Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

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According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.
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Broken Escalators: Washington DC’s Metro System in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

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Video games set in real-world locales often lean on public landmarks to sell the setting. No private entity owns Times Square, for instance, so it’s an easy addition to a game, lending verisimilitude to all the nameless, generic streets running nearby without necessitating rights payments. The soon-to-be-released—and awkwardly named—Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Ubisoft, 2019) places its open-world third-person “loot shooter” in contemporary Washington, DC, a city replete with a unique and recognizable street structure and tons of public landmarks to help situate the player.

All the big buildings and monuments you’d expect are there, in a very faithful recreation of the city street grid. Having spent some time with the game’s open beta (a glorified demo, more or less), I was pleasantly surprised when I walked—well, ran, being chased by some post-apocalyptic wanna-be with a mohawk—around a corner and saw Pennsylvania Avenue, properly wide and grand and angled, with a vista towards the Capitol I’d seen hundreds of times in real life. The DC of The Division 2 feels right, with the trademark low skyline and restrained architecture of the Federal core recreated as much in detail as in broad strokes. None of the private buildings were real, of course, with far more parking garages than the city actually has, but the public fixtures, the historical markers, the street signs, hew close enough to the real to provide the illusion of the city.

But then I saw this map:

The DC Metro Map in The Division 2

It’s almost an exact replica of the actual WMATA Metro map (.pdf), with the WMATA website listed, the planned Silver Line extension out towards Dulles, even the rush hour routes. There are a few differences, as it looks like they re-drew the map rather than simply pasting it wholesale, but there’s not a resident of the DC area who wouldn’t recognize the map in a second.

Add to that the very faithfully recreated Metro station mezzanines and, as one of my gaming buddies noted, the all-too-familiar broken escalators, and you’re left with the one of the most realistic depictions of a real-life subway system in a video game to date. Only Persona 5 (Altus, 2016) comes close.

To be fair, Metro's escalators don't really break that often

Oddly, the farecard machines are nothing like the real things, none of the stations seem to have names, and the entrances from the street lack the proper pillar signage. These slight variations from the real feel puzzling, given the otherwise painstaking attention to the details of the actual subway system, and actually pull the gamer back out of the scene if she or he knows what the real system is like. As the beta only provided a limited portion of the game to explore, I’m uncertain what the actual platforms look like, but if they’re shown, I would imagine they’ll likewise be a mostly accurate representation.

Minus the graffiti, a near-exact replica of the real thing

The last game set so firmly in Washington, DC, Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), also featured the Metro system, but it used a highly stylized version of the map that bore little resemblance to the real thing. The station in Georgetown sort of gave it away…

I haven’t been able to discover what, if any, arrangement Ubisoft came to with WMATA for the use of the map and “look and feel” of the subway system. Other city infrastructure and signage comes close to the prototype, but it all stops just short, as with the two stars between bars shown on Washington, DC, flag presented in game; the real thing has three stars atop two bars. Whether Ubisoft feels the Metro system falls sufficiently in the public domain or WMATA granted a license or something in between remains unclear. Given the system’s slightly parlous finances, I do hope there’s at least a bit of a payment involved.

Regardless of how the DC Metro system came to be in The Division 2, I applaud its inclusion. The system’s striking architectural and design aesthetic deserves attention, and this fairly faithful replica honors the real thing. Shame I’m not sold on the gameplay, which feels like yet another open-world Ubisoft game full of map icons to diligently track down, but kudos to the art team at Ubisoft for their sterling efforts here and with the feel of the city as a whole. It’s the rare game world that I can navigate using entirely real-world knowledge.

Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

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It might be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.

After his debut story, tacked as it was onto the end of the Season Eleven recording cycle, Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor starts in earnest with new script editor Robert Holmes’ “The Ark in Space” (Story Production Code 4C). Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe seemingly have carte blanche to send the Doctor, finally freed from his Earthly exile, off in new directions, and with the first story of the Season Twelve production bloc, they take us…right back to the Second Doctor and a “base under siege” story that Troughton could have played (and often did) in his sleep.

