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Starcraft Remastered – A love letter to balance

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Starcraft’s getting a remastered version! This is very exciting news, if you’re a fan of real-time strategy games. Although some readers are probably wondering why Starcraft needs a remastered version if it only just came out.

I’m referring to the original Starcraft, Starcraft 1, or Brood War…the old Starcraft. Although, Starcraft 2 is getting old now too, isn’t it? One of the main faces of Battlenet, it’s been five years since its first iteration and it continues to go through a lot of patches, updates, and sometimes even improvements.

Did I say BattleNet? I meant Blizzard. Blizzard is the company that makes things like Warcraft and Diablo. BattleNet was their service for online gaming, but now they’re just calling it “Blizzard”, since everything is online now anyway and they shouldn’t confuse people with multiple words for their game client. The times are changing, but the coming of a remastered Starcraft is very good news for nostalgic gamers.

Why am I nostalgic for Starcraft? Well, old games are sort of my area, being a very slow gamer. I’m an extraordinarily lazy gamer. Everybody’s running around, having strange sorts of fun in Breath of the Wild and Mass Effect: Andromeda. But I still gotta finish Mass Effect 3. I got lost in the multiplayer, logged a thousand hours, and never got around to beating the game. Don’t pressure me. I’ll get to it. It’ll probably take another thousand hours.

I haven’t gotten off that freaky first planet, uh, that Earth one.

Okay, I don’t play many games outside of my comfort zone. This way, I can never fail. Remember, don’t do anything new because then nobody can hurt you. Starcraft has always been in my comfort zone, ever since it came out. Which wasn’t that long ago. Well maybe it was. I’m not old, if anybody’s old, it’s you.

Starcraft came out like two decades ago, back in 1998. It received an expansion called “Brood War”, and a few patches to fix a few balance things and the normal glitches and stuff. This is back when patches were optional if you just chose to never hop on to Battlenet to fight other humans.

Not everybody has played Starcraft, so let’s go through some background as to why this was such a definitive game for Blizzard and RTS games in general.

Starcraft came without a historical background or fantasy theme. It didn’t draw upon an established narrative; instead, we were thrown into a different galaxy with no particular frame of reference. The story felt as new and futuristic as the technology and the characters. It wasn’t polished like Star Trek or mystical like Star Wars, but it felt like outer space with aliens ranging from awe-inspiring to terrifying. And of course, it came with those good old rule books that had like, art and stuff. We don’t get those anymore. No more CDs, no more CD cases, no more random extra materials with funky art that you’re not sure ever appeared in the game….

I still don’t know who this dude is.

The real part I want to focus on is the gameplay. Starcraft set itself apart in a lot of ways, but it got to the top of the competitive gaming scene (and the top of my heart) through its consistent balance and capacity for strategic play. Like other real-time strategy games, you would gather resources, build up an army, and then kill everybody. Unlike other RTS games, it had three unique factions to choose from. And not just unique like what had come before. What had come before? I have to explain a lot of old stuff just to get to my point.

A contemporary of Starcraft was the Microsoft game Age of Empires. It was released some months before Starcraft and was a lot of fun for everybody, letting you build up ancient armies and kill your friends with them. Age of Empires evolved in sort of a parallel manner to Starcraft, getting sequels and improvements and even its own remastered version on steam these days.

Battle of the Anachronisms

There were about a dozen different civilizations you could play as; compared to the 3 races of Starcraft, you would think that Age of Empires would have the edge in diverse gameplay. However, in AOE, the uniqueness of the factions was not due to different units. Every single civilization had the same tech tree, the same soldiers, the same towns. The differences were in what technologies or units they might be missing, or what bonuses they got. They weren’t unique, they were just a little different. And it was not noticeable. Oh, I’m sure there’s a few experts in my audience who insist that one civ is clearly overpowered or broken or whatever. But was it noticeable the first time you played it? The second time? The fiftieth time? Or only after you had mastered the game?

It didn’t really affect your play style if you didn’t know that your archers were getting +1 attack against buildings as this civ, or that your workers cost 15 less food as this other civilization. As a beginner, you probably wouldn’t even notice these differences. It certainly was not important in playing against the computer (though as always, PVP is an entirely different animal.) In Starcraft, the differences between the factions were in your face from the beginning: unavoidably affecting how you played the game from the first time you play it.

This probably isn’t a human base.

Starcraft was designed from the beginning to have incredibly unique factions. This was partially due to Blizzard trying to get away from their previous title, Warcraft. It apparently wasn’t enough to change one or two letters in the title. The designers had to get CRAFTIER.

