As far as we know right now we’re alone in the universe. However the staggering size of the universe suggests that life should be prevalent elsewhere and we (or they) have the unenviable task of tracking it (or us) down. We’re also not quite sure to look for as whilst we have solid ideas about our kind of life there’s no guarantees that they hold universally true across the galaxy. So when it comes to observing phenomena the last reason researchers should resort to is “aliens did it” as we simply have no way of verifying that was the case. It does make for some interesting speculation however like with the current wave of media hysteria surrounding KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s star as it’s more informally called.
KIC 8462852 was one of 145,000 stars that was being constantly monitored by the Kepler spacecraft, a space telescope that was designed to directly detect exoplanets. Kepler’s planet detection method relies on a planet transiting (I.E. passing in front of) its parent star during its observation period. When the planet does this it ever so slightly drops the brightness of the star and this can give us insights into the planet’s size, orbit and composition. This method has proven to be wildly successful with the number of identified exoplanets increasing significantly thanks to Kepler’s data. KIC 8462852 has proved particularly interesting however as its variation in brightness is way beyond anything we’ve witnessed elsewhere.
Indeed instead of the tiny dips we’re accustomed to seeing, an Earth-like planet around a main sequence star like ours produces a chance of about 84 parts per million, KIC 8462852 has dipped a whopping 15% and 22% on separate occasions. Typically this isn’t particularly interesting, there are many stars with varying output for numerous reasons, however KIC 8462852 is a F-type main sequence star which is very similar to ours (which is a G-type if you’re wondering). These don’t vary wildly in output and the scientists have ruled out issues with equipment and other potential phenomena so what we’re left with is a star with varying output with no great explanation. Whatever is blocking that light has to be huge, at least half the width of the star itself.
There are a few potential candidates to explain this, most notably a cloud of comets on an elliptical orbit that happens to transit our observation path. How that exactly came to be is anyone’s guess, and indeed it would be a rare phenomenon, but it’s looking to be the best explanation we currently have. A massive debris field has currently been ruled out due to a lack of infrared radiation, something which would be present due to the star heating the debris field. This has led to some speculation as to what could cause something like this to happen and some have looked towards intelligent life as the cause.
How could an alien race make a star’s output dip that significantly you ask? Well the theory goes that any sufficiently advanced civilization will eventually require the entire energy output of their star in order to fuel their activities. The only way to do that is to encase the star in a sphere (called a Dyson Sphere) in order to capture all of the energy that it releases. Such a megastructure couldn’t be built instantly however and so to an outside observer the star’s output would likely look weird as the structure was built around it. Thus KIC 8462852, with its wild fluctuations of output, could be in the process of being encased in one such structure for use by another civilization.
Of course such a hypothesis makes numerous leaps that are not supported by any evidence we currently have at our disposal. The research is thankfully focused on finding a more plausible explanation, something which we are capable of finding by engaging in further observations of this particular star. Should all these attempts fail to explain the phenomena, something which I highly doubt will happen, only then should we start toying with the idea that this is the work of some hyper-advanced alien civilization. Whilst the sci-fi nerd me wants to leap at the possibility of a Dyson sphere being built in our backyard I honestly can’t entertain an idea when I know there are so many other plausible options out there.
It is fun to dream, though.
When I started out with this idea of doing 1 review a week it was mostly because I always seemed to find myself with a backlog of big name titles to play through. There aren’t however enough titles like that to sustain that kind of pace throughout the year and for the first 3 months of this year most of the titles I was reviewing were actually things released last year that I hadn’t got around to playing. Consequently I’ve found myself playing a lot of games that I wouldn’t have otherwise given a second thought to and Warp, the action-puzzle-stealth hybrid from Trapdoor, is one of those titles that I wouldn’t have considered playing.
Warp has you playing as an oddly shaped alien who’s named Zero (something I don’t think was made clear in the game, I certainly can’t remember anyone saying his name) waking up in an undersea laboratory. You’re surrounded by scientists who begin to perform surgery on you to remove a disk shaped object from you which turns out to be your internal power source. After a short obstacle course, which serves as the tutorial for the basics of the game, you are then reunited with your power supply and regain your ability to teleport short distances. Warp flows on from there, following Zero’s quest to escape the confines of the laboratory.