Oh, hello.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit new and flashy on offer here, but it becomes clear that, narratively speaking, Holmes and Hinchcliffe are hanging fresh tinsel on an old tree. In short order, the Doctor and companions accidentally arrive in an isolated locale (here, an apparently abandoned space station in Earth orbit sometime in the future), discover some trouble or other, get blamed for said trouble, then help fend off the real threat. If the formula feels fresh in “The Ark in Space,” it’s only because the Third Doctor had but a single story early on (“Inferno“) that even came close to this model over five seasons, and that one at least involved alternate dimensions.

It’s unlikely any but the most dedicated fans of Doctor Who noticed the pattern at the time, though, because the plot here remains resolutely beside the point. While Terrance Dicks threw Baker a debutante ball in “Robot,” a controlled, almost formal introduction in a comfortable setting, Holmes provides Baker with, well, a full-blown fiesta: far from demure, the Fourth Doctor bursts on the scene in all his alien glory in “The Ark in Space,” upending any lingering sense that there might be even the slightest connection between this Doctor and his forebears.

Almost as significantly, “The Ark in Space” suggests a return to small-cast (and lower budget) stories set in far-off, fantastical locales of which we actually see very little—eight sets total feature in this story, none on location and most dressed in what can only be called futuristic off-white—with a commensurate reliance on prop makers to visually convey the strangeness of the setting and on the writer to imbue the few characters with enough texture, or at least technobabble, to make the world seem fuller than it really is. Robert Holmes does well enough to hold up his end of the bargain, deftly sketching a chilling projection of a technocratic human future through well-chosen details; the prop department, on the other hand, just spray paints some bubble wrap with green paint and calls it a day.

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Winter Offensive 2019 After Action Report

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Whatever fickle spirits guide the weather must have it out for Advanced Squad Leader, because it scarcely fails to threaten snow and rain whenever Winter Offensive, the East Coast’s premier ASL tournament, sets up shop in Bowie, Maryland, and this year proved no different. Perhaps the decision to hold this gaming gathering in January has something to do with the invariability of inclement weather, but no matter, for a brave (and record) crowd of 190 people attended this year’s Winter Offensive.

Hosts Multi-Man Publishing unveiled Red Factories, the long-awaited companion campaign module to Red Barricades, at the tourney, and the very large boxes were much in evidence all weekend long. The smaller scenarios from the module likewise saw a fair amount of play; even with the extra tables MMP brought to the enlarged convention space this year, there would have been scarcely enough room to set up the larger scenarios, for the combined Red Barricades/Red Factories maps take up a substantial amount of table real estate.

Winter Offensive 2019 in full swing

The tournament, the 28th running, also played host to a celebration of MMP’s twenty year anniversary as custodians of the Advanced Squad Leader series, complete with a cake replicating an ASL board. It’s remarkable to think that they have shepherded ASL for longer than Avalon Hill did at this point, and I for one consider the game series to be in exceptional hands. While core modules may occasionally go out of print, MMP faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the large and expensive core modules in print to satisfy new players while still producing new products for the players who already own two copies of everything. By and large, I think two decades of success shows they strike the balance appropriately.

My own WO 2019 experience included far more ASL than I normally play at these events, with two ASL scenarios and one Starter Kit session with a player relatively new to the game. Plus copious amounts of Euro gaming to boot. And maybe a little beer.
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Doctor Who Project: Robot

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There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.

Our initial outing with the Fourth Doctor shows Tom Baker clearly setting out his stall—mirthful, slapdash, haphazard, alien, and just a bit brutal. It’s a good thing he strives to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, as “Robot” (Story Production Code 4A), by longtime Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, covers much the same ground as several Third Doctor stories. Take one part “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” one part “The Green Death,” one part “Inferno,” file off the serial numbers, and you have Dicks’ tale of a group of fascist technocrats hiding in a bunker, bent on ruling the planet with the help of technology even they can’t control.

