Monthly Archives: March 2014

Bioware’s Mea Culpa: The Next Dragon Age.

It’s been 2 years since I reviewed Mass Effect 3 and whilst the burning need I once had to spew forth vitriol has long subsided there’s still a part of me that can’t let go just how badly they handled the way the game ended. I’ve been told several times over that the subsequent DLCs made significant inroads to improving the situation however, for me, the damage was done and I felt it was better to put the series to rest in my mind. Overall it was still a wonderful game experience, one I do not regret playing at all, and it was my fervent hope that Bioware (and the game developer community at large) took the criticism to heart and would do everything to avoid such a situation again.

Turns out, they just might.

Dragon Age InquisitionI managed to get into the Bioware panel at PAX Australia last year and it was interesting to see what the panelists, most of whom were writers and producers for the Mass Effect series, had to say for themselves. It was clear that the room was much of the same mind as I was regarding the ending, much to the chagrin of the person who was asking the question, and it was somewhat disappointing to hear them write off the reaction as mostly “you can’t please everybody”. It seemed then that the community’s desire for Bioware to take the criticism in stride had been met with deaf ears even if the DLC response had been somewhat positive. However recent news, whilst not been a direct apology from Bioware, might be their way of admitting a mea culpa on this part by allowing the player to heavily influence their next title’s ending.

News comes through today that Dragon Age: Inquisition will heavily incorporate the player’s choices into the ending. Interestingly the span of choices isn’t simply from a couple of distinct endings it will in fact include minor tweaks dependent on your choices in the game (and previous ones too), major changes depending on choices made within the game (of which there are 40 or so) and a handful of completely unique endings. If memory serves me Dragon Age wasn’t exactly the heavily player driven narrative like Mass Effect was, although the heavy variation in the origin stories was amazing, so the inclusion of so many different factors does seem like a reaction to the community’s reception of Mass Effect 3.

This was the kind of variation that players were expecting for Mass Effect 3. So much of the game was predicated on choices that you made, many of which had lasting consequences that shaped the world to be uniquely your own. To have all that choice boiled down to a modifier on the RGB spectrum felt like all those choices were essentially meaningless, stripping any feeling of agency you may have built up through each of the titles. With Dragon Age: Inquisition Bioware might be on the right path to restoring some of the community’s faith in them delivering a player sculpted narrative, one that feels unique to them. Whilst I, as always, try to avoid the hype for things like this news of this nature does make me excited for what Bioware has in store.

 

Deus Ex: The Fall: Some Things are Better Left Unported.

The number of games that were mobile exclusives that make the transition to another platform, whether that’s PC or consoles, is vanishingly small. It’s obvious to see why this is as many of the concepts used in mobile gaming like, touch input and interface design, simply don’t translate readily between those platforms. Platform transition issues have always been a problem for developers, as was shown with the consolization of PC games, but the problem space has been well mapped out over the course of the past decade. Mobile games still struggle with this unfortunately and whilst I really wanted to like Deus Ex: The Fall it was a glaring example of the struggles that developers face when doing mobile to PC transitions.,

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Ben Saxon, an ex-military agent who served with the Belltower corporation during the Australian civil war. Your career with them was ultimately cut short when bad intel sent you straight into the middle of war zone, your entire team lost when your transport was shot down. However in the midst of all the chaos you managed to meet with someone, Jarron Namir, who recruits you into his special operations team called The Tyrants. With your new augs and all the resources you could ever want at your disposal the future looks good, that is until you uncover the truth about why you were sent into Australia.

