james debate
james debate

Sunday 24 May 2015

Developed by Squad
Published by Squad
Genre Space flight simulator
Platform OS X, PC, Linux

kerbal space program videogame review 1.0 steam early access

We can cut to the chase here, as Kerbal Space Program is a game that we have discussed at length previously on this blog. Making our Hot List for two years running, KSP has become the poster boy for the new wave of indie, crowdfunded games. Originating as the passion project for one lone coder, it has ballooned into one of the most talked about projects in gaming, attracting news coverage and publicity from the likes of NASA and Elon Musk. It's been a long time coming, but now 1.0, the final release, is ready.

In our view, KSP has been best described by the developers themselves in a recent Reddit IAMA as "Lego rockets with realistic physics crewed by fearless, hyperenthusiastic green people. Explosions everywhere and we'll sneakily teach you orbital mechanics to boot."

This one-liner really gets to the core of the game. You build spaceships, everything from classic golden age Apollo style rockets to sleek Space Shuttles and massive interplanetary craft. You build it using ingenious and intuitive modular design tools out of a huge variety of smaller components, which allows for massive customization and unique designs. Then you fly these spacecraft, first on Earth, then into orbit, then to the moon and distant planets and beyond. Once you're out there you will find a huge range of activities, spacewalks, landing on planets, building rovers, taking samples and scientific readings, even mining asteroids.

Beyond this you can simply be creative, landing and docking multiple spaceships on planets to form colonies, space stations. As cheesy as it is to say, the tools are so versatile and detailed that the gameplay really is only limited by the player's own imagination.

The main aim in career mode is simple, you conduct missions to accumulate science, which you spend to unlock more parts and build better rockets. To do all this you need money, which you can earn through contract missions.

But really this career mode is just window dressing, something to make this game into an actual game rather than what it really is, one of the best physics sandboxes ever developed. You quickly learn that flying to another planet is not as simple as point in the direction and fire rockets, in order to navigate in this game you will have to learn some basic orbital mechanics. It seems daunting at first, but the game does a surprisingly able job of making it seem fairly intuitive, displaying your trajectory and giving you simple guidelines for how to manipulate it in order to transfer to the orbit of your target object.

It's remarkable just how fun mastering these techniques can be, and it's especially amazing considering how much variety and freedom the player has in designing his spacecraft that the physics works so well. For those who played the early alpha and beta iterations it's remarkable to see how tight the gameplay has become.

The difficulty curve has also been impressively fine tuned. It's still complex enough that every milestone feels like a real accomplishment, but not so much that it ever becomes frustrating or overwhelming.

And then there is the style of the game. It would be easy for a spaceship building game with realistic physics to be a bit dry, a bit technical, and a bit niche. The developer has quite impressively combined these elements with a decidedly cartoonish, lighter tone.

Your astronauts are adorably enthusiastic Kerbals, and they come with two attributes: bravery and stupidity. There's something very endearing about the way your Kerbals can smash a rocket into a mountain, then jump out and gleefully plant a flag looking pleased as punch with himself. The humor is light enough to prevent the game becoming too cold and calculating, without going too far.

Kerbal Space Program is a fantastic achievement, a wonderful physics sandbox wrapped up in a competent business management shell. It's a triumph for such a small development team to produce such a tight and enjoyable product, and the greatest vindication we have yet seen that the crowdfunding early-access model can really work.

Sunday 3 May 2015

The Ephemeric is having a highly political week as it turns out. Fresh from our very early preview of the 2016 US Presidential elections, now we turn our attentions to a eleventh hour final preview of next week's UK General election. In one week we will have a new Government. 650 seats, 326 to hold a majority, who will it be?

uk general election 2015 preview predictions

The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition swept into power 5 years ago on the back of a hugely anti-incumbent political climate in post-recession Britain. Far from a common occurrence, this was the first coalition Government since the second World War, and yet here are, going into another election where a coalition seems certainty. What is going on?

The Parties

Once upon a time, the UK had a political system that looked a lot like America's. Basically a two-party system, the left-wing Labour and right wing Conservative parties dominating the vote between them, as much as 90% shared between the two. As we have seen in America, this is not always a good thing.

Massive political parties voting in unison, the opposition often with no recourse but to simply obstruct everything. Politics like this becomes less about personal representation and almost entirely about competition. Pick the party you're closest to and then hope they come up with some laws you like. When one party tries to appeal to everyone, it often ends up appealing to no one.

