Monthly Archives: February 2016

Google Provides Insight Into SSD Reliability.

SSDs may have been around for some time now but they’re still something of an unknown. Their performance benefits are undeniable and their cost per gigabyte has plummeted year after year. However, for the enterprise space, their unknown status has led to a lot of hedged bets when it comes to their use. Most SSDs have a large portion of over provisioned space, to accommodate for failed cells and wear levelling. A lot of SSDs are sold as “accelerators”, meant to help speed up operations but not hold critical data for any length of time. This all comes from a lack of good data on their reliability and failure rates, something which can only come with time and use. Thankfully Google has been doing just that and at a recent conference released a paper about their findings.

SSDs

 

The paper focused on three different types of flash media: the consumer level MLC, the more enterprise focused SLC and the somewhere-in-the-middle eMLC. These were all custom devices, sporting Google’s own PCIe interface and drivers, however the chips they used were your run of the mill flash. The drives were divided into 10 categories: 4 MLC, 4 SLC and 2 eMLC. For each of these different types of drives several different metrics were collected over their 6 year lifetime: raw bit error rate (RBER), uncorrectable bit error rate (UBER), program/erase cycles and various failure rates (bad blocks, bad cells, etc.). All of these were then collated to provide insights into the reliability of SSDs and their comparison to each other and to old fashioned, spinning rust drives.

Probably the most stunning finding out of the report is that, in general, SLC drives are no more reliable than their MLC brethren. For both enterprises and consumers this is a big deal as SLC based drives are often several times the price of their MLC equivalent. This should allay any fears that enterprises had about using MLC based products as they will likely be just as reliable and far more cheaper. Indeed products like the Intel 750 series (one of which I’m using for big data analysis at home) provide the same capabilities as products that cost ten times as much and, based on Google’s research, will last just as long.

Interestingly the biggest predictive indicator for drive reliability wasn’t the RBER, UBER or even the number of PE cycles. In fact the most predictive factor of drive failure was the physical age of the drive itself. What this means is that, for SSDs, there must be other factors at play which affect drive reliability. The paper hypothesizes that this might be due to silicon aging but it doesn’t appear that they had enough data to investigate that further. I’m very much interested in how this plays out as it will likely come down to the way they’re fabricated (I.E. different types of lithography, doping, etc.), something which does vary significantly between manufacturers.

It’s not all good news for SSDs however as the research showed that whilst SSDs have an overall failure rate below that of spinning rust they do exhibit a higher UBER. What this means is that SSDs will have a higher rate of unrecoverable errors which can lead to data corruption. Many modern operating systems, applications and storage controllers are aware of this and can accommodate it but it’s still an issue for systems with mission/business critical data.

This kind of insight into the reliability of SSDs is great and just goes to show that even nascent technology can be quite reliable. The insight into MLC vs SLC is telling, showing that whilst a certain technology may exhibit one better characteristic (in this case PE cycle count) that might not be the true indicator of reliability. Indeed Google’s research shows that the factors we have been watching so closely might not be the ones we need to look at. Thus we need to develop new ideas in order to better assess the reliability of SSDs so that we can better predict their failures. Then, once we have that, we can work towards eliminating them, making SSDs even more reliable again.

Unravel: Thread the Needle.

Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.

Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Into the Garden

Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.

The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ice Cave

Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.

At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.

Unravel Review Screenshot Wallpaper Wish You Were Here

Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.

Rating: 8/10

Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.

HTC Vive Will Debut at $799.

The $599 price tag of the consumer Oculus Rift was off putting to many, including myself. It’s not that we expected the technology to be cheap, more that our expectations were set at what we considered a much more reasonable level. I wrote at the time that HTC and Sony would likely rush in with their own VR headsets swiftly afterwards, likely a much lower price point, to take advantage of the Oculus’ more premium status. I was right on one count, HTC has since announced theirs, but at the higher price point of $799. It seems that, at this stage in the game, there’s no way to do VR on the cheap.

VR_Web_Product_HMD

Whilst the two products are largely comparable in terms of raw specifications, having the same screens for each eye and both providing the same level of “sit down” VR experience. However the Vive pulls ahead of the Oculus in two respects, the first of which being the inclusion of two hand tracking controllers. The current version of the Oculus includes an XboxOne controller with their Touch controllers due out sometime later this year (at a currently undisclosed price). However what really sets the HTC Vive apart from the Oculus is the inclusion of two Lighthouse tracking base stations which allow the Vive to do full body tracking in a 16m² space.

