Power Dolls

I think the wargamer in me has been subconsciously prepping for WWIII for the last couple of months. Not only did I start playing Fallout 3, I was, until last week, embroiled with a double header of NATO: the Next War in Europe, and over the weekend, I devoted several hours to one of my favorite childhood video games, Red Storm Rising. I’ll tell you what: RSR is the best Tom Clancy based game there is, was or ever will be.

But today, I want to spotlight Power Dolls, a game that I’ve been playing the past couple days and did some live tweeting of last night.

There are two things I love that I am always in the look-out for in combination – hexbased wargames and the real-robot genre. There are a handful of examples out there, but many have a very steep language barrier, such as the Gihren’s Greed series or the line of Mobile Suit Gundam hex & chit board games, and for whatever reason, many Japanese tactical wargames go for squares, rather than hexes, which are nigh intolerable (especially in cases where there’s no unit stacking).

First thing I’d note about Power Dolls, it has a lot more stuff going for it than you would expect of a game whose primary hook is “everything is piloted by women”.

There’s something about a war between earth(maybe) and colonists on this planet, and you’re playing as the colonists’ defense force in a bid for maintaining independence. Or something. I should really probably go back and go over the settings stuff again. But for whatever reason, the entirety of the defense force is composed of women who pilot mechs and air-planes or drive self-propelled rocket artillery.

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Pew, Pew!

There are apparently only 10 missions, but given how long one of them takes to play through, that’s probably plenty.

Each mission starts with a large operational view of a theater, showing the situation, the mission, and the disposition of both your troops and the enemy’s. You have the option of selecting different pre-defined plans for the operations, which determine things like when forces get dropped, when air support is available, etc.

You have up to three drop-teams of mechs (depending on the operation; the first missions so far have only used two), a drop-team of off-board rocket artillery and a couple squadrons of air support.

Before each mission, you assign mechs, planes and artillery to your pilots, hopefully giving them some sort of configuration of gear and weaponry that compliments their skills. You then have to assign pilots to each landing group; the number of mechs in each group will determine how much air-lift it takes to bring them in; I’m sure that will matter more in later missions, since there are both heavy carriers and light carriers with some air-to-air capability. Any pilots not tied up in air-lift can be assigned fighter-bombers to offer ground support in one of the fighter wings.

So, what goes down, and gets depicted in the operational map, is your long-range artillery gets airlifted into position, then your first drop-team flies in and gets deployed on the tactical map, and as the mission progresses in 5 minute 1-turn increments, your troops are flown in according to the selected plan for the operation.

While the gameplay isn’t as crunchy as Battletech (there aren’t individual components that are tracked), it has a pretty robust selection of actions you can take during a turn. Each mech has three different rates of movement to choose from, which vary in per-hex movement cost, passive spotting radius, and defense against opportunity fire. Attacks are based on the equipment a mech has, but include everything from sub-machine guns and rifles to grenades and smoke screens. Units can drop weapons that are out of ammo to increase the number of realized action points. They can also call in air-strikes and indirect fire anywhere on the map.

I screwed up in a lot of places in the assignment of gear and deployment of forces in the second mission, partly because I didn’t pay enough attention to the mission briefing. I’d landed my troops around the bridge-head I thought I needed to defend, when really I should’ve air-dropped a handful of recon mechs to act as spotters and call in air strikes and off-board indirect artillery strikes while the enemy armored column moved south along the road. Instead, I had a massive tank division more or less punch through my scattered lines. By the time I’d started calling in indirect fire, most of my units who could spot were dead, cut-off or just trying to run away.

I may have to restart this mission so that I can go back at it with both better equipped units (fat lot of good my air-to-air missiles have done in this mission with no enemy aircraft) and better unit placement.

So, the good:

-Fairly nuanced tactical game; you have a lot of customization available to you in terms of how you can outfit your pilots. There are also a lot of different things each pilot can spend their action points on during your turn.

-The operational overview map is really cool. Even though you don’t do much on it, and so far only one mission has allowed for employing different “plans”, it’s a cool part that gives the game a wider feeling of scope than otherwise; for instance, you can SEE where your off-board artillery are located in relation to your front-line troops.

-The character art is pretty good; it finds a decent spot between ‘cute girls in mechs’ and the rougher look of more serious mil-sf animes. There is a character, though, who’s clearly an homage to Emma Sheen from Zeta Gundam.

-Hexes. They use hexes, man, HEXES!

The bad:

-The music is incredibly repetitive. For how long you’ll be playing this, you’re not going to be thrilled hearing the same bad midi-theme playing constantly.

