Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Happy 10th Anniversary to MASS EFFECT

On 20 November 2007 the video game company BioWare took one of the biggest risks in their history by releasing what was only their third original game, not one set in a pre-existing universe. The first, Jade Empire (2005), had been extremely good but had not set the world on fire. Given that BioWare had bet the farm on them moving into original, creator-owned IPs, they needed their new game to be a success. It was called Mass Effect and, rather fortunately, it was.


BioWare had been founded in Canada in 1995 by newly-graduated medical doctors Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip. Using programming knowledge gained from other courses taken alongside their medical studies, they created a video game called Shattered Steel. It was published by Interplay and was a very modest success. Yip decided to return to practising medicine whilst Muzyka and Zeschuk moved into full-time development. Their second game came about during discussions with Interplay, who wanted to use the Dungeons and Dragons licence they'd just acquired (at a steal) from TSR, Inc. BioWare created a new video game engine, which they dubbed "Infinity", which blew away the team at Interplay and led to them getting the commission to make a massive fantasy roleplaying game. For a brand new studio it was a big achievement...and a huge responsibility.

Fortunately the two doctors and their rapidly expanding team were up to the job. They released Baldur's Gate in 1998 and it was an enormous success. They branched into console development with MDK2 (2000) but their hearts had been stolen by character and story-focused roleplaying games, games which emphasised character developments and even romances over magical explosions and loot. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) was an even bigger success than its forebear, whilst Interplay's in-house Black Isle Studios used the Infinity Engine to craft the excellent games Planescape: Torment (1999), Icewind Dale (2000) and Icewind Dale II (2002).

BioWare then created a new engine, the Aurora Engine, to power a new D&D roleplaying game. Neverwinter Nights (2002) was also a big success, although more for its incredibly powerful campaign-creation system allowing players to recreate the D&D experience online than the game's own, pedestrian story (the game's expansions were rather better-received). By this time BioWare had become arguably the most feted RPG design studio on the planet, so were the perfect collaborators for LucasArts, who wanted to make the first-ever Star Wars roleplaying game. The result, Knights of the Old Republic, was released in 2003 and was a huge success, one of the best RPGs of all time and possibly the finest single Star Wars video game ever made (a distinction it comfortably holds today, despite a serious challenge from Jedi Outcast and TIE Fighter).

At the very height of their success and critical acclaim, BioWare chose to give it up and begin working on their own, original titles. They encouraged their partner companies to dish the sequels out to the old Black Isle team, now rising out of the ashes of the collapsed Interplay as Obsidian Entertainment. Obsidian made the well-regarded (if buggy) Knights of the Old Republic II (2004) and Neverwinter Nights II (2007) whilst BioWare began their assault on the original IP space.

BioWare began developing three original games. The first was a martial arts roleplaying game called Jade Empire, using the Knights of the Old Republic engine. The game came out in 2005 and was an original X-Box title. It was a modest success, but not the mega-selling hit BioWare had been hoping for. They also began working on a new fantasy IP, a vast and expansive RPG using a whole new engine which would be a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate. The game eventually went way over time and budget, but was ultimately released in 2009 under the name Dragon Age. Fortunately it was a big hit and went to spawn two sequels (and a third, under the working title Dragon Age IV, is currently in development).

Alongside these titles, BioWare began working on a science fiction RPG. They wanted to do something different for this game and that was to make an epic space opera in every sense of the word: a game with a deep, detailed backstory, lots of alien races and a growing menace which would eventually, over the course of three games, build into an apocalyptic threat. BioWare also really wanted to nail the things they'd always been applauded for - deep, interesting characters complete with friendships, interrelationships and even romances - but using modern 3D technology to make the characters more relateable and convincing than ever before.


Released in November 2007, Mass Effect fulfilled those goals. The player takes on the role of Commander Shepard, a resourceful military officer in the Systems Alliance (a future human government) and the first human "Spectre", a special forces agent tasked with dealing with massive threats to the Citadel, a multi-racial alliance based in a huge, ancient, alien space station. Saren Arterius, a rogue Turian Spectre, begins undertaking strange attacks against Citadel forces and Shepard is assigned to stop him, using a starship called the Normandy and a multi-ethnic crew of humans and aliens. The game ranges across a large chunk of the Milky War galaxy and, as the story developers, Shepard is forced to make a number of huge decisions with extremely far-reaching consequences. Literally, the fate of entire species is in Shepard's hands.

The game was widely praised for the customisability of the character. Shepard could be male (voiced by Marc Meer) or female (voiced by Jennifer Hale) and their physical appearance could be tweaked considerably. They could also be "good" (Paragon) or "evil" (Renegade) based on moral decisions they made throughout the game. Companion characters could be permanently killed off, along with allies and enemies (who would then go on to appear - or not - in the sequels). This led to a game with a set storyline but where the details of that story could completely change from player to player.

At the end of the game it is confirmed that Saren is working for a powerful alien race called the Reapers, a biomechanical nightmare that emerges every few millennia to wipe out advanced spacefaring races for unknown reasons. The overwhelming threat of the Reapers became the driving force behind the sequels.

Mass Effect sold well on release and was critically acclaimed, appeasing BioWare's new owners Electronic Arts (who were rather less happy with the long gestation period and enormous budget of Dragon Age, eventually mandating a low-budget, quickie sequel to help justify the cost of the first game). It was followed by Mass Effect 2 in 2010 and Mass Effect 3 in 2012. These games increased the emphasis on characterisation and story whilst refining combat (both games saw a reduction in traditional RPG gameplay elements, such as inventory management, to the ire of some fans). Mass Effect 3's release in March 2012 was highly controversial, with a badly-written ending that many fans felt was unsatisfying. BioWare released patches and DLC which reworked the ending and improved it, but it remained a dubious decision.

