Wednesday, 14 May 2014

What’s in the Box? – Deadfall: Adventures Xbox 360

   Deadfall: Adventures was released for the PC and Xbox 360 in November 2013, developed by Polish studio The Farm 51 who also brought us the NecroVisioN PC games, and published by Nordic Games. The game is directly inspired by H. Rider Haggard (see King Solomon’s Mines) Allen Quatermain series of books, a lost world and adventure series that has inspired many in its wake, and as H. Rider Haggards work (including the Allen Quatermain character and series) has passed into public domain, the series has been greatly explored and expanded upon by other writers and directors.

   In Deadfall: Adventures you play as James Lee Quatermain, a descendent of Allen Quatermain no less in an action adventure game set in the first person perspective. The game tells an Atlantean type story that will see the protagonist continent skipping, from Africa and the Antarctic to South America in search of powerful Atlantean artefacts. As you would expect from such a game you will wonder through ancient ruins, fight off Nazis, ancient mummy’s that come back to life, and of course have to avoid traps and solve puzzles. The game feels more akin to the type of adventure found in old black and white movies, with the same humour and some rigid voice acting, but it all gels together. Deadfall: Adventures is by no means a Tomb Raider or Uncharted, nor does it try to be either, it’s just a fun adventure game no more, no less. 

Deadfall: Adventures Collector’s Edition
  • Comes in a cardboard box with additional cardboard sleeve
  • Allen Quatermain Revolver & 3 exclusive multiplayer character skins DLC
  • Artbook
  • Making of movie DVD
  • Soundtrack CD

    Monday, 28 April 2014

    Emulation – The PC Alternatives

       The PC is still the dominant platform for emulation, it offers far more in the way of variety and choice, and 99.99% of the time offers a more competent and a superior experience (depending on who you speak to that is.) Things have only got better and better as the years have rolled by: emulators are improving year-on-year, laptops and desktops can now be hooked up to the TV via HDMI, and the last half a decade or more has seen the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers become the de facto PC method of controller supported input. More recently there has even been an influx of USB adaptors that enable you to plug old console controllers into the PC for use with emulators to create an even better and closer console experience.

       But what if you don’t want to do emulation on the PC? What if you want a simpler console style experience? What if you want emulation on the move? Well fear not, as emulation on other systems other than the PC has a long history, and there is a wealth of choice out there these days. My Amiga 2000 for example has a Dos 2088 PC emulation expansion board and there is also a version of the Vice C64 emulator available for the Amiga platform. Old consoles such as Sega’s Dreamcast now have plenty of emulators created for it that can be burned onto a CD-R and booted up, so even retro machines are capable of emulating earlier retro machines especially these days. 

       In this article I will be focusing on two different systems and one platform which I am very familiar with and have been experiencing emulation on for some time now. The two systems are the original Xbox and the Nintendo Wii, the other is the Android platform as I have been using a tablet which is what most people will generally use. Why focus on Android instead of other mobile devices such as the PSP or DS? Well it’s simply because I use my Android tablet for emulation and have never experienced emulation on the PSP or DS. Also the Android platform and the tablet market have exploded over the last 4 years, these days most people have a tablet and if it isn’t an iPad then it’s an Android tablet. It must be noted however that because of the wide variety in manufacturers and specs on the platform, not everyone will have the same cohesive experience of emulation on it, and that experience will come down to your specific device. 

    Ease of Setup

    Original Xbox – To run emulation on the original Xbox it will first have to be modded, this requires it to be either hard modded using a chip or softmodded. The latter uses exploits in software to replace the old firmware with a new custom built one and does not require any additional hardware to be installed. While I can’t speak about how easy or not the hard mod route is, I can however tell you that the softmod method is pretty strait forward to do and I’d say can be easily accomplished by anyone, no matter what your skill level in these areas are. You will have to acquire a few extras off eBay to accomplish the softmod, but it’s pretty strait forward from there on in.

       Two of the most challenging aspects of softmodding the original Xbox comes later after the new firmware has been installed. The first is using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program on your PC to send emulators over to the Xbox; the other is installing a larger hdd to house all the emulators you might want to install. The original Xbox comes with an 8gb hdd, once softmodded, 4gb will be used by the firmware while the other 4gb will be free to use as you see fit, but you might find that this small amount might fill up rather quickly. The former is easy enough once you know how to use an FTP program, but the latter is the most challenging technically and is a pain to be honest. There is a compatibility list out there for anyone trying to find a compatible IDE drive right off the bat, these are the best to go for especially if you manage to find a new one for sale as they are easily installed and have the best chance of working even if they are not on the compatibility list. The downside to using an IDE hdd is that they are now really expensive as they are being phased out, now they can cost double the price of a SATA drive with significantly less memory in comparison. Don’t worry though as you can use a SATA drive in conjunction with a SATA to IDE converter, but be warned that there is more of a chance a SATA drive wont work compared to an IDE drive due to incompatibility issues. 

