Tag Archives: reviews

Parvusimperator Reviews: Marvel’s Spider-Man

I am sick to the back teeth of giant ensemble cast superhero movies, and I’ve played a ton of bad superhero games in my youth. For a game to stand out, it needs to be amazing. Spectacular, even. Insomniac Games has stepped up with their take on everyone’s favorite web-slinging hero in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Things the game does right: damn near everything. First, pitfalls avoided. It’s not a rehash of the origin story, thank God and Stan Lee. We’ve got a somewhat-experienced Peter Parker here who doesn’t have to “learn how to be Spider-Man” for the millionth time. It’s not a redo of any other story either. They’ve gone and made their own story for you to enjoy.

Let’s talk about that story some more. It is brand new, but it checks all of the boxes that you would expect from a Spider-Man story. We’ve got complications. We’ve got good characters who are going to TURN BAD. We’ve got touching moments with MJ. We’ve got financial woes. We’ve got perpetual tardiness. We’ve got Spidey Quips. We’ve got famous villains that you know and love to hate. We’ve got J. Jonah Jameson (now with a radio show) calling you a MENACE and accusing you of being in cahoots with various evildoers. We even have a cameo appearance from the late Stan Lee himself. And there’s a brassy, awesome soundtrack that feels very ‘comic book movie’.

Being a Spider-Man game, this is set in New York City, and the devs at Insomniac did a great job of giving you a lovingly recreated Manhattan to play in. Thanks to modern processing power, you can web swing from Harlem to Wall Street without any loading screens. There are tons of recognizable New York City landmarks for you to see, plus a whole bunch of appropriate Marvel landmarks, like Avengers Tower. And you get around via web-swinging, which is the right mix of simple controls, dynamism, and just a bit of imprecision to be tremendous fun. It’s very easy to get the hang of, and it looks right out of a good Spider-Man movie.

On to combat! Combat feels like a somewhat more refined version of what we see in the Arkham games. More refined in the sense that Spidey’s gadgets are a lot better integrated into the fighting. It’s a lot easier to select gadgets, and they fit into your other attack and evasion work really nicely. Another nice feature is the combo bar. Fill it, and you get a finishing move, but you can also use it to replenish your health.

I would also like to praise the randomized minor crime mechanic. In each section of Manhattan, there are various factions who might do some crimes like try to hijack an armored truck. And, of course, you can go stop them. The timers are such that I never felt that I was overwhelmed by crime, or had somehow gone back to pre-Giuliani New York. Plus, after you stop a set number of crimes (five per faction, usually) those stop. Which is nice, because I get really sick when those become never-ending like the dragon encounters in Skyrim.

And now, things I don’t like. Happily, it’s a short list. First, there are sidequests that seem to require more precision in the web-swinging than the system is capable of delivering, which makes them a giant pain. Those quests were both frustrating and verisimilitude-breaking, as I felt like some sort of useless tetherball, not an amazing superhero. Happily, those quests are both few and number and entirely optional. The other annoying bits are the parts where you’re playing as Peter Parker (i.e. not costumed) and you have to walk around between cutscenes. With the exception of the bits in the lab, where there are plenty of things to mess around with, these felt entirely superfluous. Just work it into one cutscene, guys. It’s ok.

Overall though, it’s a great game. Highly recommended.

Fishbreath Watches: Alliance of American Football Review

If you’re a regular here at all, you’ll recall that I’ve been watching and enjoying the AAF, the current player in the spring football scrub league space.

The thing is, spring football scrub leagues have rather a fraught history. There was the XFL1. The less said about that, the better. The USFL puttered along for three seasons in the 1980s, then tried to go toe to toe with the NFL and immediately folded. There are a bunch of minor leagues listed on Wikipedia, none of which I’ve ever heard of.

There were are2 arena football leagues. The Arena Football League is down to six teams, but still trying its very best, while the American Arena League (est. 2017) is actually expanding to Pittsburgh3. There are other leagues, too, according to Wikipedia, which comes as something of a surprise. Arena football has some novelty, at least, with its smaller teams, smaller field, high scoring, and backyard-style rules (you can motion toward the line of scrimmage, and the nets are in play!).

Arena football lives, yes, but nobody has ever built a successful, enduring spring football league playing with substantially NFL-like rules. There’s one obvious reason: you’re competing with other, more meaningful sports. Hockey season is starting to get interesting, baseball fans wait on the edge of their seats for spring training news, basketball both pro and college is in full swing. Fans don’t have unlimited attention. You need buy-in, and you need a good product.

Does the AAF have it?

Buy-In

So far, there’s a surprising amount of buzz around the AAF. The games aren’t heavily attended by NFL standards, but they do seem to be drawing reasonable crowds—north of 10,000 in just about every game so far, and more than 20,000 in some instances like San Diego where the local football fans have been robbed or starved of their live football fix.

I’m talking about it, for another, as are the local sports radio personalities and a few of my football-related follows on Twitter and Youtube.

The Rules Changes

Now we get into the question of product quality. At least on this front, parvusimperator and I agree: the AAF’s changes are brilliant.

First: no TV timeouts. They do some product placement and fit in ads during natural stoppages in play, but they never outright stop the game for the purpose of advertising.

Second: fewer natural stoppages in play. Primarily, they’ve eliminated kickoffs. You start at your own 25, or you can elect to try a 4th-and-12 play from your 28.

Third: no extra points. You always go for two points, the effect of which is likely to reduce the number of ties in regulation and therefore of overtime. One of the AAF’s goals is to have games over and done in 2.5 hours. So far, they’re hitting that mark.

Fourth: simpler overtime. Each team gets one possession each, first and goal from the 10. No field goals. After each team gets a crack at it, the score stands.

Finally: the Sky Judge, a referee who watches from the press box and corrects bad calls.

