Time Commanders

Time Commanders - logo
"The stakes are high; battle is imminent."

Time Commanders - trying to reproduce the battlefield using blocksWhen I started this blog, one of the conscious decisions I made back then was to avoid the common “look at this cool thing I’ve just found!” posts. The reasons are several: because that tends to “date” posts (i.e. what’s novelty now will be old hat in a couple of months), because that makes a blog little more than a collection of links, and because tons of other blogs already do exactly that.

However, this time I will make an exception to the rule, as I’m “in love” with this thing I’ve very recently found about, and which is being a joy to watch (I have been watching the episodes in order, and I’m currently in the middle of the first season). Besides, it’s not exactly a “current event”, so it won’t really age.

Time Commanders - they've got elephants!Time Commanders is a BBC2 show that ran for two seasons, between  2003 and 2005. In it, four players controlled one army (two as “generals”, two as “lieutenants / captains”) in a classical era battle, with a preliminary version of the Rome: Total War engine (which wasn’t yet released at the time, so Total War fans were actually seeing the upcoming game for the first time, at least during the beginning of the first season). Interestingly, instead of players competing against each other (either solo or in teams), all of them were on the same side; their opponent wasn’t run by an AI, but was instead controlled by (unseen) technicians, instructed to use tactics similar to the actual ones used in that battle. Incidentally, the show took care to select players without video gaming experience, which I think actually makes things more interesting: they don’t see it as a “video game” they have to beat, but as an important battle that actually happened, some 2000 years ago. Which is exactly how one should look at it.

Time Commanders - overhead view of the mapBefore the actual battle, there were mission briefings (shown, again, using the R:TW engine) in which both the team and the audience were told about the historical background for the battle, the generals and forces involved, what was at stake, and which key troops both sides had available. The lieutenants / captains were also responsible for the initial scouting of enemy forces and positions, and for relaying that information to the generals.

Time Commanders - looking at the big screenMeanwhile, two actual historians and/or military instructors (one permanent, the other one rotating between several people from episode to episode) gave more insight on the battle, and commented on the team’s tactics, outside the hearing range of the players. Only after the battle ended would they tell the players what they did rightly and wrongly, and how the battle actually went, historically. Note also that quite often the team would lose the battle, and lose spectacularly; in a way, watching how much some of the players could “blow it” was one of the series’ most entertaining aspects. 🙂

Time Commanders - a lieutenant gives instructions to an operatorIn short, this show — sadly cancelled after only two seasons — combines four things I love: historyvideo gamesstrategy, and British humor. What more could anyone want? 🙂 The episodes don’t seem to be available on DVD or Blu-Ray, unfortunately, but most of them, if not all, are currently on YouTube (just search for “time commanders“), and, of course, if you’re inventive, there are always other places to look for them. I’d still buy the series on DVD, if it were ever released, just to have it in better quality.

By the way, it’s really a shame that there aren’t more shows like this — interesting, not dumbed-down, and actually instructive and educational, but still focused on fun. For instance, even just sticking with this format, there could be shows based on other eras of history — medieval times, the Napoleonic wars, etc.. But, of course, I doubt it’ll happen.

Conversion Wars #1: Out Run (part 2 of 3: 16-bit home computer ports)

(Note: part 1 is here.)

Moving on to 16-bit home computer versions of Out Run, there are just three to look at.

Let’s begin with the one I believe came out first, the Atari ST version, released by US Gold in 1988:

Oh dear. As you can see… not very good. I’m pretty sure that this is the Spectrum / Amstrad CPC code simply ported to the ST, without using any of its more advanced features or any programming tricks. The game feels exactly like the Spectrum version, the roads are exactly the same, and so on; only the graphics are new (and pretty bad for an ST), and the game is faster simply because the CPU is faster (but still not as fast or smooth as the hypothetical “7 Mhz Spectrum”, which you can try by setting a Speccy emulator to 200% speed). Note also that the music is exactly the same as in the Spectrum version, which makes sense as both machines have the same sound hardware; however, the ST, because of its extra speed and storage, could have used samples (like many of its games did), and no such thing happened here. Or, you know, actually include the third song from the arcade, since there’s memory and disk space to spare. In short: another lazy port. It’s simply the Spectrum game running on a faster machine and with more color.

Now, for the Amiga version, also by US Gold, released in 1988:

Ouch! It’s the Atari ST version, with different music — this time, the sound chip is different, so they couldn’t just port the Spectrum tunes –, but, in my opinion, it also sounds worse — which is even sadder when you consider how good Amiga music often was. Also, again, it’s the same code as the ST version, with no Amiga features used — which means the game is even slower, as the Amiga’s CPU runs at a lower frequency than the ST’s; usually that was more than compensated by the Amiga’s co-processors, but it’s obvious that they’re standing idle, here. Once again, an incredibly lazy port.

