Monthly Archives: April 2012

Botanicula: So Much Joy.

The Humble Indie Bundle has been my source for many independent games that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. The pay-what-you-want model works spectacularly in the instance and I’ve always paid a lot more than the average so I get all the extra goodies. It was then without a second thought that I ponied up for the most recent release which was primarily for the release of Amanita Design’s Boatanicula, a curious little platform game that just beams with cutness from every angle.

Botanicula puts you in control of a quintet of characters, all of which appear to be either a seed or young form of some kind of plant. The opening scenes paint a picture of a tranquil, happy life of all these disparate species coexisting together on a giant tree. However a spider like entity threatens every living thing that dwells within it, sucking the very life out of every thing that it touches. The quintet’s hope lies within a single seed that they’re endeavouring to plant before all life on the tree is inevitably wiped out and the adventures that entail along their journey.

There’s something to be said for games that make the most of their chosen medium and Botanicula is one that does this to perfection. Every panel is abosolutely gorgeous, brimming with vibrant colours and soft glow effects that are very visually appealing. Unlike point and click adventures of times gone past Botanicula doesn’t make interactive sections obvious by colouring them differently which, whilst slightly irksome at the start, gave all the scenes an even visual feel without any jarring distractions. This is only surpassed by how the scenes evolve as the player interacts with them, bringing ever more life into them the more you dared click.

Coupled with this gorgeous visual art is an equally impressive arrangement for the music and foley. Instead of using typical sound effects Botanicula uses the human voice for nearly everything and I’m pleased to say it does so to great effect. There’s something joyous about clicking around on the various plants and insects only to have them respond with a cheerful sound or have the character’s speech be a long sentence of nonsense that’s aptly portrayed by a thought bubble above their head. I think this was by far my favourite aspect of Botanicula as I’ve never had so much fun listening to people make funny noises.

At its heart Botanicula is a point and click adventure with all the puzzle solving gooddness that comes along with it. Like all good games in its genre the puzzles start off pretty easy, usually being simple hunt and peck type deals with an over-arching goal of collecting x of something in order to progress to the next level. Afterwards they start to ramp up in the difficultly level slowly eventually getting to rather complicated puzzles that even left me guessing for a good amount of time. For the most part they’re pretty enjoyable and quite satisfying when completed but there are a few issues that plague them.

Now I’m not sure if this was because my desktop resolution was larger than Botanicula was able to display (as evidenced by the black borders around the screenshots) or something else but interaction with it was sometimes a little gummy. Whilst it was quite responsive to regular clicks on interactive objects anything that required some kind of movement with the cursor was plagued with unpredictable motion. One such puzzle was to get push a nut out a hole in order to knock a key down and attempting to do so was not an exact science with the nut reacting unpredictably. I can see how it might be better on a tablet when you don’t have a cursor to contend with but with a mouse and its ever-present presence on the screen I found myself having to come up with other solutions when precision movement was required.

Apart from that however the puzzles were pretty much all good with the only stumbling block being myself. For the most part it was lack of attention that usually caught me out, sending me on a wild goose chase for 10~20 minutes while I tried to find the last thing to progress to the next level. I did use a walkthrough guide a couple times when I started to get frustrated but for the most part the game was easy enough to get through whilst still providing a good challenge.

After playing through Botanicula I came away with two very distinct feelings about the game’s target audience and where they should be headed in the future. Whilst adults will find much to enjoy in the world of Botanicula I can’t help but feel that this game would be so great for kids as everything seems to fit the bill for this being an amazing game for them. The vibrant colours, extraordinarily cute characters and playful soundscape seem perfect for something to delight kids with.

Botanicula also feels like it would be very much at home on a tablet like an iPad or Android equivalent. Indeed my one gripe, the iffy mouse pointer control sections, seems like it would be a non-issue on a tablet platform. This also plays somewhat into it being a great game for kids as well as I know many parents use their iPads to keep the kids quiet on long journeys. To their credit Amanita Designs has said that an iPad version is already in the works and I’ll be very eager to see how it fairs in comparison to its PC cousin.

The story of Botanicula, whilst simplistic, is ultimately sastifying. Even though there’s no actual dialog you still get a feel for all the character’s personalities and quirks. The conclusion is predictable but it’s still worth seeing through to the end just for the fun of it.

