Monthly Archives: May 2013

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Metro: Last Light: You Know What Must Be Done, Artyom.

Working from an established, non-game IP is usually a risky move for a game developer. If you’re working on a game that’s based directly off a movie chances are that you’ll barely get a look in with most gamers and your development time will be constrained by the movie’s release date which usually ends up with a lackluster product. Things like comics and novels are a little safer (and have produced far more hits than movie tie ins) however you still run the risk of alienating fans of the original material. Metro: Last Light is the sequel to Metro 2033 which was based on a novel of the same name. However this title apparently bears little resemblance to the story of Metro 2034 and instead continues the story of Artyom, the main character from the previous game.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Metro: Last Light is set 20 years into the future after Moscow had been turned into a radioactive wasteland by an undisclosed enemy. Those who survived were driven underground by the radiation, finding shelter in the city’s vast metro system and, over time, making it their new home. Several factions have arisen to claim parts of the Metro for their own purposes and have been locked in conflict ever since. You play as Artyom, one of the Rangers who have sworn to protect all life in the Metro and the one who was responsible for destroying the Dark Ones, a strange humanoid race that appeared not long after the bombings ended. However one of them still remains and you’ve been sent to reclaim him by any means possible.

Visually Metro: Last Light can be quite impressive when it wants to be (as the below screenshot will attest) but unfortunately you’ll spend the majority of your time in the many assorted tunnels of the metro. I can’t fault the game for this, since that’s what it’s all about, but it does mean that much of the visual aspect of the game is lost to the small environments. Cranking everything up to max brought my PC to its knees but it was extremely playable after minor tweaks to a few settings as the auto-detection system seems to get most things bang on.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Outside

The game play of Metro: Last Light is a curious blend of stealth and first person shooter with both options being equally viable. The stealth parts are quite Thief like in nature with a visibility indicator that let’s you know when enemies can see you which is based primarily on how illuminated you are. From a first person shooter perspective it’s pretty run of the mill, with all the weapons functioning pretty much as you’d expect them to, but there’s a few variations which can be quite helpful in certain situations, especially if you’re preferring stealth over out and out combat.

Indeed after the spectacular fail that was Mars: War Logs’ stealth system it was refreshing to play one that, whilst not having the depth of other stealth first games like Dishonored, added some additional depth to your typical run and gun FPS. The mechanics of it are fairly rudimentary, if you’re standing in direct light enemies can see you and if not you’re essentially invisible, but there’s a definite amount of strategy involved if you’re trying to avoid combat. This usually involves taking out strategic lights so you can maneuver around guards to take them out or, as I accidentally found out, causing a ruckus in one area then slinking off into the shadows. You’re also given the choice between knocking out or killing people when they’re unaware of you but as far as I could tell this choice has 0 effect on anything.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Storyboard

Whilst the stealth is good the regular shooting combat is a little lackluster, owing mostly to the encounter design. You see there are many sections where you simply can’t stealth, usually when you’re facing mutants rather than other humans, and in order for them to provide some challenge they usually just throw wave after wave of them at you. This is the same problem that Dragon Age 2 suffered from as you can’t really formulate a strategy before you start the encounter. This usually leads to you running around in circles whilst reloading, hoping that another enemy doesn’t spawn which will usually lead to your untimely death.

The upgrade/currency system is also somewhat moot as whilst it does give you some sense of progression you’re much better off not spending any of your money on new weapons or upgrades as you’ll find guns with them scattered everywhere. I remember picking up the air rifle early on and found it was great for shooting out lights at a distance and so I spent quite a lot of rounds on upgrading it for just that purpose. However not an hour later did I find another one with all the upgrades on it and from then on I simply didn’t bother buying the upgrades, I just waited until I found a weapon with them on it. It’s probably better to do it this way since you’re limited to 3 guns and sometimes you’ll be out of ammo for your weapon of choice, so you’re better off ditching one in favour of another which you have a full pack of ammo for.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

The level of polish in Metro: Last Light is commendable with the only bug I encountered during my playthrough being some texture/terrain glitches that did little more than to distract me for a couple seconds. I will gripe about the interface though as whilst I can appreciate the “realism” of some parts of it having to press and hold M to bring up your objective pad which then can’t be put back down by hitting M again feels a little cumbersome. Also, whilst I lamented to the use of C for crouch initially, most FPS games now use this as default whilst Metro: Last Light uses it for throwing your secondary weapon (CTRL is crouch, like in the old days). These are minor gripes, things that you overcome after a couple hours of game play, but it certainly didn’t endear Metro: Last Light to me early on.