The On-Field Product

The rules don’t matter if the football is crap.

So far, it hasn’t exactly been uniformly good, but it hasn’t been crap either. For every San Diego Fleet quarterback situation (two different starters through two games, combining for a less-than-50% completion rate) there’s an Orlando or Arizona, whose offenses seem to be firing on all cylinders and generating high scores and good football action.

It’s a little early to say if it’ll stay middling or trend one way or the other, but it’s a decent start for what it is, ultimately: an NFL minor league.

The Viewing Experience

One thing the AAF is doing right is streaming their games. During Week 1, you got the CBS commentary teams. Not so during week 2—instead, the stream was a commentary-free, graphics-free skycam, typically showing plays from the Madden-esque behind-the-QB perspective. Situation and score information comes from the web page surrounding the stream. You can decide for yourself if that’s good or bad.

Obviously, I haven’t been to a game in person, given that I am in Pittsburgh, where it is cold, and the AAF is largely located in the south, where it is warm. (Or warmer, at least.) Ticket prices are pretty reasonable. If you want a season pass to the club level, with (at least in some stadiums) all-inclusive food and drink, that’ll run you $800 or so a seat. If you don’t mind sitting at the top of the stadium (or the top of the lower bowl, for larger stadiums), you can find season tickets as cheap as $75, which (like some Browns games a year or two ago) is less than you might pay, per game, to get into a high-end high school game.

Concession prices seem to vary. They’re expensive in San Diego, because they’re playing in the Chargers’ old digs and don’t have full control over prices. I can’t find anyone talking about prices one way or another for the other teams.

The Intangibles

The team names feel a little strange right now, but I suspect that’s familiarity as much as anything. ‘Orlando Apollos’ may not be very poetic, but then, I come from a town with Steelers and Penguins, neither of which is much of an exemplar of the beauty of English.

Already, the league’s financials seem shaky—they needed an emergency infusion of cash to the tune of $250 million, which is half again as much as they’ve raised to date. $750 million in total is a big initial investment to recoup. For comparison, in 2015, the Packers’ total revenue was $376 million, between their share of the league pool and their own tickets, merchandising, and concessions income, of which $40 million was profit. If the AAF as a whole is as big as the Packers, which I doubt, that’s a lot of years before they make their money back.

Which is why it seems the AAF is going all in on gambling. They’re already part owned by some casino or another, and there’s been talk of next-play betting and daily fantasy built in to the AAF’s mobile apps. I understand that move, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it for reasons I can’t quite articulate.

Maybe it’s because the league, teams, and future gambling operations are all one organization. Look at last Sunday’s San Diego Fleet game. They were up 21-12 with 30 seconds to go in the game, and were 9.5-point favorites. They kicked a field goal. If I were a gambling man and I had money on an NFL game with that outcome, I would grouse, but not seriously. It’s a little more suspicious when my bookie also employs the players and coaches.

That’s awfully conspiracy-minded of me, isn’t it? Let me be clear: I don’t honestly believe that the AAF will get into the game-fixing business when they can already print money with above-board gambling. In the final reckoning, I like the AAF so far. Will it have staying power? Only time will tell. The football is half decent, though, and for the fan who’s already itching for the NFL preseason, it’s good Sunday afternoon comfort food.


  1. Apparently, they’re trying again, launching in 2020. I’ll believe it when I see it. 
  2. News to me! 
  3. They play at the massive 1200-seat RMU Island Sports Complex Dome. 

Fishbreath Plays: Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun

The clunkily-named Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun is, at its core, a turn-based tactical wargame set on the battlefields of Asia during the Sengoku period, developed by Byzantine Games and published by Slitherine.

That sells it short, though.

The Sengoku period is a fascinating time in Japanese history, familiar to anyone who’s played a Total War game with ‘Shogun’ in the title. Competing daimyo fought for the title of shogun, de facto ruler of Japan. Usefully, at least for wargame designers, it was a century or so of near-constant war.

Sengoku Jidai has a number of expansions which extend it well beyond Japan in the 16th century, to China and Korea in the same era, all the way back to Japan in the 12th and 13th centuries. With the exception of gunpowder, warfare in those eras was broadly similar, so I won’t make too much of the differences. (Also, my interest in the era mainly runs toward the Sengoku period, and that’s what I’ve played extensively, so I’ll stick with talking about it.)

Gameplay

I can’t find a solid source to confirm or deny that the battlefield rules in Sengoku Jidai are based on a tabletop wargaming system, but it feels like they could be. They’re clean and simple.

Movement is on a square grid. Combat is pretty mathy, but comes down to Points of Advantage which affect the result, and which are gained or lost based on many of your typical wargame conditions. (Think spears against horses, rough terrain and disorder, morale, and so on.) Turning units is hard, as is shifting them long distances; they’re fairly slow, and 45-degree turns are about as much as you can manage without running out of action points. Units outside of their generals’ command range are even less mobile, an unusual but sensible design choice. Rather than stack up more combat modifiers, generals simply yield a more flexible, better-coordinated force. Works for me.

When units get into melee combat, they usually stay there for a few turns, wearing each other down and slowly inflicting losses until someone breaks. Once units get into close combat, you lose control over them, and even if your unit routs its opponent, you may not get control back—units automatically pursue routers, and may charge enemies in their paths.

There are good tutorials, both in the sense of tutorial missions and in the sense of tutorial popups explaining events as they happen, and between those and the elegance of the rules, it’s easy to get to grips with the system and start with the generalship.

Finally, for the cost of entry, you get a random map generator, a random battle generator, some historical scenarios, and some dynamic campaigns (simple ones, but enough to contextualize battles). Even the base game gets you the Sengoku Jidai campaigns and the Imjin War, I believe. If you enjoy the gunpowder- and artillery-heavy armies of the latter, I’d recommend picking up the Mandate of Heaven DLC, too, which buys you expanded Chinese factions and four more dynamic campaigns.