Despite the poorly-received ending of the third game, the Mass Effect series remains generally well-regarded. It's a big-budget, combat-focused space opera game which nevertheless emphasises relationships, dialogue and story over mass slaughter. There's a lot of good writing, moments of great humour and some canny characterisation in the trilogy, and the degree to which you can change things so entire races can be absent from later games in the series is remarkable. Mass Effect was also highly notable in that it was almost the only new space opera universe to appear on screen in the first decade of the 21st Century (The Expanse and SyFy label-mates Killjoys and Dark Matter eventually helped end that drought). The game trilogy eventually went on to sell about 20 million copies, which although not setting the world on fire (Fallout 4, for example, sold over half that in its first 24 hours on sale) is very impressive for a single-player-focused, narratively-driven game series.

Unfortunately, Mass Effect's legacy has not been enduring. The fourth Mass Effect game, Mass Effect: Andromeda was released in 2017 and faced a seriously mixed reception, with technical issues and a bland storyline. The game sold 2 million copies in its first six months on sale, which was far below EA and BioWare's expectations and led to the series being put on hiatus (despite two sequels to Andromeda being in the planning stages). BioWare are now focusing on Dragon Age IV and a whole-new IP, an action game called Anthem. Not only is the future of Mass Effect itself in doubt, EA seems to be down on the whole idea of single-player-focused games with strong stories altogether, preferring big "open world" games or multiplayer.

Although flawed, the original Mass Effect trilogy remains a compelling gaming experience and well worth a look if you haven't yet given it a try. The complete trilogy is available now for the PlayStation 4, X-Box One and PC.



Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Monday, 20 November 2017

A Roleplayer's Guide to Roleplaying Games

 A few months back I wrote A Beginner's Guide to Boardgames, which was quite successful. So now I'm going to do the same thing for roleplaying games, because why the hell not? This article will differ because it's less-focused on more recent games and offers more of an overview of the entire field, and also that there is no differentiation between "beginner", "intermediate" and "advanced" games, although I note in each entry how approachable each game is. Generally the main difficulty with RPGs is getting into them in the first place and getting comfortable playing them; once that's achieved it's relatively straightforward to adapt to other games.

So, pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Since the mid-1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson released the original version of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs have been a continuous source of enjoyment, bringing together friends and allowing them to bond over murdering dragons in the face. RPGs have diversified over the years, offering rules-heavy, combat-focused games and lightly-codified, narrative games where the emphasis is more on creating a collaborative story than in winning any particular objective or reward.

RPGs, like boardgames, went through a lean period in the late 1990s when video games (including, ironically, some games based on pen-and-paper RPGs) exploded in popularity. They also made a strong comeback in the 2000s thanks to the Internet and, more recently, the arrival of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites as a way of funding more niche and specialised games.

Without further ado, let's take a look at some of the better RPGs for beginners that are around.


Dungeons and Dragons: The Classic
Well, we have to start here, don't we? The original roleplaying game, the longest-surviving and, for most of its lifespan, the most popular. You know the drill here, a group of players create characters from stock fantasy races (humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes being the basic choices) and stock fantasy careers (barbarian, bard, cleric, mage, monk, paladin, rogue, warrior) and engage in surprisingly diverse adventures, ranging from political thrillers to gruelling dungeon crawls to war epics and many more. It's straightforward, it's fun and it can be quite varied in tone and potential (which is more than can be said for some other, more tightly-focused RPGs). D&D remains probably the ultimate RPG because it's so familiar but can turn on a dime in a heartbeat and become something quite unpredictable and weird.

You do have a choice of which rule set to play with, as the five numbered editions to date (not to mention several variant half-editions) do each have their drawbacks and benefits, and I'll be covering that in a separate article. Fortunately, the current edition is one of the more welcoming, hitting a sweet spot of offering a lot of customisability and options whilst also not being extremely confusing and occasionally flat-out broken. The 5th Edition is well-supported by Wizards of the Coast with a lot of online support, but the relative paucity of published material is a bit surprising, and the lack of new world books updating settings like Forgotten RealmsDragonlance and Planescape to the new edition is disappointing. But compared to the insane bloat of previous editions, the new edition makes D&D a lot more welcoming than it has been for many years.

An alternative choice may be Pathfinder, which is derived from D&D 3rd Edition but eliminates many of its smaller problems (the larger ones remain, however) and backs it up with an immense amount of support and, more recently, an SF spin-off called Starfinder. It isn't as streamlined and elegant as D&D 5th Edition, but it has an utterly titanic amount of content, a friendly and welcoming community and support that is second to none.

Star Wars: The Ultimate Beginner's Game
Well, it's Star Wars, isn't it? You can play a bounty hunters or a Jedi, an Imperial stormtrooper or an ace Rebel pilot, an escaped Wookie slave or a Coruscanti noble. Games can be set at the height of the Clone Wars, the Galactic Civil War, during the ancient Jedi-Sith conflict or, crazily, maybe during a rare period of peace. Hate the movie Rogue One? Form your own crack team of agents and try to steal the Death Star plans your way.

There are three distinct versions of the Star Wars RPG: the original West End Games version, the two ill-advised Wizards of the Coast editions (derived from D&D 3rd and 4th Editions, and neither fit particularly well) and the current game from Fantasy Flight, which consists of three distinct rulebooks (Edge of the EmpireAge of Rebellion and Force and Destiny). I've never played the Fantasy Flight version and have heard mostly good things about the rules, but the complete experience does require purchasing three very expensive rulebooks and then buying custom dice, a huge no-no for most RPGs. Fantasy Flight do good work and I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, but I'm not particularly moved to try the new version (especially after being burned badly on the WotC editions).