The story of Metro: Last Light has been a major selling point for it with it being touted as a “story first FPS”. This is quite true, almost to the point of frustration, as there can be very long sequences where Artyom and his comrades talk endlessly about plot points which you can’t skip past (I’m sure I’m not alone in being able to read the subtitles faster than people can talk). It does help to give you an insight into the character’s motivations, something which sequels like this usually miss out on due to their reliance on the previous title. Metro: Last Light does a fantastic job for people like me who haven’t played the original and whilst the story can drag at times when you’re just chomping at the bit to get into the action it’s well above par for what I’ve come to expect from a modern day FPS.

Metro Last Light Screenshot Wallpaper Inside A Traitors Mind

Whilst Metro: Last Light has been billed as a story first game I feel that it’s more of a balanced experience with the gameplay and story complementing each other quite well. There’s no one particular feature of Metro: Last Light that makes it worth playing, no it’s more the combination of several, above average elements that meld together well to produce an experience that very much greater than the sum of its parts. It might not be game of the year material but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great game experience by itself, something which sequels usually struggle to accomplish without relying heavily on their predecessors.

Rating: 8.0/10

Metro: Last Light is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 (and apparently the PS4 when it comes out) and PC right now for $88, $88 and $69.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC on normal mode, hard difficulty with 8 hours total play time and 31% of the achievements unlocked.

Vaccinations

Vaccination Exemptions Are Complete Bullshit.

I have to try hard to avoid the echo chamber I find myself in sometimes where the combination of my like minded friends, carefully tailored RSS feed and social media network can easily warp my view of the larger world. It’s for that reason specifically that I often find myself diving deep into opinions that disagree with my own, seeing if there’s any merit to the opposite side of the story. Sometimes this leads to amazing insights and there have been times when I’ve had to do a completely 180 on a long held stance because of it (climate change being the best example I can think of). One subject that hasn’t been changed by doing so is vaccinations, despite the torrent of “evidence” that anti-vaxers have heaped on my blog.

Vaccinations

What really annoys me though is the pandering that the Australian government continually engages in with people who disagree with hard, scientific evidence. Initially this was due to the conscientious objector exemption for those who didn’t want to vaccinate and also didn’t want to lose their Family Tax benefit. Realistically it only punishes the stupid and lazy, not those who have deliberately decided not to vaccinate because of some belief that doesn’t hold up to casual scrutiny. Further reading suggests that this is exactly who the legislation was meant to target, those who are simply not responsible enough to get their children vaccinated unless they’re threatened with a loss of benefits. Whilst I’m sure that number is non-zero I still feel the legislation doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t solve the underlying issue of anti-vaxers chipping away at herd immunity which puts everyone at risk.

Indeed when I first heard about the No Jab, No Play legislation that was coming in for NSW I thought we might be in for some real change as initially I didn’t hear of any exemptions past medical (which can be legitimate) and religion. However it seems like it will include the same dreaded exemption on “philosophical” grounds, essentially giving parents an out should they not want to vaccinate as long as they sit in a doctor’s office and ignore them for 30 minutes. This completely nullifies the point of the legislation as I’d hazard a guess that the rate of people who just plain forgot is far lower than those who are actively avoided vaccinations due to beliefs that can’t be backed up by anything more than a gut feeling.

Realistically I believe there should be no exemptions at all, regardless of your religious or philosophical point of view. The reason for this is simple: we have a responsibility to not endanger the health of others and refusing to vaccinate, for whatever reason, puts this at risk. There’s a very small percentage of people who can’t be vaccinated for sound medical reasons and they’re put at an ever increasing amount of danger by those who simply choose not to. This is not a matter of your beliefs only affecting yourself (something which I have no problem with) as your choices will have a direct impact on other people’s lives, no matter how hard you’ve convinced yourself otherwise.

It’s easy to miss the bigger picture when you’re in a modern, western country where virulent diseases that causes untold numbers of deaths have been a non issue for decades. If you look at other countries, ones where the vaccination rates aren’t as high as they are here, you can see a direct correlation between when the campaigns falter and the resurgence of the diseases they were trying to prevent. Additionally there’s also strong correlation with the increased numbers of vaccinations decreasing the rates of diseases like measles showing pretty clearly that they work exactly as intended. Suffice to say if the anti-vaxers had their way we’d be seeing diseases which are essentially non-existent making a resurgence, something which I don’t think many of them have considered as a consequence of their actions.

