Intel i5-10600K CPU review: The heart of a new PC build

While it’s true that much of my video gaming these days is on on either my Xbox Series X or my PlayStation 5, I’m still a proud card carrying member of the PC Master Race and I started my gaming on the venerable ZX81 way back in the dark ages of personal computing.

So when PR for Intel Australia/New Zealand got in touch and offered me the chance to test out its 10th Generation i5-10600K CPU, I jumped at the chance. I was keen to re-build my PC with a newer generation CPU & see how Intel’s 10th Gen chip compares to the i5 8400 that I had been using for the last four years or so.

The Origin Story

For this new build, I was going to need to purchase a new motherboard for the i5-10600K as the Asus B365M-K motherboard that houses the 8400 doesn’t support Intel’s new LGA1200 socket form factor (the 8400 is the LGA1151 form factor).

I spent days investigating the cons and pros of a variety of motherboard chipsets that would work with the i5-10600K and eventually settled on an Asus TUF Gaming Z490-plus wi-fi motherboard from New Zealand retailer Computer Lounge.

The Asus board seemed to rank favourably with the review sites I follow and I’ve long been a fan of Asus’ motherboards as I’ve found they’re generally constructed well and offer great features for the price.

The board even came with a certificate of reliability from Asus, ver. Verifying that it had passed a variety of reliability tests that included vibration, mechanical shock, thermal shock and solderability tests on the motherboard’s capacitors and chokes.

The TUF Gaming Z490 looked just the thing that I needed but I’d be lying if it said it was easy finding a Z4890 mother board: Most retailers were either sold out, didn’t stock Z490 boards any more or were leaning towards the newer chipset for Intel’s 11th Generation CPUs.

The Set-Up

OK, let’s talk about the heart of the build: The CPU for a moment. Intel’s i5-10600K is part of the company’s Comet Lake CPU line up which was released around a year ago and is a 6-core, 12-thread CPU running at 4.1Ghz. It has a maximum clock speed of 4.5Ghz but apparently can be overclocked quite easily to 5.0Ghz. I don’t plan to overclock – at least not at this stage anyway.

So, with the i5-10600K kindly provided by Intel and the Asus Z490 motherboard having arrived safely, It was time to re-build my PC.

Apart for the new CPU and motherboard, all the other components were straight transplants from my old PC; The  SSD (which had the Windows 10 Pro OS install), the HDD (I haven’t got around to getting an M.2 drive yet), two sticks of PNY’s 8Gb RGB RAM and my dependable but ageing Sapphire RX580 GPU.

I was ready to begin, optimistic that I’d be done and dusted before I knew it. Oh, how wrong I was.

Remember earlier in this piece I mentioned how I was no stranger to building PCs? Well, I have to say that this was probably the most problematic build I’ve ever done. Installing the i5-10600K onto the motherboard was the easy part as was installing Cooler Master H410R air cooler (it too came from my old PC and luckily for me, supported the newer LGA1200 socket mounting holes).

I hit a few hiccups during the build, all a result of my fumbling fingers, but soon enough it was up and running. I could see that the i5-10600K was proving significantly better performer than the 8400 it replaced. It’s touted as a great CPU choice for gamers which works for me.

The Payoff

I tested the CPU using Geekbench, CPU-Z, Realbench and Maxon’s Cinebench R23 benchmarking tools.

Using Cinebench, I tested both the 10600K and 8400 on core performance. The 8400 returned a single core reading of 4802 (I forgot to do a multi-core test before swapping out CPUs) and the 10600K returned scores of1253 (single-core) and 8918 (multi-core).

Geekbench returned a score of 1256 (single-core) and 6483 (multi-core). CPU-Z returned scores of 513.7 (single thread) and 3813 (multi-thread) for the 10600K.

Realbench tests image editing, H.264 video encoding speeds, OpenCL and heavy multitasking and delivered a score of 145,369.

To be honest, I have no idea what any of these numbers mean in terms of whether a CPU is good or not but in general world PC usage, the Intel i5-10600K performed remarkably well and faster than my previous 8th Generation i5 8400 did so I’m extremely happy.

So, that’s it for this build post. In a future post, I’ll test the 10600K’s gaming performance.

A huge thanks to Intel Australia/New Zealand for the test i5-10600K CPU.

No surprises: Ratchet & Clank proves a hit with gamers

New insights from product comparison site PriceSpy reveal that gamers are still very much looking to buy PS5 games, despite it not being readily available to buy – with the most-popular game across the month of June revealed as Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart (PS5).

Released on 11 June 2021, Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart (PS5) is a third-person shooter platform game developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the PlayStation 5. 

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Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, New Zealand country manager for PriceSpy, says: “The current gaming market is extremely interesting to watch right now, as buying behaviours appear to be changing.

“Even though Sony’s latest console, the PS5, isn’t widely available to buy, gamers are not being deterred by the lack of console availability. In fact, our latest data suggests the new release, Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart for the PS5, was overall most-popular game shoppers were looking to buy in June.

“But it’s not just new games shoppers are interested in buying, as our popularity data also found people were interested in older games, too.”

According to PriceSpy popularity data, Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) and Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure for Switch ranked second and third most-popular games in June, despite launching in 2020 and 2019 respectively.

Liisa continues:  “Another old favourite, Cyberpunk 2077 for the PS4 (which launched in 2020) rose back up the popularity rankings again, reaching fourth most-popular in June. 

“A big factor as to why this game has become popular again is its price, as it can currently be purchased for $47.69.”

“Finally, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch), which first launched back in March 2017 ranked fifth most-popular in June.

“Right now, there appears to be a wealth of games available to buy – and for those happy to play older games, there’s some great prices available,” says Matinvesi-Bassett .