Presentation

I don’t have a lot to say here. The sounds are competent but uninspired, though the music is pleasantly atmospheric. The unit graphics are little groups of men and horses, more in the vein of counters than anything else. The landscapes are quite pretty, to the extent that they can be given the square grid they have to fit, and have a whiff of Japanese landscape painting about them in color palette and design.

One notable trouble spot is the lack of anti-aliasing, which is a bother for a game featuring spearmen aplenty. Another is that units don’t shrink as you batter them. A 1500-man unit of yari ashigaru looks the same at full strength as it does after losing 600 men, the only difference being a more tattered flag. As far as I’m aware, there’s no game mechanic which requires easy knowledge of a unit’s original size, so I count this as a flaw.

Verisimilitude

If you’ve read any of my previous wargame reviews, you’ll probably remember that verisimilitude is just about my favorite word in this kind of article. The point of a wargame is not to simulate every arrow and every man down to the smallest wound. The point of a wargame is to evoke a sense of place.

So, what is evocative about Sengoku Jidai’s gameplay? What puts me in the mindset of a field commander in 16th-century Asia?

First: deployment is crucial. On the scale of a battlefield, infantry is slow. Even cavalry takes a while to get where you want it. If you deploy your main body poorly, you can easily lose a battle you should have won. If you deploy your main body well, taking advantage of the terrain and the strengths of your units, you can win battles you might otherwise have lost.

Second: loss of control is rapid. Once the lines crash together, the outcome is largely out of your hands, except insofar as you contribute to key points with flanking maneuvers. As the general in command of an army, your responsibility is to deploy your forces well and, on the approach, meet weak points in the enemy’s deployment with strength. That seems accurate to me.

Like all the best wargames, when I get into the groove, it doesn’t feel like a game, in spite of the tabletop feeling of the rules. I give it my recommendation.

Miscellaneous

It’s available on Steam, but doesn’t work with Steam Play/Proton/Wine on my Mint 19.1 system, and as far as I know, doesn’t have high-DPI support.

Parvusimperator Reviews Yakuza 6

I picked this up mostly because I heard from a couple friends that this series was great. I only found out after the fact that it might have made more sense to start with the prequel Yakuza 0. No matter. I have Yakuza 6 and that’s where I started the series. So what do I think?

I love Yakuza 6.

There, that’s out of the way. Now, let’s get down to the why. Yakuza 6 is one part soap opera about criminals, one part fantastic beat-’em-up, and one part sort-of-open-world game. Let’s look at each of those.

The story is very much dramatic soap opera. I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m doing a lot of reading of subtitles. I don’t really mind. I think the story is loads of fun, mostly because it’s so different. It does have a bit of an anime feel to it in the ‘awesome drama trumps some realism’ department, but that’s ok. If you want to skip the cutscenes, you can. You’re missing out on some great story though. Just because it’s a little stylistically different doesn’t mean it isn’t well written. And fun. It’s lots of fun.

I also want to take a moment to commend Yakuza 6 for doing a great job of bringing someone totally new to the series up to speed with a minimum of fuss. And I didn’t feel like I was being lectured to. That’s rare.

Combat is pretty fantastic. There are some combos, but they’re pretty simple. It doesn’t feel like an old-school fighting game with giant lists of button press sequences to memorize. What sets Yakuza 6 apart from say, the Arkham games, is that the environment is full of weapons for you to use. There’s a lot of fun in picking up random things and beating your foes with them. Plus, there’s a “Heat Mode” which lets you power up, punch with awesome blue flames, and use larger blunt objects to smash people in the face. Things like mopeds.

There are also a good number of cool unlockable moves. Not so much that it ever felt grindy, but you can definitely unlock some fun extras.

Yakuza 6 has some open world elements in that there are a lot of optional sidequests and minigames that you can do. Some of these can get annoying, so it’s good to space them out. However, I never found them to be anything but fun. I think my favorite was running around trying to befriend stray cats by feeding them. Or perhaps the spearfishing rail-shooter minigame. In any case, these are all nicely optional.

Overall, there’s a good, fun story, an excellent combat system, and a solid grab bag of minigames. I give it a thumbs up. Definitely worth the asking price.

Parvusimperator Reviews the Vortex Razor Gen II-E 1-6

Kind of a mouthful of a scope name, but it’s high time I review it. The Gen II-E is the lighter version of the Gen II that three gunners have been loving for years, and that SOCOM has been slapping on their carbines when they want a low-power variable optic. The II-E is basically the same great scope, but four oz. lighter. Subtract one Royale with cheese. Great. I’m always down for lighter weight.

I went with the JM-1 reticle, because I’m buying this scope for competition, where a simple BDC-type reticle will do nicely. Other reticle choices are MOA-dots and mildots. So if you want ranging references, go with those. All reticles have a 0.5-MOA illuminated dot in the center of the crosshair. It’s small enough not to cover stuff up, but bright enough to be easily seen just about anywhere. “Daylight bright” is a frequently abused term in optics reviews. I will say that it’s as bright as my Aimpoint. Or, if you prefer, there are settings that are entirely too bright to be without blooming on an sunny Pennsylvania day. So it should be bright enough for anything.

The illumination dial is nicely thought out. Pull out to adjust and then push in to lock, just like a locking turret. Also nice is that between each setting there’s an off position. So you don’t need to go all the way back to zero every time you want to shut your scope off. It’s a nice convenience feature.

