Monthly Archives: March 2012

ATV “Edoardo Amaldi” Docks With the International Space Station.

It’s strange, looking back over all my space posts of the past 3 years I couldn’t find any that were dedicated to the European Space Agency’s cargo craft, the Automated Transfer Vehicle. Sure I mentioned it in passing back when JAXA sent its first HTV to the International Space Station but even its second flight, named Johannes Kepler, obviously wasn’t inspiring enough for me to take notice. The only good reason I can come up with is the maiden voyage happened well before I got into blogging, but that doesn’t excuse me ignoring the significance of the ATV.

The ESA’s ATV is the only craft that the ESA has that participates in the ISS program. It’s a derivative of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that the Shuttle used to carry up to the ISS and is  meant to work alongside the Russian Progress craft that have been resupplying the ISS for years. Compared the Progress its something of a monster being able to deliver almost 4 times the payload although that’s offset significantly by the fact that it’s current launch rate is about once per year. The majority of the payload is taken up by reboost and attitude control propellant as the ATV is capable of reboosting the ISS, something which no other craft is currently capable of doing (the retired Shuttle was the primary reboost craft prior to this). The rest of the payload consists of crew and station consumables, roughly equivalent to the amount that a Progress craft would deliver.

Today sees the ESA’s 3rd ATV docking with the International Space Station:

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Whilst it’s not pushing any boundaries or developing new capabilities the successful docking of the Edoardo Amaldi shows that the ESA can make the yearly launches of the ATV without incident. That’s quite an achievement in itself and means that the 2 currently planned ATV launches should go off without a hitch. With the upcoming flights from companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the ISS you might be wondering why we’d bother having a craft like the ATV, especially when something like the Dragon has similar capabilities whilst also being reusable. The answer, from my perspective is two fold.

For starters neither of the upcoming private craft have the ability to reboost the ISS. Now doing this is non-trivial so its unlikely that either craft will gain that ability in the near term and as far as I can tell there are no other craft, current or planned, that have that ability. That surprises me as the second argument for the ATV’s existence, redundancy in capabilities, doesn’t exist with ISS reboosting. It’s possible that the upcoming Space Launch System with the Orion capsule might be able to do this but I can’t find anything that states that.

The second reason, as I alluded to before, is that when it comes to maintaining a human presence in space it doesn’t hurt to have redundancy for different capabilities. Whilst you can argue that there will be much better ways of doing things in the future it never hurts to have a backup that you can rely on. The ATV, with its rock solid yearly launch schedule, makes for a good fall back for other re-supply missions should they encounter any issues. Now all that’s required is finding another means by which to reboost the ISS and then we’ll have full redundancy across most of our manned space program activities.

 

Now This is a Galaxy Map!

If I was going to hang a large print on my walls I wouldn’t go for some art piece or a photo (although I do like to dabble in photography from time to time), no what I’d probably go for is a giant print of our galaxy or one of our close neighbours. Even better would be something that was interactive as I’ve always enjoyed programs like Celestia that let you zoom around the galaxy, checking out all the billions stars and (just recently) their orbiting planets.

It seems some of the guys at Microsoft have a similar appreciation:

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The Microsoft Surface has always been an amazing piece of kit and it never fails to surprise me when they bring out yet another innovative idea based around it. Whilst I can’t really think of any kind of practical use for something like this I do think it would be awesome as a tool to get people interested in space (kids especially).

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Mass Effect 3: A Dichotomy of Love and Hate.

Ah Mass Effect, a game that inspired so much fanboyism and geek lust within me that I’ve gladly parted with embarrassingly large sums of money in order to play it. My relationship with it started with an excited friend of mine breathlessly singing its praises before sending me a short video clip of it. The second the clip finished I knew this game had to be mine, no matter what the cost. This was the only reason why a Xbox360 graced my home in the first place and was so again when I upgraded to one of the new slim models to play through the final instalment. Today I will review the last chapter in Mass Effect trilogy; a review that’s been 5 years in the making.

Mass Effect 3 puts you right back into control of Commander Shepard of the Normandy. Returning back to the Alliance Navy after the events of Mass Effect 2 Shepard is placed under house arrest due to his work with Cerberus. His warnings of an impending Reaper attack have gone unnoticed and it’s not until a full Reaper invasion starts that they look back to him for help. Earth succumbs to the Reaper invasion rapidly but Shepard reluctantly escapes, only leaving so he can gather support to retake Earth back from the Reapers and hopefully drive them back for good.

