Friday, September 30, 2011

Back home!

Since the launch of GRAIL I haven't had that much time to play games.  I have been home in Colorado now for a week.  There are lots of changes to work through now, with a new job, new boss, new co-workers...  I am happy to finally be home.  Now will be the time to get back into a routine again and get used to life as usual. 

Just a brief note on games...  I have been playing Borderlands with my girlfriend, and I have been working on a post to cover what has been accomplished so far in it.  I am still sitting at the vampire in the graveyard in Pool of Radiance, unable to push past.  I will revisit it this weekend and try a few new strategies.  I have also been spending a little time playing the second expansion of Medal of Honor called Breakthrough.  I will make a post about it as well very soon.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

GRAIL Launch!

I know its been a while since my last entry.  I've been putting off this blog list trying to come up with what to say about the culmination of over 2 years of work.  There really isn't any words to describe how it feels to have been a part of this.  Building and testing a half billion dollar pair of machines that are, as we speak, on their way to the moon.

I do have to say, as I was taking my girlfriend back to the airport on Monday morning, looking up at the moon brought a real feeling of accomplishment.  Something I made, a piece of me and of those who helped and sacrificed with me, is gone from this world forever. 

Well, on to some pictures and a description of what it really is.

GRAIL stands for Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory.  It is a pair of nearly identical spacecraft that will travel to the moon and measure small changes in the gravity of the moon to help map the surface and the interior of the moon.  I can sit here and repeat everything that has been written about GRAIL, but I won't do that.  Instead I'll post some links to videos and websites that have done the job much more thoroughly than I. 

GRAIL Mission Episode 1: Why a Gravity Map of the Moon [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 2: How to Get a Hi-Res Gravity Map of the Moon [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 3: How We Get to the Moon [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 4: How to Make it Happen [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 5: Testing the Team [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 6: Commanding the Spacecraft [720p]

GRAIL Mission Episode 7: High Heritage Builds High Confidence [720p]

These videos describe the program very well.

Launch #2 (view from the beach):

Spacecraft Separation:

This set of videos is from launch day of course. GRAIL launched on the third morning after its window opened. The first day was scrubbed due to 'excessive high level winds'. The second day was cancelled to work on a heater problem. The third was almost scrubbed again for the high level winds but did take off on the second launch time of the day.

Here is a link to view photos taken throughout the programs development. This is on the NASA website, and is hard to find if someone doesn't point you in the right direction.

GRAIL photos are located under the Expendable Launch Vehicles list, also along with a lot of other various programs throughout NASA's history. A great place to look at photos.

And now, a few of my own photos.

Unfortunately, my camera broke the day of the launch.  I got a few photos of us standing around on the pier at Jetty Park, but the ones of the launch itself are not viewable.  Time to get a new one, and definitely time to get a much better one. 

Now this week, we have been packing up our stuff to go back to Colorado.  I'm excited to finally go home after nearly 5 months down here.  It has been a great experience, and I am hopeful that I will be back down here for another launch campaign in the near future.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pool of Radiance - Finishing up the Wilderness Quests

This post is going to cover a lot of ground.  It'll cover my trip up the Stojanow River to the Sorcerer's Island, The Lizardman Keep, The Buccaneer's Camp, and Zhentil Outpost.  Many of these areas had alternate methods of clearing them that doesn't include killing every creature on the map.  This is really the first time in the game there is an opportunity to role-play a little. 

I traveled up the river banks from the city.  The river was polluted and had turned the area around the river into a nasty, poisonous marsh.  I traveled further north to a lake.  In the center of this lake was a pyramid with a black sludge flowing from the top and down channels in the sides.  This liquid was obviously what was polluting the river and whatever inside that building is responsible for it. 
The river's pollution affecting the area.
I crossed the lake using a rowboat I found on the northern shore.  I found a not so well hidden entrance on the northern side of the pyramid.  I entered and found a long passage that traveled the full length of the structure to another entrance on the south side.  About midway down the hallway were a couple of alcoves.  Inside one of the alcoves was a pile of stones.  As I entered to examine them there was a flash of light and I was standing someplace else.  Apparently whoever resides here uses the teleporters to move around. 

