Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Space Elevator: Sensible Science or Fantastical Folly?

You know for all the writing on space I’ve done over the past few years I’ve never once mentioned one of the most intriguing ideas in this field: the space elevator. I’m not sure why I avoided it to be honest as the idea has good foundations in science and manages to generate a whole lot of interesting debate whenever it’s mentioned. It’s not like I haven’t talked about completely theoretical space technologies before either so today I’d like to introduce you to the space elevator concept and go over why it might (and might not) be the technology we should be pursuing in order to fundamentally change the way we access space.

At it’s core the space elevator is a simple idea. You see there’s an orbit around the earth where a satellite will, for all intents and purposes, remain steady over a point on the earth. Currently this space is filled with GPS and meteorological satellites since their mostly fixed position is highly desirable for such applications. These are referred to as geostationary orbits and they all lie directly above the earth’s equator. Theoretically then if you were to put a satellite at one of these orbits and then connect it directly to the place on earth which it hovers over you could then gain access to space by simply running up the cable, a damn sight more elegant than strapping everything to the top of a giant explosion and pointing it upwards.

This idea has numerous advantages over chemical rockets, not least of which is the significant reduction in cost in getting payloads into orbit. Most designs have the runners, the vehicles which “run” up the cable, being powered either directly from the cable itself or by power beaming technologies. This means that you’re not taking all your fuel up with you making the potential payloads much cheaper to deliver into orbit as you can use electricity generated on the ground. The end in geostationary orbit could also be used as a launch platform, enabling much bigger spacecraft to be built and launched into our solar system. It sounds like the perfect solution to many of the challenges behind getting into space but of course there’s always a catch.

The biggest challenge that a space elevator faces is finding a material capable of anchoring a satellite to the earth. Such a material needs to be light with an extremely high tensile strength, far beyond that of any metal or fiber that’s currently available. It also has be manufactured in great lengths on the order of 36000KMs to be able to reach the required height for geostationary orbits. To date the only material that has all these characteristics is carbon nanotubes which match the required strength and weight almost perfectly with the added benefit of being able to conduct electricity. However the inability to make them in lengths any greater than a few centimeters means that until mass fabrication method is discovered carbon nanotubes are unfortunately a pipe dream effectively killing any space elevator before it gets off the ground.

There are also many other factors that need to be considered before a working space elevator can be created. Whilst there’s little danger from the cable breaking to people on the ground (it would most likely flutter harmlessly down to earth) both the runners and the station need considerable contingency systems to be able to deal with this event. Also for payloads that require a non-geostationary orbit (I.E. low/high earth orbits) a space elevator does not provide any velocity to the craft, meaning to achieve a proper orbit you still need to hit Mach 25 unless you want to come back down to earth in a hurry. This is much easier when you’re in space, but it still means that you have to carry up significant amounts of fuel if that’s you’re goal.

Despite these problems however a space elevator is still an extremely attractive possibility and since most of the required technology is already available the idea is now starting to gain traction. Japan is planning to allocate some $10 billion into building the world’s first space elevator and whilst I’d forgive you for not taking them seriously Japan does in fact have a very good space program, they even run supply missions to the International Space Station. Such a commitment to the idea means that the space elevator has a strong possibility of becoming real in the next couple decades, and the flow on effects will have global implications.

Space was once only a realm for dreamers, then super governments and then finally the mega-rich. However the continued revolutions in this industry are driving the cost of space access down to unprecedented levels, serving to make space travel as commonplace as airline travel is today. It’s not going to happen today or in the next 10 years even, but we’re are on the cusp of a fundamental change to the world around us and it is on the back of a space elevator that we shall achieve it.

google plus screenshot

Google+: I Like It, But Will My Friends?

If there’s one thing that the search giant Google doesn’t seem to be able to get right it’s social networking. This isn’t for lack of trying however, in Google Latitude is one of the most popular location based social networking applications out there and Orkut, their first social network, is still going strong with over 100 million users. However Orkut is still a far cry from what Facebook has become and Buzz has come no where near touching Twitter as a platform, even with the advantage of being right up in every Gmail user’s face. Google isn’t one to take things like this lightly and rumors have been swirling around for a long time that they were prepping to launch a new product that would be a direct competitor for the social networking starlets.

Today they announced Google+.

In essence it’s yet another social network, but it seems to combine aspects from all the hot start up ideas of the past couple years (group messaging, video chat, social recommendations, filtered photos) with a UX experience that feels distinctly non-googlesque. Whilst the product isn’t available for people to use right now you can put your name and email address in here to get added into the product sometime in the future. The screenshots I’ve been able to get my hands on have definitely piqued my interest in the product, not least of which is because of some of the features.

