Pre-E3 press conferences: Day 1

Microsoft held its traditional pre-E3 press conference today and I think Phil Spencer must have read my blog from the other week saying I thought Xbox had lost its way a little, as today’s pre-show presser showed that the company has realised that the Xbox One needs good games for people to play.

The show opened with a teaser trailer for Halo Infinite (then that was it for the show, which I found strange) and Xbox claims to have showcased more than 50 games, including “18  console launch exclusives and 15 world premieres”.

Games that got my attention were Ori & the Will of the Wisps, Devil May Cry 5, Gears Pop! and Gears Tactics, Tunic, Metro Exodus, From Software’s Seiko Shadows Die Twice and CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077  (see the trailers below).

Another game that looks mighty interesting is The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a free game from DontNod Studios, the team behind Life is Strange.

Another interesting announcement from Xbox was that it had acquired five new studios, including Hellblad Senua’s Sacrifice developer Ninja Theory, Playground Games (Forza Horizon 4) and Undead Labs (State of Decay).

I also watched Bethesda’s pre-show presser between doing work and while full of a few cringe moments, Todd Howard was the standout presenter and nailed it when he presented Fallout 76, an online game set in the Fallout universe.

PlayStation & Nintendo tomorrow (Nintendo at the ungodly hour of 4am so I might wait for the highlights package later in the day).

Let the nights of broken sleep begin!

D-Link Covr C1203: Enveloping your home in Wi-fi goodness

D-Link Covr C1203 seamless Wi-fi system ($599,99)

D-Link’s Covr C1203 system is the solution for when you have shit Wi-fi around your home.

I have shit Wi-fi in my house and chances are, if your house is anything like mine, the further you get away from the router  (mine’s located behind my TV in the main lounge at the front of the house), the shittier the wi-fi connection gets. Heck, before I installed the Covr C1203 system I was struggling to pick up a decent wi-fi signal from the kitchen, which is maybe 8m to 10m away from the router in the lounge.

After countless calls to the ISP’s helpdesk and tweaking of settings, things didn’t improve much: Sometimes we’d be watching Netflix using Apple TV over wi-fi and the picture quality would suddenly degrade to SD for a few minutes before cranking back up to HD. It was less than ideal.

D-Link’s Powerline solution.

Now, being the techie that I am, I’m not happy with sub-par wi-fi so before the Covr C1203 system, I bought a D-Link’s Wi-fi boosting Powerline solution, which you plug into a power socket and it boosts the internet signal using the electrical wiring in your house.

While adequate, speeds were pretty flakey at times and it wasn’t all that reliable, with the signal dropping out from time to time, I was still able to surf the web and watch Netflix easy enough using Wi-fi but couldn’t watch a streaming service like SkyTV’s Neon, which just refused to load.

D-Link’s Covr C1203 claims it’ll give up to 1200Mbps Wi-fi and each unit has three receiving antennas, which means it’ll detect the Wi-fi signal easier and provide a consistent signal. Set-up was easy enough using D-Link’s Android app. You can either use the default network name or create your own and you connect the base station to you router then dot the secondary stations around your house (the kit came with two secondary stations).

Once powered on, a  flashing white Covr logo on top of the base station means a weak wi-fi signal and a solid white logo means a solid Wi-fi signal. I had to move the around the house until I was happy with the signal.

D-Link’s Covr C1203 solution in its natural environment.

The Covr C1203 is what is called a mesh system, meaning it envelopes your house in a wi-fi, um, net, meaning there are no dead spots and you’ve got consistent coverage between the base stations. I was now getting Wi-fi all around the house: No more flakey speeds, no more buffering streams.

I took a few days to find the right placement for the secondary nodes. I originally had one in the kitchen and one in the laundry but the signal wasn’t the strongest so every day or so I moved one or two to another location: laundry, bathroom, my bedroom. I finally settled on one secondary node in bedroom 1 and the second in bedroom 2. If you measured a line from the base station in the lounge to the node in bedroom 2, you’d pretty much have a straight line from point A to point B. Each node has two ethernet ports as well.

