Games aspire to be many things but rarely do they aspire to emulate another medium, especially a physical one. The burgeoning genre of cinematic style games and walking simulators have their visions set towards emulating the medium of film but past that the examples are few and far between. You can then imagine my intrigue when I first saw Tengami, a game that seeks to emulate a pop-up book, lavishly styled to look like it was set within feudal Japan. It’s an ambitious idea, one that could easily go south if implemented incorrectly, but I’m happy to report that the whole experience is quite exceptional especially when it comes to the sound design and music.
Tengami is probably the first game in a long time where I can’t sum up the opening plot in a single paragraph as whilst there’s some skerricks of story hidden within the short poems between scenes there’s really not a lot in them. As far as I can tell you’re searching for the blossoms to restore your cherry tree back to life although what your motivation for doing so isn’t exactly clear. Still the environments provide enough atmosphere and presence to give you a kind of motivation to move forward, if only to see more of the paper-laden world you’ve found yourself in.
The art style of Tengami really is its standout feature, done in pop-up book style using real paper textures that the devs scanned in. Initially it had a bit of a LittleBigPlanet feel to it, with the real world textures and 2D movement in a 3D world thing going, however it quickly moves away from that and firmly establishes its unique feel. All of the environments look and feel like they’re straight out of a pop up book, complete with the stretching and crumpling noises when you move various elements around. Tengami is simply a joy to look at and fiddle with, evoking that same sort of feeling you got when playing around with one as a kid.
Coming in at a very close second is the original soundtrack done for Tengami by David Wise. The music seems to swell and abate at just the right times and the score is just incredible. I’m more than willing to admit that my love of the soundtrack might stem from my interest in all things Japanese but looking around at other reviews shows that I’m not the only one who thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure if he was in charge of the foley as well since the soothing sounds of waterfalls, the ocean or just the breeze on quieter sections was just beautiful. If you’re playing Tengami on a mobile device I would wholeheartedly recommend you do so with a pair of headphones as otherwise you’d really be missing out.
With all that focus on the art and sound it would be somewhat forgivable if Tengami was a little light on in the mechanics department but thanks to its unique pop-up book style it’s actually quite an innovative little title. As you make your way through the world you’ll encounter parts which can be folded in and out of existence, between two planes or between different states. It’s like a pop-up book that’s able to exist in a higher dimension, able to shift elements in and out as it pleases. It’s quite intuitive and for the most part you’ll be able to quickly figure out what you need to do or, at least, stumble your way through by trying every option.
The puzzles are pretty straightforward, often only a couple slides or folds away from being completed. The challenge ramps up gradually as you progress through every scene and towards the end they actually start to become quite challenging. However the one fault here is that new mechanics aren’t introduced in a logical fashion and, if you’re like me and know a little Japanese, you can find yourself trying to solve a puzzle in completely the wrong way. The hint system (and the full official walkthrough) are enough to make sure that you won’t be stuck at these for too long but it’s still a mistake that a lot of these minimalist type games make.
The only drawback to Tengami’s incredible design and polish seems to be its length as the game is incredibly short, clocking in at just over an hour and a half for my playthrough. This is not to say that I would’ve preferred for them to cut corners on other things in order to extend the play time, far from it, more that the focus is on quality rather than quantity. For some this can be a turn off, especially when you consider the current asking price, but for me the price admission was well worth the short time I got to spend with it.
Tengami is a beautifully crafted experience, recreating that tactile feel of a pop-up book in a new medium and elevating it with impressive visuals and an incredible soundscape. It’s a short and succinct experience, choosing to not overstay its welcome in favour of providing a far more highly polished experience. As a game it’s quite simple, and suffers a little due to its minimalist practices, but overall it’s a great experience one I’m sure multitudes of players will enjoy.
Tengami is available on PC, iOS and WiiU right now for $9.99, $6.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 1.5 hours of total playtime and 100% of the achievements unlocked.
Abstract mathematical principles are often obtuse ideas that don’t have any direct correlation to the real world. Indeed for the majority of the time I spent in university I had no idea how the concepts I was being taught could be applied in the real world, that was until the final unit where they showed us just how all these esoteric formulas and algorithms could be applied. However there are times when the real world and the land of pure mathematics cross paths and when they do the results can be quite amazing. Thus I present to you the Fibonacci Zoetrope:
The Fibonacci Sequence is one of the more commonly known mathematical concepts, one that can be seen often in nature. It can be used to approximate the Golden Spiral which everyone will readily recognise as the shape of a common sea shell. It also appears in sunflowers arising out of the fact that the interior of the flower is most efficiently filled in a Fibonacci like sequence, giving it an evolutionary advantage. The sculptures you see in the video above uses these same sequences to produce some rather interesting patterns which, when combined with a video camera, produce the illusion of motion that isn’t there.
