One year ago Cryptic introduced Star Trek Online live to the world. With the game being built on a franchise as rich as Star Trek there was bound to be a few bumps in the road, no one however expected the off road ride this game initial took. In 30+ years of computer gaming I can honestly say I have never before seen a game garner such a level of love/hate. There was no middle ground and trying to stand it meant flame wars on many forums.
I myself was subject to many of those flames when I said a year ago that, “While STO is a good game is not a great game.” However that was a year ago and the very nature of MMOs means that it will grow and evolve over time. So one year later what has become of Star Trek Online?
Well first the premise of the game itself has remained solid, set in a period of around 2409 (30 years after the movie Nemesis) the game is firmly in the original time line, not going the direction of the new Star Trek. The Federation is at war, with everyone it seems. The Klingons have built a coalition of races and has gone back to it’s aggressive roots. The Romulan Empire is in chaos after losing their home world, the Cardassians are actually quiet but a splinter group has begun to cause trouble, the Undine (Species 8472) has openly engaged in hostilities and various other hotspots are everywhere. This is not a time of peace but of turmoil for the Federation.
It is against this backdrop that your character is thrust into Star Fleet and command of a starship. When I first reviewed this game I was playing a character that was basically myself, I wanted to feel like I was living the dream as it where. Well that is still the case, though I have been through a few characters over this year my primary is still me, though now an Engineering officer and proud member of the 3rd Fleet.
Fleets in STO are like guilds in various games or corporations in EVE Online, they are a social group in game that work together to enjoy the game. It is possible for someone to literally find any combination of characteristics to the various fleets. They range from uber-military style, the role play and super casual, plus of course everything in-between. I would advise anyone looking for a fleet to play with to take their time. Some of the recruiters out there are slick and will get you in a fleet before you know it only to find that it is not what you are looking for. Check around and be picky.
While the premise of the game has not changed the feel definitely has. The game now feels more polished, more completed than it did on release. While some areas such as exploration and ground combat still need work, other areas have begun to come into their own. The crafting system that before was overly simplistic has now evolved into a decent system that requires a bit more thought and effort but also makes more sense and has better options.
A diplomatic system has been put into the game. It is still a little bare but I would think we will begin to see it beefed up. Doing the diplomatic missions has the nice benefit of allowing you transwarp capabilities to various star systems in the game, making travel easier.
One of the complaints I had with the release of the game was during movement in sector space the game mechanics felt like they where getting in the way of the immersion. At the time sector space was filled with lines and grids, however Cryptic heard that complaint and the result is stunning. The shot above is in Sector space and trust me when I say down left and right, no lines.
The ship in the shot above is an Excelsior Class, taken from the early movies and Next Generation series. Other ships have been added as well such as the Nebula Class, a dreadnaught and numerous ships for the Klingons.
Speaking of Klingons, one of the complaints early in the game was lack of Klingon content, this is changing fast with the Klingons still not up with the Federation but nicely improved over the release.
One of the biggest changes though is the addition of the Featured Episodes. The idea is that an series is announced and then once a week for 5 weeks a new mission is posted in game, all part of the series. These episodes have a very good storyline to them and the game play is just plain fun. I do not think anyone has ever taken this kind of content approach before and Cryptic has done it well. The result is a literal buzz in the STO community as the day of release approaches and then excitement as we await the next installment.
There are a lot of other changes on the way as we discuss in the interview linked below but for now I want to look at STO as it is today.
In a years time the team at Cryptic has managed to take a game that was decent it grow leaps and bounds. The game has more depth, more excitement within it’s community and realized a lot of the potential we spoke of in the first review. The STO team is to be congratulated for living up to Captain Montgomery Scotts definition of Miracle Workers.
With that in mind I have to say that STO is at the precipice of being a GREAT game. With the direction the game is going I have no doubt they will achieve greatness but they must stay the course just a little longer.
As the game stands today however I have no issue with telling any MMO player, particularly anyone that likes Star Trek that this game is a MUST BUY! Future looks bright, the ideas ambitious and the people at Cryptic seem passionate about the future of Star Trek Online.
If you will excuse me now the USS Adventure is waiting for me to beam up before we head out. We recently received an assignment from Star Fleet to head for the Quadra Sigma system and investigate reports of a Borg fleet massing. The future of the Federation could be at stake…
Crisler to USS Adventure, one to beam up.
Interview with Daniel Stahl of Cryptic, Aired 30 January 2011
The title might sound like this blog is about food but it is a really about buying a new computer. I get at least 10 calls every week asking essentially the same question, should I get a PC built or go buy one from the store. A someone who makes a living off building PCs I have my own opinions but for the sake of my customers I try to force that bias down and look at this logically.