Botanicula shows the reason why I continue to spend money on the Humble Indie Bundles without putting much thought into the games that I’m buying. My hit rate with unresearched titles has been quite high and I’m glad I can count Amanita Design’s latest release amongst them. If you’re a fan of point and clicks or just well executed games then Botanicula won’t disappoint and I couldn’t hesittate to recommened it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Botanicula is available on PC, OSX and Linux right now for $9.99. Game was played entirely on the PC with 3.3 hours played, 75% of the achievements unlocked and a final score of 108/125.

Another Quantum Leap Forward For Computing.

Sometimes I feel like quantum computing is like cold fusion. There’s been a lot of theoretical work around how it could possibly done and there have even been a few people peddling devices that claim to do exactly what the research says but the claims have never been quite substantiated. After posting about D-Wave selling one of their quantum computers in the middle of last year I did some further research and found that whilst they might’ve created a qubit (like many have done before them) their 128 qubit computer had not yet been verified as being a 128 entangled qubit computer, a critical difference between quantum and classical computing.

However news came to me today of another possible advancement in the world of quantum computing. Physicists for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have created a simulator capable of replicating a quantum computer with hundreds of qubits. This is an order of magnitude higher than other experiments have done (classical simulation of quantum computers has been limited to around 30 qubits) and the amount of computing power available with that many qubits is some 1080 greater than current processor technology. Critically the simulator is also able to replicate quantum entanglement between qubits, the bugbear that D-Wave has yet to put to rest. What’s really special about this simulator is that it allows researchers to alter properties that they couldn’t normally do with regular solids, something which will allow them to gain further insights into how to craft qubits for use in general computing.

Whilst this is unequivocally a major advancement in the field of quantum computing we’re still a long way off from seeing a working device based on those principles. Like many of its quantum computing brethren the NIST device still requires exotic cooling solutions for it to work (like D-Wave’s computer requiring liquid helium) relegating it solely to the lab for the time being. Additionally the NIST device isn’t much of a quantum computer at the moment, just a device which allows us to simulate what a quantum computer would be like. What this means is that for now we can’t really run any kind of computation on it, we can only explore how varying the properties affects things like the entanglement or coherency of the qubit. Such a device is still crucial to advancing the field of quantum computing however but its still a ways off from practical usage.

Thinking about it more there is one key difference between cold fusion and quantum computing: the latter has seen great progress (both theoretically and practically) whilst the former has not. It’s more akin to regular fusion in that way, being an incredibly complicated problem that we’ve demonstrated is possible to do but will take decades for us to perfect. The further we get into these fields the quicker the revelations come and I have no doubt that the next couple decades will see amazing advances in both those fields.

Mining Asteroids May Not Be Science Fiction For Long.

I’ve long heard tales of how profitable asteroid mining could be. This is because asteroids, unlike Earth, tend to have higher concentrations of rare minerals with some even being almost entirely metallic, in essence taking out all the hard work of digging it up out of the ground. However actually mining asteroids or other heavenly bodies is a devastatingly expensive exercise as you have to haul all your equipment up there, conduct the mining operation, and then safely get the minerals back to Earth. Nothing along the way is trivial and whilst there’s been a great number of advancements making the trip there and back easier no one has yet tried to tackle the problem of mining in space.

However news has started circulating of a new company that’s setting its sights on just such a lofty goal and its name is Planetary Resources.

Now any company with such a lofty goal would attract some attention from the press but Planetary Resources is doing so for additional reasons: the people who are backing this project. We can count amongst them people like Tom Jones (a former NASA astronaut), Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Google co-founders) and none other than James Cameron himself. The list seems to go on and it’s clear that this company must have some concrete plans to actually achieve their vision in order to attract such talent and some of those plans have just come to light.

Planetary Resources has already done some of the groundwork required in order for their business model to work. They’ve set their sites initially on Near Earth Asteroids of which there are about 8,840 known (although more are discovered every year). Of those known objects approximately 150 of them are thought to be water rich and require less energy to reach than going to the moon. They are then going to launch a high powered space telescoped designed to prospect these asteroids from afar within the next 2 years. It is likely that they will attempt to find the largest of these asteroids that are close enough together, allowing one launch to reach multiple asteroids.

Part of Planetary Resources goal is to make accessing such asteroids cheaper and this will be accomplished by establishing orbital refuelling stations on the way to those near earth objects. I’ve written in the past how these kinds of stations are required if we want to be serious about exploring and establishing a human presence beyond that of our current planet and it thrills me to see a company making this idea a reality. Such stations will not only make their activities much more economically feasible it will also allow agencies like NASA to be far more ambitious with their future projects, something which they’ve been lacking of late.

