I don’t pretend to be all up on American politics, I look to much more intelligent people than I for understanding of those matters, but if there’s one thing that I know inside and out its space and the industry that surrounds it in the USA. As it’s campaign time now in the USA presidential hopefuls turn to high rhetoric and sweeping promises in order to win votes for their elections and the space program is not immune to this. Indeed it seems that NASA is most often used as a rhetorical tool that ends up under-delivering on its promises, mostly because those promises aren’t backed up with the appropriate funding.
Jumping back a presidency you can see why this was so, with George Bush’s vision for space exploration that had us returning to the moon by 2020. Instead of adding additional funding to complete those goals and all of those already set out for NASA much of the vision was funded out of cancelling other projects, like the Shuttle and their involvement with the International Space Station. What this resulted in was a program that was under-funded and ultimately impinged heavily on NASA’s ability to conduct many of their other core directives. The VSE was then replaced by the Obama administration which had a larger focus on building core space exploration infrastructure whilst out-sourcing rudimentary activities to the private sector, a much better direction for NASA to head in.
Newt Gingrich, current candidate for the Republican nomination, made some sweeping statements about how he’d reform NASA and see Bush’s original vision achieved. He would see a permanent moon base by 2020, a good chunk of NASA’s budget allocated for private incentives and a culling of some of the bureaucracy. They’re ambitious goals, especially considering that Bush made similar ones almost a decade prior that are no where close to being achieved. Still there are some good ideas contained within his vision, but a whole lot more that just show a total lack of understanding.
As always Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job of tearing it down than I ever could:
Neil hits on a point that I’ve long held true: NASA should be charged with advancing space frontiers and the private sector should be tasked with the things that are now routine. We’re already seeing that kind of industry develop what with companies like SpaceX gearing up to resupply the ISS with several others developing along the same lines. This is where the private industry does well but it does not do well in pushing the frontier forward. That’s an inherently risky venture, one that’s very unlikely to be undertaken by any private agency. Advancing the frontier is the realm of the government and NASA is the agency to do it.
Where I do agree with Newt though is the slimming down of the NASA bureaucracy. Much of the costs incurred by the Shuttle program was the standing army of people it had, not the actual launches themselves. The original plan of launching often, up to 50 missions per year, would have drastically reduced the impact this standing army had on the cost per launch of the Shuttle. With the cancellation of the shuttle program much of that will have already been cut but NASA is still quite a large agency. How that would be achieved is left as an exercise to the reader.
Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary amounts of support and whilst I’d love to believe that Gingrich would follow through with this idea I’ve seen how ideas like this have panned out in the past. Thankfully, with or without Gingrich’s interference, the private space industry is setting itself up as being a viable replacement for the rudimentary activities that NASA needs not bother themselves with any more. What I’d like to see now is Obama’s vision for NASA has changed since he cancelled constellation and whether or not he falls victim to the same high rhetoric trap of over-promising and then not support the vision.
As game releases goes it doesn’t get much bigger than the Call of Duty series. The most recent instalment in the series, Modern Warfare 3, was released just last week and has already sold a whopping 6.5 million copies. That number doesn’t include sales outside of the USA or the UK and even that’s enough to make Modern Warfare 3 the biggest entertainment release of all time across any medium. Considering that Modern Warfare 3’s predecessors also set records of similar calibre in their time it should come as no surprise that they were able to do it once again. The question remains though are those sales figures indicative of something innate about Modern Warfare 3 (I.E. is it actually a good game) or merely a product of solid marketing? For the first time on The Refined Geek I was sent a copy of this game to review and I’ve spent the past week diligently doing so.
Modern Warfare 3 drops you hours after the events that unfolded in Modern Warfare 2 with Soap slowly dying whilst you, playing as one of Nikolai’s best soldiers Yuri, attempt to help save him. Meanwhile World War 3 is still continuing and you’ll then play as Frost one of the members of Delta Squad who’s been charged with driving the Russians out of New York by using one of their own attack subs against them. Throughout the single player campaign you’ll switch between Frost, Yuri and (towards the end) Price as you play out different parts of the larger story arc.
Now I’ll be honest here, when I reviewed Battlefield 3 a week ago I criticised its single player for being tedious but I couldn’t shake the feeling in the back of my head that I’d been overly harsh on it. For the most part I figure that was because I was expecting too much for the single player when at its heart Battlefield 3 is a multiplayer game just like Modern Warfare 3 is. However the differences between the two games single player campaigns could not be more stark as right from the get go Modern Warfare 3 sets the stage for action packed, run and gun fun. It only took me half an hour with Modern Warfare 3 to realise that Infinity Ward are extremely adept at crafting an epic cinematic experience, one far superior to that of Battlefield 3’s single player.