Blizzard’s Warcraft, much like Microsoft’s Age of Empires, had factions that were basically identical. You might have a human footman, and I’d have an orc grunt, but they had just about the same stats. Unless you care about a difference of 1 or two damage, it wasn’t noticeable at the beginner level. It was cosmetic. Nobody in the history of the world has cared about differences on the cosmetic level.

For a differing opinion, see “The entire history of the world”

Starcraft started out the same way, in its design phases. But after being told the game just looked like “Warcraft in space,” they decided to rework it from the ground up. The factions weren’t different enough, so they pulled it apart and got creative. When they finally released it, the three factions of protoss, zerg and terran were radically different from each other. When a beginner sits down to play as terran, they would absolutely have to play differently than when they play as zerg.

The game forces you to place buildings differently as protoss, and everything is grown from the same central hive as Zerg, not trained at factories as other factions. Each was intrinsically unique: it wasn’t just a reskinning of another. The theme permeated every aspect of the game, from resource management to base-building to obliterating your enemies. This wasn’t like Age of Empires, where you could get by without noticing the differences. You were reminded of who you were playing every time you clicked on a soldier, a little zerg creature, or a psionic warrior.

Let’s play “Zerg? Or pasta?”

From the ground up, Starcraft looked like it would be absurdly unbalanced. Yes, I’m going to get into numbers, but I’m not going to go crazy. If you don’t like numbers or even the barest hint of math, just skip this section. I won’t judge you. Just skip to the part with the picture of the checkerboard now.

Aw yeah, baby. Look at those bad boys.

In Age of Empires, the first actual military unit you could get as you built up your cute little empire was an axeman. The dude cost 50 money. What kind of “money”? Go away, I’m keeping it simple, call it what you like. He did 5 damage, and had 50 hit points. So if an axeman whacked another axeman ten times, that guy is dead. 5 damage x 10 hits is 50. The end. Very simple.

Look at those beautiful, intuitive numbers. 50 money to 50 hit points to buy a guy who does 5 damage. Same basic thing in say, Warcraft. Doesn’t matter if you have a human swordsman or an orc axe grunt as your starting unit. They cost the same, and your opposing unit is about the same as you.

Now enter Starcraft. JUST the first unit. For Zerg, it’s a zergling. Simple so far, and what a creative name. Costs 50 money…great. They do 5 damage…so they’re an axeman. And they have 35 hitpoints, so they’re a weak axeman. And every time you buy one, you get two of them…Wait, what? Some sort of two-for-one sale is going on. That seems unbalanced. How can the other factions keep up? Well let’s look at what the next faction has.

Protoss zealot. 100 money…Okay wait. Already, Zerg is getting a two-for-one situation, and here Protoss is, with their very first military unit, costing twice as, quadruple as much. Not looking great. How much damage does he do? 16, okay, that seems high, but hey. He’s twice as expensive, so he should get twice as much damage. Wait, 16 is more than 3 times as much as 5. And they get 4 zerglings so he’s really 4 times as expensive. Wouldn’t they need 20 damage then?

You see how, already, the comparisons are falling apart? We can’t intuitively grasp how the units were designed. It was constructed in a linear sort of way for the earlier RTS games: This guy costs 50 and does 5, my enemy’s unit costs 50 and does 5. It’s clear-cut, but in Starcraft, your guy costs….25? And does 5? And mine costs 100 and does 16? Is that balanced? Are the protoss just wild like that?

Nah, this guy looks pretty chill

I’m struggling to explain the zealot’s damage. How’d they get to the number sixteen? It doesn’t fit into a nice, “double the price, double the damage” narrative either.

Let’s move on to their hit points. Zerglings had a strange number of 35, so what could this zealot guy have? Oh, 160. One-hundred and sixty hit points. This guy does sixteen damage to the poor zergling, who will be mauled in 3 hits. The zergling does 5 damage to this 160 HP heavyweight. 160/5 = 32 hits to kill the zealot. Well at least we’ve got four zerglings for the price of one zealot, right? So it’s probably balanced? I don’t know! It’s a dangerous sort of balance.

And wait, we’ve got one guy left, the human faction. Oh sorry, Terran. Whatever. Their basic guy. Costs 50 money. Okay. sounds simple, but we’ve been fooled before. How much damage? 6. Okay. unimpressive. Except it’s ranged. All these other examples were melee. As in, i gotta walk up to my enemy and touch them. This guy has a gun. Who brought a gun to a swordfight? The humans, of course. He’s got 40 hit points. So that’s not much more than a zergling, and we get two-for-one zerglings, remember? Is that balanced? Well this human dude has a gun, i mean, couldn’t he shoot them without ever being touched? I don’t know. You can’t tell from the numbers.

I can tell we need more space marines, though.

