It’s been 17 years since the first part of the International Space Station was launched into orbit and since then it’s become a symbol of humanity’s ability and desire to go further in space. The fact that NASA and Roscosmos have remained cooperative throughout all the tumultuous times that their parent countries have endured speaks to the greater goal that they both seek, along with all of the other participating nations. However, just like any other piece of equipment, the ISS will eventually wear out requiring replacement or significant revamping in order to keep going. The current plans are to keep it going through to 2024 however past that date it’s likely that the ISS will meet its firey end, burning up in a controlled re-entry back to Earth.
Russia had made its intent clear when this fateful time arrived: it would detach all its current modules and then form its own space station in orbit to continue operations. Such an exercise, whilst possible, would be non-trivial in nature and by Russia’s own accounts would likely only give those modules another 4 years worth of life before the maintenance costs on the aging hardware outstripped any potential benefits. Thus the pressure has been on to start looking towards designing a replacement orbital space station, one that can support humanity’s activities in space for the next few decades.
Roscosmos recently announced that they had committed to building the ISS’s replacement with NASA with the details to be forthcoming. NASA, whilst praising Russia’s commitment to continuing ISS operations to 2024, didn’t speak to a potential future space station. Whilst they didn’t outright deny that NASA and Russia aren’t or won’t be working on a future space station together they have said in the past that they’d hope that the private space industry would be able to provide such capability soon. That’s looking like it will be happening too, given that Bigelow is hoping to ship their BEAM module to the ISS by the end of this year.
There’s every chance that NASA and Roscosmos have been in talks behind the scenes to work on the next generation space station and Russia simply jumped the gun on announcing the collaboration. It does seem a little odd however as their previous announcement of breaking away from the ISS when the deorbit date came was rather…hostile and most expected NASA and Roscosmos to simply part ways at that point. Doing an about face and announcing a collaboration is great news however it just seems odd that NASA wouldn’t say something similar if they were actually doing it. So either Russia’s just really excited to make an announcement or there’s a larger play happening here, but I can’t imagine NASA being guilted into committing to building another ISS.
I’m hopeful that it’s not a lot of hot air as the ISS has proven to be both a valuable science experiment as well as an inspirational icon to spur the next generation to pursue a career beyond the Earth’s surface. We’ve learnt many lessons from building the now football field sized station in orbit and the next one we build can be that much better because of them. That, combined with the numerous benefits that comes from international collaboration on a project of this scale, means that there’s still an incredible amount of value to derive from something like the ISS and I hope Roscosmos’ ambition is based in reality.
Nearly all of us are born with what we’d consider less than ideal memories. We’ll struggle to remember where our keys our, draw a blank on that new coworker’s name and sometimes pause much longer than we’d like to remember a detail that should be front of mind. The idealised pinnacle, the photographic (or more accurately the eidetic) memory, always seems like an elusive goal, something you have to be born with rather than achieve. However it seems that our ability to forget might actually come from an evolutionary adaptation, enabling us to remember the pertinent details that helped us survive whilst suppressing those that might otherwise hinder us.
The idea isn’t a new one, having existed in some form since at least 1997, but it’s only recently that researchers have had the tools to study the mechanism in action. You see it’s rather difficult to figure out which memories are being forgotten for adaptive reasons, I.E. to improve the survival of the organism, and which ones are simply forgotten due to other factors. The advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to get a better idea of what the brain is doing at any one point, allowing them to set up situations to see what the brain is doing when it’s forgetting something. The results are quite intriguing, demonstrating that at some level forgetting might be an adaptive mechanism.
Back in 2007 researchers at Stanford University investigated the prospect that adaptive forgetting was potentially a mechanism for reducing the amount of brain power required to select the right memories for a particular situation. The hypothesis goes that remembering is an act of selecting a specific memory for a goal related activity. Forgetting then functions as an optimization mechanism, allowing the brain to more easily select the right memories by suppressing competing memories that might not be optimal. The research supported this notion, showing decreased activity in anterior cingulated cortex which is activated when people are weighing choices (like figuring out which memory is relevant).
