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The Division: Humanity’s Final Defensive Line.

There’s a small trend developing which I like to call MMORPG-Light. Essentially developers are looking to craft the big, epic experience of a MMORPG but are concerned about the way to sustain it. Whilst Free to Play is the way many attempt to go you’re competing against so many in the same space it’s hard to stand out. The traditional subscription model is a much harder sell with only a few lumbering giants still maintaining that model going forward. Thus they choose somewhere in the middle, often in the form of regular paid expansions or season passes. We saw it first with Destiny and now with The Division, the latest game in the Tom Clancy universe.

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On Black Friday a terrible disease sweeps through New York City. Known only as the Green Poison it devastates Manhattan and causes widespread chaos, requiring the city to be put into quarantine. You are an agent of The Division, an elite unit with sleeper units embedded everywhere around the world, tasked with dealing with situations like this. You are part of the Second Wave of agents, tasked with retaking Manhattan and tracking down the source of the epidemic. It won’t be easy however as the lawlessness has given rise to gangs of looters, crazed workers and paramilitary corporations looking to exploit the chaos. You will do battle with them all agent as there is no one else left who can.

The Division comes to us via a new engine called Snowdrop, developed by Massive for use on next-generation consoles (except the WiiU) and PCs. Unlike other MMORPG styled games The Division is a visual assault of detail, down the most interesting levels. For instance shooting out glass works almost exactly how you’d expect it to, with pieces breaking off and shattering much like it would in real life. Things like that, coupled with the incredible attention given to all of the environments, makes for a very immersive experience. This is what makes the relatively small world seem so impressive as there’s just so much to explore when compared to your more traditional MMORPG affair. It’s also worth mention that the sound design of The Division is well above any other game I’ve played which helps to sell you on the world even further.

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The comparisons to Destiny, which would appear to be its closest relative, are somewhat apt however The Division leans much more heavily towards a more traditional MMORPG experience. There’s no classes to speak of but you can choose from an array of skills that can be unlocked through gathering supplies for various parts of your base. There’s talents and perks to choose from that allow you to further customize your character to your play style. There’s quests to be done and dungeons to plunder, all in the name of the ultimate goal of any RPG game: the quest for sweet loot. However the end game of The Division is unlike that of any other game out there, being a hybrid model of PVP and PVE. It’s a game that definitely has the potential to capture you for a long period of time, however due to its end game design it feels like there’s an expiration date for nearly all who play it.

Combat comes in the form of your standard cover-based shooter, augmented by the RPG elements of skills and talents. You’ll spend most of your time running between cover, taking shots and enemies doing much the same. Often you’ll have to strategize to make sure that certain enemies are downed quickly before others, lest they wipe your entire group. You have semi-infinite health regeneration in the form 3 bars which will regenerate over time but not into the next bar. You’re also limited by the amount of ammunition you carry although until the end game you’re never likely to run out. The variety of different kinds of weapons means that there’s something to suit almost any playstyle, although you’ll be quick to learn that close combat is as much a fool’s errand here as it is everywhere else. Overall the combat is enjoyable even if it isn’t particularly inventive.

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Progression is comparatively fast paced with max level (30) reached in around 20 hours or so. Each main quest will easily give you a full level and the side quests/events giving you anywhere from 10%~20%. You’ll also be receiving lavishings of gear, talents and perks as you level up and complete quests, meaning you’re never too far off feeling like you’re getting somewhere. This can be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask as it’s far too easy to lose long stretches of time, especially when it comes to the longer, more in depth missions. For a seasoned MMORPGer like myself I liked the reduced amount of effort required to max out my character, although beyond that point things start to get a little murky.

Like with any MMORPG the end game is all about the loot and crafting your character to be the best they possibly can be. In The Division this comes through three main avenues: the Dark Zone, Challenge Modes and Phoenix credits. The Dark Zone is the open slather PVP arena that’s peppered with numerous NPCs who drop end game gear. However you can’t simply pick it up and walk out with it, instead you need to go to an extraction point to lift it out. At any point between when you pick up the loot and when you extract it another agent can kill you and take it. This leads to some rather tense situations where you’re all sitting around an extraction point, hoping no one gets any bright ideas. The Challenge Modes are simply harder versions of the regular missions which give better rewards at the end. Both of these activities give you the end game currency of Phoenix Credits which can then be redeemed for high end gear. So no matter your preferred play style you’ll be able to get end game loot but how long you keep at that is anyone’s guess.