My house is, I suspect, a pretty typical one of its time period: Build in the late 1990s, it has timber framing with a brick exterior. It’s around 225sqm in size but has a few walls between where the router is and the bedroom end of the house. I tested the wi-fi signal from three points around the house before I installed the Cover C1203.

Pre Covr testing: Lounge: 256Mbps down, 350Mbps up; bedroom 1: 69.1Mbps down, 19.5Mbps up; My bedroom: Failed the test (no signal)

Post-Covr installation: Lounge: 334Mbps down, 248Mbps up; bedroom 1: 81.2Mbps down, 102Mbps up; My bedroom:52.9Mbps down, 63.8Mbps up.

I’m impressed with the Covr C1203. Now, I can watch Neon on my iPad in HD in my bedroom and not skip a beat: It’s seamless and buffer free. We get strong wi-fi speeds right around the house now, which is something we didn’t get when both my children were at home – and they constantly complained about it.

Thanks to D-Link’s Covr system, I’m now getting decent Wi-fi speeds all over the house, which I’m really stoked about, especially during those cold winter nights when I can stay in bed and watch movies or early-morning E3 press conferences.

One thing that would have been nice to be able to do with the smartphone app is turn off or turn down the brightness of the illumination on the base station’s cover: It can easily light up an entire room when it’s pitch black. Apparently you can do that in the system’s web-based menu system but try as I might, I just wasn’t able to access it either through the covr.local website or the router4’s IP address.

Thanks to D-Link and its Covr solution, I’m a happy chappy.

Thanks for D-Link ANZ for the review unit.

Bite-sized review: Little Nightmares Complete Edition (Nintendo Switch)

Little Nightmares Compete Edition (Version reviewed: Nintendo Switch, review code kindly  provided by Bandai Namco)

What is it? Little Nightmares Complete is a side-scrolling  horror/puzzle game from indie game developer Tarsier Studios that tells the tale of a mysterious girl called Six who must negotiate a vessel called the Maw through three story chapters: The Depths, The Hideaway and The Residence. This complete edition also includes  all the DLC that was released for the game, including the story of The Kid (a second playable character) and the Secret of the Maw expansion storyline. Little Nightmares can best be compared to games like Limbo or Inside as all three games have a creepy, unsettling undertone to them that might just well have you having nightmares yourself.

The Janitor in search mode. Time for Six to hide.

So, it’s a horror. Is it scary? Well, it’s not blood and guts scary, but it’s more creepy, uncomfortable scary, with nightmarish creatures inhabiting the Maw, doing unspeakable things. The game succeeds in creating a tense atmosphere that’s unsettling at times. Making things more uncomfortable are the Maw’s creepy residents, which often force Six (and The Kid) into a game of hide and seek as they skulk around quietly, careful not to draw the attention of the grotesque beasts such as The Janitor, who has incredibly long arms and bandages wrapped around his eyes, or The Lady, the proprietor of The Maw who just seems a little … not quite right.

This is Six exploring The Maw. Quite unsettling, isn’t it?

Is there anything else I need to know about? Little Nightmare’s does a great job of creating tension and has a great visual style, which is really suited to the Switch but the experience is marred a little by the long loading times after you die, and you will die a lot, thanks to at-times-clumsy controls and at times hard-to-judge jump puzzles. The game is also quite dark visually when played in portable mode but holds up well when played in docked mode. Both run at 720p, 30 frames a second.

So, what did you think overall? Tarsier Studios does an excellent job in creating a macabre and creepy narrative with a nice twist in that one of the lead characters turns out to be more than she initially appears. If you’re a fan of games that create creepy tension in unsettling environments, then Little Nightmares is worth a look but just be prepared for some frustrating jump puzzles and long load times between deaths.

Thanks to Bandai Namco for the review code

 

Something On My Mind: Has Xbox lost its way?

Something On My Mind is an occasional thought piece about,  well, something that has been on my mind for a while. 

Last console generation, I could confidently say that the most played console in my household was the Xbox 360.

Microsoft couldn’t do anything wrong with that console and just seemed to have nailed it with the Xbox 360. I played games on it much more than my PlayStation 3.

This generation, however, it’s a complete reversal: My Xbox One console sits gathering dust underneath my TV, with my Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 getting all my gaming attention. I know it’s been a while since I used my Xbox One when every time I turn it on there’s a hefty update for it.