I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here but hopefully these kinds of posts give you enough information to fight the torrent of bullshit that flows from the anti-vax crowd. It’s a hard war to fight, especially when the effort gap between saying something ludicrous and disproving it is so large, but the longer we keep at it the more chance we have of eradicating this particular brand of ignorance entirely. Indeed we can think of knowledge as a vaccination against stupidity, a disease that would lead you to trust strangers on the Internet over the scientists and doctors who worked so hard to save you from real diseases.

 

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Legitimate Piracy.

If you were to plot my rate of piracy related activities over time it’d show a direct negative correlation to my salary. My appetite for software, games and music hasn’t really changed over the years but as my income has grown I found myself preferring to pay for something if I can, especially now that many services out compete the pirated product in terms of features and convenience. I’d be lying if I said guilt wasn’t part of it too as whilst I didn’t have the money to give back at the height of my piracy days I feel like I’m beginning to make up for it. Still I constantly find situations where I need to turn to less than legal avenues to get a product I want, usually one I’ve purchased anyway.

Daft Punk Random Access Memories

Indeed this happened quite recently with my purchase of the new Daft Punk album. My long time Twitter followers will tell you that I went rather…hyperbolic when I heard their new album was due out this year and I make no secret of the fact that they’re my favourite band, bar none. Of course that translates to me wanting to give them as much of my money as I can and so I plonked down the requisite $50 preorder for the vinyl version of their album (mostly as a talking piece) which also included a digital download of their album. Now considering that it was going to be available everywhere digitally on day 1 I figured I’d get an email with the code in it and the album would take its merry time getting here.

I received no such email.

My copy of Random Access Memories showed up yesterday, almost a week after the official launch date and nearly two weeks after Daft Punk made it available for streaming through iTunes. I had a couple options available to me at this point: I could simply wait until mine arrived, listen to a stream (requiring an iTunes install, something I don’t want to do) or find another way. My other way was to find an upload on Grooveshark, which was obviously not authorized and was taken down a day later. I got to hear the album at roughly the same time as everyone else though which was basically all I wanted but I couldn’t help but feel like I had been cheated somewhat just because I tried to support the artists as much as I could.

I felt no guilt going to slightly nefarious sources to get my Daft Punk fix but honestly I shouldn’t have had to. There’s nothing special about the code they sent me that requires it to be physical and it’s not like emailing people who preordered a code to plug into a website is an unsolved problem either. The pirates in this instance were making up for the failings of others, providing a service to everyone regardless of whether they’d made the purchase or not. Now that I’ve got my real copy I have no need for it but it still gets to me that they’re providing a valuable service, one that I didn’t have to pay them for.

Sure in the larger scheme of things its a small gripe but it’s things like this that highlight the reason that piracy exists and will continue to exist for a long time to come. The effort required to fix them is quite trivial since the pirates don’t do this as their full time job and the companies providing the service just need to hurry up and out compete them. If Valve can get digital distribution right then I see no reason why others can’t, but until then I’ll still have to rely on my slightly nefarious friends to make up for their failings.

Windows Server 2012 Local Server Manager

First Foray Into Server 2012: Setting Up a VPN.

All of my previous posts concerning Server 2012 (including those ones on LifeHacker) have been rather…high level focusing more on what you can achieve with it rather than some concrete examples. I’ll admit this can be almost wholly attributed to laziness as I’ve had Server 2012 running on my home machine for quite some time now and just haven’t bothered installing any additional features on it. However one of my close friends is in the throes of setting up his own aerial photography business (using UAVs, super cool stuff) and offered up his home server as a guinea pig for a Server 2012 install, provided I give him a working VPN in return.

Challenge accepted.

Windows Server 2012 Local Server Manager

Initially I thought that I’d install DirectAccess for him as it’s a pretty awesome piece of technology and implementing it appears to be a hell of a lot easier than it was on 2008¹. However the requirements for this were quite high for a VPN setup that would have at most a couple users, requiring a whole bunch of infrastructure that would serve no other purpose. In a rather strange coincidence one of my favourite Microsoft blogs, 4SysOps, wrote a post detailing the installation method for a SSTP VPN (one that tunnels over HTTPS) mere days before I was slated to go out and do the install for him.

Installing Server 2012 went incredibly smoothly and apart from a strange graphics card issue (the NVIDIA card he had in there didn’t seem to be able to regulate its fan without drivers, leading to it to lock up when it overheated) there were no problems. Following the guide was for the most part successful with everything going the way you’d expect it to. However there were a couple gotchas that we ran into along the way that I thought I’d detail here in case anyone got snagged on them.