Instead, if you can get hold of a copy (and there's been a recent 30th anniversary reissue, which makes things easier) of the original West End Games version, go with that. You only need six-sided dice and the ruleset remains one of the most elegantly designed. It's streamlined, easily understandable but opens up into greater complexity later on. It's a game which will have you gunning down stormtroopers, flying X-wings and doing the Kessel Run, all in under twelve parsecs (put lots of skill points in Astrogation). Compared to many roleplaying games, which tend towards bloat and steep learning curves, the West End Star Wars is a thing of beauty. It's Star Wars! It's fun!

All versions of the game do suffer the "Jedi problem", namely that players portraying Jedi can end up dominating games and getting over-powered, but a canny Gamemaster can overcome that problem by balancing opponents appropriately. Overall, Star Wars has a tremendously well-developed setting and a lot of variety, and the West End Games version nails it very nicely.


Deadlands: The Weird West
The original "Weird West" roleplaying game and still one of the most satisfying roleplaying experiences around. The game is set in an alternative history of the 19th Century, when, at the point of the American Civil War, a Native American shaman inadvertently released Lovecraftian forces of horror into the world. The dead rise, hideous spirits possess the living and horrific monsters appear to threaten the United States and indeed the entire world. Players can take on the role of local townsfolk trying to defend themselves, secret agents belonging to paranormal investigation organisations (the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Texas Rangers), escaped slaves seeking revenge against the Confederates or anything inbetween. A robust rule system which treats combat like a poker game remains inventive twenty years on (now streamlined with the new Savage Worlds rules system, derived from Deadlands 1st Edition) and there is scope to treat the game like an outright horror game or a zany steampunk adventure with zeppelins and crazed inventors.

This is basically a game for people who appreciate the Lovecraftian approach to cosmic horror, but hate the nihilism and prefer to belief they can defeat eldritch forces from beyond the dawn of time with gatling guns, gyrocopters and steam cannons.


Call of Cthulhu: Go Mad & Die
On the flipside of that approach is Call of Cthulhu, the official roleplaying game of Lovecraftian horror. In this game you create paranormal investigators and set out to investigate strange goings-on in various parts of the world. The emphasis is on investigation, research, cooperation and collaborative storytelling: victory doesn't come through killing the monsters with shotguns, but through surviving with your limbs and sanity intact.

Call of Cthulhu has been hugely popular for thirty years for offering a very different experience to the power fantasies of games like D&D. The characters in Call of Cthulhu are far more fragile and more likely to end up dead, maimed or insane if they try to fight horrific monsters head-on. Defeating the forces of darkness requires brains, wits, intelligence and knowing when to make a strategic withdrawal. To be fair this game is not for everyone - watching D&D-raised power-gamers trying to hack their way through the game and getting angry when they realise they can't can be an uncomfortable experience - but for those who enjoy the tension and the horror, it's a gripping experience.



World of Darkness: Be a Vampire, Drink Blood, Have Fun
This isn't a roleplaying game, but rather a family of interrelated games which share a common background and setting. The best-known of these is Vampire: The Masquerade, which allows you (spoiler alert) to play vampires, with additional rulebooks allowing you to play werewolves, mages, mummies, wraiths etc. Essentially this is a game which allows to play as the "bad guys", but also explores these cultures to reveal a great deal of nuance and complexity.

If you want to play an urban fantasy RPG, World of Darkness is the go-to choice, although there is some confusion due to the fact that there are two distinct versions of the setting and all of its sub-games. Paradox Interactive recently bought the entire setting and seem to be considering a revamp of the whole line, which would be welcome. But if you want to play a vampire and engage in vampire-based shenanigans in a very well-realised world, this is the ideal choice.


Numenera: Be Weird, Be Wonderful
Numenera is, essentially, Dying Earth: The Roleplaying Game (which actually exists as a small, intriguing game from Pelgrane Press). Set a billion years into the future when nine great ages of human civilisation have come and gone and aliens (from both other planets and other universes) have settled on Earth, the game features one of the most vivid and interesting settings to emerge in recent years. The game has magic, although it's really ultra-advanced science and technology, and offers an intriguing balance between traditional D&D-style roleplaying and something far weirder.

Originally launched through Kickstarter, the game is now expanding with a second edition (but don't call it a second edition) which seeks to give players more of an ability to change the world. It's an interesting, original game which takes Jack Vance's original Dying Earth setting and revamps it with a lot new ideas and atmosphere.

There's a lot more out there, of course. There's the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying title from Green Ronin for those who want to fulfil their Game of Thrones fantasies. There's the newly-released Starfinder SF game from Paizo Publishing or its spiritual predecssor from the old TSR days, Alternity (complete with its StarCraft RPG spin-off). There's a whole family of Warhammer 40,000 RPGs from Fantasy Flight (which are sadly quickly going out of print). There's an intriguing RPG about godlike superheroes in a fantasy realm in Exalted. Deadlands has a post-apocalyptic, far-future sequel game called Hell on Earth. There's a generic universal roleplaying system called, er, GURPS, which can be used to play everything from cyberpunk to adventures on Terry Pratchett's Discworld (and was used by Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont to create the Malazan world). There's the Shadowrun roleplaying game, a fantastic setting which is still looking for a good rules system (and still not finding it). If you can find a copy, there's the bafflingly-out-of-print MechWarrior RPG if you like big stompy robots. There's the Judge Dredd RPG from Mongoose Publishing for those who want to Be The Law, as well as the classic space opera Traveller game, which has been around for almost as long as D&D, not to mention the madness-inducing Paranoia (trust no one!).

There's a lot of roleplaying goodness out there and a lot to choose from. It's a good time for the field and a good time to get involved.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

New Steven Erikson interview at Black Gate

Black Gate have undertaken a video interview with Steven Erikson about his fantasy work and the recent decision to delay the final Kharkanas book for the time being.