Thus the UK gradually became a multi-party system. Parties to cater all along the left-right spectrum, parties to cater to specific policy focuses, or specific regions. It's a system that has its good side and its bad side, allowing more personal representation and forcing parties to work together, but arguably undermining the stability of a good strong majority. 

However you feel about it, the multi-party system also makes the results of an election far less certain in the days and weeks leading up to it. The make up of the next Government, and even the Prime Minister, is much harder to predict than in an American election.

Here are the main contenders:

Conservative PartyLeader: David Cameron

The Conservatives are, surprisingly enough, the main conservative ideology party in the UK. But don't make the mistake of equating UK conservatives to those in America, these Conservatives have a lot more in common with Barack Obama's left-wing Democrats than with the Republican party. You'll see nary a mention of evolution or religion in the party manifesto, and green energy/global warming has become one of the party's main campaign pillars. The focus is strongly on economic issues; spending cuts, tax policy, and libertarian policy. Think Mitt Romney, not Rick Santorum.

For the past 5 years the Conservatives have been the major party of the current coalition Government, having been in the wilderness before that since the early 1990s. During that time the economy has recovered, with unemployment low. The Prime Minister also gets high marks for his leadership on foreign issues, and in pushing climate change negotiations. On the whole there is much for the current Government to be proud of, so an easy re-election surely? Absolutely not. While many of the causes of 2010's political angst have been remedied, there still remains a strong anti-incumbent sentiment.

The Conservatives have something of an image problem. They are painted as the cold, unfeeling, wealthy elites, who are more concerned with bolstering their balance sheets than getting children off the streets. This is (somewhat unfairly) made worse by the presence of many public school "old boys" within the ranks of party leadership. Opponents like to use this to paint a picture of de facto hereditary rule of the elites, when really it is only logical that those with the best education are more likely to rise to positions of power. Never mind the fact that left-wing parties are also stocked full of wealthy public school boys.

The main problem is that while the economy is strong, real wages are only just starting to pick up. This has been exacerbated by the Government's deep cuts, which have really hit some of the most vulnerable people in the country. So the recession may be over, but an awful lot of people have yet to feel it. The problem with too much trickle-down policy is that there is a lot more down than up, and while those at the top have been drenched in recent years the masses haven't felt so much as a drop.

So what is the prognosis? The Conservatives will feel the brunt of voters' frustrations, and lose a lot of seats. It seems almost certain that they will win more seats than any other party, but not enough to form a majority Government. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats show no interesting in continuing their partnership, leaving the question open: who could the Conservatives partner with to form a Government?

The bad news for Conservatives is that it is hard to think of anyone; the biggest parties this year look to be left-leaning. The other right-wing parties UKIP and DUP won't have anywhere near enough seats to form a coalition. This could be the end of the line for Cameron.

Labour PartyLeader: Ed Miliband

The UK's left-wing party. But again, don't try to compare them to their American counterparts the Democrats, who arguably have more in common with the Conservatives than Labour. Shut your ears American conservatives, because the Labour party is an actual socialist party.

The word "socialist" is tricky because it has practically no meaning in common use anymore. Fox News and the like have managed to turn it into such a dirty word that it really signifies nothing other than a pejorative. Meanwhile in the real world it's a fairly common political ideology, which in very basic terms stands for the spreading of ownership from the wealthy to the community as a whole. In practical terms this means a reassignment of assets from those who have much to those who have little. As you can imagine, their power base lies with the working class, and the unions.

As gentrification of the UK continues apace, personal wealth on average increases, and public opinion turns increasingly negative against the unions. This has led to the Labour party moving increasingly to the centre over the past 15 years, but still this image has stuck. Given the main themes of this election that we have discussed, it is hardly surprising to see voters flocking back to such a party.

But this image is a burden as much as anything, with plenty of otherwise left-wing voters put off by the socialist aspects of the party. In 2010 a large reason behind the Labour defeat was voters jumping to the more moderate Liberal Democrats.

Another big issue for Labour is leader Ed Miliband, who is generally unpopular and seen as a very poor leader. A lot of this is due to his demeanour and lack of charisma, but honestly he brings it on himself when he does things like this. He's a bit of an idiot. Many will tell you that the scariest part of a Labour Government is Ed as Prime Minister.

Ultimately the question is, can they bring back the liberal voters into the fold? Certainly not enough for a majority, probably not enough for a plurality, but possibly enough to form a coalition. The Liberal Democrats probably wouldn't mind staying in power, while the Scottish National Party seem like obvious partners.