First impressions of Mass Effect 3 were quite good. For Xbox360 players you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the graphics updates as there’s a noticeable improvement over Mass Effect 2. Whilst it’s not up to the same level as say Deus Ex: Humand Revolution or Skyrim they’re still quite impressive, especially if you’re playing the game on a massive TV like I was. PS3 owners won’t notice much of a difference however as Mass Effect 3 on the PS3 uses the same engine as 2 on that plaform. PC players will also be somewhat disappointed as the code for the Xbox360 version is basically the same and is unable to take advantage of any additional grunt your PC might have. It’s clear that Bioware’s target platform for this game was definitely the Xbox360 first above all others which is great for people like me, but I can understand the frustration levelled at Mass Effect 3 by gamers on other platforms.

The combat of Mass Effect 3 is just as exciting, fluid and challenging as it was back in Mass Effect 2. I was very tempted to try out yet another class as my switch from Soldier to Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 made the game that much more interesting but discussing it with my friends showed that the Vanguard was probably the most fun class out of the lot of them. With the new weapon/upgrade system the Vanguard could easily be made into an incredible weapon of destruction, one that didn’t actually need to carry any guns with him if you played your cards right.

So unlike its predecessors Mass Effect 3 gives you the choice of what weapons to equip, allowing you to carry around up to 5 different weapons. The downside is that the more weapons you carry the slower your powers will regenerate. So for weapons based classes like the Soldier you’ll probably still walk around armed with every single weapon you can carry but my Vanguard spent most of his time with only 2 weapons (later I carried 3 once I had the right upgrades), favouring the 200% buff to power recharges instead. This meant that past a certain point I was basically invulnerable as no enemy could wear down my shields before I could charge again, recharging them back to full.

Still though there were several fights that I found challenging to the point of frustration. Now I’m willing to blame this on the fact that I’m not a console gamer, the PC is my usual platform, and the many deaths I experienced early on where a combination of me not being able to aim properly and a bad talent build. However for most of the really difficult fights there was usually a heavy weapon hidden somewhere which I wouldn’t find until my 4th or 5th time attempting that particular combat scene which made the fight trivial. There are also some particular enemies that will 1 shot you from full health and shields with no way to get out of it (even with upgraded health that left me with 1 bar afterwards, I’d still die). It’s a real shame as apart from these 2 faux pas the combat is really quite enjoyable (thelatter making the last couple hours annoyingly torturous).

The talent tree system received a massive revamp since Mass Effect 2 and the improvements are quite nice. Whilst it still retains the base idea of adding points into a certain ability to make it better once you get past the first 3 stages you’re then presented with choices as to how to improve the ability. In doing so you’re able to craft your character along very specific lines, much more so than you were in the previous 2 games. With a little bit of looking around its very possible to create a character that is nigh on unstoppable, but it’s the improvements that Bioware made around the talent system that are most welcome.

The inclusion of a respec system in Mass Effect 3 is probably the most welcome addition. When you start off many of your talent points are allocated for you. Whilst this is a great way to introduce you to the character class it does mean that your character might not play the way you want it to. Thankfully the first respec is free and that will allow you to craft your character in the way you want. Additionally you’re able to choose 1 ability from your companions to include in your talent tree for a small sum. Yet again this allows you to augment away any of your character’s weaknesses or push them further into unstoppable territory.

The Galaxy Map remains basically unchanged from Mass Effect 2, keeping the same navigation elements whilst changing up the mini-game aspect of it significantly. Instead of going to every planet and scanning them for 5 minutes just to find the resources contained within there you instead scan around the current solar system, looking for little pockets of treasure. If one of the assets happens to be on a planet you then do the familiar scanning mini-game again but at least now it has a pointer to where it is, saving you countless pointless minutes scanning around. There’s also an indicator as to how many assets you’ve recovered so you don’t waste time looking for that one last thing.

You can’t scan around indefinitely though as scanning alerts the Reapers to your presence there. It’s supposed to make you scan smartly around, using the minimum number in order to recover all the assets. If you do alert the Reapers they’ll invade the system and try to hunt you down but they can’t really catch you unless you stay still for more than a couple seconds. Realistically you can just scan to your hearts content then exit/enter the system repeatedly to get the assets, which is what I ended up doing after alerting the Reapers for the 20th time.

WARNING: Mild plot spoilers follow. (There’s a second warning about the MASSIVE ones if you want to keep reading).

