Categories: Uncategorized

Sending astronauts to space is a dangerous and costly affair, but what about robot astronauts? DNews got a chance to visit the Johnson Space Center and interview one of the engineers behind the future of our space program.

Categories: Free Read/ Game History

Recently, Sony announced that it has shipped 10 million PS2 units into stores worldwide, and by many industry estimates the company could reach twice that number by the time the Xbox launches this fall. So we must ask, is it even possible for Microsoft to catch up in the next-generation console war?

It’s okay to be second (Nintendo has been profitable for years without worrying about market share domination), but Microsoft is not entering the console market to control a small niche; the company is investing billions to control the market. It won’t be easy, however.

These are the 10 key things Microsoft must do if it ever hopes to catch up with Sony.

1: Start Strong
In the coming months we will harp on this one point more than any other, but a strong launch for the Xbox is absolutely crucial for its future success. The Xbox will not be able to catch the PS2 in a year (or maybe even two or three), but the console needs a massive launch to get it on the right road.

A well-received launch will encourage more developers to create games for the system, and will entice undecided gamers who want to root for someone other than Sony. Everyone wants to bank on a winner. A strong launch help perpetuate this image.

Historical Context:
The PlayStation blew the Saturn out of the water during its early launch months. After that, the war was already over.

2: Use The Marketing Budget Wisely
Microsoft has a massive $500,000,000 marketing budget for the first 18 months of the Xbox launch. How the company uses that money will be a major factor in the overall cultural acceptance of the Xbox. Unless the mega-marketing campaign makes a cultural impact, the Xbox won’t have the momentum it needs to catch the PS2.

Microsoft created the biggest software launch in PC history when it spent only a fraction of this Xbox marketing budget on the debut of Windows 95. If it can repeat this success (especially with a TV advertising blitz), it will be able to tap into a market bigger than the traditional gaming market.

Historical Context:
Sega introduced its Sega Scream ad campaign and outsold the SNES with its Genesis for years.

3: Expand The Console Market
Sony transformed the videogame market with the PlayStation because it reached an audience that was larger than the traditional gaming audience. If Microsoft hopes to catch Sony, it needs to expand the console market to new heights.

If the battleground is for the hearts and minds of hardcore gamers, Sony already has too much of a lead for anyone to catch up. However, if Microsoft is able to reach casual gamers and even non-gamers, the company could surprise us all.

Historical Context:
Sony introduced millions of people to console gaming with the PlayStation and enjoyed the support of the vast majority of those newly indoctrinated gamers.

4: Think Globally…
The three major battlefields that will determine the winner in any modern console war are Japan, North America and Europe. Sony is scoring big in all three territories right now, and Microsoft will need to do the same if it ever wants to challenge the PS2 for number one.

The one weak spot that Microsoft faces right now is certainly Japan. And the company is making strides to build a presence in that territory right now. Bill Gates will deliver the TGS Keynote address and finally reveal his company’s plans for the Xbox in Japan. How gamers in Japan receive the company’s big pitch will be a major factor in the Xbox’s ultimate ability to catch the PS2.

Historical Context:
Sega sold a large number of Dreamcasts in the US, but without strong support in Japan, the console simply couldn’t make it for the long haul.

5: …But Build Locally
Even though Japan is important, the bulk of the Xbox’s early success will be based in the US and Europe. Microsoft has already developed strong support from both US and European developers, and it needs to maintain this support to build a foundation for the future.

Historical Context:
Atari started this whole console business as a North America-based company.

6: Develop Key Exclusive Titles
It seems that Japanese companies are more willing to develop one-console exclusive titles, while North American developers try to spread their titles over several systems. Microsoft needs to change this mindset with its core developers, because the Xbox desperately needs must-have exclusive titles — and they need to continue to flow regularly for years into the Xbox life cycle.

Exclusive, big-name titles are the motivation that hardcore gamers need to purchase more than one console, and this dual ownership will certainly help erode Sony’s lead.