    Wii – I didn’t have to buy anything more than an 8gb SD card to softmod the Wii, but the initial installation of the custom firmware was more involved and a drawn out process than it was with the original Xbox. This puts the Wii ahead of the Xbox because although the initial setup is more complex, once its complete there are no more additional steps to be taken afterwards. The SD card is essential as this is where the new firmware and emulators will reside, you will need at least an 8gb SD Card, but if you find yourself needing a bigger card later on then everything can be copy and pasted over to the new card. Installing emulators is made easy by plugging the SD card into a PC and putting them in the correct folder, this is far easier and less time consuming than the FTP method employed by the Xbox. 

    Android – Out of all three the Android platform is the easiest to get emulators installed on. It’s as easy as downloading free or paid for emulators off the Google Play store, install them and away you go. If there are certain emulators you want but can’t find on the store, but have found elsewhere, then the APK file can be downloaded or side-loaded onto your Android device, it’s that simple, and for that reason the Android platform wins in this category hands down. 

    Plug & Play Experience

    Xbox – As the original Xbox is a console, my hopes always were that in softmodding the system it would bring a console type experience to emulation that I couldn’t get from the PC at the time, and sure enough it didn’t disappoint. I have found that most of the emulators, although made or ported by different developers, seem to work to the same basic design and principles as one another, and in doing so have brought some uniformity across the board to the emulation experience on the machine. All emulators I have used are plug & play: once installed they require no further setup or configuration, they are ready to go from installation, they just require you to hit play and this is very much in tune with a console style experience. You can of course mess with options and configuration if you wish, but it’s not mandatory or necessary. Controller integration here is flawless as you would expect it to be, and for anyone wondering, the d-pad works really well for older 8/16-bit games. 

    Wii – As with the Xbox, I was hoping that the Wii would deliver a similar experience with emulation, and as development on the Xbox was to such a high standard, I was also expecting the same standards on the Wii. Unfortunately things turned out to be a mixed bag, which is a shame as well as a missed opportunity. I don’t know whether this is due to the fact that the Xbox has had a far longer gestation period in comparison, but the emulation experience is somewhat lacking on the Wii and often far from the plug and play experience that should be on offer. The most common 8/16-bit emulators (Nes, SNES, SMS, Mega Drive) are fine and do offer a good plug and play experience with the added advantage of plenty of different control options via Wii Remote, Classic Controller (Pro) and the Game Cube pad. But I have found that for everything else there always seems to be something getting in the way, be it screen adjustment, setting configurations before play or an emulator just being plain fussy about where stuff is placed or what it can and can’t play. Stick to the most common core of 8/16-bit consoles and you will be fine and have a pleasant enough console type experience, but stray any further and emulation on the Wii will leave you considering better alternatives. 

    Android – Hot on the heals of the original Xbox is the Android platform, and you would think that this platform would be the furthest away from a plug and play experience, but from my hands-on it does a far more competent job as a whole than anything offered on the Wii. Just like the Xbox it’s as simple as loading up an emulator and hitting play, with touchscreen controls already mapped out onto the screen. I have yet to come across any emulator that didn’t offer a ready to go plug and play experience, even all the emulators mimicking old computers are ready to go.

       There are a few hoops you will have to jump through to get a more console type experience, such as connecting a controller (Moga, PS3, 360) and connecting to a TV via a HDMI cable, but these will only seek to make a ready and accessible experience more complete. Syncing a controller up to a tablet will mean you will have to first dive into an emulators options to set it up and map the button layout before diving into a game, but once done you shouldn’t have to do it again when booting up the same emulator. 

    Emulator Settings & Options

    Xbox – In this area the original Xbox once again rules supreme over the competition as the sheer wealth of settings and options that are on offer that can be tweaked in each emulator is mind bending. You can tweak and change just about anything, not that you will necessarily want to, but there are plenty of easy pickings worth having a mess about with such as graphical and texture filters, audio filters, frame rate etc. Its to the credit of all involved with bringing the emulators to the Xbox that you can dive straight into playing games with no need to go anywhere near the settings whatsoever, but if you did wish to change or tweak options even further for whatever reason, then the user is certainly well catered for. 

    Wii – For most of the emulators bar a few the choice and scope of settings on the Wii’s range is positively anaemic compared to those on the Xbox with less than a tenth of the choice on offer to the user in comparison. Once again the main 8/16-bit console emulators are reasonably catered for with some good and worth while settings on offer to users, but its still a lot less than what you will find on the Xbox. While it can be said that choice is not everything, it can also be argued that the more options and settings available to the user to tweak, the more they can adjust and cater to their particular experience, taste and variables in HDTVs. When it comes to settings in emulators I am an advocate that more is better as it allows for more freedom and flexibility and in the end will only add to the gaming experience overall. Sadly though this is an area that is underdeveloped in many emulators on the Wii so don’t expect the earth to breath fire here. 