Of course where Mass Effect 3 really shines is the grand story that they’ve crafted over the past 5 years. Ever since the first Mass Effect there’s been a terrible sense of foreboding about the coming Reaper invasion and whilst there are some major plot holes (why did the Council ignore Shepards warnings after a GODDAMN REAPER ATTACKED THEM is beyond me) they’ve managed to keep the story moving through 3 games, even with the wild amount of control that the player has over the plot elements.

As always I decided to play Shepard as a Paragorn and whilst I’d agree with the way he acted about 90% of the time there were some definite moments when he’d go off the rails completely. This is mostly due to the paraphrasing that’s done in order to make the dialog wheel work, making it hard to accurately judge what he’s going say, but when the tough-as-nails by-the-book Shepard I spent the last 5 years crafting started acting out of character it really dumped me out of the game. Thankfully those moments were few and far between, but happened often enough to cause me frustration.

Now I don’t know if this was due to the choices that I had made in the previous games or not but the romantic relationships in Mass Effect 3 felt kind of…weird. In Mass Effect 1 I romanced Ashley who makes no appearance in 2 at all. In 2 I romanced Miranda and when I came face to face with both of them again I set my eyes on Ashley, her being Shepard’s first love. What got me however was the fact that Ashley seemed wholly unresponsive to my advances even though, as far as I was aware, there was no way of her knowing what I got up to during Mass Effect 2. Indeed she never confronted me on the fact, instead just giving me the cold shoulder. Miranda on the other hand was extremely responsive to the point where I basically fell into the romance scene which was a total cop out (when did Mass Effect become PG?). I mean I did feel something for Miranda but it felt kind of odd that Ashley would shut Shepard out like that, especially after the first few deep conversations.

It gets even more interesting as the token gay NPC, Steve Cortez (who’s done brilliantly by the way), ended up in a rather deep relationship with Shepard without me really trying. It could just be because it wasn’t possible to have that kind of relationship before Mass Effect 3, thus having to accelerate the emotional attachment, but it still made me think that Ashley’s behaviour was odd in comparison to everyone else. Not odd as in “Why doesn’t she like me”, more like there was something either unfinished or broken in the story line that I was playing through. I could’ve just stuffed up a critical dialogue option and not realised it, but I’m usually pretty good at noticing those kinds of things.

The rest of my relationships with the crew were just as good as the one with Cortez. Whilst towards the end there are many scenes that are pretty much “This is the last time you’ll get to see them here, better make the most of it” kinds of deals they do feel genuine. I personally found the scenes with Liara, Garrus and Legion to be especially touching, giving me the feeling of a true bond between comrades who had been through heaven and hell together.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil the ending here like crazy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

I’m not going to pretend that this review exists in a vacuum but I did my absolute best to avoid all the articles about Mass Effect 3′s ending prior to finishing the game for myself. All I knew before going into this is that there were people who weren’t happy with it and thanks to my information black out I figured it was just a minority. However after playing through to the ending myself, being able to get the good (read: Green) ending and choosing the Synthesis option I can unequivocally say that Bioware completely and utterly bollocks the ending up, and not just for the reasons that many others have cited already.

For starters whilst the story introduced the deus ex machina ending early on that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a deus ex machina. Granted there are few ways that such an epic story could come to an ending without resorting to this kind of plot device but it’s obvious that the entire plot wasn’t created back when Mass Effect was originally created. Indeed accounts from Bioware employees corroborate this meaning the true ending wasn’t created until just recently. This then feeds into the larger problem, the actual ending itself.

The whole idea of the Star Child, the devices to control/destroy the Reapers and the requirement of Shepard to sacrifice himself are things that don’t line up with the Mass Effect world or the characters within them. Shepard is not a tragic hero and indeed should you have been a tragic hero in Mass Effect 2 (where not enough of your team members survive) you in fact can not import that game into Mass Effect 3 as Bioware has deemed that ending non-canon. The idea then of Shepard making the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the universe is completely out of character, as well as being completely non-sensical in terms of the Star Child’s solution. Indeed, whilst the Star Child is ostensibly of synthetic origins and thus can be assumed to be completely rational it acts in ridiculously irrational ways. I would go on but many people have dissected it better than I ever could and my sentiments echo theirs closely.

Now I wrestled with the ending for a couple days before talking to my friends about it but the conclusion I came to was always the same. I really do hate the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because it’s the ending or because its tragic (indeed I hated the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but it was good because I was grieving for the loss) but because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the Mass Effect universe. Instead of the ending being driven heavily by your choices made throughout the game you’re instead treated to different coloured explosions with 1 of 3 endings based on your choice right at the end. For a universe that managed to incorporate so many of your choices into every aspect of the game this ending feels like it was done absent any thought for the rest of the universe and it really shows.

