This morning, the first step on the road to a manned mission to Mars was taken. NASA's Orion space capsule successfully completed its first dual-orbital test flight and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

The space craft finally launched this morning from Cape Canaveral Air Force base a little after 7 am Eastern time, after having been delayed for a day due to technical problems and poor weather. After a four-and-a-half-hour flight in which the spacecraft orbited the Earth twice at an altitude of 3600 miles, the capsule re-entered the atmosphere, deployed its parachutes, and landed gently in the Pacific Ocean.

This flight is the first step in a planned manned mission to Mars that is expected to take place within the next 25 years, assuming that it doesn't get derailed by political or monetary issues.

This is exactly the kind of mission that advocates argued would be encouraged by the termination of the space shuttle program. Critics argued that the space shuttle made access to earth's orbit too easy and reliable, and "tethered" NASA to low-earth orbit, instead of finding innovative new ways to reach further into space...

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Civilization V - Bismarck of Germany

Continuing my series of strategy posts about Brave New World's modified civilizations, I'm going to take a look at strategies for Bismarck's well-rounded Germany. Since Brave New World's fall patch, Germany's unique Landsknecht has been replaced with a Hanse (bank replacement) that makes Germany into a more well-rounded civ rather than being exclusively military-focused.

The region of Germany has been the site of some of the most violent and destructive wars in the history of the world. It was given its name by Julius Caesar, who called the region east of the Rhine "Germania" to differentiate it from Gaul, which he had already subjugated. The region was populated by tribes of Germanic people who were often labeled as barbarians by the Romans who were never able to fully annex the territory. Most of German lands were controlled by the Franks such as Charlemagne following the fall of the Roman Empire, and they would not be united into their own sovereign nation until Otto I would become the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 962 C.E.. When Martin Luther founded the schism religion of Protestantism, the Holy Roman Empire descended into the Thirty Years War, in which the northern Protestants fought for their autonomy against the southern Catholics. Following the war, the lands of Germany were broken up into multiple nation states such as Prussia and Saxony.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, a series of social and industrial revolutions drove Prussia into becoming a leading educational and cultural states in Europe, and its Chancellor Otto von Bismarck effectively established the modern Germany in 1871. The German economy grew over the next few decades, but it was defeated in World War I, forced to pay reparations, its leadership was replaced with an unstable republic, and its economy completely crashed. All this lead to a takeover by the National Socialists (Nazis) who rapidly rebuilt Germany's economy and industry and turned it into a war machine that struck with greater speed and efficiency than the world had ever seen. Despite all the bitter bloodshed, a democratic Germany has emerged from the chaos as one of the strongest economies in Europe and is a worldwide leader in technological, scientific, and cultural development (and humor).

Civilization V - Otto von Bismarck of Germany

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg is known more simply as Otto von Bismarck. He is responsible for uniting the fractured states of Germany into a modern, unified German nation through the use of an efficient military and shrewd diplomacy. He was known to have a violent temper, but was a brilliant statesman and diplomat nonetheless, who became famous for using balance of power strategies to maintain peace in Europe while also furthering his goals as the political leader of Germany. Though he was beloved by the populace for his strong leadership, he was eventually unseated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose aggressive expansionist policies lead to World War I.

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UNLV Running Rebels logo

Prior to UNLV's season-closing game against rival Nevada, head coach Bobby Hauck announced that he would be resigning after the season. It's unfortunate that Hauck couldn't accomplish more in his time at UNLV. He had a repuation as a winner at Montana, and his teams at UNLV definitely had the talent to be successful.

But the team was inconsistent, often playing well for half a game and then crashing and burning in the other half. Third quarters were real killers for UNLV this year, as the team regularly collapsed and allowed their opponents to break away after halftime. And that is exactly how UNLV lost (49-20) in Hauck's final game against rival Nevada. Hauck accumulated four seasons with only two wins, as well as one outlier year in which UNLV won seven games and earned a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's day last year (which my dad and I attended).