The first concept that I like, and one that had been talked about extensively prior to the announcement, was the Circles feature. Basically it lets you create groups of people out of your greater social network for sharing things like pictures and status updates. It’s a different paradigm to that of groups within Facebook since they’re only visible to you. It’s a great way of getting around that whole limited profile thing you have to laboriously set up within Facebook to make sure that you don’t inadvertently share something to people you didn’t want to. Grouping people up by interests is great too since I’m sure that not everyone is interested in the same things that I am.

The media sharing aspect sounds interesting too with Google saying it will be heavily integrated with mobile. In essence every picture or movie you take can be automatically uploaded to Google+, although it remains hidden until you choose to share it. Their image editor apparently integrates Instagram like photo filters for those of us who think that makes them some kind of artist, which is great but I feel is only there because that whole filtered photo thing is so hot right now. Google+ also has what they call Hangouts, basically video chat rooms that up to 10 friends can join. Hopefully that product doesn’t necessarily require video to work as it would be great to get an upgrade to Google Talk.

However after looking at what Google+ has to offer I started thinking about what I’d be using it for. I’d love to start using it in place of Facebook but unfortunately my entire social network is already on there and apart from the technically curious among them I can’t see any of them bothering to make the transition across to Google+. This means for Google+ to be any use to me it will need to have some pretty heavy duty integration with Facebook (and probably Twitter) in order for me to use it for any length of time. Google has been mum on the details of how deep the integration with existing social networks will go so we’ll just have to wait and see how they tackle this issue.

Like any new Google product it’s always interesting to see what kinds of innovations they bring to the table. Whilst nothing revolutionary in itself Google+ does show that Google is taking the whole social idea very seriously now and is looking to capitalize on many current trends in order to draw people to its platform. Whether or not this will lead to Google+ becoming a successful social network to rival that of Facebook and Twitter remains to be seen but I’ve already put my hand up to be one of the first to try out their latest offering, and I know I’m not alone in that regard (since the page refused to load twice when I tried to sign up).

Why I Dropped CloudFlare.

I’m always looking out for ways to improve my blog behind the scenes mostly because I’ve noticed that a lot more people visit when the page doesn’t take more than 10 seconds to load. Over the course of its life I’ve tried a myriad of things with the blog from changing operating systems to trying nearly every plugin under the sun that said it could boost my site’s performance. In the end the best move I ever made was to put it on a Windows virtual private server in the USA that was backed up by a massive pipe and everything I’ve tried hasn’t come close since.

However I was intrigued by the services offered by CloudFlare, a new web start up that offered to speed up basically any web site. I’d read about them a while back when they were participating in TechCrunch Disrupt and the idea of being able to back my blog with a CDN for free was something few would pass up. At the time however my blog was on a Linux server with all the caching plugins functioning fine, so my site was performing pretty much as fast as it could at the time. After the migration to my new Windows server however I had to disable my caching plugins as they assumed a Linux host for them to function properly. I didn’t really think about CloudFlare again until they came up in my feed reader just recently, so I decided to give them a go.

They’re not wrong when they say their set up is painless (at least for an IT geek like myself). After signing up with them and entering in my site details all that I needed to do was update my name servers to point to theirs and I was fully integrated with their service. At first I was a bit confused since it didn’t seem to be doing anything but proxying the connections to my site but it would seem that it does cache static content. How it goes about this doesn’t seem to be public knowledge however, so I got the feeling it only does it per request. Still after getting it all set up I decided I’d leave it over the weekend to see how it performed and come this morning I wasn’t terribly impressed with the results.

Whilst the main site suffered absolutely 0 downtime my 2 dozen sub domains seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. Initially I had thought that this was because of the wildcard DNS entry that I had used to redirect all subdomain requests (CloudFlare says they won’t proxy them if you do this, which was fine for me in this instance). However after manually entering in the subdomains and waiting 24 hours to see the results they were still not accessible. Additionally the site load times didn’t improve noticeably, leaving me wondering if this was worth all the time I had put into it. After changing my name servers back to their previous locations all my sites came back up immediately and soured me on the whole CloudFlare idea.

It could be that it was all a massive configuration goof on my part but since I was able to restore my sites I’m leaning it towards being a problem with CloudFlare. For single site websites it’s probably a good tool and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in their DDOS protection (I was on edge after doing that LulzSec piece) but it seems my unique configuration doesn’t gel with their services. Don’t let me talk you out of trying them however since so many people seem to be benefiting from their services, it’s just that there might be potential problems if you’re running dozens of subdomains like me.