Historical Context:
Nintendo continues to thrive in today’s competitive console market because it has exclusive titles like Mario and Zelda that sell systems all by themselves.

7: Play To The Xbox’s Unique Strengths
The PlayStation2 does not have a built-in hard drive and it also lacks a broadband network adapter. If developers are able to use these features to make console gaming far more enjoyable on the Xbox, Microsoft will quickly begin to close the gap with the PS2.

Historical Context:
The PC has traditionally held strong as a gaming platform because it could do things that no console could.

8: Make Sure The Price Is Right
No matter what else Microsoft does with the Xbox before launch, the console’s price will be a major factor in every buying decision. If the Xbox is more expensive than the PS2, it will make a purchase decision difficult. If the price is too low, Microsoft may never be able to recoup initial losses with future software sales. This tightrope balancing act could make or break the next-generation console showdown.

Historical Context:
The Saturn launched for $399. The rest is history.

9: Exploit Sony’s Weaknesses
The success of the PS2 launch is not necessarily the result of a perfect Sony plan. In fact, Sony has made several mistakes during the PS2 launch. (For example, Sony has not provided the kind of technological support that some developers expected.) Microsoft is currently exploiting that weakness by providing far better support to developers. Microsoft is also working with retailers to offer them similar advantages over Sony. This kind of battle mentality is necessary to win a console war.

Historical Context:
Sony wooed developers onto the PlayStation because they were treated poorly by Nintendo, and weren’t supported enough (in terms of technology) by Sega at that time.

10: Play For The Long Haul
Like we said before, even under the best possible circumstances Microsoft will need years to catch up with Sony. Panic in the early stages could halt any chance of future competition in this generation.

It’s very important to remember that in the past, Microsoft has been willing to be number two for years until it finally overwhelms its opponent. The company is very likely willing to build during this generation and make the big challenge to Sony with Xbox2.

Categories: Free Read/ Game History

Just as we began to think that the puzzle genre was going stagnant on the PS2, along comes Aqua Aqua to spruce things up, not to mention funnel away hours of precious time. An update of the grossly under-appreciated Wetrix+, it’s a puzzler with all of the trappings: geometric gameplay, cute characters (Aquas, in this case), goofy sound effects and frantic, nerve-jangling gameplay. In an effort to… well, to garner a better score, gamers are challenged to capture and dispose of water falling from the sky by building makeshift moats and dams. Sounds fun, right? It is indeed.

The story takes place six and a half days after the dawn of time; then there’s some nonsense about a dry planet and the four evil monsters (one for each level — they show up and generally muss up your carefully wrought structures) who decide to make it their own. The Supreme Being dispatches four Aquas, or Water Spirits, to bring water and life to this desolate rock. Of course that isn’t really important all — all you really need to know is this: Water = Bad.

Pieces fall from the sky one at a time onto a large grid; each of these can be rotated by using the square button, and dropped by hitting the X button. The trick is to build shallow bins from falling pieces of earth (squares, lines and L-shapes) and then use these to catch the water pieces, which tend to come in packs — let water spill over the edge and your stress levels begin to surge. The fireball is crucial to your efforts, as it evaporates any water it hits. A test tube on the side (replete with adorable Aqua trapped inside) displays how much water has spilled over the edges; when it hits the fill limit it’s game over (replete with adorable choking noises emitting from said Aqua). Sounds easy enough and probably would be — if that were the sum of it.

Plenty of other pieces drop by to mix things up a bit: Bombs blow holes in the earth, allowing precious fluids to seep through, while downers serve as the inverse of the earth pieces, carving away any land they hit. Ice cubes, naturally, freeze any water they come in contact with — these can really help or hinder, depending on when they show up. Finally, to really shake things up, the developers have included an Earthquake feature — build up too much terrain, and suffer the consequences. You could say it’s all about the balance.

