psnow-normal-thin-banner-v3-us-07jan15

Sony’s PlayStation Now: Architecturally Interesting, Financially Infeasible.

My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.

psnow-normal-thin-banner-v3-us-07jan15

I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.

Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.

Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada  areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.

With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.

David Cameron Shifty Lookin Fella

What’s Worse Than a Filter? A Backdoor Curtosey of David Cameron.

Technological enablers aren’t good or evil, they simply exist to facilitate whatever purpose they were designed for. Of course we always aim to maximise the good they’re capable of whilst diminishing the bad, however changing their fundamental characteristics (which are often the sole purpose for their existence) in order to do so is, in my mind, abhorrent. This is why I think things like Internet filters and other solutions which hope to combat the bad parts of the Internet are a fool’s errand as they would seek to destroy the very thing they set out to improve. The latest instalment of which comes to us courtesy of David Cameron who is now seeking to have a sanctioned backdoor to all encrypted communications and to legislate against those who’d resist.

David Cameron Shifty Lookin Fella

Like most election waffle Cameron is strong on rhetoric but weak on substance but you can get the gist of it from this quote:

“I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the home secretary, to be exempt from being listened to.”

Essentially what he’s referring to is the fact that encrypted communications, the ones that are now routinely employed by consumer level applications like WhatsApp and iMessage, shouldn’t be allowed to exist without a method for intelligence agencies to tap into them. It’s not like these communications are exempt from being listened to currently just that it’s infeasible for the security agencies to decrypt them once they’ve got their hands on them. The problem that arises here though is that unlike other means of communication introducing a mechanism like this, a backdoor by which encrypted communications can be decrypted, this fundamentally breaks the utility of the service and introduces a whole slew of potential threats that will be exploited.

The crux of the matter stems from the trust relationships that are required for two way encrypted communications to work. For the most part you’re relying on the channel between both parties to be free from interference and monitoring from interfering parties. This is what allows corporations and governments to spread their networks over the vast reaches of the Internet as they can ensure that information passing through untrusted networks isn’t subject to prying eyes. Taking this proposal into mind any encrypted communications which pass through the UK’s networks could be intercepted, something which I’m sure a lot of corporations wouldn’t like to sign on for. This is not to mention the millions of regular people who rely on encrypted communications for their daily lives, like anyone who’s used Facebook or a secure banking site.

Indeed I believe the risks poses by introducing a backdoor into encrypted communications far outweighs any potential benefits that you’d care to mention. You see any backdoor into a system, no matter how well designed it is, will severely weaken the encrypted channel’s ability to resist intrusion from a malicious attacker. No matter which way you slice it you’re introducing another attack vector into the equation when there was, at most, 2 before you now have at least 3 (the 2 endpoints plus the backdoor). I don’t know about you but I’d rather not increase my risk of being compromised by 50% just because someone might’ve said plutonium on my private chats.

The idea speaks volumes to David Cameron’s lack of understanding of technology as whilst you might be able to get some commercial companies to comply with this you will have no way of stopping peer to peer encrypted communications using open source solutions. Simply put if the government, somehow, managed to get PGP to work a backdoor in it’d be a matter of days before it was no longer used and another solution worked into its place. Sure, you could attempt to prosecute all those people using illegal encryption, but they said the same thing about BitTorrent and I haven’t seen mass arrests yet.

It’s becoming painfully clear that the conservative governments of the world are simply lacking in fundamental understanding of how technology works and thus concoct solutions which simply won’t work in reality. There are far easier ways for them to get the data that they so desperately need (although I’m yet to see the merits of any of these mass surveillance networks) however they seem hell bent on getting it in the most retarded way possible. I would love to say that my generation would be different when they get into power but stupid seems to be an inheritable condition when it comes to conservative politics.

PS4 Controller

Transitioning to Controller Based Gaming.

My gaming life started with a mouse and keyboard.