“If people are happy to wait around at least three months after a new game is released, our historical pricing insights suggest price points can drop considerably after – so it may be worthwhile holding off buying straight away.”

“For those looking to buy a new game, we always recommend people take their time and carry out some price research first, as this important buying step can save hundreds of dollars in the long term.”

Win with PriceSpy and GameJunkieNZ

The kind folks at PriceSpy has got in touch and we’ve joined forces to give away two (2) of the top two games across June.

To enter, all you need to do is email on the game you’re most looking forward to this year. Ts&Cs: New Zealand residents only. One entry per person. Entries close 30 July. The winner will be contacted via email.

D-Link DAP-X1860 wif-fi 6 mesh range extender (byte-sized review)

D-Link’s DAP-X1860 wi-fi 6 mesh range extender is, literally, plug and play – and it couldn’t be more simple.

For the most part, D-link network devices are a breeze to install and add to a home network and the company’s DAP-X1860 is no different: You plug it into a free wall socket anywhere in your house, set it up using D-Link’s super simple smart phone app, connect to the network you want to extend, and, bam, you’re surfing the web in no time.

The plug & play extender shares the same network name as your router and being powered by a household power outlet means you can move it around your house easily until you find the spot that provides the best coverage.

The DAP-X1860 has two internal antennas and a 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet port on its left hand side, along with reset button & WPS button. A three level indicator LED lets you know how strong the wi-fi signal is: Three bars and it’s a full strength signal.

D-Link says the device will achieve speeds up to 600Mbps over a 2.4Ghz wi-fi network & up to 1200Mbps over a 5Ghz network. The router in my 225sqm single-storey house is my garage and plugged the DAP-X1860 into wall sockets in the main bedroom, the hallway and the kitchen/dining room (which is the farthest from the router) then used Ookla speed test to obtain upload and download speeds.

Main bedroom: 62Mbps download and 25Mbps upload

Hallway: 34.2Mbps download and 27.2Mbps upload

Kitchen/dining (two bars of wi-fi strength): 23.3Mbps download, 10.9Mbps upload

It’s clear that the hallway was the best location for the DAP-X1860 to get the best speeds, although the speeds are nowhere near the up to 600Mbps claimed by D-Link (but, of course, wi-fi speeds are determined by several factors).

D-Link’s DAP-X1860 will cost you $NZ249 ($AU229) and it’s a good option if you want to eliminate wi-fi deadspots in your house. One thing to take into account, though, it is a bulky unit and took up the bulk of a horizontal double wall plug so keep that in mind when you’re planning on where you need to plug devices.

Zwift review: Sweating buckets but going nowhere

In the New Zealand summer, I ride my bike a lot: To work, on the weekends. It’s warm and it’s sunny. I can wear short sleeves.

Winter is a different beast: It’s cold, it rains, there’s often frost in the mornings when I have to head to work, it’s dark when I have to head home (and darkness + motorists = not a fun time), meaning I get lazy and the bike tends to stay in the garage a bit more during the working week.

I’ve also noticed that the older I get, the more of a “fair weather cyclist” I’ve become. Yes, yes, it’s not thinking of the planet when I take my car to work on a cold winter morning – but I have got used to its heated seats!

Winter, and all that comes with it, is where a training platform like Zwift fits in. Zwift is an indoor virtual training system that has “gameified” fitness training, providing a fair bit more motivation than the old traditional magnetic wind trainers that I used when I was younger (and probably fitter).

The easiest way to describe Zwift is, I guess, to think of it as a MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game where cyclists and runner can interact and train with each other in virtual locations.

Currently, Zwift has virtual approximations of New York, London, Paris, the world of Watopia and the recently released Makuri Islands, that has a distinctly Japanese feel to it. The routes are pre-determined meaning you can’t go off the beaten path and ride where you want but a certain points during a ride you’ll have the option to change the route and go another direction for a bit of variety.

Zwift costs a monthly subscription to use and full disclosure here: Zwift provided me with a year subscription to the service for review purposes. While I was using it, there were thousands of cyclists and runner using the service from around the world.

I’ll say this from the outset: I have never been a huge fan of indoor training. I’d much rather be riding my bike, on the trails, than confined to a garage riding a stationery trainer but sometimes needs must, especially during winter when it’s, frankly, miserable outside.

As I write this, I have so many thoughts running through my head about indoor training: “You need to be motivated to train indoors as it’s a very different beast to riding outside where you have the breeze in your face & changing scenery”, “Just feels weird sometimes with no back wheel and I’m not controlling where I’m going”, “Man, I’m sweating heaps. I should have set up a fan.”

I’d heard about Zwift and have some cycling friends that use it but I’d never used it myself, nor a smart trainer like the Tacx Neo 2 smart trainer that the kind PR folk sent over as well. You don’t need a smart trainer for Zwift – the old magnetic style will work just fine – but the current generation of smart trainers add quite a little bit of realism to your workout, which makes sense.

Talking of smart trainers, let’s segway a bit and talk about the trainer that was provided for this Zwift test as this review is as much about the technology as it is the program.

Tacx’s Neo 2 trainer is quite amazing and it replicated the feel of being on a road much more realistically than any other trainer I’ve used. Don’t get me wrong, you still know you’re on a trainer but it does a good job of making things feel as real as possible.

With the Neo 2, you remove your bike’s rear wheel and fit it to the trainer using the supplied quick release skewer. The Neo 2 has two fold out legs – it reminds me of the shuttle Tydirium from Return of the Jedi with its fold down wings – which lock into place, providing a stable base. It connects to Zwift via bluetooth and measure power output, distance and speed. It also has a substantial inertia flywheel and can simulate slopes up to 25% gradient and can simulate descents, also. It supports Shimano and Sram cassettes (8 to 11 tooth) but you can apparently fit a wider ratio mountain cassette.