Just like so many of the best games (puzzle and otherwise), Aqua Aqua increases the difficulty bit by bit — though it’s pretty challenging right off the bat. However, the subtle intricacies and tricks for maximizing your score really begin to show through only after you’ve gotten a grip on the gameplay basics. For example, a fireball will evaporate all of the water it comes in contact with, making one large pool of water more desirable than several small ones — this is where those downers really make themselves useful.

Similarly, placing your fireballs at the appropriate points on the grid unlocks Bingo cards. Each card has benevolent properties including multiplying your score, making the pieces descend at a slower rate or even increasing the size of the landscape. It’s tricky yet tangible, and helps make the “addictive” tagline that’s tacked on to the packaging of just about every puzzler ever made fit this one quite nicely.

Those with a penchant for the puzzling (not to mention cute as candy characters) will find Aqua Aqua an excellent addition to the PS2’s still meager library of such games. The versus mode is excellent, and the depth and intricacy of the scoring system really go the distance in fleshing out what ultimately boils down to simple, satisfying gameplay. Make no mistake, this is not an easy puzzler, but you’ll probably dig it.


Categories: Free Read/ Game History

When we receive a new RTS game in the office, we’re usually scared of what we’ll find inside. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised (as with COC), sometimes we know what to expect (as with Q3A or UT), but usually we just have to load it up and hope for the best. While there are some good things about this game, the flaw monster raises its ugly head within the first few minutes, and it doesn’t stop growling and yapping until you turn the game off.

The game takes place in a 2020s alternate universe, where time has been warped and there’s a very strong Russian military hellbent on taking over the world. Although all the free countries of the world have formed an alliance to fight this empire, you’re apparently the only guy on the front line; everyone else is pushing papers back at the office. The main character, named Red, is a James Bond-ian Brit, complete with Ms. Moneypenny (called Goggles here) and Q, who provides the mission briefings. There are even some coy attempts at some sort of love interest between Goggles and Red, and the dialog is more predictable than snow in Alaska.

The game starts simply enough. The player is supposed to use covert tactics to sneak into a heavily armed base and steal plans for a new missile. After knifing the first guard and stealing his weapon and uniform, the player is introduced to all sorts of flaws. First off, if another guard is killed, every other enemy on the map suddenly knows not only who the killer is, but they also know his exact location. On the other hand, if no other guards are killed, then the enemies are completely oblivious to the player. Red can destroy boxes for ammunition and such without even getting a blink from the guards. Remember, this is a realistic covert operations game.

Next, Red has the ability to pick up full-plate body armor, giving him “200% armor.” What? OK, this is a game, but it’s losing its realism quickly. Continuing with this trend, Red cannot shoot a guard through a chain-link fence. These fences are apparently made of the strongest metal on Earth, because even driving full speed into them in an armored tank will harm the tank but not the fence. Neat. Once Red finds the secret plans, every guard is immediately aware of his infiltration into the base. How covert is this? Red must now kill nearly every guard on his way back to the start point of the mission. The player actually has to jump a destroyed bridge in a tank to win this mission. Huh?! Remember, this is a realistic covert operations game.

Each subsequent mission is equally lacking. Part of the problem is the inventory system, or lack thereof. While the player can cycle through the inventory easily, there’s no description of what the inventory is. There’s also nothing to tell the player when an item has been added to inventory, and this can make for some extremely frustrating gameplay. (The church key on the assassination level will drive players insane; it’s picked up without the player knowing it.) On top of the poor inventory control, each gun uses the exact same ammunition; Red can’t save his sniper gun bullets when he wants to use the machine gun. Remember, this is a realistic covert operations game.