More recent research into this phenomena, conducted by researchers at various institutes at the University of Birmingham and various institutes in Cambridge, focused on finding out if the active recollection of a specific memory hindered the remembering of others. Essentially this means that the act of remembering a specific memory would come at the cost of other, competing memories which in turn would lead to them being forgotten. They did this by getting subjects to view 144 picture and word associations and were then trained to remember 72 of them (whilst they were inside a fMRI machine). They were then given another set of associations for each word which would serve as the “competitive” memory for the first.
The results showed some interesting findings, some which may sound obvious on first glance. Attempting to recall the second word association led to a detriment in the subject’s ability to recall the first. That might not sound groundbreaking to start off with but subsequent testing showed a progressive detriment to the recollection of competing memories, demonstrating they were being actively repressed. Further to this the researchers found that their subject’s brain activity was lower for trained images than ones that weren’t part of the initial training set, an indication that these memories were being actively suppressed. There was also evidence to suggest that the trained memories showed the most average forgetting as well as increased activity in a region of the brain known to be associated with adaptive forgetting.
Whilst this research might not give you any insight into how to improve your memory it does give us a rare look into how our brain functions and why certain it behaves in ways we believe to be sub-optimal. Potentially in the future there could be treatments available to suppress that mechanism however what ramifications that might have on actual cognition is anyone’s guess. Needless to say though it’s incredibly interesting to find out why our brains do the things we do, even if we wished they did the exact opposite most of the time.
Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.
There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.
I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.
As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.
The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.
Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.
The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.
For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.
Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.
The last decade has seen NASA change tack quite a few times, mostly under the direction of different presidents who had very different ideas about how the venerable agency should function. Much of it came in the form of a lot of hand wringing about whether or not we should return to the Moon or simply go straight to Mars, with the current strategy to put NASA astronauts on our red sister sometime in the 2030s (although they might be too late if SpaceX has their way). This new direction included sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 in order to vet some of the technology required to eventually send those astronauts to Mars and NASA has just detailed what that mission will be.
The initial mission was going to attempt to capture an entire asteroid, one around 8m in diameter, using an inflatable cylinder that would envelope the asteroid and then return it to a cis-lunar (between the Earth and the Moon) orbit. Now this wouldn’t have been a massive asteroid, probably on the order of 8m or so, but it still would have been a pretty massive endeavour to bring it back to a closer orbit. However there was another potential option for this mission: instead of retrieving the whole asteroid a probe would instead pluck a small boulder from the surface of a much larger asteroid and then return that back to the cis-lunar orbit. NASA announced today that the second option would be the one they’d pursue going forward with the mission timeframe still slated for sometime in the next decade.
Interestingly the second option is significantly more expensive, to the tune of $100 million, however the technology that will be developed to support it was seen as being of much more benefit than the other mission. Once a candidate asteroid has been selected the craft will be launched into orbit around it where it will identify and select a boulder for retrieval. It will then land on the boulder, capture it, and then lift it back off into orbit around the asteroid again. The craft will remain there for some time afterwards to see if the idea of a gravity tractor craft could work to divert a potentially dangerous asteroid from colliding with Earth. Then, depending on how successful that was, the craft will either remain there a little longer or begin the journey back towards earth, it’s newly captured asteroid boulder in tow. Then astronauts from Earth will embark on a month long mission to travel to the asteroid, study it and then potentially bring it (or at least samples) back to Earth.
It’s an ambitious mission but one that will be the proving ground for the vast majority of technologies required to get humans to Mars. Whilst we’ve learnt a lot about long duration spaceflights thanks to the International Space Station there’s a lot more we need to develop in order to support the same duration flights away from the protection of our Earth. Specifically this relates to the radiation shielding requirement (something which still doesn’t have a great solution) but there’s also numerous other questions that will need to be answered before we launch a craft towards Mars. A month to a nearby asteroid fragment might not sound like much but it will be another giant leap forward technology wise.
