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27Oct/13Off

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft beta review

Initially I wanted to review Hearthstone the same boring way as I usually do. Instead, I will take you on a guided tour, so you can see for yourself. Ready? Let's go!

Hearthstone loginOnce you've crossed that door, there is no coming back: the game is great and won't let you go easily! The main menu is rather simplistic:

main-screen

 

The top window starts different game modes (Play against a random battle.net opponent, Practice against AI or enter The Arena). Just below the window there is a row of icons. Store allows you to spend in game gold (or RL money) to buy booster packs, Quests, that will pay you gold for completing them, booster opening table - this is where you go after you've got some boosters. The last button is your collection window, which allows you to browse through all your cards. Of course this is where you make custom decks as well. But we will get to that. Let's start a game, shall we?

If you don't like your starting hand, you can choose any of the cards to be mulliganned.

starting-handOnce you've accepted the starting hand, the game will start. Starting player is randomly chosen by "The Coin". Coin becomes a single use source of 1 mana and is given to the second player (as a compenstation for not starting the game).

game-1

As you can see, the game is VERY simple. Each player has a hero, one of 9 available classes (yes, these are the same classes that are in World of Warcraft). In the center there is a battle zone. There is no grid or rows, which gives players a lot of freedom. To summon minions or play spells player needs mana. Each turn player is granted one mana crystal (up to ten), and all already existing crystals are recharged. This means you will not be starved for resources as you would in Magic, when you can't get enough lands. As you've noticed, the playing board has some decorations - and you've guessed it, they contain some easter eggs. Click around and you shall find them 😉

Let's have a closer look at the cards:

game-3In the top left corner there is the card mana cost. You need at least this much charged mana crystals to play that card. In the middle there is rules or abilities. Don't worry, there is only a few of them to remember. Bottom right corner shows the attack strength: this is how much damage can this minion cause to enemy hero or his minions. The bottom right corner shows how much health that minion has. It can only take as much damage, and afterwards it will be destroyed. It's also worth noting that minions don't regenerate at the end of turn like they would in Magic for example. It's not possible to block incoming attacks like in other CCGs, unless a minon has Taunt. If any minion has Taunt ability, it must be attacked first. Otherwise players can freely choose the target for their minions, be it enemy hero or his creatures.

Different Hero classes are unlocked by defeating them in Practice mode against AI.

After each match, Hero is granted some experience points. Leveling your hero grants some rewards (that means new cards):

rewardsSpeaking of new cards, there are two more ways to get them. As I've already mentioned, it's possible to buy boosters for in-game currency or for real money from the in-game shop.

buy-cardsOnce you've got  some boosters, it's time to open them and see the goodies inside. Each booster contains 5 cards, one of which is guaranteed to be a rare. Once opened, the cards will go to your collection:

open-pack

cards

 

This is also the place where decks are built. A deck in Hearthstone has 30 cards. It's worth noting, that each card can be used in multiple decks, but identical cards are limited to only two per deck. What happens if you have more than two? You can disechant them! Hearthstone has a crafting system thatallows you to disenchant cards that you don't need (or have more than two copies of), and create new cards that you'd like for your deck. Disenchatning cards grants you a resource - Arcane Dust - that will be used to create new cards. The better the card you'd like to create, the more Dust it costs.

craftingAs you can see, Hearthstone is one of the CCGs that are very easy to learn, and give players a lot of freedom. This also means they are inherently hard to master, because there instead of concentrating on the rules you have to focus on strategy. The game has beautiful artwork and is very well designed (but this is typical for Blizzard). It is certainly worth a try, especially that the final version is supposed to be free to play (and will be released for iPad as well).

13Apr/13Off

Hard drive failure. Bonus: how to repair a bricked Seagate drive

Seagate ST3500320AS

What the... ?

Last sunday I got hit by an unexpected hard drive failure (are hard drive failures ever expected?). Good thing is I had most of the data backed up. The worst part is, it was the system drive, so the PC was effectively shut down.

The drive is a Seagate Barracuda 7200.11, also known as ST3500320AS. I have been using the PC normally the day before, I have even managed to take some screenshots of the new V3 Capital Ship shaders on EVE test server. The disk was working as it has been for the past 4 years: smooth and silent. Unfortunately, the next day my gaming rig greeted me with

"NON SYSTEM DISK OR DISK ERROR

Not good. I have rebooted this time closely watching the BIOS messages:

SATA Port P0: Port reset error!

