Monthly Archives: December 2012

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Far Cry 3: Did I Ever Tell You The Definition of Insanity?

For someone who’s stated repeatedly that open world games are not my thing I sure have played a lot of them this year, from 38 Studio’s swan song in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to Prototype 2 and Sleeping Dogs. I’ve come to appreciate the genre more since then as I really did enjoy Sleeping Dogs even if I avoided many of the repetitive side missions in favor of the more engrossing story missions. I had been planning to do a review of Far Cry 3 for a while now on the recommendation of several friends who have dozens of hours invested in it and, if I’m honest I wasn’t looking forward to it. I remember the original boring me rather quickly and the second was just such a mess I didn’t make it past the first hour. However this latest installment is a vast step up from either of its predecessors and I’d even go so far as to say it was rather enjoyable.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Far Cry 3 goes back to the original’s roots, putting you on the fictional Rook Island located somewhere between the Indian and Pacific oceans. You play as Jason Brody who, with a group of close friends including a couple of children of 1 percenters, have been enjoying a tropical vacation. The group decides to go skydiving together but they all land on different sections of an island which is controlled by the pirate lord Vaas. They’re then taken hostage and ransomed for their return but your brother is having none of that and breaks you both out. The ensuing escape goes terribly awry with your brother being gunned down by your captors and you falling unconscious in a river. You are rescued by the Rakyat, a group native warriors, and then swear vengeance against Vaas and his entire operation.

Whilst Far Cry might never have been the PC destroyer that Crysis was it did have a reputation for being on the upper end of the graphics scale and Far Cry 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this area. On first glance I was convinced that it was one of the Crytek engines but as it turns out it’s Ubisoft’s own in house engine called Dunia, made by a former Crytek employee. It features all the things we’ve come to expect from high end games like motion blur and depth of field but it also includes other impressive features like day/night cycles, dynamic weather and realistic fire simulation (which makes starting huge fires rather fun). One minor complaint I have about it is that enabling v-sync (I hate tearing) seems to make any system struggle. Taking it off and cranking up the anti-aliasing worked well to combat tearing however so its more of a FYI than a complaint.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

Unlike the majority of open world games Far Cry 3′s core game play is good old fashioned First Person Shooting with an arsenal of weapons at your disposal. The whole combat system has a lot of polish to it with all the main weapons behaving how you’d expect them to and none of them glitching out in strange ways. There are a few quirks like the knife swings having a queue so if you mash the key a couple times he’ll keep on swinging that knife when you’re not pressing it. The aiming can also be a bit weird as like in say Call of Duty aiming down the sights guarantees the bullet will hit where the sites are targeted but that doesn’t appear to be the case in Far Cry 3. Everything else seems to work well though, especially the take down system.

Far Cry 3 includes a rudimentary stealth system that works on line of sight, distance and the amount of time you’re visible to an enemy. For its intended purpose it works well, allowing you to sneak up on people and take them out silently with your knife. However there are also silencer attachments for your guns that supposedly allow you to take people down without alerting others but I never found that to be the case as anyone who was shot down immediately triggered every guard to go into a panic. Realistically I get the feeling that it was primarily designed for the take downs with the weapons being something of an afterthought. This could possibly be due to my preferred weapons being assault rifles and SMGs as I didn’t really bother with sniper rifles at all.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Talent System

Like most games these days there’s a talent/specialization system that allows you to craft Jason into the kind of character you want to play. There’s 3 different styles ranging from complete stealth to all out combat and many of the talents are synergistic across trees. Initially the points you choose will make a big difference to all your encounters as some of them will make certain situations a breeze whilst without them you’ll find yourself struggling to accomplish certain tasks. However as the game goes on you’ll find that most of them are more convenience factors than anything else, either allowing you to do things slightly faster or simply blunder your way through without having to think about the risks you’re taking.

The reason I say this is that whilst you can’t unlock all the talents from the get go (you can’t simply ignore the main story line and get everything) the pace at which next tiers are unlocked seems a bit off as I always found myself with extra points spare before the talents I wanted were available. Now this isn’t because I’m some kind of crazy quest nut, far from it, I in fact ignored many of the side quests in favor of the story line, only stopping to get radio towers and the occasional safe house so I didn’t have to drive so far. Still by doing that I was able to max out one tree (shown above) and was only 6 or so levels away from maxing all the others.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper An Emotional Moment

I guess where I’m going with this is that in Far Cry 3, like with nearly all the open world games I’ve played, the bevy of additional side missions and activities available are simply not required. Whilst some of them might be a fun distraction from the main plot line they are, for want of a better word, fluff that doesn’t really need to be in the game. Now I know that this is part of the appeal for a lot of people, being able to wander around to do whatever you want and I admit that not being on rails is quite refreshing but I’ve yet to see a game where these side missions aren’t repetitive wastes of time that don’t bestow any real benefit for the player. This is especially true in Far Cry 3 when you can make all the weapons free in a rather short space of time and upgrade all your other stuff through crafting.