SPOILERS OVER

As a game Mass Effect 3 was almost everything I had come to expect from the series. The combat was fun and engaging with just enough challenge to make sure that I wasn’t powering through the game. The characters were (apart from one) believable and relatable and I felt a real connection with them. Right up until the final couple hours the plot and pacing of Mass Effect 3 was magnificent and it makes me very ashamed to say that the ending just simply didn’t stack up with the rest of the game, and the rest of the series for that matter. Still I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, even if the ending left a sour taste in my mouth.

Rating: 9.0/10

Mass Effect 3 is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78. $78 and $99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the Xbox360 on the Hard difficulty with around 24 hours of total play time and 80% of the achievements unlocked.

 

hdtv resolution distance chart

Understanding why Resolution, Screen Size and Viewing Distance Matter for HDTVs.

I remember buying my first high definition TV way back when my wife and I moved into our first house. Back when I was living in a share house (this was around 5~6 years ago now) one of my room mates made the decision to get one. After moving out I figured that I could go without one for a while since I had a relatively large CRT screen that I could use in the interim. It didn’t take long before the urge hit me and I set out to get one for myself.

My requirements were simple: I wanted a LCD that could do 1080p so that it would last me a fair while. Back then you were lucky to find any content that was greater than 480p that wasn’t on a DVD so I figured a 1080p screen would suit me for the foreseeable future. I had a budget limit too, $3000 was the top price I could pay and not a cent more. Of course all the sets that had my required feature set were well out of my price range, but I eventually lucked out when I found one that had a “bonus” 27″ set that I convinced them to take back and remove the price of it off the larger set. Flush with victory I walked out of there with a brilliant Samsung 46″ LCD display that still sits prominently in my living room today, and probably will for a few more years to come.

Now I consider myself something of an audio/visual buff (not to the point of stupidity, mind you) so there was another reason why I wanted something capable of 1080p. You see our eyes, well ones with 20/20 vision at least, are able to perceive details down to a resolution of about 1/60th of a degree of an arc. With this information in mind we can then extrapolate whether or not a screen of a certain size at a certain viewing distance will show any perceivable difference. At the time I relied on some helpful forums that had rough guides as to what resolutions needed to be viewed at what distances but I just recently found this chart which demonstrates the principle much more clearly:

Looking at my choice of screen (46″, 1080p) with my view distance (around 6~7ft) it’s clear that I made the right choice. Interestingly enough though should I want to go for the next resolution up and get the full benefit of it I’d have to get a screen that’s almost triple the size, which makes sense considering just how much higher resolution 4K footage is compared to 1080p. I’d strongly recommend using this as a guide if you’re considering buying a HDTV in the near future as there’s simply no reason to go for the biggest/highest resolution screen you can get if you’re not going to be able to tell the difference between it and a cheaper set.

This is all rendered somewhat moot by the fact that a set that’s very comparable to mine now retails for just $799 thanks to Kogan. Back when the choice between the biggest/best and the appropriate was on the order of a couple thousand dollars it really did matter. Today it’s not so much of a big deal as a very nice set can be had for under a third of the cost that it used to be and the differences between them are usually limited to the screen size.

You’d think that this kind of price differential would make my blood boil but it’s just the way technology works. If you want something like a HDTV there’s really no point in delaying it for the next model as there will always be something better and cheaper just around the corner. I committed to the purchase fully aware of what I was getting into but I also made sure that my cash would see use over many, many years. So in reality I’ve pretty much came out even and I have never felt wanting for a new HDTV.

virgin oceanic deepflight challenger sub

Deepsea Challenger and DeepFlight Challenger: The Future of Deep Sea Exploration.

I spend an awful lot of time here (and elsewhere, for that matter) staring up at space that you’d be forgiven for thinking that I don’t pay as much attention to things that are going on back down on Earth. Whilst my true passions lie in the final frontier I still have a keen interest in the multitude of projects that have the same level of complexity as running about in space does and you’ll often see me getting lost in all manner of weird things like deep sea drilling rigs or military hardware. One project that’s really captured my attention of late, mostly due to the fact that I knew nothing about it until just recently, is James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger project which has just begun its journey to the bottom of the ocean.

