Review: Armor Attacks

Armor Attacks

John Antal’s Armor Attacks is essentially a choose your own adventure book about a tank platoon. Created as a training tool, it was originally released shortly before the Gulf War. Thus it provides a window into Fuldapocalyptic tank battles.

The premise is that the Krasnovians (or, as they’re called in the book, the “Threat”-essentially a Soviet-style OPFOR) wants to seize the Middle East, and the Americans (and you) must stop them. While it shouldn’t be fair to criticize what’s clearly just a setup for the instructional vignettes he wants, I should still point out the Melville-esque prose clearly leaves something to be desired. Everyone talks in unrealistically robotic, exact terms. It’s understandable, but I still didn’t really like it in that sense.

At least this doesn’t do what Antal did in his first proper novel, Proud Legions, and try to make the reader’s unit the absolute conflict-defining centerpiece. The low, dirty place of the reader is emphasized, and rightfully so. Which is a good thing, as the actual vignettes/choices are well done.

I was “genre-savvy” enough to make some of the right decisions when I tried a run through of one of the scenarios. Tanks are more vulnerable to artillery than you might think, so don’t stay in one spot too long. Taking on a company of T-72s with a platoon of M1s is totally viable, even with 105mm M1s (I have the feeling that this would have been less intuitive pre-Gulf War). And so on.

However, and this may have been the legacy of The Henry Stickmin Collection and its “failure is just as good as entertaining as success” mindset at work, I also attacked up the middle. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I’d have loved for one of the scenarios to be a “Kobayashi Maru” one where you get wiped out no matter what you do.

The newest digital edition of this book does the orginal one better by showing the instructor’s material used. To me at least this was fascinating and interesting. For anyone interested in tanks of the period, I highly recommend this book.

A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?

Review: Breakout

Breakout

It’s kind of hard to take a look at individual entries in the Kirov series once its formula gets going, but if I had to choose one, I’d say Breakout. At the very least, it’s emblematic of the series. The Allies in this timeline have launched an amphibious invasion France from the south instead of from the north like they did historically. My fear when I first encountered the Kirov series was that it just would be stuff like that, or even more minor ones like “oh, well there were two Tiger battalions at ______ instead of the historical one?”

Instead, we get, in this book alone, timeshifted nuclear warheads, nuclear warheads developed with future technology by Volkov, airships, more airships, a timeshifted modern Bundeswehr brigade that inexplicably fights for the Axis because the author wanted to wargame it, and of course the adventures of the ship itself and its crew. There are reasons why, in spite of the pacing on display here, that I really enjoy this series. And Breakout has all of them.

Review: Dune

Dune

It’s finally here. The time has come to do a review of Dune, Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction classic. Arrakis is a very long way from the Fulda Gap. This book is not the usual fare of this blog. Even beyond that, it’s pretty tricky to get a really solid opinion on, because it has two qualities that are both richly deserved.

On one hand, it deserves to be a classic. It’s one of those sci-fi books that has genuine depth, and you can see how enduring and influential its setting is, even little factors like me thinking that Jabba the Hutt had to be inspired by Vladimir Harkonnen. Compared to spacesuit commandos and Kenneth Bulmer making up five million words for “plot-creature”, this is the real deal.

Unfortunately, it’s also a novel that’s written in an overly long, overly flat manner. While it has the imagination to back it up, its prose is still over-descriptive. And while this obviously isn’t Herbert’s fault, Dune has been famous enough that seeing its world doesn’t bring about the sense of wonder it would have to a far more fresh reader.

Dune is both of those things, which makes it very hard to actually judge. But science fiction is richer for it having existed. It can be an apple that stands alongside the pulpier oranges.

The Beginning of Conventional WW3 Plans

I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.

  • “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
  • This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
  • The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
  • Airborne forces are to be used.
  • The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
  • With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
  • As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.

A Thousand Words: Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land

I remember playing Super Mario Land when young and being extremely unimpressed. Of course, this was after I played the (well-done) port of the original Super Mario Bros on the Game Boy Color. So a part of me goes “of course a launch title for a very low-powered console is going to be bad in hindsight”. But another part of me wants to judge it by the standards of the time, when having Mario in a portable form at all was an amazing feat. Certainly the game wasn’t objectively bad enough to be a flop-it was an amazing seller.

