Science, Fiction, Life

Tag: starcraft

The Color of Acid

The other day I was playing Starcraft 2 and trying to think of the next topic to tackle here. As I watched a swarm of zerg roaches attack a group of terran marines, I realized that I needed to talk about acid. Two of the new zerg units, the baneling and the roach have acid-based attacks. The baneling is a little suicide bomber that detonates, splashing corrosive acid all over nearby units, while the roach is a nasty armored insect that spews a stream of acid on its foes from a distance.

Banelings doing their thing.

I like both of these units in the game, but they perpetuate a myth about acid that has infested pop culture for years: it is bright neon green. I’m not sure where this idea originated. Maybe it goes back to World War I, when chlorine gas was used as a chemical weapon. It’s not an acid, but it is a nasty caustic chemical that is a sickly green color. Or maybe the green acid idea can be traced back to the movie Alien, where the alien is revealed to have highly acidic blood that looks greenish yellow.

The famous shot of the alien's acidic blood in Alien.

Whatever the origin of the idea, it’s patently false. Most acids are colorless in both their pure form and in solution. Sulfuric acid? Colorless. Hydrochloric acid? Wikipedia says that it is colorless to light-yellow, but I’ve never seen an example that showed any color. Hydrofluoric acid? Colorless.

I don’t know of any acid that is brightly colored, though I admittedly not a chemist. There are probably some nice, colorful organic acids, and it’s certainly possible for acid to be mixed with other colored stuff in a solution, but in the real world acid does not conveniently advertise its corrosiveness by being bright green.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the plausibility of an insect spraying acid, whatever the color may be. This is actually plausible to me. There are plenty of examples of insects that are armed with chemical-based weapons. One of the most famous is the bombardier beetle, which defends itself by blasting a nasty, boiling hot liquid at its attackers. Bee venom contains formic acid, and many ants inject or spray formic acid or other chemicals when they bite.

If we’re willing to suspend disbelief enough to allow the zerg to exist in the first place, I’m also willing to grant that they might use caustic chemicals to attack, since real-world insects do this too.

Starcraft 2 Review

Well folks, I finally beat the campaign in Starcraft 2 last night, so I finally feel comfortable reviewing the game.

In a lot of ways, Starcraft 2 is very similar to its predecessor, and I think on the whole that’s a good thing. With the original Starcraft, Blizzard hit on a formula for a compelling game that just worked, so they didn’t need to fix it. With Starcraft 2, they tweaked it instead. There are a lot of familiar units in the new version of the game, but there are also a lot of new ones, as well as new abilities for familiar units that make things interesting. There are also a lot of tiny, careful changes to the gameplay that make everything flow more smoothly.

Tychus Findlay and Jim Raynor at the bar.

For me, the campaign was always the highlight of the original Starcraft and I’m happy to report that it is excellent in Starcraft 2 as well. The story focuses on Jim Raynor who has had a make-over and is now a rugged, scarred mercenary. Instead of a linear storyline with little player choice like in the original game, Starcraft 2’s missions allow a little more flexibility: at any given time there are several missions to choose from. Between missions, you can interact with other characters on your ship. Head to the cantina and share a drink with Tychus Findlay, a rough-and-tumble ex-convict marine. Or go to the lab and see what new technologies Egon Stetman, the stereotypical squeaky-voiced, lab-coat-wearing, socially-awkward scientist has cooked up for you. Or check out the armory and ask Rory Swann – the mechanic who sounds like he belongs on Car Talk and looks like a Warcraft dwarf – to upgrade your mechanical units. Other colorful plot-related characters include the awesomely stereotyped Tosh – a rastafarian rogue ghost operative, complete with voodoo charms and a “ya mon” accent – and the idealistic young ship’s captain Matt Horner, whose clean-cut look and fancy uniform were carefully designed to contrast with Raynor’s bad-boy tattooed arms and sweat-stained t-shirt.

Tosh, the suspicious Jamaican operative. Yes, that is a voodoo doll around his neck.

This interesting bunch of characters¬† send you on missions following several parallel plotlines that gradually intertwine to lead to the requisite huge battle at the end of the campaign. Each thread of missions is based on that character’s personal interests, and things get interesting when some of the characters disagree on what’s the best next step. All of these interactions are done really well using rendered-on-the-fly cutscenes. Some of these cutscenes are cinematics in their own right (at one point there’s a bar fight which was very well done) but there are also a few of Blizzard’s trademark spectacular pre-rendered cinematics for key plot points.

I really enjoyed the interplay between the missions and the “down time” on the ship: each mission gives you a new type of unit, some “research points” and some cash. The new unit is then available in all future missions and the research points and cash can be used to upgrade your units and hire mercenaries to help you. This adds another layer of customization to the game that worked really well.

Jim Raynor, Matt Horner and Tychus Findlay on the bridge of the Hyperion.

I also loved the variety of the actual campaign missions themselves. There are actually very few missions where you just build an army and destroy the enemy. There’s always something more going on. In one level, lava floods the low ground every few minutes. In another level, hordes of zombies attack you at night, and you have to hold the line until daybreak, when you can take the fight to them. The “hero” levels, where you just get a handful of special units to achieve your obectives, are really excellent too.