NASA is stil a far cry from its heydays during the cold war but its starting to rekindle that explorer spirit that drove them to achieve such great things all those years ago. Opting for the more ambitious mission profile means that our understanding will be more greatly increased as a result, hopefully fueling further exploration with a view to us one day becoming a multi-planet species. We’re still a while away from seeing this happen but it’s so good to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Back when I first saw the Motorola 360 I was pretty geared up to grab myself one as it was the first to have a design that actually appealed to me. However the reviews for it were less than stellar, many of them citing poor battery life and lacklustre performance thanks to its incredibly outdated processor. This was enough to sour me on the idea as whilst the design was still nice I didn’t want to burden myself with another device that I’d have to charge daily. With the Apple Watch failing to tickle my fancy I resigned myself to waiting for the next round of devices to see if anything came through. As it so happens there is one potential smartwatch I now have my eyes on but I’m hesitant to get excited lest I get let down again.
The Huawei Watch bears a similar aesthetic to the Motorola 360 with a round face and a single button. The included Milanese strap is a nice addition especially considering that Apple would charge you an extra $600 for the privilege. However should that style not suit you then you’re free to change it to any standard 18mm or 21mm band that takes your fancy. It’s available in the standard array of colours (silver, black and gold) all of which share the same construction although the gold appears to come with a leather band rather than the Milanese style one.
Specifications wise it’s a definite step up from most of the competition sporting a quad core Qualcomm chip and a 400 x 400 AMOLED screen that covers the entire dial (unlike the 360 which has a black bar at the bottom) covered in sapphire crystal. These differences might not sound like much but the newer processor should be able to run a lot better in low power modes and the AMOLED screen handles being dimmed a lot better than the 360’s IPS panel does. So whilst the Huawei Watch might have a slightly smaller battery it should, hopefully, be able to last significantly longer which was the main complaint against the 360.
However I still have concerns on just how useful such a device will be for me as whilst the array of sensors included in the device are impressive they’re still somewhat short of my idealized smartwatch. Sure the list of features I laid out a while back might be a little extreme (indeed I think including MYO technology now isn’t required, given that Google Glass isn’t as great as I first thought it’d be) but I’d want something like this to be functional and useful. Perhaps I’m being too harsh of a critic of the idea before I’ve tried it as there’s every chance that I’ll find a myriad of uses for it once I have it but I’ve used enough random bits of tech in the past to know that not all of them work out how everyone says they should.
Regardless it’s good to see more companies coming out with smartwatch designs that don’t look like cheap plastic pieces of junk. Whilst I’ll always question the value proposition of Rolex level smatchwatches I can definitely see the value in having a piece of technology on your wrist. Whether the current generation of devices will be enough to satisfy me is something I’ll have to find out and the Huawei Watch might be the first one to make me shell out the requisite cash.
Establishing lunar colonies seems like the next logical step, it’s our closest celestial body after all, however it might surprise you to learn that doing that might in fact be a lot harder than establishing a similarly sized colony on Venus or Mars. Without an atmosphere to speak of our Moon’s surface is an incredibly harsh place with the full brunt of our sun’s radiation bearing down on it. That’s only half the problem too as since the day/night cycles last 2 weeks you’ll spend half your time in perpetual darkness at temperatures fast approaching absolute zero. There are ways around it however and recent research has led to some rather interesting prospects.
Whilst the surface of the Moon might be unforgiving going just a little bit below the surface negates many of the more undesirable aspects. Drilling into the surface is one option however that’s incredibly resource intensive, especially when you consider that all the gear required to do said drilling would need to be sent from Earth. The alternative is to use structures that are already present on the Moon such as caverns and other natural structures. We know that these kinds of formations are already present on the Moon thanks to the high resolution imagery and gravity mapping we’ve done (the Moon’s gravity field is surprisingly non-uniform) but just how big these structures could be has remained somewhat of a mystery.