The purpose of Deepsea Challenger is to travel to what we believe is the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. Now this isn’t the first manned dive to visit this part of the ocean as back in 1960 the Bathyscape Trieste was the first manned craft (and first craft overall) to land on the bottom of the world’s oceans. They didn’t spend much time on the bottom though, only staying for a mere 20 minutes after the nearly 5 hour journey to get there, and the craft kicked up quite a bit of silt which limited their view. Despite that though they did report that there was vertebrae life forms down there meaning that even at the most extreme of conditions complex life could still form.

Deepsea Challenger is straight out of a science fiction novel by comparison. It’s about half the size of the Trieste but it’s jam packed with all manner of equipment that Cameron intends to use  whilst he’s down there. It’s also quite novel in its design favouring a torpedo like structure rather than the sub + pressure sphere that the Bathyscapes had. This design will allow Deepsea Challenger to reach the bottom in a mere 2 hours, an incredible improvement over nearly all other deep sea submersibles. Cameron then intends to spend up to 9 hours filming (in high-def 3D no less) and collecting samples before making the trip back to the surface.

The reasons why this sub matters is simple: the insights it can give us to how life evolved and continues to thrive down there gives us a much clearer idea of where life could possibly evolve elsewhere. With such extreme low temperatures and high pressures you wouldn’t expect to see anything above simple life forms, but the observations from the Trieste indicate that complex life has managed to thrive down there. Extrapolating this idea further it then means that the possibility of life on other planets in our solar system, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, is much more likely than we previously would have thought.

The reveal of Deepsea Challenger coincided with Sir Richard Branson’s announcement of yet another arm of his Virgin line of companies. This time it’s Virgin Oceanic and they’re looking to offer trips to the Mariana Trench (and other deep sea locations) to willing punters. This year will see their craft, called DeepFlight Challenger, visit 5 different locations around the world to both test the craft and generate some PR. Compared to the Deepsea Challenger its quite different, opting for a kind of submersible plane configuration that uses wings to “fly” through the water. This means that unlike the Trieste or Deepsea Challenger DeepFlight will be able to cover some serious ground while its down there. It will be very interesting to see how that craft goes in comparison to its predecessors, especially considering it’s future as a commercial venture.

Considering that we’ve only explored a mere 3% of the ocean depths the progress being made here will open up a whole new frontier for scientific research, as well as a little tourism on the side. I can’t wait to see what these two vessels discover on their journey down there and I’m sure that the discoveries will keep coming for a long time to come after their initial journeys down there. It’s hard to believe that we still have so much of our world undiscovered when we’re so connected these days but it shows that there are still many challenges to be had, and those willing to take them on.

Ruin: An Awesome CGI Short.

Nothing inspirational or thought provoking today, just something I found that I think is just plain awesome:

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It’s well worth watching it in 720p/1080p as the CGI work is just amazing.

Honeypotting, Social Networking and You (or When You Can’t Trust Your Friends on Facebook).

I don’t know how people keep getting caught up with their online social presence like they do, what with the dozens of stories that seem to come out each week about someone who’s been burned by their social networking activities. I’d like to say that I’m lucky that it hasn’t happened to me but it’s got nothing to do with luck and everything with the company I keep. All of my friends are aware of the impact putting up compromising pictures on the Internet and there’s an unspoken agreement that nothing of the sort will make it up there. However for those people out there who have “friends” who delight in posting embarrassing pictures of them online and haven’t learnt the privacy settings of Facebook there’s a lot you can do to make sure that they don’t come back to bite you in the ass.

The idea I’m talking about is called honey potting.

The nomenclature comes from the IT Security/hacker crowd and is used in reference to a system that’s set up to be attractive to people with less than righteous intents. In essence you’d set up this system so that a would be hacker would target it first and you’d set up alarms in order to alert you to when someone’s going in there. The core of the idea is that not only do you know that the intruders are coming you also control exactly what they see in that honey pot environment. Extrapolating that idea to the world of social networks and the potential for embarrassment contained therein the idea would then be to craft an online persona that’s more easily found via a cursory Google search than those compromising Facebook pictures are.

For me this was done accidentally when I created this blog. My name is tagged on every post and after 3 years of blogging any search for my name usually ends up with this blog at the top or something equally safe such as my LinkedIn profile or Twitter page. Facebook is much further down and contains barely any details on me at all (apart from a few pictures) meaning that the impression that a potential future employer will get will be mostly shaped by what they see on those other sites. Sure it’s not exactly a quick fix that people would be looking for but it works.

