Today’s Art (28th August 2018)

Although this “early-mid 2000s”-style digitally-edited sci-fi painting was kind of random, it’s probably one of the most detailed pieces of art that I’ve made during the past week or two.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Corner” By C. A. Brown

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Review: “X-COM: Enforcer” (Retro Computer Game)

Well, although I had planned to review one of the “The Incredible Machine” games, I ended up being distracted by various other things.

But, before I could resume playing that game, I noticed that a vaguely interesting-looking game called “X-COM: Enforcer” was on special offer on GOG. And, since it had been reduced to £1.19 at the time (and the download was just a little under 300Mb), I thought that I’d check it out.

However, I should point out that I haven’t played any of the other “X-COM” games – so, I can’t compare this one to them. Still, from what I’ve read, the other “X-COM” games are very different to this one. So, if you’re an “X-COM” fan, your experience of this game may differ from mine.

I should also point out that at least one part of the game contains FLICKERING LIGHTS, although I don’t know if they’re intense and/or fast enough to cause problems.

So, let’s take a look at “X-COM: Enforcer”:

“X-COM: Enforcer” is a sci-fi third-person shooter game from 2001 (wow, that’s… 17 years.. ago!). The game begins with a scientist building a combat robot, called “Enforcer”, to defend Earth. However, before he can finish testing the robot, an alien invasion begins…..

It literally happens just after the robot has been brought online. What perfect timing!

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that, although it is nothing groundbreaking, it is fun! I talked about this yesterday, but the entire game is designed to keep you playing it.

Everything from the short levels (which encourage you to play “just one more level”) to the way that the game handles combat, difficulty and mission objectives are designed to make you want to play more. So, yes, this is the kind of game which you plan to play for ten minutes, but end up playing for three hours.

This game is a time bandit, but in the best possible way 🙂

Plus, despite being released in 2001, this game is very 1990s in terms of style and atmosphere. It isn’t a gritty, serious, realistic shooter or anything like that. It is a knowingly silly sci-fi action game about robots and aliens. It is bright, colourful, gameplay-focused and fun.

It also contains some vaguely imaginative weapons and some “Duke Nukem 3D“-style witty dialogue from the Enforcer too – mostly consisting of lines like “Don’t mess with Earth!” etc.. delivered in a Robocop-like voice. Which is hilarious!

It’s down to you and me, you one… oops! Wrong game!

As you would expect, the vast majority of the gameplay revolves around combat. In many ways, this game is slightly similar to games like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam“. It is an intense and gloriously mindless “shoot-em-up” game with an emphasis on frantic, fast-paced combat against hordes of monsters.

The game’s combat is, in a word, streamlined. The aiming system has been simplified to a “Doom“-style horizontal-only aiming system, which reduces the need for accuracy. Your character can only hold one weapon at a time, which encourages you to search for better weapons and means that you don’t have to worry about choosing weapons in the middle of a fight. The monsters drop time-limited bonuses when defeated, which encourages you to play quickly and aggressively.

Yes, THIS is an action game!

This simplified and streamlined combat works surprisingly well, and it helps to make the experience of playing the game a lot more intense and thrilling. Like in several other third-person shooters, you can also upgrade your character and the game’s weapons between levels (using “data points” you find in-game).

Yes, you actually have to collect the points in-game. Since this game is from 2001, there are absolutely no annoying micro-transactions here 🙂

The only slight flaw with the game’s combat is that one of the weapons – the freeze gun – slows down the pace of the combat considerably, and trying to avoid picking it up can be a bit of an annoyance. Likewise, the camera angles in the game can sometimes be angled very slightly too steeply – most of the time, this isn’t an issue, but it can be annoying at times.

The game’s upgrade system is fairly good, and provides a great incentive for getting high scores in each level. However, new weapons and abilities are often only unlocked if you find “unresearched objects” scattered around certain levels. Whilst this (and another system that allows you to unlock bonus levels) provides an incentive for the player to look around and explore a bit, it also means that the player can finish the game without even seeing all of the weapons.