The reason? I think it’s because, for me, the Xbox One doesn’t have any compelling single-player experiences like the PlayStation does, and I’m a strong single-player campaign gamer. Give me single-player any day of the week.

The last time I turned on the Xbox One was to download Mad Max using the Xbox Game Pass (which I think is a good scheme) and Sea of Thieves (which I quickly stopped playing through lack of content) and State of Decay 2, two games that are strongly multi-player or co-operatively focused titles.

Sure, Backward Compatibility on the Xbox One is a nice feature,  but to be honest, I don’t have a current generation console so that I can re-play games that I’ve already played on my Xbox 360, even if they’re in a higher resolution and run at faster frame rates (look, my eyes are getting so bad these days I’m not sure I can pick up frame rate drops anymore). I have my Xbox 360 if I want to play games from the last generation.

For me, I want engaging, compelling narrative-driven games and I get that with the PlayStation: God of War, Detroit Become Human, Horizon Zero Dawn, the Yakuza series. While Sony was investing in development studios and putting faith in single player games, Xbox was focusing on Kinect and its  vision of the Xbox One being an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment centre – and I think that’s hurt Xbox.

I may be wrong here, but these days, Xbox’s target market seems to be more and more the multiplayer crowd, given its investment in games like Sea of Thieves, Player Unknown’s Underground (PUBG) and State of Decay 2.

Microsoft’s Xbox One X might be the world’s most powerful console – and I’ve no doubt it is – but for me, what’s the point of having an amazingly powerful piece of hardware without must-have, compelling single-player games for it?

I’m not a fan boy of any gaming platform: Sure, I play most of my games on a console, but I still buy and play games on my PC (I have a huge backlog of Steam games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet). As far as I’m concerned, if you play games, no matter what platform, you’re a gamer.

I’m hoping that at E3 in a couple of weeks, Xbox announces a line-up of games that will restore my faith in the hardware maker and make the most of its console’s power. All I want is some really strong single-player games that make me want to play my Xbox One just as much as my PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Detroit Become Human review: Android unrest

Ever wondered what happens when robots become tired of their human masters and decide to push back?

French game maker David Cage has, and that’s the core idea behind his latest PlayStation 4 game Detroit Become Human, and for me, it’s his best one yet. It’s a game clearly steeped in themes of slavery, segregation (androids have to ride buses in an android-only compartment) and civil rights.

Detroit was first revealed to the gaming public through the Kara tech demo back in 2012 (which, as a nice nod to the foundations for the game, is an unlockable in the game’s Extra’s section) and I enjoyed Heavy Rain, a noir-style detective story despite the clumsy way it handled some things. However, I wasn’t a fan of Cage’s  Beyond Two Souls.

Fast forward to 2018, and Detroit Become Human shows that Cage has learned from the criticisms pointed at his previous games. Cage seems to have a love-hate relationship with gamers and critics alike: You either like what he does, or you don’t – there is no in-between.

With Detroit, Cage wisely decided to step down from the sole writing role and was part of a team that developed and narrative, and it shows, with a more grounded, more believable narrative than in his previous games, with characters I actually became invested in as the story developed. I’ve never felt like that with any of Cage’s previous games as I found his writing in games like Fahrenheit and Beyond Two Souls was clumsy, meaning I didn’t give a monkey’s about most of the characters.

Of the three androids that take the lead rolls in Detroit’s narrative – Kara (a domestic android who looks after a young girl Alice and her abusive father, Todd), Markus (works for a kind, well-known painter) and Connor (the world’s first android detective hunting for androids that have gone rogue against their human masters) – which ponders what would happen if Artificial Intelligence actually pushed back against its human masters, Connor was the most intriguing for me. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Connor’s story seems to have more complex layers but also because he’s partnered with a human detective (voiced wonderfully by Highlander/Starship Troopers/The Shawshank Redemption actor Clancy Brown), and the two just have this wonderful developing relationship as both try to work together, learning the intricacies of the other and trying out how the other ticks.