On first appearances Warp isn’t too much to look at, mostly due to its roots as a Xbox Arcade game. For the actual game play the graphics are fine with Warp making heavy use of lighting effects to cover up their less-than-stellar models but the cut scenes unfortunately didn’t appear to get any extra treatment to make them any better. Thus the artwork, graphics and sound work are all around the level I had come to expect from say around 5 years ago when I had friends tinkering with 3D models. Sure I can understand that there are limitations thanks to the target platform but when you don’t even bother to try and do rudimentary lip syncing for dialog scenes I get the feeling that a lot of this was done due to budgetary constraints rather than a lack of technical ability.
The core game play of Warp revolves around Zero’s ability to teleport short distances and also hide inside objects and people. At first it starts off with rudimentary things like finding non-obvious was to get around your environment but as the game progresses the challenges start to scale up dramatically. Zero also gains additional abilities as you complete levels augmenting himself with things like producing a controllable decoy (so you can get guards to kill each other), using said decoy to swap places with other objects and being able to launch objects a great distance. The combination of all these abilities makes for some rather interesting puzzles, some that are actually quite challenging to figure out.
Also thanks to the integration of a half decent physics engine there’s actually the opportunity for a lot of emergent game play which makes it a whole lot more interesting than your rudimentary puzzle game. Since every object can be moved and flung around quite easily there’s a lot of opportunity to break the intended solution by bringing objects along with you that the game doesn’t expect you to. There are also times when it goes horribly wrong like the travelator towards the end that you can change the direction of, try destroying both power supplies. The animation stops but you’ll still move if you stand on it. Still problems with the physics based game play are thankfully few, although Warp is far from free of issues.
Scattered throughout the game are challenges like the one above that push your use of certain skills to the limit in order to get extra “grubs” that are used to upgrade your abilities. These are usually timed affairs and in the words of someone I can’t remember “You know how to make something not fun in a game? Slap a timer on it.” and that’s exactly how all these challenges feel: not fun. I probably spent about a fifth of my in game time trying to get better than bronze on these challenges and I managed to get a few of them but at no time did I have fun doing it. It was kind of like Super Meat Boy all over again where the replay value is derived from it’s rather frustratingly hard difficulty. Not all of them were like this but the initial ones definitely were and it’s likely that it’s me being retarded, but there is another reason why I think its not.
The game is a very obvious port from Xbox360 to PC and that brings with it all the issues that are usually associated with them. For starters whilst the mouse is available in the initial start up screens it doesn’t work in the actual game for anything, not even the upgrade menus. Instead of redesigning the control paradigm around the mouse and the keyboard all the interface controls are simply remapped to the keyboard. This means that sometimes the game engine expects input in a certain way and doesn’t get it which can lead to all sorts of unintentional behavior. It’s not game breaking once you get used to it but it does smack of lazy porting just to grab another market.
The upgrade system is interesting at first glance, being able to augment your abilities in ways that change the game play significantly. As you can see above I chose to invest my grubs in certain keys skills, namely the ones that form the basis of the core game play (teleporting and moving faster). These definitely made the game somewhat easier as there were many times I could fudge my way through or get out of a situation that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise but looking over the other skills I couldn’t be sure why anyone would get them or how’d they make the game easier.
In fact I played the majority of the game sans these two skill upgrades mostly because I didn’t bother with the challenges nor religiously tracking down grubs in order to get said upgrades. This isn’t a problem with Warp per se, more the with the idea of combining a puzzle game with an upgrade system. For all the main challenges you’re going to have to give the player the required skills anyway and all the upgrades then can really only be making the player’s life easier. Deus Ex: Human Revolution did the upgrades that unlock other potential pathways/secrets bit quite well but they still had to accommodate for the possibility that the player didn’t choose a specific upgrade, at least for story critical sections. All of Warps sections appear to be story critical though, rendering the upgrade system kind of moot.
