Sunday, September 16, 2012

These are the voyages ...

I've been hit by one of those bugs.

Not the sneezy kind ... Nah. It's the anticipation of something new and fun.

This time around, it's a game called Faster Than Light. I first became aware of this one through PC Gamer magazine (one of the few articles I read in that issue) who ran the reader through a typical encounter, one of many your ship will have in the game.

The game came out on Friday and I've been enjoying it tremendously since. The basic premise is that your ship has been entrusted with data that needs to get to Federation HQ, across numerous sections of friendly and unfriendly space. But you can't take forever because chasing you is the Rebel fleet, on their way to finish off the Federation.

To that end, you're given a Kestrel class light cruiser and 3 crew to handle Weapons, Shields, Piloting and repairs. The ships also have Life Support, Doors, Sensors, Teleporters, Engines and Drones. Each system can be targeted independently by weapons or even your crew. The basic game play set up allows for huge depth in how you tackle the encounters. I've not seen anything like it for quite some time, although I suspect Battlecruiser 3000 may have tried to pull it off.

(And I'm now going to do all sorts of curse removing Stuff to make up for invoking the name of the worst piece of vapourware to ever approach PCs).

It's deep, yet it's very simple to play. You can go the conventional approach of Superior Firepower, you can use drones, you can go Borg and send over away parties (very difficult) or you can burn the other ship from the inside. That last one is surprisingly effective - set fires on the enemy and the fires do as much damage as weapon fire can do.

But yeah - FTL. It's awesome and if you have an interest in space games, it's an essential.

Back to the real world - I'm currently watching the 3rd in a series of programmes called Moon Machines that was shown again as part of a Neil Armstrong tribute weekend. So far, the episodes have covered the Saturn V rocket and the Command Module. This one's about the navigation computer.

It's very important to note that the Lunar programme was from back in the infancy of the computer age. Computers were in use in World War 2 to do code breaking but this was still the very early days. Miniaturisation hadn't happened yet. Computers were huge, taking up whole rooms or buildings to do what we did on PCs 20 years ago. And yet a computer was needed to fit into a spacecraft to make it capable of getting to the moon and safely back again.

That's a tough ask, especially as the "how" had never been done before. It's very easy to clone software or modify process to tweak it to do what you want. But to generate whole new techniques and make them efficient ? That's a far bigger challenge.

Moon Machines ? Worth a watch ? Definitely. But also watch the Tom Hanks team do their dramatisation of From The Earth To The Moon. I need to watch that again soon too, it's in the queue after Toy Story 1 and 2 ahead of Toy Story 3 in the recorded stuff queue.

Back to "gaming" again ...

I'm seriously considering having a look at the Kerbal Space Program. It's showing how computer technology and software has advanced since the Apollo program by moving it from the Real Space domain into a Virtual Space domain inside the computer.

What is it ? It's a toolkit that lets you build rockets and send them to places within the Kerbal system. It's what I mentioned up top about a devilishly complex system hidden underneath simple ways of operating it. It's tough to put that in brief words here, better just to point you towards :

Flight of the Munitar

The link will take you to a KSP forum thread with further links to Youtube videos showing a flight to the Mun and back. For a techie/wannabe astronaut (old dreams!) like me, it's fascinating. It's showing orbital mechanics at work. Objects don't go in a straight line in space, they're acted upon by gravity. You need to be going at a decent speed to "cheat" gravity enough to stay in orbit. You're effectively falling at the same rate as you're going round.

The Munitar flight shows a launch, Mun transition and return and it's fascinating to see those orbital mechanics playing out on screen. It's showing a modern computer doing with ease what was a huge struggle a little over 50 years ago.

And I'm getting more tempted to try it out :-) But first, I see another voyage of the HMS Sleepy coming on, crewed by Snow Queen on shields, The Boss in the pilot's seat and Ms Warpath on weapons.
(Names I've used so far have been from gaming, time for a few new ones!)

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