The story itself, like the story for the original Starcraft, is passable but not great. The problem with video game stories in general is that they exist primarily to get you to the next mission, so they are often not as developed as one might hope. Compared to most video games, Starcraft 2 has a very good story. Compared to most novels, it’s pretty weak. The writing is mediocre at times as well, with plenty of cliched lines and heavy-handed character development. But it gets the job done, and the fact that there are actual characters, and that they do develop a bit, is actually a great thing to see in a game!

The cantina. You can play some sweet tunes on the jukebox, or watch the latest amusing news broadcast from the Starcraft analog of Fox News.

A final aspect that I want to mention is the overall “feel” of the campaign. There was a certain Firefly-like “space western” vibe going on that I really enjoyed. This shows in everything from the (very good) in-game music, to the characters of Jim Raynor and Tychus Findlay (roughly analogous to Malcom Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly) to the jukebox on the ship that plays down-home favorites like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “A Zerg, A Shotgun and You“.

Bottom line, Starcraft 2 is a great game. The loving attention to detail that went into every aspect of the game is obvious. The campaign is full of really well-designed missions that lead you through several strands of an intertwining story to an exciting conclusion. The ability to customize your units between missions adds a nice dimension to the gameplay, as does the ability to interact with the various colorful (if blatantly stereotyped) characters on the ship.

And of course, once you’re done with the campaign, there are limitless hours of multiplayer fun to be had. You can work your way up the competitive ladder, or take advantage of the extremely powerful map editor that comes with the game and play custom maps made by other players, some of which are good enough to be separate games in their own right.

If that’s not enough, there are two expansions in the works. The campaign in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is strictly Terran (with a few protoss missions thrown in). Each of the two expansions will focus on one of the other races in the Starcraft universe. I don’t think there are release dates set for the expansions yet, but it’s pretty clear that Starcraft 2 and its expansions will be keeping us busy for a long, long time.

Some of the pre-mission loading screens are pretty awesome too.

What is a Rail Gun and How does it Work?

A swarm of diamondbacks fire their "railguns" at a train.

In the Starcraft 2 campaign, there is a unit called the “diamondback”. It’s a sort of hovertank, and it is useful for hunting down other vehicles because it is armed with dual “rail guns” that can fire while it moves. In the game, the rail guns are depicted as some sort of energy weapon: they fire hot blue beams at the target. This disturbed me because rail guns actually do exist, and they most certainly don’t fire blue energy beams!

So what’s a real rail gun and how do they work? I’m so glad you asked!

Continue reading

Can Life Really Survive in Space?

A zerg swarm, silhouetted against some colorful nebulae as they cross the vacuum of space.

In Starcraft, the biological, hive-minded Zerg can survive and even thrive in the vacuum of space, while the more fragile humans (and presumably the Protoss) require some sort of space suit. So that got me wondering: How plausible is it for living organisms to be able to withstand the vacuum, extreme temperatures and high radiation levels of space?

Fist of all, I’m going to set aside how the Zerg fly around in space. That may be the subject of a future post. I’m more concerned with just the idea of a hydralisk standing on an exposed moon-like surface and not immediately freezing or suffocating or otherwise dying gruesomely. Continue reading

Force Fields and Plasma Shields

I was always a fan of the Protoss: super-advanced technology, powerful units, and those awesome plasma shields protecting everything from the lowliest probe to gigantic carriers. But I always wondered: could those force fields really work?

Well… Sort of.

It really depends on your definition of a force field and what you want to prevent from passing through. Electric and magnetic fields can exert forces on charged objects, so you could call those “force fields.” If you accept that definition, then there have actually been some NASA studies of how to use force fields on spacecraft and lunar bases.

One of the biggest problems facing human space exploration (aside from the politics) is that space is a dangerous place for humans. Even if we can launch people to Mars, there is a lot of radiation out there, both from the sun and from high-energy events out in the galaxy. That’s why two studies at NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (which has, sadly, been canceled due to lack of funding) looked into deflecting the radiation with electromagnetic shields. Continue reading

The Real Science of Starcraft 2

The Overmind

Well folks, it looks like I’m not the only one interested in the Science of Starcraft! The gaming site GamePro has a very interesting article taking a look at several aspects of StarCraft science, including teleportation, zerg in space, a hive mind, and hybrid species. They cover each topic pretty quickly but it’s still worth reading. But be sure to check back here! I’ll dig into those and other topics in a lot more depth.

What is Zerg creep, really?

Artwork from StarCraft, showing a creep-infested platform near the planet Char.

“What the hell is that? Looks like the ground there is alive.” – Jim Raynor

Creep: that purple, fibrous, living mat that extends from zerg “buildings”. Its ominous presence always tells you you are entering unsafe territory, unless of course you’re playing as zerg, in which case it says “welcome home”! But what exactly is it?

Well, let’s think about it scientifically. It is produced by zerg buildings and spreads across any available surface. According to the Starcraft Wiki (which I will use as an authoritative source for all the minutiae of StarCraft trivia that I don’t know) Creep has a cellular structure: it’s not just mucus. The Wiki also says that creep can absorb sustenance from the underlying terrain, that it can be spread by “spores” or excreted by several units, and it provides nutrients to zerg buildings. It is averse to high temperatures but can grow in space and over water.

So, does any real-world living thing match this description? Surely not, right? Wrong. Continue reading

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