A rude awakening

It all feels too familiar, picking up right where “Planet of the Spiders” leaves off, with the newly regenerated Doctor in the Third Doctor’s clothes on the floor of his laboratory, alongside the comforting presence of Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), a newly promoted Warrant Office Benton (John Levene), and the rest of UNIT. The Brigadier has the Doctor sent for observation in the UNIT infirmary, under the care of new arrival Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), whilst he and Sarah Jane casually discuss the recent theft of classified weapon plans and, as a completely unconnected favor to Sarah, arrange for her to be granted access to the top secret Think Tank so she can write an article. It’s there that she encounters—at the traditional first episode cliffhanger, of course—our titular menace, the Robot.

The robot from Robot, the robot K-1

It’s clumsy plotting, but four episodes leaves little time for nuance, particularly when there’s a new Doctor to introduce. Indeed, “Robot” moves with so much pace that the obligatory threat to the planet (nuclear holocaust, this time) is resolved a scant five minutes into the final installment, leaving most of an episode for UNIT to demonstrate once more its utter incompetence as a fighting force (so, again, not much different from any of the Third Doctor’s stories).

Tacked on to the end of the Season Eleven recording block, with Barry Letts still at the production helm and the Doctor dealing with yet another Earth-bound menace, there’s little reason “Robot” should have a different feel. But by the end of of the story, one can see that changes are coming. It’s hard to suggest that any prior seasons would have dressed up the Doctor as a harlequin while referencing both James Bond and King Kong…

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Table for One: Alert Force (Close Simulations) Review

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Most wargames slot the player into a particular job, a particular role: supreme commander, divisional general, platoon leader, even quartermaster. Alert Force, a 1983 “microgame” offering from Wayne Close and his publishing company, Close Simulations, provides gamers the quite unique opportunity to play as a member of the United States Air Force’s Security Police, the alert force guarding the flight line and the nuclear-armed alert bombers parked in readiness thereupon. Opposing the Security Police on this fictionalized depiction of a Strategic Air Command base, the other player takes the role of undifferentiated Terrorists, seeking to destroy the bombers, hamper operations, and even purloin a nuclear device if possible.

On the surface, Alert Force comes in as a simple man-to-man tactical combat game, with a tiny footprint, a thin sheaf of rules, and a quick play time, but some nuances in both scenario design and rules chrome make for a deeper presentation than the meager box might suggest. While not a groundbreaking game in any particular way, Alert Force nevertheless repays its brief time on the table with streamlined gameplay and an interesting, if obscure, premise. Indeed, you might just have to own a game company in order to get a game on this topic published.

Overview

Alert Force
Close Simulations, 1983
Designed by Wayne Close

Alert Force Cover Detail

Alert Force comes in a small cardboard tuck box, measuring slightly more than 4″ x 7″, fitting it squarely in the Microgame size range that was quite popular in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Two sheets of half-inch die cut counters are included, totaling 112 counters. A matte-printed tri-fold map (12″ x 14″), plastic storage bag, and thin saddle-stapled rulebook round out the package.

The counters represent armed individuals not with figures but with icons of the weapon type they carry: machine pistol, assault rifle, or machine gun; additional weapons, such as satchel charges and light anti-tank weapons, have their own counters, as do vehicles and the unarmed aircraft crews. Numbers on the counters indicate defense value and movement points; attack strengths are a function of the weapon type and range, and are listed on a side table.

The artwork is serviceable, clearly conveying needed information though without much in the way of flourish. Informational counters likewise show either unadorned words (damaged, incapacitated) or drawings of effects (craters, flames). Only a few colors are used (two shades of red and green), but again, while not fancy, they get the job done. The game comes entirely from the hand of Wayne Close, who, in addition to design, is credited with cover art, rulebook art, and map and counter graphics.

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