The adjustment turrets are capped. Once the caps are removed, the turrets themselves are adjustable with your fingers, not a screwdriver/cartridge case. The adjustment increment, in my case 1/2 MOA, was printed right on the turret, which was also nice. I didn’t need to consult a manual, so I didn’t have to worry about forgetting it at home. For this scope and its intended uses, capped turrets are ideal. BDCs are not for dialing range on.

Looking through the Razor, we find very clear glass. Even at the edges. The scope has a really wide field of view and a very forgiving eyebox. The wide field of view means that the scope body will very nearly disappear on 1x. Up close, the Razor is fantastic. It’s fast as my Aimpoint, and that’s high praise.

Letting the scope stretch its legs a little, it also does well at range. The field of view is great on 6x too, and the reticle doesn’t get in your way. I like simple reticles, and you can’t argue with good glass.

I don’t have any complaints about the Razor. It’s a little heavy, but not inordinately so. It has a second focal plane reticle, which means that the subtensions are only accurate on the maximum magnification. That’s fine by me; that’s the only time I really expect to need them. It also means that it’s easier to design a reticle that works across all magnification ranges when the reticle doesn’t change with magnification. Technically, it’s also way easier to make a second focal plane reticle brightly illuminated. I’d rather have the simple reticle and bright illumination.

Is this the right scope for you? That depends on your application. For 3-Gun and other action shooting disciplines, this scope is the gold standard. Understand your needs before you go buying, especially if you can’t look through it first. All that said, I’m extremely happy with my purchase, and I love my Razor.

Parvusimperator Reviews: Rise of the Tomb Raider

A video game review! Yes, from me! I know, I don’t usually do these.

I picked up Rise of the Tomb Raider (20th Anniversary Edition) during a labor day weekend sale. I got it for my PS4, mostly on a lark. I figured that with all the DLC, and having a bunch of patches, I could probably get the $15 of enjoyment out of it.

I was skeptical because I am not a fan of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot by Square Enix. I hated the fact that it’s an origin story, because I loathe origin stories, and I hated the QTEs. I can’t stand QTEs. They’re one of the worst parts of modern gaming, and I wish they would die1. Give me agency or make it a cutscene, game developers. It’s not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with cutscenes. Also, in addition to being a stupid, unnecessary origin story2, the 2013 game was populated with a bunch of other characters whose job is to die to prove the situation is serious and torment Lara.3

So, with all that in mind, what did I think of the sequel? It’s great. In fact, it seemed like they fixed a lot of gripes that I had with the first one. Good on you, Square Enix. Let’s do a deeper dive.

Are there QTEs? Yes, but they’re fewer in number, more spaced out, and the “windows” for button presses seem more forgiving. Also, a lot of them come up in the dodge-and-then-melee combat bits, but many of these are easily bypassed by those of us who can pull off a good headshot. So that’s a big plus.

Combat is much improved this time around too, with more weapons and a bunch of craftable ammo options. I will say that as a guy who has played shooters for a long time, I would have liked to have seen more difficult combat that wasn’t also tied to the survival mechanisms. Mostly because I want auto-heal on for all those times that I screw up the platforming and faceplant on a rock. I found combat satisfying overall. I thought some of the ‘boss fights’ could have been tougher.4 Or maybe that’s just because I like firepower, picked up the “easy button” and got on with life.

The story is better this time too. Lara is still “developing” as a tomb raider/adventurer/badass, but she’s got some skills and drive this time around. And there’s only one friend that hangs around the story. He’s a pretty ok guy, and we get to know him a bit. More time getting to know him would have been better, but this wasn’t awful. Lara is fundamentally a loner, and it’s nice to see us getting back to that.

I think the platforming was a little better in this one compared to the last, but it’s still not as good as Uncharted. One of the things I really liked in Uncharted 4 is that Nate will reach for ledges if and only if he can jump to them. I thought this was a great subtle hint as to what I shouldn’t waste time/restarts from checkpoints trying to reach. Alas, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do this, and I really missed the feature. I did like that as Rise of the Tomb Raider progresses, you get some toys to let you zoom around the environment more, and that was fun. Any game that lets me make my own ziplines is welcome.

Graphicswise, we’re long past the era when games would try to blow their competition away in terms of prettiness. The game looks good. There are plenty of spectacular scenic vistas, as befits an adventuring game. And I’m not much of a sound connoisseur, so I’ll merely state that the sound was never a problem. Not noticing it seems about the highest compliment I can pay, since my noticing it usually means it’s awful. Music was also good, though it lacked a kickass theme to really stick with me.

Overall, go for it. You’ll enjoy it.


  1. While I would love to see this be an agonizingly painful death, I am not a Bond villain, and am not choosy when it comes to the manner of termination with extreme prejudice. 
  2. Highly redundant, I know. 
  3. God forbid we reduce the number of characters and build attachments to them so the player gives a shit when they die because this situation is SRS BIZNIZ. /sarcasm 
  4. Protip: Grenade launchers are your friend. 

Parvusimperator Reviews the PX4C

Okay, this is Fishbreath’s gun, it’s true. And I’ve been pestering him to review it, but he hasn’t.

Fine. I’ll review it.

Don’t worry, Fishbreath. I’ll do my best to be impartial.

The PX4C (Compact) is a newish double action pistol from Beretta. Well, certainly newer than the Beretta 92, which is what you probably think of when I say “Beretta handgun”. The PX4C doesn’t have a ton of market share, partially because Beretta is bad at marketing, partially because Beretta hasn’t kept market share amongst law enforcement departments (see: Is Bad At Marketing), and partially because the PX4s came out a bit too late. The PX4s were released in 2004, when double-action triggers were going out of vogue. And there they have more or less stayed. If they came out in the 90s, back when double action triggers were Still Cool, they would have sold like crack, and you would hear lots about how nice they were.