Deus Ex: The Fall is a game based on the Unity engine and in that regard it’s actually quite impressive. The graphics are comparable to Deus Ex: Invisible War with a few lighting and rendering tricks helping it to feel a little more modern. Compared to Human Revolution though, a game that was released 3 years ago, it looks like a bad rip off. On a smaller screen, say a tablet or your phone, they’d look a little bit more impressive but on a PC it just feels streets behind everything else. This would mean that if you were craving a taste of the new Deus Ex universe and couldn’t run Human Revolution, for some reason, then it’d be a good place to start.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Original Fall

The Fall essentially a cut down version of Human Revolution in almost every sense, from the skill trees to the weapons to the environments that you’ll be playing in. It’s very clear that everything about The Fall was designed with the mobile market in mind with most of the levels and missions broken down into chunks that can be completed in 5 to 15 minutes. The core game mechanics are still there with the stealth functioning largely the same and the gun combat comparable but, again, modified for the mobile interface. Whilst there’s definitely been a non-zero amount of work done on the transition from mobile to PC the unfortunate reality is that The Fall still contains numerous glitches, bugs and weird quirks on game play mechanics that heavily mar the overall experience.

Human Revolution really got the stealth mechanic nailed down tight and it was nice to see that the majority of mechanics had made their way into The Fall. Most of the levels have numerous different pathways snaking through them allowing you to sneak up on nearly every enemy and take them out silently. However there’s a discrepancy between what you can see in first person mode and what the NPCs can “see”, allowing them to sometimes detect you through walls when, from your point of view, there’s nothing that can be seen. Once you’re aware of this it’s not too hard to work around however it’s a glaring reminder of the limitations of mobile as a gaming platform as I’ve never had this kind of issue with other stealth games on PC.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Skill Tree

Combat is extremely clunky which, when coupled with the extremely rudimentary AI, makes it unchallenging and ultimately not satisfying. The recoil mechanic functions by zooming your view in and moving it up slightly, something which is horrifically jarring and doesn’t really add any challenge. Now I played Human Revolution as a primary stealth character and I played The Fall in much the same way however the times when I felt like it’d be fun to run and gun instead were stopped dead in the tracks because of how bad the mechanics are. It’s for that reason that I never really ventured into the buy screen as I could get past every section without using a single weapon.

The talent trees contain familiar upgrades including all the hacking and stealth upgrades from Human Revolution. They pretty much all function pretty much the same as they did previously with the main difference being just how quickly you’ll be able to unlock most of them. Much Human Revolution The Fall seems to be optimized for hacker/stealth players as the majority of things are hidden behind hackable panels and in long air ducts.I have no doubt that if you took the time to thoroughly investigate all of the levels you’d be able to unlock every ability without too much trouble as I managed to get ~60% of them before I got bored and just bypassed everything.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Graphics

As I alluded to earlier The Fall suffers from many issues due to its transition from the mobile version of Unity to the PC. The first issue I noticed was that sounds just refused to play which also meant the subtitles didn’t stay up either. I traced this back to my headphones (a pair of Logitech G35s) as once I unplugged them everything seemed to work fine. It wasn’t limited to that either as the hacking screen would simply refuse to be moved around which was something of a necessity considering how limited the zoom was. I’m pretty sure this is due to the way you’d handle input on mobile (with DragStart and DragEnd events) which doesn’t directly translate to how PCs with mice work (MouseClick even and then track pointer movement). There were also some rendering issues apparent in a couple levels which wasn’t game breaking but was rather annoying.

The story was semi-interesting although it was so simplistic that it was hard to get into it. There are some familiar faces that appear in the previous games which I thought would be a cool way to give some more backstory on them. However they’re really only there to show their faces before the real meat of the game continues so it just feels like a tease to those who enjoyed the story of Human Revolution. Probably the worst part about it is the huge, glaring TO BE CONTINUED at the end which means seems to indicate that this is going to be an episodic adventure although we’re fast approaching a year since its initial release with no more content in sight.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Stealth

Deus Ex: The Fall is yet another unfortunate example of how mobile-first games simply don’t translate well into the PC world. It feels like the same amount of time and effort could have been dedicated to implement this as a DLC for Human Revolution, something which I think would’ve seen this story done a lot more justice than what it was on the mobile platform. I may be singing a different tune if I had played this through on my phone but the fact is this was made available through Steam as a game for the PC. In that regard it’s hard to not call it as it is, a bad port that needed a lot more work to even be mediocre.

Rating: 4/10

Deus Ex: The Fall is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $10.49, $7.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time with 57% of the achievements unlocked including the pacifist one even though I killed multiple people.

The Amazing Speed of Cracks in Glass.

