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Diablo Meets Dark Souls in Isometric Action-RPG Eitr

Among the indie games Sony showcased during its E3 press conference this week, Eitr was what most stood out to me. Take a quick look at it and it’s easy to assume this is essentially a Dark Souls-style game with an isometric camera. In fact, it’s a better version of that, mixing in elements of Diablo and featuring some wonderful pixel-art graphics and subtle music.

The Dark Souls comparison might seem lazy in light of how frequently it gets thrown around for any game that has some semblance of difficulty, but it’s fully appropriate here. And it’s not one the game’s two-person studio, Eneme Entertainment, shies away from; it brings up Dark Souls when discussing what it set out to make while also citing Diablo and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

In the section of Eitr that I played, I fought my way through a forest area before making my way into a dungeon of sorts. Combat should immediately feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Souls game or Bloodborne; you carefully pick spots to swing away at enemies, ensuring not to exhaust all of your stamina so that you’re able to avoid being attacked yourself. You can do this by blocking (provided you have a shield equipped), dodging, or parrying, the latter of which requires precise timing but leaves enemies vulnerable.

You’re also able to sprint, which is useful as both an offensive and defensive maneuver. It can be used to run away from enemies, and in some cases it’s more useful than dodging, which causes you to slow down for a moment. That can prove to be disastrous in spots, particularly against a boss at the end of my demo who had a large area-of-effect attack that could seemingly only be avoided by running away. Sprinting is also useful for closing the gap between you and an enemy, but doing so drains stamina, so there’s a risk to sprinting into your attacks because doing so can leave you unable to avoid your enemies’.

There are other clear parallels to Dark Souls. You carry a limited number of potions that are used to restore your health, and these can be refilled at campfires you’ll find from time to time, for instance.

But there’s also plenty here aside from the camera angle to distinguish it from Dark Souls. Health potions can be refilled without a campfire by killing enemies. You can only attack left and right, even when using a bow, Golden Axe-style. Skills can be used to infuse your attacks with additional damage (and possibly other things). Upon death, a roulette spins to determines various effects that are cast on you; this might do something negative, like cause you to lose your item, or if you’ve died a number of times in a row, you might receive a buff.

Rather than accumulating experience points, you earn favor, which can be used to increase your level. Alternatively, you can choose to hold on to it for a more powerful boost than a standard level increase. This is particularly intriguing because players can make themselves extremely powerful if they’re willing to risk the possibility of dying and having to grind for more favor.

The most interesting differentiating element is the game’s Diablo-style loot. Enemies will drop weapons, armor, boots, rings, and so on that you’re able to equip. The weapons come in a number of varieties, and you’re able to choose the style that best suits you, be it a two-handed sword, a sword and shield, a sword-and-axe combo, or something else. While item drops were much less common during my session than in Diablo, it was satisfying to be rewarded with these kinds of tools for taking down enemies.

Eitr also impressed me with both its graphics and sound. This is a visually striking game, with a very dark, gorgeous pixel-art aesthetic that feels perfectly suited to this sort of experience. Combat moves are also wonderfully animated in a way that really stands out by being paired with the retro visuals.

In terms of music, there typically isn’t a lot–it’s very subtle most of the time, offering a creepy ambiance as you make your way through an area. When facing a boss, it really kicks in; the one I faced was accompanied by some intense music that inadvertently caused me to become too aggressive.

I walked away from my brief time with Eitr impressed. I do hope that the full game offers enough opportunities for exploration so that it doesn’t feel like you’re traveling down a linear path. Even without that, there are enough elements at work here–including those I didn’t get to see in-depth, like a skill tree and gems with different effects that can be equipped–that make Eitr look promising.

Kinect Is Not Dead, Microsoft Says

“We are absolutely continuing to support Kinect.”

Microsoft did not talk about its motion-sensing Xbox peripheral Kinect during the company’s E3 briefing this week or at all during the show itself. Some fans might be wondering how committed Microsoft is to the technology considering it didn’t take any time to talk about it at the year’s biggest gaming show.

But now, Xbox executive Aaron Greenberg has spoken out to assure fans that Kinect is here to stay.

“We are absolutely continuing to support Kinect,” Greenberg told GameSpot this week at E3.

He went on to say that Microsoft is “innovating with Kinect in a different way,” pointing out that there are features included with the new Xbox One user interface that will leverage Kinect. One of these is Cortana, Microsoft’s Siri-like digital assistant, that will be available on Xbox One sometime in the future.

“So we’re continuing to support Kinect where it makes sense,” Greenberg added.

When the Xbox One launched in November 2013, all Xbox One bundles came with Kinect. But this changed a year later, when Microsoft released a Kinect-free bundle and offered the camera as an optional add-on. Greenberg stressed that consumers having a choice is an important part of the overall Xbox One strategy.

