighter, mage or Jew (Cartman is the NPC who leads the character through this part). Each offers different skills, etc, though the player character will have the ability to use “magic” (farts) regardless of class.

The combat works about like Final Fantasy. It's turn-based, and each character has different skills and abilities. You fight with one ally by your side (Butters, Kenny, Stan, Kyle, Cartman or Jimmy). Each turn you can attack, use magic, use a special ability or use an inventory item. The items are pretty standard, health potions (cheesy poofs, snacky cakes, etc), mana potions (cans of beans, burritos, etc), strength potions (Weight Gain 4000) and revive potions (basically a phoenix down, but in taco form). Some can also be used to attack or provide skill bonuses. You can also get summon spells, which call upon some powerful character, like Mr. Slave or Jesus to assist the player in combat, not unlike summon materia.

Unlike Final Fantasy, the attacks (and blocks) all require some timed button tapping, holding and occasionally some mashing (and it actually refers to it as “mashing” in the game...instead of the “tap B rapidly” or whatever. Most of the special abilities required a degree of button mashing, often in sequence, much like Dante's Inferno. Unlike Dante's Inferno, you can poop...and pooping requires button mashing.

Aside from the potions I mentioned, there is a variety of weapons and armor available in South Park. They all require a certain level, and give different bonuses (aside from being silly), just like every RPG ever. You can even add modifiers to your weapons and armor, just like the gems and runes in Diablo 2 (I'd like to toss a few in a Horodrics cube and find out what happens). Armor patches and weapon “strap-ons” can add additional types of damage, like fire, frost or the especially lethal “gross out” damage. Unlike Diablo 2, your inventory is almost unlimited (you can only hold ten of each type of potion), and you can move patches and strap-ons.

There are also items you can use to modify your appearance (like in Fable), but they serve no practical purposes (like many things in Fable), except for in certain quests. There is also a large quantity of junk that can be looted from all over the map. In traditional RPG fashion, one tends to walk into every accessible room and take everything that isn't nailed down. Much of this stuff relates to specific episodes. It can all be sold in shops, though I never really found it necessary. I usually seemed to find better weapons and armor than what the shops carried, and I was never really short on cash. Some of the descriptions were funny to read though.

The world of South Park is fairly open, with a lot of side-quests. While combat rewards the player with experience, quests cause the people he or she helps to become Facebook friends. Gaining Facebook friends allows the player to get more perks, which grant a variety of bonuses. The quests offer an impressive variety; they aren't a bunch of repetitive “bring me X random items that are occasionally dropped by such and such monster (I once wiped out a significant portion of the Zehvra population trying to obtain four hooves. You'd think each one would have exactly that many),” like you get in World of Warcraft. They're all pretty unique.

There are a decent amount of puzzles required, primarily to get places, and the player is required to use magic and other skills outside of combat to do this (I don't want to say what specifically and spoil anything). It's a bit like Sanitarium, especially in the level at the end where you can assume forms from each of the previous realities to get through different obstacles in the last world. Manipulating the environment can also be used to take out enemies before entering combat. Each buddy also has special skills, like Jimmy's “Bardic Access” that are sometimes required.

I can't really say much more without running the risk of spoiling something. I don't exactly have complaints, but there are a few things that could be better. First it needs to be was 29 hours (keep in mind, I kick ass), but I want to play more, damnit. At least they could hurry up with the DLC. Anyway....second, there were some bugs. Not as bad as some games, but there were some. Last, I noticed that the character's choices don't effect the storyline much. The same was true of Final Fantasy, and Diablo 2 (well, there weren't really choices), but I do like games (Mass Effect, Fallout or even Dragon Age) where the character's actions do have some effect on the story. Despite the freedom to roam and the availability of side-quests, the story is completely linear.

Overall though, it's definitely one of the best games I've ever played. I highly recommend it to everyone who owns an xbox, playstation or computer (or at least knows where an unoccupied one is). It helps if you happen to be familiar with South Park, and it helps if you happen to be familiar with common tropes in fantasy RPGs, but neither is necessary to enjoy the game (I am both a huge South Park fan and a serious gamer, so naturally I thought it was fucking awesome!).


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Twin Suns: Advanced Weaponry

In any work of action science-fiction, advanced weaponry plays a pretty significant role. Laser, plasma and ion weapons are so prevalent in SF shows, books and video games, that despite their limited relation to reality, people have a pretty specific concept of each. We all know that laser weapons fire faster than plasma  weapons, and do less damage, while ion weapons knock out electronics. It's  not unlike the way that we know silver kills werewolves and zombies require head-shots. It's no longer specific to any one work, but part of the general body of SF lore.