We’ve all been there at one stage in our lives, one minute we’re standing next to a perfectly fine piece of transparent silica (commonly referred to as glass) and the next we’re faced with a crack which seemingly came out of no where. Whilst we’re often able to see the events leading up to the eventuality the actual mechanism of a crack appearing appears to be instantaneous. Every driver who’s been on a gravel road and had the unfortunate happen can attest to this and whilst it might be of little comfort the process of that line appearing is actually quite intriguing. However you’re not going to be able to see it without anything but highly specialized equipment, something that can recording millions of frames per second.

That video is shot at a staggering 10 million fps which is why the small ball appears to be hanging motionless in mid air for an eternity before the cracks in the glass appear. By comparison the cracks themselves appear to snake out from the point of impact with blazing speed, reaching the outside of the pane in an incredibly short span of time. This is why cracks in glass appear to come out of no where as the speed at which they move is so fast that it’s imperceptible to the human eye, moving at several thousand kilometers per hour. This is just for plain glass plates as well and those cracks can propagate even faster if you mold the glass in a special way.

A Prince Rupert’s Drop is an amazing example of this. They’re a curious thing to behold, resembling a tadpole, and are created by dropping molten glass into a bucket of water. The bulbous end is surprisingly durable, able to withstand punishment that’d shatter any other type of glass (like hitting it with a hammer) but if the wispy tail sustains even the slightest dent the entire structure will rupture violently. So much energy is released in the reaction that the fracture actually propagates at 1.9km/s which you can witness in gorgeous slow motion here.

I’ve often though of getting a couple to keep around the house as a conversation piece but I’d fear they wouldn’t last the weekend with me wanting to see them explode.

What’s the Deal with Facebook Acquiring Oculus VR?

Companies buying other companies is usually nothing to get excited about. Typically it’s a big incumbent player buying up a small company that’s managed to out-innovate them in a particular market segment so instead of losing market share the incumbent chooses to acquire them. Other times it’s done in order to funnel the customer base onto the core product that the incumbent is known for much like Google did with many of its acquisitions like Android. Still every so often a company will seemingly go out of its way to acquire another that honestly doesn’t seem to fit and we’re all left wondering what the hell they’re thinking. Facebook has done this today acquiring the virtual reality pioneer OculusVR.

OculusVR Headset Developer Preview 2Facebook and OculusVR could not be more different, one being  the biggest social network in the world that’s got 1.23 billion active users per month and the other being a small company with only 50 employees focusing on developing virtual reality technology. Whilst the long winded PR speech from Zuckerberg seems to indicate that they’re somehow invested in making the Oculus Rift the new way of experiencing the world it’s clear that Facebook is going to be running it as it’s own little company, much like Instagram and WhatsApp before it. With the recent rumours of Facebook looking to purchase drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, another company that doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Facebook brand, it begs the question: what’s Facebook’s plan here?

Most of the previous high profile acquisitions aligned directly with Facebook’s weaknesses, namely how badly they were doing in the mobile space. Instagram fit the bill perfectly in this regard as they managed to grow a massive mobile-only social network that rivalled Facebook’s own mobile client for usage. Whilst many questioned whether paying $1 billion for a company that hadn’t generated a single dollar was worth it for them it seems like Facebook got some value out of it as their mobile experience has improved drastically since then. WhatsApp seemed to be in a similar vein although the high cost of acquisition (even though this one had some revenue to back it up) makes it much more questionable than the Instagram purchase. Still for both of them it was filling in a gap that Facebook had, OculusVR doesn’t do that.

From my perspective it seems like Facebook is looking to diversify its portfolio and the only reason I can think of to justify that is their core business, the Facebook social network, is starting to suffer. I can’t really find any hard evidence to justify this but it does seem like the business community feels that Facebook is starting to lose its younger audience (teens specifically) to messenger apps. Acquiring WhatsApp goes some way to alleviate this but acquiring the most popular app every couple years isn’t a sustainable business model. Instead it looks like they might be looking to recreate the early Google environment, one that spawned multiple other lines of business that weren’t directly related to their core business.