That’s one thing that Far Cry 3 does do rather well actually as the upgrades really are completely optional but taking the, admittedly small amount of, time to go and find the right animals, skin them and then craft your upgrades is pretty cool. It does start to get a little ridiculous if you’ve got the fervent RPGer mindset though as there’s animals and herbs everywhere and your loot sack is only so big, usually meaning you end up with a lot of left overs. There is a quick sell button for the trash loot but it unfortunately doesn’t extend to skins that you have no use for anymore which can sometimes leave you with a surplus that you don’t need but don’t have an easy way of knowing that. This is only made worse if you get the double harvest talents so some inventory management is required.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Reconnecting

Far Cry 3 also loses points for this kind of bullshit that Ubisoft has been renowned for: highly connected games that shit themselves whenever your Internet connection drops or the Ubisoft servers have a conniption. This particular error was coming from their end however as I was able to Google search and Steam chat with all my friends whilst it was deciding what to do and then when it timed out it said I could keep playing anyway. Now I’m not a professional coder but I definitely know that if you have a mechanism for allowing players to keep playing offline you can certainly do that check in the background without putting this prompt up in front of them. This is on top of the fact that even the Steam copies of the game come bundled with Ubisofts Uplay social gaming network thing which is just as bad as any game that bundles Games for Windows Live in the same fashion. Seriously just stop doing it guys, the “rewards” you offer us for playing your games aren’t worth the precious seconds we have to waste clicking past your crappy social networks.

Far Cry 3′s story is somewhat confused in its execution, starting off strong with Jason being a bewildered upper-middle class boy stuck in a woeful situation to this kind of fever dream sequence where its hard to understand whats real and what’s not. It’s not in a good way either as there are many sections where these dream sequences seem to happen only as a way to gloss over how things actually happened in that situation (the final knife fight being a great example of this). I’ll admit that one interpretation of this could very well be some kind of Fight Club-esque idea but in reality it seems more like there were many great disparate ideas that are linked together in really tenuous ways and just ends up feeling like a jumbled mess. At least the ending didn’t scream sequel, which would’ve had this review being a lot more ALL CAPS ragey.

Far Cry 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Final Trial of the Warrior

Far Cry 3 is a beautiful game that pays homage to its roots, making up for the mistakes of the sequel in spades. Open world games aren’t usually my forte but I definitely enjoyed the majority of my time with it and this soared to new heights once my character achieved that broken state where I felt like I was invincible. There are still some niggling issues however with the pointless side quests, half baked stealth system and a story that does more to confuse than anything else. All that being said however it’s still a pretty good game, one that deserves much of the praise that’s been leveled at it and for those who love titles like Grand Theft Auto et. al. I’m sure there’s a lot for you to love in Far Cry 3.

Rating: 7.9/10

Far Cry 3 is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $69.99, $68 and $68 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Survivalist difficulty setting with 14 hours total play time and 60% of the achievements unlocked.

Merry Christmas To You All.

As I do every time this year I just wanted to wish all my readers a {SEASON GREETING}[Merry Christmas|Happy Hanuka|Happenin Kwanzza]. Hope you’re as happy as I am, in great company with a stomach full of festive treats. I don’t have much else to say so I’ll just leave you with this video of a house with lights set to dubstep since that’s what the holiday spirit is all about, right? ;)

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Hopefully this post will also let Google know that my site isn’t gone forever after I found out that my Apache server took a dive for the past 2 days >_<

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper Resevoir

Waking Mars: Who Knew What Wonders Lay Beneath!

Us PC gamers are always slightly wary of ports. The reasoning behind it is twofold, primarily stemming from the fact that many ports are rush jobs, leaving us stuck with interfaces that were obviously designed for another platform and failing to take advantage of our PC hardware. It’s also partly due to our slight bruised pride from no longer being the platform any more and the issues with ports just seem to be yet another strike against us. Strangely enough though I’ve found ports from the portable market, mostly from iOS and Android, have actually been quite good with Galaxy on Fire 2 genuinely surprising me with how well it translated to the PC platform. Waking Mars is another title that found its fame on the mobile market and now, thanks to Steam’s Greenlight project, has found its way onto the PC.

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper Opening Scene

Waking Mars is set in the not too distant future of 2093 where a team of scientists, including you playing as Liang, have been sent to investigate some of the caves that were discovered on Mars. You’re not going in blind however as some time before your team sent a robot, named OCTO (presumably because it had 8 legs), down to investigate and the pictures it sent back indicated there was life down there. However shortly after sending those pictures communications were lost and whilst his recovery wasn’t a prime directive it did necessitate the need to go down and investigate these life forms further and discover a whole new world that has been lurking underneath Mar’s surface for an eternity.

