Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Ashes of the Singularity: A Demise of Our Own Making.

In RTS circles the Total Annihilation series holds a special place in many player’s hearts. Whilst many games in the genre focused on tactical play Total Annihilation was a far more strategic affair, pitting giant armies of units against each other. However the series has fallen flat in recent times, the most recent instalments in the form of Supreme Commander 2 and Planetary Annihilation failing to evoke that same kind of response that its predecessors did. Few have tried to enter this niche genre and Ashes of the Singularity is the first title I’ve even bothered to give a look in. There’s nothing I’d love more than to say that the torch has been passed to a new generation however Ashes of the Singularity makes the same mistakes as its predecessor does whilst adding in a few more of its own.

Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Like most RTS games the story is a little thin on the ground but enough to keep you somewhat engaged in what’s going on. Humanity has entered the post-physical stage of its development, with humans transcending their bodies and converting entire planets into computing power to support their now expanded minds. However some minds have started going rogue, disconnecting from the overmind and waging war against it. Even with their vast computing resources at their disposal humanity cannot quite figure out what is causing this and so it’s up to you, neophyte, to find out the cause and stop it.

Ashes is one of the few games that can make use of DirectX 12 however there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of point in doing so. In my, admittedly very subjective, testing I couldn’t really see much difference between the two when running at the same settings. Worse still both the Steam overlay and FRAPS refused to work with it making screen capturing a rather tedious process. Ashes does look quite good however and does surprisingly well even when the unit count starts tickling the hundreds. The UI is pretty rudimentary however and wouldn’t have been out of place in one of its older predecessors. Still for games like this it’s all about the quantity and it’s admirable that Stardock has made a RTS that can withstand the torment of a stupidly high unit count.

Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper KABOOM

For strategic RTS players the game play is pretty familiar. You’ll start of with your main building, the Nexus, from which you can create engineers to start building out your base further. There are two main resource types, metal and radioactives, with a secondary resource called quanta that’s used for upgrades and using special abilities. There’s 4 categories of units: 3 land (frigates, cruisers and dreadnoughts) and 1 air. For the most part you’ll do the usual build up a massive army, smash it against the enemy’s and hope that you have a higher unit count than they do. There are ways you can sway the battle in your favour, like using orbital abilities that can bolster your army or devastate theirs, but most of the time it comes down to making sure you’re ahead in army and resource count. They have to be used wisely however as they continually increase in cost as you use them. Overall the game play will feel largely familiar with a few little twists to keep it interesting.

Ashes does a decent job of introducing its mechanics to you through the campaign missions although some of the nuances are left to one side. For instance I can’t for the life of me recall when it introduced the upgrade mechanic as I only stumbled upon it in the last mission. Similarly some of the more nuanced game mechanics aren’t spelled out for you, like the increasing quanta cost for using orbital abilities. This was a touch frustrating when I was coming up against the tougher enemies that were obviously making use of all the mechanics so I do feel a few improvements to the way mechanics are introduced are in order. That being said since Ashes is a little more constrained in terms of the units available to you it doesn’t take as long to pick up on what you should be doing.

Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper Cheating Bullshit

As I’ve alluded to Ashes is a strategic RTS, wanting you to focus more on the macro elements of waging war than the tactical aspects of smaller battles. This means resource management, unit pipelines and distance are for the most part more important than the units themselves. Indeed my unit composition barely changed over the course of the campaign. The strategies I used to get up and running however changed a lot depending on the map and the resources available to me. Indeed if there’s one feature of Ashes that stands out for me is just how much of a difference a map can make to the overall experience. No longer can you simply have one giant megabase sprawling the entire map, no you’ll need tightly guarded outposts clustered around resources that are churning out unit after unit. In that way I feel like Ashes does a better job of being strategic than its spiritual predecessors did which could be easily cheesed by nuclear reactors and metal generators.