We had several routing issues thanks to DNS entries taking far too long to expire, something we could have avoided with a little bit of forward planning. You can test the VPN internally by just using the local IP address however you probably won’t be able to get in as the SSL cert won’t match, but it is handy to test if all the plumbing is set up. However the most frustrating issue was that everything would seem to connect but would then immediate drop us out. Thankfully there were some events generated that allowed us to research this problem further but I’m not a big fan of the solution.

The error we were getting was something like “Error 720: The user <username> connected to port <server> has been disconnected because no network protocols were successfully negotiated”. There are numerous posts detailing this exact error and after trying many of the solutions the only one that worked was this one. Essentially it looks like, at least with SSTP VPNs, relaying DHCP requests doesn’t seem to work at all which is what causes this error. Setting up a static pool of IP addresses, and excluding it on the DHCP server, allowed us to connect in without a hitch.

It appears that this issue is a hangover from previous versions of Windows Server as the Routing and Remote Access console looks like it’s straight out of 2003 without much modification to it (apart from the Network Policies section). Now I’m not going to say that it needs a revamp, indeed once we got around that particular issue it worked perfectly, but it could use a little love.

Overall I’m pretty happy with my first real world Server 2012 install as I was able to get a technology that I had no previous experience with (VPNs) up and running in a matter of hours with little more than patience and a whole bunch of Googling. I’m now tempted to give DirectAccess a go at home as I’ve been meaning to set up a lab for a while now and being able to demonstrate some of Server 2012’s capabilities anywhere I have an Internet connection would just be plain awesome. That might be a little while off though as next week I’ll be in New Orleans, knee deep in TechEd goodness.

¹I can remember reading about it when it was first released and thinking I’d give it a go but nearly every install guide had DO NOT USE IN PRODUCTION plastered all over it. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore as there are many production ready guides available and they’re all pretty easy to follow.

 

PlayStation 4 Logo

Sony’s Early Press Stunt Seems To Have Done The Trick.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the timing of Sony’s announcement at the beginning of the year was a little surprising. Sure when they started inviting press to an event for an unnamed product we weren’t exactly surprised to find out it was the PlayStation 4 but by the same accounts we were also under the impression that it was nowhere as far along as the XboxOne was. Indeed I had gone on record several times saying that we’d likely see the new Xbox this year (which we will) and that the PS4 would follow sometime next year. It follows then that Microsoft would be the first to announce it but Sony beat them to the punch and, based on the reaction of the gamer community, this move appears to have benefitted them greatly.

PlayStation 4 Logo

Announcing a product early is always a risky endeavour as everyone will pick up on any half-baked ideas and descend upon them in a torrent of Internet rage. Indeed Sony copped quite a bit of criticism for doing just that as they failed to show the console (which feeds into the idea that it’s not done yet) and hand waved over a couple of the more important questions like backwards compatibility. Still the announcement set the tone for the next console generation with Sony putting games at the forefront and putting heavy emphasis on the features they’d built to enhance the gaming experience.

What did Microsoft bring to the table? Well if the following video is anything to go by:

YouTube Preview Image

The announcement had left me somewhat indifferent to Microsoft’s console, mostly thanks to the things that the above video highlights, and it appears that this sentiment has been echoed by many other gaming websites. Indeed whilst Microsoft may have made the right decision by broadening the console’s appeal through expanding its media offerings it’s certainly done nothing to endear them to the core crowd of Xbox gamers. You could leave the argument at that and still have a decent explanation for the backlash but honestly I think Sony’s press event set gamer’s expectations for the XboxOne long before Microsoft swaggered out with media-centric guns blazing.

Us gamers might have our various affiliations for different consoles, born from the days when we were allowed one and only one console which laid the groundwork for the fanboyism we see today, but we’re also astutely aware of what the competition is bringing to the table. Thus many of them would have been aware of what the PlayStation 4 was offering and would expect that Microsoft would have an answer to each and every feature that Sony had lauded at the PS4’s launch. Microsoft didn’t do this however, instead focusing on what they perceive as the major use case for the XboxOne: media consumption. Now this might not be too far out of left field, indeed more hours are spent watching Netflix than playing games on Xbox today, but I doubt that many of them were purchased solely for that. Indeed I believe many of them were bought by or for gamers primarily and the media integration was a nice add on for anyone else who wanted to use it.

Whether this translates into lost sales for Microsoft though will remain to be seen as whilst us gamers are a vocal bunch it’s entirely likely that consumers at large will view it as a solid DVR that also plays games. Like the Nintendo Wii before it this could have the potential to open up the Xbox to a much larger market, bypassing the vocal gamer community. It will be interesting to see how the sentiment develops over the next 6 months as that will determine if the XboxOne will retain its currently loyal gamer community or if they eschew it in favour of cementing their foothold as the center of your home entertainment system.