Lets begin with the Pre-Baked or Cookie Cutter PCs. When I use these names I am referring to a PC that you go in and buy off the shelf, brand names like Dell and HP. I use the references I do because they fit. You see when a company makes pre-baked Mac and Cheese they use the same recipe and ingredients in every single container they sell. That does not mean they are making a bad mac and cheese but it lacks anything to make it fit to your personal tastes, it is bland. Oh sure you can spice it up and give it some more flavor but the underlying, bland base is always there.
The same can be said for off the shelf PCs. They are usually solid machines but they are built from the least expensive most generic parts the company can buy and then are built from a common recipe as it where. The result is a functional PC but one that does not do anything great, just everything okay, it is bland.
The custom built PC or just built PC actually comes in many flavors, using the food analogy we are working with. First you have the fine dining, gourmet PC where you go to a Custom PC shop and have a PC built to your specific tastes. These though, like a restaurant will vary in the quality of what you get as well as the price. The quality is determined by the cook in this case and the decisions he makes in building the PC to fit your needs. The price fits in here as well as some of these builders will only use the absolute best rated part on the planet and thus jack up the price. The other end of the scale exists as well, some of the smaller shops will save you money but do so with lesser quality control on the components. Throw into this mix one other options, the home built, this is like cooking your meal yourself from scratch. If you are skilled and do the work you can build a great PC, or you can throw the box together and get some food anyway.
So which way is best, neither! There is no best way to get a PC as there is no best way to enjoy a great meal except the way that leaves you satisfied.
Shelf bought PCs are solid units and work well for basic computing needs. For a lot of people these easily fulfill the computing needs they have and do so at a low cost. The down side is support is typically a nightmare involving people with hard to understand accents and hours of waiting. Built PCs on the whole are better made and offer local support but have the down side of a higher cost.
To make an informed decision on this you need to first know what you are doing with your PC. If you are brand new to computing and have no idea what you want to do I would suggest an inexpensive off the shelf PC to begin with. This will let you get your feet wet and not set you back a lot of money. You can spice up this computer with some upgrades but again I would suggest keep them inexpensive until you know what you want to do.
Are you into photography, email, maybe some Facebook time? Good news ANY PC bought today can handle these, so again I would save the money and get an inexpensive off the shelf computer.
What if you want to edit home movies, do genealogy or even some light gaming? Now the picture begins to blur, while the off the shelf can handle these needs there are other considerations. Someone tracing their family tree has usually put a lot of work into getting the material together. The last thing they want to deal with is a tech that is out of the country and they cannot understand after waiting for an hour. They want support quick and easy to get to make sure they do not lose all that hard work. The same goes with someone doing movie editing. There is a lot of work involved and while an off the shelf PC can handle the load the difference between it and a machine built to do the work is amazing. Do not even get me started on gaming, anything that makes any use of 3D will benefit a ton from a PC built to handle the games.
In this middle ground the decision needs to come down to budget and the importance of your computing hobby. If this is something you sink a lot of time into daily and has deep meaning for you, then you will benefit from the locally built PC. If it is a fad that you are just jumping into then you would be better off saving your money at first to be sure you are committed to the hobby.
Finally we have the power home users. This group is mostly made up of PC gamers, though some of the heavy movie makers fit here as well. While there are a few off the shelf PCs that claim to fit the needs at this level they are expensive, even compared to built PCs and they LIE! They are usually just reaching the needed performance but still at the bottom end. A good shop can built a solid PC that will game in the middle of the pack of the same or even a little less money. This group should never by off the shelf, they should instead sit down with a local shop and talk about their needs building a PC specifically suited to their purposes.
What about learning to build the PC yourself? This is a great idea, I have taught classes at JALC on this and every year we do a show series on just that idea. Nothing will help you be as comfortable with your PC as building it yourself. However the truth is some people do not want to, and they should not have to. For example I consider my self a pretty bright guy and yet other than driving my car I do not have clue about it. Oh sure if I took the time, read some books and tore into it I am sure I could figure out how to do a lot of the work myself but I flat out do not want to. I want to drive my car, I leave the fixing it to the professionals. Taking the same attitude with your PC is okay to.
So when you are looking to buy a new PC and this time of year that desire begins to increase with tax refunds, do not impulse buy. Take some time to think about what you want to do with that computer. Once you know what you want to do then talk to some people you trust with some knowledge. If an off the shelf PC fits your needs then by all means buy one and do not hang your head around the geeks, the best PC is one the does what you need it to do at a prcie you can afford. If you decide you want a custom PC, well, look me up.