The trick works due to the way modern cameras work, capturing individual frames at precise intervals. If you were looking at this in real life it would look like a blur of motion instead of the strange movement that you see in this video. However you would be able to see this with your own eyes if you used a strobe that pulsed at regular intervals, much like the modern Zoetropes do. Depending on the speed of the rotation and the image capture interval you’ll see very different kinds of motion and, if you time it precisely, it could appear to not move at all.
I really love these crossovers between art and science as they demonstrate some incredibly complicated ideas without having to dive into reams of proofs and scientific papers. The creation of the sculptures themselves is also a feat of modern engineering as some of those structures are simply not possible to create without 3D printing. I might lament not being as talented as the people who created this video but I think it’s for the best as otherwise my hose would be covered in all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures inspired by random mathematical principles.
Flash, after starting out its life as one of the bevy of animation plugins for browsers back in the day. has become synonymous with online video. It’s also got a rather terrible reputation for using an inordinate amount of system resources to accomplish this feat, something which hasn’t gone away even in the latest versions. Indeed even my media PC, which has a graphics card with accelerated video decoding, struggles with Flash, it’s unoptimized format monopolizing every skerrick of resources for itself. HTML5 sought to solve this problem by making video a part of the base HTML specification which, everyone had hoped, would see an end to proprietary plug-ins and the woes they brought with them. However the road to getting that standard widely adopted hasn’t been an easy one as YouTube’s 4 year road to making HTML5 the default shows.
Google had always been on the “let’s use an open standard” bandwagon when it came to HTML5 video which was at odds with other members of the HTML5 board who wanted to use something that, whilst being more ubiquitous, was a proprietary codec. This, unfortunately, led to a deadlock within the committee with none of them being able to agree on a default standard. Despite what YouTube’s move to HTML5 would indicate there is still no defined standard for which codec to use for HTML5 video, meaning that there’s no way to guarantee that a video you’ve encoded in one way will be viewable by HTML5 compliant browsers. Essentially it looks like a format war is about to begin where the wider world will decide the champion and the HTML5 committee will just have to play catch up.
YouTube has unsurprisingly decided to go for Google’s VP9 codec for their HTML5 videos, a standard which they fully control. Whilst they’ve had HTML5 video available for some time now as an option it never enjoyed the widespread support required in order for them to make it the default. It seems now they’ve got buy in from most of the major browser vendors in order to be able to make the switch so people running Safari 8, IE 11, Chrome and (beta) Firefox will be given the Flash free experience. This has the potential to set up VP9 as the de facto codec for HTML5 although I highly doubt it’ll be officially crowned anytime soon.
Google has also been hard at work ensuring that VP9 enjoys wide support across platforms as there are already several major chip producers whose System on a Chip (SoC) already supports the codec. Without that the mobile experience of VP9 encoded videos would likely be extremely poor, hindering adoption substantially.
Whilst a codec that’s almost entirely under the control of Google might not have been the ideal solution that the Open Source evangelists were hoping for (although it seems pretty open to me) it’s probably the best solution we were going to get. I have not heard of the other competing standards, apart from H.264, having such widespread support as Google’s VP9 does now. It’s likely that the next few years will see many people adopting a couple standards whilst the consumers duke it out in the next format war with the victor not clear until it’s been over for a couple years. For me though I’m glad it’s happened and hopefully soon we can do away with the system hog that Flash is.
Microsoft’s hardware business has always felt like something of an also-ran, with the notable exception being the Xbox of course. It’s not that the products were bad per se, indeed many of my friends still swear by the Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard, more that it just seemed to be an aside that never really saw much innovation or effort. The Surface seemed like an attempt to change the perception, pitting Microsoft directly against the venerable iPad whilst also attempting to bring consumers across to the Windows 8 way of thinking. Unfortunately the early years weren’t kind to it at all with the experiment resulting in a $900 million write down for Microsoft which many took to indicate that the Surface (or at the very least the RT version) weren’t long for this world. The 18 months that have followed however have seen that particular section of Microsoft’s business make a roaring comeback, much to my and everyone else’s surprise.
