It’s that time of year again where I collate all of my articles together and encase them in the shell of a juicy, easily digestible word-nut. Next year I’ll probably start writing these posts monthly, otherwise my 2013 self-indulgent roundup will be absurdly long (he says hopefully). Anyway, to summarise this year’s events, I finished and passed my MSc, began writing a monthly article series in a proper magazine made of paper and everything, and learned how to fight with a sword.
For over a decade System Shock 2 has protruded from my pile of shame like a loose Jenga brick. I played my uncle’s copy when I was twelve, but never finished it on account of being a relatively sensitive child and of System Shock 2 being a deeply, deeply unsettling game. Then it masterpiece famously vanished through some legal wormhole and is currently floating helplessly in a red-tape galaxy far, far away. Fortunately, a good friend recently provided me with a copy, and about a week ago I finally managed to pull that loose brick out…more or less.
Basically, this play-through of Looking Glass’ Cyberpunk masterpiece culminated in one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had in gaming. System Shock 2 emphasises choice in play, as opposed to choice in story like Mass Effect or The Witcher. There are three skill-sets, weapons, tech, and psionics, each of which has its own subset of abilities. There are standard weapons and exotic weapons, hacking and repairing, cryo blast and levitate and so on. What generally happens is you end up with some eclectic mixture of skills. In fact, it’s probably wise to have a basic grasp of all three and then specialise in one or two.
Rather than repeat the torture of last year by posting everything I’ve written individually on this site, I’m going to cobble all of my witterings together into one single, hardy word-boot. 2011 was a fairly good year for my various writing endeavours. Alongside finishing my degree, I wrote for several major publications, extensively experienced the weird world of videogame news, and even won a prize for something that had nothing to do with computer games.
I only ever tried to pirate a game once. The game was Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall, a 1995 isometric RPG about which I can only remember two things, it involved punching a lot of giant insects to death, and I really enjoyed playing it when I was a kid. I still retain the game CD, but it no longer works, hence my attempt to download a cracked version of the game. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either, and since then I’ve never really felt the desire to make another foray into gaming’s seedy underbelly. My reasoning for the dismissal of pirated games follows:
1)Piracy is stealing, and therefore wrong.
2)When I buy a game, I own it, whereas if I pirate it, I do not.
3)The games industry provides a better quality product than the pirates.
4)By purchasing the game, I help the games industry flourish, by stealing it, I hinder the industry’s development.
However, Ubisoft’s recent DRM debacle has led me to question every one of these assertions.
If you happen to be a regular reader of Tech (or this blog if you don’t read the Student), you may have noticed we have been keepign a close eye on the Constellation Project; NASA’s construction of a new fleet of rockets to replace the ageing space shuttles, with the eventual prospect of maybe, perhaps, if you’re really good and eat all your vegetables and go to bed when you’re supposed to, returning to the moon. However, should Barrack Obama’s 2011 budget request pass through Congress without any hitches, the entire program will be cancelled.
Obama’s reasoning for scrapping the program is that it is massively over budget and massively behind schedule, now posited for completion in 2013 with the space shuttles due for retirement at the end of this year. His decision has brought considerable criticism, one Republican Senator claiming “NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science, it will be the agency of pipe dreams and fairy tales.”
Frankly though, Constellation was a dubious concept from the start, especially in terms of innovation.The program began back in 2004 under the supervision of George W. Bush, which is hardly the most auspicious of starts for anything more technologically advanced than a paper aeroplane. Of course, such a statement would be misplaced if the Ares I was going to change the face of space travel. It wasn’t. The design of Ares I was based (read: almost identical to) the Saturn V rocket which shot Neil Armstrong & co into orbit in 1969. So this sparkling new interstellar technology was forty years old before it had even been built.
This design decision may appear odd, but it doesn’t seem so strange when you look at events prior to the announcement. In 2003 the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The Constellation program was a knee-jerk reaction to this unfortunate event, a quick fix to replace the shuttles and prevent any further disasters. Six years on with the program nowhere near complete and the fix no longer seems so quick.
Obama’s proposed alternative to the Constellation program involves a $500 million incentive for the private sector to create a more efficient means of space travel than strapping seven men and women to an enormous and highly temperamental bomb. Concepts include placing fuel depots in space ahead of the rocket and so reduce the size of rockets on lift off, or putting further research into ion engines, which eject positive ions to gradually propel a spacecraft forward. Additionally, significant sums will be put into creating robotic probes, which are the most effective (if least exciting) method of exploring the solar system at present.
However, in terms of actual objectives Obama’s budget request is rather vague, and while I agree that a rerun of the sixties’ Moon landings is not the best way forward, a more permanent residence on the moon is the next sensible step towards humans traversing the solar system. Furthermore, after so long, a return to the Moon in any form will almost certainly provide a huge boost in popular interest for NASA.