L.A. Noire Review Screenshot Wallpaper (5)

L.A. Noire: The Darker Side of Los Angeles.

The past year of releases has really changed my perception on what sand box style games could achieve. I must admit the only thing I enjoyed about sand box games was the fact that once I got bored with the main story line I could unleash hell for another 15 minutes or so before I quit the game without saving. Red Dead Redemption and Minecraft were two examples of games where my inner jerk stayed in his cave for the vast majority of the game and so when I started seeing seeing some of the screens from Rockstar’s newest game L.A. Noire I figured that it would be yet another step away from their traditional Grand Theft Auto style sand box, and thus very worthy of my attention. What followed was an incredibly interesting experience on multiple levels, both for its accomplishments and its faults.

You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran of the second world war who’s come back to being a cop in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. Noire wastes no time in getting you into the action, setting up Phelps as a man with an incorruptible dedication to seeing a case through to the very end. You start out knowing very little about the man himself at the start but as the story progresses bits of his past, retold in flashback scenes and with dialog with other characters, come to light. It can be a little frustrating not understanding your character’s motivation for certain actions, especially when he’s prone to reacting wildly to certain things. I can understand the reason for keeping much of his past hidden for the majority of the game, however even a few more bits of insight into his past would’ve made his character a whole bunch more believable.

There are several distinct categories of game play within L.A. Noire. The first is the investigation mode where you look around a crime scene for clues, where upon your controller shakes when you stumble upon something potentially interesting. Not everything will relate to the case however, so you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time picking up cigarettes and empty bottles. Thankfully they’re kind enough to alert you when you’ve found all the clues so you don’t spend hours going around in circles looking for a potentially missed bit of evidence. These clues will then lead you onto people of interest who you can then interview to get a better idea of the details of the crime.

The next core game play mechanic, the interviews, relies heavily on the extremely lifelike motion capture technology that L.A. Noire uses. You have a list of questions which you can ask the person of interest and based on how they respond you have to choose whether you believe they’re telling the truth, lying but you have no evidence (doubt) or if they’re outright lying for which you’ll have to provide proof. I’ll be honest and tell you that this mechanic frustrated me to no end as whilst the truth and lie were relatively easy to tell the doubt option was a tad ambiguous. It’s explained exactly as I said before to you in the game however the option can also mean “They’re telling the truth but not everything” or “This guy isn’t going to give you anything useful no matter what you say”. It’s also confounded by the problem that Phelps seem to fly into a rage whenever you choose the doubt option so whilst you might think that there’s more to the story (and there always is) Phelps’ behavior seems to make the more softer targets shut down completely. You do get better at picking it towards the end but it can still lead to some incredibly frustrating times.

It’s made somewhat easier by the introduction of “intuition points” which are gained by leveling up your character in the game. These points let you either remove one wrong answer (which isn’t as helpful as it could be) or ask the community which shows you the percentages of how everyone else answered those questions. You can store a max of five and there’s only 20 levels in the game, with a few of those levels giving outfits and not intuition, so they’re best used sparingly.

Additionally whilst the facial capture is down right amazing in how realistic it appears it’s rather comically strapped to good old fashioned motion capture bodies that were filmed independently of the voice actors. What this means is that whilst from the neck up they appear quite lively everywhere else is your usual rigid clothes and rather awkward flailing about, especially when interacting with other objects. Whilst it’s not noticeable most of the time there are a number of occasions when it looks like the character’s head is trying to move independently of its body. Hopefully the technology they used to capture the stunning facial features will soon trickle down to doing full body motion capture and we won’t have this strange world of bodies with alien head syndrome.

During your investigations you’ll be alerted to street crime that’s happening in Los Angeles. Should you respond to it you’ll be pointed in the right direction and receive a short cut scene when you arrive detailing the situation. These little side quests can be anything from chasing down wife beaters to full blown car chases that end up with a shoot out with dozens of individuals. Primarily they’re there to break up the monotony of driving and give you a little break from the case you’re working on (which can stretch for over an hour). They also serve to help you level up your character as it’d be nigh on impossible to reach the level cap otherwise.