The Microsoft quarterly earnings report released today showing that Microsoft is generally in a good position with revenue and gross margin up on the previous quarter of last year. The internal make up of those numbers is a far more mixed story (covered in much better detail here) however the standout point was the fact that the Surface division alone was $1.1 billion for the quarter, up a staggering $211 million from the previous quarter. This is most certainly on the back of the Surface Pro 3 which was released in June 2014 but for a device that was almost certainly headed for the trash heap it’s a pretty amazing turn around from $900 million in the hole to $1.1 billion in revenue just 1.5 years later.
The question that interests me then is: What was the driving force behind this comeback?
To start off with the Surface Pro 3 (and all the Surface Pro predecessors) are actually pretty great pieces of kit, widely praised for their build quality and overall usability. They were definitely a premium device, especially if you went for the higher spec options, but they are infinitely preferable to carting around your traditional workhorse laptop around with you. The lines get a little blurry when you compare them to an ultrabook of similar specifications, at least if you’re someone like me who’s exacting with what they want, however if you didn’t really care about that the Surface was a pretty easy decision. So the hardware was great, what was behind the initial write down then?
That entirely at the feet of the WinRT version which simply failed to be the iPad competitor it was slated to be. Whilst I’m sure I’d have about as much use for an iPad as I would for my Surface RT it simply didn’t have the appeal that its fully fledged Pro brethren had. Sure you’d be spending more money on the Pro but you’d be getting the full Windows experience rather than the cut down version which felt like it was stuck between being a tablet and laptop replacement. Microsoft tried to stick with the RT idea with the 2 however they’ve gone to great lengths now to reposition the device as a laptop replacement, not an iPad competitor.
You don’t even have to go far to see this repositioning in action, the Microsoft website for the Surface Pro 3 puts it in direct competition with the Macbook Air. It’s a market segment that the device is far more likely to win in as well considering that Apple’s entire Mac product line made about $6.6 billion last quarter which includes everything from the Air all the way to the Mac Pro. Apple has never been the biggest player in this space however so the comparison might be a little unfair but it still puts the Surface’s recent revival into perspective.
It might not signal Microsoft being the next big thing in consumer electronics but it’s definitely not something I expected from a sector that endured a near billion dollar write off. Whether Microsoft can continue along these lines to capitalize on this is something we’ll have to watch closely as I’m sure no one is going to let them forget the failure that was the original Surface RT. I still probably won’t buy one however, well unless they decide to include a discrete graphics chip in a future revision.
Hint hint, Microsoft.
Far Cry releases have been like clockwork for the first 3 instalments, coming out every 4 years at roughly the same time. That made it something of an oddity in recent times as nearly every other game that had its level of success transitioned quickly to the yearly release model and most suffered for it. The most recent release of Far Cry however came just 2 years after its predecessor, signalling that either the developers had found a way to cut 2 years from their dev cycle (not likely) or the pressure to release more often had finally got to Ubisoft. Whilst I tend to think the latter is more possible (especially given Ubisofts penchant for frequent releases) Far Cry 4 doesn’t seem to have suffered much due to the shortened development cycle and even manages to improve on its predecessor considerably.
You play as Ajay Ghale, a native of the land of Kyrat (most likely Nepal) who has returned to his birth land to fulfill the last dying wish of his mother: to scatter her ashes in Lakshmana. This is not as easy as it sounds as Kyrat has been in the grip of a brutal civil war for decades, ruled over by a dictator who has crowned himself king of all things. Upon trying to sneak into Kyrat you’re stopped at a military checkpoint and it doesn’t take long before things start going south. Then, for some unknown reason, the dictator himself shows up and takes you away to his palace high in the mountains of Kyrat. It is there you find out why he is so interested in you and why it is you who must free Kyrat.
Even though Far Cry 4 shares an engine with its predecessor I have to say that the graphics do feel like a big step up. Part of this might be the difference in scenery which now contains numerous sweeping vistas rather than the dense jungles of Far Cry 3. My rig also struggled with the default settings (something which I don’t recall happening previously) which is partly due to its age but also speaks to the higher graphical fidelity that Far Cry 4 has. Some of the issues I experienced previously did come across again (like they extremely noticeable tearing) however they were solvable and so they didn’t impact my game experience too much. If anything Far Cry 4 highlighted the fact that the new PC I’ve been fantasizing over would be a worthy investment, especially if I could run a game as pretty as this on max settings.
