After reading through my complaints regarding the shrinking scale of the Star Wars film universe, a colleague of mine asked me to preview a novel that he was writing. He also grew up as a Trekker, and he sorely misses the optimistic science fiction that Star Trek represents, as well as the attention to technical and scientific accuracy that is sadly lacking in much of today's science fiction. Popular "science fiction" of today frequently focuses on special effect spectacle to the exclusion of cerebral or thoughtful stories and concepts, but there are still plenty of indie writers and film makers who try to offer more substance over pomp.

In his debut novel, Without Gravity, author David Pax explores an optimistic distant future in which humanity has spread across the stars, living in harmony with our technology and the worlds that we inhabit. It's not a vision of the future without conflict, however. Planet-bound humans are drawn into periodic conflict with a divergent culture of human "Spacers" who spend their entire lives within the confines of their zero-gravity space ships, making them virtually aliens to the rest of humanity.

When the Spacers launch a surprise attack on the mineral-rich frontier world of Tirimba, the citizens must take shelter within the cavernous mines and prevent the Spacers from acquiring the valuable resources that would allow them to build new ships and threaten the heart of human civilization. The Spacers aren't the only threat, as the citizens of Tirimba must also deal with one colleague who's selfish greed puts the entire war effort at risk.

Pax's vision of the future may be exotic, but it's also very grounded. The conflict is one of resources and logistics, as Pax pays diligent respect to the vast scale and distances of intergalactic conflict, and puts strict limits on the capabilities of the warships and technologies. Tirimba is remote, and is only a small piece of a larger conflict that happens mostly beyond the awareness and comprehension of the civilian refugees who remain stranded on the planet. This remoteness creates drama and maintains mystery and intrigue regarding the conflict. The story, after all, focuses on the civilians, and the personal cost that they pay, rather than on the military.

The novel itself is fairly short and a relatively light and easy read. Despite his engineering background and attempts to describe and develop the technologies and society that he has imagined, Pax doesn't drag the novel's pace down with unnecessary techno-babble. You don't need an engineering degree to follow along or understand.

Pax also writes short stories and maintains a blog. He's a friend and colleague of mine, and we share many common interests and perspectives. If you enjoy reading my ramblings, then I invite you to visit his site as well, and to support him and other indie authors who are trying to keep the spirit of science fiction alive.

If you do decide to purchase Without Gravity, use the promo code MEGABEARSFAN at checkout to receive a discount.

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Star Trek: New Horizons

Here's something that I've never done before: a review of a game mod! I don't play mods very often. When I play games, I usually want to play the game that the creators created in order to get a feel for what their intent might have been. For some of the more sandboxy PC games that I play (like Cities: Skylines or the like), I might try some small mods.

There has yet to be an official game quite like Microprose's 1999 release, Birth of the Federation.

For this one instance, however, I'm making an exception because this particular mod fills a very specific niche desire for me that has gone unfulfilled for around 15 or 20 years. The "New Horizons" mod for Stellaris is finally allowing me to play a full 4-x strategy game set in the Star Trek universe. I haven't been able to do that since Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, developed by Microprose for Windows 98!

The creators seem to have been inspired by BotF.

Yes, there have been other Star Trek mods for other games in the past, and there's even some community projects to create spiritual successors to Birth of the Federation (such as Star Trek: Supremacy). The problem is that I've yet to ever see one of these get finished. "New Horizons" for Stellaris is still a work-in-progress, but it is mostly functionally complete and fairly robust. Since Birth of the Federation holds such a special place in my heart, I'm going to take a stab at reviewing "New Horizons" and see how it compares to my personal favorite [official] Star Trek game of all time.

Built on the back of Stellaris

"New Horizons" is, of course, a mod for the PC game Stellaris (developed and published by Paradox). Because of this, it takes advantage of most of Stellaris' strengths, but it is also hamstrung by many of Stellaris' faults.

"New Horizons" makes excellent use of the massive size and scale of Stellaris' maps by featuring a detailed recreation of the canon Star Trek galaxy, and including a surprisingly exhaustive roster of Star Trek races and factions -- all of whom are playable. Yes, of course, the big players like the Federation, the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, Dominion, and Borg are all here. As are all the expected ancillary empires like the Gorn, Tholians, Orions, and so forth.

The playable roster is surprisingly vast and exhaustive.

It doesn't end there, though. This mod also features a crap-ton of "aliens of the week" as fully-featured, playable empires. They aren't "minor races" like what we had in Birth of the Federation or the city states of Civilization V or VI. They don't just have one planet and a handful of ships just waiting for a "major faction" to conquer or absorb them. The obvious choices like the Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, are all there. The game also features empires like the Sheliak, Anticans, Selay, Caitian, Cheron, Dosi, Hirogen, Kazon, Krenim, Kelpian, and more! If you have a favorite space-facing civilization from any episode of Star Trek (including Gamma Quadrant aliens from DS9 and Delta Quadrant aliens from Voyager), there is a very good chance that it's a playable faction in "New Horizons"...

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The Dark Souls remaster was recently released, but it doesn't make enough [single player] improvements for me to really care to buy it. I might pick it up for the Switch when that gets released, because portable Dark Souls could be fun and interesting and fresh enough to warrant another purchase. However, the Switch version is being developed by another company, and it doesn't even support 60 fps, so I may not bother getting it anyway.

In the meantime, I decided to try out another "remaster" of sorts, and I got some friends together for some jolly cooperation in Steamforged Games' Kickstarted Dark Souls: the Board Game. This is a co-operative dungeon-crawler. I think the closest comparison that I can make is that it's a Dark Souls-themed variation on Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Unfortunately, Dark Souls: the Board Game doesn't seem to hold a candle to Descent.

Opening the box sets the tone of the game right away.

YOU DIED

The big mechanic that is imported from the video game is the inclusion of the video game's bonfire and respawn mechanics. Like in the video game, resting at the bonfire (or dying and being returned to the bonfire) resets everything. This includes all enemy encounters, as well as all the players' resources (such as the Estus Flask, Lucky Coin, or Pendant -- which actually has a function in the board game). However, a bit of the sense of attrition is also lost in translation, as your HP (and stamina) fully resets after each encounter. I think I would have preferred if the Estus Flask had a certain number of uses, but only restored a subset of your damage. That way, you'd retain some of your damage from encounter to encounter.

All the party's souls are dropped
on the spot where a character died.

Nevertheless, the Bonfire mechanic is probably the one mechanic that is most successfully translated from the video game source material. Despite the lack of health attrition, the desire to conserve as much resources as possible for the upcoming boss fight pressures the players into riskier play. Trying to conserve resources can lead to a lot of deaths.

Just like in the video game, if you die, all your souls are dropped on the floor where you died. If any one player dies, the whole party "dies" and is transported back to the Bonfire. The deeper into the dungeon you died, the more you have to fight through [again] in order to reclaim your souls. If you die again before reclaiming your dropped souls, all those souls are lost.

As I understand the rules, you can't leave an encounter once it's started, so you won't be making any "soul runs" to pick up your souls and then run back to the bonfire. You also can't open treasure chests until the encounter is won, which means you can't make suicidal "loot runs" either, which are a trademark strategy of the Souls video games. If you need to level up or buy new equipment in order to beat the encounter that killed you, you'll have to risk losing your dropped souls by farming against other encounters...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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