And yet with full hindsight, it’s little more than a downscaled Super Mario Bros with weirder backgrounds that feels jerky and unsatisfying. The most obvious example is the physics-fireball, but the rest doesn’t feel as charming as the console games. This isn’t the fault of the weird aesthetic, which I don’t have any issues with. It’s just aged badly.

Review: Pale Horse 3

Pale Horse 3

Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.

That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.

Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.

Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.

Weird Wargaming: Artificial Humans

Ok, this is one of the weirdest Weird Wargamings yet, and it depends entirely on what ruleset is being used. Basically, one of my loves is “artificial humans“. The boring thing to do would be to treat them as either normal humans or robots. But there was one attempt at going beyond that.

Now in Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade, the morphs are treated just like normal units with one exception-all of them, even the strongest, have zero luck. Zero luck means that they have lower hit and dodge rates mixed with massive opponent critical rates. That can definitely be incorporated into various tabletop rules.

Of course, it can make some sense to give them higher stats in other categories to compensate for that. It all depends on what the theme of these artificial humans are. They can be everything from super to expendable, as the Fire Emblem morphs are.

Review: Zulu Hour

Zulu Hour

The second Kirov “Keyholders” spinoff, Zulu Hour takes a look at an alternate Battle of Isandlwana. Like the previous installment at Waterloo, this has an excuse plot that’s really forced and blatant even by Kirov standards. A pair of gambling time travelers use their time-keys to go back and try to change various historical battles for the sake of their rivalry. Don’t worry about the seemingly massive butterflies this would cause, because thanks to the mechanics of time travel, they can always “overwrite” it later.

Yeah, it’s that blatant. But this is the Kirov series, and using time travel to set up all kinds of alternate battles is the exact point of the series. Besides the battle itself and the time travelers trying to persuade Chelmsford and Cetshwayo, this also involves the Fairchild Group, another weird subplot in the series involving an oil heiress and her own personal Type 45 Destroyer. In past Kirovs, several people from that were timeshifted to… the Isandlwana site.

Once the fighting actually starts, what emerges may be one of the most legitimately good things Schettler has written. Maybe it’s just how a one-part spinoff simply has to be more concise than an eight-book series, or maybe it’s just the novelty. Yet it worked.

It could be a change of pace after seeing so many large-scope modern wargames. Or it could be that the late 19th Century is an area of warfare that I haven’t seen that much of, compared to the subject matter of the main series. Whatever it was, the action here felt and looked better than the norm for Kirov.

This long-foreshadowed book was a lot of fun. And the Kirov spinoff concept of just reenacting/changing historical battles via wargaming has a lot of possibilities. Those are taken advantage of here in an enjoyable book.

Review: Battle of the Three Seas

World War 1990: Battle of The Three Seas

It’s time to return to William Stroock, an author who I’ve previously slammed as the worst World War III writer ever. Has this been fair? And has his new Battle of the Three Seas improved on his previous entries?

For the first question, it’s a weird answer. It’s like talking about the New York Knicks or Jets. They’re still pro-level teams, and even a “bad” pro player is still among the greatest in the world. Being the 32nd-best team in the world is still an accomplishment. Similiarly, to write a long novel at all in a niche genre is a talent many don’t have, and Stroock has still gotten more basics right in the field than non-specialized authors have. (Research on military equipment, especially above small arms, is something frequently in very, very short supply). So yes, it has been unfair to simply denounce in fire-breathing terms.

Yet it’s still fair to consider the Knicks and Jets not the 32nd-best teams in the world, but the worst compared to their colleagues. They’re still bad by those (incredibly high) standards. And they’re not going against college/international teams-you judge them by who they’re up against. So, with a heavier heart, I still have to say that Stroock is one of the worse World War III specialist writers, and while this book has improved somewhat compared to the earlier ones, it’s not enough to shift the rankings that much.

The book is less one-sided in absolute terms than some of his previous books. It’s undeniably improved in prose quality. But it still has a jumbled structure with way too many viewpoint changes for its own good and writing that’s still too flat to really work. There are still bizarre subplots that don’t really add anything.

It’s ultimately just still too hard to find something in this book, or Stroock’s series as a whole, that does what another “conventional World War III” book doesn’t do better, be it characterization, tone, or technical plausibility. It might be better than a historical “sports nadir” team. But it’s still, in a now-obsolete baseball term, very much a “second-division” series.