In terms of saving, this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving. However, I can sort of understand this. Since it is mitigated somewhat by the short level length, the lack of a proper saving system lends each level an “all or nothing” quality which encourages you to play more and play in a more assertive fashion. However, this system annoyingly doesn’t let you revisit previous levels though.

Which is a shame since this is one of the few games where I’d actually want to revisit previous levels to grind for more points.

Thankfully, “X-COM: Enforcer” contains a proper health system – which helps to add suspense to each battle. However, a very slow and limited form of regenerating health can be unlocked as a special ability. Given the limits of this system and the fact that you actually have to earn it, it feels reasonably fair and can actually come in handy during some of the later levels.

The game’s difficulty is deliberately designed to make the player feel like an expert. Whilst I wouldn’t call this an “easy” game, I only died a few times when playing it (and at least half of those times involved accidentally falling off of ledges).

Although a couple of the boss battles are slightly challenging, the game’s difficulty curve is fairly gentle – and it is intense enough to make you feel like an expert player, whilst also being considerably more forgiving than a game like “Alien Shooter” or “Serious Sam”. Basically, this game contains the illusion of challenging difficulty – but this is done really well (eg: I really wouldn’t be surprised if the game spawned in extra health power-ups when your health is running low etc..)

Even so, the final boss battle is at least somewhat challenging 🙂

Generally, most of the game’s mission objectives revolve around destroying a certain number of alien teleporters and/or rescuing a certain number of civilians. Occasionally, the game shakes things up by including a wave shooter-style level, a boss battle or a level where you have to protect a group of trapped civilians for a certain amount of time. Surprisingly though, these simplistic objectives work really well, since they keep the emphasis firmly on the thrilling fast-paced action.

Although the game contains a few non-linear levels, many of the levels are fairly linear. This actually works quite well in this context since, again, it keeps the action fairly streamlined. Plus, there’s even an optional hint function that helps to ensure that you don’t get stuck. If this was an FPS game, I’d consider the linear levels and hint function to be a major flaw. But, since it’s an arcade-like third-person shooter, then it actually fits in with the game surprisingly well.

Yes, this feature is actually useful rather than patronising.

In terms of visual design, this game has some reasonably good moments. Although a fair number of the levels consist of very slightly generic outdoor and urban areas, there are some visually-interesting and creative levels on offer here too. And, even the more visually-boring levels aren’t that much of a problem – since they just serve as a blank canvas for the much more exciting action within each level.

I absolutely love the architecture in this level 🙂

Plus, there’s a very vaguely “Blade Runner”-style cyberpunk level too 🙂

Then there’s this shopping centre that reminds me of “Silent Hill 3”.

In terms of length, this game took me about 6-8 hours to complete. But, thanks to the fact that it consists of lots of shorter levels, the game feels a lot more substantial when you are actually playing it. Still, given how compelling this game becomes, it’s the sort of game that would still feel “too short” even if it was twice as long.

Plus, thanks to being very gameplay-focused (rather than story or puzzle-based), this game has a lot of replay value. However, your only reward for completing the game seems to be a few extra unlockable skins for the Enforcer. Still, things like finding bonus levels etc.. help to increase the replay value too.

Early in the game, the bonus levels are very generic. But, later, you can find bonus levels like this “Pac Man”-style one…

The game’s sound design is reasonably good, with the best sound effects being the satisfying drilling sound when you pick up some health or the crunchy ice sound that accompanies the freeze gun. Likewise, the music is fast repetitive electronic music, which goes reasonably well with the style of the game. One stand-out musical moment is that one piece of background music features a sample of the famous “Houston, we have a problem” recording.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is “so bad that it’s good”. Throughout the game, there are voice-overs from the scientist who built the Enforcer. He sounds endearingly annoying – that’s the best way I can think to describe his dialogue. The Enforcer’s dialogue is.. well… robotic. Still, this adds a lot of comedy value to the game – since he delivers “badass” witticisms in a Robocop-style way.