“We really want Kinect to be a choice for customers. For me, I love it; I turn my Xbox One with Kinect; I use it for entertainment; I use it to do screenshots and all that,” he said. “I like to be able to have my hands on the controller and use voice commands. But, frankly, a lot of people also want a better value and don’t want to have to pay for it. So we’re not going to force people to do that. We give people the choice.”

You can watch our full interview with Greenberg below.

Those classic Atari games were harder than you think

The Atari 2600 console – the games looked simple, but they weren’t

The Atari 2600 console – the games looked simple, but they weren’t

So a computer program has learned how to play classic Atari games. Big deal. I mean, they’re just big blocks of pixels pushing smaller blocks of pixels around a screen, right?

Yet somehow, the UK artificial intelligence specialist Deep Mind, bought last year by Google for £240m, is extremely excited about the fact that it has developed an AI agent capable of learning how to play Space Invaders. I learned how to play Space Invaders in a cafe in Blackpool when I was six. But Google hasn’t acquired me. What’s going on?

The thing is, classic Atari games such as Space Invaders, Pong and Breakout were, despite their visual limitations, much more complex than our modern minds give them credit for. Indeed, many of these games set in place the fundamental mechanics that modern titles are still utilising – and they are deceptively deep, even for a Deep Mind AI gamer.

It turns out the Deep Mind program fared very well against titles that allowed it to learn systems through simple trial and error such as Video Pinball and Breakout. However, it failed spectacularly at games that required the participants to build a mental map of the level and develop long-term strategies, or that required the mastery of different skillsets, such as the more complex shooters Zaxxon and Gravitar.

However, learning to play and master any of these games is a significant feat, despite their chunky aesthetics. Here are four classic Atari titles and why they’re not quite as basic as they appear.

Pong

Designed by electrical engineer Al Alcorn and launched as an arcade machine in 1972, Atari’s legendary bat and ball simulation, is widely considered the most basic interactive electronic game possible. Indeed, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell once said to Alcorn: “I want to make a game that any drunk in any bar can play.”

But Pong is actually a very important early example of game physics – the ball reacting to surfaces in different ways. When it hits a wall, it simply rebounds at a mirror-opposite angle.

However, each of the bats is actually divided into eight sections, each providing a slighting different angle of return. Therefore players are able to develop strategies, planning the return gradient so that the opponent is unable to quickly guess where the ball will return to, leaving them stranded in the wrong part of the screen. Consequently, players – or indeed computer programs – with a knowledge of projectile displacement physics have a distinct advantage.

Breakout

Created as a single-player version of Pong, Atari’s wall-breaking classic was designed by Bushnell, with help from Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who would, of course, later go on to found Apple. Players simply use a bat at the bottom of the screen to knock a ball into rows of coloured bricks, smashing anything it hits. Once again, the bat has different impact zones that affect the angle of the bounce.

Extra depth comes from the fact that the ball speeds up when the player reaches the upper layers of the walls, and then the bat shrinks to half its size when the ball finally hits the top wall. This is an early example of gameplay balance, with a system that increases the level of challenge as the player begins to excel. The fiendishly compulsive “tidying up” format of the game would later become a staple of the puzzle genre (see Tetris).

Space Invaders

Originally devised by Tomohiro Nishikado, a designer at Japanese arcade company Taito, Space Invaders is – alongside Pac-Man – one of the best-known video games of all time. Players shoot at waves of aliens as they descend to Earth, occasionally blasting a UFO as it whizzes across the top of the display.

Seemingly simple, the game was one of the first to introduce a smooth difficulty curve, the invaders speeding up as they get closer. Incredibly, this was actually a bug: the archaic processor was able to handle the movement more efficiently when there were fewer objects on screen. But Nishikado kept it.

Alongside the cowboy shoot-’em-up Gun Fight, Space Invaders (which was later ported to the Atari 2600 console) also popularised the “cover” mechanic, providing a row of destructible barriers for the player to hide behind. It is a feature that would later be brought to more complex action adventures such as Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War.

Indeed, Hideo Kojima, the creator of the multimillion-selling Metal Gear Solid series credited Space Invaders with inventing the “stealth” game genre, as players could sneak from barrier to barrier evading the attention – and bullets – of the extraterrestrial enemies.

Asteroids

Created using monochrome “vector” graphics by Atari coders Ed Logg and Lyle Rains, Asteroids has players controlling a tiny ship as it blasts passing space rocks. Once again, however, the basic set-up hides a complex challenge. The ship itself is piloted using thrust and inertia, an intricate physics system, that adds a significant skill factor to the multi-directional movement.

The game also exhibits a clever difficulty curve: when larger asteroids are blasted they split up into faster moving rocks, considerably increasing the challenge. And it experiments with contrasting AI enemies. Two different flying saucers can appear on screen – a large one that fires inaccurately, and a smaller one that is much more deadly.

Released in 1979, Asteroids was a smash hit, selling more than 70,000 arcade machines. Players were so addicted to its merging of simple visuals with intense action that they began to work out and exploit its systemic features. A good Asteroids player knows that leaving a single slow moving rock on screen and using it as a barrier from which to blast saucers is the way to huge high scores. It’s a technique known as “lurking” and its one of the earliest example of players gaming the system for tactical advantage.