Indeed the set pieces you’ll play in are quite spectacular. The environments you’ll play in are quite varied, ranging from towering city scapes to the vast depths of a Russian diamond mine. Whilst many of the campaign scenes form the basis of the multiplayer maps they are thankfully not the same maps like in Battlefield 3. For the most part the single player sections of Modern Warfare 3 are quite intimate with most taking place in what can be most aptly described as a giant corridor. It’s not a particularly bad thing but compared to Battlefield 3’s expansive environments it can leave you feeling a little wanting for the giant environments of yore. Still they’re usually littered with alternative paths which open up all sorts of different tactics.
Combat in Modern Warfare 3 is polished to the point of perfection. Whilst the cover based regenerative health style of game play is far from inventive Infinity Ward has it down to a T so well that the only complaint you can have about it is the unoriginality. The NPCs that accompany you, whilst not being on the same level as a real human, are not the next to useless meat bags that plagued me in Battlefield 3. Combine these with weapons (and on occasion awesome gadgets like the UGV pictured above) and the combat is satisfying, gritty and above all just plain fun.
If there was one genuine complaint that I’d level at Modern Warfare 3’s combat is actually too easy. Now according to my time with Robert Bowling each of the platforms recieved the same amount of development time which kind of rules out my theory that the PC version is a well polished port that dumbs down the difficulty for those who have to aim with their thumbs. Now I didn’t play the game through on its hardest difficulty, opting for Hardened or whatever the second hardest was, but this is a complaint I’ve heard echoed by several other people who have played on the hardest setting. It could be argued that this lack of difficulty is one of the things that adds to the enjoyment of the game (and indeed it does mean that it’s a very well paced game) but it does make Modern Warfare 3 stand out as something aimed more at new comers to the series rather than seasoned FPS gamers like myself.
Thinking about it more there are quite a few signs that Modern Warfare 3 tends much more towards the playable movie side of the spectrum than your traditional FPS title. You’ll spend the entire game following someone and taking their orders rather than being let out on the loose by yourself to try and accomplish the mission. If you dare to deviate from the carefully constructed plot you’ll usually be greeted with a mission failed or flooded with waves of enemies you can’t hope to defeat. In that sense then if you think of Modern Warfare 3 as a playable movie more than a game then it accomplishes that quite well, even if that’s counter intuitive to what you’d expect from a game like this.
Overall the single player is a great way to blow 4~5 hours and whilst it might feel like you’re on rails and everything is a tad too easy ultimately I found myself having a blast playing the hero in Modern Warfare 3. One of my friends captured the essence of Modern Warfare games aptly by saying they’re like a Matthew Reilly book: an action packed read with a plot that’s nothing deep but enough to get you by; an afternoon of solid entertainment. Of course everyone knows that the single player is just a mere distraction on the road to the real reason why everyone buys the Modern Warfare games: the multiplayer.
Honestly at first I was thoroughly confused with the multiplayer in Modern Warfare 3. Sure I had played it back at the preview a couple months ago and nothing had really changed in the interim (as far as I could tell) but the differences between Treyarch’s and Infinity Ward’s style of multiplayer is quite stark. For starters nearly everything in the game has a level attached to it from weapons to perks to you the player. At the start this is somewhat overwhelming especially when you consider that the built in classes have access to weapons and perks that you can’t unlock until later levels. Indeed you can’t create your own class until level 4, leaving you to stumble through the first few without a class that you created. For someone who got kind of used to making his own choices this was a bit irritating, but it didn’t last for long.
Levelling in Modern Warfare 3 is incredibly fast paced with rewards, unlocks and achievements being thrown at you constantly for doing almost anything in the game. Unlike Black Ops where you’d spend in game cash to buy upgrades for your weapons they’re instead unlocked progressively as you use the weapon in multiplayer matches. This is good and bad as you don’t have to worry about not having the cash required to get the upgrade you want but it also means that the best upgrades are reserved for those who use the weapon the longest. You see I found it quite fun in Black Ops to be able to switch to a completely new weapon and deck it out fully before diving into another game with it. In Modern Warfare 3 this isn’t really possible as I’d instead have to grind out that weapon in order to fully unlock it. The result is you pretty much stick with one weapon until you unlock the next best one, which can take a little while. All that being said though it only took me about 4 hours of play to reach level 22 which isn’t bad considering the level cap is 80.