Researchers at Purdue university decided to investigate just how big structures like these could be, specifically looking at how big lava tubes could get if they existed on the Moon. During its formation, which would have happened when a large object collided with the then primordial Earth, the surface of the Moon would have been ablaze with volcanic activity. However due to its much smaller size that activity has long since ceased but it would have still left behind the tell tale structures of its more tumultuous history. The researchers then modelled how big these tubes could have gotten given the conditions present on the Moon and came up with a rather intriguing discovery: they’d be huge.
When you see the outcome of the research it feels like an obvious conclusion, of course they’d be bigger since there’s less gravity, but the fact that they’re an order of magnitude bigger than what we’d see on Earth is pretty astounding. The picture above gives you some sense of scale for these potential structures, able to fit several entire cities within them with an incredible amount of room to spare. Whilst using such structures as a basis for a future lunar colony presents a whole host of challenges it does open up the possibility to the Moon having much more usable space than we first thought.
Medicine has long known about the potential causes of Alzheimer’s however finding a safe and reliable treatment has proven to be far more elusive. Current treatments centre on alleviating the symptoms of the disease, combating things like memory loss and cognitive function. However whilst these may provide some relief and quality of life improvement they do nothing to treat the underlying cause which is a combination of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Current research has heavily focused on the former which blocks communications between neurons in the brain and, so the theory goes, removing them will restore cognitive function. Recently two treatments have shown some incredibly positive results with one of them not too far off seeing widespread trials.
A drug company called Biogen has developed a drug called Aducanumab which has shown a significant effect in reducing the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s an antibody that helps trigger an immune system response and was created by investigating the antibodies present in healthy aged donors, with the reasoning going that they had successfully resisted Alzheimer’s related symptoms. The recent large clinical study showed an effect far beyond what the researchers were expecting, including a dose dependent effect. The drug is not yet available for widespread distribution, there’s still one more late stage trial to go, however it could see a wide market release as soon as 2018. It’s still far from a cure but the drug is capable of significantly slowing the progress of the disease, opening up the opportunity for other treatments to be far more effective.
New research from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland investigated using focused ultrasound to help break up amyloid plaques. Essentially this treatment disrupts the blood-brain barrier temporarily, allowing microglial cells (which are essentially clean up cells) to enter the particular region of the brain and remove the plaques. After a short period of time, the research shows a couple hours or so, the blood-brain barrier is fully restored ensuring that there are no on-going complications. This allows the body to remove the plaques naturally, hopefully facilitating the restoration of cognitive function.
In the mouse model used the researchers found that they could fully restore the memories of 75% of the subjects affected, an incredibly promising result. Of course the limitations of a mouse model mean that further research is required to find out if it would work as well in humans but there’s already precedent for using this kind of technology for treatment of other brain related conditions. Considering that the mechanism of action is similar to that of Aducanumab (removal of amyloid plaques) the side effects and limitations are likely to be similar, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.
It’s great to see conditions and diseases like this, ones that used to be a long and undignified death sentence, slowly meeting their end at the hands of science. Treatments like this have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of our later years, meaning we can still be active members of society for much longer. I’m confident that one day we’ll have these conditions pinned down to the point where they’re no more of a worry than any other chronic, but controlled condition.
There are some genres in which few dare to tread for fear of being crushed by the long reigning champion. For city building games there was really no comparison to Sim City, a game that had been around for decades and had captured the hearts and minds of a generation of gamers. However their last release, Sim City 4, showed that even the mighty can fall and the community began looking for alternatives. There have been others that have recieved some praise, like Banished and Anno 2070, but they never tried to beat Sim City at its own game. Cities: Skylines is a new entrant into the city building genre and it takes direct aim at the crown, going right at the foundation of what made Sim City great.
Despite its namesake Skylines is not the next instalment in the Cities series of games (which are developed by Focus Home Interactive) instead it comes to us care of Colossal Order who’s previous titles are the Cities in Motion series. Essentially these were cut down versions of what Skylines looks to achieve, being focused solely on the deployment and maintenance of subway systems in famous locations. Skylines is then a natural progression for Colossal Order, taking their lessons learnt from the mixed reviews their games received and aiming high in the wake of Sim City’s failures.