Two months ago I did an article about setting our video games free. This article got me some emails, mostly supportive but asking for more information. So I began my trek. My goal was to find out what it is the hardware companies do that warrants the addition of their logo to a game or this level of development that makes a game run worse on one system than another using normal DX calls.
I started with a really simple idea. I know quite a few game developers from relationships I have build over the years in interviews, reviews and even working beta testing. I put together a very basic letter asking for their help. I explained that I am wanting to get some information of the role these hardware companies where playing in direct game development. I swore to keeping the identities of those that responded and where even sent emails under wraps and I would not direct quote anyone to protect relationships within the industry. Would think this would get some replies right?
Well it did but not the ones I expected. Almost to the email I was told that they were not able to speak about this. Notice what I said, there where UNABLE to speak about this? So I pressed a bit more, this time on a select few that I have a pretty good personal relationship with. While I was able to confirm that this was an NDA issue, they explained that this was not however the reason they could not speak to me on this matter. No amount of prodding got any information.
Odd to say the least but I was not to be deterred. I next sent emails to various contacts within nVidia and AMD. Again I explained that I would not reference any material so it could be tied to the company or individual that was responding, I would use broad general terms. This time not only did I not get a positive response, I did not get one at all. Now other questions asked of the contacts got prompt responses with no worries but when the question turned to my investigation silence was all I would get.
My goal was to get us real information and set some of the various rumors to rest, what I got was more questions. What is being hidden? I mean seriously all we are talking about is hardware to developer relations. I was not asking for information that people in the industry do not have, I was asking for consumers to get some of this info, why does it need to be hidden from us?
My questions got deeper as I delved into a pet project. A computer game that I play from time to time has some issues where it runs fine on one companies product but crashes on another. I used contacts within the game company and the card maker to get some dialog going. Imagine my surprise when the game’s rep on the matter claimed he had never heard of the issue? The games forums where FULL of reference. I presented the list of forum threads to both sides and silence ensued. Up until this point I was being kept in the loop and suddenly both sides cut communications.
Further investigation has revealed that the game company in question has basically shut down the inquiry. I am unable to confirm this as the hardware company will suddenly not speak of it either.
Again we come back to the same question, what is being hidden from the consumers? Why does the developers relationship level with a hardware company have to be so back room?
What does this mean to consumers? it means that sadly we must look at the games we play in relationship to the hardware we have if we want to enjoy them. Branded games will typically have more features enabled and run more stable on the brand they have been “made” to run on. This is not saying that these games will not run on the other brand of hardware, to make them completely not work would be the ultimate in stupid. But it does mean that some of the more advance features, things that make the game look or run better could very well be reduced in performance if not outright disabled, as we have seen happen in the past.
Will I now close this investigation? No, instead I will openly extend here an invitation to any developer or hardware rep that is will to talk openly and candidly with me to contact my email address. I will protect their identity and that of their company to the best of my abilities. The consumers SHOULD know why things are as they because we are the reason that developers and hardware companies can exist. If we did not by the games or the hardware these people would be out of work.
For now just be sure what you are buying matches what you have for best performance. It is a sad truth of today, maybe tomorrow will be better.
Segment as aired live 16 January 2011
This is the tagline that AMD now proudly totes to everyone that will listen. Fusion, for those that do not know is a CPU that has a GPU built into it. Why is this so important, after all Intel has already done it right? Well my take on this is a bit different from the many pundits that attended this years CES and spent their time wetting themselves over the ability of a netbook sized product being able to play a video game. While Fusion looks pretty today, it is tomorrow that I am looking at to get me geek excitement rolling. Lets however begin first with a bit of a history lesson.
A long, long time ago in a PC era far, far away we had the 286 processor, this chip was mighty for it’s day and delivered outstanding performance but lacked the ability to handle floating point calculations well. However that did not matter because the industry told us that floating point was for the real uber geeks and science types. After all our 286 could run X-Wing well, the big game of the day.
The next generation of chips came along , the 386 and gave us more power but no floating point. However for an additional fee we could put in a floating point co-processor to give us that extra umph when dealing with floating point calculations. The geeks where all over this and I know of few DIYers that did not add the FPU. In fact the first system I ever built from scratch was a 386 based computer, I recall happily using a 386DX40 (AMD chip) to stave off the needs of moving to a 486 and skipping straight to the Pentium.
While the 386 had a readily available FPU for add-on it was still an add-on that was not used except for the real geeks of the world and the science types. However computer gaming had begun to show it could benefit from the use of an FPU and since the gamers of the day where adding them in the games started using them more.