It was unlike any indoor trainer I’ve used before and when I “rode” over a wooden bridge I could feel the vibration from the wooden planks as I went over them. It was quite surreal but kind of cool at the same time.

I used my iPad to connect to Zwift (attaching it to my bike using a supplied mount) but you can use something like Apple TV (if it’s an recent enough generation) that will connect to TV. Set up was easy: I downloaded the app, logged in, entered a few personal stats and I was off pedaling in a matter of minutes.

The app automatically connected to the smart trainer the moment I turned a pedal, with nice big icons showing me that the two were connected and everything was doing what it was supposed to.

There’s also a companion app for your smart phone which lets you see a lot of the data on your bigger screen and lets you interact with other riders or runner by doing things like sending messages or giving them a “wave” for a good effort.

Once you’ve selected your ride, be it a training ride with riders of the same fitness level, one of the many races that are scheduled or just a tour around your selected world, you start pedaling around the virtual world, with the app showing you your speed, cadence and watts (of power) per kilo (of body weight). It’s all very scientific.

I made the conscious decision that while I had the trainer and Zwift that I would train indoors every second day, and I generally stuck to that. It helped that the weather was pretty average a couple of weekends, too: That made the decision to ride in the garage even more appealing.

For me, when I used to race and use a wind trainer, the hardest thing was remaining motivated and I did find that with Zwift sometimes.

Some sessions I would push hard, sweat dripping off my face, trying to catch the Zwifter in front, other times I would lack energy and motivation and every pedal stroke felt laboured and I’ll give up after about 20 minutes. Like riding on the road or trails, I find I have to be in the right mood.

Most of the time, though, I was committed and pushed my 52-year-old body as hard as I could, doing a mix of training and free ride sessions to just get familiar and see how things were. It wasn’t unusual to walk of the garage dripping with sweat.

One of the big differences with using the Tacx Neo 2 to being on a real bicycle is you can’t stop pedaling and freewheel down a hill like you can on the real thing, using it to rest your aching legs: If you stop pedaling, your virtual avatar stops pedaling.

You can make a Zwift session as hard or as easy as you like: One particularly tough 30 minute workout had two 20 second sprints and a climb that got to 18% gradient in some places. I was hurting by the time I created the summit but I stayed ahead of the rider shadowing me all the way up and pipped – I think – a rider ahead of me with a final burst of what little energy I had left!

While I much prefer actually getting out on my bike on weekends and I couldn’t see myself using an indoor training platform much during the warmer months, Zwift is surprisingly motivating and has seriously changed my perception of what indoor training can be.

When it’s cold and wet like in winter, I can see a smart trainer like the Tacx Neo 2 and the online roads and worlds in Zwift as the perfect training partners for when it’s too cold and too dark to hit the trails or tarmac on two-wheels.

A huge thanks to the team at Sling & Stone in Auckland, New Zealand (especially Mikaela and Sam), for organising the Tacx Neo 2 trainer and providing a subscription for Zwift. Thanks, team!

Xbox & Bethesda showcase, E2 2021

This morning, I woke up at stupid o’clock – 5am New Zealand time – to watch the Xbox & Bethesda showcase for E3 2021 (from the comfort of my bed via my iPad) and of all the games that were announced – 30 games apparently (I didn’t count, sorry) – the one that I was most excited about was … Psychonauts 2 from Double Fine Productions.

Why Psychonauts 2, you probably didn’t ask? Well, it’s because after backing the damn thing a few years ago when it was seeking funds on a crowd sourcing site in 2016, raising $3,829,024 we now have an actual release date: August 25 2021.

It’s great that a date has been locked in but, sorry, Tim Schaefer, I know how the gaming industry works: I’ll only believe it when I have my PC backer code in my hot little hands. To be honest, though, I’m pleased I didn’t spend an additional $18 for an Xbox or PlayStation code: The game’s coming to Xbox Gamepass day one, seeing as Xbox bought Double Fine a while back.

Anyway, here’s the Psychonauts 2 trailer from earlier today:

Did you watch the event? If not, you can watch the entire event which is posted at the top of this post but personally, the game’s that caught my eye the most – apart from Psychonauts 2, of course – were Stalker 2, Microsoft Flight Simulator and A Plague Tale Requim. The 90 minute presentation opened with Xbox and PC exclusive Starfield, but the trailer didn’t show any game play so I’m really not sure about that one yet. I guess we’ll know more in the lead up to the November, 2022 release. Yes, November 2022.

Other key announcement included:

Starfield (Xbox Series X/S, PC):

Redfall (Arcane Studios, Xbox Series X/S, PC):

Fallout 76 Steel Reign & Expeditions expansions:

Dell XPS 15 9500 laptop: Portable computing power

When Dell’s XPS 15 9500 landed at GamejunkieNZ Towers three weeks ago, I set myself the goal of using it instead of my desktop PC.

Fast forward three weeks and I’m pleased to report that apart from a couple of times when I had to use programs that were only installed on my desktop PC, Dell’s XPS 9500 was my go-to at-home computing device. My desktop PC has been gathering dust!

Out of the box, Dell’s XPS 9500 has a stand-out white aluminium chassis with a woven carbon fibre pattern on the interior. The colour is called frost white and it looks superb and is a nice departure from the more traditional darks and bare metal commonly seen on laptops. The chassis has a real quality feel to it, too, with thin bezels around the panel, that maximises the screen real estate.

The 9500 has excellent build quality, too, tipping the scales at 1.8kg, so you’ll definitely notice it if you pick it up with one hand or lug it in your backpack.