Skylines is built on the ever popular Unity engine which means, as usual, it has a very similar look and feel to other titles that have been released on it. For a city building simulator this isn’t much of a bad thing as you’ll spend the vast majority of your time at a birds eye view. That being said close inspection of my screenshots from both games shows a pretty similar level of detail with the main difference being Sim City favours a light and bright colour palette whilst Skylines is a bit more muted. Indeed comparing both of them it feels like Skylines simply directly ripped off most of the visual and interface elements from Sim City as even the order of the bottom row is identical. The layout works however so it’s hard to fault the imitation but usually it comes with just a touch more subtly.
As you’d expect Skylines is a city building game, one where you start out with nothing and have to build your way up to a grand town with thousands of citizens. The controls and mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played their fair share of games in this genre, especially anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time with Sim City. You’ll drop down roads, zone areas for certain types of development and deploy services that your citizens needs. Interestingly most of it isn’t accessible to you right at the start, instead the game slowly unlocks things as your population increases. Considering there’s no real tutorial to speak of (those hints don’t really count) this helps in understanding what each of the services does and where the best place is to place them. On top of this Skylines boasts an AI that doesn’t do the things that made Sim City 4 such a chore to play however it still has its own set of quirks, some of which are fun and others which are downright confusing.
Like all city building games Skylines has an optimal configuration for the roads, facilities, zoned areas and transportation but what that is can be a tricky thing to decipher. My first couple towns, which were centred on a main arterial with small roads coming off it, worked reasonably well at the beginning but quickly fell apart once the population started ramping up. The configuration below seemed to be the best one I could come up with, using long main roads without many intersections and having side roads come off them. The main limiting factor is the fact that zoned areas need to be next to roads so there’s only so much space you can pen in. I wholly admit that this was me trying to solve the transport problem with roads alone as once I added in metro lines things seemed to get a lot better.
There’s a few quality of life features in Skylines that makes your time a little easier, like power jumping from adjacent buildings so you don’t have to run power lines all the way through your city to get it going. The same can’t be said for other services though and so you’ll spend much of your time laying water pipes and other various bits of infrastructure to expand your city. That’s not terribly laborious however it does start to lose its lustre after a little while. It would be nice to be able to create patterns that you could stamp down, something which would form its own little mini-game of developing the best city cells to use for your larger deployments. Thankfully that’s something that might end up happening thanks to the already thriving modding community that’s sprung up around this title.
The city simulation seems fairly robust with things behaving how you’d expect them to. It’s a little more logical than what I remember Sim City being with things like the size of the road mattering when you place down a fire station or university. This adds a little more complexity to the city planning aspect of the game but it’s also far more rewarding when you manage to place a single building that then covers your entire city for that particular service. The AI actors are also not functionally retarded and perennially homeless like their Sim City brethren were, going back to the same homes each night and not taking the least cost path to everything all the time. This means that you can stack certain services on top of each other to service a particular need, something you just couldn’t do in Sim City 4.
As to whether Skylines is “the game Sim City should have been” well in all honesty they both play very similarly, Skylines just has the benefit of the hindsight gleaned from the last failed release of its competitor. The main gripes (poor AI, can’t expand, always online, etc.) have all be addressed but they were things that weren’t above being fixed in Sim City anyway. I do like the potential the modding community has though as that could extend the life of this game well past anyone’s current expectations. Indeed just looking through the mods now shows many solutions to the issues currently plaguing players and some interesting concepts for improving some of the core game mechanics.
Which, if I’m honest, are where Skylines is the weakest. Try as I might to understand why certain things are happening in my game, like below where there are dozens of buildings lying abandoned, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going wrong. Sim City got around this problem somewhat with the advisors, something Skylines attempts to do with the tweet roll at the top, however it’s hard to trace problems to their root cause when all the information you get is “This building is abandoned!”. I know its hard for smaller developer houses to invest heavily in tutorials or helpers like this however this was what made me stop playing as I really could not be bothered hunting around forums to figure out how to stop buildings from being abandoned, make commercial places produce more goods or the bloody lumber yards from burning down even though they had 2 fire departments right next to them.