Which brings us to an obvious point. These are double action semiautomatics. I am not a fan of these, personally. If you are not either for whatever reason, then (1) these will probably not make a convert out of you and (2) these can’t be turned into something that they aren’t: a striker-fired or single action only pistol. If you want something else, get something else.

On the other hand, if you are a fan of double action pistols, then the PX4C is a great choice, because it is about Glock 19 sized and polymer framed. The Glock 19 size (roughly) is big enough that you can easily get a good grip on the gun, but small enough that most people won’t have too much trouble concealing it with a modicum of effort. You can get good shooting smaller pistols, and you can conceal bigger pistols with a little more effort, but the Glock 19 is the sweet spot of balancing concealability and firepower. This gives you the same size package, the same fifteen round capacity, but a double action trigger. It’s also the only game in town if you like the double action trigger and want something in the Glock 19 form factor (and don’t feel like giving up a couple rounds). That’s really cool.

Oh, and polymer framed because it’s nicer to carry less weight around on your belt.

The PX4C has the Beretta-standard safety/decocker on the slide. I’m not a fan of this location, but it’s easier to reach with your strong hand than on a Beretta 92. You can convert it to a decocker-only lever with a really easy parts swap, and these parts are easy to come by.

I’ve also heard some occasional stories of issues if these pistols get dry, like in high round count classes. To the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t happened to Fishbreath, but he doesn’t do 2,000 round marathons of shooting. The PX4C might be a little needier of lubrication than, say, a Glock. I don’t know enough about this to know how big an issue it is. The occasional story comes up. I can’t confirm the cause either. The rotating barrel system is different, for better and for worse. It does make the pistol a bit softer shooting, but 9 mm isn’t all that stout to begin with. It might be more interesting to try one in .40, but I don’t have access to one.

The PX4C comes with interchangeable backstraps, which is nice. They could be grippier, but I say that about everything. This is easy to fix with some stippling or skateboard tape. Or maybe you like a smoother grip, in which case the PX4C is perfect for you as-is.

There’s actually a decent amount of Beretta parts support for these. There are low-profile safety/decocker levers, low profile slide releases, and a variety of sizes of mag catches. You can also use the mainspring from a Beretta 8000D to improve the double-action trigger pull by a significant amount. And, unfortunately, there is where the support stops. With searching you can find holsters. It is very difficult to find sight alternatives, though Trijicon does make both their standard three-dot tritium sights and their HDs for the PX4s. Stock sights are three-dot units.

So there you have it, readers. The PX4C is a great option for you if you like to carry reasonably-sized double action pistols. In which case, you owe it to yourself to give these a go. They’re pretty easy to overlook given all of the fancy Beretta 92 variants of late, but these are quite a bit easier to carry.

Also, if you’re on the fence, there’s an Ernest Langdon Custom Carry Edition, with actually good sights and all of the low profile controls added right out of the box. It also even comes with some grip tape. This is the version I would suggest you get, dear reader.

Fishbreath Flies: DCS AV-8B NA Harrier Review

Let’s talk weird, floaty planes.

Floatiness (more technically, and henceforth, V/STOL, vertical/short takeoff and landing) has long been a desired trait in warplanes. As far back as the Convair XFY Pogo, a helicopter in airplane’s clothing, designers have seen the advantages in a plane that can land nearly anywhere. The Pogo, however, served to demonstrate some flaws with the plan: namely, that a hovering plane is hard to fly1.

The idea languished for a bit. Like all useful ideas, it didn’t stay down for long. The Harrier was born from this second wave of V/STOL aircraft; it was made possible by a stonking great engine.

The stonking great engine, the Bristol-Siddeley (and later Rolls-Royce) Pegasus, is a fascinating piece of equipment but probably a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the thrust vectoring is built in, the compressor stages rotate in opposite directions to reduce gyroscopic effects, and the limiting factor for power—turbine blade temperature—can be temporarily exceeded by means of a water injection system2. Some sources will tell you the Harrier’s engine is mounted in the fuselage. This is misleading. In a very real sense, the engine is the fuselage, with a little bit of plating to cover it up. Look at a Harrier from the front. You’ll see half of the fan on either side.

Over the years, variants accumulated, as they do for successful airframes. The Americans bought in, and the AV-8 and Harrier GR. number lines separated slightly, in terms of avionics and equipment. As an American and, less importantly but more pertinently, a DCS-based flight simmer, I’m most concerned with the AV-8B, and most specifically, the DCS AV-8B Night Attack variant by Razbam.

The AV-8B entered service with the US Marine Corps in 1985, and was followed quickly by the Night Attack model in 1989. Both versions feature modern glass cockpits, but the Night Attack (N/A going forward) has a few intriguing extra features. Color MFDs, for one3; a color moving map page, too. The HUD is wider, and there’s a FLIR system in the nose. That about covers the built-in night attack capability. Later, it was properly wired for the LITENING pod; the IR-capable LITENING can cue the attack systems for more range than the Mk. I Eyeball (NVGs and FLIR out the HUD) permits.

Weapons-wise, the N/A Harrier4 carries nearly every ground-attack munition in the modern American inventory; dumb bombs, rockets, Mavericks, and guided bombs of every shape, size, and guidance technique make an appearance. So also does the AGM-122 Sidearm, a sadly-out-of-production weapon which mates an anti-radar seeker to a Sidewinder body. It’s a useful self-defense system for aircraft which can’t carry the HARM (like the Harrier), or aircraft whose primary mission is not SEAD.