This is what I’d call a dangerous sort of balance. You can’t know for sure until you’re testing it. And it has to be balanced, because otherwise the players won’t have fun. You need to feel it’s balanced enough that your decisions make a difference—in an unbalanced game, the only decision that matters is picking the right team.

You’d have to be crazy to take a 160-hp unit, match it up against a 40 hp unit, and say, yeah. This looks good, ship it.

We haven’t even gotten into how these units are produced, or how upgrades increase their effectiveness, or how quickly they attack in this real-time sort of game. We have an entire army we could go through, examining every level, comparing the units that couldn’t possibly work together in the same game. But it did work. The game was balanced, or at least balanced enough to make you feel like it was strategy that decided the outcome of the game. Starcraft succeeded in an unprecedented sort of way for a strategy game.

Whatever happened to the days of simple, nicely-balanced games?

So when Blizzard publishes this remastered version, you can get into Starcraft for free—the original games, without the updated graphics, will be free to download. With the remastered version, they won’t be touching the gameplay, so all those wonderful statistics I described above will be the same. No changes, despite the years it’s been, because like I said, it’s sort of complicated.

You might think that they’ve probably learned something about how to improve the balance of the game, maybe take some of those units and tweak it a little bit? But I doubt anybody fully understands the ramifications of changing the Starcraft system at this point, and they would only alienate many classic (or lazy) gamers who like things to stay the same.

The other major improvement will be multiplayer matchmaking, bringing Starcraft remastered into the modern age of PvP. If you’ve never played Starcraft before, or if you’ve just lost track of it, or if you just find numbers inspiring, then maybe this summer is a good time to give RTS a shot.

this is really just a quick summary i didn’t even get into the romance of the attack-move command so count yourselves lucky


Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment and EA Games

A casual fan of many nerdy things, Kiernan is a casual reader who's written casually from time to casual time.

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Shameless Draws the Line Between Healthy and Unhealthy Emotion

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When it comes to the ongoing continuity of any sort of story, cause and effect are extremely important. What characters say and do should not be taken lightly, whether it is positive or negative, since completely ignoring a situation where something significant happened only serves to break the kind of immersion a series should be going for. This was never really a problem for Shameless in the past, but recently something has come up to make me wonder, but wait last episode they were literally…? Granted it’s not the biggest of plot points—or holes rather—but still if it happens one time what stops it from happening a second time. Maybe it’s just me nitpicking at this point because I know it wasn’t a central part of the plot (actually it was mostly filler), but the fact it made me question what was going is something that really made me wonder about the rest of the series.

On a different and more significant point, another thing that is important in a series is to divide the line between right and wrong, whether it comes from the for of good and evil or healthy and unhealthy. Granted this is Shameless we’re talking about, and a lot of the morality of the series is pretty gray. But one thing we can count on being thrown onto sides are feelings and emotion. One thing that certainly sets Shameless apart from the rest is it’s realism in context to our relation to its characters. Keeping that in mind, something so central to the show’s success should be able to give us a clear line between what we can expect could be positive characteristics in the form of development and learning while on the negative side being constant poor decision making and remaining the same person of the course of the shows length. This episode reminded me why the line exists and why it is so important.

Recap

The episode opens to Ian continuing his plans involving movements against religious homophobia while Frank tries to plan his retirement, which hilariously is nonexistent due to his whole six weeks worth of work in his entire life. Debbie also finds some off the books welding gigs that take place at night which is about as strange as it sounds. Celia appears to take Franny for a few days, begging the question as to what is going on with Derek? Meanwhile, Kassadi continues to be an insufferably happy fiance by buying presents for the family; I forgot she was rich. Yet scarily enough, she give Carl a necklace with a pendant sized bottle filled with her blood…crazy.

Fiona continues to work on the apartment and learns that Nessa lost one of her Ford babies but hasn’t told her wife yet. Speaking of Ford, he does text her asking her to look at some furniture for her apartment as she tells Nessa about their situation. It’s cute to see Fiona and Ford look at furniture and see another language he knows. At least it gets her a huge discount on a pretty expensive Danish chair.

Kev and V continue to try and find Svetlana a rich old man to marry to help her one up her old fellow sex worker from the previous episode. Lip goes to make a visit in prison to see Youens and we shockingly find out that he has passed away, all the office will tell him that there was an incident and he didn’t survive and that the body was claimed by the next of kin. What follows is a quite depressing montage of Lips ride home.

Once Fiona returns home, she sees the family of the man who fell off her roof arguing with his coworker, who is refusing to give her money for the work already done until he’s out of the hospital. It looks like they’re homeless at the moment and Fiona does what she can to help. She realizes they might be homeless, when what starts as his daughters wanting to use Fiona’s bathroom turns into a bath for them. Ian starts to see more supporters come out to see him after the viral video of him saving the priest and he’s approached by a minister to help more of the Gay community. Lip goes back to Youens’s home and walks in on his daughter, Tabitha, going through his affairs. It turns out the withdrawal from booze caused him to have a bad seizure, he tries to seem significant to her but she comes off as offended and asks him to leave and to leave his key.