Playing Games Might Help AI Advance

A new company wants to build artificial intelligence through game play.

The “artificial intelligence” found in most computer games isn’t very intelligent at all. Characters in the games tend to be controlled by algorithms that produce patterns of behaviors designed to seem natural and realistic, but the characters are actually rigid, with no capacity to learn or adapt.

One company hopes to come up with something a lot smarter by providing a platform that lets software learn how to behave within a game, whether in response to basic stimuli or to more complex situations. The hope is that this kind of learning will eventually allow complex behavior to emerge in game characters—and make for better AI in a range of applications.

Keen Software, based in the Czech Republic and the U.K., makes several “sandbox” games in which players can construct complex virtual structures and machines using realistic materials and physics. This July, the company spun out a business called GoodAI that aims to develop sophisticated AI using machine learning. Marek Rosa, Keen’s CEO, invested $10 million of his own money in the new company.

GoodAI has released open-source software called Brain Simulator that can be used to train a series of artificial neural networks in how to respond to stimuli from a game environment. Through trial and error, these networks can learn how to play a simple game. And several networks can be chained together to create more complex behavior, making it possible for software to learn how to achieve an objective that may require numerous steps.

The company’s researchers have shown that Brain Simulator can be used to train software to play some simple two-dimensional games. These include Breakout, in which a player bounces a ball off a wall of bricks (which disappear once hit), and a maze game that requires completing a series of different tasks.

The virtual character in the maze game “will start to do some random actions, and will be observing how he is changing the environment, or how it’s changing him,” Rosa says. “While he’s changing the environment, he’s learning all these associations and these patterns.”

Learning associations and patterns happens to be a key goal for AI in general, which is why Rosa hopes to eventually develop forms of artificial intelligence with broad utility beyond games. That’s reminiscent of the approach taken by an AI startup called DeepMind that Google bought last year (see “Google’s AI Masters Space Invaders”).DeepMind is using customized machine-learning approaches to teach software to play various simple games.

AI researchers have long used game play as a way to test artificial-intelligence software, says Roman Yampolskiy, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville. “From checkers to chess to poker and go, some of the greatest accomplishments in AI research have been demonstrated around the game board,” he says. What’s interesting about the approach GoodAI and DeepMind are taking is their computers are not given prior understanding of a game’s rules, he says.

However, it’s still not clear whether the strategy will be useful beyond games. Yampolskiy, who has looked at GoodAI’s software, says that while it is a worthwhile contribution to the field, it may be very hard to use as the basis for a more general-purpose AI.

New trailer introduces the historical figures of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

Last month we got a look at the gang of seven nogoodniks who will cause the Brotherhood of Assassins so much trouble during the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Today it’s time to learn about the guys on the other side, which is to say your side: Six of the greatest minds of the Victorian Era, who don’t seem to have any problem at all with dedicating their energies and efforts to support a group whose raison d’être is doing relentless, but quiet, murders.

It’s a pretty heavy lineup, and unlike the bad guy roster, each of these characters is a real historical figure—although probably not historically accurate. There’s Alexander Graham Bell, whose greatest invention is apparently not the telephone but a wide-range stun bomb and what appears to be some kind of ray gun; Karl Marx, the revolutionary socialist; the naturalist and evolutionist Charles Darwin; novelist Charles Dickens; Florence Nightingale, who modernized the concept of nursing; and of course Queen Victoria, for whom the Victorian Era is named.

I still haven’t quite got a grip on how the Assassin Brotherhood went from being a shadowy clan of… well, assassins, to an in-the-open gang of freedom fighters. I’m not sure what good Darwin’s complaints of, “Oh, they’re saying nasty things about me” does for the cause, either. In fact, when you get right down to it, the leaders of the bad guys seem like the sort of folks who get things done; the ones on your team look a lot more like they hope someone else will step up to the plate.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate comes out on November 19.

Nvidia releases driver for MGS5 and Mad Max

Nvidia releases driver for MGS5 and Mad Max:MGS V Phantom Pain 4K

Nvidia releases driver for MGS5 and Mad Max:MGS V Phantom Pain 4K

Happy Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain day! Or maybe you’re playing Mad Max? Either way, Nvidia has a driver for you. Sexily named the GeForce Game Ready 355.82 WHQL Mad Max and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain drivers, you can download through GeForce Experience or on the GeForce site.

Apparently, you’ll get “Game Ready optimizations, a NVIDIA Control Panel Ambient Occlusion profile, and a SLI profile”. That SLI profile will let you play at 4K and 5K resolutions, and if you want to see what that looks like there’s a trailer here from NVIDIA:

 



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Related topics such as image processing, machine vision, virtual reality, machine learning, data mining, and monitoring systems are my research interests, and I intend to pursue a PhD in one of these fields.

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