    Android – Emulators on the Android platform are slightly ahead of the Wii in the amount of settings and options open to users, but only by a small margin. In some emulators choosing certain graphical options or plugins will either open or restrict the amount of settings available in relevant fields. There are also a wide range of input settings on emulators on this platform as there are quite a lot of Android Bluetooth gaming pads to choose from these days, and that’s on top of the options given for tweaking touchscreen controls. You will also find that most emulators will give you options as to how they handle the frame rate and GPU; this comes in quite handy with the wide ranging hardware that has adopted the Android platform.

       The biggest difference and advantage emulators have in this category over the Wii is that development is very much on-going as opposed to the Wii where development seems all but dead. Emulation on Android is moving forward and fast catching up to Xbox levels of quality, and six months from now there will undoubtedly be newer versions of emulators available with a wider range of settings on offer that will be implemented to a greater degree. 

    Overall Quality and Experience

    Xbox – From my experience the original Xbox has given the best overall experience, and is outstanding in the quality of emulation on offer. While it lacks the option of a physical keyboard and mouse for the old micro computer emulators, developers have still managed to find the best logical workarounds and produce or port emulators that outperform what’s on offer on other platforms. What you can find on the Xbox is a wealth of choice where the quality of emulation on offer can only truly be rivalled by what is on the PC, no surprise there then as the Xbox is basically a consolized PC. The Xbox has always been synonymous with modding, emulation and homebrew which began no sooner had the console been launched, a factor that also contributed to its success no less. This inevitably gives the original Xbox a leg-up when compared with any other platform as development is so far ahead: at present I feel there is a generational gap between what is on Xbox and what’s offered on the Wii, and perhaps three years gap capered to Android. The Android platform will soon catch up, but I feel the Wii will always lag far behind.

       I cant say that I have encountered any problems with emulators, the usual suspects are still fussy about certain games as is the case on the PC, and on the whole I can say I have had a flawless and enjoyable experience overall. Another great part of emulation on the system is that as far as emulating old consoles go, the Xbox gives as close to a console style experience as you can get, even beating the PC with its USB controller adaptors.

       There is a barrier to all this however as the extra steps you’ll have to take in the modding and setup process to get the best possible experience will be a problematic and sticky experience for some, a complete barrier to others. Having to FTP everything you want over to the system is a pain in the backside as it’s a cumbersome process by todays standards and a time consuming one at that, but these headaches are well worth suffering as the results speak for themselves. 

    Wii – I find that I can’t really recommend the Wii for emulation, not when there are better options available. But having said that if you don’t have any other options open to you, and you just want the basics, then the Wii route is one worth taking. It does a competent job with the main 8/16-bit consoles as these emulators are great: frame rate is smooth with accurate and reliable emulation, there are a reasonable amount of basic options and the controls are flawless, although I do find the picture rather hemmed in when compared with other systems. But venture outside of these core emulators and towards anything more exotic or computer based then problems and reliability issues will abound, not to mention emulator specific quirks.

       I can’t help but be very disappointed with the state of emulation on the Wii; it should be a lot closer to where the original Xbox is even with a generational gap between development. It has advantages in its varied controller options, and that a mouse and keyboard can be hooked up via the USB ports for computer based emulators, but sadly only to then be let down by poor emulation and GUI implementation.

       What’s worse is that the Wii seems to be all but abandoned, or at least things have stalled and there has been little movement or development. After a year or more I would expect to see some updates and progression, with newer versions of emulators on offer, but that’s sadly not the case as nothing seems to have moved forward. Its seems as if the Wii cant shake off the dust that always seems to want to cover it and keep it tied down. 

    Android – From my experience I have found emulation on Android to be fantastic, especially for such a small portable device I can take with me on my travels. Its not the complete experience on its own because lets face it, touchscreen controls are quite honestly shit, shit is what they are and will always be as they will never be good enough to replace real buttons, d-pads and analog sticks. So investing in a wireless Bluetooth controller, whether it is Moga, Xbox 360, PS3 or one of the many others on the market at the moment is simply a must to complete and round off the emulation experience.

       Emulation is of a high standard, it’s easy to obtain, install and there are plenty to choose from as well as numerous different ones available for any given system. But while most of the emulators are of a high standard, just how well they run will more than likely depend on your specific tablet. More Ram, GPU and graphical grunt the better, but that does not necessarily mean a specific emulator will always run smoothly, it also depends on how much other stuff is running in the background. I have found I got better frame rates and next to no lockups when shutting everything down that I could before running an emulator. You might also find on rooted tablets that squeezing them for more ram and GPU power might help a lot with this, so this is something to bear in mind.

       The portable market is a very fast moving one, and with so many different devices on the market it’s always best to search the web and do your research to make sure you pick the right device for you to save yourself from disappointment. With the Android sphere being so fragmented with different tech specs there will always be problems, but emulation development seems to be keeping up pace and improving all the time, and as a result it looks set to overtake the original Xbox sometime in the very near future.

    Saturday, 4 January 2014

    Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - Android Review

       You would have thought that one of the best games ever made, certainly the best (depending on who you speak to) GTA game ever made to make an appearance on Android over the Christmas period would have sparked far more fanfare and media coverage? But sadly it seems to have slipped past many unnoticed for one reason or another, yet it really shouldn’t have if you’re a fan of this game as this port is by no means a half-arsed half-baked slapped together cash-in for the portable market. It’s actually a well nurtured highly polished Android port that makes good over its console versions in some surprising areas.