This strategy won’t help you too much if your employer asks for your Facebook login upon applying for a job though. Should they do that however I’d advise you to turn tail and run as far away from them as you can since a company that requires that level of invasion will more than likely screw you in more ways than you can imagine. I have no sympathy for people who willingly put compromising information on a public forum but an employer has no right to ask for that level of access.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the questionably ethical process of tracking down all the information on a potential candidate. Whilst the ultimate solution is abstaining completely (although that can lead to the undesirable situation of the Internet making your persona for you in the mind of the searcher) most won’t choose to do that. Hell even if you can manage your friends it’s still a good idea to craft an online persona that looks the way you want it to be, rather than one that constructs itself.

SpaceX: 10 Years Old and So Much To Show For It.

Ah SpaceX, the one company that I simply can’t get tired of talking about. I think it’s because they’re just so different from the traditional way of launching things into space. Where the current players lavish billions of dollars and thousands of people at single projects SpaceX works on a skeleton crew and a shoe string budget. Where launch issues would cause others to delay by a day or more SpaceX can turn everything around in under an hour. They really are the embodiment of the start up thrust into the world of launching things into space and the entire industry is better off for having them around.

Last week saw SpaceX celebrate their 10th birthday. Now this isn’t news to many of us but it does put into perspective the kind of work these guys have been doing and how long they’ve been doing it for. In 10 years they’ve managed to design, build and successfully launch 2 different rocket systems, one of which has been launched multiple times. They’ve secured contracts with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and, should they be able to do that, they’ll push the envelope even further by being the first private space company to deliver astronauts to there as well.

The last week has also seen a swath of announcements from the now decade old space company. After several delays from NASA there’s finally a solid date for the first dock of one of their Dragon capsules, set for April 30th. The original (rather optimistic date) was in November last year but this time around it seems like all systems are go for this launch date. The launch window is small, only 4 days by my count, but with SpaceX’s track record of rapid fixes on launch days this window should be more than enough for them to get the Dragon capsule off the ground and on the way to the ISS.

SpaceX has also begun showing off the interior of the manned version of the Dragon capsule that can seat up to 7 astronauts at a time. For a capsule craft that’s pretty impressive as the Space Shuttle was only capable of carrying 1 more (albeit with a payload over 4 times that of an unmanned Dragon cargo craft) and the Russian Soyuz craft can only fit 3 in, and it’s still quite a squeeze in there. The Dragon by comparison looks to have quite a bit of room to it, indeed it’s quite comparable to the Apollo command module. It’s not specifically designed for a Lunar mission however, but there is another place that the manned Dragon capsule is well suited for.

That place is Mars.

The last, and probably most exciting, piece of news to come out of SpaceX this week is that the CEO Elon Musk has gone on record saying that he’d be able to do a round trip to Mars for around $500,000. The actual specifics of how they’ll achieve this are remaining a secret for now but Musk alluded to the fact that he has a plan for being able to refuel the craft on Mars, saving a major cost of having to truck all the fuel over there along with the payload. Whether he plans to do this with multiple launches (like launching another dragon ahead of them with the required fuel), some kind of fuel production plant on Mars or something else entirely though remains to be seen. The idea of doing a return trip to the red planet for that much though is really quite exciting and definitely something I’d consider ponying up the cash for.

SpaceX just seems to keep going from strength to strength as time goes on and this year will be no exception. The last 10 years have seen them grow from the start up that no one knew about to the new face of the private space industry. This year is looking to be a milestone year for them and I simply can’t wait to see what else they’ve got in store.

R18+ Passes Lower House, Senate Awaits.

It’s been a long time coming but the first major milestone in getting a R18+ rating for games in Australia has just been hit: the bill has passed the lower house:

Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Justice Jason Clare today said that an R18+ category for computer games was another step closer today with legislation passing the House of Representatives.

The legislation passed the House of Representatives without amendment and will now move to the Senate for debate in coming weeks.

The reforms bring the classification of computer games into line with existing categories used to classify films. It also makes the Australian classification regime more consistent with international standards.

This is absolutely wonderful news, especially since the bill passed without any amendments to it. This means that the Liberal party has realised that there’s little point in fighting the legislation, especially in light of the parliamentary committee’s recommendations that were handed down just over 2 weeks ago. The next challenge for the bill will be the senate however with the support of Labor and the Greens it’s almost a sure thing that it will pass through there without incident and it will be law before we know it.