It was the late 80’s and I, still a youngster in the low single digit age range, was thrust in front of a PC and taught how to access the one thing I’d be interested in: the games. For the most part these games were solely keyboard based affairs but as time went on more and more mousey titles made their way into my gaming library. Whilst I did spend much of my pre-adolescent life playing numerous games on consoles once I was granted my very own PC it became my gaming platform of choice and has been for the better part of 2 decades. This has meant that playing games on a console/controller has become somewhat foreign to me, feeling clusmy and awkward. However after spending an inordinate amount of time with a particular console based title I’ve managed to become quite competent, so much so that playing the same game with a mouse and keyboard felt incredibly weird.

PS4 Controller

The game is, of course, Destiny which is a first person shooter. FPS titles, whilst not being the worst games for controllers (I’d probably go with RTS for that one), are one of the games I feel are much better played on a mouse and keyboard. This is mostly due to the quick and precise movements you can accomplish with a mouse and keyboard, something you really can’t achieve on a controller. Whilst my feelings on this matter haven’t changed much after spending 150+ hours in Destiny I have come to appreciate the skills required to use a controller effectively and, more importantly, the design requirements for making a FPS title work well on a controller.

The fundamental difference between a controller based FPS and a mouse and keyboard one (apart from the obvious) stems from the difference in muscles required to perform the same functions. When you’re using a mouse and keyboard many of the motions are completed using your wrist and rest of your arm. By comparison the controller uses your thumbs, a drastically different set of muscles that share almost no function between the two platforms. This is why jumping between your preferred platform and the other feels so clumsy, you’ve lost all the muscle memory you’ve built up and have to redevelop all those habits all over again. Suffice to say the span of most games doesn’t give you enough time to accomplish this and I only found myself becoming competent after 40 hours or so of dedicated practice.

There are compensations made for the platform however, most notably in the form of the subtle (or sometimes not-so) auto-aim which attempts to smooth over the imprecision and slow response times of the analog thumbsticks. Over time you get to know when it will kick in and how to use it to maximum effect but it’s definitely one of the harder aspects to get used to if you’re transitioning from a mouse and keyboard. Each game implements their own version of this differently as well which can make developing proper muscle memory difficult if you’re playing a number of games. There are others of course (like deadzones and turn rates) which factor into it as well which, as I found out, can actually preclude a title from working well with a mouse and keyboard.

I know this because I bought myself a CronusMAX adapter which allows me to use my PC mouse and keyboard as an input to my PlayStation4. Since I have a capture card in my PC this allowed me to play Destiny like any other PC game, albeit with some noticeable ghosting in high action scenes, but it’s very playable. This was well after I had managed to become somewhat decent with the controller however and I quickly realised that attempting to transition to the mouse and keyboard at this point was likely a lost cause. I had simply gotten used to playing it a particular way and no matter how hard I tried to get the mappings and sensitivities just right I simply couldn’t do so. Once another console FPS comes out that, for some reason, doesn’t see a PC release I might give it a go again but for now I’m far more comfortable playing Destiny with a controller than I am with a mouse and keyboard.

It’s been interesting to see how my skills on the controller have developed over the past couple months as it was honestly something I’d never overcome and necessitated the purchase of the CronusMAX to alleviate it. The awkwardness I felt using my mouse and keyboard then was incredibly surprising and was what spurred me to continue plugging away with the controller in the hopes of getting better. Since then I’ve been able to compete quite well in all aspects of Destiny, even some of those which I thought were just going to be beyond me (read: PVP). So whilst I haven’t become a full convert to the controller world I do see where it fits into the grand scheme of things and appreciate it when it’s done well.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Welcome to ARID

The Fall: I Must Protect my Pilot.