Vital statistics: Intel i7 1075H CPU @2.60Ghz, 16Gb dual channel DDR4 memory (at 1600Mhz), 4Gb nvidia Geforce GTX1650 TI GPU, 512Gb SSD, Windows 10

The model I reviewed is powered by Intel’s 10th generation i7 1075H CPU, a six core, 12-thread processor (base clock of 2.60Ghz, max turbo frequency of 5Ghz, TDP of 45W) that has long been the go-to for high-end gaming laptops. A couple of months ago, the review configuration would set you back $NZ4698.99. Customisation options include opting for a Intel integrated graphics rather than a discrete card, i5 or i9 Intel CPUs and up to 64Gb of memory and 2Tb of storage.

Connectivity wise, the left side houses two USB C ports while the right side is home to an SD card reader, another USB C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Two of the USB C ports have Thunderbolt 3 support.

The lack of a USB Type A port initially caused me concern – I still have a lot of thumb drives floating about – but my concern was short lived as I found Dell had cleverly included a USB A and HDMI adapter in the accessories pack.

The work surface has a neat carbon fibre weave pattern.

Gorgeous screen

Lifting up the lid you’re greeted with a 15.6-inch touch screen display that is, quite frankly, stunning in action, offering a native 4K resolution with a 16:10 aspect ratio.

Images are crisp and clear, as is video and video streaming, and it’s probably one of the best laptop screens I’ve used, if I’m being honest. You can tweak the colour settings using Dell’s in-built PremierColor app which let’s you select a variety of colour presets, including for watching movies, sport or using it at night time

Speakers are located either side of the keyboard, and again they offer excellent performance, highlighting that this is a high-end laptop that is designed to “Wow”. The speakers provided excellent sound reproduction, with deep bass and nice treble and mid tones.

Battery life is, of course, dependent on what you do but I think with general day to day usage you should get around 10-12 hours from a full charge of the 86W battery before requiring wall juice.

The big questions, though, is how does it perform, especially since I mainly used the XPS for gaming (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) because I was super keen to see how the GTX1650Ti handled some of my favourite games. (Of course, I didn’t just limit the laptop to gaming: I also streamed online content (Netflix, YouTube) and did general day to day not-so-exciting stuff. I mainly played games on it, though.)

Well, I’m glad you asked. The answer is, I’m happy to report, excellently. It performs excellently.

Now, you’re gaming with power …

I played Gears of War 5, Forza Horizon’s 4, Titanfall 2 and cyberpunk pixel game Cloudpunk, all with medium to high graphics settings, as well as spent some time with recently released Days Gone a PlayStation title that has now come to PC.

Before I get to the gaming performance, I want to talk about the cooling this thing has. It has a lot of ventilation: There’s a massive exhaust port across the back edge of the device and a sizeable air intake on the bottom that scoops cool air onto the innards. There is also a couple of air “slits” on each side of the underside of the chassis. This thing takes cooling to new heights.

I also tested the laptop with the in-built Gears of War 5 benchmark (recommended medium to high graphics settings). It returned an average of 60FPS (average GPU frame rate 73FPS) at 1080p; an average of 59.9 frames per second at 1440p (average GPU frame rate 63.3FPS); and at native 4K an average of 46FPS (average GPU frame rate 47.2FPS).

I also tested the Dell on PlayStation Studio’s Days Gone, which delivered around 65 frames per second with a mix of medium to high graphics settings at a maximum resolution of 1440 x 900 thanks to the 16:10 aspect ratio. This game, too, had the Dell’s cooling system working over time so it did get loud at times.

I also run 3D Mark’s Timespy DX12 benchmark, scoring a “great” 2898 (GPU score 2667, CPU score 5695) and the Firestrike DX11 benchmark, delivering a score of 6836 (GPU score 7358, physics score 15311, combined score 2895).

As I mentioned earlier, under load the Dell can get quite noisy – not so loud that you can’t speak to the person next to you but it’s noticeable – so you need to ensure that no part of the underside intake is blocked when you’re doing intensive tasks.

This isn’t a laptop that I’d recommend taking to bed and resting on your duvet or using while lying on the carpet: It needs room to breath and space for air to flow. If you plan on doing gaming or high-intensity applications, this is a “use on a desk” laptop.

Top, the Dell XPS 15 9500 running the Gears of War 5 benchmark. Below, running Forza 4 Horizons.

Final verdict

After about three week’s using the Dell XPS 15 9500, I’m happy to report that this is one of the best laptops I’ve ever used. Hell, it could even be the best laptop I’ve ever used.

The screen is utterly fantastic, the performance is excellent thanks to Intel’s i71075H CPU which ensured no system bottlenecks, and it offers great gaming performance thanks to the nVidia Geforce GTX1650Ti dedicated GPU.

I could also see this laptop replacing my ageing desktop PC which is starting to show its age with an eighth generation Intel i5 8400 and a few-years-old AMD RX580 graphics card.

Thanks to Botica Butler Raudon Partners & Passion PR for arranging the loan unit.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 review: Portability in a sleek package

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 ticks all the boxes for a nice laptop: It’s smart looking, it’s lightweight and it’s nicely spec’ed (available in both Intel and AMD CPU configurations and 13.5 and 15-inch variants). 

The review model I was provided was powered by a custom “Microsoft Surface edition” eight-core AMD Ryzen 7 [running at 2Ghz], 16Gb of DDR 4 memory, 512Gb SSD storage, and a 15-inch screen (2496 x 1664 with a 3:2 aspect ratio) and after using it for a bit, I reckon it’s perfect for creative types and productivity.  

So that’s what I used it for, mainly: I wrote this review on it, I tweaked Word documents on it, I browsed websites on it, and I could see it as the ideal replacement for a tired work laptop that needs replacing with something that looks classy and performs better than your current one.