This was definitely a successful model for Google however most of the products and acquisitions they made at a similar stage to Facebook were centred around directing people back to their core products (search and advertising). Most of the moonshot ideas, whilst showing great initial results, have yet to become actual lines of business for them with the two most notable ones, Glass and the self-driving car, still in the developmental or early adopter phase. Facebook’s acquisition of OculusVR doesn’t really fit into this paradigm however with OculusVR likely going to be the first to market with a proper virtual reality headset it might just be a large bet that this market segment will take off.

Honestly it’s hard to see what Facebook’s endgame is here, both for OculusVR and themselves as a company. I think Facebook will stay true to their word about keeping OculusVR independent but I have no clue how they’ll draw on the IP and talent their to better themselves. Suffice to say not everyone is of the same opinion and this is something that Facebook and OculusVR are going to have to manage carefully lest the years of goodwill they’ve built up be dashed in a single movement. I won’t go as far to say that I’m excited to see what these too will do together but I’ll definitely be watching with a keen interest.

 

ESA’s New Spacecraft Shows Engineers are Obsessed with Tiny Shuttles.

There’s no denying that the Space Shuttle was an unique design being the only spacecraft that was capable aerodynamic flight after reentry. That capability, initially born out of military requirements for one-orbit trips that required significant downrange flight, came at a high cost in both financial and complexity terms dashing any hopes it had of being the revolutionary gateway space it was intended to be. A lot of the designs and engineering were sound though and so it should come as little surprise to see elements of it popping up in other, more modern spacecraft designs. The most recent of those (to come to my attention at least) is the European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, a curious little craft that could be Europe’s ticket to delivering much more than dry cargo to space.

ESA IXV Full Scale PrototypeWhilst this might not be an almost exact replica like the X-37B is it’s hard to deny that the IXV bears a lot of the characteristics that many of us associated with the Space Shuttle. The rounded nose, blackened bottom, white top and sleek profile are all very reminisicent of that iconic design but that’s where the similarities end. The IXV is a tiny little craft weighing not a lot more than your typical car and lacking the giant wings that allowed the Shuttle to fly so far. This doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of flight however as the entire craft is a lifting body, capable of generating lift comparable to a winged aircraft. Steering is accomplished 2 little paddles attached to the back enabling the IXV to keep its thermal protective layer facing the right direction upon reentry. For now the IXV is a completely robotic craft with little room to spare save for a few on board experiments.

Much like the X-37B the IXV is being designed as a test bed for the technologies that the ESA wants to use in upcoming craft for future missions. Primarily this relates to its lifting body profile and the little flaps it uses for attitude control, things which have a very sound theoretical basis but haven’t seen many real world applications. If all goes according to plan the IXV will be making its maiden flight in October this year, rocketing up to the same altitude as the International Space Station, nearly completing an orbit and then descending back down to earth. Whilst it’s design would make you think it’d then be landing at an air strip this model will actually end up in the Pacific ocean, using its aerodynamic capabilities to guide it to a smaller region than you could typically achieve otherwise. It also lacks any landing gear to speak of, relying instead on parachutes to cushion its final stages of descent.

Future craft based on the IXV platform won’t be your typical cargo carrying ISS ferries however as the ESA is looking to adapt the platform to be an orbital platform, much like the Shuttle was early on in its life. The downrange capability is something that a lot of space fairing nations currently lack with most relying on Russian craft or pinning their hopes on the capabilities of the up and coming private space industry. This opens up a lot of opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments that might be cost prohibitive to complete on the ISS or even ones that might be considered to be too dangerous. There doesn’t appear to be any intention to make an IXV variant that will carry humans into space however, although there’s already numerous lifting body craft in various stages of production that are aiming to have that capability.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the ESA takes the IXV platform as it definitely fills a niche that’s currently not serviced particularly well. Should they be able to transform the IXV from a prototype craft into a full production vehicle within 3 years that would be mightily impressive but I have the feeling that’s a best case scenario, something which is rare when designing new craft. Still it’s an interesting craft and I’m very excited to see what missions it will end up flying.