Okay, so the BIOS can't access the disk. It must be the cabling! I have opened the case and carefully pushed all the plugs on all hard disks and dvd-rom drive.

No go. Still the same error.

Okay, let's switch the cables. I have plugged the affected disk to a different port on the motherboard. Error message changed a little bit:

SATA Port P3: Port reset error!

Right, the disk has failed. Damn! Let's see what uncle Google has to say about this. I entered the disk model number... and... surprise! It's a known firmware bug.

What happened?

The disk I have is running firmware version SD15. As it turns out, Seagate had a "black series" of 7200.11 Barracudas, which had a firmware bug. The bug usually surfaced much earlier for other owners of the disk (one month up to a few months max). Mine worked for four years, but it eventually got hit by the bug as well.

It is worth noting that these Seagate drives store most of their internal calibration and configuration data on the platters, rather than in NVRAM, so replacing the PCB (which was my immediate idea) wouldn't work. It seems that the bug is somehow related to this service data: when the drive is powered, it conducts some tests and then attempts to read the configuration information. And it hangs. Hence the bug is also known as "stuck in BSY" or simply BUSY bug.

But can it be fixed?

ST3500320AS connected to a diagnostic cableThe answer is yes, it can be fixed. You will need a special serial console cable (Nokia CA-42 cable can be adapted for this purpose), which will allow running diagnostic commands on the drive itself. An external USB-to-SATA interface with own power supply will be handy as well. You also need a Torx T-6 size screwdriver, because you will need to separate the PCB from the drive for a while.

The detailed instruction is here: Fixing a Seagate 7200.11 drive.

As expected, the drive hangs with an error message shortly after it spins up. Of course the console is inaccesible.

LED:000000CC FAddr:0024A051

Untitled-1

but after running all the commands in the solution I linked above, all is fine:

Untitled-2 Untitled-3 Untitled-4 Untitled-5

 

The disk has been put back into the PC and is working just like before, with all the data intact.

Do you still trust Seagate?

Seagate ST3290A, still in working order

Yes I still do. I have many reasons to do that. First of all, I had many hard drives of different vendors, and they all break down roughly the same. Each of those vendors had some "black series" of drives which broke down more often than others. I also do realize that every hard drive will give up eventually. That's why you can expect hard drives in server disk arrays to fail. That's why they are so easy to replace. That's what RAID disk arrays are for. Hard disks are a sort of long life consumables.

But the most important reason is a nearly 20 year old hard drive from my first PC. Guess what? It is still in working order. Although the capacity is orders of magnitude less than the current hard drives, and it is extremely slow and rather noisy, it still works. I need no further proofs that Seagate makes decent hard drives 😉

22Feb/13Off

Why it’s wise to heed warnings in user manuals

I've been reading through a manual for an IBM DS 3400 Disk Array, and found a pronounced warning:

never_look_into_fiber

Many people don't read manuals at all (claiming it's a waste of time). Even those who do, often don't treat warnings seriously. The one above is however quite serious. During my SAN training I was told to never look into an operating fiber link. Why? It's simple. A long-wave fiber interface (which means it's both for long distance and uses long wavelength) emits an invisible, but nevertheless powerful laser beam. Why it's invisible? Because the wavelength is in deep infrared 1310-1550nm. Cheap cameras, which don't have an IR filter (for example mobile phone cameras) can easily detect such IR radiation. This turns mobile phones into cheap, portable devices to check if there is signal on the fiber:

IMG_0782 IMG_0047

17Feb/13Off

Changes: theme facelift and more

Torchwood Archives isn't dead - actually far from it. Being involved in a couple of projects has a side effect of not having enough time to write new posts 🙁 . As most of said projects are closer to finish now, the lack of time thing is bound to change soon. First off, I've given my theme a much-needed facelift, namely a new background (chosen out of over a hundred screenshots) and some CSS shadow under the content frame. Additionally, background is now scaled to fit the browser resolution (CSS 3 background-size: contain)

Here you can see, how the site used to look like before, and what other backgrounds I have tested before finally settling with the one you can see on Torchwood's front page now:

This is how it used to look like First Second
Third
Fourth Fifth
The images used as backgrounds can be great EVE themed wallpapers, so I'm posting them here.