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You see once you get that gear there’s really not much more to do. My current character is already sporting half high end gear and half purples and there’s really no more content that’s beyond me. Sure, my team still struggles to do challenge modes perfectly on the first go but we can still do them in a reasonable time frame. With other MMORPGs there’d be some kind of raid or equivalent for us to try our mettle against but, in its current state, The Division lacks any further high end content. This means that for hard/casual-core players we’re likely to tap ourselves out in the coming week or so with no new content in sight for some time. Granted this is something on the order of 60+ hours worth of game play, but that’s minuscule when compared to other MMORPGs. It’s an interesting issue that Massive will need to tackle if they want to keep everyone interested between content drops.

The Division is also anything but a perfect experience, marred by weird behaviour, glitches and the ever present threat of server lag. Quite often you’ll find skills not working how they’re supposed to, physics bugs trapping you in certain places or things straight up not working at all. The server lag issue remained throughout my play time, even after the initial burst of players settled down somewhat. This usually manifests itself as damage occurring in chunks and NPCs moving in fits and bursts. Thankfully I only had one crash to speak of but I did have numerous other times where I or another party member was dumped to menu or sent back to my last safe house. Overall though the experience was good when compared to other MMORPGs, even if it was frustrating at times.

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The story of The Division is interesting, having a modicum of depth to it thanks to it’s roots in Tom Clancy’s writings. It’s an interesting twist on the post-apocalyptic scene that’s all the rage currently, giving a good explanation to the “everyone is the hero” problem that many similar games face. The various enemy factions you face are given decent development, making them more than just faceless masses you need to wade through in the quest for purples. Since this is a game that’s going to evolve substantially over the coming year though it feels like the current conclusion is just a stop gap until they can get the content engine turning. Suffice to say that most people aren’t going to be play this for the plot but it provides a serviceable narrative none the less.

The Division is an excellent MMORPG-Light experience, finding a solid balance between more traditional mechanics and a more modern, streamlined approach. The world is exceptionally well crafted with everything from the detailed environments to the sound design to even the UI blending together to create an incredibly immersive experience. The core mechanics are solid, providing a good challenge and well paced progression. The experience isn’t seamless, although given this is Massive’s first attempt at such a game its commendable how polished the final product is. The narrative is bolstered by the Tom Clancy name and writings, even if it’s somewhat secondary to what most players will be looking for in this game. Overall The Division is an excellent game that’s been deserving of much of the hype it received before release but the true test, in how long it can continue to captivate players, is still ahead of it.

Rating: 9.0/10

The Division is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 37 hours of total playtime, reaching max level and completing all missions.

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AlphaGo Beats Lee Sedol 4-1.

Back in January AlphaGo’s 5-0 defeat of Fan Hui, the reigning European champion, was a shot out of left field. Go players and AI developers alike believed that we were still some 10 years away from that feat ever occurring and the resounding defeat of a champion was rather unexpected. However many still expected the current long time champion, Lee Sedol, to come out on top given his much higher ranking. The battle was set to be decided in the same game format, 5 games with 2 hours of time for each side. Over the last week AlphaGo and Lee Sedol have been facing off in match after match and AlphaGo has emerged victorious, winning 4 out of the 5 games.

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Just like when Kasparov lost to Deep Blue AlphaGo’s victory has sent ripples through both the computing and Go communities. For technologists like me it’s a signal that we’ve made another leap forward in our quest for strong AI as we’ve developed better methods for training neural networks. The Go community is less enthusiastic about it however, coming to terms with the fact that not even their game of choice is beyond AI’s capabilities. What is interesting to see however is the conversation around AlphaGo’s style of play and the near universal idea that it has some fundamental weaknesses that top Go players will look to exploit.

Indeed Lee Sedol’s one win against AlphaGo shows that it’s no where near being the perfect player and its play style needs refinement. It seems that AlphaGo tends to calculate the most advantageous moves for both itself and for its opponent, using this as the basis for judging its future moves. However unexpected moves, ones that were pruned out of its search tree due to them being sub-optimal for its opponent, seem to throw it for a loop. This is similar to how Kasparov initially beat Deep Blue, playing moves that sent it down a non-optimal search path before making his own, far more optimal, moves. Whether or not this can be developed into a viable strategy is something I’ll leave up to the reader, but suffice to say I don’t think it’d remain a weakness for too long.