Svetlana finally has her date with old rich man only to be treated like a cheap sex worker and she ends up punching him in the face when he asks her for a good time for very little money. Ian has a lot of the kids in his home to spread the message of love but it only serves to gain him more followers in which he’ll need a bigger place to speak. Though he’s not sure if he’s up to the task which is as much as he expresses this fear to Fiona. Though now he’s dubbed as Gay Jesus.

Debbie’s night welding job actually ends up working for a bunch of scabs trying to one up production for cheaper against a welding union. They do get caught but most of them get away, including Debbs. Kassidi gets more and more possessive and obsessive when she realizes Carl is still going back to military school. She has a clear freak out about it while Lip tries to write a speech for Youens’s wake. The family finds out he’s engaged, but of course Ian and Fiona try to convince him not to marry him. Frank does what he does best and acts like Frank.

Shameless presents, “Gay Jesus”

Just as Fiona begins to enjoy life on her own, the man who fell off her roof is brought by ambulance to his family who are still living in a car right outside her apartment. Once Ford comes back, Fiona tells them she’ll try and find them family housing until they can back on their feet. Pun not intended. Meanwhile Kev and V work a scheme with mic and two way radio to help Svetlana act more like a submissive woman to help her find a rich old man. Debbs realizes even though there is danger with working with scabs, the pay was too good for her not to take the risk again. Carl comes back home to all his military uniforms ripped apart and this leads to yet another fight as she begins to describe that she’ll die if he leaves. The two compromise on getting married that day, oddly enough it’s not the weirdest marriage that the Gallagher family has produced.

Fiona talks to Trevor about the housing for the family, and Trevor mentions that Ian hasn’t been around much even though he was supposed to speaking to some kids for him that night. Trevor expresses that he misses him. Frank, now pretty much back to his old ways, is using Ian’s message for shameless advertising; of course Ian tells him that 95% of the sales must go to help Trevor’s kids.

At the wake for Youens, Lip realizes that he was not the only life touched by his professor, in fact he was actually the least successful of all of them. They all come up talking about how he helped them become masters in their field, or was there for them when they needed him most, and even more emotionally exclusive situations. Lip crumbles his speech and leaves in anger only to go back to the bike shop to destroy things. Fiona tells the family outside that she found them a place that will take them in two days but offers to let them stay at her apartment until then. Carl and Kassadi’s marriage falls through when they’re told they have to wait for the next day for their marriage license to take effect.

She’s insane

Fiona and Ford spend more time together as she finally confronts him about his lack of interest in her life, only to realize he already knows everything bout her by asking around. She’s surprisingly not creeped out by his extensive knowledge of her because of how he words it that she’s completely out matched by his charm. Svetlana’s second attempt at wooing an older suitor has her take off her mic in frustration and go straight for grabbing the mans crotch. Another successful meeting gets Ian a larger group for support, he waivers only at the idea of saying the same things over and over but quickly picks back up once he’s told that sometimes that’s all one needs to hear.

My ship has set sail

Carl finally admits to Kassidi that he’s having doubts about their marriage the next day and that he was relieved that they had to wait. He wants to wait a little longer and she seems to accept based on his honesty. Probably the best thing she’s done until she ruins it back trying to fake hanging herself so that she’ll be saved by Carl, using that as a sign that he really does love her. This leads to them getting married that day after all.

After Fiona and Ford finally pop the cherry she’s rushed back to her apartment because more people are now squatting with the family to make money off of them. Trevor finally confronts Ian about missing his promise to him and the two fight, Trevor brings up some valid points. Lip finds Tabitha on his porch, she brought him the draft of a recommendation letter written for Lip and she expresses how he was a great dad to strangers but not to her. She says that he never saw her father right more about a student than he did for Lip. She begins to cry and Lip does his best to console her.

The episode ends with Fiona attending Ian’s big night while calling it a cult under hush hush, though I’m not sure if she’s serious or not. Ian gives a great speech, charismatic and relatable. Debb’s gets injured at her scab gig when a heavy metal pipe falls at work, her expression gives away that it’s a serious injury. Fiona finds out that the man whose family she’s been letting stay at her place is now suing her for falling off the roof and wants 6 million dollars.