What did disappoint me however was the lack of dedicated servers for ranked play. You see with Black Ops you had the familiar server browser where you could find the servers you wanted to play on and go play there. Modern Warfare 3 brings back the dreaded peer to peer system for ranked play and leaves the dedicated servers for strictly unranked play. I can understand why this decision was made but the fact of the matter is that peer to peer multiplayer is a sub-par experience for PC gamers. Whilst initially I found it to be trouble free the last couple hours saw many host migrations with several of them ending with me being disconnected from the game completely. Black Ops (and Battlefield 3) had none of these issues and they also don’t seem to struggle with hackers on their servers either. It’s unfortunate that Infinity Ward choose this direction again but it looks like they’re set in their ways with this one.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 stands as a testament to Infinity Ward’s ability to produce AAA titles time and time again. Sure they’re unoriginal and formulaic but they’ve got that down so well that when you start playing them all those thoughts melt away a cacophony of explosions, explicatives and enemies. The multiplayer is, as always, thoroughly enjoyable and the persistent levelling system will see me playing it long after this review is written. It’s not all roses however and the things I’ve panned Modern Warfare 3 for could have easily been averted by Infinity Ward. Overall Modern Warfare 3 is a great game and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to long time Call of Duty fans and new comers alike.
Rating: 8.5 / 10
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $89.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Harderned difficulty with 4 hours and 37% completion. 4 hours of multiplayer was also played with majority being spent in the team deathmatch mode. A copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek for the purposes of reviewing.
What can I say about Starcraft that hasn’t already been said? The game was released over a decade ago and is still the definitive standard for what a real time strategy game should be. I can remember my times with it fondly, playing through the campaign as it was laid out before me, savouring every mission and becoming wholly engrossed in the story. Years later I would return to the game to play it online with a friend of mine, my first taste of real competitive online gaming. I became hooked on custom maps, playing everything from RPGs to the first versions of tower defense. As the years went on Starcraft remained on my hard drive and nearly every LAN I would attend saw it copied around and played for at least a couple games. Truly Starcraft was the game that just would not die and it’s sequel has been the talk of my friends for the past couple weeks. Its legacy is undeniable and a lesser game development company would struggle to keep to meet such expectations. Blizzard however is not one to disappoint.
Starcraft 2 takes place 4 years after the events of Starcraft: Broodwar. You play as Jim Raynor, former Vulture pilot turned revolutionary after his former leader Arcturus Mengsk wiped out an entire planet using the Zerg. The plot initially focuses around Raynor’s desire to overthrow Mengsk, who he now believes to be worse than the confederate leaders that came before him. This sets the scene for the initial set of missions as you set about building your army by gathering resources, completing missions for credits and finding new units with which to proceed forward. Each mission is given to you by one of your crew mates and they serve to build the characters as the story progresses.
The mission delivery format is completely different from the usual affair you might be familiar with in the RTS genre. Whilst most would simply limit you to certain units until after a number of missions were complete Starcraft 2 instead gives you the opportunity to choose which units you receive next as well as the upgrades that they receive. This can be both a blessing and a curse as some missions are trivialized by certain units whilst others require a certain unit to be able to complete some objectives. Additionally the game includes a Zerg and Protoss research tree which you can unlock by finding items or killing a particular unit during a mission. The upgrades unlocked from this tree are game altering and depending on your choices can make the difference between a mission being a breeze and it being nigh on impossible.
The upgrade and non-linear missions ensures that everyone’s play through of Starcraft 2 will be quite different, ensuring that even if you only play the campaign you’ll have a good few replays before the game is done. Whilst there’s always a strategy that trivilizes a mission the infinite amount of possibilities for completing an objective had lead to quite a few entertaining stories with my Starcraft playing friends. I think most of my missions past a certain point can be summed up by the quote: “Siege tanks are like violence, if they don’t solve the problem use more”.
Starcraft 2’s non-combat experience really draws the game together. Whilst you only have 4 places to visit most of the time the interactions between they never seem to get stale as their landscape changes as you progress through the campaign. The interactions with various members of your crew between missions helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations and nearly all of the decision moments in the game were influenced by these short bits of dialogue with my crew members. There’s nothing to lose by not interacting with them but if you’re a lore sponge like myself you’ll be clicking on every crew member after every mission, eagerly awaiting what they have to hear.