However Ashes also suffers from the same issue that Planetary Annihilation did before it in that there’s not a huge variety of units available, especially in the campaign. There’s a grand total of 2 factions and each of them have roughly similar crafts apart from the dreadnoughts. Experimenting with different strategies never seemed to work out too well for me once I hit on my preferred build and then it was only a matter of time to build up the requisite army. I understand that the more units you have the harder it is to balance things (a large consideration for Ashes since it appears to be attempting to foster an online competitive community) but that was one of the reasons I enjoyed the original Total Annihilation so much. Perhaps this will change in future DLC instalments.

Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper I'm Coming For You

Ashes comes with a few irritating bugs which I got tripped up on far too often. Right-clicking is something of a gamble as sometimes it’ll just simply refuse to issue a command. In order to get it to work again I’d have to left click then right click again, signalling it thought I was trying to do some other action for which right-click was not an option. This only gets more frustrating as the unit selection and grouping feels hit and miss too, making moving large armies a real chore. To top it all off the AI has a propensity to cheat in a very obvious fashion, something which is down right infuriating when you’re on the cusp of victory. The screenshot previous shows me completely dominating the AI until it used two nukes in a row to decimate my army completely, something it simply couldn’t have done with the resources it had at the time.

The story is serviceable however I felt like it could have been vastly improved if it was fully voice acted. The text exchanges just felt flat by comparison and the fact that they also took you out of the action whilst they were playing just made it all the more jarring. Had it taken a cue from nearly every other modern RTS and used voice actors playing in the background I’d likely be far more engaged with it than I was. It also felt a bit weird that this super-intelligences, ones that have several planets dedicated to powering their ever expanding minds, were so flummoxed by nearly everything they encountered. Honestly, whilst having a little irreverence can be refreshing at times, it just felt amateur in Ashes.

Ashes of the Singularity Review Screenshot Wallpaper I'm Coming For You

Ashes of the Singularity is a solid attempt at the strategic RTS genre however it, like the most recent entrants in this space, falls a little flat in its execution. Technically it’s a triumph being able to run on both DirectX 11 and 12 and handling more units on screen than most RTS’ can manage. The game itself however suffers from from a few glaring faults that keep it from being the title that will revive this genre. The story also lacks a few elements that could have improved it significantly which would have tied the whole experience together a little better. Overall, whilst I don’t recommend against playing Ashes, it’s really only aimed at fans of the genre and I don’t believe its appeal extends much further beyond that.

Rating: 7.0/10

Ashes of the Singularity is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with a total of 54% of the achievements unlocked.

ADR1FT Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

ADR1FT: Humanity Above All Else.

There’s a small file on my desktop and in it is the list of all the games I intend to review. It’s also a file of missed opportunities, listing off the games I thought would be worth a look in but never got a chance to play. Many of the games have been in there for quite some time, long enough that I often forget what made me put them there in the first place. ADR1FT is one of those games and, whilst you can probably guess why I put it down, I certainly don’t remember it being billed as a walking simulator in space. Regardless ADR1FT is best described as the unofficial game of the movie Gravity, even if it was conceived long before the movie’s release.

ADR1FT Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You awake in your spacesuit with destruction all about you. Something’s happen, something bad and your spacesuit is quickly losing oxygen. Worse still your suit’s propulsion system is broken, forcing you to use the very oxygen that’s keeping you alive to move around. There’s only one path to safety and that’s to revive the crippled station to the point of being able to launch one of the escape pods. To do so however you will have to traverse the wreckage of your once mighty craft and find out just what caused this catastrophe.

ADR1FT has a beautiful, futuristic aesthetic to it. The undamaged parts of the space station are almost exactly as you’d expect them to be: clinically clean and densely packed together to make the most of the limited space. It’s interesting then to contrast them against the utter destruction that abounds outside with pieces of space debris flying around everywhere. This is most certainly done as an aide to the overall plot, giving you a glimpse into the past which has now been shattered. Of course the best visuals come when you take yourself far away from the station and take in the glorious vista below. That might just be the space nerd in me though.