Perhaps though, the future of human space explorations lies not with the US. China put their first human into space in 2003, and India plan to do the same in 2016. While both are a long way off overtaking NASA as the dominant space exploration agency, they could well be on their way by the time NASA have another coherent program of events. On the other hand, Obama’s decision could well be the kick up the backside that NASA needed, and we’ll be zipping around the Moon on space-skis in no time.
A franchise reboot is announced roughly every other day in Hollywood. Since 2000 virtually every Marvel superhero has undergone a makeover for the big screen, and with a recent proposal to reboot the reboot of the Spiderman franchise, the trend has reached a point of absurdity.
The notion of taking a flagging IP and giving it a swift kick up the backside isn’t exclusive to the hills of Los Angeles. The games industry is also familiar with remodelling a once-popular series in order to increase its market appeal. Prince of Persia has already been rebooted twice in the past decade and Lara Croft has been given so many facelifts it’s a wonder she isn’t permanently staring at the ceiling. As the number of rebooted games increases, I can’t help but wonder whether they come at the cost of originality.
The turn of the millennium was a sad time for me. Adolescence slapped me with a grease-drenched palm, I moved to the Isle of Man and spent the next five years bored out of my spotty little head, and LucasArts released their final adventure game Escape From Monkey Island, a depressingly weak entry in perhaps the most hilarious gaming series ever created. The previous year adventure gaming legends Sierra squeezed out their swan song in the genre Gabriel Knight 3, a preposterously perplexing and dazzlingly uninteresting mystery game which explored the legend of the Holy Grail. Shortly after these two disappointments, adventure gaming seemed to die out with the most pathetic of sighs.
Many theories have been given to explain the decline of adventure games. Fingered for blame was poor marketing in the face of burgeoning franchises such as Tomb Raider, which offered a similar style of puzzle solving with the added ability to shoot dinosaurs in the face and stare luridly at Lara Croft’s khaki-covered undercarriage whenever she crawled through a tunnel. Adventure gaming also found the change to three dimensions an uncomfortable one, with only the brilliant Grim Fandango managing the transition successfully. Personally, I believe the advent of consoles to be a primary cause in the waning of adventure games. The precise point-and-click nature of many adventure games simply didn’t translate well to the relative inaccuracy of a Playstation controller.
2002 brought a glimmer of hope. LucasArts announced development of Sam and Max: Freelance Police, sequel to the critically acclaimed Sam and Max Hit the Road, which featured an anthropomorphic dog and the oft-quoted ‘hyperkinetic rabbity thing’ tracking Bigfoot across the United States. While development of Freelance Police appeared to be going smoothly, LucasArts abruptly cancelled the game two years on, citing economic and marketing conditions as the cause (i.e. churning out mediocre Star Wars games was easier than putting actual effort into a decent release).
In the end, the cancellation of Freelance Police turned out to be a good thing, as several of the development team abandoned LucasArts’ cynical ship and founded Telltale Games. Telltale focused on two things: episodic gaming (short, regularly released game ‘episodes’, which gradually build up into series and are priced according to their length) and the resurrection of the adventure genre.
Now, with two new series of Sam and Max under their belt and initial episodes of Wallace and Gromit: Grand Adventures and the much desired Tales of Monkey Island available for purchase, it’s safe to say that Telltale’s efforts have been enormously successful. Playing through Launch of the Screaming Narwhal – the first instalment of Tales of Monkey Island – it’s easy to see why. Telltale have retained the quirky characters and sharp humour that made the LucasArts adventure games so popular (“Is this thing sloshing? Four words you don’t want to hear when you pick up a coffin,” quips mighty pirate Guybrush Threepwood at the beginning of Screaming Narwhal). Yet the self-contained structure of the episodes means that the puzzles, while challenging, are no longer ludicrously obscure, as was the case with Gabriel Knight 3.
Such is Telltale’s success that it has actually evoked a response from LucasArts, who have commenced the release of their own back catalogue online, including The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, which updates the graphics engine of the original Monkey Island and adds voice-overs instead of text. Hopefully this is the beginning of something more substantial on the part of LucasArts, though no promise of new adventure games is forthcoming. However, with a third series of Sam and Max in the pipeline courtesy of Telltale, I for one am happy to wait.