For some though Lee Sedol’s loss is merely a symbolic one as the real current champion is Ke Jie, who has a 8-2 record against AlphaGo’s last opponent. Whilst I can’t really comment on how much better of a player he is (I don’t follow Go at all) AlphaGo’s almost 5-0’d Lee Sedol and I’m sure it’d give Ke Jie a solid run for his money. I’m sure AlphaGo will continue to make appearances around the world and I’m eager to see if it can still come out on top.

One interesting thing to note is that AlphaGo did receive a little boost in computing power when facing off against Lee Sedol, getting another 700 CPUs and 30 GPUs to handle the additional calculations. However that extra hardware might not have been strictly required as the AlphaGo team has said that a single laptop version can beat their distributed one about 30% of the time. Regardless it seems the AlphaGo team thought Lee Sedol was going to be a much tougher challenge than Fan Hui and gave their AI a little boost just to be sure.

The AlphaGo team won’t be resting on their laurels after this however as they’ve got their sites set on bigger challenges, like StarCraft. I’m very much looking forward to seeing them attempt the not-so-traditional games as I think they’re a far more interesting challenge with many more potential applications.

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ExoMars TGO Launches, Scouting for Future Rover Mission.

With the number of missions we’ve sent to Mars you might wonder why we keep going back there. For starters it’s very similar to Earth in many respects and is thus a great candidate for comparison, especially when it comes to the origins of life. Additionally it’s relatively easy to get into a good orbit for observation, Mars Curse not withstanding. Finally the atmosphere is far more hospitable for robotic exploration than say Venus or other planets or moons, allowing us to send craft to the surface that last years rather than minutes or hours. There’s also still a lot we can learn from our red sister and to that end the European Space Agency has launched ExoMars; a multi-part mission specifically targeted at identifying signs of life on Mars.

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ExoMars is an incredibly ambitious mission that’s made up of 3 major parts. The first is the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), a robotic probe that will map out Mars’ atmosphere with a specific view towards detecting both biological and geological activity. Flying along with the TGO is the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM Lander), a 600KG craft that will descend to the surface of Mars’ 4 days prior to TGO’s final orbital insertion maneuvers. Finally the last craft, yet to be launched, is a 310kg solar powered rover due to launch in 2018. All these craft combined make up the greater ExoMars mission and all have a key part to play in determining whether or not life was, or is, present on Mars.

The TGO’s payload consists of 4 main instruments, 2 of which are dedicated to atmospheric analysis (NOMAD and ACS), one for surface imaging (CaSSIS) and one to analysis the surface for hydrogen in the form of water or hydrated minerals (FREND). NOMAD and ACS will work together to do spectral analysis on Mars’ atmosphere in incredible detail, allowing us to detect even the smallest trace of biological activity. These devices will primarily operate in what’s called “Solar Occultation” mode which means that they look back at the sun through Mars’ atmosphere in order to do their analysis. They also have other modes however they present challenges in getting acceptable signal to noise ratios. CaSSIS is essentially a high resolution camera capable of images with a resolution of 4.5m per pixel (MRO’s HiRISE by comparison is about 2.5m per pixel). FREND is a neturon detector that can sense the presence of hydrogen in up 1m of Martian soil, giving us insight into the presence of water or hydrogenated minerals.

The EDM lander is a demonstration craft, one that will showcase and validate numerous pieces of technology required to successfully land the future planned rover. 4 days prior to TGO’s arrival at Mars the EDM Lander will separate and begin its descent to the surface of Mars. Initially it will slow itself using aerobreaking, reducing its speed from over 21,000km per hour to something more manageable. Then it will deploy drogue chutes to slow its descent speed even further, using doppler radar and other on board measuring devices to judge its trajectory. The final stages will then consist of a pulse-fired liquid rocket engines to slow itself further before shutting down completely 2 meters above the ground. The final impact will be absorbed by a specially designed crushable surface that will ensure the lander does not get damaged. All of these technologies are key in ensuring that the future rover can be delivered safely to the Martian surface.