These two additions explain the price gap between the two headsets, however it also shows that there’s a floor price when it comes to VR headsets. I had honestly thought that both HTC’s and Sony’s offerings would come in at a cheaper price point than the Oculus however now I’m not so sure. Sony may be able to cut some corners due to the stable hardware platform they’ll be working with (the PS4) however I don’t think that will make it that much cheaper. Indeed looking at the current specs of the PlayStation VR shows that the only real difference at this point is the slightly lower screen resolution (although it does support 120hz, superior to the Oculus and Vive). With that in mind we’d be lucky to see it much, if at all, below the $599 price point that Oculus set last month.

So for Oculus debuting at the price point that they chose might not have been the disaster I first thought it would’ve been. Oculus might very well have developed the Model-T of VR that everyone was hoping for, it just ended up costing a lot more than we’d hoped it would. For many though I still feel like this will mean they’ll give the V1.0 VR products a miss, instead waiting for economies of scale to kick in or a new player to enter the market at a cheaper price point. This will hamper the adoption of VR, and by extension titles developed for VR, in the short term. However after a year or two there’s potential for newer models and the secondary market for used headsets to start ramping up, potentially opening up access to customers who had abstained previously.

For myself I think I’ll have to wait to be convinced that the investment in a VR headset will be worth it. I bought a Xbox just so I could play Mass Effect when it first came out and, should something of similar calibre find itself on any one of the VR platforms, I can see myself doing the same again. However right now the relatively high price point coupled with the lack of enticing titles or killer apps I’m not really willing to make such an investment in a V1.0 product. I, as always, remain willing to have my opinion changed and, by consequence, my wallet opened.

Firewatch: Longing For What is Lost.

Walking simulators have seen an explosion of popularity and I believe with good reason. Their reliance on the story to move things forward, rather than mechanics or game play, often means the narrative has much more attention paid to it. For those of us who appreciate good stories this genre has brought us many great titles, although I’ll be the first to admit they’re not all up to scratch. Indeed the intense focus on the narrative means such games live and die by their story and, should it fail to capture the player it will fail as a game. Firewatch however makes no such missteps, quickly dragging you into its world of heartache, love and loss.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It’s 1975 and you, Henry, find yourself in a bar with your friends. No matter how hard you try though you can’t take your eyes off a girl at the bar. You walk up, tell her she’s pretty, her name is Julia, and before you know it you’re in a loving relationship. You’re happy, you get a dog named bucket and spend the summer afternoons drinking beer on the porch together. You’re not the definition of Hollywood romance, life still gets in the way from time to time, but you remain together. However Julia starts to fade in and out mentally and she gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 41. You’re both devastated but you stick it out for her until it becomes too much and she moves back home with her parents. That summer you find an ad for a job in the Shoshone national park. You take it.

Firewatch feels like it’s set somewhere in the Team Fortress 2 universe, having the same kind of cartoony style. The world is simplistic with little detail however it’s the small touches, like the volumetric lighting and the soft noises of the forest in the background, that elevate the experience by creating a great atmosphere. The ebb and flow of the background noises and music are done perfectly, ensuring that there’s no long periods of awkward silence as you make your way through the map. Overall Firewatch is an excellently crafted game, one that is deserving of the praise that has been lumped on it.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Beautiful Loneliness

In terms of game play Firewatch is your stock standard walking simulator, plopping you in the middle of a vast area to explore. The key difference however comes from the inclusion of a walkie talkie that allows you to communicate with your superior, Delilah. This forms the basis of the narrative for the game, the back and forth between you two serving as both the main plot driver as well as the exploration reward mechanism. Essentially you can unlock additional dialogue options by looking around and finding things of interest which you can then radio back to Delilah about. Other than the only real mechanic is reading the map to know which direction you need to go in, something which shouldn’t be too difficult since you have a GPS indicator on the map of your current location.

The base game of Firewatch gives the appearance of being a free form exploration title however it’s anything but. Unlike other walking simulator games like Gone Home, which essentially give you free reign over an area and put the onus on you to piece together the story, Firewatch is crafted along a very specific path. Sure you can go exploring, and you’ll find things before you’re meant to see them, but the game will inevitably right your path. For someone like me, who’s a fan of well crafted narratives, this is a great thing however I do know that there are some who prefer freeform walking simulators over this kind.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper Happy Snaps

I’ll admit that at first blush I thought the opening scenes, told through text on screen dialogue choices interspersed with short bits of game play, was a little cheap. However that quickly evaporated as I was given choices that felt like they had an impact and was made to care for the characters I was helping to craft. The ultimate reveal of Julia’s condition towards the end of the opening is heart breaking and Henry’s abandonment only exacerbated the pain I felt. There’s been few games that have been able to make me care so quickly and then used that care against me, something which helped set the tone for the rest of the game.

