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Maurice's Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (The Middle Ages Series)
Maurice's Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy (The Middle Ages Series)
by Emperor of the East Maurice
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.85
72 used & new from $9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars So, you wanna be a Byzantine General?, November 26, 2014
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One does not normally expect to unearth a how-to manual from the ruins of a vanished empire, and yet here it is: Commanding Ancient Armies for Dummies!

Clearly written by a committee of some sort, this book pretty much cuts to the chase. Congratulations, you're a General, NOW what? Better get weapons and clothing for your guys... who's gonna do it? What's the quality stuff? Uh oh... better start training your men: what do they need to know? How are you going organize them? Who are you gonna put in charge of what? When are they ready? Maybe you can train them on the march? Oh wait, how do you manage a march? What do you need to bring? How are you gonna carry it? How do you set up camp? Don't water the horses upstream: they'll muddy your men's water. Uh oh... enemy territory: time to change the routine!

The book has all sorts of invaluable, practical tips that simply wouldn't occur to most people. Don't make all your companies the same size... you don't want the enemy estimating your force by simply counting flags! Speaking of flags, how do you keep everyone from getting confused during the battle? What cues are they likely to notice in all the confusion? Oh yes, and another thing... never just say "CHARGE": half your guys will go, the other half will hesitate. Speaking of which, put a backup line behind your fighting line to keep the cowards from turning back! Oh wait, what if you lose? Better prepare Plan B before you engage. Where will you put demoralized guys? Put the impressive, good-looking ones up front: they are what the enemy sees! There is so much to do, so much to know, and so many ways to invite disaster that it quickly becomes apparent why it took a lifetime to become a general and why so many strong, intelligent people failed the task.

There are numerous other remarkable things about this document. It is a freeze-frame of the technology and culture of a period from which very little is known, a generation after Justinian's reconquests and before the world-changing onslaught of Islam. The Byzantine Empire stood at the confluence of Europe and Asia, and in the fascinating final chapters the book elucidates tactics against the stunning variety of foes they faced: the Mongol-like "Scythians", a servile Persia before Islam, Teutonic barbarians, and the already Balkanizing Slavs. It also quickly strikes you how thoroughly Byzantine (rather than Roman) the empire had already become so early in its history. Pessimism and cynicism soak these pages: there's no sense of anything really motivating soldiers beyond survival, self-interest, and an occasional rousing speech. You see these latter-day "Romans" trying to outsmart their complete lack of moral conviction with a distinctively Byzantine brand of deception, backstabbing and evasion. Indeed, it's rather amusing hear the authors lambast Scythians as "devious scoundrels" after unleashing such a relentless barrage of their own underhanded ruthlessness!

Shah Abbas: The Ruthless King Who Became an Iranian Legend
Shah Abbas: The Ruthless King Who Became an Iranian Legend
by David Blow
Edition: Paperback
Price: $33.00
45 used & new from $14.80

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accessible Account of Persian Greatness... but without warfare!, May 8, 2012
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Histories of Islamic Persia from the period roughly contemporary to Elizabethan England are not easy to find. As such, this work is vital in filling the gap in a thoroughly accessible way. Be forewarned, however: there is absolutely no coverage of military affairs (the most detail you'll get is that a battle occurred and that somebody won). This is especially disappointing for a period that witnessed the critical transition of Islamic military power from supremacy to obsolescence (at least compared to that of Europe) as Abbas battles for survival against Ottomans to the west and marauding Turks to the east.

In its place, we are given an excellent account of the savage politics required to take and hold power within the dynasty. The vivid focus of this history are the splendidly detailed diplomatic accounts of various English embassies, describing the ambassadors and their travels in glorious, almost day-by-day detail.

Later chapters (I did not read the full book) cover various cultural achievements of the regime. First, a detailed description of the man himself, a chapter devoted to his court, his massive influence on the promotion of the Shia, the magnificence of his capitol, Isfahan, economic life in his empire and his impact on the arts. A final chapter summarizes the remainder of the Safavid dynasty.