Motorola 360: Defy One Trend, Follow The Other.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of the current generation of smartwatches as I feel that, in terms of functionality, they simply don’t provide enough for me to justify purchasing one. Sure they’re pretty neat bits of technology but geek lust can only drive me so far as should I buy one and only end up using it as a watch then I’ll likely feel disappointed. When I thought about this more I figured it was a little strange as I’m already a watch wearer and so you’d think that if it came down to that then, realistically, I was getting my money’s worth anyway. After seeing the Motorola 360 though I think I know why all of the other smartwatches are so lacklustre.

Moto360__Metal_RGBFor the uninitiated last week saw the debut of Android Wear, a new version of the Android phone operating system that’s focused specifically on wearable technology. Right now it’s focused at developers with current applications that produce notifications with preview allowing developers to see how they’ll look on future devices. Interestingly enough it supports both the traditional smartwatch screen (square/rectangle) along with a more traditional round face. Considering every smartwatch that I’ve heard of up until this point had a square face I was wondering who would be create such a beast and it’s Motorola, something I probably should’ve seen coming.

Smartwatches have always gone for the rectangular style screen for 2 reasons. The first is that’s what screen manufacturers make and getting something that isn’t standard like that ends up costing quite a considerable amount. In order to make them affordable enough for people to want to buy them this kind of precludes doing anything particularly fancy so square faces it was. Secondly doing content layouts for square screens is hard enough already and doesn’t translate well to the rounded format. Motorola’s 360, in combination with Android Wear, makes this non-standard fantasy a reality but the question then becomes, why?

As it turns out Motorola has realised that smartwatches, whilst a popular niche in their own right, are focusing on one demographic: technophiles. The 360 on the other hand isn’t targeted at them specifically instead it’s aimed more at “people who wear watches” hence the round design (which apparently is 80% of all watch sales worldwide, who knew). Indeed the 360 looks like it’d be right at home among the chunkier watch offerings that have become popular of late with the added side benefit of having additional functionality built into it. The Pebble Steel made some headroads in this regard although it’s hard to deny that the 360 is a much more striking beast.

So I guess what was needed for me to overcome my initial skepticism about smartwatches wasn’t so much the functionality, although I’d admit I still dream of getting an all in one, it was more of design. It will be interesting to see if the round watch face gamble pays off for Motorola since they’ll be the first to market with their device and it’ll likely be the standard by which other Android Wear products are judged. I’ll hold off on saying Motorola has my money for this one until I see one or two in the wild but it’s been quite interesting to see my opinion changed due to good design.

Maybe I am an Apple fan boy after all. *shudder*

Titanfall: We Thank You For Your Service, Pilot.

The origin story of Respawn Entertainment is one that’s cemented in many gamer’s minds. Not long after Infinity Ward released Modern Warfare 2 tensions between some of the executive team and Activision began to escalate. This eventually led to Jason West and Vince Zampella being fired from Infinity Ward for “breaches of contract and insubordination”, a line not many in the industry believed. However not long after that the former employees announced that they were starting a new games company (with blackjack and hookers, obviously) called Respawn entertainment. It didn’t take long for many current Infinity Ward employees to follow them but after that they went dark. Last year Respawn announced their first title would be called Titanfall, a sci-fi FPS that would be an Xbox exclusive. Thankfully that, and a few other things, have changed since then and Titanfall has shaped up to be a great first title, even if can’t hide its Call of Duty roots.

Titanfall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It’s the distant future and mankind has succeeded in building warp technology, opening up the universe for our exploitation. Humans have expanded far and wide however with distance became a growing disconnect and resentment began brewing between the core worlds and those that live on the frontier. Over time this has escalated into a full scale war between the core world’s military force, The IMC, and the frontier’s Resistance. Neither side has any intentions of backing down and battles continually rage on multiple planets, devastating their colonies and turning paradises into giant fuel depots and factories dedicated to the war effort. You’re a pilot, one of the elite 2% who make it through the notoriously fatal training programs, and it’s up to you to fight for your cause.