All that being said however I still found Warp extremely fun to play. I’m not sure how I’d describe it but the combination of puzzle solving, the over the top reactions from NPCs when they spotted you and the decidedly dark enjoyment you get from making people explode from the inside out made my time with Warp very enjoyable. This is in spite of the story that’s so thin on the ground that it might as well not even exist in the first place, something which indie games like this don’t usually forgo. Considering this game can be had for $20 as part of a 5 pack of games I think it’s incredibly great value for the time I spent with it and would recommend giving it a shot.
Warp is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $9.99 or equivalent on all platforms. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 5 hours of total play time and about 2/3rds of the grubs found.
Ah Crysis, one of the few games that basically dared anyone with a top of the line PC to try and run it max settings only to have it bring it down in a screaming mess. I remember the experiences fondly with many machines coming up against the Crysis beast only to fall when things were turned up to the nth degree. To it’s credit though it aged quite well, meaning that unlike other games like Far Cry 2 that chugged for seemingly no reason Crysis was really a generation ahead of itself. I only managed to get a full play through of it done after I upgraded in mid-2008 and I can remember it being quite a beautiful game even then. It’s been a long time between drinks for the Crysis series but last week, after over 3 years since its first release, Crysis 2 debuted to much fanfare and the lament of those who had not upgraded.
I was amongst those who had upgraded just after the original Crysis came out and haven’t done so since. Apart from upgrading the graphics card once my machine is still a Core 2 Duo E8400 with 4GB RAM and a Radeon HD4970 graphics card. You can then imagine my anxiety as I booted up the game for the first time and seeing the game choosing a somewhat less than optimal display resolution for my widescreen monitors. Still I figured I should at least give it a go at native resolution before turning it down again, figuring it would be fun to see my beast struggle under the load of the next generation of Crysis, something which I haven’t really seen in years.
You can then imagine my surprise when everything ran, for want of a better phrase, fucking brilliantly.
Whilst the first 15 minutes of the game aren’t much more than a glorified movie quite a lot of it is done in game. Whilst I was first taken a back by how smooth it was running I figured it was because of the limited scenery and effects, thinking that once I was out in the urban jungle of New York my PC would begin crying under the load. But still the whole way through the game from wide open scenes with explosions going off everywhere to the various underground passages I spelunked the game ran incredibly smooth with the only signs of the framerate dropping when my PC decided it really needed to do something on my games drive.
It’s at this point that I’d usually make some quip about how all games run well on old hardware since they’ve all been primarily designed for consoles first but looking at Crysis 2, even though it’s on all major platforms, I couldn’t really pick any areas that suffered because of this. The graphics are phenomenal, easily trouncing everything I’ve played through this year. This is even after they’ve included all the goodies like volumetric lighting, realistic fog and awesome effects like the cloaking transparency. Truly Crytek have outdone themselves with CryEngine 3 bringing great graphics to the masses.
After all that gushing about the graphics, I suppose I should say something about the game 😉
Crysis 2 is set entirely in New York City where the Ceph, an alien race that players of the original Crysis will be familiar with, have begun their invasion of earth. It appears to be a 2 pronged invasion with them releasing a virus that seems to be randomly striking down all of the burrow’s denizens as well as flooding the streets with their cyborg warriors. You play as Alcatraz a marine who’s being sent into New York to extract Dr. Gould, a scientist who may have information regarding the alien invasion. Unfortunately your submarine is taken out by a Ceph ship and you’re seemingly left to die until Prophet (again a familiar face for original Crysis players) rescues you and bestows his nanosuit upon you.
Game play has been refined and streamlined from the original Crysis. Instead of picking a particular mode for your suit (speed, strength, cloak, armor) most abilities will automatically engage when you do something that requires it (like sprinting or holding down the jump to do a super jump). You still have cloak and armor modes which have to be actively enabled but thankfully they’re mapped by default to E and Q respectively, making the transition quite easy. Additionally the suit can be upgraded through a very similar interface to the gun modification menu, requiring you to collect Nano Catalyst which drops from Ceph enemies when you defeat them. This allows you to change the way you play the game quite significantly, giving you the choice between your typical run and gun FPS to an entirely stealth game with only smatterings of toe-to-toe combat.