All of this would be for naught if the game play itself was nothing special. In the beginning the differences between Starcraft 2 and its predecessor are almost all graphical which is no small feat in itself. Each and every map is deliciously detailed in true Blizzard fashion, using every polygon to create a stylized but highly engrossing world. All the controls you’re familiar with from Starcraft work as expected in the sequel with many augmentations to make handling large groups of units far easier. All the units and buildings will be instantly recognizable as well with the new units and augmentations giving you enough variety to feel like you’re playing Starcraft but not one that’s just a revamp of its predecessor.
What really seals the deal for the single player campaign of Starcraft 2 is the absolute uniqueness of every mission. Throughout the 26 missions that you’ll play through each of them has something different that will force you to rethink the usual “build big army, attack move to enemy” strategy that got you through other RTSs. From avoiding a rising lava tide to robbing a train to preventing (or not) Terran colonies from being purged by the Protoss you’ll always be trying to figure out the optimal strategy for taking out your opponent. Taking the last mission as a great example of this the list of strategies I have for finishing it are probably the most varied of any game I’ve seen before. It really is a testament to Blizzard’s ability to build a complex and intriguing game.
I initially lamented the idea of including achievements in the game as I viewed them as just something that “has to be done” these days, rather than something that enhanced game play. For most games this still rings true with many achievements being quite pointless and merely serve to try and increase the replayability of the title. Whilst achievements weren’t my foucs whilst playing through the missions initially I’ve found myself going back to get the achievements simply because they make you a better player for doing them. Many of them require careful force management or using carefully planned out strategies to accomplish the goal. I’m still under half of the achievements done but I can see myself coming back to finish them off for a long time to come as a single mission can be done inside 30 mins.
If there’s one thing we can attribute the original Starcraft’s longevitiy to it’s the multiplayer. Blizzard spent years tweaking and refining the multiplayer and it shows as it was one of the few games that anyone could call truly balanced. Starcraft 2 is no exception as whilst I’ve only just dipped my toes into the revamped Battle.net I quickly lost 4 hours on a saturday night playing 10 matches with one of my long timefriends. The party system and new socially focused interface made connecting with fellow Starcraft players extremely easy. Whilst I lament that they’ve removed LAN play I can see the reasoning behind it since the interface is so heavily integrated with Battle.net. Still they’ve thought of nearly everything from keeping the last 10 replays (since you never always remember to save the ones you need to) to make getting into a match no harder than a couple clicks and waiting for the match to begin.
What really binds this entire game together though is the story that Blizzard has masterfully crafted into an epic tale of redemption, love and loss. Each and every character is exteremely believable, all having their own motivations for being involved with Raynor’s quest. The interactions between the characters are real and there’s distinct growth for all of the major players as the story unfolds. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling any points that I feel you must experience on your own but rest assured Blizzards reputation of telling great stories with amazing games is not let down by the first installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
I must also commend Blizzard for their 3D artists and animators. I’m a stickler for motion capture as the technology is at a point where it shouldn’t be hard to get it right. Starcraft 2 stanmds out as an example of not only getting it right but doing it so well that I didn’t even notice how well it was done until I took a step back to analyze it critically. The movements of the characters and units are fluid and most importantly they get the lip syncing spot on with the dialogue. After the disaster that was Alan Wake’suse of motion capture I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Blizzard’s work. Additionally the full cinematic sequences are tear inducingly good with the attention to detail surpassing that of what I’ve come to expect even from 3D film production houses. I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself should Blizzard ever state they were going to make a full length movie of any of their franchises.
Starcraft 2 is one of those shining examples of a game where everything about it stands out as an example of how things ought to be done. The story and gameplay make for an extremely enjoyable single player experience that will provide you many hours of enjoyment even after you’ve completed it once. The multiplayer just plain works and once you’ve had your first taste of victory you’ll never be able to look at the shortcut on your desktop again without thinking about diving in for “one quick match”. Overall I can’t recommend the game enough for those who enjoyed the first Starcraft and wholeheartedly recommend anyone who considers themselves a gamer to play the game through at least once. 12 years is a long time to go between releasing a game but Blizzard has managed to make something that justifies the long wait and I can’t wait to see the next installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
Starcraft 2 is available right now exclusively on PC for $79. Game was played on the Hard difficulty for all missions with approximately 30% of the achievements acquired in the first playthrough and around 18 hours of play time.