Ubisoft appears to have settled on the formula for the Far Cry series with the vast majority of this instalments mechanics being taken directly from its predecessor. You’ll be running around a large map, taking over radio towers, liberating outposts and doing all sorts of odds and ends type missions that will get in your way when you’re trying to travel between two points. There’s dozens of weapons available at your disposal, some of which you will only be able to access after completing certain missions or objectives. The talent system makes a comeback with a slightly tweaked progression mechanism which makes it slightly more relevant than it was in Far Cry 3. There are also some notable quality of life improvements made that vastly improved my enjoyment of Far Cry 4, some of which I think should make their way into other open world games.
Combat feels roughly the same as its predecessor with the aiming down sights still not feeling as accurate as it should be but overall retaining a highly polished feel. Whilst stealth is always an option (more on that in a bit) you’ll often find yourself in the midst of an out and out gun fight, tearing your way through wave after wave of enemies before you can move forward. For the most part these encounters are laid out well, giving you various routes to victory. Some approaches are far better than others of course but it wasn’t often that I found myself without the requisite firepower to make it through a section. In-vehicle combat, whilst improved, still feels a little janky although I can see it being passable in a co-op scenario.
The stealth mechanics are, again, largely similar to Far Cry 3 with a meter filling up until you’re detected and all hell breaks loose. On first pass the stealth doesn’t work as expected as there are numerous times where you can’t see an enemy but they can easily see you. From what I can tell this is because leaves and bushes don’t block their line of sight, necessitating you to hide behind something more “solid” in order to block it. However once you’ve worked out the boundaries of their detection it becomes quite easy to pick off everyone in an outpost with the crossbow with the few heavies easily taken care of with a suppressed sniper rifle. Overall it felt like an improvement even if it did require me to adjust my playstyle a bit for it to be useful.
The talent system is the main way you’ll progress your character, spending your talent points on various skills and enhancements. The levels come fast enough that you usually won’t be waiting long to unlock that skill you want but at the same time none of the skills are exactly game breaking. The unlocking of additional skills being tied to campaign missions and side quests is a good way to encourage players to do things that they might not otherwise do and does provide a more organic approach to progression than Far Cry 3 did. The crafting system is pretty much identical to its predecessor, providing an ancillary progression system that’s still more of an also-ran than anything else.
However there are 2 standout features of Far Cry 4 that made my experience with it so much better: autodrive and the home base. I can’t tell you how tedious it is to have to drive everywhere in these open world games, especially ones like Far Cry where you’ll likely encounter have a dozen events along the way (most of which attempt to kill you). Autodrive allows you to just set it and forget it, taking a ton of tedium out of the game whilst still allowing it to retain that large open world feel. The customizable home base is a godsend once you upgrade it to have a helicopter there permanently, ensuring that you’ve always got the best means of transport at your disposal. These two things together were enough to see me come back far more often than I otherwise would have as they removed nearly all the tedium from the game.
The story however suffers from the almost trademark confused execution that plagues the Far Cry franchise. Whilst it thankfully retains a consistent antagonist throughout (unlike Far Cry 3 which lost all of its impact halfway through) it seems to be caught between not taking itself seriously and taking itself far too seriously to do the underlying story justice. I think the main problem is that your character isn’t given the requisite build up before he’s thrust into the action, unlike in Far Cry 3 where your initial escapades are fuelled by luck and naivety. It’s a shame because there are some really brilliant scenes dotted throughout the main story (the opium factory raid and the Shangri-La missions stand out with this) but there’s just that missing element that binds everything together into a cohesive whole.
Far Cry 4 is an evolutionary step forward for the franchise, improving on nearly all aspects of its predecessor which results in a far better title overall. The decreased development time between Far Cry 4 and its predecessor shows that Ubisoft has settled on a formula for the franchise one which, in my mind, seems to be working quite well for them. There are still some rough edges however, ones that I’m sure can be smoothed out with further polish, and hopefully the next instalment in the series can get the story right which would greatly elevate the franchises station within the open world genre. All that being said Far Cry 4 is still a solid game, even for people like me who typically aren’t fans of the genre.
Far Cry 4 is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79.95, $89.95, $99.95 $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total play time of 17 hours.