 

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Mars: War Logs: I’m Roy Temperance, and This Is My Story.

I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.

The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Stealth

Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.

For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Crafting

The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.

Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Slums

The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.

After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper Mary Romance

Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.

As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.

Mars War Logs Screenshot Wallpaper The End

Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.

Rating: 5.0/10

Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.

Quantum Generation Pty Ltd Arthur Fahy

Quantum Generation Pty Ltd Makes Extraordinary Claims, Lacks Extraordinary Evidence.

Update: Quantum Generation Pty Ltd has responded to this post and I’ve provided detailed analysis of it here.

Even though I’ve got a very public email address the amount of spam I get is pretty minimal, likely due to the ruthless efficiency of Google’s spam filters. However there’s a special kind of spam that routinely gets through, that which is written by a human and sent to only a few people. The majority of this comes from manufacturers in China who make all sorts of weird and wonderful devices. Unfortunately none have fallen prey to my fake excitement and request for product samples, even though I have no idea what I’d do with an industrial air conditioner should they be able to provide it. One recent unsolicited email really caught my attention though and I’ve spent the better part of week researching it and the story I’ve uncovered is really something.

The original email came to me from someone by the name Arthur Fahy of Quantum Generation Pty Ltd. In that email he made some pretty extraordinary claims about having created a motor that was capable of over 100% efficiency, effectively creating an over-unity generator. Now any claim of this nature instantly triggers skepticism on my part (and I’m guessing anyone with a modicum of understand of science would to) and whilst I won’t reproduce the entire email here he’s helpfully posted much of the same information here:

After 14 years of R&D our Quantum electric motor/generator was tested at the University of NSW. The efficiency was measured to be 148% (free energy). It ran at this efficiency for five minutes before it seized, it was designed to be 170% efficient. The reading was put down as an error but an error could not be found.
What are the odds? Lenz’s law and Faraday’s laws are obeyed.

Where does the energy come from? NASA has just announced that it is getting energy from the quantum vacuum of space at their Eagleworks lab. “The lab will commission the facility with an existing Quantum Vacuum Plasma Thruster”, “a Q-thruster uses quantum vacuum fluctuations as the fuel source elimenating[sic] the need to carry propellant.”

As far as I could tell the email came to me because I wrote a post last year on quantum vacuum plasma thrusters which are a curious new technology that uses the vacuum of space as reaction mass. What they don’t do is extract energy from the vacuum of space, instead they still require a power source to produce thrust and are essentially using the stray photons in space to pull themselves along. Fahy claims to somehow be using this effect to extract energy from the vacuum of space which has led to his overunity motor which he also claims to have tested with two universities in Australia.

Figuring that if such a claim had any merit to it there should be some evidence with research papers or even some record of testing of this nature occurring at said universities. Researching both of the universities online returned no documents indicating that any research of this nature has taken place, nor of any devices like this being tested. With that in mind I sent back a semi-sarcastic reply that tore into how such a device simply could not work (since the principles he was claiming to use don’t support his idea) and asked if he had any evidence to back up his claims. I thought that would be the end of it since  further research indicated he was looking for funding for his idea, something that sets off all kinds of alarm bells when it comes to these free energy ideas.

To my surprise he replied.

Manners would be a good place to start.

The Casimir effect is just one way to access energy from the vacuum (NASA). Lamb shift and others.

Every magnetic field, i.e. around a current carrying wire, changes the magnetic fields in the vacuum around it.

I have had motors tested at both uni’s, neither of them have a program as such. The state gov. paid Wollongong uni.

I have conversed with Hal Puthoff  over the years, he offered to build and test a motor, he is backed with billions.

And so on …….:

What might you be able to do for me??

A quick Google will reveal that neither of those principles support the idea of generating energy from a vacuum and the second sentence seems to be a confused interpretation of electromagnetism. After receiving this email from him I pushed him further to provide contacts at both universities as even though I think this idea has absolutely no merit to it I’m still interested to see what testing was actually conducted and what people other than Fahey had to say about it. At time of writing these contacts have still yet to materialize but at this point I don’t think it would matter as by his own admission:

The possibility that it was an erroneous reading is high, the university dismissed it. We have not been able to get anywhere near this since, 78% efficiency is the best result to date. But still, the stakes are so high, we’ll keep trying.