For a game that’s based on a modified version of the Source engine (the same one that powered Half Life 2 all those years ago) Titanfall is surprisingly pretty with all the eye candy I had come to expect from games like Crysis or Far Cry. The initial settings that Titanfall selected for my system had me a little worried that it’d run like a dog once I started tweaking it but, surprisingly, it runs incredibly well with only a few things like shadow detail turned down. Still, as you can see in the screenshot below, those tweaks don’t appear to have a lot of impact on the overall visual quality something Respawn are to be commended for. You won’t be spending much time looking at the scenery however as Titanfall is designed to throw you head first into the action and it doesn’t let up until the round is finished.

Titanfall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Very Pretty

Typically I’d go over most things from the view of the single player campaign first before talking about the multiplayer experience but Titanfall takes the interesting route of blending in single player elements into multiplayer matches to facilitate the story. It actually works out really well as a gentle way to introduce you to how Titanfall plays as you’ll likely be matched up against other people just starting out with it, ensuring that you’re not stomped by max level players who’ve already amassed hundreds of hours. The game’s story is also passable however since you’re always in the middle of the action when critical things are occurring it’s kind of hard to pay attention to it which is probably the only major letdown of the multiplayer campaign experience.

Titanfall has 2 distinct modes of gameplay, each of which has its own unique tech tree for you to customize to fit your playstyle. The first is a traditional style FPS experience with the added benefit of lots of mobility, including parkour style wall running and double jumping, and an array of weapons that are distinctly different to anything you’ll find in similar deathmatch style games. The second one happens when you call in your Titan from the sky, giving you a giant battlesuit with high powered weapons to take on both players and other Titans alike. How you customize your loadout, both for Titan and Pilot play, will determine how effective you are in certain situations and whilst there’s no one build to rule them all there’s definitely going to be one that suits you perfectly.

Titanfall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Welcome to the Suck

At first glance you’d figure that everything would revolve around Titan based combat because, come on, they’re giant mechs. Whilst this is partly true you’re given a heck of a lot of tools to deal with Titans as a Pilot. This isn’t to say that Titans are your biggest threat on the field however as you’ll likely spend quite a lot of time facing down with other pilots. Thus the larger strategic decision you’ll have to make when customizing your Pilot load out will be: do I want to be anti-Titan or anti-Pilot? The same choice applies to your Titan load out as well and will determine when you’re most effective in the game. Since you’ve got multiple loadouts to choose from this usually isn’t too much of an issue as you can build for multiple situations but each of them will need to be geared towards either one of those objectives otherwise you’ll likely find yourself ineffectual at both.

For me I chose to go for a primarily anti-Titan build for both my Titan and Pilot. I kind of fell into it as I kept tweaking my build throughout the campaign missions, trying out things that were used against me that I felt were pretty effective. The main exception to this is the smart pistol which is like having a sanctioned aimbot and is very handy in showing you where enemy Pilots are hiding. Of course its stopping power is somewhat limited, given its aimbot nature, but if you’re able to dance around someone long enough you’re guaranteed a kill. Walking around a corner into someone else will likely see you dead first, however.

Titanfall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Attrition

However once I got past level 20 or so (which doesn’t take long to do, I think I got there in about 3~4 hours) my build remained largely static. Whilst I did encounter some other builds that were particularly effective at one thing or another they all seemed to be pretty limited outside of that. Indeed the best one I came across, the light Titan with the Arc Canon, wouldn’t last long after I landed a couple hits on it. Couple that with the Vortex Shield nullifying their fully charged shots most of the time and it made it hard for me to want to try anything different, lest I start getting owned. This is in stark contrast to the way I play Call of Duty where I’ll typically have 4 completely different builds loaded up just for variety’s sake, all of which I feel are viable. Maybe my build just fits into the way I play best but, honestly, whilst the initial customization options seem large they pale in comparison to similar games in this genre.

This, I think, is probably the one thing that could be Titanfall’s… downfall. There’s just not enough variety in the game to keep you going past a certain point as you’ll unlock most things relatively quickly and will tend towards things that work. There’s a whole mess of things in the game that just aren’t worth using, shrinking the pool of viable builds considerably. Whilst 15 maps sound like a lot you’ll get familiar with them quickly and apart from attrition all of the game modes are the same kinds of modes you’ve seen dozens of times previously. Thus in order to keep Titanfall new and engaging Respawn needs to keep releasing content, something which they’ve planned to do but I have no idea how well it will work should it not come out soon.