The final piece of the puzzle is the ExoMars rover which will be substantially bigger than the MERs (Spirit and Opportunity) but about a third of the size of Curiosity. It will be solar powered using a 1200W array and capable of moving 70m per Martian day. On board will be numerous instruments with the major payloads focused primarily on the detection of life on Mars. The largest of these is the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser (MOMA) which will be able to conduct very high sensitivity analysis on samples collected from the surface of Mars. Its landing site is not yet determined however, that will be decided by the results gained from TGO’s time in orbit before the rover launches.

Suffice to say ExoMars will be one of the comprehensive search for life beyond our Earth ever conducted and it’s incredibly heartening to see the ESA undertaking this even after NASA pulled its support for it some time ago. For now it’ll be all quiet for at least 7 months as the TGO and EDM make their way to Mars. Towards the end of the year however we should start to get some exciting results and, if all goes well, a few happy snaps from the EDM as it descends to the surface.

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Shardlight: Of Haves and Have Nots.

If there’s one genre that can be considered “solved” it would be pixelart adventure games. Originally they were born out of the limitations imposed by the hardware of the time, the low resolutions and meagre processing power only able to generate the simplest of graphics. Their appeal came from the stories and puzzles that laid within them, often relying heavily on logic and critical thinking above all else. The pixelart adventure games of today are not much different with the most innovative features being slightly better inventory management and quality of life improvements. Shardlight fits the mold perfectly in this regard, capturing the essence of what made those original adventure games great.

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The world ended on the day the bombs fell. Since then, it’s always been like this: disease, hunger, death. The ruling Aristocrats, a faceless oligarchy that controls all resources, have unchallenged authority. There’s never enough food, water, or vaccine to go around. The rich receive regular doses of vaccinations in exchange for their unconditional government support. The poor live in fear, superstition, and squalor until they die. You play as Amy Wellard, a young woman reluctantly working for the government to qualify for the vaccine lottery, believes there’s a cure — and she’s going to find it. Even if it costs her her life.

Shardlight pays homage to the adventure games of old, replicating their pixelart stylings in loving detail. The pixelart is obviously hand drawn, using every pixel carefully in order to convey the maximum amount of information in the smallest number of pixels. The larger, more detailed works show this off well with the character portraits and backgrounds being on par with many top tier games in the same genre. There’s no modern effects or layering in Shardlight, instead staying true to the pixelart adventure games of old. One thing I’ll also note is how well the voice acting is done being a cut above what I’ve come to expect from games in this genre. Overall it wouldn’t be out of place with games that were made 20 years ago, something which I hope the developer takes as a compliment.

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Shardlight is your stock standard adventure game affair, pitting you against puzzles of logic, inventory management and dialogue tree exploration. You’ll be hunting around for items to pick up, figuring out how to use them and working out what the intended way of solving a puzzle was. You’ll also need to make sure you choose the correct dialogue options as many puzzles are reliant on you either setting someone up to do something or having a specific piece of information revealed to you at a certain time. Of course there’s all the usual red herrings, unnecessary items and levels where there’s not much to do at all which will make your journey through Shardlight a lot more difficult than it appears on first glance.

Indeed, just like the adventure games of old, Shardlight makes no attempt to hold your hand or guide you through it. Skip through a dialogue too quickly and you might miss something important for solving a puzzle or do something out of its intended order and you’ll be left wondering what you need to do next. Indeed one puzzle, shooting a statue off a ledge, wasn’t allowed to be done until after a certain event had occurred. I have to admit it was these kinds of things which had me reaching for the walk through guide as I honestly couldn’t be bothered retrying everything in order to figure out what I had missed. Still for the most part I was able to get by and I’m sure more seasoned adventure gamers won’t have any issues at all.

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Shardlight’s story isn’t exactly an unique one, exploring the issues of a post-apocalyptic society with a stark class divide between the haves and have nots. It is however developed very well, allowing most characters enough on screen time to allow them to develop and have you empathize with them. All the elements come together quite well with no major loose ends left over leaving you wanting. Overall I’d say it was an aptly told story that didn’t extend beyond its reach, achieving what it set out to do without any fluff to get in the way. It may not have engrossed me as much as it seems to have other reviewers but I do recognise that’s a very well told story.

Shardlight is a true homage to the adventure games of old, both in terms of graphics and style. The pixelart is wonderfully done, eschewing any modern flairs and staying true to its roots. The game plays as you would expect it to with no embellishments or enhancements on the old school formula. The story, whilst not the most captivating for this writer, is expertly told owing to the no-frills attitude that permeates throughout the game. Overall Sharlight is a solid adventure game that’s sure to delight fans of the genre and those who just love post-apocalyptic stories.