I explored this new hallway, finding secret doors all along its length.  I passed into one that looked like an alchemical storage area.  Vials and beakers of strange liquids filled the room.  Also in here were many large vats of the black liquid pouring into the river.  Further down the hall I found another room where there were a few lizardmen being kept.  These lizardmen approached me, accusing us of being servants of Yarash.  I couldn't convince them otherwise and they attacked.  They had been here a while and were too weak to attack effectively and were easily dispatched. 

At the end of this hallway, I came to another pile of stones.  This time I approached with the intent of being teleported.  There was a flash and I was standing in another hallway.  This place did not have the straightforward path the prior hall did.  This area seemed more like a maze, designed to confuse your sense of direction.  I had fallen into a trap, along with others.  There were other creatures and groups of humanoids wandering in here as well.  I was attacked by a group of dwarves.  Unfortunate, they must have been driven mad with wandering in this place.

In a corner of this maze I ran across on old priest.  His time here had not been very kind to him as well, and only got him to talk to me after repeated attempts.  He did mention that he had been digging a hole in the wall to try and escape the maze.  He said he felt he was close to the outside, but lacked the strength to finish.  I agreed to help.  Sure enough, after only a little while, we had broken through the side of the pyramid.  The priest thanked man and left across the lake. 
The priest in the maze.
Now standing at the base of the pyramid again, I retraced my step beginning at the north entrance.  I passed through the alcove and was in the long hallway where I had encountered the lizardmen again.  This time as I approached the end of the hall where the teleporter was located, I picked up and threw a rock against the wall.  With a flash, the rock was gone.  I followed after it.  This time the teleporter deposited me in an unfamiliar place instead of the maze like before.  I walked along this hallway, twisting along the interior of the pyramid.  At the other end, there was another pile of rocks.  This has been the telltale sign of a teleporter.  I picked one up and tossed it in front of me.  As before, with a flash, it was gone.  I followed after.

I did this a couple more times, picking up a rock and tossing before me every time I came across a pile.  Eventually I came to a short hallway with a door at the end.  Above this door was a note written in Dethek.  I translated it as NOKNOK.  The door was locked, and no means of opening it was available.  I said the word aloud and heard the familiar click of a lock.  The door was now open to let me pass. 

On the other side of the door was a crowded a noisy room full of pipes and pumps.  Here it looks as though the clean water from the lake is mixed with the poisonous sludge and pumped out of the room through the ceiling.  I did my best to destroy any pumping equipment and anything I could find that was fragile enough to break easily.  There came a low rumble as pressures built up inside the mangled pipes.  I went back through the door I came through to avoid any explosion caused by this damage.  As soon as I closed the door I heard the groan of metal giving way to the pressures built up.  After opening the door again, I saw that we had done a good job of destroying everything in the room that could have been useful.  Water no longer flowed through the ceiling. 

There were a couple of pipes coming from a wall to my right.  These had once been used to pump the black liquid into the clean water from the lake.  I followed the wall around and walked into the room.  Inside the room were a couple of large vats of the black sludge.  There were a few lizardmen pouring barrels of the black liquid into the vats.  They were chained to the wall and had the telltale marks of a whip across their backs.  I went over to their chains and freed them from the wall.  The lizardmen, thankful for my help, told me their story. 

In this pyramid, a sorcerer named Yarash has been experimenting on the lizardmen.  The lizardmen told me that they were constantly getting rid of the bodies from his experimentation.  Heads mangled beyond recognition, chests burst open.  He promised to make them stronger, but has done nothing but cause death and misery.  They gave me a word that they use between the lizardman tribes to convey friendship.  They told me it could be useful if i met any other lizardmen in the wild.  Their story is under journal entry 35. 

We walked back out into the room with the destroyed equipment.  Along the northern wall was another door.  I opened this door and was confronted by an old man on the other side.  He told his guards to subdue us.  This was Yarash, the keeper of this place.  His lizardman servants had been horribly mutated in something hardly recognizable.  A couple of well placed hold person spells on Yarash made this a quick and easy fight. 