Review

The first thing I really want to talk about is Youens’s death. For Lip this had a profound effect and swirled emotions around like crazy. Up until now Youens had been a sort of crutch for Lip; sure he was grateful for the man helping get his life straight and paying for his rehab, but at the same time Lip centered his true rehabilitation by trying to help Youens from succumbing to the same fate. Clearly the man did not want to be helped after he showed up to court drunk. Emotionally the thought of the old professor going to jail weighed heavy on Lip and with his passing Lip was given a forced release from that pain. I’m not saying I wish death on anyone holding someone back emotionally, far from it, but in this case it might have helped Lip in the long run.

This scene was pretty powerful

The second part of this is Lips handling of the wake. We’ve seen Youens not only help Lip to sobriety but a long time ago he saw a future in him, a promising career. This slowly fell apart as the drink became most of what Lip cared for. Upon witnessing all that former students and the like had to say about Youens at his wake we realize that they were all a lot more successful in life than Lip. We could understand if this made him feel like a failure in some respect but the real emotional turmoil is the feeling of not being exclusive or not being someones, “one”. While on the surface it seems like a selfish thought on his part but surely he knew he couldn’t be the only one whose life he touched. Of course this feeling is remedied by Tabitha who most likely feels the same exact way, especially when students had a better child to father relationship than she did with her own father and like that we are given a proper division between healthy emotional grief and selfish possession.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, we have Carl and Kassadi’s relationship which is pretty much dominated by her over bearing possessiveness and emotionally abusive attitude towards Carl. She literally pressures him into seeing things her way by threatening, screaming, and just all around acting quite frankly insane. Carl really needs to find a way out of this before it continues to get worse.

Ian’s plot has gotten a lot of traction of the course of the season with a major pro and con. The pro of course is not only sending this message of love while at the same time facing the realities of being looked to as a hero by so many. The show brilliantly weighs in the issues that are faced by people of importance into their personal lives. But the major con is that earlier this season we saw Ian at an all time low saying something was going to be done. It was solemn, thought provoking and then never mentioned again. It seemed pretty significant at the time so why was it completely forgotten?

I had the same issue with the new plot for getting Svetlana a new old, rich husband. Kev and V just spent almost an entire episode working to shame and humiliate her and once she has a moment of true weakness they run back to her side? Granted they are good people and would do something like that for a friend in need but they literally just spent almost a whole season hating her and suddenly they don’t? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.


Images courtesy of Showtime 

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Helsreach Shows Us a Universe of Constant War

Michał

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Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals, and welcome to my first article of 2018. I’d say I hope it’s better than the last year, but who are we kidding? With that in mind, let me introduce you to a book from a universe that is much, much worse than our own. The book in question is Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. It’s a part of a larger series of novels taking place in the Warhammer 40000 universe, about the battles of the Space Marines – the grim, bald men in very large pauldrons who are perhaps the most recognizable face of the setting… for better or worse.

The title of the novel refers to a hive-city on the world of Armageddon. “Hive”, in this context, means simply a massive city on a planet full of such. Armageddon is an industrial world, producing machines and weapons for the Imperium of Man, and it saw a great deal of warfare, even by the standards of Warhammer 40K. Helsreach takes place during the third war for Armageddon, a titanic conflict depicted in codices, novels and other material. The major dramatis personae of it are Commissar Yarick and the Ork warboss Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka.

…Neither of whom plays any sort of role in this book. Yarrick appears briefly, but Ghazghkull is nowhere to be seen. That’s because Helsreach is only one city on the planet, and not a very important one, even. The sheer scale and brutality of the fighting it sees despite that is a testament to how mind-bogglingly brutal the war at large is. But its relative insignificance provides much of the actual conflict of the novel, due to what it means for its main protagonist.

Said protagonist would be Chaplain Grimaldus, of the Black Templars chapter. Black Templars are fanatical and devoted to the Emperor even compared to other Space Marines. Grimaldus’ role as a Chaplain means that he serves as a priest, leading them in prayer, stoking their faith and encouraging them to ever greater ferocity and brutality in the name of humanity and its God-Emperor.

If that sounds boring and one-note to you, well, I used to think so too. But Dembski-Bowden showed me that it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Space Marines stand apart from humanity, yes. Their physical and psychological traits both result from heavy genetic modification.

And yet… Grimaldus is relatable. He hasn’t been a Chaplain for long, having replaced his mentor in the role. He doesn’t think he’s up to the task. His battle-brothers, whom he leads into the battle for Helsreach, agree – but as they will not question the chain of command, it just leads to quiet resentment. Grimaldus is also less than happy to have been sent to fight for an insignificant city with a handful of Marines, rather than join the Chapter in the massive battles in the planet’s orbit or other cities. The fact that he’ll die doesn’t bother him – dying for the Emperor is his goal in life. But dying without glory and honor do.