It's hard to tell where exactly the problem was. I had some issues with the decisions that were made by Hauck and his staff over the years. Specifically, I thought that Hauck set up former starting quarterback Nick Sherry for failure. Sherry performed well as a pocket-passer in his first few games running a west coast-style offense, and when the Rebels starting running a spread pistol formation focused around the read option, Sherry struggled. He was clearly uncomfortable as an option quarterback. He wasn't very mobile, he didn't make the right reads, and his accuracy and decision-making out of the pocket was terrible. So when Hauck continued to run that pistol spread offense, I was frustrated. Maybe Sherry handled it well enough in practice that Hauck honestly believed that he could handle it in games? But as game after game went by, and Sherry just kept looking worse and worse, it should have become obvious that he and that offense did not fit together.

Nevada takes the Freemont Cannon
UNLV collapsed in the third quarter to lose the Freemont Cannon to rival Nevada.
A sadly fitting - and representative - conclusion to Bobby Hauck's tenure at UNLV.

But UNLV's players didn't make Hauck's job easier. Both the offense and defense were horribly inconsistent year in and year out. It's hard to tell if that was the result of bad coaching or just bad players. But there was definitely some physical talent on the field. UNLV has had a quality receiving corp during most of Hauck's tenure, but aside from Caleb Herring, they just didn't have a quarterback that could reliably get them the ball. And even when the ball was on the mark, those receivers still dropped quite a few of them. The offensive line had trouble stopping blitzes, and the defense struggled to fill gaps and make tackles, leading to opponents regularly accumulating over 200 yards rushing against UNLV.

So it's difficult for me to be able to say with any degree of confidence whether Hauck was unfit for the job.

In any case, Hauck has decided that he and UNLV are not a good fit for each other, and he is moving on. UNLV will now have to search for a new head coach, ...

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Madden NFL '15 - title

Regular readers of my blog who happen to be football fans may have noticed that I never reviewed last year's EA Sports football games. I had played and reviewed the games every year for the previous three years, but not last year. The truth is: I didn't play last year's games. There were a few reasons for this.

For one, I was kind of burnt out on football games, and was neck deep in RPGs like Skyrim and Dark Souls, as well as Brave New World and some modding. So my plate was rather full. I was somewhat curious about the next-gen football games being released on the PS4 and XBox One, but I had neither system, so couldn't play them. And I wasn't really sure that the PS3 version would be worth playing, since EA's focus was probably (and hopefully) on improving the next-gen games. I didn't want to waste my time on an inferior version of the game that may have been "incomplete" compared to its next-gen counterpart. So I skipped last year's football games entirely.

I still don't own a PS4 or XBox One, and don't have any immediate plans to buy either. But a friend granted me the use of his PS4 so that I could try the P.T. demo. I figured while I have the PS4, might as well try the new Madden, so I picked up a used copy on eBay fairly cheap.

Since I was borrowing a friend's PS4, my time with the game was limited. As such, this review can't be as in-depth as some of my previous football game reviews have been.

EA is continuing to make small, iterative changes to the game's mechanics, as well as recycling mechanics and features from earlier iterations of the game. This year's focus was on defensive control and line of scrimmage play, both of which are areas that were in desperate need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, EA's changes were mostly superficial.

Madden '15 - defensive controls
"New" defensive controls are just prompts for commands that already existed. At least they work better now...

The game advertises new defensive controls for breaking blocks and tackling. The only thing that is really "new" is the ability to steer blockers in order to fill gaps or maintain containment. This helps to give defensive linemen a greater sense of presence, as they aren't run out of the play by blockers quite so easily, and gap control is actually possible.

The other new defensive controls are really just fluff features...