Details beyond that however are somewhat scant. Planetary Resources has declined to say when they’ll be breaking ground on an asteroid so the only solid timeline we have from them is that they’ll launch a telescope in under 2 years. Whilst there’s been some research showing that a mission could potentially be done by 2025 that was entirely theoretical and put the cost somewhere north of $2 billion. Now that’s not out of reach of Planetary Resources, several of their backers have fortunes that amount to several times that, but there’s no indication that they’ll be able to meet that schedule. I’m hopeful that they’ll be able to reach their goal eventually but until we start to see some real progress from them it’s best to not speculate too heavily.

Regardless of my apparent scepticism I’m still very excited by this announcement. We’re starting to see the combined efforts of many disparate companies beginning to create a snowball effect, one that’s creating a flourishing private space industry that was only recently a science fiction fantasy. We are so incredibly lucky to be living in a time that’s akin to the aviation revolution of the last century. I’m a fervent believer that within our lifetimes we’ll see commodity level space travel and I cannot wait to be a passenger.

On Valve’s Corporate Structure (Or Lack Thereof).

I was a big believer in the typical corporate structure for a very long time, mostly because I wanted to be the one at the top of it. There’s something attractive about being the one at the top and for quite a long time I tried to position my career in such a way that I could become an executive in some nameless company at an undetermined point in the future. I didn’t realize how bad I was at the whole management thing after I killed my university project, no it took me another 2 years to figure out that being at the top of a corporate structure wasn’t for me. I needed to be the one building things.

That’s not to say I can’t succeed in such structures myself, far from it. Being in Australia’s capital city, a town that is basically a giant shrine to bureaucracy, I’ve come to learn how to operate within traditional management structures in a such a way so that I have an incredible amount of freedom whilst also staying within the confines of my designated role. Sure I might not be able to simply up and change my job whenever I feel like it but I’ve rarely felt my creative freedom restrained when it comes to solving the various problems that get thrown my way. Still I’ve always been fascinated with non-traditional management structures and yesterday I came across an incredibly novel one.

It was that of the game development company Valve.

Yesterday one of my long time friends linked me to Valve’s new starter guide book, a typical document you’d expect from pretty much any organisation. It made for some incredibly fascinating reading mostly because it’s unlike any other that I’ve read before. Where there’s usually pictures of organisational charts, links to company policies and reams of out dated information there was instead a comprehensive guide to how Valve functions as a company and how all the employees fit into it. Astonishingly the biggest revelation in there, for me at least,  was that there is in essence no organisational structure at all.

For someone who cut his teeth in a world ruled by bureaucracy such an idea seems incredibly foreign, so much so I initially struggled to figure out how it would work. I mean how does anyone get any work done if there isn’t someone controlling the whole process from the top? As it turns out the process mimics what I envision happens when a lot of talented people get together: ideas start circulating and once they reach a critical mass of supporters they form a cohesive group in order to achieve that vision. Valve in that sense is a kind of idea incubator that enables their employees to chase their passions and should those passions resonate with others it will find its way into reality.

That to me feels like an inspired way of creating a company. The guide admits that whilst this idea works for Valve they’re not sure it would work for everyone as rogue agents operating in such an environment can do incredible amounts of damage. However when you note that Valve makes more profit per employee than Apple or Google  then you have to figure that their process has some merit to it. Being fully privately owned also helps them quite a bit as I’m sure that share holders would be uncomfortable with a company that seems to be in a constant flux.

Would I start a company with a mantra like Valves? I definitely believe in some of the core principles (like hiring people smarter than you) and I do tend to favor less management than more so I could see some form of it working for a company that I’d like to start. Maybe it’s just the residual “I need to be at the top” mentality inside me that’s having trouble letting go of the idea but Valve’s way of doing business seems a lot better than the way I’ve been thinking about it.

I Am Alive: Staying Alive Never Felt This Hard.

I cut my teeth on many of the first generation of survival horror games and for the most part I really enjoyed them. The first 3 Resident Evils are some of the most vivid gaming experiences I can remember and Silent Hill still rates up there as one of the most cerebral gaming experiences I had as a teenager. However I can’t say that the genre is one of my favorites owing mostly to the fact that horror, in general, tends to bore me (I feel asleep in The Grudge, for example). I Am Alive seemed like a fresh take on the genre from what little I had heard about it so I figured it was worth another shot.

