Forza Horizon 3 review: Vroom, vroodm, vrooom, screeeeeech, vrooom, vrooom

What did you do over the weekend?

Me? Well, I drove a Mercedes AMG C 65 to Australia’s famous Twelve Apostle’s landmark, nestled in Sydney’s Byron Bay. I drove a Lamborghini Urus 4WD around a whole lot of wrecked ships off Silver Sands. I raced a Fiat  Arbarth across dirt roads (it was hardly a contest): I won easily. I admired the amazing Parkes Satellite Arrays, taking in the wonder. I drifted a Holden Maloo ute around an outback road. I saw fireworks in the skies of the Gold Coast.

getphoto-ashxI also took out several wire fences when drifting around corners went awry, sideswiped a few cars and had some near misses with cars as I screamed through Byron Bay. Oh, I also drove to the Gold Coast (from Sydney. In a few minutes!) and unsuccessfully tried to drift through a car park. I loved every minute of it.

Ok, confession time:  I didn’t really do all this in real-life, I did it in Forza Horizon 3, the best racing game I’ve played in a very, very long time.

It helps that Forza Horizon 3 is stunning, too The car models and environments are gorgeous, but it’s at sunset and night-time when the visuals really step it up a notch.

I crashed into a tree more than once just because I was distracted by the stars in the night sky. Forza Horizon 3 looks so good, so inviting, that It made me want to be right there, right now driving along the Great Ocean Road, taking photos with the Twelve Apostle’s in the background, looking for those shipwrecks. Trans-Tasman rivalry aside, fair dinkum, Forza Horizon is essentially a tourism promotion for Australia (although, to be fair, I still don’t like the Gold Coast much).

Forza Horizon 2 was a fantastic racing game and was always going to hard to beat but, personally, I think Playground Games has done it with Horizon 3. It builds on what made Horizon 2 so wonderful and sets in the giant playground that is Australia. For us Antipodean gamers, too, it’s nice to be driving on the left hand side in a racing game for a change!

Forza Horizon 3 starts out with a crazy stunt that sets the scene for the mayhem you’ll experience throughout the game: It’s you, driving an ATV buggy against another driver. Nothing unusual in that – except the other driver’s buggy is dangling from an Australian Air Force helicopter and you have to beat him to the finish line!

Like Horizon 2, the game revolves around the Horizon festival, with you festival boss tasked with growing the fan base and the size of the famed car festival so it attracts the best drivers in the world. Frankly, like I did with Horizon 2, I often just drive and drive and drive, exploring the game world and seeing what  can find.

Apart from visiting fantastic locations, you’ll be doing things like racing against the clock, recruit rivals to your ranks and competing against Drivatars, AI-controlled avatars (many of them based on your Xbox Live friends) that you can challenge.

forzahorizon3_review_01_jungleroad_wmThere’s a lot of freedom with Forza Horizon 3 (as there was with Horizon 2): Your GPS will often tell you the fastest route to reach a destination but often it’s much more fun to go off-road, plowing through fields and weaving through trees, than it is sticking to the tarmac. You won’t get penalised for doing that either: You earn XP by passing too close to cars and smashing fences and signs as well as driving safely and arriving at your destination with your car in tact.

Back is the rewind mode, which comes in handy if you take a corner too sharply in a race, causing your expensive supercar to side swipe a solid rock. I have to admit I did use it quite a bit in racing but I didn’t feel guilty about it.

forzahorizon3_review_05_traincrossing_wmForza Horizon 3 has something like 350 cars and they’re stunning to look at – and they have an audio soundtrack to accompany the good looks. As I do with all racing games, I turn off the in-car radio stations so that I can hear the signature notes of the cars I’m driving. Having the thundering tones of an American muscle car filling the lounge room is a thrill to the ears!

I could rabbit on about Forza Horizon 3 for many more hundreds of words but frankly, if you own an Xbox One (or PC, as the game is part of Xbox’s Play Anywhere scheme) it’s a game that you need to experience for yourself.

And like Horizon 2 before it, Forza Horizon 3 it has the ability to keep you busy because there is just so much to do.

So, climb into your dream car, settle in and start driving.

 

New GPU or stick with the consoles for a bit longer? My gaming dilemma

I’m facing something of a gamer’s dilemma.

Let me explain.