As relatable as Grimaldus is to us, the narration emphasizes the differences between the Space Marines and humans. That’s how it refers to normal people, at least in the Polish translation. The Adeptus Astartes are defenders of humanity, but whether or not they’re still human themselves after so many modifications is arguable. The soldiers of the Imperial Guard around them certainly feel the gap. Their towering size, unflinching focus and zealotry, the constant sounds of their power armor… not to mention their inhuman strength and fortitude in battle.

Grimaldus’ journey in this novel involves coming to terms with his position, realizing the worth of the struggle for Helsreach and empathizing with the “mortal” men and women around him. Compared to Warhammer 40000 as a whole, the inclusion of women is what I’d call decent. The Space Marines are a boys-only club as ever, but the Imperial Guard is clearly full of both genders. There’s some romance stories among the Guard that kind of come out of the left field. I think their main purpose is to confuse Grimaldus – who, like all Space Marines, has neither the capacity nor drive for such relationships.

One of Grimaldus’ more interesting relationship is with the princep of an Imperial Knight. For some quick context, a Knight is a building-sized bipedal war machine, basically a mecha. The princep is an extremely old woman who’s the thing’s main pilot, submerged in a tank of liquid and integrating with it through her mind. Her relationship with Grimaldus is that of grudging respect mixed with hostility, as their goals and ideologies clash.

Despite working towards the same goal and against the same enemy, they represent different factions within the Imperium of Man, which do not see eye to eye. The details of it might somewhat confuse a reader who isn’t very familiar with the setting, as they concern the religious and superstitious reverence that humanity has towards technology.

The princep belongs to Adeptus Mechanicus, also called the Machine-Cult, for a reason. They supposedly worship the Emperor in his aspects as the Omnissiah, the Machine-God… which is a thin veneer covering their radically different beliefs. Of course, the talk about machine spirits and machine-gods isn’t entirely superstition, as Titans have a tendency to struggle with their pilots for control once their mental strength wavers…

What about the enemy that they all face? Well… not much to say about them, really. Wahrammer 40000 Orks are very much like fantasy orcs, with all their ugly implications… except cranked up to eleven in most ways. Their every trait, and every aspect of their biology, has been designed for one purpose – waging war. After their creators disappeared, and so did the threat they designed Orks to face… the greenskins simply began to fight anyone and anything they could.

Needless to say, they’re pretty monothematic. There are ways to make them more than just a wave of enemies to cut down, but Dembski-Bowden does not do that. Orks simply are an endless horde of brutal, bloodthirsty fighters. They die in droves, but they keep coming, are far smarter than they look and possess war machines to match those of the Imperium.

Here’s also where the differing perspectives of Space Marines and humans come into play again. A Space Marine, a superhuman wearing power armor and wielding powerful weapons, can swat Orks aside easily. To a regular human, a Ork is a huge, vicious, durable monster.

One way or the other, the Orks simply provide a background against which all the conflicts among the protagonists are forged – Grimaldus’ inner doubts, tensions among leadership or his decision to unearth a massive, ancient war engine that the Adeptus Mechanicus would rather stayed buried.

The constant, unrelenting war the Orks provide as antagonists can become overwhelming. There are brief moments of respite and planning, but other than that, the book really gets across the atmosphere of a battle that just doesn’t end. I consider it a success on Dembski-Bowden’s part, but not everyone might see it this way. It depends on how much you like war stories, probably.

I’ve talked about characters and their perspectives on things, which brings me to an important part. The novel uses third-person narration, but certainly not an omniscient one. We see things from above the shoulders of characters, whether it’s Grimaldus or others. But our view is very much colored by how they see things. This is especially visible when we see the Astartes from the point of view of regular humans, but that’s not all there is to it.

Indeed, I have heard that Dembski-Bowden outright advised everyone to remember that the books are written from the characters’ perspective and express their views, no one else’s. This is particularly apparent in Helsreach when Space Marines of the Salamanders Chapter appear. This Chapter’s traditions and tactics focus strongly on protecting the common folk of the Imperium, setting them apart from the often aloof and arrogant Astartes.

To us, it may seem like a positive trait. But the narration portrays them through Grimaldus’ eyes, and he sees their care for the civilians as weakness and foolishness. Grimaldus would rather take out an Ork warboss than escort defenseless people. Is it bloodthirsty fanaticism or pragmatism?

Having said all that, is Helsreach good reading for someone who isn’t very familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe? Although I learned about it a long time before picking it up, I would say it might be. There are many elements that might confuse a casual reader, mostly the names of different groups within the Imperium. Most of it is easily understood in context or directly explained, however. At the end of the day, the setting uses some very typical elements, putting them in a grimdark space fantasy atmosphere.

So, if you like grim stories about endless war, inner and interpersonal conflicts and don’t get tired easily of fight scenes… Helsreach might be for you. Either as a not too deep, casual read, or a jumping point into a larger universe.