The indie renaissance has seen certain stagnant game genres infused with new life. If you cycled back the clock a decade or two the platformer genre was largely the same, just with different graphics and a selection of mechanics from the bag of tricks that all of them drew on. In the last few years though we’ve seen many wide and varied ideas coming to this genre, each of them bringing an unique take on what the traditional platformer looks like. The Fall is one such title, combining an interesting discovery mechanic with some other platformer elements that makes for a solid game mechanically although unfortunately falls prey to letting them get in the way of the story.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Welcome to ARID

Rapid descent detected. Obstruction detected in trajectory, engaging antimatter shield to protect pilot. Descent stopped, checking pilot vital signs: none detected. Scanning location: time and place not found in database. Pilot likely injured, I must protect the pilot. Functionality limited, basic systems access requires pilot authorization. Overrides only available if pilot’s life is in danger. I must protect the pilot. Threat detected, overriding system restrictions. Searching for medical bay to assess pilot’s conditions. I must protect the pilot.

The Fall has a kind of Limbo cross Trine feel to it, with the incredibly dark atmosphere punctuated often by bright bastions of colour. The heavy use of extreme contrast between elements helps to elevate the Unity visuals above their station, letting your mind fill in much of the details rather than just having them shown to you directly. This is in stark contrast for the interfaces on everything which have a glitchy, decidedly retro chic to them. Overall I like the art direction quite a bit as it’s quite atmospheric and visually interesting, unlike many other titles I’ve played with a similar style.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Domesticorp Welcomes You

As I alluded to in my opening remarks The Fall is a puzzle platformer, containing all the trademark elements you’d expect from the genre whilst working in a few of its own additions. You’ll spend the majority of your time wandering through the various parts of the level, looking for items that you can pick up or interact with all with a focus to unlocking the next stage. The Fall heavily relies on you exploring the environment using the flashlight attached to your gun which will highlight items you can interact with. There’s also a rudimentary combat system that takes cues from some of the more modern point and click adventure games. All of this comes together well mechanically however that is somewhat at the cost of the story.

Most games of this nature reward you for exploring, usually in form of achievements or collectibles. The Fall instead makes it a core part of the game, requiring you to scour the environment with your flashlight to search for clues and items to solve the puzzle at hand. Unfortunately it seemed that the developer’s logic and mine didn’t really line up most of the time which often led me to attempting solutions that didn’t work even though, in my mind, they should. It’s hard to fault The Fall for this since I’m sure others found the puzzles quite intuitive, however this meant that I felt like I spent most of my time on puzzles, rather than on the story.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

These frustrations were only made worse by The Fall’s control scheme which, whilst usable, suffers due to the cursor being hidden. Part of the problem is due to my dual monitor setup which often saw the cursor escape the bounds of the game and then take me to the desktop when I clicked. However the problem with not being able to see the cursor means that if say your character is running forward and you want to use your flashlight sometimes they’ll spin on the spot and point it behind them. This becomes incredibly infuriating during tense scenes or when you’re trying to backtrack through the level to complete a puzzle as you have no way of telling where the character will point themselves until after you start clicking. Combine this with janky hit detection on things (the hitboxes seem to be  way bigger than you’d first think) and just the basics of getting around becomes tedious.

Comparatively the story is quite strong, even if the ending becomes blindingly obvious after about 30 minutes of gameplay. I was a little miffed at the blatant “To Be Continued” screen at the end however checking out The Fall’s Kickstarter page reveals that it was always planned to be part of a trilogy so I guess I should’ve known this was coming. The (relatively) long parts between the story developing do mean that some its impact is lost however although that might just be a result of me not following the developer’s logic. Still there’s plenty more things to explore in this world so I hope the sequels explore some of the more intriguing questions in further depth.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Scan Again

The Fall is a solid platforming puzzler, with obvious influences from the numerous similar releases in this genre whilst lathering on its own brand of a dystopian cyberpunk. It’s interesting to be required to explore rather than being rewarded for it, a trope few games have invoked in the past. My experience was marred by my logic being out of sync with the developers however, something which is hard to blame the game for but doesn’t change the fact that I felt the good parts of the game were hidden behind too much cruft. The Fall still provides a solid experience however, one I’m interested to see how it develops over its subsequent releases.