The rumour mill has been running strong for Microsoft’s next Windows release, fuelled by the usual sneaky leaks and the intrepid hackers who relentlessly dig through preview builds to find things they weren’t meant to see. For the most part though things have largely been as expected with Microsoft announcing the big features and changes late last year and drip feeding minor things through the technical preview stream. Today Microsoft held their Windows 10 Consumer Preview event in Redmond, announcing several new features that would become part of their flagship operating system as well as confirming the strategy for the Windows platform going forward. Suffice to say it’s definitely a shake up of what we’d traditionally expect from Microsoft, especially when it comes to licensing.
The announcement that headlined the event that Windows 10 would be a free upgrade for all current Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 customers who upgrade in the first year. This is obviously an attempt to ensure that Windows 10’s adoption rate doesn’t languish in the Vista/8 region as even though every other version of Windows seems to do just fine Windows 10 is still different enough for it to cause issues. I can see the adoption rate for current Windows 8 and 8.1 users to be very high, thanks to the integration with the Windows store, however for Windows 7 stalwarts I’m not so sure. Note that this also won’t apply to enterprises who are responsible for an extremely large chunk of the Windows 7 market currently.
Microsoft also announced Universal Applications which are essentially the next iteration of the WinRT framework that was introduced with Windows 8. However instead of delineating some applications to the functional ghetto (like all Metro apps were) Universal Apps instead share a common base set of functionality with additional code paths for the different platforms they support. Conceptually it sounds like a great idea as it means that the different versions of the applications will share the same codebase, making it very easy to bring new features to all platforms simultaneously. Indeed if this platform can be extended to encompass Android/iOS it’d be an incredibly powerful tool, although I wouldn’t count on that coming from Microsoft.
Xbox Live will also be making a prominent appearance in Windows 10 with some pretty cool features coming for XboxOne owners. Chief among these, at least for me, is the ability to stream XboxOne games from your console directly to your PC. As someone who currently uses their PC as a monitor for their PS4 (I have a capture card for reviews and my wife didn’t like me monopolizing the TV constantly with Destiny) I think this a great feature, one I hope other console manufacturers replicate. There’s also cross-game integration for games that use Xbox Live, an inbuilt game recorder and, of course, another iteration of DirectX. This was the kind of stuff Microsoft had hinted at doing with Windows 8 but it seems like they’re finally committed to it with Windows 10.
Microsoft is also expanding its consumer electronics business with new Windows 10 enabled devices. The Microsoft HoloLens is their attempt at a Google Glass like device although one that’s more aimed at being used with the desktop rather than on the go. There’s also the Surface Hub which is Microsoft’s version of the smart board, integrating all sorts of conferencing and collaboration features. It will be interesting to see if these things see any sort of meaningful adoption rate as whilst they’re not critical to Windows 10’s success they’re certainly devices that could increase adoption in areas that traditionally aren’t Microsoft’s domain.
Overall the consumer preview event paints Windows 10 as an evolutionary step forward for Microsoft, taking the core of the ideas that they attempted with previous iterations and reworking them with a fresh perspective. It will be interesting to see how the one year free upgrade approach works for them as gaining that critical mass of users is the hardest thing for any application, even the venerable Windows platform. The other features that are coming along as more nice to haves than anything else, things that will likely help Microsoft sell people on the Windows 10 idea. Getting this launch right is crucial for Microsoft to execute on their strategy of it being the one platform for time immaterial as the longer it takes to get the majority of users on Windows 10 the harder it will be to invest heavily in it. Hopefully Windows 10 can be the Windows 7 to Windows 8 as Microsoft has a lot riding on this coming off just right.
There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:
It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.
Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.
Vaccines are incredibly beneficial for two reasons. The first is the obvious one; for the individual receiving them they provide near-immunity to a whole range of horrendous diseases, many of which can prove fatal or have lifelong consequences for those who become infected. The risks associated with them are so small it’s hard to even connect them with the vaccines themselves and are far more likely to simply be the background noise than anything else. Secondly, when a majority of the population is vaccinated individuals who can’t be vaccinated (such as newborns) or those idiots who simply choose not to gain the benefit of herd immunity. This prevents most diseases from spreading within a community, providing the benefits of vaccinations to those who don’t have them. However there’s a critical point where herd immunity stops working and that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in northern California.