The same sort of action scenes that are played out as street crime also form part of the investigations themselves. It would seem that everyone’s gut reaction when confronted by the police in Los Angeles is for them to run for the hills which whilst fun get’s a little repetitive after the 20th time it happens. This isn’t helped by the fact that your case is judged not only by how many clues you found and questions got right but also by how much damage you do to your car, people on the street and the city itself. Since these action scenes tend to be rather reckless you’re more than likely going to rack up a large bill chasing down all these scoundrels. It really doesn’t mean that much overall, but when the game actively encourages you to do it (like your partner telling you to ram someone off the road) and then punishes you for it does leave you feeling a bit mixed up.

Like any Rockstar sandbox game the city in which you play L.A. Noire feels very alive when you’re playing through it. However it’s probably more appropriate to equate it to a movie set: it’s made to look that way. In this game’s predecessors like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV you could engage with the NPCs in varying ways (playing cards, buying clothes, visiting clubs and what have you) there is simply none of that in L.A. Noire at all. You’re more than welcome to drive around Los Angeles whilst you’re on your way to the mission but there’s no intermission where you’re free to do as you will. You really have no choice but to pursue the cases constantly as sometimes no matter how long you drive around for you just won’t get a street crime to go and solve. So whilst L.A. Noire has the feel of a sand box game it’s really nothing like that at all.

But just like a movie set the pieces that you’re meant to see are set out extremely well. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it implemented the same cover based shooting style that’s present in nearly every game these days but unlike shooters where the combat areas are obvious they blended in quite well in L.A. Noire. The camera work, music and use of the environment is also done quite well, setting the mood almost perfectly throughout the game.

I also found the story to be quite enthralling as did my wife who sat by my side and watched me play almost the entirety of the game. Whilst the story line suffered initially from the lack of an overarching plot line, just like Dragon Age 2 did before it, the unveiling of Phelps’ back story slowly begins to tie everything together with the ending wrapping it all up. If I’m honest though I felt the ending was slightly hollow with some of the events happening right at the very end serving only to try and make one last emotional impact on the player, rather than adding anything else to the overall plot. Still I must commend them for going with an ending  that didn’t scream “SEQUEL SEQUEL”, a downright rarity these days.

L.A. Noire feels like yet another step towards gaming become a mature medium, becoming more of a medium to tell a story rather than just a distraction for kids. It’s also a technological step forward as well with the facial capture they did for it being nothing short of jaw dropping and I’m sure it’s not going to be long before we see that kind of realism extended to other aspects of the game. Whilst it might not stay true to the sandbox roots from which it was born L.A. Noire delivers a solid game experience that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone, especially for those who enjoy their games more on the cerebral side.

Rating: 8.2/10

L.A. Noire is available for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $89 and $89 respectively. Game was wholly played on the PlayStation 3 with a total of 22 hours played with approximately 75% total game completion according to the in game stats recorder.

The Rationalization of Consolization.

Any long time gamer (I’m talking about 10+ years here folks) will remember the time when the PC was the platform for all games to shoot for. It’s not that consoles weren’t good, by many standards the original Xbox and PS2 were quite capable machines at the time, it was more that PCs gave you the best experience and the limited input options for consoles made many games simply untenable on the platform. The next generation of consoles provided something different however, they were more than powerful enough to give a modern PC a run for its money at the time and the games on them were definitely a step up from their predecessors. What has followed is a massive boom in the world of console gaming and subsequently a decline in the world of PC gaming.

This is not to say that PC gaming is dead and buried, far from it. Whilst consoles might have taken the lion’s share of the gaming market there are still a great many titles that make their way onto the PC platform. For the most part however it is obvious that these games were developed with the console platform in mind first with paradigms that don’t necessarily make sense on the PC making their way into the final release. This process has become known as the consolization of PC gaming and it has been met with a lot of criticism by the PC gaming community. Whilst I don’t like what this means for PC gaming I do understand the reasons behind the shift away from the PC as being the primary platform.

Primarily it comes down to simple economics. Since the PC was the platform for so long many seem to think that it’s by far the biggest market. The truth is unfortunately that for the vast majority of the market the console reigns supreme with PCs making up a very small percentage of it. Take for instance one of the biggest recent retail releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Total units moved for this game in November last year were in the order of 8.4 million with only 400,000 of them being on the Wii, DS and PC platforms. Putting that in perspective that means that the PC release accounted for less than 5% of the total sales volume and data from previous years shows that this number is on the decline.

A single data point however isn’t enough to prove the theory and no one will argue that the Call of Duty series is a bit of an outlier in itself. However if you take a look at the sales charts for each platform it’s quite clear that PCs really are a niche market when it comes to games totaling around 3% of the total units moved. Of course 3% of a multi-billion dollar a year market is still a significant chunk of change but it’s comparable to say the difference in market share between Windows and Linux (and should provide some insight into why nearly no one bothers with developing games for Linux).