Seriously, I miss the days when action games had sarcastic protagonists…

The voice acting for the final boss is hilariously terrible though. Seriously, the voice acting in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”.

All in all, although this game isn’t perfect, it’s an overlooked gem. Yes, it’s a gleefully mindless shoot-em-up game that is relatively short and not too difficult – but it is fun. It is designed to be thrilling and to make you want to play more. If you’ve played “Alien Shooter”, “Alien Shooter 2”, “Zombie Shooter”, “Painkiller” and both classic “Serious Sam” games, and you want something vaguely similar (but a bit easier), then this game is worth playing.

Most of the game’s design decisions work really well and, although it doesn’t sound like much on paper, the actual experience of playing this game is highly enjoyable. It is a thrilling, streamlined action game that will entertain you with robotic efficiency.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just about get a four.

Three Basic Tips For Making “Old Future”-Style Sci-Fi Art

The day before I originally prepared this article, I watched the first episode of a TV show called “Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams“. The episode was called “The Hood Maker” and it was a dystopian sci-fi story about a future where telepathy exists.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about the set design in the episode was that it went for an “old future” kind of look – which looked like a mixture between “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, “Blade Runner” and 1970s Britain:

This is a screenshot from episode one of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017). Notice how there are typewriters instead of computers in this “futuristic” police station.

Although I could spend quite a while talking about why “old future”-style sci-fi is such a fascinating genre, I thought that I’d do something a bit more practical and give you a few tips about how to make sci-fi art in this awesome genre:

1) Materials: Whilst you can make this style of sci-fi art with any type of materials, it’s probably a good idea to include at least a few traditional materials (eg: paints, inks etc..). This is because traditional materials have a very slightly “imperfect” look to them when compared to pristine digital artwork, which can help to add a bit of an “analogue” look to your ‘old future’ art.

When making digital art or digitally-editing scanned artwork, one approach to take is to “leave the glitches in”. If you stick to using the more basic features in your image editing program and over-use them slightly, then they’re probably going to result in some interesting-looking glitches (but, MAKE A BACKUP COPY FIRST! I cannot emphasise this enough).

Carefully select the “glitches” that actually look good and leave them in. The trick here is to give the impression that your art was made on an older computer, or has been taken from a VHS tape or something like that:

If you look closely at this painting of mine, you can see some colour glitches on the ground. These were partially created by spamming the “Hue Map” (saturation shift +25 / lightness shift -3) option in an old image editing program called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”.

Likewise, using older image editing software or messing around with the “noise” options in your image editing program (eg: a low level of RGB noise with more red can give a picture a “grainy old film” look) can also help to make your sci-fi art look a bit more “old”.

2) Location design: Whilst I can’t tell you exactly how to make an “old future”-style location (you’ll have to find your own interpretation of this), I can give you a few pointers. The first is simply that the technology in your art should ideally be about 20-30 years out of date – in other words, things like CRT monitors, phone boxes, audio tapes, VHS cassettes, bulky machines etc..

“Antique Shop” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, try to give the locations in your artwork a slightly “run-down” look too. In addition to this, try to focus on things that have been a part of everyday life for a long time but which are slowly becoming “obsolete” in the modern world (eg: traditional high streets, cinemas, phone books, notepads, chequebooks etc..).

Another important thing to remember is to make your indoor location designs look somewhat detailed and “cluttered”. After all, old places tend to accumulate quite a bit of kipple over time..

3) Fashion designs: A lot of what makes “old future” artwork so distinctive are the fashion designs. There are at least a couple of approaches you can take to this – the classic one is to focus on including vaguely 1940s/50s-style clothing such as trenchcoats, trilby hats, pencil skirts, sharp suits, glamourous dresses etc..