Unlike most of the adventure/puzzle/point and click adventures I review on here Waking Mars isn’t done in pixel art fashion. Rather its done in a hand drawn style, one that’s very familiar but I can’t place my finger on where I’ve seen it before. Whilst the animation is a bit wonky at times, for both your character and some of the NPCs in the world, it’s still quite passable. The colour palettes are also quite bright and varied which helps to make sure that you don’t get visual fatigue looking at the same sodden brown landscape for hours on end.

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper ART

The core game of Waking Mars is a cross between exploration and puzzle solving. Primarily your aim is to increase the “biomass” of each section by making the various creatures and plants reproduce in the little section you’re currently in. Initially this just starts of with you planting seeds and watering them (which then makes them produce more seeds) but it grows into a complex puzzle of what you should plant where and managing the different types of soil in order to make sure you can produce the required amount of biomass. Once you reach the required level the door to the next level will open up, allowing you to dive deeper into the cave.

As far as puzzle mechanics go its pretty novel especially when you get further along when there are certain plants that will kill other plants which also spread voraciously if not kept under control. Each room obviously has an intended solution, one that if done properly will see you complete it with a minimum of fuss and waiting. This can be something of a blessing or a curse as early on you don’t have the right tools to undo your mistakes. Thankfully up until a certain point all the puzzles are designed to not block you until you get to a stage where you can generate any number of the right seeds you need, as shown below.

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper Big Old Biomass Producer

This particular level also demonstrates the potential for emergent game play mechanics that can be lovingly exploited should you have the time to do so. In this particular area I had what I called a Yellow Seed Reactor (the ones that can grow in the acidic ground) where regular green seeds seemed to collect. Also in the same area was a couple of those life forms that eat the green seeds to reproduce and since the seeds will keep coming as long as I don’t pick them up they had a near infinite supply of food with which to reproduce. In the same area there was also one of the acidic plants that reproduces when it eats one of those little things so whenever I needed a couple of those seeds I’d simply travel back there and wait.

Indeed the way I completed that level was by simply sitting there and watching the reactor in progress as there really is no limit to the amount of times those little buggers can reproduce. It can also backfire horribly on you as they run away when you get near them and the collision detection gets a bit wonky when there’s 100 of them together, usually resulting in a mass suicide that drops hundreds of biomass in a second. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was hilarious though because seeing them all explode out only to fall over and die is pretty bloody funny.

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper Resevoir

Past a certain point however the puzzles start to feel very samey as you’re just repeating the same motions over and over again. Once you’re in the big chamber you have pretty much unlimited access to all the seeds you need which makes most of the harder puzzles moot but at the same time it also means you’re forever trucking back and forth between locations in order to get the right materials ready in order to progress through. This might not have been as much of a problem if I was playing it on my smart phone since I’d only be playing it for 10~20 mins at a time (and its broken up perfectly for that) but sitting down and playing it for a couple hours means the repetition gets to you and doesn’t make for compelling game play.

The story is also semi-interesting although it feels like it was lacking any direction. Your motives seem to wander from investigation to getting back to base camp to investigating random signals at different points on the map, all without a clear sense of direction. There’s heaps of additional objectives to do but there’s no driving force, either in upgrades or in terms of the story, to push you to do them. Again this feels like an artefact of its mobile origins where it was designed to be picked up and played for a bit and then put down again until the next session.

Waking Mars Screenshot Wallpaper OCTO

Waking Mars is fun and novel, exploring an idea that all my fellow space nuts would love to be true. The core game mechanic is certainly refreshing after all the exploration/puzzler games I’ve played of late but after a while it starts to look all the same. The so-so story that has troubles with direction and pacing doesn’t help this either but that doesn’t stop Waking Mars from being a game that’s worth a look in. I’d probably recommend it on Android or iOS as it seems to be well designed for that and whilst it doesn’t translate badly to PC I still think you’d have a better time elsewhere.

Rating: 7.75/10

Waking Mars is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $4.99, $4.99 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3 hours played and 47% of the achievements unlocked.

Treyarch Logo

With Black Ops II Treyarch Is No Longer Infinity Ward’s Poor Cousin.