ADR1FT Review Screenshot Wallpaper Biodome

ADR1FT is, well, I guess you’d call it a space-walking simulator since you don’t do any actual walking in it. Your job is to repair the space station’s various subsystems in order to activate the escape pod that can take you back down to earth. To do this you’ll have to repair at least 3 critical subsystems, all of which require the same routine of activating the mainframe, manufacturing a new core and installing said core into the mainframe terminal. The challenges you’ll face between each of those will be different, depending on what arm it was (organics, navigation, power, communication) but it will all come down to the same mechanic: trying not to bump into anything and not running out of oxygen.

Navigating the environment is more challenging than you’d think it would be, mostly because it seems like your spacesuit is made out of paper. Any slight bump is enough to send cracks across your screen and turn the UI into a wobbly mess, making the already taxing task just that much more different. To the developer’s credit though this does work as a good motivator to not hit anything and you’ll likely improve rapidly. The movement mechanics are mostly accurate when it comes to movement in space however there are some limitations which prevent you from speeding through everything. For long time walking simulator players this probably won’t come as much of a surprise as it’s par for the course in this genre.

ADR1FT Review Screenshot Wallpaper You're Kidding Me Right

That slow speed however does make it a rather tedious affair at times, especially when you get turned around or misjudge where you’re supposed to go next. Done correctly I’m sure the game could be completed in as little as 2 hours however it’s quite likely you’ll get lost enough that that time is doubled. This would be ok if exploration was rewarded aptly but in ADR1FT it unfortunately isn’t. Sure you might uncover an audio log here or another collectible there but it’s not enough to drive you to do it more. It’s a shame because the voice acting and writing are quite well done, there’s just not enough of it to make me seek it.

As I mentioned before the main plot of ADR1FT is driven through various pieces of dialogue drip fed to you through audio logs and walls of text hidden throughout the environment. There’s enough to get a sense of what could have led to what happened on the space station but some of the larger questions are left unanswered. It’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential avenues left unexplored, some of which could have given the story a lot more depth and interest. Indeed it feels like ADR1FT falls into the same trap that many similar games have done in the past: letting the game mechanics get in the way of telling the story. If more of the main story was fed through more accessible means I’m sure I’d be singing a different tune.

ADR1FT Review Screenshot Wallpaper From Far Away

ADR1FT is a gorgeous space-walking simulator but little beyond that. The infinite expanse of space is expertly contrasted against the almost claustrophobic interior of the space station, giving you a sense of what came before and where you must go. The space walking is done well, with the expected kinds of limitations put in place for this genre. Unfortunately this slow movement hides much of the game’s dialogue which hampers its impact significantly. Overall I feel that ADR1FT is a well crafted game, and one worth playing just for the glorious views it provides, but unfortunately doesn’t deliver much more beyond that.

Rating: 7.5/10

ADR1FT is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 4 hours with 45% of the achievements unlocked.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Far Cry Primal: The Wenja Strikes Back.

Spurred on by the success of Far Cry 3 Ubisoft seems intent on transforming the series from its once long development cycle into a yearly release event. Whilst fans of the series are likely to relish this in the short term it does make one wonder just how long it can be sustained before it becomes as derided as other yearly franchises are. For now though it seems like Ubisoft haven’t yet run out of ideas to work into the Far Cry mold with the latest being Far Cry Primal. Whilst it retains much of the IP’s stylings Primal does manage to stand on its own, even if it’s still troubled by the same issues that come with all of Ubisoft Montreal’s open world titles.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Takkar, member of the Wenja tribe who has been travelling for many suns to reach the promised land of Oros. It has not been an easy journey, with your brother falling to a sabre-toothed tiger mere days before reaching your final destination. Upon arrival you learn that Wenja of Oros have been scattered to the wind, terrorized by another tribe who seeks to cannibalize the Wenja. It is up to you Takkar to unite the Wenja together and protect them against the Udam.

