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Starfarer, by Fractal Softworks

Starfarer is a promising real-time tactics RPG that’s currently in development. The latest pre-order build, 0.5a, was released today, bringing the game one step closer to the open-world space opera that its developers have planned. Previous iterations of Starfarer have let you choose from a number of scripted missions, but in 0.5a you can finally tackle a basic campaign map that lets you expand your fleet (through purchase or capture) and level up your crew. No matter how large your fleet is, though, you’ll always control a single character and ship, directing your allies through a detailed tactical map.

The game already offers quite a bit in the way of customization to your fleet, from types of ships (large capital ships to tiny fighters) to weapons and armor, down to even the personality and experience of the crew. The final release, though, sounds like it will be a dream for fans of space combat and trading games like Escape Velocity Nova – whether you want to be an ace pilot, the admiral of a large fleet, or something in-between, there will be plenty of ways to make your (permanent, meaningful) mark on the galaxy. On top of that, Starfarer’s devs seem committed to making the game friendly for modders, with fans already creating their own ships and missions.

The final price of the game is set at $20, but you can pre-order it right now for $10 and receive the current build as well as all future updates.

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So far we've only seen small glimpses of Hanwell Institute's interiors (the central location for Agustin Cordes' upcoming horror adventure game Asylum), but a new gameplay video was posted yesterday to demonstrate the Myst-like camera system and how character movement has been implemented.

Asylum is set to be released for Windows sometime in 2011 (though no specific date has been mentioned yet), and the iPad version should also follow shortly thereafter.

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AudioGL, a project teased in videos first in April and then again last week, is a new concept in designing a user interface for real-time music creation. Visuals and sound alike are generative, with the rotating, 3D-wireframe graphics and symbolic icons representing a kind of score for live synthesized music. The tracks in the video may sound like they’ve been pre-synthesized, polished, and sampled from elsewhere, but according to the creator, they’re all produced in the graphical interface you see – what you see is what you hear.

The newest video, released this week, reveals in detail the project’s notions of how to make a 3D, live music interface work. The UI itself is similar to other graphical patching metaphors, but here, like exploding a circuit diagram in space, routings and parameter envelopes are seen and edited in a freely-rotating view in three dimensions rather than on a flat plane.

There’s a reason interfaces like this have been few. Computer displays and pointing methods tend to be heavily biased to two-dimensional use, modeled as flat planes like pieces of paper. Working in two dimension is simply easier; there’s no reason you can’t take another layer of parameters and represent it on a two-dimensional interface. And rotating around in 3D space can make it difficult to keep your bearings.

Those challenges, though, don’t make this less interesting – they make it juicier and more delicious as design problem and stunning, futuristic musical model. Freed in three dimensions, a complex set of envelopes and parameters has room to spread out visually, making a kind of spatial score. This particular project strikes an interesting balance between traditional, iconic UI – operators are represented with graphic symbols – and more free-flowing geometry representing the sequencing and envelopes. To me, the latter is more compelling, but putting the two together may make the program more flexible and familiar to users of other music software.

What could knock you out of your chair, though, is the sheer depth of the software teased in the video. This is no simple tech demo: it’s an attempt to build an entirely new, live-synthesizing music tool from scratch in 3D. It’s like the International Space Station of music software, assembled in some void. I got a couple of tips on this today, and some are even wondering if it’s real.

It appears to be very real. Whether this particular tool is usable or not to me almost isn’t important: a spectacular failure in this arena would even be useful. Anyone waiting for some sort of “singularity” in music tech, I think it’s coming: it’s just going to be a singularity of human software ingenuity, explosive creativity and invention from independent developers. I can’t wait.

Stay tuned to find out more about this particular project.

See also the earlier video (not able to grab the embed code for some reason).

Thanks, Bodo Peeters, among others, for the tip.

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When I sat down with the team from Coffee Stain Studios and their demo of Sanctum so many weeks ago, the first thing that came out of Lead Developer Oscar Jilsen's mouth was, 'I think we misplaced the mouse'. It was definitely one of the most awkward statements ever vocalized during a hands-on session of a game. Unfortunately, due to pressing appointments on both sides, there was nothing that could be done. I would have to experience Sanctum via a touchpad.

Now, it wouldn't have been so bad if Sanctum was, for example, a Facebook-based agriculture simulation but it wasn't. A frenetic mix of tower defense and first-person shooting, Sanctum is the story of an elite soldier named Skye. Tasked with the defense of her hometown, players will spend most of their time divided between the construction of new towers and gunning down hordes of aliens. In many ways, it's a pretty standard formula but what surprised me was the fact that it worked so well.

Of course, it sort of helped that the controls were wonderfully intuitive. Though handicapped by the rather conspicuous lack of a certain peripheral, I found Sanctum absurdly easy to navigate. There was a little voice at the back of my head telling me that it should have been harder. In fact, it should have been much, much harder - I didn't have a mouse, for crying out loud. However, it wasn't. A lot of it probably has something to do with how Coffee Stain Studios revamped the control system. Though somewhat tedious in the alpha build, tower-building now consists of a rather literal case of point, click, insert implement of destruction.

There are no complicated combinations, nothing that builds overtly on the few basic buttons. Sanctum is one of those few games out there that falls decidedly into the 'pick up and play' category. Both the tower-defense and first-person shooter elements work seamlessly together, something I discovered to my delight when I decided I was sick of waiting around like a wilting princess. Instead of building even more towers, I had chosen to position myself in the foreground to take the aliens head-on. Sadly, it wasn't as satisfying as I hoped it'd be. Sanctum's resident extraterrestrials seem rather oblivious to your presence; it would have been blast to have them barreling after you as well.

Either way, it looks like there's a fair amount to look forward to. I didn't really get the chance to investigate more than the first two enemies the game holds which was rather disappointing given that Coffee Stain Studios have promised at least thirteen of them. There's also a co-opt mode that I'm deeply interested in, a survival mode that the developers have said would occasionally result in rather hopeless situations.

As usual, we're not really sure about a release date but it seems that launch will be announced alongside the start of beta. Rumor has it that beta is due sometime next week but there's always the chance that a computer might spontaneously combust somewhere. Those interested in learning more about Sanctum can track the game via its IndieDB page.

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