“Nova Street” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

A slightly more subtle and updated approach to this is to include fashion designs and hairstyles from the 1970s-90s that look obviously “old” by modern standards. These can include things like voluminous 1980s-style hairdos, garishly patterned shirts, 1990s-style floral dresses, trainspotter cagoules/ shellsuits, sweatshirts used as belts, sleevelss dresses layered over T-shirts, cargo shorts/skirts, bulky plastic sunglasses etc…

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

The thing to remember here is that your fashion designs shouldn’t be too old though – since, although 19th century fashions can work with some subtle alterations, they tend to look more “steampunk” than “retro-futuristic”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Mixing Ancient And Futuristic Things

Although this is an article about art, comics, literature, film etc… I’m going to have to start by talking enthusiastically about computer games for a while first. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

A coupe of days before I originally prepared the first draft of this article, I suddenly noticed that the fourth instalment of the “Temple Of The Lizard Men” series of fan-made “Doom II” levels had finally been released 🙂 And, unlike some modern “Doom II” levels, it would actually run on my computer too 🙂

If you’ve never heard of “Temple Of The Lizard Men” before, it’s a series of full-length fan-made sci-fi/horror level sets for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” which revolve around fighting lizard monsters in ancient Aztec/Maya-style temples. It’s kind of a little bit like the original “Unreal” mixed with some elements from “Serious Sam: The Second Encounter“, but with more horror elements.

This is a screenshot from “Temple Of The Lizard Men IV” (2017). Yes! A modern “Doom II” WAD that both looks cool AND works with slightly older versions of “GZ Doom” too 🙂

Anyway, like with another really cool set of “Doom II” levels called “Ancient Aliens” (and the previous “Lizard Men” level sets, like this one), I really love it when people blend ancient-style architecture and futuristic sci-fi.

Some other example of this blending of ancient civilisations and futuristic sci-fi include Iron Maiden’s “The Book Of Souls” album, which does this in the opening song. Then there are the various zones in “The Crystal Maze“, and the scenes from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” that were filmed in the Mayan-inspired Ennis House. Or perhaps the futuristic version of Ancient Egypt in “Stargate SG-1“, or.. Well, I could go on for a while.

So, why are mixtures of the ancient and the futuristic so incredibly cool?

The first reason is that because “old” things are juxtaposed with things that are meant to be from the distant future, it creates something of an association between the two things within the minds of the audience.

This means that whenever the audience see old buildings, old castles etc… in other contexts, they seem cooler and more “relevant” due to their association with modern creative works (for example, although it doesn’t really contain any sci-fi elements, “Game Of Thrones” changed my entire attitude towards the middle ages). So, these types of stories, films, games etc.. help to make history even more interesting than it already is.

The second reason is because of the contrast between the distant past and the distant future. Usually, creative works in this genre will include the idea that people in the ancient world were more intelligent and/or advanced than we usually think. And not only is this really intriguing but, in some cases, it’s actually true too. For example, just look at ancient Persia – they had a type of air conditioning and a type of refrigerator too.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that things in this genre include two time periods that we’ll never get to see directly (yes, we can deduce things about the past from historical artefacts/documents and we can attempt to predict the distant future, but we never get to directly experience either).

So, seeing a representation of both time periods within the same creative work reminds us of the vast scale of time. It also makes us realise that the present day is somewhere between the ancient past and the distant future. So, by extension, our lives already include elements from both.

Finally, this genre is cool because it reminds us that some things are truly timeless. Whether it is lighting design, architecture, visual arts etc… things in this genre help to remind us that there’s nothing entirely “new” in the world.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (10th April 2018)

Due to feeling even more uninspired/unenthusiastic, this picture ended up being a (very) heavily digitally-edited drawing. Literally, when I was preparing this picture, I eventually just scribbled an abstract sci-fi landscape on paper and then, after I scanned it, tried to turn it into something better with lots and lots of random “trial and error” digital editing.