It's a fascinating interview, even if Erikson's assertion that Voyager is preferable to Deep Space Nine is one I would disagree quite strongly with!

The Punisher: Season 1

Frank Castle, the infamous "Punisher", has hunted down and killed everyone involved in the murder of his wife and children. He thinks he can move on to another life, working construction in New York, but it's not long before the past comes back to haunt him...and he discovers that there may have been more behind his family's murder than he first thought. It's time for the Punisher to return.


Jon Bernthal's tortured, intense portrayal of the Punisher was the highlight of the second season of Daredevil, with a hugely positive viewer reception, so it's not surprising that Netflix and Marvel quickly moved to commission a dedicated series for the character. The Punisher, as a character, has always been a hard sell for a mass audience, as he is an ultra-violent vigilante willing to dispense lethal force to punish criminals rather than bring them in for trial and incarceration. After three mostly weak action movies featuring the character, Netflix seem to have found a way of depicting and humanising the character by seeing him through the eyes of other characters: Daredevil and his allies on that show and a new collection of characters on the new series.

The arrival of The Punisher comes at an awkward moment. In corporate terms, the previous two Netflix shows - Iron Fist and Luke Cage - both suffered serious problems writing, pacing and characterisation. The team-up show The Defenders, which united Iron Fist and Luke Cage with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, was fun but a bit lightweight, with a fairly underwhelming set of villains. More politically, the arrival of a series which could be said to glorify firearms and violence at a moment in the United States history when gun violence is, once again, squarely in the news could have been deemed insensitive.

On the first point, The Punisher can relax. It's the best-paced and best-characterised series in the Netflix roster since the first season of Jessica Jones, effortlessly outpacing Iron Fist, Luke Cage and The Defenders in quality (as well as the second season of Daredevil). The Punisher has a murky story to tell about black ops, illegal activities in the CIA, power politics in Homeland Security and the morality of using violence to answer such crimes, but it does so in a methodical, logical manner. It's not afraid to spend an entire episode setting up a character's backstory and dedicates one episode to a series of flashbacks to American military operations in Afghanistan. Another is based around Frank and another character, David Lieberman (aka "Micro"), trying to work out if they can trust one another, which is difficult as they are both paranoid loners. In fact, the relationship between the two characters is the centrepiece of the season and is extremely effective, light-years from the gimmicky, "the Punisher gets his radio guy" story it could have been. A superb touch is that Micro's family is still alive (although they think he's dead) and Frank sees a way through them of redeeming himself by saving them so Micro can - eventually - do what Frank cannot and go home.

The Punisher's other characters are equally excellent. Amber Rose Revah is outstanding as Homeland Security Agent Dinah Midani whose prominent side-story could have gone in one of two equally cheesy directions (an unwitting thorn in the Punisher's side or an outright ally) and instead steers a more interesting and nuanced path between the two options. The Expanse's Shohreh Aghdashloo is also very good in a small supporting role as Dinah's mother, and the casting is outstanding as they look like they could easily be mother and daughter. Deborah Ann Woll returns as Karen Page from Daredevil and The Defenders, albeit with significantly less screentime, and is as great as usual, combining toughness, intelligence and resourcefulness behind an apparently vulnerable facade. Ben Barnes is also great as the military vet turned corporate security expert Billy Russo, combining a smooth businessman's spiel with more raw moments of genuine anger from his past experiences.

These characters and the story advance with an ease and depth that most of the other Netflix Marvel shows (which come nowhere near filling their thirteen-episode runs with interesting stories) can only envy. More debatable is the show's relationship with violence and the stance it takes with regards to the issues of gun control in the United States. It's a very gory show, easily the most graphically violence series in the Marvel/Netflix canon, despite the fact that Castle goes surprisingly long periods without massacring lots of bad guys. The violence is handled very matter-of-factly, with less emphasis on "cool" shots and action scenes (well, one "cool guys don't look at explosions" shot excepted) and more on combat being ugly, quick and painful. So the show does a reasonable job of not glorifying violence, even when it does have quite a lot of it. The gun control issue is more interesting, as Karen Page is - despite being a card-carrying liberal social justice advocate on every other front - a firm believer in her right to carry a concealed weapon (after her experiences in previous shows, unsurprisingly) and puts this point across forcefully several times. The show seems to want to get into this debate but ultimately dodges the issue.

The other main thematic debate carried through the show revolves around military veterans. The US treatment of its vets is a hot political issue (as it is in the UK for that matter) and the show manages to avoid grandstanding instead of showing the reality for the returning soldiers on the ground: variable levels of support in how they readjust to civilian life. Russo finds a way of adapting his battlefield skills to (apparently) honest employment back home, Curtis Hoyle becomes an insurance salesman and a mentor to younger soldiers suffering from PTSD, O'Connor is a boastful blowhard and Lewis Wilson's early attempts to find a way of readjusting to life back home gradually deteriorate until he becomes a menace to society and those around him. This storyline has been controversial, with Wilson becoming a homegrown terrorist, but the series does enough to show that his choices and his way out is not the right one and could have been averted with more support and understanding.

The first season of The Punisher is not flawless. Castle's solution to absolutely every problem being the deployment of ludicrous amounts of firepower is true to the character, but risks becoming a bit one-note, and there is as an at times comical disparity between how much damage our heroes can take in combat and keep trucking, and bad guy goons who go down with a single hit. But these problems are relatively minor.

The first season of The Punisher (****) is a surprisingly nuanced story that tackles a number of important issues, from veteran rights to gun violence, whilst delivering a well-paced (if maybe more slow-burning than most were expecting) story through the eyes of a number of well-drawn characters. Freed from the baggage of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Punisher shines, and hopefully this will be the model for the Netflix shows going forwards. The series is on general release on Netflix worldwide.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Ships of Babylon 5: Military Vessels

As a companion to the ongoing Babylon 5 Rewatch Project, here's some information on the military spacecraft that feature heavily in the show.