How is it to fly? Well, it ranges from extremely peppy (loaded light) to rather piggish (with lots of stores hanging off of the wings). One of the obvious-in-hindsight traits of a VTOL aircraft is that it must, in at least some configurations, have an engine thrust greater than their weight5. I never thought of the Harrier as a particularly good performer, but my familiarization flights have certainly changed my mind. It reaches its top speed with surprising and gratifying alacrity with the throttles forward, and maneuvers like you’d expect from what is, when you get right down to it, a very small plane. Carrying a full load—31,000 pounds—the Harrier is much less exciting. Rolls become sluggish, as do all maneuvers; then again, it isn’t hard to understand why. The Harrier’s maximum rolling takeoff weight is about two and a half times its empty weight. No small, fun aircraft can survive that kind of load.

And now for the moment of truth: is it worth buying? Razbam have done an excellent job with the flight modeling, as far as I can tell. The Harrier performs believably, and landing vertically is as much a challenge as you might expect, especially if you’re trying to hit a point on the ground. Helicopter sim experience, like I have, is helpful but not a panacea. To some extent, the Harrier takes unique skills.

As seems to be the case for DCS planes in 2017 and 2018, the Harrier is currently unfinished. The basic flight modeling is there, as are dumb weapons, Mavericks, the built-in targeting systems, and a limited targeting pod implementation, but much remains to be done. Early access aircraft are here, I’m sad to say. If that doesn’t bother you terribly much (knowing that this is DCS, legendarily buggy, whose best-working releases tend to be the most recent releases), I’d say you can’t go wrong buying it. The Harrier is one of the best planes to date.

If, on the other hand, you want a full manual and a fully implemented plane, you should wait. The price goes up at release, but not by very much. If you want a dynamic campaign, well, you’re probably just going to have to wait. Bafflingly, a campaign engine is still not on the DCS radar, despite being an obvious killer app for the platform. The DCS world is growing faster and faster nowadays; the third parties can keep up the aircraft release pace, but eventually the number of planes available is going to exceed the capacity of mission designers to make interesting things to do with them. A campaign is, going forward, a must.

But I digress. The Harrier is a good module, and well worth the purchase if you’re interested in the plane even a little. Thumbs up from me.


  1. Especially one which lands on its tail. Flying into a vertical climb, then looking over your shoulder to locate your landing spot, is not a great design. 
  2. As all engine nerds will tell you, any engine is instantly made much cooler6 when water injection is added. 
  3. For night-vision compatibility, the color is primarily green. 
  4. And its sibling, the AV-8B Plus. The Plus ditches the late-70s Dual-Mode Tracker (read: 6x TV camera and laser spot tracker) in the nose, and replaces it with an old-time F/A-18C-era radar. It can sling AMRAAMs. 
  5. The F-35B is a curious counterexample. For a direct comparison, let’s look at aircraft sans payload plus 4,000 pounds of internal fuel. We’ll use maximum rated dry thrust, with some caveats7. Late-model AV-8B Harrier IIs have an empty weight of just under 14,000 pounds, for about 18,000 pounds with our fuel requirements. (4,000 pounds is somewhat over half of the Harrier’s fuel capacity.) The empty F-35B weighs in at more than twice as much, nearly 32,500lb empty and 36,500lb with fuel. The Harrier’s engine generates 23,500 pounds of thrust, but can only do so for a very short time. Knocking ten percent off for sustained power still leaves it north of 21,000 pounds; the remaining three thousand pounds between thrust and weight easily fits a pair each of Sidewinders and AMRAAMs, or a full fuel load. The F-35B engine, on the other hand, makes only 25,000 pounds dry. The lift fan makes up the difference in vertical flight modes. 
  6. I swear I didn’t notice this pun until after I wrote it. 
  7. The Harrier can’t sustain its maximum thrust rating for very long. There are lift thrust ratings at up to 120% nominal RPM, which the engine control unit won’t allow outside of VTOL configuration. Combat power is 111% nominal RPM. 

Parvusimperator’s Submachine Gun Roundup

At a recent class I had the great pleasure to fire a number of submachine guns. Yes, with happy switches. Here are my impressions of several models that I got a chance to put a bunch of rounds through.

I would like to thank Washington County Machine Guns for providing the hardware to make this possible. If you’re in or near Southwestern Pennsylvania and would like to shoot some automatic weapons, check them out. They’re awesome!

M1A1
This was an honest-to-goodness World War II vintage Tommy Gun. Freaking awesome. Without the long barrel for NFA rules, it balances reasonably well. It’s heavy, but not unbearably so. Note that I’m not lugging it around Guadalcanal, so I didn’t have much of a chance to complain. On full auto, the weight is the greatest thing ever. The Thompson was very controllable and easy to keep on a 1/3-size IPSC steel target. Sights were simple but effective. Oh, and the magazine release is goofy, but the 1920s were a strange time. Regardless, it was great to have some time with this touchstone. Fist bump for my grandfathers who got to kick the (actual) Nazis out of France with these.

Sten Mk. III
This one is weird. Crude but effective. The machining work isn’t very nicely done, but it’s sturdy. There isn’t really any attention paid to ‘fit and finish,’ but I didn’t feel like I was going to break it either. There’s a nice big reciprocating mass to help you fight recoil. The side-mounted magazine is kinda goofy, and there’s no good place to put your hand. The skeleton stock isn’t very nice to hold either. That said, while it felt weird to shoulder, it was very controllable. No doubt helped by the smaller caliber. And, while lighter than the Thompson, the Sten benefits from a softer shooting round. More death to the mini IPSC steel!

HK MP5-N, suppressed
Oh hell yes. John McClain, here I come! I can see why this gun is so loved among people who use these things for a living. Being the only closed-bolt weapon, single shots were super precise, as were the opening rounds of a full auto volley. This gun had great build quality. It’s heavy enough to help with recoil management, but not so heavy that it’s awkward to manipulate. Controls are generally well thought out, though the ergonomics aren’t quite AR-15 good. Also, the HK Slap is fun to do. Yippie-kai-yay, motherfucker.