-Speed of play. Not only are the turns incredibly long, this is exacerbated by the fact that the AI turn processes fairly slowly. Enemy turns take too long by most wargame standards. One mission of Power Dolls could easily eat up an entire evening, which is a double whammy when you realize you’re in a losing position after having sunk several hours in. I am probably going to have to go back to a save from nearly 4 hours of gameplay back to take another stab at the second mission (and hopefully this time silver haired yellow cat-eyes, cocky green-eyed brunette, and blue-bandana blonde won’t get blown up).

-The Fog of War doesn’t make sense when you’ve got air superiority and one or more fighter wings overhead. I get why spotting works the way it does, but it would be nice if there was a multi-step fog of war so that planes could spot units out in the open if they’ve bombed a target – even if they’re actually “gone”, you’d have an idea of the troop disposition from the previous turn as your pilots saw it on the way to and from their attack run.

There are also some complaints about the game’s AI; I can’t really judge yet, because if it’s bad, my strategy is probably worse than it is, at least until I figure out what I’m doing. We’ll have to see.

They’ve apparently made several sequels, but I’m not sure if any of them were ever translated into English. There’s also, apparently, a mediocre OVA based on it.

I’ll say that, for now, despite its flaws, I’m really digging Power Dolls. It’s definitely niche-within-a-niche, and the only other game that springs to mind along the lines of this is Cyberstorm (and that game was a very special kind of ugly). I’d love to find something that is mid-way between this and SSI’s Panzer General game, or even in a completely different direction, mid-way between this and Atomic Games/Avalon Hill’s V for Victory series. But as it is, if you’re desperately thirsty for hex-wars and giant robots, Power Dolls will definitely tide you over for a bit. You can find it at most abandonware sites.

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Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. Military Sci-Fi at its Finest!

I’m a pretty big fan of Universal Century Mobile Suit Gundam stuff. For the longest time, though, I’d put off reading Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, in no small part because of the outrageous price ($30-ish, 3 times the normal price of most manga) of the hard-bound, partially colored, full gloss collections. Plus, I sort of assumed it to JUST be a retelling of Mobile Suit Gundam. In a way I was right, but in so many ways I was TOTALLY WRONG!

Awhile back I snagged the first four volumes from the library, and they are AMAZING!

The Origin is done entirely by the original series character designer, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, and he uses the opportunity to tell a far more mature and compelling version of the One Year War. Though the story and themes are primarily the same, Yasuhiko strips away the cartoonish trappings of the 1979 series, taking it even further than Tomino did* with the compilation movies in which he’d sought to remove a lot of the sillier elements. Some might cry foul, but Yasuhiko succeeds in polishing off the last of the super robot elements which Gundam was so important for having begun to erode. What we’re left with is an incredibly gripping hardcore military sci-fi story that just happens to involve giant robots. Minor characters get more time to make the White Base crew seem more filled out and less understaffed. Additional Guntanks and Guncannons in its mobile suit arsenal makes the White Base feel a lot more like a functional combat unit than just Amuro and two mooks who sometimes get assists. This also means that we lose a lot more characters that we meet; with the exception of Job John (a VERY minor named character from the original series who did survive) I fully expect all of the other named Federation Mobile Suit pilots on White Base to die. While this could’ve taken away from Ryu’s big-heroic-sacrifice death, it ends up making it more meaningful as he’s the senior most pilot who, already severely injured, has to come to the aid of other pilots, some of whom were already kia.

The biggest change to the story, however, is that Yasuhiko opted not to use the batshit crazy semi-canonical route that White Base followed from its landing in North America to the Earth Federation HQ in Brazil. Instead he manages to fit the entire original earth arc narrative into a far more sensible direct route.

The White Base’s Journey to Jaburo in Mobile Suit GundamJourney to Jaburo Anime1. The White Base lands deep in Zeon Territory, somewhere in the American Southwest, later proposed to be near the Grand Canyon. Attacked by Garma’s North American Zeon forces.

2. Somehow, the White Base ends up the ruins of New York, fighting Char & the NA Zeons. Garma killed in battle.

3. The White Base’s Quantum journey to Asia.

4. The homogeneous wasteland geography makes the first part of the Ramba Ral arc difficult to place, but it’s generally assumed to be mainland China near the Taklamakan Desert.

5. Isle of Kukurus Doan; while this episode was not nearly as terrible as people have said it was (Time Be Still was much worse), it does make fuck-all sense having White Base back in the Pacific at this point, at least based on the episode’s production number. If placed before the Ramba Ral arc, it would resolve the quantum journey issue.

6. Battles explicitly set in or near the Taklamakan Desert (retroactive continuity), though easily could have taken place across Afghanistan and Persia on the White Base’s trek toward Europe.

7. The Odessa Offensive is one of the few places (along with the battle of New York, the refit in Belfast and Jaburo being in the Amazon basin somewhere in Brazil) that has an explicit tie to a real world location. It is, however, a large regional operation.  White Base’s exact location in all of this is unclear other than that they are behind enemy lines and in an arid region somewhere near the Black Sea.