The enemies on each level tend to emphasize the “artificial” part of AI. While some of them will act almost believable, most tend to stand around or run in circles. If there are two guards five feet from another, Red can kill one, and the other guard won’t bat an eyelash. When in motion, the guards will run somewhat toward the player, shoot, then run sideways, shoot sideways, then repeat. The worst-case scenario is when a guard starts shooting at Red and said guard cannot be seen on the screen. The player is getting shot (by a machine gun, no less) from so far away that the only option is to run in several directions, hoping to see the bullets. Yes, see the bullets. Remember, this is a realistic covert operations game.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. We get a lot of fog in the San Francisco area, but early 20th century Russia apparently had it worse. The graphics do look rather nice and the explosions are, in fact, colorful, but the depth of field allows the player to see about 50 feet into the distance before the fog creeps in. Enemies have different dying animations, which is a nice touch, although they all have the same vocabulary of four or five phrases. We weren’t overwhelmed by the graphics, but we’ve also seen a lot worse than this.

The game has support for multiplayer, although we were not able to confirm this. Since we were given one copy, we went to the net looking for a few good men. Unfortunately, every time we attempted to find an online game, there were no servers available. We would’ve liked to play Boom Beach online, as its multiplayer may have held some redeeming qualities, but we were out of luck.

Overall, Boom Beach hack is an average game tool in an overcrowded RTS market. Its otherwise okay gaming experience is overshadowed by the frequent letdowns. Guards can come out of buildings, but the player can’t go in most of them. Guards can be sniped in the head and not die or even notice the bullet. Move in a few feet and retry. This time the guard dies. The plotline forces the player to act in very specific ways, not allowing for exploration of other alternatives. The current kings of RTS (Q3A and UT) have a rabid following, so it’s difficult to break into this genre. COC did it with innovation and a sense of style. Boom Beach really wants to run with the big boys; too bad it shot itself in the foot.

Categories: Uncategorized

When sitting on the beach, have you ever wondered where that wave came from? Pro surfer and wave expert Kyle Thiermann joins Trace to surf the science of waves, their origins, and why they’re about to get even bigger.

Categories: Free Read/ Game History

During a touching and pastry-filled two days in November, videogame maker Sega took a select band of invitees and showed them a portion of its 2001 lineup for the Dreamcast. Approximately 30 games were shown, and the mere mention of their names was enough to stir the imagination and spark endless feelings both warm and fuzzy: Sonic Adventure 2, Headhunter, Crazy Taxi 2, Black and White, World Series Baseball 2K2, Samba De Amigo 2000, Floigan Brothers, Bomberman Online, Far Nation, Alien Front Online, Virtua Tennis 2, Ooga Booga, Outtrigger.

Sega called the event its “Executive Games Summit,” and did its best to deliver on the promise of two days’ worth of games glory. Promises were made as to the Dreamcast’s future, with Sega’s Charles Bellfield cryptically stating, “The Dreamcast that ships today will not be the one that ships two years from now.” Secrets were passed, and the attendees sworn to secrecy. Food was served in extravagant proportions, and duly eaten. Bombs were dropped.

The highlight of the event was a surprise appearance by game designer Yu Suzuki. Suzuki, who created such masterpieces as Hang-On, Virtua Fighter and the Dreamcast’s Shenmue, had come to America from Japan to celebrate the release of Shenmue in America; Sega of America pressed Suzuki into action to discuss Shenmue 2. With the aid of a translator, Suzuki spoke at some length about the second installment of his epic series — and when he was done, Sega of America swore everyone involved to secrecy. Now, however, the fog has lifted, and the details Suzuki dealt on Shenmue 2 are now fair game.

“Shenmue 2 is on!” Suzuki said through his translator. The game will feature an increased polygon count, ensuring that the sequel will be prettier than its predecessor, and there will be more characters to interact with. Hero Ryo Hazuki will be able to explore a world that us about 10 times bigger than that of Shenmue, and new graphics techniques have allowed Suzuki and his development team to create 3D skies that will rearrange themselves subtly throughout the course of the adventure.

Suzuki seemed reluctant to show the game to the assembled throng. “The game is only 50% complete,” Suzuki said, “but Sega of America strongly requested I show it.” Despite the man’s initial concerns, he showed off the game’s introductory movie, which recaps the plot for Shenmue; this condensed film, Suzuki said, has been inserted for the benefit of those who missed the first game. It will be, thankfully, skippable — and the footage certainly paled in comparison to what was shown for Shenmue 2.