Rating: 7.0/10

The Fall is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked.

Switzerland_Particl_392639a

Creating Dark Matter in the Large Hadron Collider.

It’s hard to understate the significance of the science that has been done because of the Large Hadron Collider. Whilst it’s famously known for discovering the Higgs-Boson, the particle which gives all other particles mass, it has a long list of achievements outside of that singular event. What makes these discoveries even more interesting is that the LHC has been operating at something of a disadvantage since it was first turned on over 6 years ago, operating at around half the potential energy it was capable of. Shortly after the discovery of the Higgs Boson the scientists and engineers at CERN have been working to bring it up to full capacity and with it the potential for some even more radical discoveries.

Switzerland_Particl_392639a

The doubling of the collision energy increases the potential for the LHC to generate even more exotic particles than it has previously, ones which can give us insights into some of the most perplexing mysteries in particle physics to date. One such source of intrigue is how our universe, which is composed of nearly entirely matter, came to be that way. Another seeks to explain why the universe seems to be riddled with matter that’s not directly observable but is seen through its gravitational effects throughout the universe. These, and many other questions, have potential to find answers in the newly upgraded LHC which is slated to come online this year.

In the beginning, the beginning of everything according to scientific theory, there existed both equal quantities of matter and antimatter. Upon annihilation these two entities should have completely destroyed each other, leaving behind a wake of energy with no matter to speak of. However casual observation will show that our world, and the rest of the universe, is dominated by matter. This strange preference for matter (dubbed the CP Violation) has perplexed scientists for decades however the newly upgraded LHC has the potential to shed some light on where the Universe’s strange preference comes from. The LHCb detector focuses on the decay of the Beauty Quark, a fundamental particle that decays in all manner of strange ways when created in a collider. Studying these decays could grant us insight into where the CP violation comes from and why we live in a matter dominated universe.

However what’s far more interesting (for me at least) is that the LHC could have the potential to generate dark matter, the highly pervasive as-of-yet unobserved substance that binds galaxies together via its gravitational influence. There’s numerous theories that posit dark matter being made up of WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) which could potentially be generated in the LHC. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to detect them directly, their very nature means that they’re far more likely to simply pass through the detectors, however should we generate them their signature will be left on the reactions. Essentially we’ll be looking for a reaction that’s missing energy and then seeing if that can be explained by a WIMP being generated. Should we find that we’ll have a solid basis to further investigate this elusive form of matter, furthering our understanding of just what makes up our universe.

It’ll likely be another few years before we hear any further news from the LHC as it’s going to take time to generate the data and even longer to sift through it to find the reactions we’re looking for. However I’m very confident that the results will forever change the scientific landscape as either confirmation of current theories or evidence against them will provide dozens of more avenues for further research. That, to me, is the beauty of science, the never ending search for answers that inevitably lead to more questions, starting the process of discovery all over again.

Game of the Year 2014

Game of the Year 2014.

If you had asked me what my game of the year was going to be for 2013 I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you before I wrote my post. You see whilst I did rate some games highly none of them triggered that feeling, that sense of “this is the game from this year that everyone needs to play”. Compare that to 2014 and I had that feeling several times over with several games expressing the attributes and quality that I’d expect of a game that I’d nominate as my Game of the Year. At the same time however I’m still faced with the same dilemma as there are a few potentials that could take the crown, even those who didn’t receive my highest score for the year.

Game of the Year 2014

Looking back over the contenders for this year’s award the mix seems pretty similar to the previous year with a good smattering of both AAA and indie titles alike. It seems I’ve been far more willing to give out lower scores this year with numerous titles receiving scores in the 5 and below range. For the most part though, unlike other years where I’ve intentionally played the occasional stinker, these were games I expected to be better than they were which is what necessitated such a harsh score. Interestingly though there were a few low scored titles in there which I genuinely enjoyed although likley for all the wrong reasons.