The main story of the game is a little messier as whilst the relationship development between Henry and Delilah is strong the weird, unknown force acting in the background kind of muddles things. As my long time readers know I’m not really a fan of horror and I had sinking feeling I might end up in some kind of supernatural show. However the story does manage to wind up well, even if it feels like there were some unresolved things between the two main characters that could have been tied up in an epilogue or something similar. Still, maybe that’s the way its meant to be as life doesn’t always resolve itself neatly, especially when you’ve spent a good deal of time running away from your problems.

Firewatch Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Flapjack Fire

Firewatch is a brilliant, narrative focused walking simulator that deals with heavy hitting issues that few other games dare to touch. It’s simplistic, stylized visuals serve as a backdrop for the story, serving not as a distraction but a canvas on which the story is painted. The foley and sound effects are done exceptionally well, fading in and out with poignancy at just the right time. The story is what pulls everything together and while it comes unstuck during the middle third or so it does wrap itself up well in the end. Firewatch, in my opinion, is a walking simulator that can be enjoyed by a much wider audience than its genre might suggest.

Rating: 9.0/10

Firewatch is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 3 hours of total play time.

Homeopathy Shown to be Ineffective for Treatment of 68 Illnesses.

There has been no doubt in my mind for a long time that homeopathy is total bunk. For it to work as it’s supposed to several laws of physics must be violated and our understanding of the human immune system thrown out the window. I have no issue with people self-prescribing these things however the fact that many practitioners advocate their remedies in favour of actual medicine is what draws my ire. Thankfully the Australian government has begun to show an intolerance for such charlantry and recently commissioned a review of the research done on homeopathy. The results are, unsurprisingly, not in homeopathy’s favour finding that in their review of the literature that it is no more effective than a placebo for a total of 68 illnesses.

Homeopathy is total bullshit

The study was conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak funding body for medical research that oversees some $700 million in funding per year. Their study included materials from 57 systemic reviews which covered some 176 individual studies. Additionally information that was submitted directly to the NHMRC through its public consultation phase was also included. Studies were only concluded if they were well designed (done by comparing them to international standards for conducting such trials) and placebo controlled. The results showed that, for all well designed and properly controlled studies, there was no evidence to suggest that homeopathy was any more effective than a placebo was. Indeed the only positive results were found in studies of poor quality and design which would likely have led to spurious results that were not supported by data. For the remaining studies there was simply not evidence to make a conclusion one way or the other.

Whilst these results are unsurprising it does beg the question about the regulation of things such as this. Australians spend some $10 million a year on these remedies a figure that continues to climb every year. However the body of evidence is so strong against them that it begs the question about whether they should be sold at all. I think they get a pass since they really have no potential to cause harm in and of themselves however it’s the abstinence from proper medicine that has the real potential to cause harm. So potentially we need to regulate against the practitioners rather than the remedies themselves.

It feels like beating a dead horse at this point but the fact that homeopathy is still around, and becoming more popular, shows that research like this is needed. I know it won’t convince everyone but hopefully those who are on the fence about it will be convinced that homeopathy is total bunk.

Wave Superpositioning.

Wave interference is a relatively simple scientific concept that can be difficult to grasp at first. Many are introduced to the idea in high school or college physics, usually being shown something like the double slit experiment. Whilst this is a great demonstration of the wave properties of light it’s not exactly obvious how the constructive and destructive interference actually works. Something like the following video, I feel, gives a far better visual impression of what wave interference and superpositioning does in the real world.

The really cool demonstration comes in at about 55 seconds in where they demonstrate a concentric wave singularity, or what they call “The Spike”. Basically they make the waves work in such a way that once they meet in the middle they all interfere with each other at just the right point. This results in the rapid formation of a cavity in the middle which is then slammed shut as the waves return to their peak. The resulting geyser flows upward for far longer than you’d expect it to which is a great demonstration of the power of constructive interference with waves.

FloWave itself was constructed to replicate currents and waves seen in the ocean. This allows companies and researchers to test out their technologies in a controlled environment before they get deployed offshore, potentially saving costly repairs and re-engineering. That means that it’s mostly used to test out how things respond to various kinds of waves and currents, rather than generating awesome wave spikes that shoot water several stories into the air. Still I’d love something like this on a smaller scale to do my own demonstrations of wave interference.

Gravity Waves Discovery Provides Hope for LISA-Pathfinder.

The announcement from the researchers behind Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that they had directly observed gravitational waves. It’s an amazing achievement, one made all the pertinent by the fact that it was made 100 years after Einstein predicted it with his theory general relativity. It was the last remaining piece of the theory which had yet to be observed and with LIGO’s results it’s finally complete. However this is far from being the end of research into gravitational waves and there are some incredibly ambitious missions planned with one already on its way.