Glock 17 Conversion
This is not technically a Glock 18. It is a Glock 17 converted to fire full auto only. And it shoots as fast as the Glock 18 at an awe-inspiring 1,200 rounds per minute. Yes, 1,200. Just like an MG42. And no, it’s no heavier than a normal Glock. This was one of two guns that was a grip check. Gotta get behind it and have proper technique, or this gun will take you for a ride. It also induces maniacal laughter like nothing else. The Full-Auto Glock is much harder to keep on target, but very easy to suppress things with. Or scare people with. Or clear a hallway. Protip: Start with 3-5 rounds in a magazine just so you can get a feel for this thing.

FN P90
I got to try a PDW in the unneutered, as-designed way: spraying lots of little bullets. This thing is small and super controllable. I can understand the concept a little better now. It felt like I was spraying a swarm of bees at the target. Tiny, high-velocity killer bees. Recoil isn’t really a thing given the weapon weight and the energy of the 5.7mm cartridge.

Walther MPK
Another weird one. Looks kinda goofy, had a very cheap feel to it. The sights on the Walther are stupid. Ergonomics were odd. It was still controllable, but it was not very comfortable in the hand. Again, seeing this stamped thing and then comparing it to the MP5 shows how amazingly good HK’s 9mm wondergun was.

FN FAL, SBR
Take a big ol’ Belgian FAL. Cut that barrel down to about eight inches or so. Flip the selector switch to “Rock and Roll”. Question the wisdom of giving the skinniest guy on the range a very cut down battle rifle. Carefully set yourself up behind the gun. And then get knocked around anyway, because I’m new at this. But it’s not like any of the heavy guys had an easier time with this, because easy to control this ain’t. Nothing highlights your technique issues in a hurry like trying to wrestle a bronco with a jetpack. Or shoot a short barreled .308. This thing is a beast. A normal FAL is too, but less weight and more concussion does not make this thing any easier to control. On the other hand, it was super fun to shoot. More giant grins.

In fact, this entire exercise was full of giant grins, cackling, and good times.

Fishbreath Hefts: ALICE (large) Hellcat Pack Review Part II

The year is 2017. Your correspondent recently purchased and reviewed an ALICE large field pack and frame, plus some modifications, to make a package sometimes known as the ALICE Hellcat1. Or rather, reviewed in part: no review of field gear can be considered complete without some actual field time, and that’s what this article addresses.

If you, like me, do not live under a rock, you may have heard that there was recently (at time of writing) a total solar eclipse. You can be sure I wasn’t going to miss my chance at seeing one, and you can be similarly sure that I wasn’t going to spend the money on a hotel. Some college friends decided a camping trip was in order, and I decided to tag along. The destination: Shawnee National Forest. The plan: unimproved camping near the Garden of the Gods2.

That brings me to the first part of this review: how roomy is the pack? Well, it’s complicated. The ALICE pack is shorter than your average backpacking pack from top to bottom, but wider and deeper. This has its upsides and its downsides. In the bottom of the pack, I could fit things next to my sleeping bag in both directions—both toward the front face of the pack3 and to the sides. I packed my ground cloth in front of my sleeping bag, and used the space to the side for the base of my tent.

On that note, my gear generally is not backpacking gear—although I grew up camping, I mostly grew up camping out of cars. The family two-man tent comes in a bag twenty-seven inches tall, and weighs something like eight or ten pounds4. My sleeping bag is a backpacking model, I suppose, but it’s also a three-season bag, and as such doesn’t pack down as small as a summer model might. In general, I made no particular effort to bring lightweight or compact gear, and overpacked generally for the sake of the experiment5. I ended up with a pack which weighed about thirty-five or forty pounds and filled most of the available volume of the pack. As the packing list in the footnote there suggests, this was not an ultralight or even an efficient trip. Packing as luxuriously as I did, an overnight or weekend trip is plausible. I expect I would have very little trouble packing for a longer stay if I had more appropriate gear—with access to water on-site, compact dehydrated food, and no extra-fancy mess equipment, I suspect I could pack a good week’s worth of summer clothing.

Now that we’ve loaded the pack, we can talk about how it fits and how well it carries weight. As far as fit goes, I don’t know if I could recommend it to someone very much taller than me. As I said in the previous article, I’m USGI-standard height, a hair over 5’9″. The MOLLE straps on my frame can be adjusted to ride lower on it (thereby moving the hip pad nearer to the shoulder straps for a shorter person), but they’re already at the upper limit of their adjustment. On my back, the pack fits perfectly, with the MOLLE hip belt extending from about belly-button height to my hip bones. I had a few taller people give it a try, and it didn’t fit them nearly as well. I suspect there is some further room for adjustment—by lengthening the bottom of the shoulder straps, the pack could be made to ride lower, and likely fit long torsos better—but the primary adjustment, that effected by moving the entire yoke up and down, is only really useful for average-to-short men and short-to-tall women.

We’ve established it fits people my size and smaller well. How does the ALICE Hellcat carry weight, though? As described above, the ALICE pack is short and squat relative to modern backpacking gear. Taller, flatter packs, such as the latter, put the center of gravity higher and closer to your back. Well-packed, they’ll primarily press down on your hips; the shoulder straps are primarily to stabilize the load and keep it close to your body. The load on the shoulders tends to be a downward load. The ALICE pack is a little different. It is, once again, short. Even with a sleeping roll lashed to the top, it only comes up to about the middle of my head. It doesn’t exert a downward force exclusively; rather, it exerts a sort of pivoting torque in addition to downward pressure. It’s as though the waist belt is an axle, and the pack is trying to fall away from your back.