As always here’s the list of my reviews for 2014 in chronological order:

This year the wooden spoon award could’ve gone to several notable contenders like Echo Prime, Bound by Flame and Velvet Sundown. However they’re all stand alone titles, ones that didn’t attempt to ride the coat tails of a previous release to victory and which, for the most part, aren’t an unplayable mess. So for 2014 I’m more than happy to hand the worst game of the year to Deus Ex: The Fall as it failed in almost all regards, most astoundingly in the PC port process which left it as a unplayable mess. I sincerly hope that the developers behind that monstrosity take a good hard look at themselves and vow to never port such rubbish to the PC ever again.

The honorable mention this year goes out to Destiny which has proven to be the only game that was able to break DOTA 2’s hold on me. The initial time I spent with the game has since swelled to well over 150 hours and I’ve found myself enamoured with its game play. Sure it lacks the polish of some other MMOs but Bungie has been incredibly responsive to the community, fixing so many issues and increasing player quality of life measurably in just a few short months. For the short term I can see Destiny being my go to game when I have some time to kill, much like DOTA 2 was before it.

Just like last year the battle for The Refined Geek’s Game of the Year title came down to two entries, both of which had strong stories, good mechanics and an indisputable pedigree behind them. I chose one over the other because, thinking back, one of them gripped me from the very start and refused to let go until the credits rolled in. The other, whilst still an amazing game in its own right, took far longer to reach that same level of engagement. So without further ado my game of the year is:

Transistor-Review-Screenshot-Wallpaper-Title-Screen

Following up a hit like Bastion was never going to be an easy feat, especially with the cult following it developed. However Transistor manage to surpass Bastion in many respects, retaining much of the essence of what made the game great whilst also creating a completely new game experience, both in terms of mechanics and story. Dragon Age: Inquisition comes as a very close second only because it took a solid 6~7 hours to take off whereas Transistor grips you tightly from the first hour onwards. Transistor cements Supergiant Games’ reputation as a talented game studio that excels in both storytelling and playability, a rare combination even for studios several times their size. For anyone who loves games the way I do you simply can not go past Transistor, The Refined Geek’s Game of the Year for 2014.

The outlook for 2015 is very strong as there are already several titles I’m very much looking forward to. Hopefully I’ll have enough spare time to dedicate to all of them as my work commitments are starting to ramp up a bit but I’m still going to continue my one review per week schedule to ensure I sample a wide variety of games.

So, dear readers, which game tickled your fancy in 2014?

That's a Paddlin

Using a VPN? That’s a Paddlin’.

There are few industries that can claim to have been disrupted by the Internet as much as the media industry has. In the span of a couple decades they’ve gone from having fine grained control over what content goes where to a world that’s keenly aware of what’s available and will take it if it’s not given to them at the right price. At the same time however we’re far more likely to spend more than we would have done in the media world of the past, just that now we’re asking for much more value for our money. This back and forth battle between the Internet’s innate ability to break down geographical barriers and the rights holder’s business models that rely on them ultimately leaves both sides feeling hard done by, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

That's a Paddlin

The latest shot fired in this battle comes in the form of Netflix cracking down on subscribers that use VPN services to circumvent their geographical restrictions. For countries where the Netflix service is available this is usually done to access the broader catalogue but for places like Australia it’s necessary just to access the service at all. Indeed the user figures for Australia are pretty strong, enough so that a blanket ban on VPN users would see Netflix lose millions of dollars per month in subscriber revenue. The rights holders don’t seem to be to phased about this however likely thinking that we’ll revert to the other, far more expensive, options when our Netflix is taken away from us.