Titanfall Review Screenshot Wallpaper King of the Server

Titanfall is a gorgeous, action packed game that delivers a great multiplayer experience reminiscent of the Call of Duty series but with an identity that’s uniquely its own. The blended single/multiplayer campaign works well, functioning as an extended tutorial that ensures you know what you’re getting into before diving into the multiplayer in earnest. It’s let down a bit by the lack of variety which is exacerbated by the fast levelling process, which could affect Titanfall’s longevity for some. All that being said it is an incredible amount of fun to play and is a solid first title from Respawn entertainment.

Rating: 9/10

Titanfall is right now on PC and XboxOne for $49.99 and  $99.95 respectively with a Xbox360 release due in the near future. Total play time was approximately 7 hours, reaching level 31.

Saturn’s Hexagon and a Table Covered in Clay.

One of the strangest phenomena I’ve ever read about in our solar system (and there are many, like Venus spinning in the opposite direction to everyone else, but that’s a story for another day) none are more perplexing than the hexagon atop of Saturn. It’s strange because shapes like that don’t typically appear in nature, especially at scales of that magnitude. The question of how it came to be, and more importantly why it keeps sticking around, was an interesting one and whilst there’s a sound scientific explanation for it a video shared to me by a friend showcases how the effect can come about.

You can see the effect most strongly at around 2:30 where he starts moving from the center of the spinning disk back towards the outer edge and, lo and behold, suddenly we have a hexagon shape created by a simple motion on a rotating disk. It’s easy to make the comparison between the spinning disk and the incredible winds that sweep across Saturn’s surface, but what about the artist’s arm motion? We can see it’s a simple periodic, much like a pendulum, but the scale of which these two forces act on would almost preclude any kind of relationship. As it turns out there are in fact some similarities but the mechanisms of action are far more complex.

The current theory is that the hexagon isn’t created by the wind currents per se, as the original spinning a bucket of water experiment would lead you to believe, instead its created by the differing wind speeds that are present throughout Saturn’s atmosphere. These differing wind speeds buffet against each other creating vortexes, eddies and waves. As it turns out Saturn’s north pole has the steepest wind gradient which gives rise to the hexagon. With this in mind the researchers created a system whereby they could spin a cylinder and its base at different speeds creating a gradient similar to that on Saturn and, with a little tweaking, a hexagon appeared.

Now you know all that you should take a look at the latest movie of Saturn’s north pole from Cassini showing the speed gradient in effect. Absolutely incredible, don’t you think?

Sony’s New VR Headset and the Peripheral Conundrum.

Ever since the Nintendo Wii was released back in 2006 there seems to have been a resurgence in non-standard peripherals for consoles although most are simply motion based controllers in a fancy case. The issue with non-standard hardware was, and still is, that game developers can’t rely on a consumer having it and thus many choose to simply not use them. It’s for this (and other) reasons that Donkey Kong 64 had to include the Expansion Pak as their game was inoperable without it and its distribution in the market place could not be relied on. However it seems that manufacturing costs have become cheap enough to make custom peripherals like this viable and thus they have returned in greater numbers than ever before.

The big issue I see with things like this is that once a good idea comes along it’s guaranteed that there will be a lot of copy cat ideas that come out not too long after. In the absence of any interface standards governing their interactions with the consoles this inevitably turns into an arms race of who can win the most support from developers, most often ending in a duopoly of two competing standards that will likely never completely agree with one another. Whilst I’m all for competition in the consumer space I’m also for an open set of standards so that I’m not forced to choose between two functionally equivalent products based on who or what they support.

Which is why Sony’s announcement today of Project Morpheus, their virtual reality headset, is slightly troubling to me.