I searched the room afterwards.  On his desk I found some letters and such, some received, some unsent.  One letter from The Boss demanded his cooperation in allowing a garrison of forces at his island or to be destroyed.  There was an unsent reply waiting next to it.  Yarash had his own plans and wanted nothing to do with the tyrant, except to be left alone.  How long that would have lasted will never be known.  I've single handedly solved both of their problems. 

Two more papers were notices.  One was a bounty letter address to anyone willing to accept it.  It described a reward of 10,000 gold pieces for bringing a live sahuagin.  These aquatic creatures are what Yarash must have been trying to merge with the lizardmen.  The other was a notice about an active dragon taking up residence in the mountains.  I'm not sure if I want to go poking around out there to find a dragon.  These are all noted under journal entries 33, 49, 27, and 56.

There was a teleporter in the corner of the room, with a multi-position switch next to it.  There were four settings on this switch.  Each setting must set the teleporter to a different location.  I experimented with it.  Each of the setting lead to a storage room filled with a bunch of useless magical apparatus.  Hidden among the junk though were a few magical items of use which I took.  The last setting took us back down the long hallway at the bottom of the pyramid.

I left the pyramid to head back to town.  As I left I saw that the black sludge was no longer running from the top of the pyramid and the river had already started to cleanse itself of the muck.  I rode into town to report what had happened to the council.  I was rewarded for stopping the pollution and given another task.  This time Cadorna himself again asked me to take a diplomatic packet to an outpost of Zhentil Keep. 

After cleaning up, resting and training.  I set back out into the wilderness to find the lizardmen.  I was hoping that my generosity at the pyramid would pay off.  After some traveling to the east I found an old abandoned keep in the swamp.  I wasn't approached until I entered on of the buildings in the keep.  I was contacted by an old lizardman, the chief of the tribe.  He said that he had received word that a band of adventurers stopped Yarash and his experiments and that they were given the friend word.  He asked if we were the ones who helped.  We spoke the word we were given.  Satisfied, he spoke to us. 

He was the chief of the tribe, but his following has been dwindling ever since a young upstart decided that serving Tyranthraxus would be the best course of action.  They had been training by raiding caravans and killing kobolds in the caves to the south.  The recent events at the pyramid have helped the old lizardman's standing, but its not enough to sway control back in his favor.  He told me that the young one would try to challenge his position, and that he or a champion of his would have to fight for control of the tribe.  His words are in journal 31.
An act of kindness repaid.

As soon as he was finished, the young lizardman came forward and challenged the old chief for leadership.  Thanalis took the position as the chiefs champion.  The duel was decided quickly.  The lizardman didn't seem to have that much combat experience, and Thanalis was a seasoned veteran by now.  When the young lizardman fell, the other who followed him slunk back into the background.  The chief thanked me for my service and pledged that he would not be joining with Tyranthraxus.  He warned me to leave quickly, as his people are still hostile and violent.  I left quickly and set back to the city to report.

We returned to town, reported our success to the council, and set about my routine.  I was not given any other tasks by the council this time.  I must be putting myself out of work!  That's good though, after this a long rest will be welcome.  I set out again to the east to find the buccaneers and see if I could locate this heir to the House of Bivant.

As we approached the compound, we were met by a group of riders.  They escorted us through the gates and led us to a place in the middle of the camp in which we could rest.  Here we were surrounded by other merchants, traders, and caravans. 

After taking a little time to rest, we started to wander around the camp to see what we could find.  Close by where we were camped was a large fenced area where there were a few ragged looking humans.  Hidden among them was a small child.  His face dirty and streaked from crying.  As I looked at the child, a fat man walked up and told me how that boy would fetch a fine price at Zhentil Keep.  I looked at him, said nothing, and walked away.  I had to find a way to get the child out before he was taken someplace impossible to retrieve him from.

I kept wandering around.  I walked past another large pen, this one holding hard animals.  Oxen, cows and such were crammed into such a small space that they had barely enough room to turn around.  The close proximity of the animals and the commotion going on outside the pen had the animals anxious and excited.  I took note and continued my search.

I ran across a man hiding behind one of the huts.  He called me over and asked if I wanted to purchase a pass to see the captain of the camp.  I had more than enough money from my adventures to see what this was about, so I purchased it.  I immediately went over to the captains hut.  I showed my pass at the door and was allowed inside.  A moment later the captain came out.