Air Combat Manoeuvres: The Technique and History of Air Fighting for Flight Simulation
Air Combat Manoeuvres: The Technique and History of Air Fighting for Flight Simulation
by Peter C. Smith
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from $18.18

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice introduction to aerial warfare, October 17, 2011
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I was concerned that this book would be too light but decided to pick it up anyway. Although it's very heavily oriented towards WWII (and the sim IL-2 in particular), it is a fun book, and I would heartily recommend it for those new to air combat and air combat tactics. Not only are the diagrams a lot easier to read than the more technical books, but it is packed with comprehensive but succinct historical context needed to understand the innovations that drove changes to air combat tactics over the years.

As far as depth is concerned, the diagrams contain more subtlety than you might suspect from the first glance. Unlike other sim books, they describe techniques used by ALL types of combat aircraft (skip bombing, night interception, etc). For dogfighting, only opening moves and "stable" situations (rolling scissors, etc) are shown in detail, after which you are left to assemble the various basic maneuvers and positional concepts (high yo-yo, max performance turn, energy management, etc) into some sort of improvised strategy.

Almost all illustrative demonstrations use WWII aircraft. Illustrations devoted to modern aircraft only occur when missiles necessitate a substantive change to tactics. The only demonstration using a WWI aircraft, for instance, is a Curtis Jenny doing stalls.

The Pacific [Blu-ray]
The Pacific [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Joseph Mazzello
Price: $27.99
46 used & new from $16.74

17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Pacific and a Man Who Fought There, June 27, 2010
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This review is from: The Pacific [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
When I talked to a 1st and 4th Marine Division vet, the reason combat accounts are often vague became very clear to me: "At Saipan, we did a FOUR day assault, which was... the most..." - as he trailed off, I could see his mind discarding a succession of words, and his eyes welled with tears as each attempt took him further back to places he didn't want to go - "... INTENSE... experience". His relief at finally finding that single word - finally free to pull away from the nightmares and resume his story - communicated volumes more to me than any mere adjective.

Very few units (never mind individuals) survived the entire Pacific war intact, and those who did can rarely afford to tell us much about it. Thus, in lieu of a single narrative, the producers of "The Pacific" instead pieced together three stories which, taken together, span the experience of the 1st Marine Division throughout World War Two. Leckie and Basilone's accounts cover Guadalcanal, Gloucester and leave in Australia while Sledge's account describes Peleliu and Okinawa, with flashes from Basilone describing life stateside and the landing at Iwo Jima.

Several negative early reviews suggest to me that understanding the brilliance of this miniseries requires patience. Indeed, upon a first viewing, "The Pacific" may appear muddled and disjointed as it forcibly juxtaposes three very different story lines at contradictory moments of dramatic inertia. There are two critical reasons for this.

One problem for the first five episodes is a matter of source material. It is important to remember that "The Pacific" covers FOUR YEARS of warfare while "Band of Brothers" covers only one. For veterans, the memory of earlier battles (such as Okinawa) tends to get obliterated by the searing intensity of late battles (such as Okinawa). It would be much like trying to recall memories from childhood: you have isolated but extremely vivid scenes etched in your mind, but there is little rhyme or reason connecting them. However, your more recent memories, especially when they are so wrenching, can be recalled almost to the day.

The second problem is that of recognizing characters, a issue shared by "Band of Brothers". Many scenes appear to read as, "Some random guy in a helmet tells us this and that". These "guys in a helmet" are not only hard to identify in their combat gear, but also answer to a bewildering variety of names, nicknames, ranks and even rank slang. However, as those who've come to admire the once nameless likes of Hoobler and Shifty from "Band of Brothers" can attest, none of these helmeted figures are as anonymous as they seem, and as viewers go back and review these once random snippets they will discover a wonderfully rich tapestry of personalities that teaches us how the barbarism of war affected these people and their relationships to each other.

