Thursday, July 1, 2010

Split/Second -PC review

Game Zone rating: 8.5

Publisher: Disney Interactive  
Developer: Black Rock Studio  
Genre: Racing Release 
Date: N Amer - 05/10/18  
Platform: Xbox 360,PC

A couple of years ago, Black Rock Studios shocked racing fans with PURE, an off-road racer that was both accessible and a blast to play for casual players and hardcore racing fanatics. So when it was revealed that the developer was gearing up to take on a whole new approach with their next title, forgoing the four-wheeler off-road experience for an arcade racer featuring cars and destructible environments, fans of the genre took notice. The fruits of their labor are now available as Split/Second racing onto shelves worldwide.

             The game is quite different from Black Rock’s previous effort, boasting a reality show premise and tons of destruction, but it’s easy to see some of the groundwork the developer laid in PURE showing up here. The game arcade racing feels immediately accessible, but ultimately challenging to racers looking to obtain the gold medal on all tracks. Additionally, triggering explosions throughout the track to mess with your opponents is a great mechanic and leads to some spectacular moments. Split/Second is a great racing game, and comes wholeheartedly recommended for fans of the genre.
Whereas other arcade style racers come equipped with myriad gimmicks, with some allowing you to boost or reverse time in order to get the edge over your opponents, Split/Second employs a wholly unique mechanic. Throughout each track, there are many Power Plays, which are set charges and events that can be triggered at the push of a button, causing explosions or dropping debris into your opponent’s path or often times right on top of their car. These can have immediate effects, causing your opponent to crash immediately or swerve into a wall and wreck. There are also bigger Power Plays that you can activate when your bar is filled all the way up (you can fill it by avoiding your opponent’s Power Plays, drafting, or drifting), which can have drastic effects on the layout of the whole track, and look pretty damn cool when you perform them.
The dynamic environments are far and away the most striking element in Split/Second. They are constantly shifting and changing due to Power Plays going off, requiring split second decision making (see what I did there? - pun intended) from the player and hair-trigger reflexes. The effects of the Power Plays will cause buildings to topple over, ships to wreck into the track, and other dramatic changes to the structure of each different stage. The constant layout changes of the tracks give Split/Second an element that you don’t see in other arcade racers in the market, and really help Split/Second stand out against the competition.
The meat of Split/Second comes from a Season mode, instead of the typical racing campaign that other arcade racers implement. Keeping with the game’s reality show vibe, the game is divided into 12 individual episodes. Each episode consists of five different races. These races sport a nice amount of diversity, with some being standard eight-car races and one-car time trials, and others being elimination rounds where the last car is eliminated until there’s only one standing, and even some that involve exploding barrels being thrown out of the back of semi trucks and helicopters shooting missiles that have to be avoided. Depending on how well you do in each race, you’ll earn points that will be applied to unlocking newer, more powerful cars and trucks.
Even though most of the game’s mechanics click and work extremely well in the world Black Rock Studios has created, there are some issues that pop up. The AI is pretty spotty and often very unforgiving. There are times when you’ll have a commanding lead over your opponents only to have three or four of them show up out of nowhere to over take your vehicle. While this might be necessary in order to keep the game’s main Power Play mechanic in constant use (after all, you can’t mess with your opponents unless they’re in front of you), it can be terribly frustrating when you have a lead only to lose it seconds before the end of the race.
Additionally, the time trials are very unforgiving, as you’ll have to perform them flawlessly in order to get first place; even if you miss every Power Play the game throws at you, you still have to be mindful of each tracks’ turns and memorize significant portions of each track to succeed. Drifting in the game also takes some getting used to, and never feels as fluid as you’d hope, instead being very floaty even in cars that excel at it.
One area where Split/Second really delivers is the visual department. The game looks spectacular, from the car models to the environments, which are awesome to look at and constantly changing due to explosions and general mayhem. The game boasts some fantastic lighting and special effects, and really provides a great sense of speed. This game does not disappoint when it comes to looks.
The sound effects are pretty good as well, with booming explosions and fine racing sounds. The cut scenes play out like teasers for a TV show, lending credence to the game’s reality show format while having the appropriate level of silliness and melodrama. The only real sore spot in the audio is the soundtrack, which strangely doesn’t feature any licensed material, only some original generic music that gets old quickly (fortunately, custom soundtracks are a fine substitute for Xbox 360 gamers).
While there are some problems here and there, Split/Second is a great racer, with a simple, arcade feel that allows for great accessibility and some real challenges for hardcore fans of the genre. The environmental destruction mechanic is employed extremely well, and adds a unique feel to a genre that has become cluttered with more of the same.

Aliens vs Predator - PC - Review

Game Zone rating: 9.86
Developer: Rebellion
Release: 1/19/2010
Genre: Action
Platform: PS3/X360/PC
Publisher: Sega 