Once again, in Twin Suns, I decided to go in a different direction, and draw on both modern technology, and some throw-backs from the past that might actually be practical in the future. Let's start with small arms and work our way up.

Small Arms

There are two major considerations when selecting a personal arsenal aboard a ship; mass and penetration.

Obviously, you want things to be as lightweight as possible, so I went with case-less ammunition. It weighs about half as much as regular ammunition and has about eighty percent of the volume. The crew of the Tranquility uses the Benelli M9 and the  HK G42. I chose Benelli because it's the name of one of the first weapons manufacturers to make a handgun that fired case-less ammunition. The H&K G42 is just a fictional, futuristic version of the H&K G11, which does exist and fires case-less ammunition. To further save on space and mass, I made the H&K G42 modular, so that extensions could be added to make the same weapon capable of fulfilling a variety of roles. Plenty of modern firearms have similar options (I'm currently in the market for the grenade launcher attachment for my SKS if anyone knows where I can get one).

 The other, possibly more important factor when choosing your space-borne weaponry is penetration. It's all well and good to leave the other guy's ship venting atmosphere, but what about when you're the ones fending off boarders? Fortunately, there's already a solution in place: frangible ammunition. It's the same stuff that security personnel on airplanes use to prevent cabin depressurization should they accidentally hit the plane. It's a special type of ammunition that's designed to shatter on impact, rather than penetrate. It still has more than enough force to pass through flesh, but won't go through something more solid. On Tranquility, clips of frangible ammunition are bright red, to avoid mistakes. That'd be a big mistake.


Gyrojets were first pioneered in the 1960s, and discarded as an idea shortly thereafter. What separates them from other firearms is that the propellant is inside of the projectile rather than behind it. Therefore they're really tiny lead rockets rather than bullets. The project was abandoned because the projectiles were expensive to produce and their manufacturing required greater precision in order to guarantee accuracy. They also had little advantage over conventional weapons, on Earth at least. In space they offer one huge advantage: there is virtually no recoil. A bullet releases all of its energy at once, launching the bullet forward and the shooter backwards, but gyrojets release energy at a set rate and continue to accelerate after they've left the muzzle.

I decided to use this technology for heavy "outside" weapons, like the DW38 .50 caliber sniper rifle and the DW2 .50 caliber machine gun. I gave Tranquility's fighters each a pair of DW13 20mm machine guns. The DW is not based upon my initials, as I'm not quite that big of an egomaniac. It stands for "Death Wind," a project I found online that's looking to further research into the technology. The name refers to another interesting quirk of gyrojets: they just make a quiet whistling sound. (Until they break the sound barrier, and there's a sonic boom).

Electronically-fired Bullets

For the big ships, Tranquility and bigger, recoil is less of an issue. Between their increased mass and maneuvering thrusters, it makes more sense to trade stability for power...and rate-of-fire. That's why I went with electronically-fired bullets. The world record for rate-of-fire is currently (well, when I wrote Twin Suns) was over one million rounds per minute. It is held by a product of the Australian defense technology company Metal Storm. Their weapons utilize stacked, electronically-fired projectiles. So I fitted Tranquility with six MS22 40mm machine guns. The turrets also fire rockets and other conventional stuff, but those machine guns are their main anti-fighter defense. Rate of fire is especially important when you consider how maneuverable a fighter is when it can ignore atmosphere and gravity.

Rail Guns

The largest ships in Twin Suns, the battleships, have rail guns. Rail guns have been around, at least in theory for nearly a century. The principle is relatively simple. I'm assuming you've played with magnets. If not, I apologize for your terrible childhood. Anyway, while more famous for attracting, magnetic fields can also repel. If you've got a projectile being repelled by the magnetic fields from rails (hence the name) on each side, it shoots out the end. Now, if you substitute the magnetic fields emanating from the magnets you played with as a kid for extremely powerful electromagnets, you can make that projectile go really, really fast. In fact, the velocity you can attain is only really limited by the power at your disposal (for a decent one, you most likely need a nuclear reactor) and how strong of materials you have access to, as the rails also repel each other, thus constantly trying to rip the entire thing apart. On top of that, it generates massive amounts of heat. That's why only the big ships in Twin Suns have them. They need a ton of space for reactors to power them and radiators to dissipate all that heat. Despite those limitations, they're a pretty impressive weapon, and have the potential to be made more devastating by upping the power, and thus the velocity. To quote the motto of the US Navy's rail gun project: "Velocitas Eradico," (basically, speed kills, but literally something else. You get the idea.)