No one demonstrates this growth better than Joe Mazzello ("Timmmy" from Jurassic Park), who's slight frame evolves Eugene Sledge from a kindly, quiet kid to a bitterly angry vet. James B. Dale may lack the confrontational "bad boy" edge that Robert Leckie's character seems to call for, but his powerful innate decency radiates a layered and humane interpretation that's endlessly watchable. The inner life of John Basilone is not as well known, leaving actor Jon Seda little choice but to play him as a somewhat generic hero for fear of disrespecting a Medal of Honor winner by ascribing motivations that may appear less than courageous. However, Seda is an excellent ensemble actor, most notably developing wonderful romantic chemistry with Annie Parisse in the calm before the storm of Iwo Jima. This actress is just one of the many outstanding co-stars who create memorable sub-plots as they effortlessly perform the period dialog that seems to elude just about every other WWII production.

The music is also unusual and daring. Hans Zimmer's New Age sensibilities construct a distinctly Japanese dissonance of bells that quietly envelopes the fury of battle with an unsettling form of Zen that never competes with or interrupts the urgency of combat - quite unlike the standard pounding action score or screeching horror effects that seek to heighten violence in other films. Zimmer also proves he's perfectly capable of writing more conventional title music that evokes a gushingly American sense of honor without ever falling back on snare drum cliches. His title music retains the "Plaisir d'Amour" quote (sung by nuns in an Ardennes convent) and will occasionally replay "Band of Brothers" in its entirety for those listening carefully to background music in certain dialogs.

There are, of course, nitpicks, which are inevitable in a project of such massive scope: Leckie's romance central to Part 3 never ignites, American mortars seem to be more accurate than baseballs (even on the first shot), starving, shell-shocked Japanese are somehow perkier and better dressed than fully supplied Marines (or even Okinawan civilians) and the hasty exposition to Part 1 is quite awkward (yes, it's true that that the nation was gloomy, but it's difficult to imagine ANYONE - especially Chesty Puller - assuming the Japanese were on the verge of world conquest barely 3 weeks after Pearl Harbor!) With that said, for every little thing "The Pacific" might get wrong, there is SO much more it gets right that there is little doubt that this series is now the definitive recreation of the Pacific conflict.

The latter episodes of "The Pacific" are saturated with intense action and contain some of the most disturbing scenes ever put in a war film, once again reminding me of that conversation with the veteran: "These are things that no human being can possibly deal with. The only thing you can do is 'wall it out'. Guys that couldn't wall it out - officers who were trained to cope by keeping things organized or artists who tried to cope by expressing themselves - these people simply couldn't handle it". Even this man's tremendous skills, inherited from a lifetime in the backwoods, were of no comfort. As a member of an elite recon unit, the Japanese would deliberately let his unit pass then ambush the main body behind him. The number of times that he literally walked *through* the gunsights of hundreds of enemies - each CHOOSING to spare his life - was only one of an endless list of profoundly disturbing things he had to "wall out" just to survive another day... not to mention another year.

To quote the series:
"You can't dwell on it. You can't dwell on any of it".

NOTE: To obtain honest and often intense Japanese accounts of the war, I suggest Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of Asahi Shimbun, where a newspaper column provided one of the few opportunities for participants to discuss their experiences on such a politically dangerous topic.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 28, 2010 1:12 PM PDT

Soviet MiG-15 Aces of the Korean War (Aircraft of the Aces)
Soviet MiG-15 Aces of the Korean War (Aircraft of the Aces)
by Leonid Krylov
Edition: Paperback
Price: $22.95
33 used & new from $11.23

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ground Breaking, Incredibly valuable - but biased by necessity!, March 21, 2010
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This book provides one of our first detailed - WONDERFULLY detailed - looks at Russian Mig pilots in the Korean War, including marvelous first hand accounts of combat as well as excellent unit records. This is the first book on the subject that I've ever seen with this level of detail - it wasn't long ago when the Russians wouldn't even ACKNOWLEDGE they had pilots in Korea.