A recent study conducted by researchers working for Kaiser Permanente analysed the vaccination records for some 154,000 individuals in the Northern California region. The records cover approximately 40% of the total insured individuals in the area so the sample size is large enough for it to be representative of the larger whole. The findings are honestly quite shocking showing that there were multiple pockets of under-immunization (children not recieving the required number of vaccinations) which were signficantly above the regional mean, on the order of 18~23% within a cluster. Worst still the rate of vaccination refusal, where people declined any vaccinations at all, was up to 13.5%. It’s a minority of people but it’s enough to completely eradicate herd immunity for several horrible diseases.
For diseases like pertussis (whooping cough) and measles the herd immunity rate may only start kicking in at the 95% vaccination rate, mostly due to how readily they can spread from person to person. That means that only 5% of the population has to forego these vaccinations before herd immunity fails, putting at risk individuals directly in harms way. Other diseases still maintain herd immunity status down to 85% vaccination rates which some of the clusters were getting dangerously close to breaking. It’s clusters like this that are behind the resurgence of diseases which were effectively eradicated decades ago, something which is doing far more harm than any vaccine ever has.
It all comes down to the misinformation spread by several notable public figures that vaccinations are somehow linked to other conditions. It’s been conclusively proven again and again that vaccines have no link to any of these conditions and the side effects from a vaccination rarely amount to more than a sore arm or a fever. It’s one thing to make a decision that only affects yourself but the choice not to vaccinate doesn’t, it puts many other individuals at risk, most of whom cannot do anything to change their situation. You can however and the choice not to is so incredibly selfish I can’t begin to explain my frustration with it.
Hopefully one day reason will prevail over popularity when it comes to things like this. It’s infuriating to think that people are putting both themselves and others at risk just because some celebrity told them that vaccines were doing them more harm than good when the reality is nothing like that. I know I’ve beaten this horse several times since it died but it seems the bounds of human stupidity is indeed limitless and if I can make even just a small difference in those figures than I feel compelled to do so. You should to as the anti-vaxxers need a good and thorough flogging with the facts, one that shouldn’t stop until they realise the error of their ways.
The Mars Curse is the term used to describe the inordinately high failure rate for missions to our red celestial sister, particularly those that dare to touch the surface. It’s an inherently complicated mission as there are innumerable things that need to be taken into account in order to get something on the surface and a problem with any one of the systems can result in a total mission failure. One such mission that fell prey to this was the European Space Agency’s Beagle 2, a small lander that hitched a ride with the Mars Express craft all the way back in 2003. Shortly after it was sent down to the surface contact with the probe was lost and it was long thought it met its end at an unplanned disassembly event. However we’ve recently discovered that it made all the way down and even managed to land safely on the surface.
Like the Mars Exploration Rovers Beagle 2 would use the martian atmosphere to shed much of its orbital velocity, protected by its ablative heat shield. Once it approached more manageable speeds it would then deploy its parachutes to begin the final part of its descent, drifting slowly towards the target site. Then, when it was about 200m above the ground, it would deploy airbags around its outer shell to protect it from the impact when it hit the surface. Once on the ground it would then begin unfurling its solar panels and instrumentation, making contact with its parent orbiter once all systems were nominal. However back on that fateful day it never made contact and it was assumed the lander likely destroyed.
The information we now have points towards a different story. It appears that pretty much everything went according to plan in terms of descent which, as my very high level description of the process can attest to, is usually the part when things go catastrophically wrong. Instead it appears that Beagle 2 made it all the surface and began the process of deploying its instruments. However from what we can see now (which isn’t much given that the lander is some 2m across and our current resolution is about 0.3m/pixel) it appears that it didn’t manage to unfurl all of its solar panels which would have greatly restricted its ability to gather energy. My untrained eye can see what looks like 2 panels and the instrumentation pod which would leave it with about half the power it was expecting.
In my opinion though (which should be taken with a dash of salt since I’m not a rocket scientist) there must have been some damage to other systems, most likely the communications array, which prevented it from making initial contact. I’d assume that there was enough charge for it to complete it’s initial start up activities which should have been enough to make initial contact with the orbiter. Such damage could have occurred at any number of points during the descent and would explain why there was total silence rather than a few blips before it dropped off completely. Of course this is just pure speculation at this point and we’re not likely to have any good answers until we actually visit the site (if that will ever happen, I’m looking at you Mr Musk).