Connor able to gather clues at a crime scene then reconstruct the events. Once an event has been reconstructed, you can use L2 and R2 to forward and rewind through the recreation to time stamps, which can be scanned to open up new information. While t his mechanic isn’t new to games (a similar one was used in DontNod’s rather good Remember Me), it adds a nice layer to Connor’s detective abilities.

After each character’s chapter has finished (the game follows the Kara, Markus and Connor throughout the course of the game), there’s a flowchart that shows how the decisions you made at one juncture lead to the final outcome. In many of the flow charts, there were many more paths I could have taken so there’s definitely replay value here for the completionist gamer who wants to see how different behaviours or actions can change the outcome of a particular story thread.

Cage is clearly using the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” train of thought when it comes to the control scheme as he’s used the familiar scheme from his previous games where you use the right thumb stick to trace patterns that will get the character to interact with his or her surroundings or perform actions (thankfully, there is no ridiculous scenarios like “Press X to Jason” like there was in Heavy Rain)

The dialogue in Detroit is just so much better than in both Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls that conversations between characters feels more natural and believable, and giving the right answer or asking the right question will often unlock another dialogue branch, allowing the narrative to go deeper.

The game is still quick time event heavy, though (hey, it’s a David Cage game), and I still managed to bumble some of the fast-paced QTE sequences in the latter parts of the game, especially during fight or chase sequences, but I blame my ageing old-man fingers. I did wonder sometimes, though, how my failure at some of the QTEs had impacted on the storyline.

Technically, Detroit Become Human really does sing on the PlayStation 4, too, with highly detailed environments and character models, and at times, the in-game graphics actually look better than the pre-rendered in-game cinematics, which is generally the opposite in most current generation games.

Detroit Become Human might miss the mark a little in its comparing the plight of long-suffering android to be akin to the civil rights movement in the United States, but  I enjoyed it and while still stumbling from time to time, it’s a nicely paced narrative-driven drama that I can see myself wanting to play through again to experience the multi-branching story threads.

 

 

Old Man’s Journey review

Old Man’s Journey, from indie developer Broken Rules, is a game for those moments when you want to contemplate and stop and smell the roses.

It’s a game for quiet times when you want something soothing and non-confronting.  It looks like a child’s water- colour book, full of pastel colours and memories of a younger time that make you smile.

The game starts with the titular Old Man receiving a letter from the postman than seems to concern him so he dons a backpack and starts on a journey. A long journey that sees him traverse hills, mountain villages, sea ports and everything in between by foot, boat and train – and have to avoid the odd flock of sheep along the way!

The quirk with this game is that you can re-shape the landscape to make paths for the old man to traverse. Can’t get across to that bridge? Just gently drag that background hill closer, enabling the Old Man to jump the gap and continue on. There are limits, though: You can’t re-shape the “line” the old man is standing on and you can’t stretch a hill further than it is capable of going.

Despite its shortness, Old Man’s Journey is punctuated by delightful moments: During a train journey as the locomotive races along the countryside, you have to join the track beneath the speeding train. If you click the bell in the lighthouse of a sea-side town, the Old Man reminisces about a wedding years ago (I’m guessing his wedding?)

If I had one criticism with Old Man’s Journey,  it would be the inclusion of “handcrafted, pressure-free puzzles (the developer’s words)”. An example of these puzzles is sometimes having to move on a flock of sheep that are blocking your path: It just felt a little unnecessary.

Old Man’s Journey is a delightful game that manages to evoke an emotional story without the spoken work just by using hand-drawn art and the emotions they conjure up.

Old Man’s Journey is available on Nintendo Switch ($US9.99), Windows PC, Mac and iOS/Android. Thanks to Broken Rules for providing a review code for Old Man’s Journey.

State of Decay 2 review: Brains, machetes & zombies

Image supplied

I’ve decided that when push comes to shove  I’d be useless when the zombie apocalypse strikes.

Of course, I’ve decided this after playing Undead Labs’ State of Decay 2, the new zombie survival game on the Xbox One (and Windows 10 PCs), but let me explain: I’d be fine when it comes to actually killing the aforementioned zombies.

I’ve got using machetes, chef’s knifes, baseball bats and tyre irons  to cave in zombie skulls and lop off zombie limbs down to a fine art but it’s the other stuff that you need to survive that I might struggle with. The keeping other people alive part.