Just because PC gaming is becoming a niche market doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear anytime soon however. There are still many types of games, real time strategy being one of them, that just simply don’t work well in the console world no matter how much tweaking you do to the core game play. It does however mean that consolized games should be the expected norm for PC gamers and whilst that might mean a sub par experience it does have the added benefit of extending the life of our systems significantly, which I know is a small consolation. Still unless the PC somehow manages to draw crowds the size of any of the console platforms those of us who choose the PC as our platform will have to make do with what we’re given as the game developers of the world must give the crowd what they want.

Tales From Beyond The Grave: The Internet Filter.

I had really, truly believed that the Internet Filter was dead and buried. My last post about it was back in September last year and since then I’ve failed to come across anything solid about it apart from Conroy saying that he was still committed to the idea. It’s a good thing really since Australia didn’t appear to really want it and it wouldn’t have been effective anyway but the lack of an official release from the government saying that the idea had been canned meant that the Internet Filter always had a small chance of resurrecting itself. Indeed the much bigger issues facing Australia would seem to have the Internet Filter well buried, leaving us to leave that ugly part of Australia’s past behind us.

Unfortunately for us however it seems that nothing is as unkillable as an election promise to appease a vocal minority and 4 Australian Internet service providers have implemented their own form of what the Internet filter was to become:

MOST Australian internet users will have their web access censored next month after the country’s two largest internet providers agreed to voluntarily block more than 500 websites from view.

Telstra and Optus confirmed they would block access to a list of child abuse websites provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and more compiled by unnamed international organisations from mid-year.

“The ACMA will compile and manage a list of URLs of child abuse content that will include the appropriate subsection of the ACMA blacklist as well as child abuse URLs that are provided by reputable international organisations (to be blocked),” the spokesman said.

It seems that whilst the funding for a “mandatory voluntary” filter was indeed dropped in this year’s budget due to limited interest (or was that outright hatred?) the notion of a voluntary filter paid for entirely by the ISPs themselves was still on the table. Strangely enough 4 ISPs agreed to this idea including Telstra and Optus, two companies not known for doing things out of the good of their hearts unless they’re legislated to. I have no idea what their motivations are for doing so either since it just means more work for them without providing any sort of benefit to their end customers. Hell I don’t think this will generate any good will either as most people using these ISPs will be completely unaware of the changes.

They’re also implementing a filter that’s going to be completely ineffectual. Basically it’s just a simple list of URLs to be blocked, curated by ACMA and apparently they’re all sites that contain child abuse material on them. Such a filter disregards the fact that the vast majority of people attempting to access material like this aren’t going to be deterred by the simple fact the URL is blocked, especially when it’s trivial to change the URL at a moment’s notice. Additionally blocking URLs does nothing to stymie the distribution of such material through peer to peer networks and would more than likely drive more of them to use such services. In essence this is nothing more than a complete waste of time for everyone involved and really only serves as a political talking point.

The government and all ISPs involved could do themselves a huge favor by just dropping this idea entirely. It is politically toxic, ineffectual and above all has the potential to be misused in ways that could do Australia a great deal of harm both locally and internationally. Hopefully this is the last time that the Internet Filter will crawl out of its grave to give us one last scare but as they say the price for freedom is eternal vigilance and I’ll be ready with my shotgun should the bloated corpse of the Internet Filter dare try to rise again.

Working Yourself Out of a Job.

One of the most common bits of career advice that I’ve been given is that you have to make yourself valuable to the company or organisation your working for. The thinking goes that if you’re valuable then it’s more likely that you’ll get a promotion and much less likely that you’ll face the chop if things start going south. It’s a good little nugget of advice however I find that many people get the idea of what constitutes value completely wrong, to the point of thinking that they’re valuable when in fact they’re being anything but. I found this to be especially true in the field of IT, especially in the areas that tend to be more insular and less socially apt.

Most often the idea of being valuable goes hand in hand with the idea of being irreplaceable. Usually this happens when someone either designs some system or process that does what is required of it but for all intents and purposes is a black box for anyone but the original creator. This person, although it can be multiple people, now feels safe in their job as since they’re the only one who knows how it works (and how to fix it when it breaks) and this gives them the feeling of being valuable to their company. For a short time they are but in the long term they’re being extremely detrimental, both to themselves and who they work for.