As any Call of Duty player will tell you there was always a good developer and a not-so-good developer behind their franchise of choice. Unquestionably everyone loved all of Infinity Ward’s releases and it’s not a long stretch to say that they are responsible for Call of Duty’s success, thanks almost entirely to the original Modern Warfare. Treyarch on the other hand was always second place to them with their games typically being considered the off years for the franchise with the sales figures reflecting that. Indeed when the original Black Ops was released many of the compliments to it felt backhanded, the best of which I recall as being “the best Call of Duty Treyarch has made” firmly segregating it away from its glorious Infinity Ward brethren.Treyarch Logo

Still it’s not like they made atrocious games, indeed whilst the original Black Ops might not have held a candle to Modern Warfare 2 it still managed to rake in over a billion dollars in 6 weeks, an accomplishment that not many game developers can boast. It’s still somewhat slower than Infinity Ward who was able to accomplish the same thing in about a third of the time. However after playing through Black Ops II I really felt that the overall quality of Treyarch’s recent release was at least on par if not exceeding that of its predecessors, even those from Infinity Ward. I posited the idea to a couple of my friends that it was possible that Treyarch might take the crown as the better Call of Duty developer and it looks like they might be on track to accomplish that:

Activision may have skipped its annual five-day totaling of Call of Duty sales, but the publisher announced this morning the latest installment, Black Ops 2, grossed $1 billion in 15 days.

The publisher announced shortly after Call of Duty Black Ops 2‘s launch the annual blockbuster made $500 million in 24 hours at retail, eclipsing Modern Warfare 3′s record of $400 million the year prior. The lack of a five-day total, which the company had done for three years running, gave some analysts “cause for concern” that Black Ops 2 wasn’t selling as well as previous installments.

Going from 6 weeks to 15 days to achieve the same target is a pretty impressive feat in the space of only a couple years. You could attribute this to the popularity of the Call of Duty franchise but, coming from someone who’s played all of their recent titles, Black Ops II really is that much better than the rest of them. Indeed checking out the sales stats since then for each of the respective platforms shows (apart from PC still being very much in the minority at around 4%) that it’s on track to outsell all of its predecessors in the space of about 2 to 3 months on each of its respective platforms. Should that happen it wouldn’t be the first Treyarch title to outsell Infinity Ward, but it would certainly cement their position as equal developers.

The question then becomes what this will mean for the Treyarch/Infinity Ward developer duality in the Call of Duty franchise. In all honesty I don’t think it’ll mean much overall, indeed each iteration of Call of Duty for the past couple generations has outsold the last, but the fervour at which fans adopted this most recent title was definitely a surprise for me even if I thought the quality was a definite jump up from Treyarch’s previous games. Indeed as long as the series keeps making money and breaking sales records I don’t think we’ll see any major changes in the franchise, either from an actual game play or developer perspective. For me it’s just interesting to see how the perceptions have changed over the past couple years as I’ve witness the back and forth between the two developers behind the biggest game franchise in the world and how a perceived duality in quality has, in essence, simply disappeared.

A Rather Novel Way Of Starting A Fire.

If you trace back along the path of human evolution (the homo genus to be more specific) there’s a period where our species started to undergo rapid changes. The actual time varies wildly depending on the sources you read but the cause isn’t: it was when we learnt to control fire. Fire enabled our ancestors to do many things that simply weren’t possible before like cooking food (which provides easier access to calories and nutrition), doing activities at night as well as during the day and even protecting themselves from animals and insects. Indeed the species were are today, one that is well adapted for cooked food, is because of our beginnings as masters of fire.

I’m also somewhat fascinated with the creation of fire, possibly from a purely primal level, but also because there’s numerous different ways to do it and each of them exploit a physical principle. One of the most interesting ones I saw recently was someone using a hammer to light a cigarette:

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At the highest level what is being done here is that kinetic energy, from the hammer falling on the piece of metal, is being translated into heat. This is accomplished by the bending and warping of the metal that occurs when its struck by the hammer which breaks down the bonds between the metal atoms causing them to release heat. The second part of the trick here is that they then utilize a highly flammable tinder, I.E. the cigarette, which has a flash point below that of the temperature of the metal. Drawing air over it provides more oxygen and with that you have all the ingredients you need for fire.

Of course it’s not the most practical way of creating fire given the materials required to do it. You’re much better off with a flint and steel as they produce sparks with temperatures that far exceed that of hammered metal. That is of course if you don’t have any matches, cigarette lighters or any number of modern fire making devices handy but for pure reliability you really can’t go past a good old fashioned piece of flint and steel.

 

Active Directory Time Sync Breakdown

A Tale of Woe and PDF Creators (or Dig Up Abbott, Dig Up).

I’ve been working in public sector IT for the better part of 7 years now, starting off as a lowly help desk operator and working my way up through the ranks to the senior technical consultant position I find myself in today. I’m not telling you this to brag (indeed I don’t believe I’m completely unique in this regard) rather I want to impress upon you the level of familiarity I have when it comes to government IT systems. I’ve worked in departments ranging from mere hundreds of employees to the biggest public service organisation that exists within Australia. So when I say Tony Abbott’s office isn’t giving us the full story on this whole Peter Slipper incident and the subsequent time zone argument they used to defend their position you’ll know that I’m not just making stuff up.