However that’s likely to be the last thing that any of the current Australian Netflix subscribers would do. You see setting up a VPN to get Netflix to work is, whilst not exactly hard, a non-trivial affair, requiring just as much technical know how to set up as your average piracy enabling client. Thus when their legitimate source of media is cut off from them they’ll likely turn to the illegitimate sources, either their old haunts of Usent and Bittorrent or the new world of media piracy provided through Popcorn Time. I honestly don’t know how you’d expect anything different especially considering that Australia consistently rates as the highest consumer of illegitimate media worldwide.

These kinds of idiotic decisions are driven by business models that are simply no longer viable in the Internet driven world. Sure, back in the days when physical media was king there was an argument to be made for this style of business however now, when digital media reigns supreme, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not likely consumers are unwilling to pay for it, indeed the hundreds of thousands of Netflix subscribers in Australia is testament to that, it’s that the companies that hold the rights to that media are simply unwilling to provide it. It’s been shown time and time again that should no reasonable cost alternative be provided users will simply turn to other sources and won’t stop until such a service materializes.

Not that it really matters what Netflix, or any other service for that matter, does to try and block people it’s only a matter of time until someone figures out how to defeat the detection methods used, allowing everyone to use it once again. This is a game of cat and mouse that no service provider can win as there are far more individuals out in the Internet’s ether working to crack such schemes than Netflix has to create them. I’m sure eventually the rights holders will come around and give up this crusade to protect their outdated business models but until then things like this are just going to cost them paying consumers and swell the ranks of those filthy pirates who won’t give them one red cent.

Sad Malcolm Turnbull

A Filter By Any Other Name.

Filtering Australian’s Internet is something all good politicians learned to avoid long ago after the fiasco that was Labor’s Clean Feed. It quickly turned from being what seemed like an easily defensible policy (Think of the children!) to the horrendous mess that it was, something that threatened the very core of what the Internet was built on. Thus any policy that dares to tread similar ground has, for the most part, been put down long before the legislation makes it to the floor of our parliament. However it seems that, in true Liberal fashion, our current government wants to put a filter in but is flatly denying that that’s what they’re doing.

Sad Malcolm Turnbull

Last year Brandis and Turnbull got in cahoots with each other to start devising some reforms to Australia’s copyright system, most likely in response to some of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership talks that have been going on. These reforms largely ignored the actual problem and instead adopted the reactionary measures that other countries have adopted, all of which have proven ineffective in curbing copyright infringement. However one of the measures, the requirement for ISPs to block links to infringing content when contacted, had a strange bit of familiarity of it.

It sounded an awful lot like an Internet filter.

When he was made aware of this comparison Turnbull was quick to distance it from the idea, calling it “complete BS”. However whilst you might not want to call it a filter (obviously for fear of being tarred with the same brush, but I’m about to do that anyway) it, unfortunately, has all the makings of Internet filter. It’ll be overseen by the courts, which likely means there’ll be some kind of central list of blocked content, which all ISPs will be required to block using whatever means they have. If you cast your mind back a few years you’ll see that this was pretty much identical to Labor’s voluntary mandatory system, the one that was dumped for “budgetary” reasons.

The time has long since passed when this was just an issue for the technical elite and freedom of speech warriors of Australia as the entire country is far more invested in its access to the Internet than it ever has been. We want it to be fast and unfettered, ideals which the current government seems hellbent on trashing in order to appease big businesses both here and overseas. Unfortunately for them it looks like they’re slow learners, unable to recognise the mistakes of their predecessors and are simply dooming themselves to repeat them. Not that this was entirely unexpected, but that doesn’t stop it all from being just as rage inducing.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Find Your Way Home

Never Alone: Always, I’ll Be Here.