Rating: 8.0/10

Shardlight is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 5 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.

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Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography May Have a Chance to Shine Afterall.

It seems I can’t go a month without seeing at least one article decrying the end of Moore’s Law and another which shows that it’s still on track. Ultimately this dichotomy comes from the fact that we’re on the bleeding edge of material sciences with new research being published often. At the same time however I’m always sceptical of those saying that Moore’s Law is coming to an end as we’ve heard it several times before and, every single time, those limitations have been overcome. Indeed it seems that one technology even I had written off, Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography, may soon be viable.

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Our current process for creating computing chips relies on the photolithography process, essentially a light that etches the transistor pattern onto the silicon. In order to create smaller and smaller transistors we’ve had to use increasingly shorter wavelengths of light. Right now we use deep ultraviolet light at the 193nm wavelength which has been sufficient for etching features all the way down to 10nm level. As I wrote last year with current technology this is about the limit as even workarounds like double-patterning only get us so far, due to their expensive nature. EUV on the other hand works with light at 13.5nm, allowing for much finer details to be etched although there’s been some significant drawbacks which have prevented its use in at-scale manufacturing.

For starters producing the required wattage of light at that wavelength is incredibly difficult. The required power to etch features onto silicon with EUV is around 250W, a low power figure to be sure, however due to nearly everything (including air) absorbing EUV the initial power level is far beyond that. Indeed even in the most advanced machines only around 2% of the total power generated actually ends up on the chip. This is what has led ASML to develop the exotic machine you see above in which both the silicon substrate and the EUV light source work in total vacuum. This set up is capable of delivering 200W which is getting really close to the required threshold, but still requires some additional engineering before it can be utilized for manufacturing.

However progress like this significantly changes the view many had on EUV and its potential for extending silicon’s life. Even last year when I was doing my research into it there weren’t many who were confident EUV would be able to deliver, given its limitations. However with ASML projecting that they’ll be able to deliver manufacturing capability in 2018 it’s suddenly looking a lot more feasible. Of course this doesn’t negate the other pressing issues like the interconnect widths bumping up against physical limitations but that’s not a specific problem to EUV.

The race is on to determine what the next generation of computing chips will look like and there are many viable contenders. In all honesty it surprised me to learn that EUV was becoming such a viable candidate as, given its numerous issues, I felt that no one would bother investing in the idea. It seems I was dead wrong as ASML has shown that it’s not only viable but could be used in anger in a very short time. The next few node steps are going to be very interesting as they’ll set the tempo for technological progress for decades to come.

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SUPER HOT: Mind is Software.

Truly unique game mechanics are a rarity. This is not because of any lack of imagination on the part of game developers, far from it. More it’s to do with the fact that there have been so many games made that it’s almost inevitable that a mechanic has been explored before. So often game developers combine different mechanics, hide them cleverly or just rely on the story to carry things along. SUPERHOT however brings with it the novel mechanic of only moving when you do, putting you in a kind of eternal bullet time movie. It was this mechanic that made it a Kickstarter success (full disclosure: I backed it at the $75 level) and the resulting game is much more than just an extended version of their prototype.

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You get a message from your friend. It’s this game, superhot.exe, and it’s amazing. He sends you a crack for it so you can get in on the action. It’s interesting but in the end it’s just you, no plot, no nothing. Just killing red guys. Still you can’t seem to draw yourself away from it, going back again and again, playing through the various scenarios it throws at you. Things start to get weird after an unknown entity starts talking to you, warning you that you don’t know what you’re doing. Will you play on? Or will you quit while your mind is still free?

SUPERHOT retains the minimal, low poly aesthetic that featured in the original game and accompanying marketing material. The environments are all stark white, lacking in any real detail apart from a few objects strewn here or there. Your enemies are bright red, easily distinguishable against the plain background. Other than that there’s not much to say about SUPERHOT’s graphics as they’ve been done to focus your attention, rather than be a distraction. Considering how hectic things can get, even though the game doesn’t move unless you do, this visual simplicity is something I’m sure all players will be thankful for.