As usual, this picture is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Sunday Afternoon Scribble” By C. A. Brown

Today’s Art (4th April 2018)

Well, due to tiredness, this digitally-edited painting just ended up being a painting of a random room. My original idea was to paint the kind of futuristic spaceship bedrooms that turn up in old early 1990s American sci-fi TV shows (eg: “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, “Babylon 5” etc..) but, me being me, it ended up going in more of a gothic cyberpunk direction.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Spaceship Bedroom” By C. A. Brown

Three Quick Reasons Why Cyberpunk Art Is Easier To Make Than You Think

Cyberpunk art is a genre of art that has a reputation for complexity. If you do an internet search for cyberpunk art, you’ll probably see lots of hyper-realistic and hyper-detailed pieces of art that might make you think that you can’t make art in this genre. Well, you can.

As long as you know a few basic art skills, then you can make cyberpunk art. Yes, it might not look like the hyper-realistic art you’ve seen online, but it will still be cyberpunk – like this:

“Backstreets” By C. A. Brown

“Coast Road” By C. A. Brown

So, here are a few things that will reassure you that cyberpunk art is easier to make than you think. I’ve probably mentioned some of these before, but they are worth repeating.

1) Look at computer games, low-budget movies and anime: One way to reassure yourself that cyberpunk art doesn’t have to be hyper-realistic is to look at old science fiction computer games, modern low budget cyberpunk computer games, low budget cyberpunk-influenced movies and pretty much any cyberpunk anime.

Because these things have limited graphics technology and/or money, they have come up with interesting-looking but less “realistic” versions of the cyberpunk genre. They use stylised drawings, more primitive computer graphics or more “basic” set designs. Here are some examples:

This is a screenshot from the most cyberpunk scene in “Trancers” (1984). As you can see, the film-makers created a convincing cyberpunk location by adding a few neon lights, a couple of machines, some modified cars and some fog to an old diner. It isn’t a very large or elaborate set when compared to a film like “Blade Runner”, but it still looks cyberpunk.

This is a screenshot from “Cowboy Bebop” (1998) – Due to the challenges of traditional animation, this classic anime TV show uses less “realistic” artwork but is still wonderfully cyberpunk.

This is a screenshot from “Technobablyon” (2015) – a low budget computer game that still manages to create a compelling cyberpunk world, despite not using the kind of almost photo-realistic graphics that high-budget games from 2015 used.

So, yes, realism isn’t an essential part of cyberpunk art.

2) Lighting: A lot of what makes cyberpunk art “cyberpunk” is the lighting and colours. As long as you know the basics of painting realistic lighting and know a bit about complementary colours, then you can make cyberpunk art.

One of the easiest ways to make any piece of art look cyberpunk is simply to set it in a gloomy area and to make sure that all of the light sources in your painting or drawing are artificial (eg: neon lights, computer monitors, shop windows etc..). You can also make your art look extra cyberpunk by ensure that all of the light sources in your art fit into 1-3 complementary colour pairs:

This is a digitally-edited painting of mine that uses artificial light sources and gloomy lighting to create a cyberpunk atmosphere (“Old Video” By C. A. Brown)

Some good general rules to remember here are that, to get a good cyberpunk “look”, at least 30% of the total surface area of your painting must be covered with black paint (so that the lighting and colours stand out more).

In addition to this, if you don’t know how to paint neon lights or glowing screens – then just make the edges of the area in question darker than the centre. Like this:

As you can see the centre of the computer screen and the centre of each neon light tube is brighter than the edges (Detail from “Disused Sector” by C. A. Brown)

3) Detail: Last but not least, although cyberpunk art doesn’t have to be “realistic”, it is usually a good idea to make it look as detailed as possible. This is mostly because the cyberpunk genre relies on the idea of “information overload”. So, the more background detail you can cram in, the better.

This is probably one of the most detailed, but not the most realistic, paintings I’ve ever made. It’s also a cyberpunk painting too. (“Architecture” By C. A. Brown)

Although it is certainly possible to make undetailed cyberpunk art (and I do this far too often when I’m in a hurry), if you want your artwork to look really cyberpunk – then just cram in as many intriguing, strange and/or futuristic background details as you can.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