On Wing Commander, the Hand of God and Internet hecklers

October 19, 2009 · Posted in Copycats, Harpoon 3 · Comment 

Wc3boxart[1] Remember Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger? If you were into PC gaming in the mid-90s, chances are that you do, with font memories.

Chris Roberts’ third major iteration of the WC saga was a remarkable game for several reasons (hell, just teaming up Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, John Rhys-Davis *and* Ginger Lynn Allen together is worthy of eternal respect – but I digress), chief among them being the complex campaign storyline; one that actually branched at several decision points during the game. Most of the story branches re-united at times in order to accommodate some crucial “unavoidable” plot point or another, but it was a unique experience for its time nevertheless.

One of these obligatory plot points, near the end of the campaign, was where you had to escort this gargantuan super-laser battleship called (aptly so) the Behemoth, all the way to the Kilrathi homeworld, and ride shotgun while this Death Star-wannabe uberweapon blasted Kilrah to smithereens (total war with the XXL-sized kitties, remember?). You were warned, of course, that the Kilrathi will make a last-ditch attempt to stop the Behemoth with their remaining spacecraft but hey, you’ve racked up enough  kills getting to this point, so nothing you can’t handle – right?

WC3_Behemoth_TransmissionSo you go out and guess what, half the Kilrathi bomber fleet is out for blood, gunning for the battlewagon. Okay, so it gets toasted real fast the first couple attempts. Let’s go at it again. And again. No joy. Let’s tone down the difficulty to “Please just let me win”, if only just for this mission. Nope, you’re tearing through the Paktahn squadrons like a buzzsaw and still the Behemoth gets blown up. Okay, let’s bring up the heavy guns (a.k.a. cheat codes) and load up with infinite afterburner fuel, infinite gun recharge & infinite missiles. Not enough? Bring on the cheat code that insta-vaporizes every enemy vessel on the arena. WTH?!? They’re still getting through???

Yessir. Even if you brought instant death to any non-allied vessel in the vicinity, somehow you still had to watch the Behemoth get spectacularly blown to bits:

Turns out there was a purpose behind this frustrating experience; it was one of the unavoidable plot points, see, and you absolutely had to fail this mission so that you could then watch Prince Thrakath gloat about how he literally gutted your ex-lover, and Tolwyn/McDowell walk around furious because he lost his ubertoy. And then of course down the line you got some sweet payback by literally nuking Kilrah with an earthquake bomb, but that’s another tale.

The point here being, the author deliberately used a “Hand of God” device to conjure up a situation (in this case, the destruction of the Behemoth) that the player was completely powerless to stop/prevent. It was very much a Kobayashi Maru scenario: You’re not supposed to win, but to manage the loss. And it worked, and nobody complained about it.

So why bring this up, you surely ask.

jester[1] It so happens that the Harpoon community’s resident copycat, pest and all-around clown has decided once more to attack Ragnar Emsoy and some of his scenario techniques:

You wouldn’t believe how one guy tried to ‘simulate’ this in his scenario.  A lot of guys have written different interpretations about the Exocet attack on the Sheffield, but Ragnar Emsoy’s was one of the most ‘innovative’.

The Etendards would appear and I (and most everyone else) would shoot them down.  A little while later, the Sheffield would just *Blow UP*. The player would be energetically searching the radar screen for the cause, but could never find one.  Upon later examination after the game with the Scenario Editor, the player would find out that Ragnar Emsoy had created a special invisible unit to blow up  the Sheffield in case the Exocet attack failed.  That way, it would not matter how well you executed a defence or what you did in that scenario.  The result would always be the same.

At that point, most players just said “Screw it” with this guy and his ridiculous scenarios since the result was pre-ordained.  It didn’t matter what you did, you were going to end up with the same result.

Let’s look at this a bit closer, shall we?