I am also testing a script, which can load specific backgrounds for specific pages, but it isn't quite ready yet. I am also thinking about changing the front page. While the news list looks like a typical blog should, modern sites use multiple columns layout, short news excerpts, and featured sliders.

Fear not, the most important thing - new content - is also coming this way.

Stay tuned!

- Lukas

9Jan/13Off

Resistance is futile. Prepare for enlightenment.

ingress-enlightened-mashupA sound woke me up. My room was dark, except for a dim light near the desk. I got up, rubbing sleep out of my eyes. "Who the hell is texting me in the middle of the night?!" I thought to myself.
But it was not a text message. The whole screen was dark, except for a few blue letters:

"ADA: I need your help" - the letters said.

"Who the hell is ADA?" I thought.

I've picked the phone, and when I did, another line appeared:

"ADA: A failed CERN experiment introduced Exotic Matter to the world, and we have a reason to believe XM is sentient"

"What the... I have probably spent too much time playing games last night"

"ADA: Your phone will be modified to a scanner device able to detect XM, and will allow manipulating it"

"ADA: We need your help in protecting humanity from the XM ingress"

Then the phone flickered briefly and went off for a moment. When it came back on, the screen was green and a bit fuzzy.

"Jarvis: Don't listen to that brainless machine. If the XM were to harm humanity, everyone would already be dead. XM will bring powerful enlightenment to our race. Join me, and I will show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

***

I woke up the next morning thinking  about the weird dream I had. I've picked my phone to see what time is it. Something was very wrong. A tiny icon, which should not be there, sent shivers down my spine. So it was not a dream.

***

I am an agent now, fighting for the enlightenment of the humankind. Soon after that night I've been contacted by another agent, who helped me capture my first portals.

What is Ingress?

Ingress is a location based MMO game by Google's Niantic Labs. The game map is basically overlaid upon the real world. Game mechanic is centeread around portals: two factions vie for control of portals, which are usually connected to real world places like sculptures or buildings of interesting architecture. Players have to harvest a resource known as exotic matter, which is seeping to our reality through the portals (but can be found nearly everywhere). You can use XM to hack and capture portals for your faction. Hacking gives you random items, which can later be used to gain control and hold portals, or to attack portals captured by the enemy faction.

Sounds simple?

But it's getting more complicated when you dig deeper in. Players can only interact with objects inside their "action zone" which extends 50m in every direction from the player's device. Most actions grant experience, which in Ingress is called "action points" (AP). You can only use items of the same level you're currently at. The level is currently capped at 8, but fear not; getting there takes quite an amount of time.

Artwork: Palace of Science and Culture, WarsawTo capture a portal, one must deploy a resonator next to it. Each portal can have up to eight of them, and the portal level depends on the level of resonators used to capture it. Resonators can hold some XM charge, which dissipates slowly (about 10% a day). The charge is also drained by attacks from enemy faction. To attack a portal, player has to discharge an XMP (exotic matter pulse), which drains XM from the resonators. When all resonators run out of XM, the portal becomes neutral and is ready for capture. To prevent capture, you can equip the portal with portal shields, which make it harder for XMP to drain your resonators.

The last step is to link portals together. Two portals create a link, and three links (a triangle) create a control field. Control fields grant each faction points called mind units. The faction with highest MU is the one winning the struggle. To link portals you need portal keys, which randomly drop from portals when you hack them.

Users can also submit new portal locations - one can do so by sharing a geo-tagged photo to NIA Super Ops directly from Android "Camera" app. Details about submitting portals can be found on Ingress support page. It is also possible to simply send the photo by mail to super-ops@google.com. Remember to put the proposed portal name in mail subject field.

The first impressions

The idea is great. And it plays great. You have to actually move your three-letter-body-part around, and unless you're living on top of a portal, you can't play it at home. It's like "geocaching on steroids". After 3 days of playing I have learned of several places I have never knew to exist. Since the game locations are based upon real world sculptures and buildings with interesting architecture, the game presents a great opportunity for sightseeing. The conspiracy theory behind the game storyline, which slowly unveils at www.nianticproject.com is also what makes it interesting. Surprisingly, even though the game mechanic is pretty simple, it is very immersive.