The Duna Engine 2 is as capable as ever, bringing with it the impressive visuals that are becoming a trademark for the Far Cry franchise. The graphics are at their most impressive when you’re up high, surveying the surrounding landscape and taking in the expansive views.  The wide and varied environments, whilst being completely unrealistic (seriously you can walk between a temperature tropic environment to snow capped mountains in under a day), are great a keeping the visual variety up even after hours of game play. The experience loses its sheen somewhat when you’re up close but that’s part for the course in these large open world sandbox games. It might not be a huge upgrade over its predecessor, even with my new beast rig powering it, but at least this time I was able to enjoy it in high frame rate G-Sync-ed goodness.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Lovely View

Far Cry Primal follows the series’ formula for the most part whilst brining in some new mechanics to make it stand out. You’ll still be assaulting outposts (stealthily if you have the patience), crafting using materials you gather along your journey and unlocking skills using the tried and true levelling system. On the flip side you now have a village to take care of, one that will provide you with numerous benefits as the population grows. You’ll also be quickly empowered with the ability to tame many of the animals you’ll stumble across, many of which will provide you with some additional benefit. These changes, coupled with the new setting and the limitations that come along with it, make Far Cry Primal feel familiar to those who’ve played the series before but different enough to keep you interested.

Combat keeps the same basic mechanics from the previous Far Cry titles however it’s limited by the array of weaponry you have at your disposal. Previous games usually threw dozens of weapons at you to use, allowing you to pick the perfect gun for any encounter. Primal, by contrast, is limited to a few types of weapons with each of them having 1 or 2 variants for you to unlock. This means that, for the most part, combat encounters will play out along a very similar line depending on which weapon you choose. Sure you can switch up at will but you’re either arrowing people from afar, jabbing at them with a spear or swinging your club wildly in the middle of a group of enemies. This limitation is born out of the setting, for the most part, and its admirable that Ubisoft stuck to it by not letting you build a crossbow or something equally out of place.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Become The Beast Master

The taming mechanic is definitely Far Cry Primal’s stand out feature, allowing you to have a predator by your side to take down enemies and provide a number of other benefits. It’s quite satisfying to find a rare animal, track it down, tempt it with bait and then claim it as your own. The master beast hunts, of which there are 3, are also quite enjoyable and provide you with a companion that feels completely overpowered. Indeed soon after I unlocked them I went straight for the sabre-toothed tiger quest which had the highest stats of all of them and, as a side benefit, is also rideable with the appropriate talents. Suffice to say most of the other beasts I tamed past that point didn’t really get much of a look in as the tiger is simply too good at what it does. This might be because it ties into the way I found myself playing (running in, bow blazing) so I’m sure the other beasts have their uses. Still it’s an idea that I’m sure Ubisoft could expand on, either in the Primal world or in other future Far Cry instalments.

The level and talent systems are well designed with talent points coming at you thick and fast. This means you’re never wanting for progression, ensuring that if you want to unlock a particular skill you shouldn’t be far off getting it. I favoured crafting/gathering skills mostly as that seemed to be the main roadblock but you could just as easily focus on other ones that improved your quality of life in other aspects. The better talents will require far more points than the lesser ones, something which does slow down progression a little towards the end. Still though there’s enough missions, encounters and random events around the place that it’s just a question of how much time you want to put in before you get bored.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Talents

Like all sandbox games though Far Cry Primal starts to get repetitive after a while. The encounters, non-campaign missions and even the outposts all play out very similarly. The enemies naturally progress up in toughness in the way you’d expect them to: gaining one-shot headshot protection, more armour, ability to call reinforcements, etc. Gathering becomes a chore when you have to track down rare animals or ingredients, something which the game does not really help you with at all (the map and scent trails rarely lead you to what you actually need). The one thing that Primal does have going for it though is that it’s a much more succint experience, clocking in at a couple hours shorter than most titles if you play it like I do, focusing on the campaign.

The main campaign is unfortunately a little confused, lacking the overall cohesiveness that previous titles had with the single arch-nemesis plot line that ran throughout the entire campaign. Instead it’s split into 3 different enemy tribes that threaten the Wenjas. There’s a semblance of continuity between them however upon beating what appears to be the “final” boss you’re simply sent back to your village to continue on. It was honestly very confusing as all the other titles, whilst having similar mini-bosses along the way, was always building up to a big final battle. Primal lacks that and unfortunately feels worse off for it. The individual stories are still interesting, it’s just that there’s nothing to combine them all together into one whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts.