Artist_s_impression_of_LISA_Pathfinder

LISA Pathfinder, pictured above, was launched on December 3rd, 2015. Inside the craft are two small test masses which are sitting on opposite ends of the craft, 40cm apart. It arrived at its destination, a special place called the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 1 (chosen due to the fact that the gravity of the sun and earth cancel each other out) on the 22nd of January 2016. After it has been commissioned it will set those two mass free, allowing them to experience near perfect free fall. It will then attempt to measure the distance between both of them using the same kind of laser interferometry that the LIGO detector used here on earth. It will also test various systems to account for other forces that are acting both on the craft and the test masses as well as providing insight into the longevity such systems will have in space. It’s essentially a smaller version of LIGO in space, one that will be critical for further planned missions.

As its name implies LISA Pathfinder is the trailblazer for another, much more ambitious craft that’s scheduled to be launched in 2034. LISA Pathfinder should be able to provide evidence that the systems work as intended although I wasn’t able to find any official source that said it will definitely provide direct observations of gravity waves itself. Indeed LIGO has been running since 2002 and was unable to detect anything until the recent upgrade was completed in September 2015. However the data provided by those observations helped in determining what level of detection was required and its likely that LISA Pathfinder will provide the same assurance for its successor craft, eLISA.

Comparatively LISA Pathfinder and eLISA are not even in the same ballpark. Where LISA Pathfinder has 2 small masses separated by 40cm eLISA will have 3 distinct craft, each carrying a 2KG weight and separated by 1 million kilometres. The principals behind them are the same however as they will precisely measure the distance between each other using laser interferometry. eLISA will be able to detect gravity waves at a much lower frequency than its ground based peers, allowing us to see a much wider range of events that generate them. For comparison LIGO can only detect frequencies about 10 orders of magnitude higher than what eLISA will be able to, a significant improvement in sensitivity.

Suffice to say it’s an incredibly exciting time for researchers in the world of general relativity. With the foundations of the theory backed up with observational data there’s now a whole world of new physics for them to explore. Soon there will be troves of data for them to pour through, much of which will be used to design the eLISA craft. Whilst it’s going to be some time before we see eLISA launching into space we at least know that when it does it will be able to provide us incredible insight into our universe.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Trinity Rises.

Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.

The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ruins in Syria

Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Survival Instincts

Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.

The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Geothermal Valley

Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.

Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Frantic Climb to the Top

Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.

Rating: 9.25/10

Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.

Cleaning Out Old Cells Prevents Aging in Mice.

Aging, as a process, still remains a mystery to modern science. We know that it’s not just one thing that causes the symptoms of aging which is what makes it so hard to find a miracle compound that erases everything. Still we’ve made some pretty good progress in combating some parts of the aging process, many of which can be used to make our lives not only longer but also far more healthier throughout. The latest research from scientists at the Mayo clinic shows yet another potential pathway for delaying the onset of age related diseases and conditions, giving mice up to 35% longer lives.

Lab_mouse_mg_3263

The mechanism that the researchers focused on is called cellular senescence. Our cells constantly reproduce themselves through division, a process which repeats for each cell approximately 40 to 60 times before it enters a stage called cellular senescence. In this stage the cell’s telomeres, a kind of nucleotide that protects a cell’s DNA from damage, is shortened to the point where it can no longer provide the protection the cell needs. In this stage the cell will no longer divide but still remains active. Eventually these senescent cells are cleaned out by the body’s immune system but as we age this process starts to slow down and become less efficient.

The Mayo researchers used an existing transgene line, called INK-ATTAC, to induce cell death in these senescent cells. This was triggered by twice weekly injections into two different lines of lab mice who were then compared to a control. The results were incredibly impressive, showing an improvement in overall lifespan of the mice from 17% to 35%. The mice also showed no side effects from the treatment with healthy major organ function retained throughout their extended life. Suffice to say a treatment of this nature would appear to be of incredible benefit to many, especially those who are seeking more healthy years than just an extended lifespan.

Such a treatment is probably many years away from reaching humans however, mostly due to the fact that the use of transgenes in humans is still an open area of bioethical debate. Indeed whilst the consensus for using such treatments for curative purposes appears to be largely agreed upon therapeutic uses such as these are still something of a grey area. Transgenes like this one are still very much an area of active research however and there are likely to be many more such treatments like these developed in the coming years. Hopefully the regulatory and ethical frameworks will be able to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation as treatments like these are invaluable in treating the one condition that affects all humans universally.

The Witness: The World is But a Puzzle For You To Solve.

I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Opening Screen

The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.

Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Lake

Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.

In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Garden Maze

Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.

After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Frozen in Contemplation

While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.

However if there’s  story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Final Door Opens

The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.

Rating: 8.0/10

The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.