When reading this book, it's important to keep in mind that Krylov and Tepsurkaev probably had to secure the goodwill of their Russian sources in order to get such great access. Obviously, these pilots aren't going to grant interviews to someone planning a hatchet job on their military careers. Thus, the reader shouldn't be surprised that the narrative advocates and honors not just the pilots themselves, but also their interpretation of the war. Thus, you will not see any mention that these guys weren't "supposed" to be there while at the same time field a lot of strident complaints about US conduct and kill claims (I still wonder why excess US claims couldn't have been North Korean or Chinese pilots?)

This "bias" may be irritating to some, but the first person accounts and detailed Russian records make it a price abundantly worth paying. Furthermore, the authors weave their way through this political minefield by diligently researching and cross referencing both US and Russian records for every encounter. The results are a rather embarrassing parade of inflated claims by both sides, with people becoming great heroes and aces for stuff that simply didn't happen. Both sides were struggling to adapt to the new speed and range of jet combat, with afterburner smoke all too often being mistaken for a dying aircraft.

If you haven't read Osprey books of this kind, you have to keep in mind that these books are about records, photos and paint schemes first and literature second. However, for those who want something dramatic, visceral insight is actually very easy to get: just skip to ANYTHING written in quotes. There you'll find a wealth of white knuckle accounts as flesh and blood as any: "There was no way out. I headed right into the shell bursts. The aircraft shook and was thrown from side to side as if it were taxiing on cobblestones. I gripped the control column tightly and sat there more dead than alive..."

Obviously, the majority of encounters don't have the benefit of a personal interview, and are thus just what can be gleaned from combat reports: "Having fought his way past eight escorting Sabres, Snr Lt Evgeniy Stelmakh single-handedly attacked four B-29s and managed to shoot one of them down..."

If you want to actually decipher who was where when, I strongly recommend that first you download a few maps of Korea. Even so, the majority of the book is a torrent of facts, names and unit numbers, and if you're not writing things down it'll make your head spin: "17th and 523rd IAPs joined battle with the attacking fighter-bombers, while 14 MiGs from 18th GvIAP, which had climbed to 10,000 m (32,500 ft), were directed towards the B-29s..."

I truly feel this book is a fabulous, ground breaking first step towards an understanding of Russian pilots in the Korean War, and with the aforementioned caveats in mind, it can serve you wonderfully no matter what your interest. Here is where its true wealth lies.

Land Battles in 5th Century BC Greece: A History and Analysis of 173 Engagements
Land Battles in 5th Century BC Greece: A History and Analysis of 173 Engagements
by Fred Eugene Ray
Edition: Hardcover
9 used & new from $911.14

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A one-of-a-kind resource for battles both celebrated and obscure!, February 13, 2010
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Despite its depth and richness of detail, this book provides a fully accessible analysis of warfare in 5th century Greece. Although enjoyable for anyone with interest in the drama of battle, the book is an absolute treasure trove for anyone studying military history, most especially wargamers and others who are interested in recreating battles of the period.

The book covers the absolute core of Classical Greek history. The period prior to the 5th century is more legendary than documented, and the century after finds exhausted city states ripe pickings for Macedon and Hellenism. Thus it is in the 5th century where the independent city-states truly stand out as world powers, and the bare bones of archeology and legend are finally fleshed out by the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and others.

As indicated, only land battles are covered, although naval engagements are described in sufficient detail to understand their consequences. Obviously, all the great battles you'd expect to see are here - Marathon, Mantinea, Syracuse and so forth - and are described in detail not possible in books with a non-military focus. However, this book also shines a clear, welcome light on many lesser known and poorly documented conflicts and wars - some of which may never even have occurred! Here we find intriguing new worlds: the great offensives of Carthage in Sicily, desperate fights for survival against massive indigenous armies, a glimpse into the petty world of city-state border clashes and a quality description of the generally ignored campaigns of the Ionian Revolt where the Persian sparabara emerged victorious against the Greek hoplite.