I Am Alive puts you in control of a man named Adam who, after surviving the worldwide apocalyptic event that’s only referred to as “The Event”, has spent the past year trekking cross country to try and find his wife and daughter. The story begins with him just arriving outside the fictional town of Haventon where he begins filming his adventures, ostensibly so that if he doesn’t make it that someone might find the footage and deliver it to his wife and daughter. You then proceed to make your way through the town towards your old apartment and hopefully to be reunited with your family once again.

Graphically I Am Alive is quite desolate with a highly muted color palette that paints everything in varying shades of grey, brown and black. For a post apocalyptic setting its somewhat fitting but in terms of actual graphics it feels like its 1 or 2 years behind the current level I’ve come to expect from PS3 titles. This is probably a symptom of its long development cycle as it has been in production since 2008 and has changed developers from Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai in that time. It’s a shame as the plot gave them a really good excuse to use high-poly models for nearly everything whilst keeping the draw distances to a minimum, but I guess the models that ended up in the game were high poly back in 2008.

I Am Alive, like every game seems to do these days, combines several different distinct game mechanics in order to put an unique spin on the usual survival horror type game. Most notably is the addition of Assassin’s Creed style obstacle climbing which functions as both a tension device as well as for exploration. Unlike Assassin’s Creed (and almost any other game that has climbing in it) I Am Alive instead limits you to a short bursts of climbing and gives you tools to use that can extend that time period. As you progress further through the story the climbing puzzles become more complex as they add in additional moves and further restrictions on how your character moves about in the world.

The climbing works well enough and the limited amount of time adds both a strategic element as well as functioning as a tension/suspense builder. The controls for climbing are somewhat wonky however with Adam flailing wildly around obstacles if you don’t position the camera and movement sticks just right. Additionally whilst most of the climbing is contextually aware there are many points when its painfully not, such as when you’re climbing a ladder and you reach the top. Most games would just have your character vault up there but I Am Alive doesn’t, instead having you push X. This might sound like a minor nit pick (and I’m sure many will argue that awkward controls are a staple of survival horror) but it happens often enough that it’s a chore more than anything.

Inventory management is thankfully quite simple although I Am Alive does take the “survival” part of survival horror to whole new levels. Even though I’m a trained RPG’er who’s natural instinct is to seek out every nook and cranny that they can find I was often left coming up empty handed. It was frustrating at first but after a certain point, once I had figured out most of the other mechanics, I started to get into a situation like the one above where I pretty much had multiples of everything I could ever need. Mostly this was from abusing the checkpoint system which seems to have only been half thought out.

So for each section, when you’re playing in normal mode at least, you start off with 3 retries which allow you to restart when you get to a checkpoint. When you reach said checkpoints is not made obvious to you so sometimes you’ll lose a couple minutes and other times up to half an hour. However you can get extra retires by helping out other survivors, usually by giving them something from your inventory. In some sections this means that should you die there will be a survivor you can help right in front of you, effectively giving you unlimited retries at a particular section. It’s even funnier when I discovered that there was one place where I could get 2 retries per death, effectively giving me unlimited retries for not much effort. I didn’t do this intentionally at first but needless to say after repeating the section a couple times I had more retries than I needed for the rest of the game.

Combat, if you could call it that, is a strategic game of picking out who to kill first. There are a lot of people in the I Am Alive world and most of them are defending their territory in one way or another. If you don’t run or draw your weapon most won’t attack immediately with the more aggressive ones approaching you. This is usually the point where you machete them right in the throat and then proceed to threaten the rest of them with your gun, whether you have bullets or not. You’re also given the option to knock some of them out but the opportunity to do so isn’t always available.

Indeed whilst I Am Alive leads you to believe early on that you can usually resolve matters without having to massacre everyone you in fact have to kill basically anyone who threatens you bar the last person in the group. Even then they might not submit to you and will gladly attack you should you turn your back on them for even a second. They also don’t seem to take the bow seriously until you have it fully drawn which doesn’t add up when you can fire it in under a second. It’s made somewhat better by the fact you don’t have to aim as much (save for the body armored guys) but I still felt like the early game misled me as to what combat encounters would be like for the rest of the game.