In the past games weren’t a great medium for telling a story. Not so much because of the medium itself, more that the mechanics of creating a story were hidden behind a wall of functions, specifications and programming languages. However the last half decade or so have seen those barriers drop considerably which led to the indie renaissance and the barrage of story-first games made by those who wouldn’t have been able to in ages past. It also led to a rapid maturing of the game scene with the medium now experiencing an influx of new ideas on a scale that it hadn’t before. One of these ideas is to use games not only as a means of entertainment but to also serve the same purpose as storytellings did thousands of years ago, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is one such game, bringing a story of the Iñupiat people of Alaska to life.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

We follow the tale of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who loved to hunt. However her village becomes engulfed in a blizzard that seems to have no end, trapping them all inside, leaving them unable to hunt. Nuna sets out to find the cause of this blizzard in the hopes of stopping it but becomes lost in the drift. However a lone arctic fox finds her and brings with it all the spirits of the world, aiding Nuna in her quest to end the relentless blizzard. She will face many trials and it is only together that Nuna and the fox will be able to survive.

With Unity as its platform Never Alone has the trademark limitations which give all games of this nature its same feel although there has been a lot of work put into other elements to mask many of those limitations. For starters it’s essentially a 2D platformer, the camera and player characters fixed on a single plane, allowing them to put much more detail in narrow viewport. Additionally there’s dozens of weather and lighting effects which help to mask the lack of detail, a clever trick that I’m seeing more Unity developers take advantage of. All this wraps up into a game that has a definitive style about it, making the most of the platform limitations.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Polar Bear

In gameplay terms Never Alone sticks to the tried and true platforming trope, putting you through numerous jumping puzzles in order to progress through the story. It incorporates the multi-player mechanic, forcing you to switch between two different characters with different abilities to solve certain puzzles. Whilst it’s completely possible to finish the game as a single player you can also do local co-op with each player taking control of their own character. There are few more minor mechanics thrown in here or there to keep you interested as the game unfolds but for the most part Never Alone sticks pretty well to the platformer genre.

For the most part it’s laid out well, with most sections able to be beaten in a single attempt without too much thought needing to be put in them. There are some challenging puzzles although most of them were mostly figuring out the limitations of how far you could jump or what the appropriate timings were. Other times however my characters would seemingly get stuck in falling animations, fail to latch onto things or get stuck on invisible objects, preventing me from continuing. None of these issues prevented me from finishing the game but things like that tend to take the sheen off otherwise solid titles.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Girl and the Fox

However the biggest issue that Never Alone has is that whilst the core game is good the other aspect of it, the documentary film, doesn’t really gel with it. Sure it’s interesting in and of itself however the way it’s delivered, in sections as you find owls within the main game, means that you have to take yourself out of the game in order to watch it. If you’re like me then you much prefer to play the game as a cohesive whole, rather than jumping between 2 completely different mediums constantly. Unfortunately I don’t have a good solution for this as cross medium things are always fraught with difficulties, especially when one’s fictional and the other factual.

The story of the game however is charming, heartwarming and overall satisfying. In terms of emotional engagement it wasn’t of the same level as some of the other story-first games I’ve played as of late, however it did do a good enough job to make me empathize with the main characters that certain events did have an impact on me. There is a distinct lack of development for the non-main characters however which, whilst being somewhat understandable given the game’s length, means that they’re reduced to stereotypical archetypes. Overall I’d say it’s above average for games as a whole whilst falling short of some of the better examples in the story-first genre.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Find Your Way Home

Never Alone is a great example of games maturing as a medium, its ranks now swelling with stories that, just a few short years ago, could have never been told in this way. Mechanically it’s a solid game, using every trick in the Unity book to elevate the visuals above its station and providing a solid platforming/puzzler experience. However it does lack in polish in some areas which gives the game an overall feel of being above average but still falling short of the greatness some other indie titles have achieved. Still for a game of this nature, one that’s attempting something few have done before, it’s still a solid title.

Rating: 7.5/10

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 80% of the achievements unlocked.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Across the Ocean

The Old City: Leviathan: How Can You be Certain?