Cities: Skylines does a great job of taking the fundamental ideas that Sim City 4 attempted and addressing every issue that the community had with it. The resulting game is something that has the same look and feel of its elder genre brethren but has many of the features the community wanted in it. That doesn’t necessarily make it the game that Sim City should aspire to be, indeed Skylines lacks any real originality or direction to where it might be going in the future. It’s a solid title, one that plays a heck of a lot better than Sim City 4 did, however it’s derivative and the onus is on the community to take it in new and strange directions to help differentiate it from its main competitor. That being said it’s still enjoyable to play and most certainly worth its current asking price.
Cities: Skylines is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.
Getting humans anywhere in the solar system is messy, difficult and above all expensive. We creatures of flesh and bone have an inordinate amount of requirements that need to be met so we don’t cark it, necessitating a whole bunch of things that our robotic counterparts simply don’t need.Thus manned space exploration missions aren’t usually at the forefront of science, instead they’re done to win over the hearts and minds of the people, inspiring the next generation to continue with these endeavours. I think this is why many of the general public wanted Mars One to succeed even though it was clear from the onset that the project would never deliver on its lofty goals.
Mars One was announced almost 2 years ago amid a flurry of other Mars related news, something which I’m sure helped elevate its profile above what it would have been otherwise. The idea plays heavily on the romanticized notion of the frontier, that us regular people could be a part of something greater by living at the very edge of human existence. The project made no secret that it was going to be a one way trip and so it took on this idea that it was some kind of noble sacrifice for greater good of humankind. Of course that idea kind of fell apart when they said that the mission would be mostly funded through a reality television series that they’d film as part of it. Not that this discouraged anyone as apparently tens of thousands of people applied for it.
I’ve said before that a one way trip to Mars isn’t a noble idea at all, being selfish more than anything, and the Mars One mission played into the egotistical mindset required by someone who’d want to undertake this mission. Sure there might be some good science done along the way however the way that Mars One was approaching it, which was by using external contractors to do the majority of the heavy lifting, wouldn’t be driving anything forward that wasn’t already well underway. That, coupled with the fact that they really didn’t seem to have any revenue source apart from the TV series (which they never announced a timeline for), meant that it was looking pretty sketchy even before the project got seriously underway.
Now we’ve had one of the top 100 finalists break their silence on the process and the insights he’s given have been pretty damning. It seems that the selection process hasn’t been that rigorous at all with the only things being required so far being the initial video, a questionnaire and a quick Skype call with the chief medical officer. Worst still it appears that making it into the top 100 could be as easy as just giving them money as the selection process is heavily based off the number of points a candidate has which, funnily enough, can be acquire by purchasing Mars One merchandise. The final nail in the coffin is that Mars One appears to have lost its contract with the media company that was going to do the TV series, something which was supposed to bring them the bulk of the $6 billion they’d need.
In all honesty it shouldn’t be that surprising as the writing was on the wall for Mars One from the day it was first announced. I’m always willing to be proven wrong , heck if they managed to pull this off I would’ve shouted their success from the rooftops, but the more we find out about Mars One the less likely it appears that they’ll ever get anything off Earth. Mars One is yet to comment on these recent revelations and I doubt they will as they’re likely hoping everyone will just write this off as one disgruntled participant. I for one am not and I hope you, dear reader, will heed his words carefully.
Trawling through the weekly releases can be something of an eye opener. There’s often a bevy of shovelware titles on there that I’m sure no one is proud of, a few early access titles that are looking to cash in on their promise and, if I’m lucky, a few titles that look like they’re worth playing. However every so often there’s a new concept in there that just stands out because of how out of left field it is and whilst most of them languish in Early Access a few of them have crossed the barrier into full release, allowing me to play them. The Deer God from Crescent Moon Games was one such title as its curious concept plus intriguing art style piqued my curiosity.