Liberal DemocratsLeader: Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are like a Hollywood cautionary tale, they had it all and then they lost it all. 2010 was the perfect storm of anti-incumbent fervor, particularly among left-wing voters, and emergence of charismatic leader Nick Clegg. Their ideological centrism played well, surging to an impressive 20% of the vote, which promptly earned them a place in the Government, and Clegg a spot as Deputy Prime Minister.

Forming a Government with the Conservatives has turned out to be a very very bad move for the party. The Liberal Democrats may have found themselves in power temporarily, but with a relatively small number of seats were unable to press much of their own will on policy, whilst remaining saddled with the burden of negative opinion held against the Government. In particular, partnering with the Conservative party will have driven many left-wing voters away.

Now from these highs, the Lib Dems are looking at a big wipe out, and could lose as many as half of their seats. Leader Nick Clegg, once the darling of British politics and now one of the most disliked politicians in the country, may even lose his seat.

The one silver lining for the Lib Dems is that they may still play a big role in who forms the eventual Government. Down, but not out.

UK Independence PartyLeader: Nigel Farage

Meanwhile on the other side of the Conservative party we have UKIP, and their leader Nigel Farage. This is the far right party. To call them Euro-skeptic doesn't begin to cover it, they want out of the EU, and they want a total end to immigration. More pertinent is the party's association with racism, homophobia and other highly socially conservative stances. UKIP are one of the most hated of the mainstream parties.

And yet, UKIP won the 2014 EU Parliament elections. It seems incredible to think that this party who look set to win no more than a couple of seats could have actually won an election just a year ago. The first nationwide election in 100 years not to be won by other Labour or Conservative parties. 

So what's happening this year? Well it's mostly the whole racism thing. UKIP opinion has eroded massively in 12 months thanks to a stream of very bad publicity. Probably an irrelevance in this election.

Green PartyLeader: Natalie Bennett

The Green party is always interesting to watch. Surprisingly popular among young people, the Greens often look set to break out, but then never do. It's true, young people don't vote, but more than that is that the Green policy is really quite extreme.

People think Green and they inevitably think about environment, which is fairly popular. What people don't think about is a party that is obsessively anti-business, that wants to ban animal testing and bring medical research to a halt, that takes anti-sexism into bizarre, reverse-sexism places.

Their manifesto is ill thought-out, un-nuanced rhetoric intended simply to appeal to naive left-wing kids.

Scottish National PartyLeader: Nicola Sturgeon

It is fast becoming clear that no matter who wins or loses in this election, SNP will win. Following last year's independence referendum, Scottish Nationalism is at an all time high (or since the days of William Wallace anyway), and SNP look set to capitalise on that big time. 

Some strong performances in the debates, a electorate pleasing liberal platform, and of course Scottish nationalism. SNP look set to sweep the entirety of Scotland and replace the Lib Dems as the third biggest party in the UK.

So what does this mean in practice? Clearly SNP will never win a majority. For one thing they don't run for elections outside of Scotland. What they can do is grab the third largest number of seats, which makes them the key bargaining chip in the formation of a new Government. Whatever coalition forms, there's a good chance that SNP will be in it.

Plaid CymruLeader: Leanne Wood

A bit like SNP, except where it says "Scotland", read "Wales". And when it says "will win", read "won't win".

Plaid Cymru are the Welsh party, they're popular in Wales. They do Welsh stuff. They'll win seats there, but nowhere else. Probably end up with 3 or 4 seats.

Sinn FeinLeader: Gerry Adams

One side of the Irish political coin. Sinn Fein are a Republican party, that is they support Irish independence. Famously associated with the IRA terrorist organisation, they are nevertheless fairly popular in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Yet they never hold many seats, and fewer than their unionist Irish opposition.

Democratic Unionist PartyLeader: Peter Robinson

The other side. DUP are Unionist, and they don't much like Sinn Fein. They're less popular than Sinn Fein, although they do hold more seats than them. 

Interesting with the DUP is that they look set to become the fifth biggest party in the UK by seats, which makes them a potential participant in a coalition party, and one of the few potential partners for the Conservative party. This would be a somewhat controversial move with  DUP known for being an intensely conservative party, thought of as a homophobic, anti-minority, anti-women party, but a desperate enough Conservative party may have little choice.

So who will be our next Prime Minister? Well that's a tough question. At the moment the odds seem to favour Ed Miliband, who might well end up with fewer seats, but has an easier path to a coalition than Cameron. It's one of the hardest to call elections in a long time. One thing we do know for certain, whatever happens it will be a strange one.

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