       First and foremost then, just how does the Android version stack up against the console versions in the graphics departments? Well, when I first played the Android version the first thing I noticed was how crisp and sharp the graphics looked, and how there was a distinct lack of jaggies present in this version, everything the eye can see is smooth and defined. This was in stark contrast to the Xbox version I was comparing it to where jaggies or blurriness seemed to be ever present. In the Xbox version I had the choice between less jaggies and more blurriness in composite 50 Hz, or a sharper picture and more jaggies through a component lead at 480p. Here is where the Android version comes out shining, as you get a super sharp picture (more so than on the Xbox at 480p) but without any horrible noticeable jaggies present. As far as graphical detail goes, I first thought that the Android version of San Andreas would surly be closer to the PS2 original, but upon closer comparison I have found that its actually on a par with the Xbox version which was slightly more detailed over the PS2 original. In The Android version you can adjust the level of graphical detail in the game to help it run smoother on less powerful tablets, you can adjust the visual effects detail, resolution, draw distance, shadows and car reflections. But with all these set to max, the Android version without a doubt matches the Xbox version in the detail department. However one effect it lacks over the console versions is the heat wobble in the daytime sun, and I’m guessing this was taken out to give the game a cleaner sharper look. Overall then the graphics in the Xbox version of the game has more character and atmosphere about it, but at the cost of either jaggies, blurriness or both while the Android version is the opposite having less character and atmosphere yet is pin sharp with no jaggies or blurriness to speak of.

       Next up you’ll want to know just how well this massive game runs on a capable tablet with the graphics settings maxed out. Well from my experience there does seem to be slightly less NPCs and vehicles roaming about San Andreas, but only slightly which would make the game run smother, but even on a really capable device there can be some noticeable slowdown when there is a lot of action onscreen. But fear not, follow these few simple steps and you should see an increase in performance. Firstly you will want to turn off Bluetooth and wireless on your tablet before playing the game, why? Well its simple, various elements of your tablets OS will want to connect to the internet in the background not to mention any other apps you have downloaded and this will eat up valuable ram and processor resources. Secondly it’s best to reboot your tablet and launch the game soon after it’s booted, this is the best way to clear out and stop any apps and elements of the OS hogging ram and processor space, don’t even bother using any cleaning apps to do this as they have nothing on a clean reboot. These two simple steps will go along way to improving overall performance and loading times even on the most powerful of tablets.

       Last but not least controls, just how well do touchscreen controls really work in this game? Well the controls work extremely well and are very responsive, moreover the way in which they have been implemented has had some real thought put into them and I can’t see them ever been implemented better than this on a touchscreen device. Having said that they do take some getting used to, and even then they will always be rather maddening and at times frustrating to use over using a normal controller as an input method. But fear not as you can use a proper controller with this game as it’s supported by the Android Moga controller, or you have the option of using a wired PS3 controller, either way both options are a welcomed relief.

       The Android version of San Andreas could have turned out to be a piss poor cut-down port of the game, but instead Rockstar have bought the game over to tablets whole and seemingly complete and have worked towards making many improvements to the game in the process. But while there is a lot to love about the Android version of the game, it lacks one crucial and very important element, without which makes it less the sum of its parts, and that ladies and gentleman is cheats. Yes that’s right, this version lacks the one thing most if not all gamers will want to implement within the first half hour of gameplay; it’s the first thing many gamers will think about upon booting the game. But anyone trying to implement cheats through touchscreen, controller or keyboard inputs will be very disappointed as none of the above mentioned will work. I’m not sure just yet whether it’s a case that Rockstar has left the cheats out all together, or they have not put a way to implement them into the game. Either way it has been left up to the modding community to create apps and hacks to get cheats to work, which in a game so synonymous with in-game cheats is quite frankly a stupid situation for this game to be released in and a baffling decision by Rockstar.
       Without wanting to download some dodgy APK from some website I have never heard of I am sadly left with a brilliant version of San Andreas I can’t use in-game cheats in, a game made for cheats that is. Which as good as this game is and as much as I want to continue playing it, I honestly cant see myself ever putting any more hours into this version over its console counterparts until this issue with the cheats is resolved, so don’t go giving up on that Xbox version just yet.

    Monday, 18 November 2013

    Killer Is Dead Review

       This generation we have seen a good many franchises and series take a firm foothold and become hugely successful, so much so that sequels have become a common order of the day. We have seen new IP in the form of Gears of War and Uncharted trilogy’s, both becoming hugely successful and significantly raising the bar in standards for each respective genre they’re in. We have also seen series from the previous generation such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo and Killzone all go from modest success to global dominance, while other series like Tomb Raider, Medal of Honor and Resident Evil have had to fight it out to stay relevant and fresh with varying degrees of success.