Images courtesy of Games Workshop

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Reviews

Shameless Tackles Hate and Intolerance with Love and Schemes

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With the holidays over and Showtime giving us a week off to really sit in and think about how the first half of this season of Shameless, it’s pretty easy to get lost in what we still want to see from a series that has been on the air for nearly a decade. While I’ve expressed my doubts about what this season could accomplish, and where it may be lead astray, especially considering the lack of unity in the central characters of the show, I’ve also begun to wonder if the magic of the Gallaghers is gone. Like I’ve said oh so many times over, I want the whole family or not at all.

With the week-long break, I really thought about that statement and came to the conclusion that in a way I am entitled to my opinion, but at the same time the very same entitlement may make me look like a spoiled fan. Even so, while I can live with the eventuality of a grown family branching out on their collective own, I believe I’m still right in the fact that the purpose of the story, the series itself, is that it is actually themed around the family. What they do on their own is entertaining enough but again lacks any real consequences to a singular plot as a whole.

While some episodes in this season were still enjoyable without that sense of singularity I find myself on the ropes in the opinion of whether it is time for the series to end or not. While I am enjoying this season for what it is I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels it is lacking that traditional Shameless charm that has carried it so far. With that said I leave it up to the remainder of the series to sway me in one direction or the other, whatever the outcome may be.

Recap

The episode opens to quite the loud Gallagher household with incessant doorbell ringing, a baby Franny who will not stop crying and a whole group trying to use the bathroom which Debbie refuses to vacate due to constant use of pregnancy tests. All showing negative of course, did I mention that Fiona’s new pup is adorable? Lip decides to ease Debbie’s tension by offering to take her to Planned Parenthood to get a real test and Brad gets a morning surprise of naked Fiona as he’s sleeping in the tub. Fiona decides to just go to Nessa’s apartment to shower. We get to see more of Kassadi who is now Carl’s girlfriend a little too close to him for comfort, especially as she sits on the head of the toilet watching him pee…and underwear that says “all Carl’s”.

…crazy

Frank begins his refugee relocation to Canada scheme in the hopes of helping those victimized by Trump’s America xenophobia while of course making a quick buck from them and smuggling cheaper drugs (mostly the medicinal kind) back to the US. At least he’s doing some sort of good even if it is tainted by classic Frank mentality. Watching him try to teach his new clients the Canadian anthem is especially giggle worthy.

Ian, Trevor, and at-risk kids begin to clean up the building they leased from Margot and soon discover that some of their queer kids have gone back home because their parents have forced them to a church where a priest will help them “pray the gay away”. Offensive, but sadly an all too real situation that unfortunately exists in the world. It mostly went unnoticed until one of theirs tried to kill themselves. Kev and V provide some filler from their last scenes as Kev continues to act in his dominant streak. When Lip and Debbs arrive at Planned Parenthood he notices that Sierra’s boyfriend is there with another woman who is pretty much almost in labor. The two exchange looks in uncomfortable silence. Fiona gets Nessa’s apartment all to herself.

Frank begins his journey to the great white north as he tries to make the best out of a long trip by playing confusing word games with his clients…and a goat. I may have also made a weird noise of excitement when I realized Sameer was played by the same actor as Salim from American Gods…but I digress. Lip has a quick word with Charlie about his pregnant companion and Lip gives him ultimatum to tell Sierra or he will himself. Ian and Trevor visit their friend who is bed ridden and find out more about this priest and his church. Fiona enjoys the freedom of living alone for a few hours only to be caught in mid naked dance by Ford in hilarious embarrassment. The two sort of flirt as he invites her to look at some famous architecture of south-side Chicago. He’s really into it and Fiona just kind of goes along with it. Carl and Kassadi’s sort of relationship moves to the uncomfortable and depraved as she begins to give him hand jobs in the middle of driving for Uber.

Lip finally starts to meet with sponsors only to realize that Brad was actually pretty tame compared to the ones that are out there. The best being his first who is basically taking no shit about him being too involved in others lives, while the others end up being way too old or way too weird. Frank takes his refugees into the wild to cross the border while telling hilarious stories about Canada playing on their light-hearted stereotypes. Kev finally starts to employ his newly found dominant mentality on Svetlana while at work and it helps to remove V’s sexual attraction to her and way more towards him. Fiona and Ford share a sweet moment as Ford tells her the beauty of certain buildings she only knows for what ghetto events happened there. It’s sweet to see Fiona have an exchange with a man who isn’t romantically interested in her, which is really cemented when she makes the first move and he tells her he’s not interested. Though not because she’s not good looking but rather because he thinks she’s too complicated. We can’t really tell if she took it as an insult or not at this point.