Helping survivors usually provides you with a little bit of back story as to what happened during The Event or for the people you might be looking for. Unlike most post-apocalyptic games where characters are quite aware of what happened to wreck their world the people of I Am Alive don’t seem to know much about it, save for the fact that there were massive earthquakes and a dust cloud that came out of no where. Again it might seem like a small nit pick but the lack of back story makes it hard to understand the plight of the people who have chose to stay there, as many of them did.

It also makes it hard to enjoy the game when some sections are so poorly designed that it borders on frustration. Thanks to the dreary color palette visual cues are often lost in the background leaving you confused as to which direction you should take to progress the game. There was also one section (the beginning of the first night) where you simply can not see anything because there’s not enough light and your character doesn’t turn his flashlight on. Then after completing a combat section you’re teleported from wherever you were to another location, an extremely disorienting experience made worse by the fact that there’s no obvious clues as to how far its made you travel. I wish I could say that it was an isolated incident but I found myself on no less than 5 occasions looking up walk through guides to make sure my game hadn’t glitched out, because it certainly felt like it had.

I could forget all of this had the story been redeemable and unfortunately it wasn’t. The plot was uninspired to begin with but most of the interactions were straight out of the post-apocalyptic handbook with nothing to differentiate it from the crowd. Worst part about it, and I’m not sure if this is because Ubisoft just wanted to release it or they’re screaming HEY THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL, is that the story wraps up in such a way as to lead you to one conclusion but it’s not really explained how it got to that point. Whilst I wouldn’t ask them to change the ending like I would for Mass Effect 3 it is one point where I’d like some clarification on time between the end of the game and the supposed ending of the story, because otherwise there’s a major plot hole there.

I Am Alive is one of those games that obviously suffered from its long development time and change developers before it was finished. It’s a real shame as the game had a lot of potential to do some really inventive things with its novel combination of core game mechanics. Unfortunately it’s plagued with issues that detract from its survival horror roots, instead being a mostly tedious experience rather than a tense, gripping one. I don’t even think some DLC that explains the ending would change my mind on this one and I could only recommend this game to anyone who’s got 6 hours to kill and desperately needs a survival horror fix.

Rating: 6.25/10

I Am Alive is available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $23.95 and 1200 Microsoft Points. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 in Normal Mode with a score of 85% and around 6 hours of total game time.

Bring Your Own Device: The Line That Microsoft Has Drawn in the Sand.

I’ll be honest the bring your own device movement annoys the hell out of me as an IT administrator. I think this is mostly because the movement starts from higher up, usually when an executive discovers how wonderful it is to read personal email on his iPad and then wants the same thing for work. Queue a rushed, short term project that involves putting in all manner of hacks, poorly documented systems and as of yet unvetted devices being introduced into the network. I guess if you read inbetween the lines on that one I don’t really have a problem with the BYOD movement per se, just the way it’s weaselled its way into the environments I’ve been responsible for.

That being said I’m not one to stand in the way of inevitable change and every day it’s looking more and more like the BYOD movement is something that I’d rather embrace than struggle against. It’s still a nascent movement, with all the associated problems, but thankfully we have many companies that are taking notice of this movement and ensuring that these devices can be integrated seamlessly into corporate environments. The next version of Windows has some provisions in it for supporting BYOD but there’s an interesting delineation between those devices and your traditional corporate computing device.

Windows 8 brings with it a new control panel option that allows users to connect to the corporate network using their email address and a password. Once they’re authenticated their device then downloads a series of approved apps from the corporate network like the one shown in the picture above. You can also provide access to applications in the Microsoft Marketplace through an on-site cache. What’s missing here however is any control over the end device; you can’t enforce things like a password policy or on-device encryption should you use this method. Additionally Windows 8 devices on the ARM architecture are not able to be members of an Active Directory domain, a critical feature for most large enterprises.

What this means is that Microsoft, whilst embracing the BYOD movement with one hand, is drawing a clear line in the sand between where traditional corporate computing resources lie and what untrusted and unvetted have access to. It may seem like an odd line to draw as you’re basically relegating BYOD users to be second class citizens on your network but in reality granting users the ability to control the platform means you can’t trust it in the same way you trust something that’s under your control. This is probably the most happy compromise that Microsoft could come up with and to be honest it’s actually not that bad.