8. The White Base encounters the Black Tri-Star somewhere in the forests of central Europe. This is held to either take place in the Ardennes or the Black Forest in Germany.

9. Following the Odessa Offensive, the White Base is given refit in Belfast, Ireland.

10. The White Base crosses the Atlantic Ocean, pursued by Zeon marines led by Char.

11. White Base finally arrives at Earth Federation Supreme HQ Jaburo in Brazil. After the Zeon’s all out assault on Jaburo is repulsed, the White Base returns to space, where it is involved in combat operations near Side 6, and Space Fortresses Solomon and A Baoa Qu.

The White Base’s Journey to Jaburo in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin

Journey to Jaburo Manga

1. White Base lands explicitly in the American Southwest in Arizona and spend some time following the Colorado River Valley. They fight Garma’s North American Zeon forces, though the geography is much more concrete.

2. Since one of the few things that was explicit about the location of Garma’s HQ in the original was that it was based in California, North American Zeon Command is placed in partially ruined L.A.; Zeon leadership staff occupy the hoity-toity parts while partisans hide in the ruins. The White Base receives orders to coordinate with the partisans in an effort to break Zeon’s North American command structure. Hence the Battle of New York is moved to L.A. The results are more or less the same, however instead of a brief arc about Icelina wanting revenge, we get to see the Zeon military police put a bullet in her father’s head.  (He was changed from mayor of New York to mayor of L.A.; he’s still a supporter of the anti-Zeon partisans).

3. Rather than take a crazy route circumnavigating the globe to get to Earth Federation HQ, White Base heads directly toward South America, fighting their way towards…

4. Neutral space in Lima Peru. The Ramba Ral arc is moved to the South American highlands, though some may have also taken place in the Mexican desert. It should be noted that in this telling, Lima essentially replaces Belfast, moving up White Base’s refit to before the Tri-Star arc. The Miharu subplot is replaced with Hayato beating the hell out of some Zeons in the street with his Judo skills (which are more relevant in the manga than they were in the Anime).

5. The battle with the Black Tri-Star is moved to near Cuzco. White Base therefore does not take part in the Odessa Offensive for geographic reasons; M’Quve is demoted from his arc-villain status and replaced with rather enjoyable new character General Garcia.

6. White Base arrives at Jaburo in time to assist in the defense of Federation HQ against an all out assault launched by General Garcia. He tries to use an Adzam underground and it goes about as well as you’d expect.

As you can see, the route taken in The Origin is significantly shorter and, despite losing/moving the iconic fights at Odessa and the forests of Germany, makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I cannot recommend Mobile Suite Gundam: The Origin enough.  Even for non-anime fans of Mil-SF.  I mean, I love MSG, but I will admit that there are so many cringe inducing moments as well as slow spots and bad episodes that keep me from making an unreserved recommendation to someone who doesn’t already like Gundam or giant robots.  That is not the case with The Origin, however.  There’s really nothing I would qualify my recommendation for this with.  If you like Mil-SF, you will at least appreciate if not love this retelling of the most significant military sci-fi tales of the 20th century.

Anyway, it’s inspired me to revisit my ideas for OGRE-suit Gundam…  Coming soon…

*:Another reason why I was hesitant was that I was worried it might be like Tomino’s novelizations, which were pretty terrible.

Z – Zeta Gundam (but not actually)

Born in Shadow suggested that I make Zeta Gundam my post for Z. The problem is, there’s nothing I could say that Born in Shadow hasn’t already said better.

Except for a warning to those who want to check it out. Don’t get the US DVD release: it’s got a garbage translation, it doesn’t have Neil Sedaka’s awesome theme music, and the names, which had been fairly standard in the fan community and in video games for 20 years, get all mucked up. They couldn’t get the original US dub VAs back, either, but whether or not that’s a bad thing is debatable. Also, despite this being the best Giant Robot Anime Ever Made in the history of forever and there will never be another Giant Robot Anime to ever come close to being as awesome as Zeta Gundam (with maybe the exception of Gurren Lagann), you should be warned that it ends on a cliff-hanger, with the story picked up right where it was left off by its sequel ZZ Gundam, which was absolutely terrible. “Surely it can’t be that bad, I mean, it’s the sequel to Zeta Gundam!” You’re wrong. Whatever is the worst you can imagine, it’s worse. The characters who didn’t die in Zeta Gundam get relegated to second class comic relief characters, and the characters who did die get replaced by a team of Power Rangers. The first major villain pilots a garbage mech made of garbage. It only goes downhill from there.

If you can accept the catharsis of an open ending and are content to deduce the events occuring between Zeta Gundam and Char’s Counter Attack for yourself (it’s not hard) you will be much better off.  Don’t let ZZ being terrible discourage you!

Anyway, my real A-to-Z post for “Z” will be up later today!