The Earth Alliance

The Earth Alliance utilises a wide variety of craft for combat and commercial purposes. The Earth Alliance is notable in being both potentially large - its population far outstrips that of Centauri Prime, Minbar or most of the non-aligned worlds - but relatively technologically primitive. Most notably, the Earth Alliance does not have artificial gravity technology, meaning that only its largest ships (which have rotating sections simulating gravity through centrifugal force) can spend prolonged periods in the field without having to return to a gravity well for the health of the crew.

The Earth Alliance's military is known as Earthforce.


SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne "Aurora" Starfury

The workhorse starfighter of Earthforce, the Aurora Starfury entered service after the Dilgar War and is a combination of earlier Earth technology with some influence from Dilgar designs. The Starfury is noted for its ruggedness, ability to absorb more punishment than most fighters, its survivability (the entire cockpit can detach as a lifeboat module) and its incredibly powerful quad thrusters, which allow the fighter to rotate 180 degrees in 0.2 seconds. The ship is armed with four major plasma cannons which give it impressive damage output and missiles can be fitted to the outboard wings for even more combat options, although these tend to increase the bulk and reduce the manoeuvrability of the fighter. A "Heavy Starfury" variant also exists with a rear-mounted weapons pod to allow targets to be engaged to the rear of the fighter.

The Starfury is a versatile and formidable fighter. During the Earth-Minbari War the Starfury was able to outfly and defeat Minbari Niall fighters one-on-one more than a third of the time, even given the Niall's superior speed, stealth defences and armaments.

The Starfury's biggest weakness is an inability to enter planetary atmospheres to pursue enemy craft with multi-theatre capabilities.


SA-23J Mitchell-Hyundyne "Thunderbolt" Starfury

Entering service in 2260, the Thunderbolt is Earthforce's most advanced starfighter. Incorporating many of the advantages of the Aurora-class, the Thunderbolt Starfury is armed with a rapid-firing "gatling" cannon for increase damage and rate of fire and is capable of entering planetary atmospheres. It can also be outfitted with missiles or high-yield bombs, allowing the fighter to fulfil a larger range of mission objectives than the standard Aurora Starfury.

However, the Thunderbolt is significantly larger than the standard Starfury and an easier target. Its greater bulk also reduces its effectiveness in zero-gee combat situations, where the Aurora remains the superior option.


Hyperion-class Heavy Cruiser

The Hyperion-class heavy cruiser was the backbone of the Earthforce fleet during the late 2230s and early 2240s. Entering service during the Dilgar War, the Hyperion is noted for its firepower (courtesy of three dual heavy cannon batteries), its manoeuvrability for a ship its size and the ease with which other weapon packages can be rotated on board. Many modern Hyperions have been retrofitted with the heavy beam weapons from the Omega-class, although the Hyperion's smaller power plant means that it cannot fire these beam weapons as quickly as the larger ships.

The Hyperion proved its limitations during the Minbari War and the ship has been reduced in role since then, now often serving as an escort to Omega-class destroyers.


Nova-class Dreadnought

One of the oldest designs still in use by Earthforce, the Nova-class was built around a large spaceframe with the idea of putting as many heavy guns onto a ship as possible. The philosophy, although unsubtle, proved sound during the Dilgar War when the Nova's massive bombardment capability took the ostensibly superior Dilgar ships by surprise and resulted in many enemy losses. The Nova fell out of fashion after the Dilgar War, with the Hyperion deemed more versatile. The relative lack of success of the Hyperion during that war, whilst the Nova's much heavier firepower allowed it to at least damage Minbari warcruisers more often, saw Earthforce revisit the design and adapt it for the later Omega-class.


Omega-class Destroyer

The newest, largest and most powerful ship in the Earthforce arsenal, entering service in 2249. The Omega-class was originally a refit of the Nova, stripping out the massive battery of pulse cannons in favour of a rotating spaceframe to allow more comfortable operating conditions and more sophisticated energy cannons. Derived from Narn designs purchased during the Earth-Minbari War, the Omega's main beam cannons are formidably powerful, especially when used in concert with the cruiser's massive missile batteries and pulse cannons. The rear-mounted beam and pulse cannons give the ship a near total coverage in all directions, preventing enemy ships from engaging from blind spots, and the ship is large enough to carry several squadrons of starfighters. The Omega also has a significant number of dorsal and ventral-mounted turrets for engaging fighters, shooting down ordinance and close-quarters engagements.


The Narn Regime

The youngest of the major powers, having gained their freedom from the Centauri only fifty years or so ago, the Narn Regime is arguably the technologically least well-developed. There is debate on this point, as Narn technology is a hodge-podge of material developed internally, stolen from the Centauri or bought from other worlds.

Like Earth, the Narn do not have artificial gravity. However, Narn physiology is more rugged and durable than that of humans and they can spend much greater periods of time in zero gravity with no (or reduced) ill effects.


Frazi Heavy Fighter

Partially inspired by the Earth Alliance Starfury, the Frazi heavy fighter is heavily armed, relatively fast and well-armoured. It is particularly suited to long-range combat missions and swarms of Frazi fighters can give even the technologically superior Centauri pause. The Frazi does have several weaknesses, however. Its weapons are oriented around the forward-facing cannons and it can be vulnerable to attack from other quarters with less capability than the Starfury for spinning quickly to engage new targest. The Frazi is designed to operate in atmosphere, so is less capable than fighters designed solely for space combat, although this does also make it more versatile in the mission parameters it can tackle.