Except for the well documented battles of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Ray is forced to recreate many poorly described conflicts in their entirety. Using what social and demographic data is available, he postulates the likely mix of the opposing armies, thus providing the reader with a great deal of invaluable research:

"Figures for Gela and Syracuse after their union in 485 B.C. offer clues to the manpower inolved here. The combined poleis could field 5-6000 hoplites within 600-man lochoi (per a picked Syracusan unit of later years). Assuming that mercenaries were not a factor and that Syracuse was the weaker partner suggests a Gelan mobilization of about 3000 spearmen (five lochoi) plus an unusuallly strong cadre of 600 horsemen."

For the actual course of obscure battles, Ray postulates a likely location for engagement, and generally assumes that both armies arrive at a logical location (no surprises, ambushes, betrayals, screw-ups, etc), politely wait for their enemy to line up in the most traditional possible order, then basically walk into each other. The results of these simulated collisions generally depend on how deeply "filed" opposing armies are for the consequent "othismos" shoving match, after which losses are determined based on which side had enough light forces to either protect or cut down fleeing men.

Unfortunately, a story of battle that assumes only the most obvious and probable tends to read like a weather prediction, and Ray's attempt to embellish the analysis with utterly hypothetical descriptions gets pretty awkward:

"The Greeks must have marched out to take position on ground of their own choosing... As the leading barbarians came into view, the hoplites would have moved into a phalanx near the shoreline, forming at a depth of eight shields, with Tarantines holding the center and right wing and their Regian allies taking the left... Both sides would have loosed a hail of slingers' shot and javelins as the barbarians made a screaming charge into the solid row of spears and polished shields fronting the phalanx... "

Such clumsy drama is the price Ray must pay for being the first to attempt a completely novel form of military narrative. However, when an actual sources are available, the writing is as vibrant and fresh as any:

"Many already caught in the deathtrap at the crossing were so thirsty that they dropped in the very midst of battle to lap up churned and muddy water turned crimson with blood."

Ray does have some noticeable research habits. He follows the modern trend towards moral "inversion", that is, criticizing the traditional "good guys" while taking pains to sympathize with traditional "bad guys". Ray also tends discount a lot of contemporary sources as exaggeration - often drastic - depending on the reputation of the source. Sometimes, if the facts don't line up well with the hypothetical model he's constructing, he'll even infer error or confusion on the part of the source rather than propose different models. However, these techniques greatly add to readability, as his "single interpretation" approach doesn't grind to a halt to constantly check alternative interpretations, and he does note where such disagreements occur so readers have a chance to draw their own conclusions.

Ray's data on the organization and equipment of the armies seems superior to what is generally available:

"Persia used linear battle formations with files of ten men (one dathaba). Rank width was similar to that for hoplites at one meter per man, but file depth at a likely 1.5-2m per man would have been greater than among the Greeks to ease use of the bow (save at the head of each file where a unit's best men stood on shield duty)."

Not only does Ray provide such detail on the armies of Greece, Persia and Carthage, but he also reconstructs, to the best of his ability, similar information concerning the organization and character of the obscure and loosely organized indigenous tribes faced by Greek colonists.

The book only provides a few basic maps with a handful of labeled locations, so if you're not already intimately familiar with places like Sicily, Western Turkey, the Chalcydice, and so forth, you will need your own strategic map (perhaps one printed off the internet). On the actual field of battle, several major engagements are accompanied with basic but clear tactical maps showing the probable deployment of troops, thus making it much easier to follow movements in the ensuing discussion.

What emerges from this book is a world far more diverse than the traditionally narrow focus on Athens, Sparta and Persia. Unlike most imperial powers, aggressive Greek city-states tended to cut their colonial acquisitions adrift, resulting in a bewildering array of independent tyrannies, democracies and republics who tangle with both indigenous and foreign forces to create a rich history of alliance, ambition, betrayal and warfare in a variety of Mediterranean settings.