Whatever happened to the days when astronauts played golf on the moon? Almost forty years have passed since Apollo 17 left the valley of Taurus-Littrow and humans haven’t been back since. Granted, sticking Colin Montgomery on the moon just to swear at a golf ball would seem financially wasteful, and since the last lunar mission in 1972 the money has been put to better uses like investing in superhero movie sequels and wars against nonexistent nuclear weapons. Although the media might have lost interest in Mars, the moon and any black holes that aren’t made in Switzerland, a quick glance at NASA’s website will show you there’s far more happening on the final frontier than you may imagine.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of public euphoria over space is that most current missions go on for years rather than days, and many of these are focused on Earth itself, particularly the state of its climate. Aura, an ongoing mission launched back in 2004, is dedicated to assessing the health of Earth’s atmosphere. Two other satellites, Aqua and Terra, are doing similar investigations into Earth’s water cycle and the general climate respectively. This is important work, but lacks the theatrics of skiing down Olympus Mons or Storm chasing in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.
It’s not all about watching glaciers melt and spying on polar bears. The spacecraft Dawn, launched in September 2007, is a long-term mission with multiple objectives including a survey of Vesta – the second-largest body in the asteroid belt – in 2011, and an encounter with the dwarf-planet Ceres in 2015. In the short term, the craft is expected to fly by Mars around the same time that you read this article.
Another mission on the horizon is of quite astounding scope. Kepler is destined for launch in less than three weeks, intending to survey over 100,000 star systems for planets similar to our own. It will be the first satellite capable of locating distant planets that are the same size or smaller than Earth, which is one giant leap for answering questions about extraterrestrial life.
Satellites and probes aren’t the only things being sent into space either. With the International Space Station (ISS) verging on completion and the space shuttle nearing its admission into the world’s largest old folk’s home, NASA are in the process of developing a new rocket, Ares I, and the crew capsule Orion I. These are projected to take over from the space shuttle on trips to the ISS, but they are also part of plans for a long-term colony on the moon and even a manned mission to Mars. However, this is very much theoretical until both complete rigorous testing, so don’t book your buggy-racing holiday on the moon just yet.
Special mention should be given to the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which with an estimated five-year working lifespan are now approaching their thirty-second year in space. Their current mission is to reach the edge of the solar system and be the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, an incredible achievement. In addition, Voyager 2 recently discovered that the solar system is not spherical: rather, it is squashed at its southern hemisphere, changing traditional concepts of how the sun reacts with space and the objects surrounding it.
So while we won’t be flying TIE fighters or warring with the Klingons anytime soon, it might be possible to swing a six-iron in the Sea of Tranquility in the coming decades. Unless you believe the moon landings were faked, in which case you’re an idiot.
If you’ve ever played an online game like World of Warcraft or Team Fortress 2, you’ll know developers are constantly altering their creations. Whether it’s fixing bugs or adding new content, regular updates are crucial to keep online worlds feeling fresh and entertaining. However, you might not be aware that this sort of tinkering is now happening to single player games, highlighted by the recent release of The Witcher: Enhanced Edition.
The Witcher was a well-received Polish role-playing game released last October. It was hardly without problems including performance issues, a clumsily translated script and loading times so long you could write a dissertation during them. Enhanced Edition has undoubtedly solved these problems, but this post-release development raises an issue in itself: is it acceptable for developers to publish unpolished games, correcting the issues at a later date?
Upon its release in September, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky contained more bugs than a termite mound. These ranged from graphical glitches to PC-crashing monsters. However on the day of the game’s release, a sizeable patch was made available for download that fixed many of these problems. Patches for PC games are as common as Cheryl Cole, but the fact that the Clear Sky patch was available on day one suggests the developers were fully aware of the problems before release, carrying on regardless.
This is GSC’s second bite of the cherry. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl crept onto shelves in March last year after a staggering six years in development, shipping with several technical problems and failing to reach its lofty ambitions. Clear Sky had an eighteen-month production cycle, yet the state of the game upon release suggests that GSC overcompensated for their previous lengthy development and chose to deal with the issues after release. Essentially, anyone who bought Clear Sky paid for an incomplete product- something that would cause outrage if it were a CD, DVD, or console game.
This kind of development is not just ethically questionable; it’s financially dangerous. Flagship Studios’ Hellgate: London failed to live up to expectations after many gamers complained it was released in an unfinished state. This was later admitted in an interview with Flagship’s CEO, Bill Roper: “The game would certainly have benefited from a couple of more months in the oven.” Flagship dissolved in August, and such was the furore over the half-baked Hellgate that a new term was coined to describe such a game: Flagshipped.
It seems unfair to tar The Witcher with the same brush: it was by no means unfinished and the developers could easily have attempted to address the issues in a second game, as with S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky. Instead they returned to their original offering, fine-tuned it and added several hours of new content. What’s more, the Enhanced Edition has been made available as a free download for those who purchased the original game.
Pop into HMV and you will find an entire wall dedicated to the various editions of Blade Runner; the general consensus among film critics is that the Final Cut is the definitive version. Such is the case with The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. While some developers sacrifice the quality of their games for the sake of deadlines, it is comforting to know that there are others who support quality products and good business sense in equal measure.