The moment I took the Surface Laptop 4 out of its box I could see this was a premium product, with a smart black metal chassis punctuated by a silver Windows logo smack bang in the middle of the lid. It’ll set you back $NZ1749 for the13.5-inch model and $NZ2499 for the 15-inch model, that I reviewed.

The Surface Laptop 4 just looks classy, and tipping the scales at 1.3kg, it won’t add much weight to your backpack or satchel if you e-scoot or cycle to the office or university or wherever. You can hoist it with one hand without breaking a sweat.

It’s incredibly thin, too: amazingly thin, actually, with great build quality. It felt rigid and sturdy with no creaks or flexing. 

That thinness does come with a downside, though, depending on your view of how much connectivity a laptop should have. The Surface Laptop 4 doesn’t have a lot of ports, with the left-hand side housing USB Type A and USB Type C ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack while the right hand side has the proprietary charge portt – and that’s it. If you want ports to connect more things, you’ll need to get a dongle or something but for most people it should do the job.

It has a 10-point multi touch PixelSense screen that looks sharp, displaying text and documents clearly and crisply, although with a 3:2 aspect ratio, the bezels were a little thick for my liking .  

Talking of text and documents that brings me to the keyboard which is extremely comfortable to type on. As someone who’s been able to touch type for almost 30 years, I found the keyboard on the Surface Laptop 4 just a dream to use, with nice travel from the keys. It really does make for a pleasant typing experience.  

The nice sized touch pad is super sensitive, too, which means it’ll pick up the most minute of digit movements as you slide your fingers across its surface.   

Microsoft claims the Surface Laptop 4 has a battery life of up to 17.5 hours and while it has great battery life, I suggest it was more like 12 to 13 hours of standard use, which is still fantastic and means you won’t need to live near a power point when you’re working on that important document.

Performance-wise, I’ve never used a laptop with a Ryzen CPU but the Surface Laptop 4 seemed zippy enough, handling everything I threw at it: Word processoring, video streaming, web browsering and the like, and while it’s not a gaming machine, it did manage to run easy games like the excellent-but-old BladeRunner (off Have no illusions, though, this isn’t a gaming laptop so don’t load up Cyberpunk 2077 or Call of Duty and expect it to run like a PC with a discrete graphics card because it won’t. This isn’t a gaming machine.

In an attempt to make myself feel like a real tech reviewer, I benchmarked the Laptop 4 with Cinebench and Geekbench 5, returning scores of 4862, and 533 (single core) and 4138 (multi-core) respectively but if I’m being honest, I really don’t know what those numbers mean.  

After using the Surface Laptop 4 for a few weeks, I’m sold on its credentials as a solid, productivity device that would be just the ticket for the home office (or office, office) or a creative type who wants something light and portable to finish writing their first novella on.  

Many thanks to Acumen Republic PR in New Zealand for providing the review unit.

New Australian screen incentives will hit New Zealand’s fast-growing games industry, says NZGDA

I’ve long been a supporter of the New Zealand video game development industry and when used to write about games as a journalist I loved it when I was able to talk to Kiwi developers about what they were working on. To that, I thought I’d share the media release from the New Zealand Game Developers Association about what it believes Australia’s recently announced tax incentives for video game development will mean for the $324m video game making scene in Aotearoa.

Australia’s introduction of a 30 to 40% tax incentive for video games will halt the growth of New Zealand’s video games sector, which has been the fastest growing part of our screen industry in recent years, says New Zealand Game Developers Association chairperson Chelsea Rapp.

“Our interactive industry can’t access New Zealand’s own screen incentives, which is bad enough, but now with this competition from Australia, we’ll see a clear brain drain with investment following,” says Rapp.

“While New Zealand has an incredibly talented and globally successful games industry, we can’t compete when you could get a 40% discount to relocate to Australia. Any chance we had of attracting overseas studios to set up shop in New Zealand ends in 2022, and some New Zealand studios are already looking at expanding into Australia instead of expanding locally.”

Over the last decade New Zealand’s video games industry has been our fastest growing creative industry and a major digital exporter. The sector earned $323.9 million in the year to 1 April 2020 and had been growing 42% annually, but this is now at risk. 

The new Australian scheme is similar to the New Zealand Screen Production Grant, which attracts major film and TV productions to shoot here, but which interactive media is banned from accessing. As part of its annual Budget the Australian Government announced a 30% refundable tax offset for video game productions from 2022. In addition, several Australian states top this up by a further 10%. Worth over $250 billion annually, video games is the largest entertainment industry in the world and many countries compete to attract studios. Similar incentives for video games exist in Canada and Europe.

The New Zealand Game Developers Association has already proposed to the Government that our visual effects grant could easily be adapted to include video games as the workers, qualifications and tools used are largely the same. Several large international studios have inquired about moving to New Zealand, including in the midst of covid-19 lockdowns, but have been rejected.

It is also likely that any video game incentives would benefit locally-owned businesses more than Hollywood productions. The Association has also proposed an Interactive Innovation Fund to develop locally-owned productions. “Film productions often leave town when they are finished, whereas a game studio is far more likely to remain in New Zealand, contributing to the local economy and helping to build lasting skills and communities,” continued Rapp. 

Major sporting tournaments will also be attracted to Australia instead of here according to the New Zealand Esports Federation. “This is not speculation, studios and investors are already huddling today about a shift to Australia, in order to be more competitive. Kiwi jobs have unfortunately been lost to inertia. Given the times our Government should be seeking to accelerate the industry not handicap it,” says John McRae, VP of the New Zealand Esports Federation. 