Still discovering Beagle 2’s final resting place is a great find for all involved as it shows what went right with the mission and gives us clues as to what went wrong. This information will inform future missions to the red planet and hopefully one day we can write off the Mars curse as simply a lack in our understanding of what is required for a successful interplanetary mission. Indeed the bevy of successful NASA missions in the past decade is a testament to this constant, self correcting trial and error process, one that is built on the understanding gleaned from those who’ve come before.
Whilst games have matured a lot as a medium in the last decade or so they’re still finding their feet when it comes to telling stories that deal with mature themes. Sure there are many great examples I can point to however the notion of interactivity drastically changes how certain aspects of story impact upon the player making it a lot harder to craft an experience in a certain way, especially if you want to include some form of player agency. The medium itself can even distract from your story with everything from glitches to bad animations or models breaking player immersion and ruining their experience. Unfortunately for 4PM, a story driven cinematic experience, this is exactly what has happened and any impact the story might have had is lost in the extremely sub-par execution.
You wake up in your apartment, head throbbing as the last tendrils of alcohol work their way unceremoniously out of your system. For Caroline it’s just another boring day in her life, one where she’ll repeat the same process of making a show at work before punishing her liver again after she clocks out. Unknown to her however this is the day when everything will break and she will be forced to make some tough choices in order to face what she’s been running away from for many years. Will you face these problems head on? Or will you continue the downward spiral into alcoholism, hoping your troubles will fade away.
4PM heavily touts its cinematic aspects in the marketing blurbs on Steam and from an aesthetic point it delivers on this somewhat. This is mostly achieved through the overuse of depth of field blurring which does a relatively effective job of hiding the decidedly below par visuals that make up the majority of the game. Most of the cut scenes do well with their camera work with some well framed shots and swooping cuts however anything done in the player perspective feels incredibly awkward. I’m hoping this was done deliberately to emulate the main character’s struggle with alcohol but even in scenes where they’re sober walking feels like you’re pushing a bag full of snakes with a broom. It’s all wiggly and not quite right.
The creator has billed 4PM as an interactive experience that’s “without the complexities and reflex based natures of classic games”. That almost places it in the same category as the walking simulators of new however 4PM doesn’t want you to explore, rather it wants you to go through the motions of the story whilst engaging in some routine game mechanics every so often. There’s a few places where you’re given a choice between two options however there’s really only 2 outcomes and the differences in dialogue are, to be blunt, minimal at best. The one thing 4PM has going for it is its extremely short playtime, clocking in at 45 minutes if you decide to play through all the alternate options.
Often in games you’ll find things in them that speak to the developer’s learning process, things that are in there because the developer created them as a proof of concept for something and it then made its way into the final product. 4PM feels like a collection of these things, a collection of developer experiences mashed together. Some of these are obvious, like the breakout game on the PC in the main character’s office, to other things like being able to rotate objects in front of the character’s face. This distinct lack of polish might be charming to some however it just gave me flashbacks to Velvet Sundown, not a game I think anyone wants to be compared to.
All of this is made worse when you actually get to see characters without the copious amounts of motion blur as they are, to be frank, horrendous. Your boss looks like a store mannequin brought to life, something which is only exacerbated by the jerky, stilted animations. It gets even worse when you’re talking to John in the penultimate scene as the canned animations he goes through seem to be highly incongruent to the words he is speaking. For a game that took up 3GB worth of space on my hard drive I was expecting a lot more but, unfortunately, it seems that’s just what happens when a game isn’t optimized at all.
I can see the potential in the story and indeed the final climatic scene almost managed to drag me in past all the crap the game had thrown at me to that point. However the way the final scene plays out is so highly confusing (both in player terms and that of the main character) that much of the impact is lost. Sure there are some hints as to what had happened if you hunt around in the opening scenes, but all you’re able to glean from that is that you’re a drunk and you’ve met this guy once before. It definitely feels like the length of the game is to blame for much of this as the story simply didn’t have the time it needed to develop to the point where the final reveal would have the kind of lasting impact it needed to overcome all of 4PM’s shortcomings.
4PM is a game that reaches far beyond its grasp, attempting to build an evocative story driven game but simply fails to deliver. It’s easy to see what the sole developer was attempting to achieve with this however there really isn’t any aspect I can point to which I could consider average. 4PM feels like a game that, given some more time and resources, could have been a real gem. Unfortunately the finished product is far from it and isn’t something I recommend to anyone.
4PM is available right now on PC for $4.99. Tota play time was 45 minutes.