Their negative impacts on the company are pretty obvious. A system or process that relies on a specific person in order to keep it functioning has a major single point of failure. Whilst the system is working and that person is available everything seems fine, but take the unfortunate notion of them getting hit by a bus (commonly referred to as the bus factor). How long would it take an outside person to deconstruct the system or process in order to be able to understand it to the same level that they did? That amount of time is usually quite high, especially if this kind of behavior is allowed to continue unchecked for years. Thus these people who thought they were invaluable to their place of work are really quite harmful, but not just to their place of work.

Making yourself irreplaceable like this however is extremely toxic to your future career prospects. If you’re the most important cog then it’s far less likely that your superiors will want to promote you, why would they want to take you away from a critical process that you’re the expert on? Quite often people mistake getting looked over for a position as their value not being properly recognized when in fact it’s that same “value” they created which keeps them firmly rooted in their place. This also usually goes hand in hand with a lack of skill development meaning that the skills that were once valuable (like in the creation of said system or process) are now no longer so highly sought after, making them an undesirable candidate on the open market.

This is exactly why I’m always working myself out of a job, which I’ve actually done once before. Back when I was working at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority I was hired with a specific purpose. A year later I had designed, implemented and fully documented the system that they wanted to the point where they couldn’t find any more work for me to do. Since I was a contractor I was under no impressions that I would have a job at the end of it and sought employment elsewhere before my contract finished. In the end they did find additional work for me to do, but I had already signed on to my new engagement. It might seem like a bad career move to make yourself redundant, but if you’re a skilled individual there will always be more work available and the reference from the place you left will speak volumes to your worth.

It all comes down to the misguided notions of value that people tend to hold and the idea that being replaceable somehow diminishes your own value. Realistically given enough time and resources anyone is replaceable so it is far better to assume that your job could be done by someone else than believing you’re immune to being usurped. Personally I find the idea to be quite liberating as it has led me to pursue many different avenues with which to improve myself in order to differentiate myself from the crowd. If I had simply made myself irreplacable I’d probably still be working at the same place I was 7 years ago, and that’s not a thought I relish.

Duke Nukem Forever Screenshot Wallpaper (5)

Duke Nukem Forever: Fail To The King Baby.

In the 14 years since Duke Nukem 3D was released my memory of my experiences with that game have become a bit blurry. I can remember playing it in secret as my parents had strictly banned any games where you could kill people (or people like creatures) which made it one of those taboo joys. From memory it was one of the earliest games I ever managed to actually get multiplayer working on, playing a few games with close friends from up the the street. I even started fiddling around with the level editor, making a few mazes with elevator traps that would crush players against the roof should they take too long to navigate it. I remember it being fun but nothing spectacular with my attention being drawn to Diablo very shortly afterwards.

But here we are, nearly a decade and a half later and we see the release of the sequel to that fated game. I can’t say anything that hasn’t been already been said about the delays that Duke Nukem Forever has undergone so I’ll just jump right into the review.

You play as Duke Nukem, former war hero, babe magnet and the embodiment of everything that is man. The entire first section (not counting the game within a game bit) of the game is dedicated to setting the scene of how much of a rock star Duke is since he beat back the aliens in DNF’s predecessor with nearly every character either lusting after you or idolizing you incessantly. It would be fine if it didn’t drag on for so long with a good 30 mins spent just simply walking around and listening to people talk, something that you’re not exactly looking for when you just want to shoot aliens Duke style. Of course the boring section comes to an end when the aliens who’ve arrived turn out to not be as peaceful as they made out to be, and it’s up to Duke to sort them out.

The rest of the game that follows is then like any modern day shooter. You have a health bar but unlike the health bars of old this one will regenerate should you not take damage for long enough. Thus most of the game is spent dodging in and out of cover like you would in Gears of War, except there’s no actual cover system so you just end up crouching or standing next to something. You can also only carry 2 weapons which is again yet another feature of modern “realistic” shooters. Granted I know why they did this (having more than 2 weapons on a console makes weapon switching cumbersome) but in the original Duke part of the fun was being able to whip out any number of ludicrous weapons to shred your enemies with and finding those game breaking weapons in hidden caches was part of the fun. There’s also various secondary weapons like pipe bombs and trip mines and a few other items that can help you out in certain situations (like steroids that make your melee attacks stronger).