Active Directory Time Sync Breakdown

For reference his whole argument has been thoroughly debunked by Sortius in his brilliant 10 hours of bullshit where he shows that the document has had its date modified to show a 10 hour discrepancy. Back when it was first published he was just going off public information but recent updates to the post have seen him get his hands on the original press release with an unmodified date on them, showing that the press release was indeed drafted the night before. You’d think that’d be the last of it (and indeed if it was I would’ve simply tweeted it again) however the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) has gone on record saying that they have identified a problem with the time stamps on the files in question and have backed up Abbott’s side of the story.

Reporters have since been granted access to the PC and shown similar files which seem to suffer the same Zulu time zone problem that apparently plagues the press release in question. What wasn’t investigated was whether or not files created in the way that Sortius has shown suffer from the same issue, I.E. is there an on-going technical issue with that particular computer or are those files the result of the same kind of tampering that the press release appears to have undergone. That would go some way to explaining what’s going on here but it doesn’t explain why the time stamp shows a Zulu time zone which Microsoft word isn’t capable of producing.

Indeed doing a little research for myself shows that PDFs created from Microsoft Word’s PDF creator plugin will always show created/modified dates that are more or less identical and reflect the current time it was created (not the time when the original word document was created). If we’re to believe that there was some problem with the PC that caused the Z to appear it follows that it should have been the same for both the created date and the modified date. The fact that there’s a discrepancy gives credence to the idea that the PDF was first created using the Word PDF exporter and then modified afterwards using another program. The original document, the one shown in the final update from Sortius, shows some differences in created/modified times however it appears that was created using the PDFMaker Plugin for Word and then later modified in Adobe Distiller (not the same way as the metadata in the modified press release indicates).

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Abbott was aware of this information but it does implicate that someone working for him did. In attempting to track down just who it was who created the PDF I came across 2 probable people (one person who I think works at DPS and a Brisbane based ghost writer) but I wasn’t able to verify it was actually one or the other. Whoever did write it would be able to provide some insights into this whole thing but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever come forward, especially considering the fact that they would’ve been working for Abbott at the time (and may still be).

All of this points in the direction that something is going on over there and that further investigation is definitely warranted. I know there’s several other things I could do to either verify or debunk this theory completely should I have more open access to said system but I doubt we’ll get anything more than the guided tour that was given to the ABC journalists already. If I still had people I knew working at DPS you can be assured that I’d get the full story from them but alas, I came up dry on this one. Sortius is still on the case though and I’m very interested to see what DPS has to say about the current discrepancies and will keep you posted on the progress.

 

iOS 6 Maps Icon

“This Was Apple’s Plan All Along” Is Starting To Wear Thin, Guys.

You don’t have to read far on this blog to know that the relationship I have with Apple swings from wild amounts of hate to begrudging acceptance that they do make some impressive products. Indeed I’ve been called everything from an Apple fan boy to an Apple hater based on the opinions I’ve put forth on here so I think that means I’m doing the right thing when it comes to being a technology critic. Of course that means taking them, and their fans, to task whenever they start getting out of line and it appears that the latest instalment of Apple fans going wild comes care of the iOS 6 Maps application which I’ve abstained from covering here previously.

iOS 6 Maps Icon

For the uninitiated Apple decided to give Google Maps the boot as the default mapping application on their handsets and tablets. The move was done primarily because their negotiated agreement with Google was scheduled to come to an end soon and Apple, for whatever reasons that I won’t bother speculating about, decided that instead of renewing it they’d go ahead and build their own maps application, including the massive back end cartography database. Now they’re no stranger to building a maps application, indeed whilst it used to say “Google Maps” it was in fact an Apple developed application that used the Google APIs, but the application was an unmitigated disaster. In fact it was so bad Apple even got Tim Cook do one of those “we’re admitting there’s a problem without admitting it” open letters pointing to alternatives that were available.

I held off on commenting on the whole issue because since I don’t use an iPhone any more I didn’t want to start trashing the app without knowing what the reality was. Plus I’m not one to bandwagon (unless I’m really struggling for good material) and it felt like everything that needed to be said had been said. I almost caved when I started reading apologist garbage like this from MG Siegler but others had done that work for me so re-iterating those points wouldn’t provide much value. However one bit of unabashed fanboyism caught my eye recently and it really needs to be taken to task over what they’re saying:

Situation: Apple cannot get Google to update its maps app on iOS. It was ok, but Google refused to update it to include turn-by-turn directions or voice guidance even though Android had these features forever. Apple says, “Enough” and boots Gmaps from iOS and replaces it with an admittedly half-baked replacement. The world groans. Apple has egg on its face. Google steps up it’s game and rolls out a new, free new maps app in iOS today that is totally amazing, I’m sure to stick it in Apple’s face… Ooops

Bottom line: Apple took one for the team (ate some shit) and fooled Google into doing exactly what Apple has been asking for years. Users win.