          How long have I anticipated this game? Probably since I saw the movies in the theaters and read the comic books. In approximately 1996-7, Fox released a game called "Alien Trilogy" with Acclaim Entertainment. Alien Trilogy fell short even for its time and got lost in a sea of Doom clones. I can’t remember what magazine I saw it in, but sometime in December there was a large preview for Aliens versus Predator. I was excited, to say the least. I, of course, played all the demos I could and read every article I could get my hands on leading up to its release. Fox’s full release version claims some of the best graphics, sound, and concept for a first-person shooter.
What is Aliens versus Predator about? Unless you have been in frozen storage since 1979, you should at least recognize the title and genre of this game. Terror and paranoia are your constant companions. What lurks around the next corner? Is your next move going to be your last? Or, you can play as the monster, either an alien or a predator. This makes Aliens versus Predator more like three games in one with an entirely different game based on whether you choose a colonial marine, alien, or predator. As a colonial marine, you realize just how fragile human life is and just how scary darkness can be. Heavy weapons are your only security blanket and a motion detector your guide. Turn the wrong direction and your game is over. The alien is a fragile creature, as well, with limited range but deadly claws. Its benefits include lightning speed and the ability to cling to any surface. The predator is a skilled hunter stalking for dangerous prey. Its strength is its advanced technology; its weakness: Advanced technology. The predator survives by relying on scarce energy to power his weapons. Because of the differences in these three character types, the feeling generated during game play is unique for each one.
The graphics are done very well, especially explosions, fire, water, characters and gore. Yes, gore. This game does not pull any punches; it is based on two horror movies after all. I caught myself admiring the particle generation used in the blood spurting out of a dying character’s severed limb, then wondered if that much detail was really needed. But, like I said, it is based on horror movies, and it was given a mature audience rating.
The sound was well done and kept the feeling of paranoia and fear all the way through the game -- no matter what character you were playing. A lot of the sounds were accurate and represented the characters from the movies well, right down to the varying pitch of the marine’s pulse rifle.
My only gripe about this game is the lack of a save option (which is being remedied soon, so look for a patch update). It just doesn’t seem fair to fight all the way through a level and be defeated within sight of the finish line, does it? The worst is that the game seems to lock up after you make a kill with the predator. That is the worst because your game is going great and you are confident that you will finish -- until you have to start over after a complete reboot. Having to redo levels over and over makes it a very difficult game. However, the monsters/victims are in different locations each time, so you still don’t know what to expect. Not to mention if you get tired of playing as one character, you can always switch for a while. I recommend switching after playing a few levels anyway because it gives you a better idea of what to expect from the other characters you run into constantly, even though their locations change when you restart a level. Or, play the skirmish option, which is a sort of single player deathmatch. This gives you a feel for online gaming without the taunting.
The game controls were easy to understand and handle, although some of the strategy comes with practice. Get used to switching visual modes with all of the characters, especially the marine. The marine’s motion detector is fairly easy to pick up on, but it doesn’t work with the light intensifier. Learn to switch back and forth and when to do it. Also, the predator has several different image enhancers to choose from that all help you see different elements and items. Another thing that takes time is adjusting to the alien’s point of view. Its speed can be overwhelming at times, as well as 120E of fish-eye lens vision. If speed and vision aren’t challenging enough, try getting disoriented running on floors, walls, ceilings, and objects, as well. The alien is the greatest challenge of all, and I believe it to be the most fun character to play.
If you are an alien or predator fan, I suggest this game. Or, if you are looking for a fresh concept and real challenge in a first-person shooter, you won’t be disappointed. Where else can you get three stellar state-of-the-art games for the price of one?

Lessons From iCub

A child humanoid robot called iCub is helping Swiss scientists at EPFL's Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory study cognition, learning, and mobility.This slide show is part of our special report "Robots for Real."

Kojiro Humanoid Robot Mimics Your Musculoskeletal System

Kojiro is an advanced musculoskeletal humanoid robot under development at the University of Tokyo's JSK Robotics Laboratory. Kojiro's creators designed its body to mimic the way our skeleton, muscles, and tendons work to generate motion. The goal is to build robots that are light and agile, capable of moving around and interacting with the physical world in the same way our flesh bodies do.
I met Kojiro during a visit to the JSK lab late last year. Masayuki Inaba, a professor at Tokyo University, and Yuto Nakanishi, a researcher and one of Kojiro's main developers, showed me their latest trick: using a PS2 controller to make Kojiro move. In particular, they wanted to demo the robot's spine motion.

Other research groups are also exploring the idea of anthropomimetic humanoids. But I don't think many of them have a flexible spine, which is one of Kojiro's main innovations. Like the human spine, Kojiro’s can bend in different directions to let the robot arch and twist its torso. It can't quite dance the Macarena yet, but it shows some promising hip moves.
Nakanishi explained to me that most humanoid robots have articulated limbs and torsos powered by DC motors at the joints. Although these robots have a good range of motion, they're typically hard and heavy, making collisions with humans and objects a big problem.
Kojiro does use DC motors, but the motors pull cables attached to specific locations on the body, simulating how our muscles and tendons contract and relax. These tendon-muscle structures -- Kojiro has about 100 of them -- work together to give the robot some 60 degrees of freedom, or much more than could be achieved with motorized rotary joints.
And instead of big, bulky DC motors, Kojiro uses lightweight, high-performance ones. Its brushless motors are quite small (16 millimeters [0.6 inches] in diameter and 66.4 mm [2.5 inches] in length) but can deliver a substantial 40 watts of output power.
Each motor unit has a rotary encoder, tension sensor, and current and temperature sensing circuit. A driver circuit board automatically adjusts the current fed to the motors based on temperature measurements. The results are transmitted to a computer and displayed on a control screen developed by Takanishi.
To make the robot safer, the researchers built its body using mostly light and flexible materials. To keep track of its posture and limb positions, they embedded joint angle sensors on spherical joints and six-axis force sensors on the ankles. For balance, the robot uses three gyros and a three-axis accelerometer on its head.
The main drawback of using a musculoskeletal system is that controlling the robot's body is difficult. This kind of system has lots of nonlinearities and is hard to model precisely. To develop control algorithms for Kojiro, the JSK team is using an iterative learning process. They first attempt small moves and little by little tweak the control parameters until the robot can handle more complex movements.
Eventually they hope to integrate control for the head, spine, arms, and legs. Then Kojiro might do the Macarena.