“I fear if this incentive is not met or better we will see a hollowing out of the gaming and esports industry in New Zealand. That will hamper innovation and job creation in related sectors including defence, medical tech, education technology and film.” 

Certainly something for the NZ government to think about, given how successful the New Zealand game development industry is. You can find out more about the Australian Digital Games Tax Offset here and find more data on New Zealand’s interactive media sector see:

A screen capture from Auckland game studio RocketWerkz’s upcoming game Icarus.

Lucid dreams & walking nightmares: Darq developer interview

Darq, a 2.5D side-scrolling puzzler featuring a boy called Lloyd who is tormented by the horrors in his lucid dreams, is the work of essentially one man: Wlad Marhulets, who was a movie score composer when he decided to decided to check out videogame development engine Unity and make a video game.

After 3.5 years of development – and many, many hours later – Darq was released in 2019, has spawned two pieces of DLC (The Tower and The Crypt) and recently, the Complete Edition was released. Quite an achievement and Marhulets even wrote a book about his development experience.

Thanks to publisher Feardemic, I played the Complete Edition and I enjoyed it a lot thanks to its visual style that has hints of Tim Burton and game play that reminds me of Little Nightmares and Limbo.

After playing through the main game, I had a few questions about the development of the game, though, and Marhulets’ transition from composer to game developer, so I asked Feardemic PR man Scott Millard if I could ask Marhulets some questions about it – and he was more than happy to.

What follows is an email interview with on making Darq, the lessons he learned and his journey from composer to game developer. A big thanks to Wlad and Scott for their willingness to take part and to Wlad for the prompt reply to my questions!

Wlad, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve had a career in music with scores for Hollywood movies so what was the catalyst for wanting to make a video game? Was it something that you always wanted to do or was it a random, lightbulb moment that just popped into your head one day that you wanted to try something different?

Hi Gerard, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Although my name is listed in the credits of some Hollywood movies, I was still in the early stage of my film composing career at the time. Fresh out of college, I was incredibly lucky to join the roster of GSA, one of the most established talent agencies in Hollywood (representing such composers as John Williams). I got to score a number of indie movies and contributed additional music to a few larger films, working alongside Marco Beltrami, a renowned composer known for his scores for Scream, World War Z, and others. As I was learning the craft of film scoring, I came to realize that I had a strong desire for creating a project of my own. Something that would allow for full creative freedom. Something that I could both make and write music for. I didn’t know what it would be at the time. A short film? An animation? A video game?

Wlad Marhulets

Once, I had a month off in between film scoring gigs, so I decided to download Unity and just give it a try. I felt like a kid in a candy store – it was love at first sight. A month later, I had a little prototype that barely resembled what DARQ looks like now. A friend of mine, a filmmaker, encouraged me to put together a short trailer and upload it to Steam Greenlight (which was still around at the time). So I did just that. To my surprise, DARQ became #10 of the most upvoted titles on Greenlight. It was covered by major media outlets. I got thousands of followers pretty much overnight. It was both incredible and terrifying. What was I supposed to do? I had three to four months’ worth of savings. I also had a game that apparently was popular before it was even close to being made. Needless to say, at that point, I practically knew nothing whatsoever about game development. It seemed completely crazy to quit film scoring to pursue a career in an unfamiliar industry without any skills. While I did it gradually, I ultimately quit my career in film and transitioned to full-time development. I had to learn coding, 3D modeling, texturing, animation, game design, level design, marketing, community management, running a business, law, and many other things completely from scratch. It changed my life forever. 

How did you come up with the idea for Darq? Talk me through the thought processes and inspirations that lead you to wanting to make a horror/scare game as your first video game? It would seem like it would be a difficult genre for a first video game, right?

I spent about five seconds deciding what game I was going to make. Really. I felt no weight of that decision because it was supposed to be just a hobby project that was never meant to be seen by anyone. Making a psychological horror set in a lucid dream sounded like an interesting idea to explore. After all, anything can happen in a world that’s completely abstract, which creates endless opportunities for unexplored gameplay ideas. Although I don’t tend to have nightmares, I did have a number of lucid dreams in the past and they were quite fascinating experiences. I remember trying to read a book in one of them, but I couldn’t because letters would jump around. That’s why the title “DARQ” is the misspelling of the word “DARK.” That is also why all in-game text that is not a part of the user interface is always misspelled, animated, and hard to read. Again, the title was set in stone in a matter of seconds. No alternative titles were considered. There was no trademark database search. The first project I ever saved in the Unity engine wasn’t named “A rolling ball test.” It was named “DARQ.” 

I understand you had no experience in coding or modeling or anything to do with making a game when you started on Darq so just how challenging was it learning the tools ie Unity? How many hours and years of your life did it take from original idea to the final game and importantly, was it much, much harder than you thought it would be? Did you ever have moments where you seriously questioned what you were doing?

Yes, it was challenging. It took much longer than I thought it would. At first, I naively estimated the project would take six months to complete. The development of the base game, excluding the DLC’s, ended up taking over 3.5 years. According to my estimation, it amounts to over 10,000 hours of my personal time. During the first year or so, I started the game from scratch three times. I’d say about 1.5 years were spent on acquiring skills and experience. It wasn’t until the third version of the project that it reached a level of quality I was happy with. 

Half of the development was part-time, the other half was full-time. By “full-time” I mean: I worked on DARQ every waking hour. I took a few days off here and there, but generally, 100 hour work weeks were the norm. There were periods when I worked 16 hours a day. Before you feel sorry for me, let me emphasize that I loved every second of it and it was my choice to work this hard. While there were challenges and moments of incredible difficulties, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to work on DARQ. Did I question this endeavor? Yes, in the first year or so. Naturally, I was worried that I might end up wasting a significant amount of time pursuing something that could fail, both critically and commercially. With time, though, my worries went away when I realized something important: I was doing something that I loved doing completely. It’s a rare privilege and I’m grateful to have experienced it. If I had millions of dollars in my bank account, I would have worked on DARQ just as hard. The process itself was the ultimate reward, which made the outcome almost irrelevant. Of course, I still wanted DARQ to succeed and I made every effort to ensure its success, but I was working on it because I enjoyed it more than words can describe. 