       Fortunately there are still plenty of original and down right quirky games being released, more so than the amount of sequels filling shelves this generation if only gamers would dare dig each consoles library a little deeper. So at the tail end of the longest console generation on record, and at the twilight of a new one set to be even longer, ask yourself whether you’re satisfied that you have played and experienced all this generation has to offer before moving onto the next? Bored and choked with disinterest with the same old sequels, are you sure there aren’t any other types of games and genres left to discover and tap into from this generation, before spending in excess of £400 on the next to try and fill your waning interest?

       Well here is a suggestion, try playing Killer Is Dead as it might just put a smile on your face and more than likely result in a raised eyebrow or two, as its unique over-saturated cell shaded look and sheer quirkiness will keep you going back for more. This is a game set in a familiar genre (hack-n-slash,) that happens to be less hardcore combo heavy in its gameplay than say Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, but rather more easily accessible to a wider audience without falling into the trap of being mind numbingly boring and hemmed in by genre constraints. While other games in the genre like the aforementioned are extremely over-the-top flamboyant and exuberant in their gameplay elements, relying on multiple combos and quick time events in dramatic succession to pummel and pound enemies into submission, Killer Is Dead is more reserved in that respect. While this game does have its combos, they are simple and nowhere near the extreme as other games, as the gameplay in this game is fashioned more towards block, avoid and counter attack to fend off multiple enemies, dance around them, and hit their weak spot to take them out as quick as possible. But rest assured that Killer Is Dead is just as action packed and bloody as any other game in the genre as enemies get dispensed and impaled on your characters katana.

       This reserved approach to the gameplay transfers to the upgrade system in the game to as its all kept simple and minimalistic in its approach. Your Characters Health and Blood gauge (the latter used when replenishing health or using the arm weapon) are upgraded automatically as you work your way through the game, while the upgrade menu allows you to buy or upgrade certain abilities. Upgrades and gauge replenishment come from crystals and gems emitted from dead enemies and destructible scenery, Moon Crystals are collected and used as currency to buy upgrades while Blood Roses and Health Gems will slowly increase the blood and health gauge.

       The game is split into four different game types for you to choose from on the world map which acts as the mission menu screen; these are the main story missions, sub (side) missions, gigolo and challenge missions. The main story is 12 acts long and probably lasts somewhere between 8-10 hours long if that, but when you add all the other different missions to choose from it can far exceed this in length. Sub missions are off-shoots from the main story though not necessarily related to it; they become unlocked and are set in an area of the game you have just completed. Sub missions all tend to vary from one another, some are very small story’s unto themselves, others mere challenges such as fighting through an area within a certain amount of time or finding various hidden items throughout a level. Scarlett, a Nurse in a skimpy revealing outfit holding a giant syringe can be found hiding somewhere within a level of each act of the main story, finding her will not only rejuvenate your characters health and blood gauge, but unlock various challenges. These challenges take part in an arena where you will have to meet certain criteria to win such as defeating only one type of enemy out of a swarm or killing a certain number within a time limit and so on. Finally gigolo missions are basically where your character meets up with various women he has met during the story and it is your job seduce them to receive a reward. This is achieved by staring at various parts of a woman’s body like her cleavage for example, the longer you stare without her catching you, the more points you acquire to fill a gauge. Once the meter is filled you can offer her a present (bought from the gift shop,) and you will receive more points towards another gauge depending on how much she likes the gift, fill this second gauge up and you have successfully seduced your lady. Honestly I’m not making this up; it really is in the game!

       In Killer Is Dead you take control of Mondo Zappa, a suave and sophisticated ladies man who is as sharp with a katana as he is with his one liners. He is part of a state sanctioned executioner’s office run by Bryan and Vivienne who take on contracts to hunt down and execute various monsters and creatures that have begun to inhabit Earth and the moon. The story, the way in which it is presented to the player and the style of it for that matter is quite different to your conventional game, its nothing new by any means, but certainly one some will like while others will not. The story will not be altogether clear at the start of the game, sometimes confusing even especially at the beginning as you try to wrap your head around the sheer quirkiness of it all. But this distinctly Japanese story becomes clearer the further through it you progress, as it slowly unravels and opens up with each mission the less perplexed you will be with a firmer grasp of the bigger picture.

       Grasshopper Manufacture (Suda 51) has done a great job with this game and don’t let anyone persuade you any different, as this game is just as good in its own right as any other game from this company. If you have played any other recent Suda 51 games such as No More Heroes or Lollypop Chainsaw then you should know just what to expect (or not to expect) here, and if you enjoyed them then you should enjoy Killer Is Dead. However if you have played a Suda 51 game before and ended up not liking it for one reason or another then there is a strong chance you wont like this game. What I like about Killer Is Dead is that they chose to make a hack-n-slash game without the pomp found in other games of the genre, with gameplay focused on avoid, defend and attack rather than constant super combos. By taking this direction in the gameplay they have managed to make the game stand out and stand tall on its own merits rather than following the same tried and tested formula and becoming lost in the genre. Yet the game hasn’t lost out, it packs a punch just as much as Bayonetta does with crazy bosses and swarms of enemies, Killer Is Dead just follows a more subtle yet quirky path with a different approach, this game is without doubt a must have for fans of the genre.