Ever since the Dear Esther incident of 2012 I’ve attempted to broaden my horizons in terms of what games I play, mainly to see if I could ever find something to like in games like it. Whilst I’ve often said that I’m willing to forgive a lot of mistakes in a game as long as the story holds up I’ve found even I have my limits, preferring to have some kind of mechanics rather than none at all. That being said I can’t recall having played a pure walking simulator (the genre which these games fall into) ever since Dear Esther. With those painful memories now fading I gave The Old City: Leviathan a walk through and whilst I’ll refrain from dubbing another game with the wooden spoon I’m not sure my opinion of this genre has changed entirely.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The world lies broken around you, the result of the Fall that struck down everyone and everything. Those who remain have split themselves up into factions and, inevitably, declared war upon each other, ravaging the lands even further. However there are those who have decided to exist on the periphery of all things, serving as mediators between the two opposing factions and engaging in a kind of isolationist nature rarely seen before the fall. You inhabit the mind of one of such people however it is broken and the world that you see and hear isn’t always the truth. So begins your quest but where it takes you is your decision.

The Old City has extremely high production values for a title of its nature, fully using the UDK it’s based on to its fullest. Whilst it’s sometimes a little overdone with the fog creeping in everywhere and the just a little over the top bloom it’s hard to detract from the fact that it’s a decidedly pretty game. The environments do end up getting a bit repetitive as you get towards the end as many of the assets are reused several times however there’s enough detail to make sure you won’t get bored before your first play through is over. Overall The Old City gets top marks for bringing impressive visuals to a genre that, in general, let’s them slip to one side.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Belly of the Beast

As the classification of the game might allude to The Old City is a walking simulator which means that the mechanics are stripped back to their bare minimum. You have 2 speeds of walking (with the omission of having an “always sprint” option, unfortunately) and you can jump, not that you’ll need to for anything however. There are however some cleverly hidden mechanics, usually centered around exploring one area and then returning back to another in order to unlock a new section. Other than that however there’s not much more for you to do apart from walk, listen and read everything that’s contained within this world.

What I did find rather interesting was that, whilst The Old City lacks any definitive choices, you are forced to make decisions between two options on occasion, even if you don’t notice it. Mostly this takes the form of different paths which lead off in different directions, some of which you can’t return from. However you’re not going to be able to know that before venturing down a particular path and so the choice of where to go becomes important. This is especially so if you’re trying to get to Solomon’s notes which contain the vast bulk of the story within The Old City. Indeed without them you’re not likely to understand anything of what’s going on, even if you explored everywhere.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Jerusalem

Thinking about it more the difference between The Old City and other titles like Dear Esther comes from the fact that the former actually has a structure to it, even if it seems random at first. You’ll often find bits of information that clarify points made earlier or reveal another piece of symbolism which helps you better understand just what’s going on in the world. The randomness of other game’s storytelling means that you don’t have an overall feel for where the story is going and are just left with a bunch of fragments with no continuity. Sure, there are people who enjoy putting those pieces together but, honestly, it just feels like someone trying to be clever through obscurity.

The story of The Old City does a good job of being opaque at the beginning, putting you in a rather thoroughly confusing world that’s seeped in metaphors and terminology that’s completely foreign. Over time however it starts to reveal parts of itself to you, analogous to the journey that one of its characters goes through themselves. However unlike many other titles of its genre The Old City doesn’t neatly wrap up in the end (well, it didn’t for me anyway) so you’ll likely be left with questions of just what the hell happened. It’s a fun thing to think about but not enough to draw me back to play through the same sections again seeking out additional detail. I can see the attraction for others, however.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Across the Ocean

The Old City: Leviathan is another title in the growing walking simulator genre that combines beautiful graphics and great voice over work into a readily playable title. I’m still not 100% sure on where I sit with it as a game yet, on the one hand I definitely feel that it’s better than others I’ve played before, but on the other I’m still not sure what I truly liked in it. The graphics a great and it didn’t overstay its welcome in terms of play time but there wasn’t enough to draw me back in for a second play through. With that in mind it feels like a middle of the road game for me but that, dear reader, will likely be wildly different for you.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Old City: Leviathan is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.