Time to get some facts on the table here. For starters way back in the day when Apple first wanted to bring maps to their platform they approached Google to do it however the terms that Google wanted (better access to user data was their primary concern) meant that an in house developed app was never to be. They could agree on good terms for the API however and so Apple developed their own application on the public Google API. This meant, of course, that they were limited to the functionality provided by said API which doesn’t include the fun things like turn by turn navigation (voice commands however are on Apple’s head to implement).

Instead of capitulating Apple decides to build their own replacement product which isn’t completely surprising given that they’ve done this kind of thing before with services like iTunes and the App Store. Claiming that it was done to fool Google into developing a better app however is total bollocks as if they were doing that they wouldn’t have spent so much money on in-sourcing so much of the infrastructure. Indeed the argument can be made that they could’ve bought/licensed one of the top map apps for a fraction of the cost in order to accomplish the same task. So no Apple didn’t do it to get Google to develop an application for them, they did it because they wanted to bring more applications into their ecosystem.

Google’s revamped map app proved to be extremely popular rocketing to the number 1 spot for free applications after just 7 hours of being available. I (in a slightly rhetorical/trolling way) put the feelers out on Twitter to see what Apple fans would have to say about that particular feat and was surprised when I got a reply within minutes. Whilst their arguments didn’t hold up to mild scrutiny (and I didn’t change their opinion on the matter) I was honestly surprised just how defensive some people can be of a product that even the company who developed it has admitted was bad. Especially when the replacement has been, by all accounts, pretty spectacular.

Apple’s trademark secrecy about its plans and intentions is what feeds into these kinds of wild theories about their overall strategy for their products and their highly dedicated fan base too often falls prey to them without giving them some routine fact checking. I don’t blame them in particular however, it’s hard to see fault with a company you admire so much, but this kind of wide-eyed speculation doesn’t do any good for them. Indeed give it a couple weeks and no one will care that there’s yet another map application on iOS and this whole thing will get filed alongside antennagate (remember that?).

Endless Space Screenshot Wallpaper Victory

Endless Space: The Galaxy Is Yours, Should You Want It.

I’m no stranger to turn based strategy games but I can’t say that they’re my favourite genre. Whilst I, like many of my generation, grew up on titles like Civilization, Alpha Centauri and even more esoteric titles Warlords I can’t say that I’ve sought any of the more recent instalments that some of those games have. Long time readers will know that I’m much more partial to real time strategy, preferring the intense encounters that last at most an hour or so rather than the calculating, often multiple hour long games that turn based strategies tend towards. Still I’m a sucker for anything space related and when Endless Space came on sale recently I felt compelled to give it the once over.

Endless Space Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen600px

Endless Space takes place in the distant future of 3000AD where you take control of one of 9 species (or even one of your own should you choose) competing with others in order to colonize the galaxy. Depending on your race your motivation for expansion can range from simply wanting to tend to these worlds and see them flourish to conquering everything that stands in your way, ruling over it with an iron fist. Realistically the story is left up to you to create as the process of expansion, diplomacy and war will build your own unique story within the Endless Space world.

Graphically Endless Space is somewhat simplistic but vibrant enough so that you don’t get bored with it. Most of the planets look pretty much identical except for when they have some kind of anomaly on them and the ships differ between each race but they all have their own distinct style about them. The music was also quite good with the general background tracks having invoking this feeling of wonder as you click through your planets and line up tasks on your quest to conquer the galaxy. Overall it’s not bad, just very simple in comparison to many other space based games that have been available recently.

Endless Space Screenshot Wallpaper Game Selection600px

There’s no campaign to speak of in Endless Space, rather you’re given a whole bunch of options to create a game world which you can play in. You get control over a pretty wide range of parameters including things like galaxy type and size, number of opponents and the speed/difficulty of the game. You also get your choice of race, from a total of 9 options, but if you’re so inclined you can also create your own race with its own set of benefits/disadvantages. This can be quite fun if you want to try out playing in a particular way as the races that are best designed for colonization might not be the best for war (and vice versa).

The galaxy is then procedurally generated meaning that no 2 game worlds will be exactly the same (unless you use the galaxy seed number in order to recreate it). You’re then placed on your home system, typically a system that has a full set of planets, and given a scout ship and a colony ship to explore the universe. Depending on where you got placed this can mean exploring several planets before hitting a blockade of some description (typically a worm hole that you need to research some technology in order to cross) or you could be trapped with only a few measly systems to look at. It’s sometimes worth restarting the game if you find yourself in a not-so-great position as you’ll struggle to overcome that initial disadvantage as I found out several times over.