    Saturday, 2 November 2013

    Wii Classic Controller Pro

       With the Wii now being discontinued by Nintendo and the Wii U on store shelves (which is still to hit any kind of stride though there is plenty of time yet,) some may think it a bit odd to be talking about the Wii’s Classic Controller Pro. But with so many great games in the Wii library (yes there are a great many of them,) there will ultimately come a point, at least there did for me anyway, when certain games will come along which will make you carefully consider whether to buy this particular controller or not?

       I like the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and don’t have a problem with using them because as a Wii owner, I know that not all games will make me wave my arms about nonstop all day long. I also believe that they (Wii Remote/Nunchuk) still have great potential as a control method, and when utilised properly they can really add to a game and make the overall gaming experience a whole lot better, the Wii version of Resident Evil 4 is a prime example. Unfortunately we all know that for every game that got the controls right, there are probably two or more that didn’t for one reason or another. One issue with the Wii Remote is that it was never as sensitive or precise enough than Nintendo would have us believe all those years ago, and for some genres it wasn’t the revolutionary control method it should have been. It seemed the Wii Remote, Nunchuk and the first person shooter genre were going to be a match made in heaven, surly this was the perfect control method for such a genre? I still believe it is, or at least it was, if only coders had worked their magic better, and it still could be in the future if the tech was redesigned and beefed up somewhat. But as time has shown, it has never really panned out all that well with the odd exception that is, with many games in the FPS genre feeling as though they had received ported mouse and keyboard controls.

       This is the point where you start lamenting the lack of a second control option (at least I did,) and wished there had of been one right from the very inception of the console itself. Eventually a more traditional controller did appear in the form of the weirdly shaped Classic Controller, and then later with the much better shaped Classic Controller Pro. But the question for any Wii owner is whether it is worth buying one considering how they still seem to hold their price like any coveted Nintendo product? The answer really lies in the number of games you want to play that actually support this controller and whether or not you frequently use a moded Wii for emulation. If there are enough retail, virtual console and WiiWare releases that will outweigh the cost of buying one and you do use the console for emulation, the Classic Controller Pro is essential. Its worth pointing out that any game which supports the Classic Controller also supports the Classic Controller Pro as they are essentially the same product in different shells. 

       As a general controller goes, or a traditional controller in Nintendo’s case, this is in my humble opinion, the best the company has ever produced. I have never been that struck on Nintendo controllers, even when I had a SNES when I was younger, I always preferred to use a third party pad instead of Ninty’s very own. As for their other controllers through the generations, I find the NES pad extremely uncomfortable to hold for any length of time, I didn’t like the feel of the N64 analog stick and found the general design of the GameCube pad just weird. So for me at least, I find the very by-the-numbers design and button layout very comfortable and pleasing, especially when playing a game for several hours.

       The grips sit neatly in the palm of each hand and the shape lets my fingers naturally curl around the top of the pad onto the shoulder buttons while I find the two analog sticks perfectly placed apart for the thumbs. The face buttons are quite large and have a nice pop to them, and thankfully the d-pad is rather large for a Nintendo controller which gets a big thumbs up from me. That’s another complaint I had with the N64 and GameCube controllers, the d-pads on them were tiny and felt just something awful, so I’m very pleased Ninty didn’t do the same on this pad.

       This pad isn’t without its quirks though, and while I understand the reasoning behind them, it would have been nice to have had a pad featuring the rest of the bells-and-whistles we have all generally become accustomed to over the last two generations. This controller is not wireless, so to pass its inputs onto the console it plugs into the bottom of the Wii Remote and piggybacks off its wireless signal. It’s better than plugging the pad into the console and stretching a lead across the room, but annoying all the same as going down this cost cutting route means it also lacks rumble and a built in speaker. I’m sure the mandate behind the Classic Controller Pro was to produce a traditional style controller that would meet the needs of the target consumer it was aimed at, yet be produced for significantly less by stripping its features back to the core basics.

       This controller is well worth getting even if it does feed off the Wii Remote and lack several features, especially if you can find one cheap enough, though they do tend to hold their price. If you plan on playing The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles, Call of Duty games or the madcap No More Heroes 2 then you will find this controller a worthwhile investment and hard earned money well spent.

    Tuesday, 20 August 2013

    Three Laptop Cooler Reviews

       The UK has finally seen some sun this summer, so much so the country is experiencing a very rare and unusually long heat wave. Anyone wanting to play on their PS3 or 360 can forget it in this weather, unless that is you want to see the systems overheat and melt before your very eyes. But the same can be said of PC’s as well, whether you use them for playing games, surfing the web or other more demanding work, the weather has made computers all over the country break into a sweat and slow, not to mention cause their users to perspire due to the heat emitted from them.