So Intel, always looking to make a buck saw it’s first real chance to gouge the “enthusiast” market of the day and build two models of the next generation, the 486. The SX series was less expensive but did not have the FPU built in, or we could opt to spend more money and the the DX model which came with a shiny FPU built right into the chip. From that point forward the FPU has been in CPUs. In fact we are at the point today that the current generation of “enthusiasts” likely cannot imagine the FPU as a separate chip.
Flash forward to a few years ago, 2007, and a dark lab in the nVidia research park. In this dark lab came out the first beta’s of something known as CUDA. It seems some whiz kid there had come up with this neat idea, video cards did not have to be just for putting things on the screen, they could be used in other capacities! (As a disclaimer I do not know if nVidia was the first to conceive this or not but this my story and I will tell it like I want) So the push began to make the GPU more than it was before. Of course as happened back in the day we where told by many that we did not need this extra ability, only the uber enthusiasts or the science community would make use of it. (Sadly I must admit I was one of those in the early days but over the last year have changed my position)
Fast forward to today and we see that demand growing. nVidia has leveraged their system to the point it can be used to enhance physics in gaming environments and assist in various scientific calculations. AMD has seen the advantage grow enough that they are now investing in building an infrastructure that is more open than CUDA to do essentially the same thing. Microsoft, seeing where this is going has jumped in the game with the addition of DirectCompute to DX11.
We see this technology of use in the computing world with various cooperative computing projects, most notably Folding@Home. There are of course games supported by nVidia that make use of PhysX ( their Physics model) in games but to me the biggest sign of where this is heading is when Firaxis used DirectCompute in the release of Civilization V to handle texture compression. The way they did this was to leverage the parallel horsepower of the GPU, a way of computing that the traditional CPU has trouble with, to allow for a more complex compression system that can work faster thanks to the way the GPU calculates information.
You see while the CPU is a powerful brute there are other ways of calculating data that the CPU is not as efficient at. Wait that sounds a lot like the 286 days doesn’t it. With this in mind then it only makes sense that the GPU begin to make it’s way into the CPU. Instead of existing as a co-processing unit that only a few people will use it can now be considered a part of every PC with the coming of the Fusion chip.
This inclusion of a fully functional GPU that works with the various GPU computing environments means that programmers now have another tool in their hands to make programs do more and do it faster. I had to opportunity to see a program, still in development, that allows the use of this power to be harnessed for facial recognition. Imagine the possibilities for the none gamer. The genealogist that has a few thousand photos could identify a person in just a few of them and then sit back while the computer goes through all the pictures and finds the person they are looking for. Oh sure this can be done now but it would takes hours, I am talking about doing it in minutes!
The integration of the FPU into the CPU all those years ago was a big deal then but today is common fair. The same will happen with the GPU being added today but I feel for the wrong reasons. Yes it is cool that the new chip will allow for lower cost PCs and gaming on smaller system. Yes it is neat that the APU as it has been dubbed, uses less power and runs cooler. But forget graphics for a minute and imagine the new possibilities. This is something that will touch everyday users not just geeks.
Now in fairness I am looking 5 years and more down the road. The APU that AMD has released is just the birthplace, not the realization of the vision. There is still work to be done on the programming end and AMD needs to get more aggressive about it’s efforts to get DirectComputer and OpenCL into the mainstream. However we are beginning to head down that road.
When I say Fusion is the future, I am saying that we are seeing today a fundamental change in the way the CPU functions. A change that is bigger than the various new processor designs we have seen over the years. We are seeing the potential of the CPU allowing programmers to be even more inventive in what they create because they now will have standardized a whole new set of programming options open to them.
I believe what we are seeing today is more than the ability of a single chip to put graphics on the screen or even play games. We are seeing the beginning of a new processor design just like the 486DX, we are seeing the integration of a new co-processor to the CPU that will open it’s capabilities.
Fusion Segment as it Aired Live on 9 January 2011
Sorry that this blog is late but over the last week I have been fighting a nasty cold. Stuck in bed, miserable, not able to do what I wanted to do. So it got me thinking this morning about the same thing with our computers. I mean you catch a piece of malware on your system and your computer becomes bogged down, causes weird errors and keeps you from enjoying your computing experience.
Over the years I have been a huge advocate of using the free AV solutions in homes. Tied together with common sense approaches these can go a long way to protecting your PC. However last year saw a huge rise in extortion ware attacks and the use of commercial ads on legitimate websites to get them into your PC. These bypass a lot of the common sense approaches and play off the fear of the computer novice to allow help the virus attack work.