You see, State of Decay 2, like the game before it (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find my original review of State of Decay but I don’t think I rated it that highly, to be honest. I remember it was quite buggy), is a zombie survival game where you have to not only ensure your survival but also that of a rag-tag bunch of colleagues that have banded together to ensure the survival of the human race from the zombie scourge.

Success in the game not only revolves around killing the aforementioned zombies but by establishing bases, scavenging for food and resources and generally ensuring your fellow survivors are well fed, well rested, happy and, importantly of all, have all their limbs at the end of each day.

The game opens with you having to turn a ramshackle property into a fortified base: It means climbing cellphone towers and billboards, using the vantage points to search for anything that can provide supplies: medical centres, petrol (gas) stations, hospital, shopping malls and military barracks for anything – and everything – that will help in your survival. Scraps of metal can be used to build stronger fortifications and work benches that can be used to upgrade and repair weapons, and scavenged seeds can be used to grow crops for your fellow survivors.

State of Decay 2 is a zombie survival game where killing zombies is just part of it. Oh, and it also has permadeath. Let that sink in for a minute: If you or one of your squad mates dies, they’re dead for good. There’s no respawning: They’re dead, gone, kaput, six feet under, sleeping with the fishes …

Image supplied

State of Decay 2 brings some tension to the searching for supplies front as often you’ll be looking over your virtual shoulder for imminent zombie attacks as you sift through a chilly bin or a bookcase for stuff. You can do a fast search but it makes so much noise that you might as well yell at the top of your lungs “Hey, zees. I’m over here. Come and get some!

Something I learned early on was to survive for any length of time you need a vehicle but unlike other games, cars aren’t blessed with infinite amounts of petrol to keep them going. Some cars have a 1/4 tank, some will have 1/2 a tank. It depends – so you’ll often have to scavenge more fuel.

You can’t carry limitless amounts of supplies in your rucksack, either. Eventually, you’ll realise you can’t always take everything you want so sometimes it becomes a internal debate with yourself on whether you should take the boom box or the medicine (I’d take the medicine any day but that’s just me). I’ll say again: Getting a vehicle early on is extremely helpful as it means you can transfer backpack contents to the vehicle, freeing up inventory space.

State of Decay 2 has some promise as it’s much, much deeper than a zombie-fest game like,  say Dead Rising, and the spectre of character permadeath hanging over it means you tend to be more tactical in situations  rather than rush in all guns blazing but not all is perfect in this zee-infested world.

The game is buggy.  I played the game before and after a mid-review period 6Gb update was made available. At one point, a character I was talking to had no head. He just sat there on a bench, talking, with no head on his shoulders. It was quite disconcerting.

Character models are rough (with a couple of early characters that I met being downright scary looking) and for a current current generation Xbox One  game, I felt it look pretty last generation at times, to be honest, with flat and lifeless textures.

I lost count of the number of times I got a vehicle stuck on a rock that frankly it should have cleared easily, too. None of the bugs I came across were game-breaking  but it seems to be a worrying trend this generation of some publishers releasing games in a less-than-ideal state then patching out all the problems later. It’s a trend I’m not a fan off.

It’s also frustrating that if you want to swap to another character because you need another skill set or materials your current characters doesn’t have, you have to quit the current mission as you can’t do it on the fly.

No doubt, State of Decay 2 will find favour with fans of the series like the original did, and the inclusion this time of a co-op mode will widen its fan base (my son didn’t want to play co-op with me so I was unable to test out the mode for this review)  but personally, I’d wait until the inevitable patches start coming  to iron out the bugs before venturing forth into these zombie-infested wastelands.

Review code kindly supplied by Xbox New Zealand.

 

Nintendo launching new adjustable stand for the Switch

I love my Nintendo Switch: Until God of War came along it was my go-to gaming console when I wanted to relax with some digital delights.

I have to admit, however, I’ve been frustrated sometimes with the tiny kickstand that props the Switch up when you want to do some tabletop-gaming: It’s never seemed that stable to me (although, I’ve never had any catastrophes of the Switch tipping over type with it).