Ta'Loth-class Assault Cruiser

An ugly design, the Ta'Loth was one of the first capital-class designs churned out by the Narn Regime in the years following the Centauri withdrawal. The ship is a mix of Narn and alien technology, with heavy firepower but relatively limited armour and a vulnerable, externally-mounted control centre. The ship is ungainly and slow to manoeuvre, and is usually employed either if light resistance is expected, under heavy fighter cover or for its primary mission goal, the delivery of large numbers of assault troops onto a target planet or enemy ship.


G'Quan-class Heavy Cruiser

The pride of the Narn fleet, the G'Quan class is the newest, sleekest and most advanced design in the Narn inventory. The G'Quan is a formidable warship, relatively fast and heavily armed with rapid-firing pulse cannons. Most significant are its two forward-mounted beam cannons, which can inflict devastating damage at close or long range. The ship also has heavy ordinance launchers and area-denial weapons, capable of firing energy mines up to several thousand kilometres distant. These combined make the G'Quan a dangerous vessel to engage, particularly at range.

At close range the G'Quan suffers from several significant design flaws, most notably the emphasis on its forward-mounted weapons which make the ship vulnerable to attack from the flanks and particularly the rear. Its armour is also not as heavy as might be wished, with the designers preferring to focus on speed over protection.


The Centauri Republic

The Centauri are one of the older powers in the galaxy and are technologically more advanced than any known race bar the Vorlons and Minbari. However, the Centauri have also stagnated in their technological development over the past couple of centuries, preferring an emphasis on tried-and-tested techniques rather than innovation. Still, the Centauri should not be underestimated in battle.

The Centauri Navy is a large force which is capable of engaging in a large variety of mission types on multiple fronts simultaneously. Earthforce analysts characterise the Centauri military as a "sleeping lion" which would be exceptionally difficult to defeat if provoked to hostility.


Sentri-class Fighter

The Sentri-class fighter is the backbone of the Centauri military, a light and highly manoeuvrable starfighter which has an incredibly tight turning circle and usually attack in large numbers. Centauri pilots develop instinctive relationships with their fighters' AI systems, even letting themselves black out for a few seconds during high-gee turns with confidence that the autopilot can fill in until they get back in the fight. The Sentri's two pulse cannons provide enough firepower to deal with most targets easily, and the Sentri has atmospheric capabilities.

However, the Sentri has significant weaknesses. The fighter is the most lightly-armoured of any of the major races and cannot sustain much damage before being destroyed. It also can't turn on a dime like the Starfury, and its lighter weapons mean that the pilot has to be extremely accurate and persistent to ensure a kill. During skirmishes with the Narn, the Sentri has proven to be a match for the Frazi only when flown by skilled pilots or when they significantly outnumber the enemy.


Vorchan-class Light Cruiser

The Centauri are unusual among the major races for emphasising the role of a light cruiser (or heavy gunship) in its military. The Vorchan-class cruiser is notable for its speed, manoeuvrability and powerful ion cannons. These ships are always deployed in squadrons of at least three and sometimes four ships, breaking to surround and bring down considerably larger vessels. It is also the smallest-known ship (at present) capable of forming its own jump point. The Centauri like to use these ships for ambush and hit-and-run attacks that keep the enemy off-balance whilst more formidable ships are brought to bear.

Despite these capabilities, the Vorchans are still relatively lightly-armoured and not a formidable threat in one-on-one combat with the heavy cruisers of almost any other races (including the ostensibly inferior Narns). They are also reliant on escort Sentris to protect their flanks, but are not large enough to launch fighters themselves, reducing their operational range considerably.


Primus-class Battlecruiser

The Primus-class battlecruiser is the pride and joy of the Centauri fleet. The Primus is a large warship which eschews heavy beam weapons in favour of a massive array of ion cannons and turrets mounted on both the dorsal and ventral surfaces. The Primus can engage multiple targets simultaneously or concentrate its weapons fire in massive barrages. The Primus can also engage in planetary bombardments (indeed, an older variant of Primus carried mass drivers to bombard planets with asteroids, but these were removed after the Centauri signed treaties banning their use) and carries a squadron Sentri-class fighters for defence. A smaller variant of Primus is also used as the Imperial Flagship for the use of the Emperor himself.

The Primus has several notable weaknesses. It is devastating in close-quarters battle but is vulnerable in long-range engagements. Its reliance on ion blasts - which, although devastating if they hit, can be dispersed relatively easily by interceptor fire - can also limits its effectiveness. Most notably, the Primus may be large but it's not as tough as it may appear, and its armour protection is not as strong as might be wished. The Primus is best-used in conjunction with fleets of Vorchans and Sentris for this reason.


The Minbari Federation

The Minbari are the oldest of the known races (bar perhaps the Vorlons), having been a spacefaring civilisation for well over a thousand years. Their technology is centuries ahead of even the Centauri, as the Earth Alliance discovered to its great cost in the Earth-Minbari War of 2245-48.

Fully a third of the Minbari civilisation - the warrior caste - is dedicated to combat and battle, although as a species they are surprisingly adaptable and both the worker and religious castes can fight if pressed.


Nial Heavy Fighter

The Nial fighter is the most dangerous single-pilot vehicle in known space. The Nial is insanely fast, its gravitational drive allowing it to reverse momentum, move in different directions and change attitude very quickly. Its three rapid-firing plasma beam cannons are simply the most powerful weapons ever seen on a fighter its size, and even a small number of Nials can overwhem and destroy the heavy cruisers of other species in relatively short order. Minbari technology also gives the Nial stealth capabilities, making it hard for enemy ships to lock on.

The Nial has few weaknesses, but they do exist. The Nial can operate in atmosphere and close to planets, but its gravimetric drives are reduced in efficiency, which can give other ships the chance to match their speed and manoeuvrability. The Nial's superior agility is matched by the Earthforce Starfury's ability to spin and change direction even faster than the Nial. Although the Starfury is still outmatched by the Niall, the difference is much closer than any other race (even the Centauri Sentri) and the Minbar were given a rude surprise during the war where Starfury squadrons deployed in numbers could check a Nial advance, if not backed up by heavier vessels.