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At it’s core SUPERHOT could be considered a simplistic FPS, one where a single shot takes down all enemies (and you, if you’re not careful). Of course what changes it from being a rudimentary FPS to the novelty that it has become is the fact that time only moves when you do. So whenever you shift sideways, look around or perform an action the game will advanced forward. This means that you have an almost unlimited amount of time to plan your next move, choosing the best course of action possible. Each level you clear is played back to you, showing your superhero like fighting skills in real time. In the end SUPERHOT ends up being more like a FPS puzzler as each level is a game of optimization and understanding what actions happen when.

The core time mechanic would, on the surface, make the game incredibly easy. However whilst the game freezes while you contemplate your next move you are not an omnipotent being and, as such, you don’t know everything that’s happening around you. Whilst most of the time it’s easy enough to figure out what you need to do there are numerous puzzles where enemies spawn behind you, meaning you’ll probably have to die a few times before you know exactly what to do. Also the AI isn’t dumb and will attempt to lead you when shooting which can see you running into their bullets rather than away from them. Indeed whilst the first few levels are a breeze SUPERHOT quickly becomes a much harder game than you’d first expect it to be.

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Most of the levels are done well, giving you enough opportunity to flex your FPS and prediction skills whilst punishing your mistakes. Some levels are far more strict than others, really only having one solution that you need to execute perfectly. One issue that I have to point out though is that the AI doesn’t react in the same way to the same situation every time which makes some of the more difficult levels pretty frustrating. The very final fight, for instance, required a good chunk of luck for everything to go perfectly. In the first 10 seconds an AI deciding to pick up a shotgun or simply run directly at you could be the difference between barely making it through and not having a chance at all. All that said however the challenges are beatable but they can be a little frustrating at times.

The story, whilst somewhat basic, is presented in an interesting way. Most of the dialogue is presented to you through a DOS-like terminal at the start of the game, taking the form of a chat between you and someone on the other side. Eventually it takes over the main game, using the SUPERHOT flashes. It’s best described as a psychological thriller, one which makes you question what is real and what is not within the game world. It ends rather predictably but then again I wasn’t expecting massive narrative development from a game that’s only a couple hours long. Suffice to say for a game that rode to fame on its mechanics the story was well above my expectations but SUPERHOT isn’t a game you’ll play for the narrative.

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SUPERHOT sets the bar for Kickstarter games priding themselves on innovative game mechanics. The minimal visual aesthetic is purposefully done to focus your attention on what matters most, casting all visual distractions aside. The core “time only moves when you do” mechanic is done well, transforming an otherwise rudimentary platformer into an intricate puzzler. The story is above par for these kinds of games, even if it is somewhat predictable towards the end. Overall SUPERHOT is an excellent game that makes great use of its core mechanic,

Rating: 8.5/10

SUPERHOT is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the project on Kickstarter at the $75 reward level.

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Google Provides Insight Into SSD Reliability.

SSDs may have been around for some time now but they’re still something of an unknown. Their performance benefits are undeniable and their cost per gigabyte has plummeted year after year. However, for the enterprise space, their unknown status has led to a lot of hedged bets when it comes to their use. Most SSDs have a large portion of over provisioned space, to accommodate for failed cells and wear levelling. A lot of SSDs are sold as “accelerators”, meant to help speed up operations but not hold critical data for any length of time. This all comes from a lack of good data on their reliability and failure rates, something which can only come with time and use. Thankfully Google has been doing just that and at a recent conference released a paper about their findings.

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The paper focused on three different types of flash media: the consumer level MLC, the more enterprise focused SLC and the somewhere-in-the-middle eMLC. These were all custom devices, sporting Google’s own PCIe interface and drivers, however the chips they used were your run of the mill flash. The drives were divided into 10 categories: 4 MLC, 4 SLC and 2 eMLC. For each of these different types of drives several different metrics were collected over their 6 year lifetime: raw bit error rate (RBER), uncorrectable bit error rate (UBER), program/erase cycles and various failure rates (bad blocks, bad cells, etc.). All of these were then collated to provide insights into the reliability of SSDs and their comparison to each other and to old fashioned, spinning rust drives.

Probably the most stunning finding out of the report is that, in general, SLC drives are no more reliable than their MLC brethren. For both enterprises and consumers this is a big deal as SLC based drives are often several times the price of their MLC equivalent. This should allay any fears that enterprises had about using MLC based products as they will likely be just as reliable and far more cheaper. Indeed products like the Intel 750 series (one of which I’m using for big data analysis at home) provide the same capabilities as products that cost ten times as much and, based on Google’s research, will last just as long.