Far Cry Primal Review Screenshot Wallpaper Break the Moon

Far Cry Primal shows that yearly franchise releases can be done whilst still bringing fresh ideas to the table. The base game elements will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the Far Cry series with enough new elements to keep you coming back for hours on end. The taming mechanic is the best feature, adding in a new layer of game play that none of the other instalments have had. However it’s still not able to break away from the issues that plague sand box style games, which is only made worse by the lack of cohesion in the main story and campaign missions. It was a fun 12 hours though but definitely not a game I’d want to invest enough time into to 100% (which, by my rough calculations, would take about 36 hours). Far Cry Primal is definitely worth a look in however, both for Far Cry fans and general gamers alike.

Rating: 8.5/10

Far Cry Primal is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 37% completion.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Outrun: A Neon Music Player.

Just as the indie resurgence saw the rebirth of game genres from the golden age so have other mediums seen the old come new once again. The new music genres of synthpop, vaporwave and future funk are all examples of this, seeking to capture the essence of the 80s/90s music scene and revamp it for current times. With them has also come the aesthetic of the time something which Outdrive embodies whole heartedly. Indeed Outdrive is more a tribute to this music scene than it is an actual game, serving mostly as a neon-slathered music player.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You play as, I believe, a reformed criminal who’s trying to leave his old life behind him. You can’t believe that you’ve managed to find a second chance with this girl who’s taken you, and all your faults, into her life without question. Unfortunately tragedy strikes and she’s mortally wounded by your former crew and the only chance you have to save her is to hook her up to your car (really). Now you must drive to keep her alive. How long she lives for is up to you and your driving abilities.

Outdrive’s visuals take cues from the 80’s stylized vision of the future with bright neon glows drenching the jagged, low poly landscape. There’s also a few distinctive elements to really seal the retro-future vibe like the low-fi sun that hangs over the landscape and the 80’s styled billboards. The environments aren’t terribly detailed, something which isn’t an issue most of the time since you’re flying past them, but does mean that once you’ve driven past them twice you’ve basically seen it all. There’s really not much else to say about Outdrive’s visuals as what you see in the screenshots here are pretty much what you get.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Neon City

The game play is a pretty simple driving simulator that uses pre-generated segments that are randomly mashed together. You have to keep your speed up in order to make sure the girl stays alive, but not so fast as to hurt her. There’s going to be various objects that will get in your way, including an attack helicopter, but even the most egregious of crashes likely won’t lead to the girl dying. Indeed you can bump, grind and floor it constantly without any ill effects which takes any semblance of challenge out of the game completely. Given that it’s mostly focused on the music above anything else I’m not completely surprised but that does mean that, as a game, Outdrive doesn’t really stack up.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the kind of music that Outdrive is promoting and do enjoy the odd mindless game when I want a break from the more cerebral titles I find myself playing. However once you’ve played Outdrive for 10 minutes or so you’ll have figured it out completely and likely seen every landscape it has to offer. The music, whilst great, isn’t enough to hold the game together. It’s a bit of a shame as putting a little more effort into the overall experience would have made it so much better, rather than it just being a nice visual MP3 player.

Outdrive Review Screenshot Wallpaper Chopper Attack

Outdrive does a good job of showcasing the music it set out to highlight however, as a game, it simply fails to deliver anything above a rudimentary driving experience. Visually it’s impressive, capturing that retro-future feeling aptly with its bright neon glows and muted hues. However when it comes down to it the game is unchallenging and not particularly interesting. It’s a shame as more effort put into the actual game itself would have made the entire experience so much better. It’s still worth a look in if this kind of music appeals to you, as it does to me, but for anyone else this one is probably best left to one side.

Rating: 6.0/10

Outdrive is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

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.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

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.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper ECHO

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.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper Disrupt The Arms Deal

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.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper Beautiful Graffiti

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.

The Division Review Screenshot Wallpaper Gear

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.