Passionate Love for the Beautiful Landscapes(Acrobatics)
Passionate Love for the Beautiful Landscapes(Acrobatics)
Price: $19.95
2 used & new from $12.99

2.0 out of 5 stars A clone of "Cirque du Soleil" that doesn't translate, August 6, 2009
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The success of "Riverdance" and "Cirque du Soleil" has clearly created pressure to enhance traditional Chinese acrobatics with elaborate productions featuring daring, garish costumes, music, lighting and drama. Unfortunately, the notion of "avant garde" espoused by this show not only fails to translate, but is such a deep misfire that it is actually too painful to even try to fast forward through all the pretension just to find the few scattered moments of acrobatics.

I found myself averting my eyes and turning beet red at the bizarre fetish for costumes with huge butts and the embarrassingly corny attempts to garner sympathy. Even worse, the outstanding quality of the acrobatics prevents the show from ever being "so bad it's good": it's simply impossible to laugh when you're overwhelmed by outrage and disgust at seeing people with such incredible skill and talent being humiliated by such artistic idiocy.

I can only hope that non-Western eyes will find these aesthetics easier to bear.

Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War - PC
Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War - PC
9 used & new from $41.33

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great sim getting better every week!, August 1, 2009
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
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Flying aircraft is, by nature, not an easy thing, and it requires a lot of patience to learn to guide a twitchy collection of rags and wire while looking the "wrong way" at the enemy zipping by you. Air combat that's anywhere near realistic is definitely something you have to be in a mood for, and you won't find me doing flight sims if I've had a long day. This makes the "fun" factor of a game like this hard to rate, but when I'm up for it, then it doesn't get any better than this.

After reading the internet reviews (sites like "metacritic" summarize them for you), I realized the sorts of stuff people were complaining about - menus, settings, not enough aircraft, little graphics glitches, and so forth - were all stuff that are easy to patch. The stuff that CANNOT be patched so easily - flight model, graphics engine, even net code - all get outstanding reviews.

It turns out that this is indeed the case. The game has automatic patching system that fires up as soon as you launch the game (which is why an internet connection is required) so they can "push" you the latest fixes. With each fix, there are sometimes radical changes (when I got the game 4 days ago, there were four planes to choose from, now there are six, and I heard that two weeks ago there were only two!) and some of changes totally change the look and feel of the menu system (progress bars, mission and menu selection, etc). The patches seem pretty stable when they're pushed out, and at the moment we seem to be getting two per week, although I'm sure that will slow down. All these changes mean, of course, that the manual you get is pretty to look at but rather vague as to how things actually work.

The flight model and flight interface feels almost identical to IL2 (a very successful series of Russian flight sims centered around WW2) and if it weren't for the better graphics (especially lighting), you'd think you WERE playing IL2.

The loading times are also very much like IL2: whether that's fast or slow I guess would depend on your machine. I use hardware that barely meets the minimum standard and it runs fine for me. Most of the minimal resolutions are for a 4:3 monitor: if you want to use a 16x9 resolution you'll have to choose one of the highest two resolutions. I use a 16x9 resolution and haven't had any frame rate problems; however, I also use minimal effects settings because pretty graphics and gorgeous terrain aren't important to me (I just want to see the enemy and don't care if he's "aliased" or not), and up to this point I've only flown dogfight missions (no ground targets, just other airplanes).

They have a whole training track for beginners - a lot of cute chalk pictures, some sort of audio-visual experience with a guy walking around and lecturing - but I can't comment much on this as I pretty much skipped it. I don't know how much easier or approachable the game would be if you dumbed down all the settings, although I dumb down quite a few just so I don't have to worry about gun jams, fuel mixtures and other administrivia (I'm never THAT patient!)

An architectural annoyance that probably cannot be patched is the key mapping and settings system. The game has to know your key mappings before it starts, which means you have to run this little utility first (which also controls settings for graphics, sound etc) before you start the game. The result is that you can't fly around, set some keys, fly again and see how it feels, fiddle some more, so on and so forth: you have to completely exit and reload the game each time.