       Unfortunately for laptop/notebook owners, the heat is somewhat of a more dangerous and pressing issue for their systems as they don’t contain anything like the exuberant and luxury driven cooling systems found in a typical PC. The kind of heat the UK has experienced over the past month has perished most peoples will to hit the on button, yet the UK will continue to experience the high temperatures and uncomfortable humidity for some time, making notebook owners like myself having to limit the use of the computer in case of overheating. I personally haven’t had any issues, but I have been keeping a close eye on the systems temperature gauge, and made a conscious decision not to do anything too demanding on the system, especially during the day.

       So since the start of the summer I have been on a quest to find the best laptop cooler for my laptop, I didn’t expect to buy more than one, but I am now currently on my third, so I have decided to write a review of each one and explain along the way why I have gone through several in a short amount of time. But before I continue I will set out the temperature benchmarks of my computer to show you the reader, just how much of a difference these 3 coolers have made if any.

       During winter and spring, before I decided to get a cooler, I would regularly check the temperature of my CPU using my computers monitoring software, what I found was it ran at about 35 degrees while idle, and around 38 running demanding programs such as a video editor or a game. During this summers heat wave (again prior to getting a cooler) my CPU temperature was around 40 degrees while idle, but 45/46 running games or my video editor. 

    The first Cooler I Bought 

    Belkin Cooler Stand

       This was the cheapest of the three cooling stands that I bought, weighing in at around £14, and designed for 15” laptops, it also just happened to be the most powerful of the three coolers that I bought. With a convex design that allows it to support a laptop from each corner while keeping the space directly underneath empty, and with the fan centred in the middle of the cooler, it allows the cool air to flow underneath and exit either side of the laptop. The Belkin Cooler Stand rests at a slight angle, propped up by a pull-out stand at the back; this is obviously to allow the fan to take in the maximum amount of air rather than from side vents that you see in other cooler designs.

       This cooler made a noticeable difference to the running and idle temperature of my CPU, it managed to shave off at least 3-4 degrees which I was honestly impressed with. The downside is that this cooler was extremely noisy, with it being comparable to how noisy the original model Xbox 360 was, but then the fan was pretty powerful and did a great job at its main task, cooling my laptop, so there is an obvious trade-off here.

       As good as it was at cooling my system, I quickly returned the Belkin Cooler back to the store I bought it from for a refund as I had a few issues with it. Firstly, the cooler did not like running off my laptops USB port, as it kept powering up and down constantly, so I had to power it from the mains using a USB mains adaptor. I’m not really sure if this issue was due to the product being faulty or whether it was down to the powerful fan and it being a case of my laptop couldn’t or wouldn’t supply it with enough power. The second issue I had, although intermittent, was with the fan itself, it was making a horrible grating noise, presumably from the fan coming out of its centre alignment and scraping the sides of its enclosure.

       I was disappointed that this product was faulty and that I had to return it as it did a great job of cooling my laptop. A 3-4 degree reduction in CPU heat might not sound like a great deal, but for an external cooling device, and one where the fan wasn’t positioned over my systems hotspots, is more than any user could hope for. I would still recommend this cooler though, and if the fan noise is not a big deal breaker for you, then its cooling effectiveness coupled with its cheap price could be a sure fire winner for you. 

    The Second Cooler I bought 

    Belkin V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge

       This cooling solution was slightly more expensive than the previous Belkin cooling stand at around £20, but has turned out to be the most used and reliable of the bunch thus far. Its not technically a cooling stand as such that’s meant to sit on a desk, but is designed to be more of a lap table that also features a fan cooling system. It is designed pretty much the same as the Belkin Cooling Stand, it has the same shape and form factor, allowing your system to sit on a bed of air, and it is perfectly sized for 15” laptops. The V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge differs in that while the top of the device is plastic, the underneath is cushioned to make it comfortable to rest on your legs.

       I wasn’t aware it was cushioned when I bought it, or that it was meant as a lap desk rather than a proper cooling stand, but I had paid for it so I wasn’t deterred and was willing to give it a go. It quickly became apparent however that there was a significant flaw in the design of this Cooling Lounge, one I find hard to understand how the designers failed to spot. At the back of this device there is a vent system running along the length of the unit, and this is supposedly where the centrally placed fan is meant to draw its air from, or a certain portion of its air. The problem is, as it’s a lap desk, there is a good chance that the fan will be obstructed underneath the Cooling Lounge from resting on a persons lap, which means the fan is starved of air and cant draw a sufficient amount of air through the vent at the back to make the fan effective at cooling, which defeats the point in putting a fan in there in the first place. So as you can imagine, using this resting on a desk to cool my laptop would be pointless, but I found a way to get around this little problem by resting the back of the device on a book to prop it up at an angle, and thus allowing the fan to breath and become effective at cooling again.

       The fan in this cooler is only half as powerful as the one in the previous stand, but it did at least have a noticeable effect on the temperature, but I only noticed a drop of a few degrees. It’s not anything amazing, but during a heat wave such a small drop is more than welcomed, and I guess the fact that you can use this as a comfortable lap desk is an added bonus.