It has also potential to go bad at some point. So far the game is invitation based and the playerbase is pretty limited, but when the game opens, I can imagine players, who will break the Google EULA and might eventually try to use the geolocation data to stalk and chase away enemy faction players IRL (or simply physically guard their portal). The gameplay of Ingress is emergent, and the potential for metagaming is there. So far I've noticed that people from both sides are rather friendly to each other (but not necessarily to each other portals ;-)). I'm quite sure one will stumble upon other players now and then, especially around areas with high concentration of portals.

Google has created a considerable amount of IP (see www.nianticproject.com), but it is a bit surprising that there is no reference to that content from the app itself. As such, the game feels a bit disconnected from the storyline.

Ingress is for Android only at this time (iOS version is said to follow in Q1 2013), and unfortunately for me, my Android phone (Samsung Galaxy Ace) is pretty old and can barely handle the game. Small screen causes the UI elements overlap, which makes it hard to play. Slow, single core CPU on the other hand makes the game slow and jerky. Ideal smartphone for playing Ingress should:

  • run Android 2.3 or higher
  • have at least 800 x 480 resolution (or more)
  • have a fast OpenGL ES2 capable GPU
  • have dual core CPU
  • have good 3,5G/LTE coverage where you play

Other players in my faction report that Ingress works very well on Samsung Galaxy Note & Note 2, but also on a Nexus 7 tablet. No one plays on HTC, but I'm pretty sure both HTC One S and One X should run the game well. Of course once the game enters Apple AppStore, I won't have any problem running it on either of my iOS devices. Until then... I think I have to get a better Android phone 😉

Oh, by the way, below you can see a screenshot of Ingress Intel page, which displays portals, their location and faction they belong to, all layered upon the map of Warsaw.

ingress-intel

Already have an invitation and don't know how to start? Want to know more? Ingress Field Guide is the place to go.

16Jul/12Off

Galaxy on Fire II – Supernova (coming soon)

A company known as Fishlabs has recently been busy developing yet another expansion for the critacally acclaimed game, Galaxy on Fire II (it's the closest game to EVE Online available for iOS and Android).

Galaxy on Fire II is a space-themed dogfight game and is one of the best in its genre for iOS, Mac and for Android as well. The storyline of this new installment takes place immediately after the previous expansion named Valkyrie, where our protagonist, Keith T. Maxwell has banished the evil Alice into the Void realm, with the help of several new weapons and got his own space station on the way.

The story of Supernova expansion begins with an insterstellar disaster in the Midorian sector, forcing Mido out of their space and creating new ground for a conflict with Nivelians. Mido decide to ask Maxwell to become an emissary of peace to the Nivellians to negotiate treaty and aid. Despite his valiant efforts, the situation only gets worse. Slowly Keith realizes there must be a new, hidden enemy, who tries to make matters even worse.

According to the press information, the Supernova expansion will bring about 10 hours of action, and knowing Fishlabs, this will be quality entertainment. Players can expect new missions and loads of new content such as space ships, star systems, blueprints, weapons and commodities.

Fishlabs seems to follow the example of other great game manufacturers such as CCP or Blizzard, publishing a dev-blog every two weeks, to keep the playerbase informed of the progress. Developers have announced that the game will be available for iOS in HD in third quarter of 2012.

Let's dig deeper

The expansions brings several new ships, namely a heavy battleship "Bloodstar", which according to galaxyonfire wikia sports 180 cargo space, 1 turret, 4 primary weapons, and 4 secondary weapons. There is limited information regarding other ships, apart from their names (and looks - Fishlabs has published several screenshots).

  • The new ships:
    • Gryphon
    • Rhino
    • Bloodstar
    • Amboss
    • Gator Custom
    • Blue Fyre
    • Ghost fighter

      

  • New modules:
    • Gamma shield - to withstand the gamma radiation after the supernova explosion
    • Repair laser (Large Remote Repairer I anyone?)
    • Leech beam (another mod from EVE: Nosferatu!)

  

  • New primary weapons:
    • Heavy Ordinance Turrets - turrets with heavily improved damage
    • Sentry Turrets - similar to sentry drones in EVE. Launch them and allow them to shoot your enemies.
    • Matador TS - new, manually controlled turret
    • M6 A4 "Raccoon" - improved version of the M6 series
    • Mass Driver MD 12 - improved version of the MD series
  • New secondary weapons:
    • Cluster missiles
  • Improvements to mining
    • Gas harvesting: fire a ionization missile into a gas cloud, then harvest it with a plasma harvester

 According to rumors, the expansion will become available on 31st of August, 2012.