To me, Darq has a lot of metaphors about illness and mortality layered all the way through it as Lloyd makes his way through his lucid dreams. Why did you decide on a boy called Lloyd as the lead character and what other games did you draw on for inspiration? It has real echoes of Limbo or Little Nightmares, to me both games with creepy and unsettling imagery rather than in-your-face horror moments.

During the first year of development, I spent a lot of time trying to define what DARQ is when it comes to story. As you accurately noted, its world is highly symbolic. Nothing you see in DARQ is there by chance. Every little detail is carefully thought-through and serves a purpose. DARQ can be seen as a puzzle game in which the main puzzle is to decipher its meaning. The game’s environment consists of clues and hints that are well hidden from plain sight but are very consistent in the way they communicate the game’s meaning. While I can’t reveal DARQ’s story just yet (we’re working on a comic book that will accomplish that and significantly expand upon it), I can mention a few things. The name Lloyd has a hidden meaning in Welsh: it describes a character of wisdom, experience, and literally means “grey-haired.” Perhaps Lloyd is not as young as he appears to be. Also, if you reduce his name to the first and the last letters, you get “LD,” which is a popular acronym for “Lucid Dream.” The world of DARQ has no doors except one, and every character Lloyd encounters on his journey hides their face in one way or another. There are many secrets here to uncover. 

When it comes to my sources of inspiration, unsurprisingly, they come from cinema. I grew up watching films by Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labirynth is one of my all-time favorites), David Lynch, and others. While my busy schedule as a musician didn’t allow me to play many video games, I did play Limbo before making DARQ. I was stunned by it, and no doubt, inspired by it. When it comes to Little Nightmares, I discovered it halfway through the development of DARQ. I absolutely adore it and I’m always honored when DARQ is compared to Little Nightmares, Limbo, and Inside – they are among my favourites. 

Puzzles play a major part in Darq so tell me a little about the decision to use environment manipulation combined with puzzle solving. What was behind that thinking?

The game starts by showing the player that walking on walls and ceilings is the main mechanic. It creates a nice introduction to the abstract nature of the world, but it’s just the beginning. As the game progresses, Lloyd learns how to control his “dreams” more and more, so in addition to walking on walls and ceilings, he discovers that there are practically no limits to what’s possible. He learns how to rotate the world, look at things from various perspectives, move quickly on the Z-axis (taking the 2.5D concept to its limits), and more. The puzzles are there to showcase all the new mechanics and to convey that all limitations and rules are often imagined and self-imposed. When designing the puzzles, I wanted to utilize the abstract quality of the Escher-like dream environments as much as possible. The puzzle I’m particularly proud of is the one with the rotating camera in the train level – you’ll know it when you see it. 

Darq released last year and was very well received by the press and gamers, and you’ve now released a complete edition as well. How did you feel once the game was complete and in the hands of gamers: How did that feel like for you: Relief? Uncertainty? Happiness?

Having spent so much time working on the game in solitude, it’s an incredible feeling to be able to share it with the world. I know how lucky I am and I pinch myself every day. I probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic if DARQ wasn’t so well-received, but seeing people truly enjoy the game is very meaningful to me. While for some DARQ will serve as entertainment, for others, according to reviews, it’s an unforgettable emotional journey that won’t be easily forgotten. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined that DARQ would be nominated for awards (and win some!) alongside AAA titles as Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Borderlands 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and others. Losing an award to my childhood hero, Hideo Kojima, was an honour. What else can I ask for? It’s both humbling and profound.

You’ve written a book about the experience of making Darq as an independent developer. Looking back at the experience, are you glad that you went on that journey and how did you keep motivated?

Looking back, I have no doubt that starting a game development studio was the best decision of my life. It was also the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and I’ve made many mistakes along the way. That’s why I wrote the book “GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Make Your First Game Successful” –  mainly to share the lessons I’ve learned on my journey, both by doing things right and by doing things wrong. When it comes to motivation, I never struggled with it when making DARQ. My guess is, if you struggle with motivation, you may be in the wrong field or working on a project that doesn’t inspire you. As cliché as it may sound, doing what you truly love makes a big difference.

You also wrote the music for Darq so do you see any shared similarities between the development and music industries? Do you feel you working in the music industry gave you a deeper understanding of the development process in Darq? What things had you learned as a composer do you think eased the transition into game development?

I think some skills related to music, or film music especially, can indeed come in handy when developing games. First off, writing music is one of the toughest things one can do for a living. It requires good social skills, a balance between sensitivity and thick skin, and a set of useful habits, such as the ability to concentrate for long periods of time and self-discipline. Both are necessary to achieve any long-term goal, such as making a game. Also, when scoring films, one inevitably develops a good understanding of timing, story, sound design, cinematography, editing, acting, directing, color, dialog, and other things that apply to developing games to some extent. 

What’s next for Unfold Games? I hear comic books are in the works based on the Darq universe but are more adventures planned for Lloyd? Or are you exploring new worlds and new characters?