This kind of interoperability between unknown Windows 8 devices and trusted networks provides a lot of opportunities for innovation in the corporate app space. The applications delivered with the initial app package can be highly tailored towards a streamlined user experience, one that could be unique to the user’s requirements. Take for example the HR app, you could have different versions for HR staff, management and end users all available through the access portal. Reworking the interface to be friendly to these (most likely) touch centric devices would go a long way to improving the current state of corporate applications which most users loathe to use.

Microsoft had to draw the line somewhere and realistically I’m surprised at the level of functionality that they’re granting BYOD users. The traditional approach has been to provide a secure container on top of the device and then enabling full access to the corporate environment. Whilst this works in theory Windows 8, especially on ARM devices, was designed with a different user interface paradigm in mind, one that centers around user experience rather than iterating on the current desktop. Corporations will have to embrace this if they want to take BYOD seriously and I believe that those who don’t will have their (rather irate) users to contend with.

All That We Are is Contained in 5% of Our DNA.

I’ve always found it fascinating just how much commonality there is between us and many other life forms on earth. The explanation is quite simple: certain biological features are the most suited to the world that we live in and thus give the highest chance of survival and procreation. Still even with that fact in mind I still marvel at how much in common we have with even the most bizarre creatures and it gets even more intriguing when you go down to the DNA level. It’s been well known for a long time that we’re genetically very similar to primates to the tune of something like 95%.

One of my favorite astrophysicists (yes I have several)  Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a fascinating point about that small genetic difference (skip to 7:35, although the first point is amazing too):

All we are, all the stuff that differentiates us from the great apes is contained in that small difference of DNA. The idea then that another form of intelligent life could be that different from us again really is fascinatingly disturbing as from their point of view we’d be little above cattle to them. You’d hope though that past a certain level of intelligence you’d have some respect for any form of life (like many humans do) but our history has shown how even intelligent species can regard their own as beneath them.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll just go and work my way through this existential crisis I’m having.

The Cloud Wars Are About to Begin.

With virtualization now being as much of as a pervasive idea in the datacentre as storage array networks or under floor cooling the way has been paved for the cloud to make its way there as well for quite some time now. There are now many commercial off the shelf solutions that allow you to incrementally implement the multiple levels of the cloud (IaaS -> PaaS -> SaaS) without the need for a large operational expenditure in developing the software stack at each level. The differentiation now comes from things like added services, geographical location and pricing although even that is already turning into a race to the bottom.

The big iron vendors (Dell, HP, IBM) have noticed this and whilst they could still sustain their current business quite well by providing the required tin to the cloud providers (the compute power is shifted, not necessarily reduced) they’re all starting to look to creating their own cloud solutions so that they can continue to grow their business. I covered HP’s cloud solution last week after the HP Cloud Tech day but recently there’s been a lot of news coming out regarding the other big players, both from the old big iron world and the more recently established cloud providers.

First cab off the rank I came across was Dell who are apparently gearing up to make a cloud play. Now if I’m honest that article, whilst it does contain a whole lot of factual information, felt a little speculative to me mostly because Dell hasn’t tried to sell me on the cloud idea when I’ve been talking to them recently. Still after doing a small bit of research I found that not only are Dell planning to build a global network of datacentres (where global usually means everywhere but Australia) they announced plans to build one in Australia just on a year ago. Combining this with their recent acquisition spree that included companies like Wyse it seems highly likely that this will be the backbone of their cloud offering. What that offering will be is still up for speculation however, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was yet another OpenStack solution.

Mostly because RackSpace, probably the second biggest general cloud provider behind Amazon Web Services, just announced that their cloud will be compatible with the OpenStack API. This comes hot off the heels of another announcement that both IBM and RedHat would become contributers to the OpenStack initiative although no word yet on whether they have a view to implement the technology in the future. Considering that both HP and Dell have are already showing their hands with their upcoming cloud strategies it would seem like becoming OpenStack contributers will be the first step to seeing some form of IBM cloud. They’d be silly not to given their share of the current server market.

Taking all of this into consideration it seems that we’re approaching a point of convergence in the cloud computing industry. I wrote early last year that one of the biggest draw backs to the cloud was its proprietary nature and it seems like the big iron providers noticed that this was a concern. The reduction of vendor lock lowers the barriers to entry for many customers significantly and provides a whole host of other benefits like being able to take advantage of disparate cloud providers to provide service redundancy. As I said earlier the differentiation between providers will then predominately come from value-add services, much like it did for virtualization in the past.