The graphics of Duke Nukem Forever are expectedly poor when compared to other games released around the same time. It’s quite obvious that Gearbox was working with what they had been given as the assets used in the game wouldn’t be out of place if it was released say 3 years ago and redoing them would’ve made releasing the game infeasible. It still doesn’t make up for the fact that the game looks and feels quite dated especially when you compare it to already released games like Crysis 2 or upcoming releases like Battlefield 3. Graphics aren’t everything, Deus Ex still stands as an amazing game today for example, so I’ll be kind and let Duke Nukem Forever be judged on it’s other aspects.

Combat in the game is wildly varied from tense moments where I’d just pull through (and love it) to tiresome, boring and long scenes where I’d get killed by some stupid mechanic at one point because I didn’t know it was there. Some of the combat bits were really quite fun, especially some of the bosses where you’re given an outrageous weapon and unlimited ammunition to punish them with. However there were many times I find myself repeating the same combat scenario over and over again which, after the 5th time, is no longer fun and broke my immersion completely. I’d then find myself wondering why the hell I was playing this game and promptly leave it for the night.

It’s not just the combat that suffers from this problem either, some of the puzzle sections have the same issue. 2 of them stick out in my mind (minor spoiler alert) the first being that section where you have the scissor lift and have to stack barrels in a crane to get it to lower. Should you at any time die, due to any of the 4 combat encounters or just from the crazy physics at some places, you’ll be put straight back to the start of the puzzle and you’ll have to do it all over again. This wouldn’t have been too bad except for the fact that, for some reason, pipe bombs paced in front of the doors before they’re smashed will teleport directly to you after the enemies break in. I died at leas 4 times to this before I realized it was the pipe bombs killing me and not the enemy’s rockets. The second is during the final escape where a pigcop is throwing barrels at you. Since their motion is completely random there’s no way to predict their movement and often you’ll get caught trying to run into the safe nooks on the side by either a stray barrel or piece of geometry that stops you from progressing. Both of these scenarios made me hate the game when I was playing it, to the point of me not wanting to finish it at all.

The humor in Duke Nukem Forever doesn’t make up for it either with many of Duke’s lines being unfunny and sometimes down right fucked up. One section has you walking through the alien labyrinth where they’ve taken all the women where they’re (surprise surprise) being used for breeding. If you have mercy on them and kill them before aliens burst out of them Duke will sometimes make a joke about an abortion. If I’m honest this particular section was probably the most uncomfortable a game has made me in a long time, and that’s not a good thing. Sure there are some redeemable lines from Duke but overall I didn’t find it funny, enjoying the long periods of silence when Duke didn’t have anything to say.

I did however enjoy some of the vehicle section even if it was broken up with combat at random points to stop you from blasting through it all in under an hour. Mighty foot, Duke’s monster truck, is pretty fun to drive around in especially when you’re doing massive jumps over huge canyons. If I’m honest this was the kind of thing I was expecting from Duke Nukem Forever, just awesome over the top mindless fun. The remote control car section was far less enjoyable since you spent most of the time avoiding enemies rather than mowing them down and that section really couldn’t have ended any sooner.

Multiplayer is an obvious quick attempt at adding in some replay value into this otherwise 8 hour game. There are a few game modes (including the controversial Capture the Babe) but most of them aren’t anything above what you’d find in Quake 3. They’ve yet again tried to mirror modern shooters by adding in levels and rewards into the multiplayer experience but all of the things you can unlock in your “Digs” are just in game assets or pictures for your wall. With me taking getting about 1 level per game and not really feeling like playing more than 3 I can’t see many even bothering to slog through the 40+ levels just to unlock stuff that only you can see and don’t provide any multiplayer advantages.

When I first started thinking about this review I wondered if I should give the game any leniency due to its long development cycle and multiple studios that worked on it over the course of its life. Duke Nukem Forever’s story is not one that would’ve led to success for any other company and the only reason this game will recoup any of the development costs Gearbox spent on it is because of the Duke name. In the end I felt that like any other game it should be judged against its peers of the time and unfortunately for Duke that doesn’t bode well.

It’s got nothing to do with the hype surrounding it either. I went into Duke Nukem Forever with no expectations as I had, like always, avoided much of the hype and any demos of the game before its full retail release. The impression that I got was that this game was unfortunately still an unfinished mess that was riding the coat tails of its brand in order to be successful. That’s not to say another year or two of development would have fixed it though as since much of the game is 3D Realms’ original vision for Duke3D’s sequel the whole game really needed to be redesigned from the ground up to really be competitive in today’s market. Perhaps Gearbox could do better with the Duke Nukem Forever sequel, which I’m sure is already in pre-production.