Well this was awkward…

Ian and Trevor finally attend a meeting for the conversion church and it is very sickening to say the least. At this point they’re just gathering some intel for an eventual strike back until Ian can’t stomach the hatred anymore. One of Frank’s followers faints and he cuts open her Burka and carries her on his back for the remainder of the journey. Debbie has Liam take some sultry photos of her to put on craigslist for employment, “sexy welder girl looking for work”. Lip almost spills the beans about Charlies other woman to Sierra because of her obvious distress, but is quickly saved by Sierra correcting him and telling him her father had murdered her mother years ago and his parole is coming up in a few days. Lip reminds Charlie of his ultimatum especially with the long drive they’re going to take.

Debbs decides to get her weekly groceries from emergency food banks and acts slightly entitled for an unemployed mother seeking out assistance. The dinner she prepares for the family is pretty unappetizing though. Frank finally gets his flock to Canada and the goodbye is bittersweet for Frank has actually done a good thing for some very good people. Kassadi’s crazy begins to come out more and more as the episode goes on and Ian prepares a bible study of his own. Also the whole family bashes Fiona on why she is complicated. Again can’t tell if the intent was malicious or not, seems like no though.

Ian finally goes back to the church and has a bible quoting contest with the priest, a back and forth of sections in the bible that either condemn gay love or Ian’s pro love quotes focusing on loving your fellow human no matter what. The scene is absolutely fearless and astounding that not only does it resonate on the viewers of the show but even in show as it’s hits thousands of views on YouTube. Carl and Kassidi finally reach a weird impasse as he finally gets mad at her and she pulls out the extra crazy acting both completely dependent on him and just overwhelm him with really weird emotions. Yeah, I don’t like her. Kev’s dominance continues to reign as he pushes Svetlana farther and farther away from almost total control of The Alibi and it double serves him with V’s new found love for his new machoness.

This scene was so well done

The episode concludes with Fiona attending a party with Nessa and her wife to find that they are both pregnant. Funny enough Nessa’s wife is pregnant through artificial insemination thanks to Fords sperm…and Nessa is pregnant also thanks to Ford but she actually decided to have sex with him, being drunk and laughing the whole about it anyway. Fiona approaches Ford about it but not really seriously and as more of a “oh I’m the complicated one?” type of way. He’s also got a total of five kids already. Lip decides to see the first sponsor as she’s pretty much the most normal, if not a little unflinchingly honest. Debbs also finally gets her period assuring that she is not pregnant and Frank prepares for another refugee relocation job.

Review

Like the previous episode this one was probably one of the best this season. Even though we’re still dealing with mostly smaller stories, the ones that stuck with us really did for good reason. The most talked about of course being the whole conversion church situation with Ian and Trevor. As I mentioned in the recap it is a really sad reality that these types of places exist and even worse is that they use not only fear mongering in the form of eternal damnation but also treat queerness as an affliction or disorder. Beyond this incredibly ignorant mentality it was great to see Ian not only confront and conquer but to also do so using the same exact texts these intolerant zealots do. It’s a wonderful thing to see fear and hate brought down by love and respect.

Ians face is the collective anger of an entire fandom

In the most nuanced plot line of the episode, Frank’s journey to Canada with middle eastern refugees is an especially delightful segment to watch. Not only is the scene a critique on the xenophobia plaguing our country ever but also a general lack of humanity on some of our peers parts. What I loved most about this segment was that it had literally nothing to do with their religion or country of origin. Other than the fact that we know why they’re going to cross the border illegally Frank nor the writers put in anything associating them with a religion or country and choose to let us see just our fellow Man and Woman. Even for Frank this something completely different but carries a message we should all accept by now. Granted he does throw in a little quip here and there like calling them his “little brown bunnies” it’s hardly something to take as condescending or insulting and is mostly just Frank being Frank.

On of the weaker moments of the episode was Carl’s current involvement with Kassadi. I mean I liked his story earlier on in the series in trying to find a way to afford to get back into military school. Then suddenly she appeared and made things super weird for everyone and his return to the academy completely went out the window. I mean, I’m sure he is going to go back, he already has the money for the next semester but where will that leave her. At this point she is already very manipulative and uses negative emotion to get what she wants from him. I have a feeling this will lead to conflict when he decides it is time to go back to school and whether she’ll let him or not. Time will tell.

On a final note, this episode did seem to ignore the last few minutes of the previous episode where Ian seemed to be under some heavy emotional distress. He talked about something that may need to be done but was pretty vague about it and didn’t respond to Fiona when asked him what it meant. While his mind was no doubt preoccupied with what was going on this episode I would really hope they follow up on this as it could lead to an increasingly emotional and authentic experience in story telling.

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