This is the beginning of the cloud war, where all the big players throw their hats into the ring and duke it out for our business. It’s a great thing for both businesses and consumers as the quality of products will increase rapidly and the price will continue on a down hill trend. It’s quite an exciting time, one akin to the virtualization revolution that started happening almost a decade ago. Like always I’ll be following these developments keenly as the next couple years will be something of a proving ground for all cloud providers.

Google Drive Coming Next Week, Only 4 Years Late.

I’m always surprised at how many people I know use Dropbox. It’s not just because I have a lot of tech minded friends either, no a whole bunch of regular people I know use it for backup and to share large files that would be cumbersome otherwise. I personally use it (well used to) to back up my phone’s apps and configuration using Titanium Backup Pro. I don’t have as much use for it now since the integrated sync options from Google do 90% of the work without me having to think about it. Still every so often I’ll find myself needing use of some accessible-from-anywhere type storage and I’ll always come back to Dropbox.

That might all be about to change, however.

Rumors have been circulating for eons that Google would eventually launch some kind of cloud storage service, going head to head with industry heavyweight Dropbox. In fact I can remember hearing rumors about it not too long after they released Gmail all those years ago after someone figured out how to create a bastardized version of it using said service. After all that time it appears that Google is finally about to pull the trigger on providing such a service, giving all new comers to the service 5GB worth of free cloud storage with the option to purchase more should you need it. It seems even the app has made its way into some of the more enthusiastic tech writer’s hands, taking the GDrive right out of the rumor mill.

Anyone who knows something about Dropbox’s story you’ll probably find this announcement both awesome and completely hilarious. Drew Houston, the man behind Dropbox, said when applying to startup incubator YCombinator that it was a very real possibility that Google would announce GDrive early on in his product’s life and that would basically mean the end of it. However for the past 4 years as Dropbox has gained significant market share and momentum Google has been very mum on the subject, not leaking any details of whether or not they’d pursue the idea. Now Google is launching into a market that has extremely heavy competition as Dropbox isn’t the only cloud storage provider out there.

For what its worth I really think that Google has launched 4 years too late here. Back when Dropbox was just taking off Google had a real chance to either launching a competing product and grabbing the market early or simply attempting to buy out Dropbox and re-branding it as their own service. Rumor has it that Apple tried to do just that some time last year but Dropbox turned down the offer and its very possible that Google attempted the same thing only to get the same response. This could be why we’re now seeing a GDrive product finally coming to fruition as they’ve been left with no choice but to compete with Dropbox on their home turf.

So does this mean that the GDrive is a fool’s gambit? Not entirely as whilst Dropbox is the market leader in this space there’s something to be said for Google services. It’s quite possible that GDrive will now become heavily integrated with all of Google’s other products and that’s where they’ll be able to garner a large user base from. If their current Android integration is anything to go by adding in a cloud storage platform that’s natively integrated with the OS will provide some pretty spectacular benefits, much like the ones Microsoft is touting with Azure and Windows 8. Whether their service will be profitable is something we’ll just have to wait to see, however.

Trine 2: Oooohhhhh The Pretties.

I was a real late comer to the Trine party, only getting around to playing it early last year after it had been out for almost 2 years prior. Looking back over the review I wonder how much my opinion of the game would have changed had I played it soon after its release as for its time it would have really been quite a stand out title. In 2011, with the indie revolution in full effect, it’s unique take on the platformer genre was probably lost among other titles like Super Meat Boy. Still the game stuck with me and whilst I might be somewhat late to the party again I decided to venture back into the Trine world yet again.

Trine 2 puts you back in familiar territory, starting off with the wizard Amadeus being awoken from his slumber by an unearthly glow coming from his windows. Rushing out to investigate he finds that the glow was coming from the Trine itself, the magical artifact that had bound him in the previous games to Pontius the Knight and Zoya the Thief. Upon reaching the Trine Pontius appears from within the artifact and informs Amadeus that they have to once again save the kingdom from an as of yet unknown threat.

Everything about the look and feel of Trine 2 feels so much more ambitious than its predecessor. Whilst you could chalk much of this up to the 2 and a bit years between releases it still feels like a lot more effort went into the art direction, cinematography and art work. There’s heavy use of advanced lighting effects, depth of field and extensive camera work that I don’t remember being present in the original. The original Trine was colourful and vibrant and Trine 2 builds on that base to create something that, whilst possibly being a bit too colorful in some points (making it hard to determine what’s what on occasion), is a definite step up.