The lights were dim, but expectations were brighter than the glow from a 100-watt bulb when the trailer for Shenmue 2 was shown. This was the first time ever that this footage was shown, and because the game was in such an early stage of development, the scenes shown often lacked characters. An opening series of swoops and pans showed off the junk-ridden port of Hong Kong and a stolid brick junkyard. As the scene pulled back to reveal a series of brightly lit streets, Suzuki and his translator commented that Shenmue 2 will feature better lighting and more detailed lighting effects. Expect the game’s Hong Kong locale to feature many cramped environments and plenty of winding streets. These streets will be inhabited, of course, by various passers-by — and there will be more fortune tellers in Shenmue 2, Suzuki promised.

Numerous scenes showed off the game’s impressive rendering of the massive Kowloon Tower. “There will be elevators in every building,” Suzuki said, which lends credence to the notion that most, if not all, of the Tower can be explored by eager game fans. Kowloon will be a gambler’s den of sorts, and Suzuki said, “For entertainment value [Kowloon] is more like the Tower of Babel.” In a fit of much ado about nothing, Suzuki also commented that Shenmue 2 will feature floors that, depending on the light scheme, are reflective.

Real in-game footage followed, with Ryo engaging in a QuickTime Event, racing through a forest in an attempt to chase down the enigmatic female Sha Hua (who was seen, but not heard from, in Shenmue). “You’ll find QTE’s as you did in Shenmue,” Suzuki said, “plus [there will be] new types of QTE’s.” This was followed up with a scene where Ryo had to navigate a thin plank, and a breathless chase wherein our hero and the man he was handcuffed to had to sprint down a series of hallways. Despite a series of follow-up questions, Suzuki declined to reveal why Ryo was handcuffed — or the identity of the man he was handcuffed to.

There was more, such as a scene wherein Ryo walked through an open-air courtyard filled with martial artists practicing in unison, to pop the eyes with wonder. Suzuki promised there will be much emphasis placed on gambling, as the hero will need to sustain his cash reserves during the game. The gambling contest shown onscreen was unfamiliar to Sega Radar, and perhaps to all but a select few in attendance, but Suzuki said the American version of Shenmue 2 will feature a thorough explanation as to how to play each and every game of skill. As new characters appeared, Suzuki introduced them as well. A new female character named Joey featured a shock of red hair and a biker’s sort of toughness. Ren (which means “knife” in Chinese) was described as one of the game’s central figures. Sha Hua, of course, was included in this number; Ryo will be able to interact with her in Shenmue 2.

Tantalizing shots of riverboat journeys, gorgeous waterfalls and the briefest hint of a sort of cage-fight deathmatch-type beat-’em-up were shown until there was no more to be seen. A shot of Sha Hua, who excels in her role as the woman who perpetually stares wistfully at stuff, staring wistfully at a yellow-red sunset ended the film portion of Suzuki’s presentation.

Suzuki then agreed to answer a few questions, with the full and complete understanding that there would be some things he just couldn’t — or wouldn’t — discuss (his upcoming Virtua Fighter X was certainly off limits). No release date has been set for Shenmue 2, and Suzuki failed to provide specifics on the game’s play, even when asked to do so. He did say that Shenmue 2 will be faster paced than the original, with more “high-density” excitement included. There will be slight tweaks to the control scheme, and the battle engine has been simplified in some as-yet-unrevealed manner. As far as how much gameplay there was to be had, Suzuki would only comment that there would be the same amount as in Shenmue, or perhaps less with more replay value.

Fittingly, Suzuki himself offered a bit of insightful commentary that could be applied to both the game and the troubled company that plans to release it. When asked if Shenmue would continue on past episode two, he said, “The story will not end there, and if the market requests it, we will continue with the adventure.”