Sony Project Morpheus HeadsetSince it’s still in the prototype phase details are pretty scant on what its specifications will be but it’s apparently rocking a 1080p display (I’m guessing there’s 2 of them in there) and can apparently do full 360 degree tracking. Predictably the motion tracking relies on the PlayStation Eye accessory indicating that it’s probably got most of the same technology in it that the DualShock4/PlayStation Move controllers do. There doesn’t appear to be any headphones built into it but if it’s got all the same core bits and pieces as a regular PlayStation controller than I’m sure there’ll be a headphone port on it. Essentially it looks like the Oculus Rift did way back when it first debuted on Kickstarter, albeit far more reliant on Sony technology than their product will ever be.

Therein lies the crux of the issue with peripherals of this nature. Sure they add functionality and experiences that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish on the platform by their own but when they’re built like Sony’s, reliant on a whole bunch of things that are only available on that platform, I almost immediately lose interest. As someone who plays across multiple platforms in the space of a year the last thing I want to do is flood my living room with all sorts of one shot peripherals that have no use outside a couple narrow scenarios. Instead I’d prefer one that works across a multitude, something which is technically possible (I won’t tell you how much research I did into finding a cross platform compatible arcade stick for the fighting games I play) but rarely occurs in the wild.

What I’m really getting at here is that whilst I’m super excited for these kinds of virtual reality devices to become commonplace I also want a set of open standards so that when you buy one you’ll be able to use it pretty much everywhere. Oculus Rift has a big head start on everyone in this regard so I really hope that they’ve seen this problem on the horizon and are working towards a solution for it. With something like that in place companies could then focus on making the better headsets rather than trying to coax everyone into their ecosystem. It’s probably a pipe dream, I know, but it would be to the benefit of everyone if it happened.

We Live in an Inflationary Universe.

The quest to understand our origins is an innate part of our psyche as humans. You can see evidence of this stretching as far back as we kept records as our ancestors grappled with the idea of where they originated from, whether it was a (relatively) simple question of lineage or the larger question of where we, and all that we know of, came from. Modern science has made incredible leaps in this area, expanding our understanding to show that we live in a universe that is old beyond any of our wildest guesses and is home to more wonders than any could have dreamed of. Still the ultimate question, of where everything began, still puzzles us although as of today we’ve begun to lay down the first few pieces in this puzzle and they’re magnificent.

BICEP2 TwilightYou’re likely familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, the theorized event that gave birth to our universe and marked the beginning of time. However the specifics of what happened during that time are the subject of intense debate among the scientific community and there are many theories that model what may have happened. One of the most popular theories is that during the Big Bang the universe underwent a period of massive inflation in the tiny fractions of a second after it began, expanding faster than the speed of light. There was a lot of indirect evidence to support this (like the fact that our universe is still expanding) but direct proof of this occurring had been elusive.

That was until the telescope picture above, called BICEP-2, caught a picture of something that could only exist if that theory was correct.

Our universe still has remnants of the Big Bang hanging around in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It’s a kind of radiation that’s pretty much uniform not matter which direction you look into, something which is pretty peculiar when you consider just how wide and varied everything else we can observe is. BICEP-2 was searching for something in particular though, a pattern in this radiation that could only have happened should the early universe undergone a period of rapid inflation. The technical term for this is primordial B-mode polarization and was widely believed to have a value of below 0.11 based on previous maps of the CMB. BICEP-2 on the other hand has come in at a 5 sigma confidence level (1 in 3.5 million chance of being random, the gold standard for confirmation in this field of physics) as 0.2, excluding many models and theories that were based on that assumption. It opens up a whole new world of physics and is the first direct proof of the inflationary model.

To understand just how huge of an impact this is going to have on the world of physics you just have to see the reaction of Andrei Linde, one of the first to propose such a model, and his wife Renata Kallosh (also a well renowned theoretical physicist) reacting to the news:

It’s one thing to find proof of something and it’s another thing entirely to show something can not be. This discovery is powerful not because it shows us that a certain model is correct more it has shown us that the widely held belief was in fact wrong and we need to start heading in another direction. Confirmation of this shouldn’t be far off (indeed the team behind the discovery held onto the results for a year to make sure) and with that we’ll enter into a new world scientific debate, one that was so much more informed than before.