Apart from writing top-notch stand-alone scenarios for Harpoon 2/3, Ragnar occasionally ventured into storyline-driven campaigns, the most prominent of them being the Falklands War 1982 battleset and the World War III 1985 set. There is hardly any need to praise them any further; anyone who has gone through them knows already the exhaustive attention to detail, realism & playability that are the hallmarks of pretty much every scenario by Ragnar.

HMS-Sheffield-MoD-2-S[1]Being story-driven, the scenarios in these campaigns hinged on a few events happening irreversibly and unavoidably: In WW3, some of the NATO carriers were sunk at some point or another. In the Falklands, the Sheffield had to be sunk at some point no matter how brilliant the player handled the war, or else the entire plot would fly off the historical rails.

Scenario authors typically handle such “obligatory losses” by inserting them just after the last mission/scenario the player played through, and just prior to the next one: “Despite your excellent prior performance, the Sheffield nevertheless was ambushed and sunk by a sneak missile attack. So here’s what you must do now”. But Ragnar, like Roberts, wanted these events to happen mid-game, to literally shock the player into handling the aftermath of a very serious loss. For Roberts, that was easy enough: script the mission so that the Behemoth goes boom even if not a single Kilrathi torp gets through. But Harpoon didn’t have a “Kill this unit” scripted action that could be programmed into the scenario editor. What to do? What to do?

Absent a “Hand of God”, Ragnar created the next-best thing: special AI-only undetectable & invincible units whose sole purpose was to attack any desired target with virtual certainty of destruction. These ranged from invisible submarines to mini-Scud launchers to pseudo-“balloon” units (frequently mocked by a certain someone who, naturally, still has to come up with a scenario 1/100th as good as Ragnar’s worst) armed with weaponry representative of the emulated threat.

sinking_oriskany_1[1]The “Hand of God” trick turned out to work pretty well; the special units targeted only the specified assets and the “holy cr@p!” effect towards the player was achieved. Of course this capability had to be used sparingly and carefully: If a scenario turned unwinnable because of a “Hand of God” action the players would soon lose interest. For this reason, the loss of the “morituri” units, while making the scenario harder, did not make it impossible: In the Falklands scenario, you can still win after the Sheffield blows up. Likewise, in the WW3 classic “Clash of the Titans”, you can still win the epic battle even after unavoidably losing two of your four supercarriers (the preservation of the carriers is not part of the victory conditions).

Both these campaigns proved immensely popular with the Harpoon community, judging from feedback on the forums, and regularly topped the download charts. How Mr. Hum can claim that “At that point, most players just said ‘Just screw it with this guy’” when he himself and one of his patrons are the only two (2) identifiable persons who have railed against this plot device, is beyond us. Perhaps it’s another one of his delusions of grandeur that leads him to assume that his opinion is automatically that of the wider Harpoon community. Or maybe he simply has no clue of what he’s talking about.

heckler[1] In conclusion: Chris Roberts, you’re damn lucky that Wing Commander was released in the 1990s. Had you waited just a decade more to realize your epic vision, you would be dogged time after time in Internet forums and newsgroups by heckling members of the peanut gallery who, perhaps because they realize that they’ll never reach up to your level, try instead to bring you down to their own – and once there, beat you by experience.

Such are the times we live in.

UPDATE: In Call of Duty – Modern Warfare, there is a sequence in which you do your best to get your player character out of a warzone, only to (unavoidably) die by the after-effects of a nearby nuclear detonation. No doubt, the devs of that game will earn their own share of forum idiots criticizing the “futility” of the whole sequence and the “pre-ordained” result.

Wasn’t it Schiller who said that, in the face of human stupidity, even gods fight in vain?

Time to add those S designations

October 5, 2009 · Posted in AAW, Bombs · Comment 

Robert Hewson of Jane’s Defense has reported that Russia fielded their first series of satellite guided bombs during the Zapad 2009 Exercises which kind of confirms an article at Stratfor several months ago. The aircraft types seem to be the SU-24D M2 (picture above) and the TU-22M3 Backfire. Weapons types are unknown but guessing the guys at AU Airpower have a great list of candidates. Time to update those databases chumps.