Interestingly the biggest predictive indicator for drive reliability wasn’t the RBER, UBER or even the number of PE cycles. In fact the most predictive factor of drive failure was the physical age of the drive itself. What this means is that, for SSDs, there must be other factors at play which affect drive reliability. The paper hypothesizes that this might be due to silicon aging but it doesn’t appear that they had enough data to investigate that further. I’m very much interested in how this plays out as it will likely come down to the way they’re fabricated (I.E. different types of lithography, doping, etc.), something which does vary significantly between manufacturers.

It’s not all good news for SSDs however as the research showed that whilst SSDs have an overall failure rate below that of spinning rust they do exhibit a higher UBER. What this means is that SSDs will have a higher rate of unrecoverable errors which can lead to data corruption. Many modern operating systems, applications and storage controllers are aware of this and can accommodate it but it’s still an issue for systems with mission/business critical data.

This kind of insight into the reliability of SSDs is great and just goes to show that even nascent technology can be quite reliable. The insight into MLC vs SLC is telling, showing that whilst a certain technology may exhibit one better characteristic (in this case PE cycle count) that might not be the true indicator of reliability. Indeed Google’s research shows that the factors we have been watching so closely might not be the ones we need to look at. Thus we need to develop new ideas in order to better assess the reliability of SSDs so that we can better predict their failures. Then, once we have that, we can work towards eliminating them, making SSDs even more reliable again.

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Unravel: Thread the Needle.

Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.

Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Into the Garden

Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.

The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ice Cave

Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.

At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Wish You Were Here

Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.

Rating: 8/10

Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.

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HTC Vive Will Debut at $799.

The $599 price tag of the consumer Oculus Rift was off putting to many, including myself. It’s not that we expected the technology to be cheap, more that our expectations were set at what we considered a much more reasonable level. I wrote at the time that HTC and Sony would likely rush in with their own VR headsets swiftly afterwards, likely a much lower price point, to take advantage of the Oculus’ more premium status. I was right on one count, HTC has since announced theirs, but at the higher price point of $799. It seems that, at this stage in the game, there’s no way to do VR on the cheap.

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Whilst the two products are largely comparable in terms of raw specifications, having the same screens for each eye and both providing the same level of “sit down” VR experience. However the Vive pulls ahead of the Oculus in two respects, the first of which being the inclusion of two hand tracking controllers. The current version of the Oculus includes an XboxOne controller with their Touch controllers due out sometime later this year (at a currently undisclosed price). However what really sets the HTC Vive apart from the Oculus is the inclusion of two Lighthouse tracking base stations which allow the Vive to do full body tracking in a 16m² space.

These two additions explain the price gap between the two headsets, however it also shows that there’s a floor price when it comes to VR headsets. I had honestly thought that both HTC’s and Sony’s offerings would come in at a cheaper price point than the Oculus however now I’m not so sure. Sony may be able to cut some corners due to the stable hardware platform they’ll be working with (the PS4) however I don’t think that will make it that much cheaper. Indeed looking at the current specs of the PlayStation VR shows that the only real difference at this point is the slightly lower screen resolution (although it does support 120hz, superior to the Oculus and Vive). With that in mind we’d be lucky to see it much, if at all, below the $599 price point that Oculus set last month.

So for Oculus debuting at the price point that they chose might not have been the disaster I first thought it would’ve been. Oculus might very well have developed the Model-T of VR that everyone was hoping for, it just ended up costing a lot more than we’d hoped it would. For many though I still feel like this will mean they’ll give the V1.0 VR products a miss, instead waiting for economies of scale to kick in or a new player to enter the market at a cheaper price point. This will hamper the adoption of VR, and by extension titles developed for VR, in the short term. However after a year or two there’s potential for newer models and the secondary market for used headsets to start ramping up, potentially opening up access to customers who had abstained previously.

For myself I think I’ll have to wait to be convinced that the investment in a VR headset will be worth it. I bought a Xbox just so I could play Mass Effect when it first came out and, should something of similar calibre find itself on any one of the VR platforms, I can see myself doing the same again. However right now the relatively high price point coupled with the lack of enticing titles or killer apps I’m not really willing to make such an investment in a V1.0 product. I, as always, remain willing to have my opinion changed and, by consequence, my wallet opened.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Firewatch: Longing For What is Lost.