The current schedule for implementation has the law coming into effect at January 1st 2013. This is still a while off but it is a required part of the process as once this becomes law all the local governments have to pass accompanying legislation in order to regulate the sale of R18+ games in their state or territory. Unfortunately this means that we’ll could still have the weird double standards like we have for other R18+ material but at the very least it will mean that R18+ games will be available for distribution in Australia.

I’ve been reading some comments on other articles reporting the same news and it seems some people are confused about what the R18+ rating might entail. Whilst there will be a lot of games that will be able to resubmit and hopefully get the R18+ rating it won’t mean that any game that was given the dreaded RC rating will automatically get slapped with R18+. It is up to the publisher or distributer of the game to resubmit it for reclassification and should they not bother to resubmit the game will stay as NC. Additionally the introduction of a R18+ rating does not mean that we won’t see games given the NC rating in the future, only that such occurrences will be far more rare. There are games out there that would still exceed the limits of the R18+ rating but I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t get NC if it was done in another medium.

It’s been a long, bitter fight to get the Australian government to recognise that the gamer community has matured far beyond what it was when the original classification scheme was produced, but we’re almost there. The success of this grass roots campaign can’t be traced back to one individual or organisation, it’s the cumulative effort of thousands of Australian gamers who rallied behind the cause and forced them to listen. It makes me immensely proud to say that I was a part of this and I’ll be even happier when I finally see it come to pass in less than a year’s time.

Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning Screenshot Wallpaper Inventory Screen

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning: The Fate of the Fateless

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t a game I thought that I would be playing. Out of all my gaming friends only one of them had played it (and didn’t care for it) and I, as always, avoided the hype for it just in case I did end up wanting to play it. However after reading the AMA on Reddit from the writer behind it there seemed to be an awful lot of fans of his work so I figured the title would be worth the look, even if I hadn’t heard of the developers or writer behind it.

Kingdoms of Amalur starts with your unceremonious death on what appears to be a battle field, felled by a race of corrupted immortal elves called the Tuatha. You’re then taken to a mass grave to be dumped and forgotten along with all the other soldiers that have fallen in the war. However despite your apparent death you come back to life shortly after being dumped amongst the dead. It is soon revealed that you were used in part of an experiment to duplicate the immortality of the elves with the mortal races of the world and you are the first one to succeed. Your resurrection also granted you freedom from fate, a power that you’ll make great use of throughout the entire game.

Despite the heavy stylization that Kingdoms of Amalur makes use of the graphics are still heavily dated, being far more appropriate for something like a MMORPG than a single player game. As far as I can tell there are 2 reasons for this: the first being the obvious point that this is a dual release on Xbox and PC and we’re limited by its dated graphics potential. The second is that this particular engine is more than likely going to end up being used for an upcoming MMORPG based in the same universe. I can understand that this makes sense from a business point of view but in comparison to all the other titles that have been released recently Kingdoms of Amalur won’t win any prizes for cutting edge graphics. There are several “ooooh pretty” moments (like the one below) but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

What Kingdoms of Amalur does have going for it though is its unique approach to the traditional elements of a RPG. Whilst it’s a RPG at heart with all the levelling systems, talent trees, loot and so on it’s the unique take on each of these aspects that makes Kingdoms of Amalur stand out from its counterparts.

For the vast majority of RPGs, including Kingdoms of Amalur, you’ll begin by choosing your race and what your character looks like. Usually then you’ll also pick your character class which will determine how you do combat (and various other things) throughout the game. Kingdoms of Amalur has a much more flexible system: you put points into one of three talent trees which determines what kind of class you’ll play as. The 3 trees are your typical archetypes (warrior, rogue, mage) but you can mix and match between them and once you reach a certain number of points in a tree (or several of them) you’ll get a buff that corresponds to your choice. Should you not like the choices you’ve made there’s NPCs who can reset your talents everywhere, an absolute godsend in a game where the freedom to choose your class can have you making some decidedly bad choices early on.

Combat in Kingdoms of Amalur is a strange mix of hack ‘n’ slash mouse mashing with elements of strategy chucked in so the game didn’t get thrown in the same bucket as other titles like God of War. Initially, when you have very few other abilities, you’re pretty much stuck with clicking the left mouse repeatedly and attempting to dodge any incoming blows. As you progress further though your options become much more open, leading you to be able to execute long combos on enemies that end with devastating force. After a while though it gets to the point where the only challenge comes from times when the game deliberately throws multitudes of enemies at you and even that is mitigated by Diablo-esque potion swilling. I think the main issue here is one aspect of the combat that’s simply assumed that you’ll use whenever something difficult comes across: reckoning mode.

