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15
Jan
09

Real World

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There will always be a debate about the effects of computer games and their value in society (most of which is overblown scaremongering, but that’s for another post) but the technology used in games is emerging in business, education and health care.

UK based game developer Blitz Games has diversified into providing real world educational simulations for the emergency services. TrueSim, a division of Blitz Games, developed the Triage Trainer a game simulation which throws the trainee straight into the after effects of an explosion in a busy high street. The in game AI react realistically to their conditions, casualties will pass out or die if not correctly assessed and prioritised. Blood loss, head injuries broken and torn limbs, panic and disorientation all have to be dealt with as they would in a real world emergency. The simulation was co developed with the Advanced Life Support Group who advise the UK emergency services

The Serious Games Institute based in Coventry University’s Technology Park, researches the real world applications of games technology and hosts an annual conference which showcases the latest developments in e-learning, e-business, e-commerce, simulation and social networking for business health care and education.

The virtual world of Second Life allows users to generate their own content in a fully realised 3D world. Users create avatars to represent themselves and can buy and sell virtual items. Although most users use Second Life as a virtual social network and for entertainment purposes, corporate bodies and health care services are beginning to explore the possibilities of virtual interaction. Second Health uses virtual space in the Second Life universe to visualise the next generation of NHS hospitals. This has been a successful way to visualise what would otherwise have been a government proposal in document form and allows visitors to walk around the hospital and view videos and other media on the new health centre. Visitors will also find guidance on maintaining a healthy lifestyle as well as information on the future of health care in the UK.

The area for growth is massive when the benefits of virtual learning and interactivity are taken into account. The open world RPG Oblivion could easily be converted into an intercative history lesson. Characters and items found in the world, instead of describing and informing the player of Oblivion’s fantasy scape, could be applied to a real environment of the past. The achievements and upgrades could be awarded for finding out sufficient and relevent information that related to coursework, or a test exam. The format of the game could easily be transfered and learning sometimes dry subjects could be made more acssessible to the younger student if it was virtualised and could be experienced. In health care surgeons have found a marked improvment when using virtual simulations of the procedures used and the business world is catching on too. New ways of socialy interacting and doing business in a virtual world will improve team work and business relations for those who work remotley from home.

12
Jan
09

The Cake is a Lie

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Fun, short and sweet, doesn’t outstay its welcome and has a wicked streak of blackness running through its veins.
Portal is set in the same universe as Half Life although this is unimportant to the game itself. The basic premise is simple, you awake in an Aperture Science Laboratory test chamber and need to solve a series of puzzles involving the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device or portal gun, to find your way out (Portal devices were accidentally discovered in an experiment involving shower curtains and a scientist suffering from Mercury Poisoning). In the process you must also outsmart GLaDOS (artificially intelligent research assistant and disk operating system), an AI that has gone sentient and run amok killing all the staff at the laboratory. GLaDOS controls the test chambers and monitors your progress, gently encouraging and lying in equal measure with the promise of a cake and grief counselling as reward for completing the tests.

Each level of the game consists of an increasingly complex series of rooms. Armed only with the portal gun, you have to figure out a way to progress through the rooms and find the exit to the next level. The portal gun creates two types of portals, blue and orange, either can be used as entrance or exit portals but you can not create two portals of the same colour or one of them will close. Momentum Direction pyhsics are used to simulate gravity and speed momentum, which basically means the faster you jump through a portal the harder you fall into the next room. Or as GLaDOS would say “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing goes out”. Gravity uprights your character, say if you teleport youself and end up on the the next rooms’ ceiling you will drop but fall on your feet, how hard you fall depends on how fast or how high you jumped in. Some surfaces can not have portals created on them and obstacles like force field walls, automated turrets, moving platforms and acid pits force you to think about height and speed and how fast you need to create them. Do not play if you suffer from vertigo.

The challenges first time around especially towards the later levels will give your brain a workout, timing is essential. There is no set way to complete a challenge, it is up to the player to experiment with pyhsics and gravity and find their own way out. Stick with it through to the end and you will be rewarded with one of the more original and quirky games to have appeared in some time.

P S does anyone else think the Weighted Companion Cube would make an ideal paperweight?

08
Jan
09

Bioshock review

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One of the best games I played in 2007 was this little gem. No game is perfect and the problem of combining a fluid and compelling storyline into an interactive structure has yet to be cracked. Bioshock tries its hardest and does it very well. The game also tries to defy pigeon holing. Is it a FPS? (first person shooter), is it a survival horror? An RPG? (role playing game). The game mixes various gaming genres into a whole that rarely jars or seems out of place.

Bioshock is set in Rapture an underwater dystopian city created in 1946 by business tycoon Andrew Ryan. This hideaway was created as an escape from the pressures and controls of the political, religious and economic regimes of the time. A place where the best creative and scientific minds could work unhindered, a place where humanity’s greatest could unleash their dreams unbound from morality. These underlying themes explore egoism, unfettered capitalism, vanity, the ideology of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory and the worst outcomes of a society without restraint. It is now 1960. You play as Jack, a plane crash survivor washed to the shores of Rapture’s entrance, your only refuge. On entering the city Jack soon realizes that this strange city has gone to hell, evidence of protests and riots litter the place, decay and rot permeate the Art Décor and soon the first of the survivors appear, disfigured and mutated by gene therapy and cosmetic surgery. These pitiful creatures babble and rant in the way that only the unhinged can. The back story that leads up to the current state of affairs is explained through personal voice recorders scattered around the city and radio messages from Atlas. On entering the city Jack is contacted by a stranger known as Atlas via a two way radio. Atlas needs Jack’s help in finding and rescuing his family trapped in the bowels of the Rapture. The only way that Jack can help Atlas and escape Rapture alive is by transforming himself through gene technology which grants him supernatural and psychic abilities. The only way to do this is by “harvesting” Adam from the Little Sisters. Adam is the end product of stem cell research and the basis of all of Raptures’ enhanced gene therapy. The only problem is that the Adam you need to survive is contained within genetically enhanced girls and you have to make a moral choice through the course of the game as to how you get the Adam. Andrew Ryan in the mean time suspects Jack to be a government spy and does all he can to trap and kill him but who are you really and who is Atlas?