Tinashi-class War Frigate

The Tinashi-class was introduced over a thousand years ago and is the oldest Minbari ship still in regular use, although it is now rarely seen. It was once the most powerful and largest ship in the Minbari fleet, but over the centuries it became less capable and was reduced in capability from a cruiser to a frigate.

Although the spaceframe and design is ancient, the class has been periodically refitted with the latest technology, including Minbari stealth systems and beam weapons, making it still a formidable vessel to face in combat.


Sharlin-class Warcruiser

The Minbari warcruiser is a sight know to strike terror into the hearts of other races. The Sharlin is, simply, the most formidable warship in known space (bar, again, Vorlon designs). Equipped with long-range plasma beam weapons capable of vapourising targets hundreds of kilometres away and a plethora of close-in beam weapons, the Sharlin fairly bristles with destructive potential. Its armour is extremely thick and the ship's navigation systems are so precise that it can jump in and out of hyperspace mid-battle, allowing it to quickly evade ambushes and then turn the tables on the enemy. The Minbari have also been known to use hyperspace jump points themselves as weapons, tearing enemy ships apart before jumping in to mop up the survivors.

In recorded history only two Sharlin warcruisers are known to have been lost to enemy action: one was destroyed by a nuclear mine and another was rammed by a Nova-class dreadnought (part of the ship survived but it had to be scuttled later), both during the Earth-Minbari War.


The Vorlon Empire

The most enigmatic of the major races, the Vorlons are believed to use organic technology and employ weapons, scanners and defence systems which make even the Minbari appear to be archaic. Vorlon ships have very rarely been seen in action, and the few times they have have stood as a warning to other races not to challenge them in battle.


Vorlon Fighter

The Vorlon fighter is small but equipped with an energy discharge weapon which operates on unknown principles. Most targets are destroyed instantly by the hit.


Vorlon Transport

The most commonly-seen Vorlon vessel is the modestly-named "transport" which moves the rarely-appointed Vorlon ambassadors from post to post. The Vorlon transports are very heavily armed with an incredibly powerful beam weapon which can vapourise capital ships in a single blast, leading some to classify them as medium or even heavy cruisers instead, despite their relatively limited size.


Vorlon Heavy Cruiser

The Vorlon heavy cruiser is one of the largest ships in known space, at almost two miles in length. The heavy cruiser is equipped with a massive forward beam weapon, a scaled-up version of that on the transport. This weapon has never been seen to fire at full strength, but is considered to be unsurvivable.



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Friday, 17 November 2017

BABYLON 5: Season 3, Episodes 1-2




Season 3: Point of No Return

“The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed.
“But, in the year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope for victory.
“The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5.”
       - Earthforce Commander Susan Ivanova

Regular Cast
Captain John Sheridan                                    Bruce Boxleitner
Commander Susan Ivanova                            Claudia Christian
Security Chief Michael Garibaldi                   Jerry Doyle
Ambassador Delenn                                        Mira Furlan
Dr. Stephen Franklin                                       Richard Biggs
Marcus Cole                                                    Jason Carter
Security Aide Zack Allan                               Jeff Conaway
Vir Cotto                                                         Stephen Furst
Lennier                                                            Bill Mumy
G’Kar                                                              Andreas Katsulas
Ambassador Londo Mollari                            Peter Jurasik


Credits
Creator                                                            J. Michael Straczynski
Producer                                                          John Copeland
Executive Producers                                       J. Michael Straczynski & Douglas Netter
Conceptual Consultant                                   Harlan Ellison
Production Designer                                       John Iacovelli
Costume Designer                                          Anne Bruice-Aling
Visual Effects Designer                                  Ron Thornton
Visual Effects Producers                                Foundation Imaging
Makeup Supervisor                                        John Vulich
Makeup Producers                                         Optic Nerve Studios
Music Composer                                            Christopher Franke
Music Performers                         Christopher Franke & the Berlin Symphonic Film Orchestra


Between-Season Changes

Unlike the previous year, the changes between Season 2 and Season 3 were relatively restrained. The biggest change was that J. Michael Straczynski decided during the planning of the season that he would write all 22 episodes himself. This was because the situation in the show fluctuated rapidly over the course of the season and there wasn’t enough time to fit in more than a couple of stand-alone episodes, so it was simply easier for JMS himself to write them all. This move saw the leave-taking of script editor Lawrence G. DiTillio from the show, since JMS notoriously refused to let anyone tamper with his scripts after he had finished them. Larry went on to write scripts for cult CGI series Transformers: Beast Wars and would later return to write an episode of Crusade.

Straczynski claimed that his decision to write all of Season 3 – and late Season 4 and most of Season 5 – set a record for the largest number of cumulative episodes written by a single writer. In total, Straczynski wrote 52 sequential episodes of Babylon 5, running from B17 through to E3. However, the subsequent episode E4 was still co-written by Straczynski (with Harlan Ellison). Including that episode, the correct cumulative tally is (running up to episode E7, as E8 was written by Neil Gaiman) 56 episodes and 41 hours, including the entirety of Seasons 3 and 4.

Although this is almost certainly an American record, it is not a world record: as noted by Andy Lane in his seminal Babylon File, British writer Ted Willis wrote nine complete seasons of British police drama Dixon of Dock Green – 201 episodes and 113.5 hours – between 1955 and 1963.

On the cast front the biggest move was the departure of Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters and the introduction of Jason Carter as Ranger Marcus Cole. Thompson actually left in episode B19 since she was disappointed at the amount of screen time she was getting in Season 2 (and, from the look of it, she would have had even less to do in Season 3). At the BabCom ’96 convention she revealed she would be willing to make one-off appearances to resolve her storyline, but Straczynski chose a clean break and only rarely referred to her character again. The character of Marcus came in as a “free-roaming” agent separate from the Earthforce personnel and able to do things those in the military couldn’t. He also provided Ivanova with a new sparring partner, resulting in some nice dialogue scenes between them.