Indeed unlike many of the more recent cinematic shooters we’ve seen released over the past year or so Crysis 2 doesn’t have that feeling of being totally locked to the one path the game designer had in mind. Nearly every encounter can be completed through the use of stealth or just as easily by jumping into the thick of battle and blasting your way through the waves of enemies that come at you. This is also complemented by the range of weapons the game throws at you, leaving you the choice to take the most appropriate one for your particular play style. Of course there are some encounters where doing it in a particular way with a certain weapon will be an order of magnitude easier than the other choices but it’s still much better than have no choice at all, like we’ve become accustomed to with the recent influx of AAA FPS titles.
The game is unfortunately not without its faults however, as the screenshot above would allude to. Whilst this particular incident of tearing was isolated to a 30 minute section of game play (and no it was not overheating since it went away in the next scene) there were a couple other non-breaking issues that plagued my game time. Often I’d find a weapon I’d like to swap my current one for after seeing what’s coming up ahead only for the game to not register the gun’s existence, rendering me unable to pick it up. Reloading would usually fix this but since there’s no option to manually save your game this could sometimes send me quite far back in the game so most of the time I just went wanting. Additionally some of the scene geometry’s hit boxes would be bigger than they appeared on screen, getting my character stuck on invisible boxes. All these problems pale in comparison to the games biggest flaw: the multi-player.
Now I don’t do a whole lot of multi-player gaming unless it’s with friends but I really enjoyed the multi-player in Crysis and Crysis: Warhead so I figured I’d give it a go, thinking it would make good blog fodder. Hitting the multi-player link on the main screen I was prompted to enter in my game key again, strange since I was pretty sure I had to do that to play the game. Thankfully it came up with my pre-order bonuses so I figured it must’ve just needed it for the initial multi-player set up. After looking around the server list for a while I found one with some spots spare and clicked join, only to receive the error “Serial code currently in use”. Unphased I restarted Crysis 2 to attempt it again, only to be asked yet again for my serial key and receiving the exact same error upon attempting to join a server.
Strangely enough I could join empty games no problem so I figured it might be something to do with the way I was trying to join games. I hit up the quick match and chose Instant Action (everyone for themselves) and managed to get 2 games in. Those brief moments were quite fun as the games were chaotic with people appearing and disappearing everywhere. Satisfied that I wasn’t doing something wrong I tried yet again to join a server only to be greeted with the same errors. My frustrations were compounded by the fact that there’s no auto-retry function to attempt to join a server that’s full, leaving me the option of trying to find one that’s partially full (which doesn’t seem to happen very often) or waiting in an empty room for people to join (which also doesn’t happen). I tried in vain for another 30 minutes to get in one more game before giving up entirely and tweeting my frustrations at the Crysis team.
Like nearly all AAA titles Crysis 2’s ending also screams “OMG THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL” so loudly at the end that you’d have to leave the room not to know about it. Sure they made it clear at the start that Crysis was a trilogy so 2 sequels were a given but this almost felt like Crytek saying “Hey guys, guess who’s going to be the next Call of Duty franchise?”. I’m a fan of solid FPS action as much as the next guy but leaving the ending deliberately open just gives me the shits, even if the current story was wrapped up well enough.
Despite these problems the core of the game is good, extending on the success that Crysis enjoyed whilst showing off the capabilities of the CryEngine 3 magnificently. I’ve had several on the fence friends see me playing through the game on Steam ask me if it was worth the purchase and I’ve told them, even if you negate the multi-player (which in all honesty where the true replay value of games like this lie), the game is still good value for money. Whilst I haven’t been at a LAN in over a year I can still see Crysis 2 being a LAN favorite for some time to come with the extensive variety of multiplayer modes available along with numerous smaller maps to cater for smaller groups. Whilst the game ran incredibly smooth on my current rig I’m still excited at the prospect of upgrading yet again just to see how capable the game is when everything is driven to its absolute max as it was unabashedly gorgeous on my now 3 year old rig.
Rating: 9.0/10 (I’m being kind an excluding the multi-player snafu since I don’t usually include multi, but if you want to know I’d rate it 8 with it in).
Crysis 2 is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3 right now for $69.99, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC version on Hard difficulty with around 10 hours of game time total. Multiplayer was attempted on the 28th of March 2011 with 2 Instant Action games played totaling about 30 minutes.