Walking simulators have seen an explosion of popularity and I believe with good reason. Their reliance on the story to move things forward, rather than mechanics or game play, often means the narrative has much more attention paid to it. For those of us who appreciate good stories this genre has brought us many great titles, although I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all up to scratch. Indeed the intense focus on the narrative means such games live and die by their story and, should it fail to capture the player it will fail as a game. Firewatch however makes no such missteps, quickly dragging you into its world of heartache, love and loss.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It’s 1975 and you, Henry, find yourself in a bar with your friends. No matter how hard you try though you can’t take your eyes off a girl at the bar. You walk up, tell her she’s pretty, her name is Julia, and before you know it you’re in a loving relationship. You’re happy, you get a dog named bucket and spend the summer afternoons drinking beer on the porch together. You’re not the definition of Hollywood romance, life still gets in the way from time to time, but you remain together. However Julia starts to fade in and out mentally and she gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 41. You’re both devastated but you stick it out for her until it becomes too much and she moves back home with her parents. That summer you find an ad for a job in the Shoshone national park. You take it.

Firewatch feels like it’s set somewhere in the Team Fortress 2 universe, having the same kind of cartoony style. The world is simplistic with little detail however it’s the small touches, like the volumetric lighting and the soft noises of the forest in the background, that elevate the experience by creating a great atmosphere. The ebb and flow of the background noises and music are done perfectly, ensuring that there’s no long periods of awkward silence as you make your way through the map. Overall Firewatch is an excellently crafted game, one that is deserving of the praise that has been lumped on it.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Beautiful Loneliness

In terms of game play Firewatch is your stock standard walking simulator, plopping you in the middle of a vast area to explore. The key difference however comes from the inclusion of a walkie talkie that allows you to communicate with your superior, Delilah. This forms the basis of the narrative for the game, the back and forth between you two serving as both the main plot driver as well as the exploration reward mechanism. Essentially you can unlock additional dialogue options by looking around and finding things of interest which you can then radio back to Delilah about. Other than the only real mechanic is reading the map to know which direction you need to go in, something which shouldn’t be too difficult since you have a GPS indicator on the map of your current location.

The base game of Firewatch gives the appearance of being a free form exploration title however it’s anything but. Unlike other walking simulator games like Gone Home, which essentially give you free reign over an area and put the onus on you to piece together the story, Firewatch is crafted along a very specific path. Sure you can go exploring, and you’ll find things before you’re meant to see them, but the game will inevitably right your path. For someone like me, who’s a fan of well crafted narratives, this is a great thing however I do know that there are some who prefer freeform walking simulators over this kind.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Happy Snaps

I’ll admit that at first blush I thought the opening scenes, told through text on screen dialogue choices interspersed with short bits of game play, was a little cheap. However that quickly evaporated as I was given choices that felt like they had an impact and was made to care for the characters I was helping to craft. The ultimate reveal of Julia’s condition towards the end of the opening is heart breaking and Henry’s abandonment only exacerbated the pain I felt. There’s been few games that have been able to make me care so quickly and then used that care against me, something which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.

The main story of the game is a little messier as whilst the relationship development between Henry and Delilah is strong the weird, unknown force acting in the background kind of muddles things. As my long time readers know I’m not really a fan of horror and I had sinking feeling I might end up in some kind of supernatural show. However the story does manage to wind up well, even if it feels like there were some unresolved things between the two main characters that could have been tied up in an epilogue or something similar. Still, maybe that’s the way its meant to be as life doesn’t always resolve itself neatly, especially when you’ve spent a good deal of time running away from your problems.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Flapjack Fire

Firewatch is a brilliant, narrative focused walking simulator that deals with heavy hitting issues that few other games dare to touch. It’s simplistic, stylized visuals serve as a backdrop for the story, serving not as a distraction but a canvas on which the story is painted. The foley and sound effects are done exceptionally well, fading in and out with poignancy at just the right time. The story is what pulls everything together and while it comes unstuck during the middle third or so it does wrap itself up well in the end. Firewatch, in my opinion, is a walking simulator that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than its genre might suggest.

Rating: 9.0/10

Firewatch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 3 hours of total play time.