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There’s many different types of worlds in Endless Space ranging in size from tiny to giant and encompassing all the major types that we know (and have theorized) to exist. You’ll only be able to colonize a couple types when you first begin but as you research more technologies you’ll be able to colonize more and more of them. They all have their own advantages/disadvantages so there’s a lot of strategy in colonizing certain ones first and then leaving the others until later. This is because depending on the planet it will have one of the resources (called FIDS: Food, Industry, Dust, Science) that it produces more than others and choosing the right one can be the difference between an effective colony and one that takes dozens of turns to start working.

This is probably my main gripe with Endless Space as whilst the resources are explained a bit in the tutorial menus that pop up it’s pretty easy to forget what does what and end up in a position where you can’t seem to get ahead, no matter how hard you try. Food for example is what dictates how fast your populations increase but there’s no direct way of seeing how it affects it (you can just see total food and when your population will increase and by how much). After reading a couple strategy guides it was clear that there’s a definite progression to how you should focus your resources (it’s food for pop, then industry and then science/dust depending on your play style) but the tutorials don’t really make that particularly clear. The main issue is just how many different things there are to do in Endless Space and the tutorials come so thick and fast at you initially that its hard to take it in.

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Ship design is one aspect that I felt unnecessary at first as I was able to get away with the default ship designs without too much hassle but its actually one of the more satisfying aspects of Endless Space. One of the research trees is dedicated to improving your ships (whilst another, which is for colonization, has the ship hulls in it) with various weapons, shields and augmentations to make them more effective in combat. Reading some strategies online suggests that the best thing to do is to make ships specialize in a particular role as this is more effective, especially when you’re behind in technology, but I found that my FACE OWNER (pictured above) was pretty capable of eliminating most targets without too much hassle. This is probably because I had a major technological advantage at this point so your mileage will certainly vary in this regard.

The combat you engage with said ships isn’t particularly great either taking the form of you simply clicking the “auto” button and waiting for the result or flipping over into manual in order to increase your chances of winning. To be honest since you get an upfront meter of how likely you are to succeed there’s not much incentive to engage when you’re not at an advantage. If you do decide to go manual there’s a few things you can do to tip it in your favour, like using abilities or playing cards (much like Master of Orion I’m told) but you’re never going to be able to pull off a major victory unless you’re less than about 20% different from your opponent.

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You can avoid conflict almost completely if you instead choose the diplomatic path and ply your opponents with gifts and open borders. I found this path to be pretty one sided as I was never able to figure out how to make deals with them that were favourable for me and not them which is something the AI does constantly. I can remember after one engagement I was offered peace but only if I offered them additional things as well even though I had military and production superiority. Of course the next course of action was to deny it and simply blockade them until it improved, which it did, but I would’ve much preferred to simply tip the deal in my favour rather than having to dedicate way too many resources to forcing a better deal out of them.

Again I think this is because Endless Space is pretty comprehensive in the game mechanics it employs and whilst the tutorial gives you some insight into how they work it’s not the best guide. Thankfully there’s quite a few sites dedicated to strategies and explaining the mechanics a bit better and after reading a few guides I was satisfied that I understood the game better and was able play for hundreds of turns without getting steamrolled by an AI. This is when the game came into its own as the last 4 hours or so I spent with Endless Space were really enthralling, mostly because of the narrative I built up in my head.

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I was attempting to play as a colonizer, a peace race of Amoebas who would spend their time running from system to system building up a peaceful empire and leaving my opponents to their own devices. It didn’t take long for one of them to take a dislike to me, probably because I accidentally sent a ship to one of their systems, and I spent much of the initial game keeping them at bay whilst tending to a peace agreement with the other. For a long time all was good and my once fierce opponent decided to not pursue me any more, leaving me to my peaceful empire building. However my expansionary prowess did not go unnoticed and I soon found myself at full scale war.

My race had not many ships but the industry I had built up was phenomenal and it was time to put it to use. My scientists were retasked to weapons research almost instantly outstripping my rivals in terms of fire power. My biggest industry systems were put on ship production duty being able to pump out a massive warship every turn that was capable of decimating entire enemy fleets without taking a scratch. My border systems were reinforced ensuring that no one would be able to invade them without giving me ample time to react. The result was a devastating show of force and after one system was invaded the enemy begged for peace and I gave it to them.

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However the other empire had become nervous about my new found presence and began breaking deals with me. They became suspicious of my activities and not too long later declared open war. They won many battles against me, using their superior fleet size to their advantage, but yet again my empire dedicated itself fully to war and not too long later I pushed them out of my boundaries. I then began a full fledged invasion of their territory, laying waste to fleet after fleet and capture half a dozen systems before they crawled to me with an offer of peace. I declined and continued my rampage, furious that the people I had done nothing to antagonize would declare war against me. In the end I accepted their peace offering of 2 systems and eventually won by constructing the required wonder.