Between seasons Stephen Furst was offered a regular role in a sitcom called Misery Loves Company. Furst preferred to remain on Babylon 5, as it was a serious and more dramatic role, but Misery was also more money and gave him many more episodes to appear in. He discussed the situation with Straczynski who noted that the shooting schedules for the two shows, both filmed in Los Angeles, also allowed the possibility of Furst doing both shows; as a result, Furst was allowed to depart the show in episode C3 and return in C12 when shooting was completed (he was also able to fit in a couple of other appearances inbetween). Misery was not picked up for a back season order, so Furst was able to return full-time.

Season 3 was originally going to be called I am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, taken from a Hindu saying and quoted by Professor Oppenheimer upon the detonation of the first atom bomb in July 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico. JMS realised this was too apocalyptic (and was better suited to the following season, though he chose not to use it there either) and changed it. His next choice was War Without End, but thought this over-emphasised the Shadow War which didn’t start until the last third of the season. He eventually settled on Point of No Return.

The CGI effects were upgraded again between-seasons, this time resulting in a much more believable and impressive explosion effect and higher-resolution shots. The time needed to render scenes also dropped slightly, which was a good thing as several episodes pushed Foundation Imaging to the edge of their abilities in rendering space battles and composite shots. However, the relationship between Foundation Imaging and Babylon Productions began to strain somewhat this season, with several errors in episodes C8 and C10, the result of a higher workload for the effects team with no corresponding rise in pay (which forced Foundation Imaging to take on more work outside of Babylon 5). This relationship would break down altogether between Seasons 3 and 4, and we will cover that in the episode guide for next season.

The title sequence for this season was once again changed. A collection of scenes from previous seasons were used along with a new, slow fly-past of the station with the actors appearing out of jump points. The first pass of the title sequence had the White Star flying at the camera with weapons blazing, but J. Michael Straczynski didn’t like the shot and asked for it to be redone with the final shot of the ship spinning around. Preview tapes of the first two episodes went out with the original shot still included, however.

Christopher Franke provided a new title theme for this season, rather than simply creating a new version of the same tune as with the first two seasons. The new theme melds elements of “Requiem for the Line” from episode A8 and the music used for both the Shadow battle and the bombing of the Narn homeworld from episode B20. The original theme music was used for the end credits of episodes C1-C4 before being replaced from episode C5 onwards; the original UK broadcast, however, had the new theme music used throughout the season.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP

Red Dwarf XII

The mining ship Red Dwarf continues on its long quest to return home, its dysfunctional crew consisting of the last human being alive, a hologram of his superior officer, a neurotic cleaning droid and a lifeform descended from the ship's cat.


In 2018 Red Dwarf will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary, making it comfortably the longest-running SF comedy show of all time (and one of the longest-running SF shows full stop, with only Doctor Who and Star Trek now outliving it). There are several reasons for its longevity: a core cast of four charismatic performers, a strong sense of humour that riffs on both human nature and cutting-edge scientific ideas and multi-year breaks between seasons that allow both the cast and writers to refresh themselves and come back with renewed energy. So whilst the show started thirty years ago, it's only now concluding its twelfth season.

The twelfth season is of a pair with last year's eleventh, written and filmed alongside it and recorded at the same time. This raised the spectre that writer Doug Naylor (alas, co-creator and co-writer of the show's golden age Rob Grant remains absent) might be burned out or tired, but this is not the case. Season 12 is, if anything, slightly better than Season 11, with fewer weaker moments and some much funnier moments rooted in both character (always Naylor's weak spot compared to Grant) and SF.

The season starts off well with Cured, which asks the question if people can be "cured" of evil and results in a classic Red Dwarf story beat where Lister jams on electric guitar with a "good" clone of Adolf Hitler. Siliconia, where Kryten is "rescued" from slavery by fellow mechanoids, is a bit throwaway but does have some great sight gags and does lean into the SF trope of the "happy slave" who is programmed to enjoy their treatment (something it'd be interested to see Star Wars address at some point).

The season's weakest episode is Timewave, set on a ship where criticism has been outlawed, which isn't as funny as it wants to be and has some very lazy gags. Mechocracy, in which the machines on Red Dwarf go on strike and Rimmer and Kryten stage an election to win back their loyalty, is solid if forgettable.

The season saves the best for last: M-Corp is a satirical take on Apple which could have felt lazy but actually steps up to being amusing and also makes some nice, intelligent points about (literally) blind brand loyalty and giving corporations ownership of everything. Skipper, the best episode of the season and possibly the last six seasons, taps into the well of Rimmer's self-loathing and disappointment in a way that hasn't been done since Grant was still on board. Although the episode suffers from some continuity issues (the show apparently forgetting that the events of Seasons 7 and 8 happened, and the existence of Ace Rimmer), it is extremely funny and brings back some fan-favourite characters without overusing them to boot.

The cast are a well-oiled machine at this point, the guest stars do a good job (although Johnny Vegas's guest appearance feels a bit incongruous) and the show does a lot with what is clearly a limited budget, a "problem" which I suspect has resulted in the show's improved quality since the relatively high-budget days of Seasons 7-9, since it forces a reliance on better dialogue and ideas rather than flashy visual effects.

For a TV show about to enter its fourth decade, Red Dwarf (****) is in surprisingly rude health. Superior to the previous two seasons (which were okay, if not outstanding) and certainly far better than the three weak seasons before that, the twelfth season of the show sees it getting back to, if not its best, certainly not far off. The season will be available from 21 November 2017 on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).