I wouldn’t characterize this as bad, though. It’s just different. The weight on the shoulder straps, is on your upper chest just below the shoulders. The pivoting movement helps to hold the pack onto the hip pad. My forty-pound pack was no less comfortable than I would expect out of a more traditional pack. Some adjustment of the shoulder straps is necessary; there’s a middle ground I had to find between, “Too tight up top, weighing on my shoulders,” and, “Too loose up top, pulling me backwards.” Once I found it, though, I found myself able to carry it neither bent forward nor pulled backward, and as an added bonus, the smaller top-to-bottom height made for easier crouching under obstacles.

As far as hiking goes, we only had to walk a few hundred yards in total with our packs. I can’t speak to the Hellcat’s comfort over the course of a long hike. I have no reason to think it would be significantly worse than it was with my static testing and light hiking. The MOLLE straps are excellently padded and provided good comfort, even when loaded heavily by backpacking standards.

So, we got to the campsite. How is the pack to live with? Again, not bad, if perhaps not up to the same standard as present-day backpacking gear. One of the bigger things to note (again) is that the ALICE rucksack has no bottom access. It’s traditional to pack a sleeping bag at the bottom of the pack: something bulky but not terribly heavy. Many modern packs have a zipper or some other means by which items at the very bottom of the pack may be gotten at without having to unpack everything on top of them. With the Hellcat, you have to pack a little more carefully. Follow the two cardinal rules of packing (rarely accessed things go at the bottom, eavy things go closer to the frame) and you’ll be fine.

All convenience is not lost, though. The ALICE large pack has six exterior pockets, plus one pocket in the top flap. The six pockets come in three different sizes: three small (up top), two medium (on the sides down below), and one large (bottom center). The large pocket fits a mess kit and notebook with room to spare. The medium pockets are roughly three-espresso-cup moka pot-sized. The small pockets are large enough to fit a hard-sided glasses case, or an alcohol burner, pot rack, and folded aluminum foil windbreak. All are easily accessible without opening the pack or even loosening the compression straps. The top flap pocket was originally designated a map pocket and is not rated for heavy items, but it is very roomy. It easily held my maps, flashlight, phone, charger, cables, and earbuds, and could have fit much more.

The lashing points, too, are a wonderful piece of old-time fun. Putting the MOLLE straps onto the ALICE frame yielded a pair of straps used to secure the ALICE shoulder straps to the frame; I borrowed those, ran them through the buckles on my British P37 canteen carrier, and attached it to the outside of my pack. There are a good dozen or so lashing points spread out over the pack. The full Hellcat pack uses some of them to attach the MOLLE sleep system carrier, and potentially uses others to attach the MOLLE sustainment pouches, but even that would leave a number of them open for other gear. The compression straps are also very generous in length, and can readily be used both to hold gear to the top of the pack (I had a fire kit, a sleeping pad, and a spare water bottle up there) and to tie it to the bottom of the pack. If you want more strappage, you can find MOLLE accessory straps on Amazon which should serve just fine for lashing items to the pack.

Speaking of lashing and straps, the pack has exactly zero zippers. All the external pockets close with snaps. The main compartment has a drawstring closure, and the compression straps hold the top flap down on top of it. Despite that lack, I didn’t find opening the pack to be all that inconvenient. A little on the slow side, perhaps, since you generally have to loosen both compression straps, but certainly livable.

Lastly, the ALICE pack is definitively not waterproof, or even water resistant, and doesn’t come with a pack cover or dry bags6. You’ll have to work out your own solution for keeping things dry. For myself, it was lots of ziploc bags, some garbage bags, and one garbage bag big enough to serve as a pack cover. The lack of waterproofing out of the box is freeing, in a sense; it doesn’t lock you into any one solution.

So, the bottom line. Is it worth the buy? Provided it fits you, I say it is. My pack cost $70, including shipping, and if you have a nearby surplus store you can probably find one for a similar price. (That is, the pack and the frame together.) The MOLLE straps and belt came to about $30, again including shipping, and again with the similar caveat about brick-and-mortar storefronts. For the money, you get more pack, and more durable pack, than you might shopping for a traditional backpacking pack on the same budget. That said, I wouldn’t pay much more than $100 for the whole setup unless you’re very into the Hellcat’s modularity7. Once you get to, say, $150, you’re in the range where you can get a used or discounted pack from REI. $200 will buy you a new one. The quality of life there is, admittedly, better, and you have a warranty to go with it.

All told, though, I’m happy with my purchase. For my very occasional backpacking trips, a proper pack makes little financial sense. For a solid discount over even cheap hiking packs, I have something which works very nearly as well. Who can argue with that?


  1. Well, kind of. As I say in the previous article, one of the characteristics of the Hellcat is the MOLLE sleep system carrier attached to the bottom of the ALICE medium pack; I just went for a large pack right off the bat, which yields approximately the same capacity. 
  2. The one in Illinois, obviously, not the one in Colorado. 
  3. That is, the side opposite the straps. 
  4. It’s an excellent tent. It’s been bone-dry inside after taking a full day of rain on the fly. It just isn’t small or light. 
  5. For reference, I brought the following: sleeping bag and pad, tent, large cooking pot, mess kit, dinner for the whole group (three cans of chunk chicken, two boxes of rice and beans), an alcohol-burning stove, pot stand, and foil windbreak, a moka pot for coffee, coffee and stove fuel, a hoodie, cargo pants and cargo shorts, pajama pants, three t-shirts, three pairs each of underwear and socks, my trusty P37 canteen, a separate 20-oz. water bottle, maps, phone charger, sunglasses, various plastic bags to hold things and serve as pack covers, a pad for sitting on, and earbuds. 
  6. At least mine didn’t. It was issued with dry bags, though, and the full kit list did include a pack cover. 
  7. Which is to say, you like the idea of bringing the sleep system carrier and sustainment pouches as necessary, or leaving them behind when you don’t need them.