As you defeat enemies you’ll fill up the Fate bar, the purple looking one in the screenshot above. When that hits full you can enter Reckoning Mode. What this does is slow down time for everyone else but you and also sends your damage output through the roof, making you nigh on invincible. This doesn’t last forever though, about 30 seconds at my count, but that’s usually enough for you to dispatch most enemies (and bosses) before the timer runs out. Should you not have the fate meter full at a critical point though you’ll have to struggle through the fight, chugging potions and trying to stay alive long enough to fill the bar up. Once you understand this it’s quite easy to judge when you’ll need it but the one fight where I didn’t have it and it was obvious that the encounter was designed to for me to use it there wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

What Kingdoms of Amalur does get right is the inventory system. Whilst you don’t have an unlimited inventory with which to stash the incredible amount of loot that drops they have taken out the laborious inventory management that usually plagues RPGs. Your main inventory of potions, usable items, weapons and armor are limited to a certain number of slots. However you have 3 unlimited crafting bags that hold components for you. What this means is you’ll never have to worry about having to clear out your inventory to pick up that reagent and you can keep carrying those reagents with you everywhere. What this means is that you’ll actually want to pursue the crafting options in Kingdoms of Amalur rather than ignoring them and then power levelling them when its worth it.

The crafting system also deserves praise as it’s a worthwhile pursuit in Kingdoms of Amalur. Blacksmithing for instance can break down all the items you pick up into their various components which you can then use to build better armour and weapons for yourself. Alchemy has the awesome mechanic of experimentation where potion recipes can be discovered by randomly mashing ingredients together and seeing what comes out the other end. Sagecrafting, in essence making gems for socketed equipment, has a similar mechanic but you’re able to see the outcome before you commit the ingredients. High levels of blacksmithing allow you to combine gems into your crafted equipment, making it on par with many of the best drops you’ll find whilst questing. Overall I was very pleased with the way the crafting system was implemented, much more than I have been with other RPG/MMORPGs.

Now I have to say that for the first few hours, indeed probably the first 6~8 hours, I was incredibly bored with Kingdoms of Amalur. At the beginning there’s really no feeling of tension, nothing that’s really driving you forward. Your resurrection as the Fateless One has stripped you of your memory and whilst there are several characters that recognise you it’s not until you’re near the end of the main quest that they’ll tell you anything about your past. The open world doesn’t do anything to alleviate this lack of drive either as you’re completely free to ignore the main quest and just simply do whatever the hell you want to. This is one of the times where the possibility of reviewing the game kept me going, that was until after I passed the 8 hour mark.

After that many of the stories that I was following started to develop and began to become interesting rather than just an impediment to me levelling my character. Even some of the side quests, ones that you could simply pass by and never do, had interesting stories to them that spanned over the course of an hour or more. Thankfully the quest log is unlimited so that you can pick up pretty much every quest in sight and then complete them at your own leisure. Doing so would put your total play time somewhere north of 100 hours however, something which I’ve never really done outside of MMORPGs.

So taking that all into consideration how does Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning stack up as a game? It definitely has its fun moments, especially towards the end when you can take out legions of enemies without breaking too much of a sweat. The story, whilst lacking at the start, is incredibly detailed and the multitude of side quests reveals a depth much greater than its appearance would lead you believe. They also got the loot system right as whilst I was drenched in epics and set pieces by the end I still got a thrill every time I saw a purple drop and an even bigger one when it was an upgrade for me. There are however some issues that can’t be overlooked despite the rational explanations for their choices. The graphics aren’t that great even when compared to other stylized games like World of Warcraft. The barrier to the meat of the game is incredibly high, rivalling the lengths of many AAA titles.

Thinking about it more I feel the same way as I do about Skyrim. All the elements of the game work well together, as long as you give them enough time, but the sheer size of the game means that eventually you’ll get to a point where everything starts to feel the same and there’s really no getting passed that. Indeed just as I did in Skyrim before I did in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I got to a certain point where my character was pretty much unstoppable and then just powered through the main quest line. After that the lack of motivation sets in again since there’s nothing driving you and it’s best to leave the game as is.

With all that in mind however I still feel that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid game and I look forward to the upcoming MMORPG version.

Rating: 8.0/10

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $59.99 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Hard difficulty with 21 hours of total play time and 39% of the achievements unlocked. If you have any questions about my reviewing process please feel free to leave a comment or consult this guide