Multiplayer seems solid, but you have to play whatever missions are on your computer - there is no "quick mission" setup where people can change what sorts of planes they flying or fighting. The canned missions have set flights of aircraft for you to choose from (for instance, a 5 on 5 dogfight where both sides have to take off) and any slots not manned by players are filled in by AI. Once again, this is an architectural choice (probably to reduce loading times), so I doubt it will ever change, but on the other hand you can play whatever missions are installed on the serving computer.

As time goes on, I'm sure there will be more downloadable missions as people figure out how to use the mission editor. I've been looking into editing missions myself, but it's sort of hard to figure out, as most of the tutorials out there are by Russian guys whose command of English is unsteady (which will obviously change over time as well).

Kung Fu Panda  (Widescreen Edition)
Kung Fu Panda (Widescreen Edition)
DVD ~ Jack Black
Offered by Fulfillment Express US
Price: $13.70
173 used & new from $0.01

86 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful yet amazingly faithful!, August 28, 2008
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With deep foreboding, I walked into this movie braced for second rate animation (at least compared to Pixar), endless fights between cartoons (as in the CGI "Clone Wars"), and a cultural sensitivity that was either painfully preachy (like "Mulan") or outright insulting (like "Aladdin").

At first, my dread seemed confirmed. Poor Dustin Hoffman mangles Chinese names without mercy - so much so that James Hong, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan have to deliberately mispronounce stuff just to match what he says.

But once the movie got rolling, I found myself grinning from ear to ear in sheer delight. Yes, it's true, Dreamworks can't compete with Pixar's technology, but they make up for it with beautiful graphic design, sheer wit and - of course - those hilariously quivering "Scrat Eyes". What's more, the animators somehow manage to make Kung Fu battles between cartoons both exciting and enjoyable - every bit the match of live action fights (which nowadays are nothing more than CGI with faces pasted on).

However, the most remarkable thing about this film is how faithful it is to Chinese culture - family dynamics, Buddhist philosophy, values, and even martial arts - this film simply HAS to have been written by Chinese. There is never a moment where it strains to "score points" with political correctness. Its characters are never tediously noble "anti-stereotypes", but are instead lovingly depicted with all their flaws intact while uniquely Chinese messages are delicately hidden within a plot crammed with excitement and laughter. Here you experience how parental love turns into suffocating pressure, here you see teenage rebellion as a monstrosity rather than a virtue, here you see the quirky characters of a city (complete with that wobbly "bound foot" walk), here you hear the wisdom of Zen detachment, and here you experience the sacred relationship between student and teacher.

Perhaps my opinion is biased by the surprise this movie gave to my low expectations, but I can't help but see this film as an unappreciated but precious gem. Now if only someone could do the same thing with Islamic culture...!
Comment Comments (13) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 15, 2014 9:07 PM PST

Mongol - Chingishan
Mongol - Chingishan
DVD ~ Sergej Bodrov-starshij

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fictional but gorgeous study of life in the steppes, August 22, 2008
This review is from: Mongol - Chingishan (DVD)
Explore the heart of nomadic life as the Great Khan struggles for dominance over his Mongol rivals!

Although largely fictional (and exceedingly forgiving) in its depiction of the Khan's rise to power, the film nevertheless rings true in its portrait of steppe culture, featuring a parade of breathtaking panoramic shots of fur draped characters (with plucky romantic interests in tow) fleeing an endless chain of raids and vengeance.

We do see swords swing as grimy faces spouting a confusion of Japanese and Korean accents slice their way through layers of leather and roadkill (assisted by generous CGI blood), but the budget only allows for one truly epic battle (more suggested than seen) that is the climax of a trail of brisk and kinetic skirmishes.

To enjoy this film, you must lay aside your expectations of its subject. This film is not interested in politics, nor does it discuss horrific atrocities, nor does it portray great conquest (only brief visits to the sincized Jurchens are shown). This film is - first and foremost - a quiet portrait of people struggling for love and survival on the vast steppes of Russia and Mongolia, a life rarely depicted with so much compassion, understanding and beauty.

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