Does that mean the game isn’t worth playing at all? It’s hard to say, Duke Nukem Forever does have its moments and there were times I enjoyed the game quite a bit. However overall it’s a pretty terrible first person shooter, adding in the wrong elements from modern day FPS’s and taking out the things that made the original Duke3D fun. I spent a grand total of 8 hours in the single player and 1 hour seeing if the multiplayer had any redeemable aspects about it only to be thoroughly disappointed. Whilst I don’t regret my decision to buy the Balls of Steel edition (since that’s my thing) I wouldn’t be encouraging anyone else who hasn’t already bought the game to rush out and get it. Still long time fans of the series might get a real kick out of it since I know at least one of my friends is constantly enamored with it. For regular gamers however you’re not missing out on anything special and you can easily wait for this one to come out on special.

Rating: 4.0/10

Duke Nukem Forever is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 for $79.99, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played on the “Come Get Some” setting with a total of 8 hours played in single player and 1 hour in various multiplayer modes and 50% of all achievements unlocked.

bitcoin market depth

BitCoin’s Saviour: The Bursting Bubble.

My opinion hasn’t changed much in the month since I wrote my first post on how I think BitCoin is a pyramid scheme, ultimately destined to unravel unceremoniously when all the speculative investors decide to pull the plug and cash out of the BitCoin market. Still the discussion that that post spawned was quite enlightening, forcing me to clarify many points both in my own head and here on my blog. Since then there’s been a deluge of other blogs and press chiming in with similar opinions about BitCoin and how its intended purpose is far from its reality. There’s been enough noise about BitCoin’s issues that last week saw the first major dip in the exchange rate, and it hasn’t been smooth sailing since.

The image above is the historic trading price for BitCoins to USD on the biggest BitCoin exchange Mt.Gox. The BitCoin “Black Friday” can be seen as the first dip following the massive peak at around $30. Since that day BitCoin has been shedding value constantly with the latest bid offers hovering around the $18 mark. This is not the kind of volatility you see in something you’d class as a currency where single percentage changes are cause for concern and usually government intervention. In the space of a week BitCoin has shed almost half of its peak value which in any sane market would have seen suspension of trade to prevent a fire sale of the asset. The market isn’t showing any signs of recovering either as the market depth report from Mt.Gox shows:

There’s a very large discrepancy between the majority of seller’s idea of how much BitCoin is worth and what the market is willing to pay for it. The vast majority of sellers are looking to cash out at the mid-twenties range when the highest buy offer doesn’t even break the $20 mark. Any rational actor in this sort of market would be looking to get out before the market wipes out all of their value completely and for what its worth I believe the main speculators have probably already withdrawn from the market which is what triggered the initial dip in price. Liquidity in the BitCoin market is fast drying up and that will only serve to drive the price back to (or even below) its initial stable equilibrium.

On the surface this would appear to be the beginning of the end for BitCoin since confidence in the currency is rapidly disappearing with all the accumulated wealth that’s being lost to the diving market. However whilst many who were hoping to make their riches with a nascent currency might be finding themselves short changed the diving price of BitCoins means that those who were working against the currencies intentions, I.E. those who were using it as a speculative investment vehicle, are more likely to leave the market alone now that it’s been pumped and dumped. Once the price retreats back to more stable levels BitCoin could then start functioning as it is supposed to, as a vehicle for wealth that has no central authority regulating it.

It’s not going to be an easy road for BitCoin and its adopters though as confidence in the currency has been dashed with even some of its earliest supporters withdrawing from it. Mining will then no longer be a profit driven enterprise, instead run by those who support the idea and large companies like Mt.Gox who run exchanges. Once the idea that BitCoin’s value would ever be increasing has dissipated we may finally see a point where BitCoins are primarily used as a vehicle for value transfer and not speculative investment. It will probably be another month or two before we reach a new stable equilibrium in the BitCoin market but after that I might finally stop harping on about it being an elaborate (though probably unintentional) scheme.

This still doesn’t detract from the concentration of wealth for early adopters in the BitCoin ecosystem but once their incentive to hoard currency has vanished then the impact of their vast BitCoin stashes means a whole lot less than it did during the speculative price explosion. This will encourage them to put those BitCoins into circulation adding much needed liquidity to the market and hopefully restoring some more faith in the system. Time will tell if this works out however as with market volumes so low on the BitCoin exchanges price manipulation is bound to happen from time to time and realistically can only be solved by having wider adoption. I’m still not convinced that BitCoin is a safe place for any of my wealth currently but once its recovered from this rapidly bursting bubble I may revisit it, should the want arise.