Over the last few months I have fought a lot of these attacks and talked about them in this blog quite a bit. We have discussed how to use the free AV software and counter the attacks but for some people that is just to much work, they want to just use their PC, having to learn tricks to defeat an attack on their computer is more than they want to deal with. So I set out and did some testing.
First I had to find sites that I KNEW was running ads with an extortion ware attack and I was able to reasonably recreate as needed. Next I loaded up some of the more popular free AV offerings as well as a few commercial to see which offered the best protection. Through my research I was able to find 10 sites I could accurately get a malware hit from.
First on the block is my current free AV recommendation, Microsoft Security Essentials. Having recently gone through an update of the base software this product has become even more effective than it was before. Sadly against this new threat it is not as effective as we would like. Of 10 sites MSE was only able to stop 2 of the attacks outright. What about Avast, a very popular free AV program it has an aggressive scan system. the failure rate was 100%, all the attacks took place as normal. Finally for the free we turn to AVG, the creator of the free AV craze and like Avast it fell quickly allowing all 10 attacks to take place.
What this is showing me is that while Free AV software can protect your PC pretty well the current lines of attack have found a way to bypass them at the moment. Will these programs find a way to be more effective in the future? I am sure they will but for now know that against extortion ware the free solutions are struggling with the delivery system.
Well if free is not working what about commercial software?
We begin with the biggest out their Norton. The Norton name is held in high regard throughout the computer consumer world, which is sad since it is held in low regard by most in the know. Norton did not fail to deliver on my low expectations allowing all 10 attacks to get into the system without a whimper. Next I fired up McAfee, another industry giant and again the mighty fell hard with 100% of the attacks coming through. I turned to Kaspersky one of the big commercial names with the “in” tech crowd to see how it would fair and it did better hitting 3 of the 10 attacks in the nose before they could try and trick their way in. However a 70% success rate for the malware is not what I call effective protection.
I was at a lose, I mean does this mean we have to wait for all the AV programs to catch up? Well in working to clean various systems I noticed that one AV package was almost always recommended. Now in fairness I had assumed this was from paid commercials on search sites so has dismissed it. However one day I was working to try and clean a clients system and was running out of options short of just wiping it and starting over. The problem we the client did not have the recover software and had a TON of data that would need to be retrieved. There was going to be a lot of cost associated with nuking the system so I figured what the heck and downloaded the software.
PC Tools has a pretty solid reputation but over the years it has been something of a minor player compared to the bigger names. In the above system we loaded the software, at first it did not seem to work so we made arrangements to get the system in a few days and nuke it. However during it’s overnight scans it found and cleared the PC.
So when the big three failed I figured it was worth giving this program a shot at our tests. I fired up the first website once the software was installed and updated, a little popup hit my lower left corner and it informed me that a website that was known to have issues was trying to be opened would I like it blocked. HHHMMM, okay since I was not access the site it listed I figured this was a good idea. Turns out the site it was blocking was the site the ad was coming from which was the way the malware attack was taking place. First test down and successful. Over the next 9 sites I saw this little popup a LOT. Spyware Doctor was grabbing the material before it could enter my system. Of the 10 sites, none of them where able to infect my PC, 100% success.
Now this is not to say this program will stop everything ever to come out but my test revealed it was a solid effort. The way it does this is by allowing your PC to send in data as it collects it. If a suspicious activity takes place on your PC the data is sent to PC Tools to confirm and if it is malware the site or program is blocked in the next update.
Over the last few days I have changed my computing habits with PC Tools installed and started using Facebook, the infestation incubator itself more. The result was at first a lot of warnings but no infections, since those first few days the warnings are down to once every few days on Facebook.
Now I am not turning from my old position. I still believe that for a lot of people a free AV solution with some common sense is enough protection. but lets face it common sense is NOT common and people want to go to sites others are going to, which means you will sooner or later visit sites that could be issues. If that is the case, or you have a Facebook junkie in your home then I would suggest taking at look at PC tools.
Do not get caught up in the fancier packages this is the one you want to look at. I also suggest if you are going to looks at this just buy it. The $40 cost covers 3 PCs for one year and with so many homes now having multiple PCs there is a good chance you can protect the whole family.
We all wish we could get through the winter without colds and flu and sometimes we get lucky and do. However we all know that no matter how much prevention we take there is always the chance of it slipping in. The same is true with your PC. No level of protection can for sure stop an infection but taking some precautions to ensure your not infect is just wise. PC Tools has made a great product that gives a little peace of mind, it may not stop all of it but you know it is trying hard.