The core physics based platformer/puzzle solving game play remains true to the core of the original Trine whilst streamlining some aspects and adding in new types of puzzles that makes the sequel quite distinct. The wizard still conjures up objects, the thief can still grappling hook onto things and the warrior is still used purely for combat and has little to do with puzzle solving unless it involves smashing through a wall (although even that is made redundant by certain talent choices). The changes are for the most part positive with only a few minor issues that I feel need to be raised.

Both Trine and Trine 2 have the same shared experience leveling system but Trine 2’s deviates from the original’s significantly. Instead of getting 1 point to spend in each character’s talent tree you’re instead given 1 point per level to spend on any one of the 3 talent trees. The difference is quite stark as whilst in the previous game the puzzles could be designed around knowing what kind of abilities a player might have in Trine 2 you can pretty much short circuit most challenges by going a specific build. To be upfront about it you can pretty much make the game easy mode by dumping all your points into the wizard, letting you do things like this:

Now I have no idea how the developers intended to have that puzzle solved but I have the feeling it wasn’t supposed to be anything like what you’re seeing above. That’s part of the charm of the physics based game play, letting you create solutions that weren’t exactly intended, but when most of the puzzles were trivialized by a power leveled wizard it made me wonder why there weren’t some limits in order to stop you from doing this. I guess Frozenbyte thought that was part of the fun and I can’t say I disagree with them on this.

The combat of Trine 2 is pretty much identical to that of its predecessor; being a fun distraction from the core puzzle based platforming but not a whole lot more than that. For the most part it’s very hack ‘n’ slashy with you being able to spam your way through hordes of enemies even without the aid of additional talent tree upgrades. The boss fights start off interesting although they’re also prone to being beatable through mouse and keyboard spam. The final boss fight was actually pretty intense even if it felt like it was designed with only one of the 3 characters in mind. Overall I’d rate combat as passable, being more of a distraction than a core piece of the game play.

There are some notable bugs with combat however. Some enemies are easily confused by standing near or on top of them and not in an intentional this-is-part-of-the-game way. The type that I most often found this worked with was the dual fire blade wielding goblins who if you got close enough to then jumped behind would think you were still right in front of them. They’d then get stuck in a loop of attacking in that direction, allowing you to wail on them from behind with no consequence. Some of the boss fights bugged out in a similar way to a lesser extent but it was obvious that the enemies were coded with a rather simplistic AI. It’s a relatively small complaint in the grand scheme of things but it was definitely noticeable.

As a I alluded to earlier the talent tree has also been greatly simplified allowing you to level each character as you see fit. The choice of power leveling the wizard was a simple one, the more I leveled him earlier the more experience I got access to, leveling the others faster. As you can see from the screen cap above, taken about an hour before the end, I had nearly all the abilities. In the end I think there was only 2 I didn’t manage to get but even that doesn’t really matter considering that there’s a respec button at the bottom, one that can be used as often as you want with no consequences.

Additionally All the ancillary aspects of Trine 2 have been stream lined from the original. The mana bars for every character are gone completely which I thought was weird to begin with but after playing through the entire game without it I’m glad they took it out. All the mana bar did was add tedium to the game, forcing you to go back to check points in order to restock if you accidentally created the wrong object (which was far too easy in the original) or lost it all from spamming flame arrows.

The story of Trine 2 is somewhat thin on the ground, at least in comparison to recent releases, but it is serviceable enough to keep the game driving forward. Although there’s not a whole lot of dialog in the game the voice acting is above the level of what I’ve come to expect from games like these, with each of the character’s voices fitting well with their perceived personas. Just like the original Trine I’ll have to commend Frozenbyte for not taking the cheap option and leaving the ending open for yet another sequel, something that never fails to annoy me.

Trine 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor in almost all respects. The visuals and art direction are a lot better, a definite sign that Frozenbyte has confidence in the IP and is willing to invest more heavily in it. The streamlined game play takes away the tedium making the game much more enjoyable overall. Overall I was quite impressed with Trine 2 not feeling the compulsion to play through to the end just for the review like I did with the previous one. Even if you haven’t played the original I would still recommend Trine 2 as it stands alone well, especially if you’re a fan of platformers or puzzle games.

Rating: 8.25/10

Trine 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $14.99, $14.99, and 1200 Microsoft Points. Gane was played on the hard difficulty with around 7 hours of total play time with 23% of the achievements unlocked.