Yes, the DARQ comic book is in the works! Not only will it reveal the hidden meaning of the game but also significantly expand on its story with new characters and locations. No sequel is planned as of now, but we’re hard at work on a new IP – this time it’s a “double-A” production with a pretty large team involved. The project is shrouded in mystery for now, but the official announcement is a few months away. Other than that, on May 1st we’ll be announcing the nominees of the UnfoldGamesAwards – a free-to-enter award programme for indies we organised in partnership with Intel, Unity, Pixologic, and a few other companies. As far as I’m aware, it’s the biggest free-to-enter competition for indie developers in the world when it comes to the total value of prizes, which include funding, cash, hardware, software, and services. It’s meant to be an annual event. 

Darq The Complete edition is available now on Steam ($NZ24.75) and ($NZ22.45) for PC and available on Xbox ($NZ29.40), PlayStation ($NZ31.95) and Switch ($33).

Evil Genius 2: World Domination

Apologies for the lack of content here lately: Work life is hectic at the moment.

I’ve got some cool stuff coming up (hardware/developer interview) but I thought I’d post my review of Rebellion’s Evil Genius 2: World Domination which was originally posted over at Enjoy.

It’s hard work being an evil meglomaniacal dictator in Evil Genius 2, believe me.

I mean, between ensuring you have enough energy to keep the lights on in your ever-expanding lair where you’re plotting world domination. You also have to deal with workers (aka minions) who are more concerned with what’s for lunch than guard duty and infiltrating enemy agents hell bent on ensuring you don’t achieve, well, your goal of world domination.

A sequel to the original Evil Genius, a real-time strategy/world builder game from Elixir Games in 2004, Evil Genuis 2: World Domination has a real Austin Powers/Despicable Me feel to it and for my playthrough I picked Maximillian, a despot who actually appeared in the original game. He’s one of four selectable dictators, each with different abilities that can influence game play. Maximillian, for example, can order minions/workers to prioritise tasks and train faster. Other characters include Red Ivan (who appeared in the original game), Emma and Zalika.

Evil Genius 2

The premis is quite simple: Increase your criminal network and take over the world.

If you’ve played any sim game at all, you’ll know what to do: Build up your base and spread your influence across the globe. You have different room types to pick from: Power stations, mess halls, barracks, training facilities, prisons, armouries and infirmaries, for example, then once you’ve decided what you want to go where a troop of henchmen, resplendent in orange jumpsuits, trot in enthusiastically, brandishing underslung ray guns, and disintegrate the bedrock, replacing dirt and stone with shiny walls, polished floors and flashing lights. You then add the necessary equipment to the room, such as a power generator, an incinerator or a security desk, then order your minions to get to work.

Evil Genius 2

Being an evil dictator doesn’t come for free, though, with everything costing gold so you’ll need to launch dastardly schemes from the world map that will not only help spread your evil influence but will provide much need cash to fund your base, which from the outside looks remarkably like the island of the TV show Thunderbirds. FAB!

Learning new and evil skills

It was during the tutorial that I realised the importance of ensuring you balance room size with power needs to ensure the lights stay on.  I was merrily dropping down mess halls and research facilities left right and centre but suddenly – bam – everything went dark: I’d underestimated how much power my lair required.

I also realised rather quickly that I needed to work on my interior design skills as I tended to make rooms too big, leaving little room for more important rooms later on. Rooms like armouries, sleeping quarters and, importantly, vaults to store all the gold that I was accumulating. I also realised too late that I had a tendency to forget doors, meaning power plants nestled idly next to barracks which merged with training facilities. I guess you could call it an open-play lair.

Evil Genius 2

The tutorial does a good job of laying out the ground rules but I felt it could have been a bit shorter and like most management sims/real-time strategy games like this, I quickly found myself wishing I had another set of arms as I tried to maintain the fine balance between ensuring I had enough minions and security staff to deal with agent infiltrations (of which there were many) but also ensuring funds kept flowing through schemes and other nefarious undertakings.

Their mission, should the choose to accept it…

I’ve mentioned the enemy agents who arrive on your island, who arrive by means of sea-faring vessel, posing as visitors to your front of a glamourous casino (how ingenious). Agents are bad for you and your aspirations of world leader and can be either captured, killed or distracted but I found that the game’s AI didn’t quite do what it should have so defeating agents proved a little harder than anticipated. I lost count the number of times infiltrating agents were able to wander deep into my lair, taking photos as they went, before finally being spotted by my minions.

Evil Genius 2

I also found that early on, my minions were woefully underpowered against the agents, with most confrontations ending up with minions being dispatched with a roundhouse kick to the face or punched in the solar plexus before winding up in body bags. Once you succeed in capturing an agent, though, you can interrogate them which provides vital intel that opens up more options and schemes in the world map (be warned, though: They will eventually escape captivity, forcing another round of fisticuffs).

In an effort to beef up base security you can increase surveillance with security cameras and guard posts and lay dastardly traps in strategic locations around your lair in an effort to outwit invading agents and even the odds a little when several are lurking about. Sadly, most of the aforementioned traps proved next to useless – one of them is a comedy boxing glove attached to a spring and either did little damage to an agent or they bypassed it completely, allowing them to move deeper into my lair.

Evil Genius 2

Herding Minions requires juggling skills

Now, I’m no stranger to games like Evil Genius 2 but I did find training more superior minions a little confusing, too, and I’m not sure whether it was just because I didn’t pay attention during the tutorial or I was just doing it wrong but for the life of me I was unable to train more brutish guards that would have been much ore effective against agents.

Graphically, Evil Genius 2 has a nice cartoony feel to it that works well and really fits with the evil-ruler-wanting-to-take-over-the-world vibe. Colours are bright and vivid, and minions trot about comically, going about their business.

While Evil Genius 2: World Domination gets a little repetitive around the five hour mark as you settle into the fine balancing tasks and maintaining your lair and the AI needs a bit of an overhaul to even out the odds a little, it’s a lot of fun, especially when most of the time in video games you’re playing the good guy out to save the world.