The captain told me he was busy and to keep it brief.  I asked about the child in the slave pens.  He didn't offer up much information, just asked if I wanted to purchase him or not.  Having an excess of cash, and no real inclination to battle the whole camp, I agreed to buy the child.  The captain left, and a few minutes later a guard returned with the boy. 

I grabbed the child up and left the hut.  We gathered our stuff from the camp and prepared to head back to town.  On the way out of town, I made it a point to walk past the animal pen and kick open the gate.  The animals streamed through the gate, trampling each other as they all tried for the opening.  This led to the animals panicking, and sent them into a blind stampede right there in the center of the camp.  A little mischief for making me come out here.  We left the camp behind with no incident.

We returned to the council to return the child to his family and were rewarded.  Again, no further jobs were offered.  All that is left for now is to clear Valhingen Graveyard, and to deliver the papers to Zhentil Outpost.  Not up for battling hordes of undead that even make The Boss uneasy, I decide to set out to the east once again to deliver these papers.

We set out to the east again in the morning.  We rode past the buccaneer's camp.  Further along the shore there was a proper looking outpost.  Stone walls, towers, a very defensible looking structure.  As we approached, a set of horsemen rode out to meet me.  They asked if we were the diplomatic envoys from Phlan.  I told them we were and we were led into the keep.  We were led directly to the Commandant's office.

The commandant greeted us.  I handed over the papers.  After skimming through them quickly he thanked us for our service.  He offered dinner and told one of his guards to take us on a tour.  We left the office behind our tour guide.  He walked us around, pointed out the barracks to the left.  He said it was one of six such buildings and that each could hold over 100 troops.  He then walked back towards the gate pointing to the towers on each side.  He said that those gates had withstood many direct assaults, even one from a dragon.  Afterward we was shown to my quarters and told someone would come when dinner was ready.  We just rested until then.
600 men!  Probably too much for the 7 of us to handle...
A few hours later, a guard came to the door and escorted us back to the commandant's office.  We sat down at our places at the table.  The commandant was interested in us, and tried to strike up some conversation.  We started talking about Phlan, both old and new.  He asked point blank if Bishop Braccio was the true power in the new city.  I know he is fairly influential on the council, but as far as being the head of power in the new city, I had to say no.  He noted that in the past, Phlan has had trouble with Tyranthraxus and was curious to know if the city was still having trouble.  I told him about some of the things we had done to combat the would-be conqueror.  He asked if Phlan's defences were able to hold up.  I told him they were.  He related a tale he had heard as a youth about a glowing pool and a barbarian.  It is noted under journal 46.  With that, he bade us good night and retired from the table.

We were returned to our quarters, which thankfully were close to the main gate.  Being uneasy about being here, we posted a watch as we rested.  Thankfully we did as just a couple hours later a group of guards burst into our room and attacked us.  The first group was quick to fall, but another group charged in just as we finished with the first.  These fighters were a little better equipped, but fell just the same. 

I left the room as an alarm sounded in the distance.  Hopefully not everyone will know what is happening and I can make a quick getaway to the gate.  I slipped through the commotion and headed for the gate.  I was met by meager resistance at the gate.  After a quick battle I slipped out and away back towards Phlan.  Why I was attacked is still a mystery.  I can only assume that something in the papers I delivered mentioned I shouldn't make it back to the city.  In that case, I was betrayed by Cadorna.  I'll have to pay him a visit when I return.

I quickly returned to the city and headed immediately for the council chambers.  When I arrived I was told that Cadorna had betrayed the city and has been labeled a traitor.  He is nowhere to be found, and I was told that if I see him, I should kill him on sight.  Apparently he has upset others like he did me.  I'll have to make sure to keep an eye out for him.

After giving me a reward, I was told that Lord Urslingen wanted to speak with me.  We went into his chambers.  Here is the moment I've been waiting for.  Lord Urslingen went into detail about the attack on the castle.  We must first secure Stojanow Gate.  It is too heavily defended to attack head on, so a small group needs to infiltrate it from inside and hold it until help arrives.  We have been picked for this important task.  Happy to accept, we left the council chambers. 