Your run of the mill electric motor that you can pick up from your local electronics store has an efficiency of around 88% with high efficiency motors getting above that. Whatever this motor is doing it’s not doing it very well compared to traditional wire wound motors and, as Fahy himself states, the universities dismissed the overunity ratings as erroneous. You’d think that’d be the end of that but at this point I was genuinely interested in finding out just what the heck he had created and what impressions people had come away with after seeing it.

This is where things start to get interesting.

As it turns out Fahy is something of the inventor having 17 (all expired) patents directly to his name and one filed under his company Quantum Generation Pty Ltd. Further research through Google’s Patent search engine reveals that he also has several other patents for various mechanical gear systems lodged in the USA and, intriguingly one for a generator:

Quantum Generation Pty Ltd Arthur FahyIt looks like a variation on a Faraday’s Disc and if this is the device that supposedly derives energy then I can’t see how it would work, nor does it make any claim to that effect in the patent itself. Indeed I’d invite anyone who’s more inclined in power generation to take a look at it because I can’t really see what kind of advantage this tangled system would give over a traditional motor.

Indeed looking through all the patents that I can see attributed to his name the vast majority are for squeegees, washing apparatuses, stilts and a drinking lip for soda cans. Indeed none of them seem to support the idea that he’s been working on an over unity motor for 14 years as he claims unless you count the various gear systems lodged in the USA (the motor was lodged in 2002).

Stranger still was the utter lack of web presence of the company Quantum Generation Pty Ltd except for mentions in Fahy’s LinkedIn profile (where he’s the CEO and that’s the only company he’s worked at having no connections to anyone else) and on various angel investing and clean energy sites. Initial searches to try and verify the actual company (as claiming Pty Ltd status in Australia requires a bit of paperwork) didn’t turn up anything when searching for an ABN. Turns out that the company does in fact exist, it just doesn’t have an ABN which isn’t uncommon but is decidedly odd. However the company was listed for deregistration in October last year which means that ASIC has no reason to believe that it is actually conducting any business, research or otherwise.

It was clear from his emails that Fahy was attempting to locate sources of funding and somehow I fit into his idea of someone that could either a) give him money or b) find someone to give him money. Strangely enough in his emails he stated that he had talked Hal Puthoff who “…offered to build and test a motor, he is backed with billions.” which would seem to negate the need for additional funding. I mentioned this point to Fahy but did not receive a response nor have I recieved any further emails since he asked me about my experience in raising capital.

Suffice to say I do not believe that Fahy has a device that produces the results he claims to have seen. By the sounds of it the device may very well exist and it’s entirely possible that he had it tested at the universities in question but by his own admission they don’t give the results he’s claiming they do. Additionally whilst there’s some indication that he might have some experience in mechanical engineering there’s nothing to suggest that he has any experience in the fields required to produce a device that makes use of the principles he’s claiming to. He may genuinely believe that he’s building a revolutionary device but all signs point to that not being the case and I could not in good faith recommend anyone investing money with him.

I openly asked for contacts at the university multiple times during our engagements and not once were they forthcoming. I might be a sceptic at heart but I’m also one that’s open to be convinced otherwise, should the evidence be sufficient enough to do so. In this case however it appears that all Fahy was after was an investor and, based on the evidence I have gathered, I could not have any confidence in seeing any return on any capital invested in his idea. Should any evidence come to my attention to contradict my findings here I’ll will gladly post corrections detailing to that extent but in all honesty I can’t see that happening at any time in the near future.

Microsoft XboxOne Controller

XboxOne: Microsoft’s Entry Into The Next Console Generation.

This year was already shaping up to be a great run for gamers, what with all the new IP heading our way and multiple high quality sequels, and the next console generation will likely be upon us before the year is out. Had you asked me last year what my predictions were I would’ve told you that we’d be lucky to see the next generation Xbox this year and it was far more likely that we’d see both of them sometime in 2014. I’m quite glad to be wrong in this instance however as whilst I might still be primarily a PC gamer I grew up on consoles and will always have a soft spot for them.

Microsoft XboxOne ConsoleToday Microsoft officially announced their successor to the Xbox360: the XboxOne. If you’ve been following the rumours and leaks like I have there’s nothing too much surprising about the console itself as it sports the exact specs that have been floating around for a while. However there are still a few surprises from Microsoft’s next generation console and the launch event clarified some of the more controversial rumours that had been flying around. Suffice to say that Sony and Microsoft have very different audiences in mind for their next gen offerings, meaning that the choice between the two might no longer be based on platform exclusives alone.