You are a hunter, or at least you were not too long ago. The Deer God has punished you for the crimes you have committed against its kind, trapping you inside the body of the young fawn you killed and set you forth on a quest to make reparations. There are many challenges before you and should you ever want to return to your human form you will have to best them all. How you go about this is your decision though: do you retain that callous hunter attitude and kill anything that stands in your way? Or has the transformation changed you, making you want to improve upon yourself and the world you live in? Only you can answer these questions, dear hunter.
The Deer God is a clever mix of pixelart and voxel stylings resulting in an interesting 2.5D landscape. Everything takes place in the one plane, which can be a little hard to discern visually when you first start out, however the landscape flows past you giving you the impression that the world is much larger than what the camera is showing you. All the environments are procedurally generated although it’s clear that there are numerous tiles that are used since the scenery tends to repeat several patterns over and over. There’s also dynamic weather effects for some regions and a day/night cycle, which helps to break up the repetition a little bit. The resulting world is visually impressive however, especially for some scenes like when you’re galloping across an open field while the sun is going down.
Mechanically The Deer God is a side scrolling platformer in which all the levels are procedurally generated. You’ll spend the majority of your time going from the left side to the right side of the screen, jumping over obstacles and head butting enemies into submission. Every so often you’ll be faced with a puzzle which, depending on how far you’ve progressed in the story or power tree, you may or may not be able to complete. However thanks to the procedural nature you’ll eventually come across that puzzle again in the near future, meaning that you’re never really stuck at a point where you can’t progress. There’s also a ton of optional things you can do to get items and powers which can help you later in the game. If that isn’t enough there’s also a whole host of achievements that’s sure to keep most completionists busy long after the initial game runs its course. Suffice to say that The Deer God’s asking price is likely well worth it for the hardcore platformers out there.
For the most part the platforming is pretty basic thanks almost entirely to the procedural generation. Once you’ve been through a biome a couple times you get a feel for which tile you’re currently in and what series of jumps you need to complete to get passed it. Sure, there are variations in the monsters and whatnot, but it’s not enough to make you pause and think about how you need to tackle the jump each time. Indeed most of my deaths resulted from me fat fingering the keys, rather than the challenge being too hard to overcome. This might have been different if the enemies couldn’t all be defeated by jumping over their attack and then hitting them but only the bosses provide any real variety combat wise. The powers do add a bit of fun into the mix, especially the dark ones, but the limited nature of their use means that you can’t go out of control with them.
Whilst The Deer God might be out of Early Access now it’s still shaking off some of its beta nature with a few of the puzzles still glitched as can be seen by a quick jaunt to the game’s Steam discussion page. Most of these have work arounds so it won’t stop you from finishing the game, however sometimes you can find yourself on a bugged puzzle for a frustratingly long time before you remember to check the discussion page to make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. There’s also some things I’m not sure are bugs or not, like if you fall into lava you respawn in the lava rather than back at some safe place. Thankfully the devs seem pretty active on the forums so its likely that most of these bugs will get ironed out sooner or later, but I’d still keep the forums open in the background just in case.
The story has some potential however it’s not developed at all. Most of the characters have only a few lines of dialogue and they’re really only there to facilitate the game moving forward rather than building up the world you’re in. It’s somewhat forgivable given the procedural nature of the game, allowing the player to create their own narrative within the world, however you can see there’s aspirations of it being something a little more than that, its just not realised. Considering the relatively short time between The Deer God’s KickStarter and its subsequent full release there was obviously sacrifices that needed to be made and it seems that the story was likely the first on the chopping block.
The Deer God is an interesting concept, taking the nostalgic pixelart styling in a new direction and combining it with procedural platforming resulting in a curious game. The procedural worlds are done brilliantly with all the ambient effects coming together well to produce some visually impressive set pieces. The core gameplay is rather repetitive and predictable after a short time and whilst the puzzles break it up a bit towards the end there’s simply not enough there to break up the monotony. Credit where credit is due though for The Deer God getting out of Early Access as quickly as it did, even if it came with some rough edges. Overall I quite enjoyed my experience with The Deer God and am definitely looking forward to more titles from Crescent Moon Games.
The Deer God is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.7 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.