So now I have two tasks, with an extra if I can.  Clear out Valhingen Graveyard and take Stojanow Gate.  If I see Cadorna I'm to kill him.  I've put off the trip to the graveyard too long now.  That will be my next stop as soon as I rest up and restock supplies.  I'll be glad to not have to travel too far anymore.  I've tired of the wilderness trips.  My mission is here close at hand anyway.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Prince of Persia

No, this is not a post about any of the new games that carry this title.  This is about the one that started it all.  Jordan Mechner's original Prince of Persia in 1990.  I have many fond memories of this game from my childhood.  It has aged very well, and going back to it now feels the same as it did in 1990.  The graphics haven't become an eyesore, its easy to get to run on DOSBox, and it still has the same fluid game play.  I took a small break from my Pool of Radiance play through to sit down with this run down nostalgia lane.

The story in this game is pretty simple.  Its not anything really innovative or creative.  Just the standard 'rescue the princess' scenario.  You and the princess have fallen in love secretly, but while the Sultan is away his Vizier Jaffar eyes the throne and sees the princess as an easy way to get it.  He captures you, throws you in the dungeon, and give the princess an ultimatum.  "Marry me or die within the hour."  This sets the scene for the whole game. 

When this game says within the hour, it means within the hour.  You have to beat the game in its entirety within 60 minutes.  When you look at it, it seems an impossible task.  It is more than possible though.  You are allowed one save, and it will always start you at the beginning of the level.  No saving right before a though jump, or before an important battle.  One slip up, and its back to the beginning of the level.  There are 12 levels in all.

I took a fairly systematic approach to beating this game.  You aren't allowed to save the game until the third level starts so it is in your best interest to get through the first two as quickly as you can.  Once on the third level, I saved...  putting the clock at about 53 minutes left.  Once I was able to save, I worked my way through the level, exploring every place I could to determine the best route through the level.  Then I would reload my save and complete the level in the most efficient manner.  Cheating maybe, but effective. 

A fight on level 2.
The game starts you out in the dungeon.  Its obviously not a nice place to be.  As the game progresses, the environment changes.  At level 4, you are in the palace itself.  The style change is nice, and helps to give a sense of advancement.  There are a few setback along the way, but eventually you pass from the dungeons, through the palace, and into a tower. 

Most of the time, the levels are pretty much the same.  You fight guards, find a way to open the door to the next level, and try not to die along the way.  The game is pretty good at putting a few unique situations in front of you though.  For instance, in the third level I believe, there is a skeleton that block your path to the door after you open it.  It is impossible to kill so you have to work your way past it.

Another situation come up a little later on.  After opening the door to the next level, a mirror appears in your path blocking you from continuing.  When you run jump through it, a shadow version of yourself runs away.  This shadow prince hinders you a couple times along the way.  One time, he stands next to a pressure plate to close a gate you need to pass through.  This ends up sending you back into the dungeons to try and escape again.  At some other point, he takes and drinks a potion that gives you more valuable health.

The magic mirror.

He just drank my potion!
There are a couple of other instances that stand out.  While the princess is waiting for you to rescue her, she befriends a mouse.  There is a point where the path to open the door leads you to a point that is very difficult to return through before the gate closes blocking your path back.  This little mouse comes by and open the gate for you if you weren't fast enough.  Also, one guard in the game is larger than the others.  He's become the infamous fat guard on the internet.  Its these little details that really keep the game feeling fresh. 
The Fat Guard!
In the end, the final standoff against Jaffar is a little disappointing.  Aside from his appearance, he could be just any other guard.  It doesn't matter though, it feels good to get rid of him and go rescue your princess.


I completed this game in about 5 hours of playing.  I completed it on August 31, 2011.  This is a game that I will probably pick up a few times again in the future.  Its a game that can be played casually just to pass a few hours of time.  Playing it again hasn't taken anything away from the way I remember it when I was younger, which is usually not the case.  We make the things from our past seem better to ourselves, and experiencing them again as we grow older usually robs us of that feeling.  I look forward to picking this up again in another 20 years, we'll see how it holds up then.