If only there was a stand of some sort of stand for the Switch that lets you tilt the viewing angle while using the console in tabletop-mode while at the same time letting you charge it.  Well, it’s as if Nintendo has listened to me, because  it’s launching a new adjustable charging stand on July 13. 

Priced at $AU29.95 (so I’m expecting about $NZ40), the adjustable stand has a port for an AC adapter on the side, letting you charge and play at the same time.

Nintendo says that the angle of the stand can also be adjusted to create the best viewing angle.

Nice one, Nintendo.

A bit late to the party: Mad Max (2015)

A bit late to the party is an occasional series where I play a game that came out some time ago that other people say is worth playing. First up, is Avalanche Game’s Mad Max which came out in 2015.

I never got around to playing Mad Max, the game, when it first came out.

I remember seeing the movie and thinking it was “Alright” but it didn’t blow me away like other people so when the game was released I wasn’t that interested in playing it. Maybe it’s because I’m a Kiwi and the movie is set in Australia and I wasn’t invested in the country.

Strangely, though, I remember watching some YouTube You Plays of people playing Mad Max and being captivated by the game mechanics and the game world. I still didn’t play the game, though. A few weeks ago a few people I know were posting on social media how Mad Max is an underrated game that more people should play. That piqued my interest and recently, thanks to Xbox NZ which has provided me with a year subscription to its Xbox Game Pass service, I decided to download Mad Max which is offered through the service.

And you know what? The game is growing on me, despite seemingly having a focus on car customisation of Max’s vehicle – the Magnum Opus – and driving, and a control scheme that at times seems less intuitive than it should.

I’m only an hour or so in but the narrative is developing nicely (featuring a nasty chap called Scarborus Scrote): Max, the main character, has met hunchback mechanic Chumbucket, who acts like a portable car repair shop, crouched in the boot of Max’s car as it roars through sand dunes and shipwrecks. Chumbucket lives in the rusting hull of a giant container ship and refers to it as the tabernacle. He worships the car like it is sacred, his language interspersed with references to car terms. This game is a petrolhead’s wet dream.

The game seems to draw nicely on the themes and characters from the Mad Max movies (both the most recent one and the ones featuring Mel Gibson) and it seems that the game has a rather deep car  (and Max) customisation system. I’m really enjoying the harpoon that you can install on the Magnum Opus and use it to rip out the fuel tanks – and drivers – of other vehicles, as well as parts of enemy fortifications. You can also customise Max with a beard, if you like.

I’m going to try to play a little more of Mad Max this weekend but from what I’ve played so far, I think I’ll enjoy exploring the dune wastelands of apocalyptic Australia!

Have you played Mad Max, the game? What did you think?

 

Pint-sized powerhouse: JBL Flip 4 review

JBL Flip 4 bluetooth speaker (from $105 online)

The Flip 4 retails at a price closest to the UE Wonderboom and the UE Roll, both of which I have used a lot and are fantastic speakers.

Being a longtime fan of the UE series, I was somewhat skeptical about the so called “Boom killer” Flip 4 and its ability to outperform my beloved Wonderboom. I was however, pleasantly surprised.

The Flip 4 delivered stunning lows and highs, which is something that is pretty rare with bluetooth speakers these days, with manufacturers often favouring one at the expense of the other.

A good example of this is the Beats Pill, where the low-end (bass) is over emphasized and the mid range suffers. This is not the case with JBL’s newest addition to the portable speaker market. In fact it is probably the best sounding portable speaker in its price range I’ve ever used, period.

The design of the Flip 4 hasn’t changed too much from its predecessor. With JBL opting to pour more focus on what’s under the hood, with improvements aimed towards better sound quality and battery life, as well as full waterproofing.

New additions include speakerphone capabilities and a more durable fabric covering. It still can’t float though, so if you drop it in the ocean, you can kiss it goodbye, but it does have a waterproof fabric cover.

As we all know, Africa by Toto is the greatest song of all time, so naturally it was the first song that I played on the Flip 4. It has quickly become my go-to testing song for both Bluetooth speakers and headphones. You will be pleased to know that your Toto listening is a pleasant experience on the JBL Flip 4.

Review by Mitchell Campbell