       I have been using the Belkin V2 Laptop Cooling Lounge an awful lot, and once I propped it up I was more than satisfied with the performance of it. But although I like this cooler and haven’t experienced any problems with it, I cant say that it is one that I would necessarily recommend as a cooling solution to be placed on a desk, but I would recommend it if your after a lap desk though. 

    The Final Cooler I Bought 

    Cooler Master NotePal U3

       Firstly there are two versions of this cooler you should be aware of: the U3 which I’m reviewing here and the previous iteration the U2, the only difference between the two are the amount of fans they come with, the U2 having two and the U3 having three (more on the U2 later.)

       The U2/U3 NotePal design is a pure stroke of genius, there’s no two ways about it, and it makes me wonder if there could ever be a better designed external laptop cooler. The NotePal design is simple, minimalistic and for the most part well thought out, and with the U3 being the most expensive of the three laptop coolers that I have bought at £30, it is (thankfully) sturdy and really well made as it feels weighty and expensive rather than a cheap piece of imported plastic.

       The idea behind this cooler is that it comes with three movable fans, so the user can place each fan under a hotspot or vent on their specific laptop, which in turn helps to cool the system better than other coolers on the market that generally have centrally located fans. Each fan is held within a plastic bracket, and it is the bracket that clips onto the underneath of the NotePal’s aluminium mesh stand. All the fans can be removed from the brackets which is handy, especially where this cooler is concerned, and all three are connected to a fan speed controller that also doubles as the USB power plug. The U3s box says it supports laptops from 17” up to 19” and it is certainly the largest of the three coolers that I have bought, but I found it was fine for supporting my 15” laptop as the rubber pad at the bottom of the stand, coupled with my computers rubber feet, easily stopped it from moving anywhere.

       So you would think that with such a winning design that this cooler would be without a doubt the best of the three and a sure fire winner, well you’d be wrong. This cooler certainly ticks all the right boxes, but than manages to mess everything up in a crucial element of its makeup that would make it all work great. That element is the fans, which frankly are just really crap, they might be whisper quiet, but what good is that when they are significantly underpowered. I’m not sure if they are lacking the power they need to run at their true full speed, or whether they are funning at full speed and are just a rubbish choice of fans to use with this cooler. Adding a speed adjuster to these fans was silly because at maximum speed the fans barely draw enough air through them to move a thread of hair, and when set to minimum speed they are utterly pointless, as you would be more likely to feel a gentle breeze in space than from all three fans combined on this setting. Just how these poor quality fans made it into this unit that has such a great design is beyond me, as from the testing I did with this cooler it made absolutely no difference to the temperature of my laptop with the fans positioned under two hotspots and a vent. In fact my computer ran hotter during the heat wave so I quickly switched back to the trusty Belkin Cooling Lounge, so as you can imagine, this cooler was a real disappointment for me and the least used of all three.

       As it stands I can’t really say I would recommend this cooler, purely on the basis that the key components that are imperative to make it work (the three fans) are useless, so no matter how good the design of this cooler is, its pointless and a waste of money right out of the box. There is a saving grace to this system though, but only if you are prepared to spend another £20-£30, this systems potential can at least be salvaged. Because the fans can detach from the plastic brackets that hold them onto the stand, you can buy your own faster more powerful and effective fans rather cheaply off EBay or Amazon and either try rewiring them up to the NotePals speed controller, or buy a separate speed controller altogether. The other option is to try buying the U2 version of this cooler as I have read in a few places that the fans in that particular model are much better than the ones in the U3, but I have no way of verifying this so buy at your own risk.

    Wednesday, 26 June 2013

    Xbox 180

       The recent 180 that Microsoft has done regarding its restrictive Xbox One console features and policies has taken many by surprise, not only because no one (including myself) believed they would revise their standpoint, but simply because they seemed to dig their heels in and refuse to listen or budge on the matter in the face of overwhelming opposition and anger. But under pressure, and facing commercial annihilation, Microsoft finally relented and dropped their very controversial restrictions they had so vehemently defended over the past several weeks.

       Gone are the restrictions placed on lending/selling/trading your games, where games were tied to an account and nothing more than pay-to-play licences. Now consumer ownership seems to be restored, leaving consumers to do with their games what they wish, as the system for game ownership and used games will work as it does currently. Gone is the dreaded 24h mandatory software validation, as the console no longer needs the internet to function, though an internet connection is required upon first time setup of the Xbox One console, swings and roundabouts people! The region locking has also gone up in smoke as the console will be region free, good news for importers, that’s if there is anything worth importing on the system that is.

       While this story has a good ending in that gamers have brought about a good meaningful change, just like in the case of the Mass Effect 3 ending, for Microsoft at least, it was a simple business decision born out by simple financial fact: if they didn’t drop the console restrictions and recant, the Xbox One would turn into a financial disaster, one that would only add to the Windows 8 debacle. Microsoft still want to block used games, have an always on machine and have a controlled eco system, but seeing how little pre-orders were being placed for their console, and little interest in it outside of the controversy, they had little choice but to change tack.


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