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Demon's Souls - title

With a new generation of consoles coming into their own, the lifespan of the PS3 and XBox360 is rapidly coming to an end. It's not quite as monumental as the end of the PS2's lifecycle, which is arguably the single best gaming console ever made! With the PS3 and XBox360, our console games started to have consistent online functionality, and with online functionality comes a sad side-effect: a game's life-span is finite. I can always go back and play my favorite PS2 games (like Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Ace Combat 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Gran Turismo 3, and Devil May Cry) and have pretty much the same experience that I had the first time I played. But I won't be able to do that with some of my favorite PS3 games, because some of them have online features that won't remain active forever.

favorite PS2 games
As long as my PS2 is functional, I can always go back and re-play my favorite PS2 games.

PC gamers have been dealing with this problem since the dawn of the internet, but they have work-arounds. PC Games can be modded to support direct TCP / IP connections in order for their online communities to stay online. Hypothetically, you could keep your favorite MMO alive for yourself and your circle of friends in this fashion. But with console games, there are much more significant technical hurdles to overcome, and when the producer shuts down the servers, that is basically the end of that game.

And that is exactly what is going to happen some day with my favorite PS3-exclusive: Demon's Souls.

Every console has its defining games - those games that are reasons for owning the consoles. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the Nintendo 64 had Goldeneye, the Dreamcast had Shenmue and Soul Calibur, the XBox had Halo, GameCube had Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness, the PS2 had Shadow of the Colossus. For me, Demon's Souls is that game for the PS3: the game that makes owning a PS3 worthwhile.

Demon's Souls is a game that completely redefined the way that I think about gaming. My ideas about how a player can interact with a game world and with other players were completely turned on their head with this game. So I want to take a moment to pay tribute to this masterpiece of interactive art with a full review while its servers are still up and running. And maybe - just maybe - I can sell a copy or two to some new players.

The gameplay is based on a simple control configuration in which weapons are mapped to the left and right hand and controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons (respectively). The design is reminiscent of a simplified version of FROM's other major game franchise: the mech-combat sim Armored Core. Weapons equipped in the right hand have a basic attack and a heavy attack, and weapons or shields in the left hand have a block and heavy attack (sorry, lefties, no left-handed characters for you!). These basic controls are very simple, and any player can start hacking and blocking away as soon as they pick up the controller. But more advanced controls and variations in weapon functionality make this seemingly-simple combat system very deep.

Each weapon class has different movesets, ranging from the slashing of a sword to the thrusting of a spear, to smashing of a giant hammer. And shields (and some off-hand weapons) have an advanced parry feature that allows you to stun and counter an attacking foe to land a critical hit. You can also attack while running or out of dodges in order to keep a foe guessing. Mastering these various features takes a little bit of time, but it is immensely rewarding when you finally have the skills to go toe to toe with a giant, butcher-knife wielding skeleton with confidence. But don't get overconfident, because this game will punish you for every mistake!

Demon's Souls - Vanguard rematch
With patience and practice, you'll soon stand confidently before the Vanguard that killed you in the tutorial.

If you die, you lose all your accumulated souls (i.e. "experience"), and must restart the level from the beginning! But there is a shining glimmer of hope: you have one chance to reach the spot where you died in order to recover your lost souls. If you get there...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

Gaming for life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to opinions about video games and the video game industry. But occasionally, I talk about other stuff too. Feel free to read about the blog.

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Humble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II onlineHumble suggestions for improving Dark Souls II online09/22/2014 I recently posted my much-belated review of Dark Souls II. In it, I criticized the game for having lackluster online components, but didn't go into much detail other than to say that Soul Memory seems like a non-optimal matchmaking method and that invasions are rare and reserved for elite players. I wanted to take a moment to...

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Sucker-punching Nazis in the artistically-interesting 'The Saboteur' is an absolute blast!Sucker-punching Nazis in the artistically-interesting 'The Saboteur' is an absolute blast!12/10/2012 This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 5/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes. An artistically inspired, very fun, but rough-around-the-edges game. The Saboteur is a very novel game. For one thing, it is a fresh and appealing take on the stagnant genre of World...