Confused? Well to explain the story would ruin the enjoyment of the game for anyone yet to play it, so I will leave these questions unanswered, except to say that freedom is cleverly an illusion in this game, not only as a story telling technique but also as a game play mechanic. How can you play as a character with complete freedom in a game that needs your attention for the story it wants to tell? How can a game make you think about topics if it gives the player free rein? The game plays with you, with the perceptions of self, of character, of free will and plays with the very concept of being in a game. Unfortunately it can be a little too clever for its own good and when the games tries to give you real freedom of moral choice it slightly unravels itself and its themes.

It is rare to find such richly detailed and immersive art direction and design in a game. The use of Art Décor in the 1960’s helps to realize a world out of time, fused with bizarre alternate technology. This digital world is complete, you can believe in its impossibleness. The game drips atmosphere, water leaks from rusty bolt holes and floods corridors, it feels like the city will implode at any moment, you can literally feel the pressure of being at the bottom of the ocean. The game offers many ways to achieve objectives and survive through the use of “gene tonics”. These tonics offer the player abilities like telekinesis, to move objects, fire, ice, insect swarms and many others. When a tonic is activated your character’s left hand and arm will physically transform, blister, burn and tear as it belches forth flame or flings a cloud of insects. Along the way security cameras, safes and ammo dispensers can be hacked through a series of mini puzzle games. Although fun (you have a limited time to complete them before you get an electric shock) they sometimes feel out of place with the rest of the game play elements, but you can always buy a hacking tool at a vending machine and bypass this process anyway. The AI is impressively smart and will react to their environment. This game surprised me because I was able to set one enemy upon another instead of myself and thus escape unharmed. An enemy will evaluate if you are the biggest threat in its immediate area and either attack you or the larger problem.

An ambitious game and a rare game, Bioshock contains many mature threads of thought and subject matter, it forces you to think about morality, vanity and the self, something no other game has achieved and for that alone it needs to be played.

08
Jan
09

Where are the Tigers? A Far Cry 2 Review

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Far Cry 2 is a really annoying game. I really wanted to like this game for the ambitions it promised. Although the developers have delivered some of the potential the missed opportunities ultimately outweigh them. The original Far Cry on the PC, for all its dumb assed, knuckle-headed B-movie story and cheesy voice acting, presented challenging game play and at the time (2004), graphics card imploding visuals. That game had character, it was fun to play, there was decent AI that did its hardest to outsmart you and it was set in a colourful tropical paradise of the Photoshopped postcard variety. Far Cry 2 ditches the B-movie script and tries for something more mature but loses its character and unbalances the story telling with the open world freedom of the game play.

You play as a mercenary hired to track down and kill an arms dealer (the Jackal…original huh?) who is arming both sides of a civil war in South Africa. You must work for both factions in the conflict, in return for information and leads on the whereabouts of the Jackal, as well as fellow hired killers whom you must befriend and gain reputation with. So far so good, has potential. The game world is impressively large (so much so that the lazier player can travel by bus from one area of the map to another) and beautifully rendered. Real time weather effects and day/night cycles are impressive and some times its fun to just explore and take in the visuals and the fire, have to mention the real time fire. Probably the most fun to be had in this game is to blow things up and watch the fire spread, setting alight the grass and trees in the nearby vicinity. There is a fair amount of interactivity, I had my character gouging out bullets and snapping his broken limbs back in place on a regular basis and the environment is pleasantly destructive. I was hoping to be attacked by the local wildlife, maybe chased by a tiger or pounced on by a lion, but alas only zebra and gnu roam this virtual Africa.

So why do I sound so negative? Where to start? Well the missions do get a little repetitive, usually consisting of killing a target for one side or the other, rescuing a target or destroying resources and munitions. Although these missions can mostly be completed in any way you can think of, the repetitiveness of them does begin to wear thin. A lot of the time I found myself having more fun causing mayhem outside of the missions and the story itself. Throughout the game world you will encounter very many patrols, guard houses and road blocks. None of which are populated by anyone remotely friendly. I spent more time trying to navigate these than play through the actual story missions. This is perhaps the biggest downfall of the game. The story doesn’t sit in this type of game world. It takes so long to travel from mission objective to mission objective, a trek that cannot be completed without getting shot at, chased or rammed off the road by angry faction members, that by the time I arrived I really didn’t care what my objective was. Oh yes and your character is infected with Malaria from the get go and regular medicine is needed to keep it at bay…just not at the same time as getting shot at or trying to extract a piece of shrapnel from my shins! I’m all for challenging game play but this takes the proverbial. To make it worse the enemy AI is totally broken, knackered and dumb. For some inexplicable reason I was shot and killed by an enemy who was facing the opposite direction to my character. Putting eyes and a gun in the back of an AI’s head is not good programming! Other instances of dumbness include enemies getting stuck in walls, blown up by their own team mates or just standing on the spot in the middle of a firefight doing nothing.

The story tries to say something about the war-like, violent and aggressive nature of man and compares it to a cancer or virus that needs to be contained, but by the end of the game I was left not caring because the narrative lost itself in the wilderness somewhere, maybe it found the tigers.