Incidentally, the Amiga version allows sound effects and music at the same time, but the author of the video turned them off before starting the game, and with good reason: they’re terrible. Also, the game seems able to play only one sound effect at the time, so, for instance, when you’re skidding, the engine sound is actually temporarily turned off. On an Amiga. 😯

Finally, we come to the PC (MS-DOS) version, released in 1989 by Sega:

Much like the MSX2 version (see part 1), also by Sega, it’s closer to the Master System version, with little resemblance to the US Gold ports (which, except for the C64 version, all seem to share the same algorithms and maps). It’s fast, smooth and colorful, but the sprites are smaller, and the game feels “emptier”, both in terms of roadside objects and other cars (the smallness of the sprites probably helps). Being an old PC game, it’s limited in terms of hardware, supporting only up to EGA graphics (16-color, with probably the worst palette you can imagine) and PC speaker sound.

It’s probably the best of the three 16-bit home computer ports… but still not a very good one, in my opinion. To see one (if we don’t count the extremely playable but not very “Outrunnish” C64 port), we’ll have look among console ports, which is the subject of part 3.

Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

Note: this post is unchanged from one from 2005 in my old blog, The Games of My Life. But please see the new section at the end.

This game has a big problem. The load times. For some reason, in my Athlon XP 2000 with 1 GB of RAM and a fast hard drive, they’re huge – not “read a book”-like, but, still, 30-60 seconds to load a battle and 30-60 seconds to come back to the main map are, IMO, too much. Especially since Rome: Total War, their more recent and even more detailed game, actually has shorter load times.

That’s the problem. In almost every other respect, Medieval: Total War is virtually perfect.

Medieval: Total War - campaign map
M:TW - campaign map

M:TW, like its predecessor Shogun: Total War and its successor Rome: Total War, is a historical turn-based strategy game with fantastic real-time battles. These are really wonderful – no other game, except perhaps Close Combat, simulates a battle so well – and that one was squad-based. This one, though, can have armies of 10.000 men. On each side. And they all move, shout, fight and, possibly, die.

Continue reading Medieval: Total War (PC, 2002)

Blagtron: The Resurrection!

Sometimes, pretty odd things happen. Yesterday evening, after I wrote the Quest for the Rings post, I kept thinking about old games for a time, and after a while I recalled a game I wrote very, very long ago (think early 90s), that I used to play with two separate groups of friends, and that we enjoyed a lot at the time. I then wondered: could I find it somewhere? No, finding it here would be a lost cause: the game was written on a 486, and later on a Pentium, and those machines of mine are long gone. At the time, there was no Internet to speak of, much less the concept of online backups, so there wasn’t any hope there. But I did remember uploading it to ftp.cdrom.com in the late 90s…

Its name was “Blagtron“. Yup, I was young, back then. 🙂

Well, some quick googling, and I found it. 🙂 The version that still exists, and that I include (with some tweaks) later in this post, is the latest one, in English (I seem to have missed a couple of phrases when translating it from my native Portuguese, but those are minor — and, anyway, there’s very little text in the game). The question then was whether it would work in DOSBox. Amazingly, it did — though, to enable sound, I had to replace an included file with one from an old version of Sound Blaster 16 drivers; this, fortunately, had been a problem for other DOSBox users before, and therefore the solution was easy to find. A few more minor changes (unfortunately, I don’t have the source anymore, as I said, so major alterations aren’t viable), and here it is: a repackaging of Blagtron 3.0.1, which works without problems on a default DOSBox installation.

Blagtron, running under DOSBox, in 640x350 EGA mode. Modes up to 800x600 are available -- not to look "better", but to extend the play area.

As you can see from the screenshot above, Blagtron is a “Tron-like” game — hence the name. You can’t ever stop, just turn around, and you leave behind a trail wherever you go. Touching a trail left behind by any player — including yourself — means instant death, and the goal is to be the last one standing. The main feature distinguishing it from other “Tron-likes” is the 4-player support — yes, all on the same keyboard –, though you can play a 2- or 3-player game, or even practice on your own. There’s also a 2 vs 2 team option.

I remember this game being quite fun and addictive to play in groups — though it’s the kind of game that can bring out the worst in people, when they lose… you have been warned. 🙂 The only caveats to playing it now, under DOSBox, is that the automatic speed detection may need some manual adjustment, and you must close DOSBox to exit the game — originally, you needed to use CTRL-Break, but that doesn’t seem to work under DOSBox. Again, I’d fix it now if I had the source, but that is not the case. For details, (including how to run it in DOSBox, though if you’re familiar with it you won’t have any problem) read the included README.TXT file.

Well, here is the game itself, a “massive” 52KB zip file:

Again, please take a look at the readme file for instructions (tip: run SETUP.EXE before running the game itself, and the game’s speed may then need manual adjustment; all of this is explained in the aforementioned file) and solutions to possible problems. I appreciate praise comments and constructive criticism (bug fixes, unfortunately, can’t be dealt with until I eventually program a new version of Blagtron from scratch, in a modern language ((perhaps Java, so I can release a multi-platform version, and eventually adapt it to Android phones and tablets?))). For the history behind this game, read on…

Continue reading Blagtron: The Resurrection!

TGomL: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (PC, 1999)

Note: this post is expanded from one in my old blog, The Games of My Life.