So that's about it for the advanced weaponry of Twin Suns. Again the novel was a pleasure to write and I hope that you enjoy(ed) it (and review(ed) it on Amazon). If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Because of the underwhelming level of feedback I receive on this blog, I'll definitely dedicate an entire blog to answering your question(s). To reach me, can always comment here, or contact me via email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, phone, text, fax, mail, telegraph, courier, carrier pigeon, message in a bottle, smoke signals, or shouting very loudly.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Twin Suns: The Technology

Well, it's finally out. My first book, Twin Suns, is available as an ebook from Double Dragon. It's also available at Amazon, and for Nook and Kobo. To celebrate (and you know, try to sell more books), I've decided to write about it. As much as I love talking about myself, and writing about writing, I actually don't like writing about my writing. But here goes.

With Twin Suns, as with any other work of science fiction, the technology is an integral part. Star Wars without light sabers would be less exciting, Old Man's War without BrainPals wouldn't work, and Starship Troopers without the super-advanced battle armor would be, well, the film version of Starship Troopers. In any work of science fiction, the science is important (whether it's done realistically or not) the whole world is built around it.

The technology in Twin Suns is done just about as realistically as I could. I opted to use nuclear pulse propulsion, which is theoretically possible. A ton of research has been done on it, and we'd probably be using it now if not for a certain international treaty prohibiting it. Karl Sagan once suggested it as a use for the world's surplus nuclear weapons. The idea behind it is simple; blow up a nuke behind the ship and ride the wave. Obviously this requires a special shock-absorbing plate at the back, which has to be made out of a material that can withstand the heat. Thick copper works. Radiation shielding is less of an issue as space ships are already shielded from radiation. Then all you need is a device to shoot nukes out to the appropriate distance prior to detonation. According to one source, coca-cola was consulted about their design, as dispensing delicious canned beverages and nuclear bombs works on basically the same principle. Nuclear pulse propulsion lets us travel at around fifty percent of light speed. Theoretically, if we use a matter-antimatter explosion, rather than a standard nuke, we can get up to about sixty-percent. All the distances and times in Twin Suns were calculated based on realistic estimates.

Even at those speeds, it'd still take a pretty long time to make the journey from Earth to the Twin Suns solar system. For that I combined real medical technology with those little exercise-for-lazy-people devices on infomercials. You know, the ones that send electrical impulses to your muscles to expand and contract them so that you can get "exercise," while watching TV and eating cheetos. My version of suspended animation was simply an induced coma, while attached to those things.

I also tried to make the fighters a bit more realistic than most. As cool as X-Wings are, the way they move in space is completely ridiculous, and the wings themselves are completely superfluous. In space, you don't need to generate lift. I went with a spherical design, and gave them gyroscope-like rings around the main sphere that move and rotate to apply thrust in any direction.  The controls, as I envisioned them, are a slight variation of the Xbox 360 controllers (I added a loop on the thumb-controlled joysticks so that you can move up, instead of just clicking down.) Admittedly, it still took a few rewrites to get them moving like-space ships rather than atmospheric fighters.

In the initial draft, that's about where the realism stopped. As much as I hate to admit it, I even had "magical" artificial gravity. Fortunately, one of my critique partners pointed out that if you could manipulate gravity at will, that would make more sense as a propulsion system than nuclear pulse propulsion. As it originally read, it was a bit like having computers on a steam ship. That's when I got to research and write about spin-generated gravity. I still have spread-sheets with which I analyzed the necessary rates of rotation and dimensions required to produce different amounts of gravity. It also required a complete redesign of the ship, and left a lot of problems to address. How do you try to pilot a ship when the room you're in is rotating? How do you shoot from a rotating turret? Should some sections be immobile? How does one move between the moving and non-moving sections? I like to think I handled those questions well, and in later parts of the story, some of those details even became important to the plot.

In the early stages it did mean rewriting a lot of the first part of the book, but I must say it made me glad to be a science fiction writer. All writers occasionally have to make large global changes and do some rewriting. Sometimes you've got to take a character out of a few scenes. That's part of the job. But what other kinds of writers have to rewrite scenes in order to cut gravity out?

Overall, it was a pleasure to write and I hope that you enjoy it (and review it on Amazon). Next week (or whenever I get around to it,) I'll write more about it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. You can always comment here, or contact me via email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, phone, text, fax, mail, telegraph, courier, carrier pigeon, message in a bottle, smoke signals, or shouting very loudly.