Whilst I won’t go over the hardware specifications as they’re near identical to that of the PS4 (although I can’t find a confirmation of DDR3 vs GDDR5) there were a couple surprises under the hood of the XboxOne. For starters it’s sporting a BluRay drive which was kind of expected but still up in the air thanks to Microsoft initially throwing its support behind HDDVD, giving a little credence to the rumour that they wouldn’t incorporate it into their next gen offering. It also brings with it a HDMI in port, allowing those with set top boxes to run their TV through it. Whilst that doesn’t sound like much it’s telling of the larger strategy that Microsoft has at play here: they’re marketing the XboxOne as much more than a games console.

Indeed all the other features that they’ve included, like Snap Mode and the upgrades to their SmartGlass app, are all heavily focused on media consumption and making the XboxOne the central point of your home entertainment setup. Considering that current generation Xboxs are used to watch media more than they are to play games this change in direction is not surprising however it could alienate some of the more hardcore games fans. It seems Sony was well aware of this as their launch focused far more heavily on the gaming experience that their console could deliver rather than its additional media capabilities. The delineation then seems clear: if you want a gaming machine go for the PS4, but for everyone else there’s XboxOne.

Microsoft XboxOne Controller

The Xbox had always been Microsoft’s last piece in the Three Screens puzzle and it appears that the XboxOne will in fact be running a version of windows under the hood. In fact it’s running 3 different operating systems: Windows 8/RT, a second Xbox OS that’ll remain largely static (for developers) and the third layer sounds more like a hypervisor, managing access to resources for the 2 main operating systems. I speculated last year that Microsoft would be looking to bring WinRT to the next gen Xbox and that appears to be the case although how much of the functionality is directly compatible is still up for question as Microsoft has stated that you’ll “need to do some work” to port them across.

Unfortunately it does look like Microsoft wants to take an axe to the second hand games market as whilst the rumours of it needing to be always online have turned out to be false (although games can make use of Azure Cloud Gaming services which would require an online connection) installing a game to a hard drive locks it to that particular Xbox account, requiring a fee to do it on another. Whether or not you can play games without installing them is still up for debate however and the answer to that will make or break the second hand games market.

Additionally there’s going to be no backwards compatibility to speak of, save for transferring of licenses for media and your gamer score. Whilst this was not unexpected this combined with the lack of a second hand games market might be a dealbreaker for some. Whether this will push more people to Sony remains to be seen though as whilst they’ve alluded to backwards compatibility possibly coming via some kind of cloud gaming service that won’t be something former Xboxers will care about. It’s far more likely that the decision will be made on what the console will primarily be used for: gaming or media.

I’ve been something of a stalwart “buy all the things” consumer ever since I had a job that would allow me to do this but with the announcement of XboxOne I’m not sure if that will be the case anymore. I say this because I believe that the vast majority of titles will be cross platform, thanks to the x86 architecture, and as of yet there hasn’t been any compelling exclusives announced for either platform that would draw me to it. The Xbox360 landed a purchase solely for Mass Effect but I get the feeling that we won’t see another title that’s bound to a single platform like that again. With that in mind it’s highly likely that my current console collection will be slimmed down to one, and the last man standing will be the PS4.

I would love to be convinced otherwise though, Microsoft.

 

Watching Photons Fly.

You can see light’s presence everywhere, but have you ever seen it moving? Due to the speed of light being the fastest thing we currently know of it’s a rather elusive beast to see in motion, especially on the scale we exist in, and whilst it might look instantaneous it does have a finite speed. Whilst we’ve done many experiments in slowing light down and even trapping it for short periods of time but being able to watch a light ray propagate was out of our reach for quite some time, that was until the recent development of a couple technologies.

YouTube Preview Image

The above video is the work of Ramesh Raskar and his team at MIT which produced a camera that’s capable of capturing 1 trillion frames per second. However it’s not a camera in the traditional sense as the way it captures images is really unique, not at all like your traditional camera. Most cameras these days are CCD based and capture an image of the whole scene then read it off line by line and store it for later viewing. The MIT system makes use of a streak camera which is only capable of capturing a line a single pixel high, essentially producing a one dimensional image. The trick here is that they’re taking a picture of a static scene and doing it multiple times over, repositioning the capture area each time in order to build up an image of the scene. As you can imagine this takes a considerable amount of time and whilst there are some incredible images/movies created as a result the conditions and equipment required to do so aren’t exactly commodity.

There are alternatives however as some intrepid hackers have demonstrated.

Instead of using the extremely expensive streak camera and titanium sapphire laser their system instead utilizes a time of flight camera coupled with a modulated light source. From reading their SIGGRAPH submission it appears that their system captures an image of the whole scene and so to create the light flight movies they change when the light source fires and when the camera takes the picture. This process allows them to capture a movie much quicker than MIT’s solution and with hardware that is a fraction of the cost. The resolution of the system appears to be lower, I.E I can’t make out light wave propagation like you can in the MIT video, but for a solution that’s less than 1% of the cost I can’t say I fault them.