This game should have actually been named “Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri”, but Sid Meier was (and is) the best known name, and it draws heavily on Meier’s original Civilization, so… Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri it was (or “SMAC” to its friends). By Firaxis Games, distributed by Electronic Arts, shortly before the end of the last century.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - title

SMAC, believe it or not, is still a very popular game these days among strategy fans, and for good reason. In my opinion, it’s still the best Civ-style game, and has yet to be surpassed: Civ 4 was indeed a great game, and so is Civ 5 (though I can’t agree with a couple of design decisions), but, to me, SMAC remains the best Civ-style game. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell as well as it should have, possibly because most people — even most strategy buffs — aren’t science fiction fans, and it’s much easier to understand what you’ll get by inventing The Wheel” or “The Alphabet” than what “Bioadaptive Resonance” or “Controlled Singularity” even are. In short, it scared away many Civ fans, which was a shame.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - gameplay

But it has some things no other game of its kind has:

  • style – the spartan ((no, I’m not referring here to the Spartans, a survivalist faction in the game :))) interface, the voices, the graphics, the sounds, the descriptions, the movies. It really made you feel like you were in a different, but viable world.
  • personality – the Civ games’ leaders, even though they’re supposed to be real life ones, have little or no personality. SMAC’s had. A lot. Who can forget Chairman Yang, Lady Deirdre, Sister Miriam, or CEO Morgan? They actually have different goals in mind, and act towards them. They all speak in their own way. And they all have great quotes — all of them spoken in the game by the characters.
  • a story – yes, a strategy game with one. Really. And it doesn’t always end the same way (and I don’t mean just because you lose the game in the middle).

As I said, it’s still my favorite game of its kind, after 12 years. You can probably find the Planetary Pack (the game plus the expansion pack on a single CD) for sale somewhere, though it’s harder than it used to be. And you really should, if you’ve ever been interested in the Civilization series, or strategy games in general. Note, however, that getting it to run perfectly on modern Windows operating systems may constitute a challenge.

Links: Wikipedia entry, Official site.

P.S. – did you know that this game has inspired 3 novels (which I have), a comic book (which I also have) and a GURPS book (dammit…)? Not bad for a turn-based strategy game… 🙂

A new Lords of Midnight for iOS (and others)?

Good thing I’m not superstitious, or I would find this kind of coincidence very weird. After “resurrecting” a 2005 post of mine (more than 50% of it is new, though) about Lords of Midnight, I follow the link that was already in the 2005 version of the post (which I had initially merely checked to see if it was still live, when posting), look around a bit more, find out that Chris Wild (the site’s owner, and author of the Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge DOS ports) has a blog, and then I see these three posts

… dated March 8, 2011, that is, two days ago…

Lords of Midnight (lord)… announcing the development of a new Lords of Midnight, (initially) for the iPhone and iPad, but eventually for Android and other systems (including PCs), turn-based, with landscaping such as the originals, but with new graphics, better AI, other small adjustments…

… and to be a collaboration between Chris Wild and Mike freaking Singleton, author of the original games in 1984.

Again, these posts are from two days ago… or one day before my LoM post on this very blog. And I swear I hadn’t visited Icemark.com in years (I think last time I did, Chris didn’t even have a blog). If this isn’t a coincidence, I don’t know what is.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about this. Especially because they’re promising that they won’t change genres, make it real-time, or anything else to screw up the game. Too many remakes or sequels lose sight of what made the original great (“oh, no, we can’t have a turn-based game in 2011, the kids wouldn’t have the patience…”).

Is this the best-looking water in a videogame?

I don’t know, but I certainly can’t recall a better-looking one right now.

The Lord of the Rings Online - WaterAgain, click on the picture to see it in full size (the thumbnail doesn’t do it justice), and then, because your browser will probably scale it to fit in the window, click on it again.

For info about the game, the hardware, and the settings the game is running under, please see this post.

EDIT: OK, I don’t have the game, but, from a screenshot, Crysis’s water looks even better than this.

The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11

The Lord of the Rings Online with DirectX11Looks good, doesn’t it? And yes, go ahead and click on the image above to see it in full size. After that, your browser will probably scale it to fit in its window, so click on it again to see it as nature intended. 🙂 The thumbnail doesn’t do it justice, of course.

For the curious, this is on an Intel Core i7-860 with an Nvidia GeForce 470, with DirectX11 enabled, and with all details options set at maximum, except, IIRC, the shadows, which, as good as they are above, can even be made to look better. And, yes, the game runs at about 60 fps on average with these settings.

As a comparison, here is Doomdark’s Revenge, a 1985 strategy/RPG on the humble 48K ZX Spectrum:

Doomdark's RevengeYou could turn the screen in 8 directions (while in LOTRO, of course, you can turn around smoothly in every direction, move the camera, etc.), and it took about 1 second to redraw the screen. Which is perfectly fine for a non-real time strategy/RPG, of course.

Incidentally, my character’s name on the first game (which you can read in the screenshot) comes from the second game. 🙂

P.S. – The Lord of the Rings Online is free to play these days (though some features may eventually require the spending of real money). Just register on www.lotro.com or www.lotro-europe.com, depending on where you are. I’m on the latter, on the Withywindle server. For more info on the game, I suggest its TV Tropes page.