Endless Space is a game that rewards you the longer you play it, taking you from humble beginnings on a single planet to a galactic civilization that is a mighty force to be reckoned with. There’s a steep learning curve, one that could be a lot less steep with some more work on the tutorials, but once you’re over that hump its incredibly satisfying. The narrative I built in my head of a peaceful race that is not to be trifled with was a great one and it was without a lick of dialogue or a single cutscene. If turn based strategy is your thing or you enjoy games that reward methodical, calculating play then Endless Space is right up your alley. Just be sure to set aside your weekend for it – you’re going to need it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Endless Space is available on PC and OSX right now for $29.99. Game was played on PC with around 10.5 hours of total play time with only a single win at 220ish turns.

Caltech Terahertz Chip

Tiny Terahertz Chip Could Have Huge Implications.

You’re probably familiar with a couple frequencies that are used in every day life thanks to their ubiquitous nature. Cell phone towers operate in the Megahertz range usually from about 800MHz up to 2100MHz (depending on your carrier), microwaves and wireless networks operate just above that in the 2.4GHz (2400MHz) range (which is why using your microwave can wreck havoc on your wireless) and your car radio operates well below that, typically in the 80MHz to 110MHz range. These frequencies have proven to be the most useful from a technological perspective for many reasons but there are frequencies on either side which could also provide some benefits and new research might just have them in your pocket sooner rather than later.

Caltech Terahertz Chip

 

Researchers from the Caltech Institute of Technology have created a silicon chip capable of transmitting in the terahertz frequency band. The demo of their technology is pretty impressive being able to image a bullet and razor blade hidden within a innocuous looking teddy bear. This chip, able to be easily integrated into portable platforms like smartphones, could revolutionize the industries that current rely on terahertz systems that are far larger and could never really be classed as portable. There’s also potential for it to find its way into many other applications in places like the medical industry and wireless communications although how well it will do in the latter is up for debate.

You see terahertz signals don’t fair too well in our atmosphere that’s got a whole bunch of water floating around in it. Terahertz waves are completely blocked by water or metal and their effective range in air is about 10 meters which means it won’t be making waves (ha!) as your next cellphone frequency. That range is still within the realms of home wireless communications though so its entirely possible that it will find its way into WiFi access points or ad-hoc communications networks sometime in the future. It’s even more plausible given the size of the chips that they’re already producing.

Some of the more exciting applications are in medical imagery as terahertz waves can penetrate through the skin and into the fatty tissue layers below before being reflected back by more water-logged layers. This can then be used to accurately image and measure the density of lesions on the skin providing a painless and non-invasive way to determine if they’re cancerous. They’re apparently quite good for dentistry as well being able to provide 3D models with a much higher resolution than current dental x-ray technology.

This might not be the most impressive or game changing technology around but its certainly up there in terms of potential for enabling applications of terahertz technology that weren’t possible before. Including things like this in smart phones could open up a whole host of interesting products and services. The big boost in wireless connection speeds for WiFi networks would also be a welcome addition as it’s still something of a poor cousin of the trusty CAT5/6 cable.

Another Sign of the Impending Robot Apocalypse: They Can Catch.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with animatronics. I can remember being at an exhibit or amusement park of some sort that had giant animatronic dinosaurs littered around the landscape and I was simply fascinated with how they had been created. Of course as I got older the wonder started to subside slightly, replaced with a glorious bit of teenage angst, but my trip to Disneyland 2 years ago rekindled that interest thanks to a visit to the Enchanted Tiki Room, an animatronics installation that’s over 4 decades old.

Disney has a pretty big interest in robotics as symbolized by their liberal use around their amusement park. What I didn’t know was that they had their own research and development division that’s responsible for the majority of the robots on the park, most of which were custom designed and built by them. Some of the things they’ve created are really impressive like this robot that’s able to play catch (and juggle!) with human participants:

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The way they do it is very interesting and wasn’t what I was expecting. They use a Kinect like sensor, an ASUS Xtion PRO Live, as a motion tracker that can sense the ball’s position in real time. From that they use a couple well known mathematical principles to derive the trajectory and move the hand into position in order to catch it. Whilst it’s really only capable of catching balls thrown in a parabolic arc (this is an assumption based on the way they’ve got it operating, but I could be wrong) it’s still pretty darn good at it. Even better is when they speed it up which makes it able to juggle with a human player. It’d be pretty fun to get 2 of them together just to see how long they’d go before one of them dropped a ball.

Disneyland already had some pretty intriguing displays of robotics and this looks like it’ll be a pretty cool addition to their already impressive collection.