Their paper also states they’re being somewhat cautious with their hardware, running it at only 1% of its duty cycle currently. The reason for this is a lack of active cooling on their key components and they didn’t want to stress them too much. With the addition of some active cooling, which could be done for a very small cost, they believe they could significantly ramp up the duty cycle, dropping the capture time down to a couple seconds. That’s really impressive and I’m sure there’s even more optimizations that could be made to improve the other aspects of their system.

It’s one thing to see a major scientific breakthrough come from a major research lab but it’s incredible to see the same experiments reproduced for a fraction of the cost by others. Whilst this won’t be leading to anything for the general public anytime soon it does open up paths for some really intriguing research, especially when the cost can be brought down to such a low level. It’s things like this that keep me so interested and excited about all the research that’s being done around the world and what the future holds for us all.

Microsoft Training and Certification

The Strange Dichotomy of IT Certifications.

The story of the majority of IT workers is eerily similar. Most get their beginnings in a call centre, slaving away behind a headset troubleshooting various issues for either their end users or as part of a bigger help desk that services dozens of clients. Some are a little more lucky, landing a job as the sole IT guy at a small company which grants them all the creative freedom they could wish for but also being shouldered with the weight of being the be all and end all of their company’s IT infrastructure. No matter how us IT employees got our start all of us eventually look towards getting certified in the technologies we deal with every day and, almost instantly after getting our first, become incredibly cynical about what they actually represent.

Microsoft Training and Certification

For many the first certification they will pursue will be something from Microsoft since it’s almost guaranteed that every IT job you’ll come across will utilize it in some fashion. Whilst the value of the online/eLearning packages is debatable there’s little question that you’ll likely learn something that you didn’t already know, even if it’s completely esoteric and has no application in the real world. For anyone who’s spent a moderate amount of time with the product in question these exams aren’t particularly challenging as most of them focus on regurgitating the Microsoft way of doing things. This, in turn, feeds into their greatest weakness as they favour rote memorization over higher order concepts and critical thinking (at least at the introductory/intermediate levels).

This has led to a gray market which is solely focused on passing the exams for these tests. Whilst there are some great resources which fall into this area (Like CBT Nuggets) there are many, many more which skirt the boundaries of what’s appropriate. For anyone with a modicum of Google skills it’s not hard to track down copies of the exams themselves, many with the correct answers highlighted for your convenience. In the past this meant that you could go in knowing all the answers in advance and whilst there’s been a lot of work done to combat this there are still many, many people carrying certifications thanks to these resources.

The industry term for such people is “paper certs”.

People with qualifications gained in this way are usually quite easy to spot as rote memorization of the answers does not readily translate into real world knowledge of the product. However for those looking to hire someone this often comes too late as interview questions can only go so far to root these kinds of people out. Ultimately this makes those entry level certifications relatively worthless as having one of them is no guarantee that you’ll be an effective employee. Strangely however employers still look to them as a positive sign and, stranger still, companies looking to hire on talent from outsourcers again look for these qualifications in the hopes that they will get someone with the skills they require.

I say this as someone who’s managed to skate through the majority of his career without the backing of certs to get me through. Initially I thought this was due to my degree, which whilst being tangentially related to IT is strictly speaking an engineering one, but the surprise I’m met with when I mention that I’m an engineer by training has led me to believe that most of my former employers had no idea. Indeed what usually ended up sealing the position for me was my past experiences, even in positions where they stated certain certs were a requirement of the position. Asking my new employers about it afterwards had them telling me that those position descriptions are usually a wish list of things they’d like but it’s rare that anyone will actually have them all.

So we have this really weird situation where the majority of certifications are worthless, which is known by all parties involved, but are still used as a barrier to entry for some positions/opportunities but that can be wholly overwritten if you have enough experience in that area. If that’s sounding like the whole process is, for want of a better word, worthless than you’d be of the same opinion of most of the IT workers that I know.

There are some exceptions to this rule, CISCO’s CCIE exams being chief among them, but the fact that the training and certification programs are run by the companies who develop the products are the main reason why the majority of them are like this. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that having an independent certification body would solve all the issues (indeed some of those non-vendor specific certs are just as bad) it would at least remove the financial driver to churn as many people through the courses/exams as they currently do. Whilst I abhor artificial scarcity one of the places it actually helps is in qualifications, but that’d only be the first few tentative steps to solving this issue.