I started my gaming life on a PC. A ZX Spectrum to be precise, that wonderous squishy keyed computer born from the mind of British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair.

zxspectrum48krevI loved the Spectrum, cutting my teeth on classics like Maniac Mansion, Knight Lore, Ant Attack, Sabre Wulf, Robocop and Dayley Thompson’s Decathlon, then graduated to an Atari 2600, playing games like Space Harrier and Outrun.

At some point during my teenage years, my dad bought a 486 PC, and I was in gaming heaven. I was introduced to Doom and Duke Nukem, and some flight sim that had to be installed six or seven 3.5-inch floppy discs. I was hooked on PC gaming (If you too young to know what a floppy disc, ask someone older than you).

When I left home and got married, the first PC I bought had (for the time) a blisteringly fast Intel Pentium 90 CPU and a graphics card (I think it was an S3 Virge?) with 2Mb of memory (that’s not a typo: It actually had 2Mb of graphics memory). I played classic  games like Dark Forces, the Jedi Knight series, Magic Carpet, Blade Runner, System Shock 2 and Shiny’s MDK and Messiah (I still have the discs of all those games, too).

Microsoft's Xbox One console.

Microsoft’s Xbox One console.

Sony's PlayStation 4 console.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 console.

Fast forward to 2016 and these days, the bulk of my video games are played on consoles hooked up to my Yamaha AV receiver and a 55-inch Samsung TV.

I like the convenience of consoles games and the fact that I know every game will work right out of the box – but I’m having somewhat of a dilemma at the moment: I’m torn whether to keep playing most of my games on console (and upgrade next year to something like Xbox’s Project Scorpio) or upgrade my current PC’s GPU and start playing more on PC. I know it’s not a first world problem but I really am in a conundrum.

I’m not one of these people who sees console gaming as inferior to PC gaming: We’re all gamers so I don’t have a problem with playing on either PC or console and something I really like about console gaming is that I can lie back on the couch, relax, and play games on a big screen. I like that about console game.

I only have a 23-inch monitor attached to my PC I’m obviously I’ve got smaller screen real estate to play games on but I really like that PC games can be tweaked so they look graphically better than a lot of PC titles. My PC also comes in handy when the main TV is being used, too. That is a big plus.

gigabye-3gb-geforce-gtx-660-ti_boxThe reason I’m toying with a graphics card upgrade is my PC currently has a few-years-old now nVidia Geforce GTX660Ti, which is still a great card (kind of) and plays games like The Witcher 3 well (obviously not at ultra graphics presets) but I just know that its lifespan is coming to an end and if I want to play cutting edge PC games then the  660Ti just isn’t going to cut it.

I do also have an nVidia GTX950 which I won in a competition (I’ve actually sent it back to MSi in Australia as it never worked so I’m getting a new one under warranty), and I’m tempted just to stick with that and it seems a good card, but it’s a budget priced card that is really aimed at MOBA games, which I don’t play. See my problem?

I’m the sort of person who tends to “ummm” and “ahhh” about things too much, fearing that if I do buy a new GPU I won’t actually notice the difference between my console games, then curse that I spent the money. It’s a catch-22 situation really: I’ll be damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Put is this way: Buying a new GPU won’t change my life at all. It won’t make my quality of life any better or worse. It’s an upgrade that I absolutely don’t need but would be nice, especially with games like Dishonored 2 coming along soon, but is that enough of a reason to upgrade? Maybe I should just be satisfied with the card(s) I have and just be done with it, saving my money for something else further down the track?

I don’t see any point upgrading to the PlayStation 4 Pro or the Xbox One S  – the PS4 I have does a great job as does the Xbox One – but perhaps I should wait until next year and see what the pricing will be for Xbox’s E3-announced Project Scorpio console?

On paper, it sounds like it will be powerful but, of course, the specs could change dramatically between now and when it’s likely to be released late next year. Perhaps I should save my money for a new cutting-edge console next year rather than upgrade my GPU?

Decisions facing the first world gamer, eh?

Dishonored 2 creative kills trailer

I loved Dishonored  (or Dishonoured as it should be spelt where I live).

While it was a game where you could go full noise or creep around, I played it stealthily as much as I could: Creeping along roof tops and ledges, climbing through windows, silently taking out foes, to reach my objective. My teenage son is playing it at the moment and he’s  going all chaos, it seems,  triggering alarms and taking on Dunwall’s military in hand-to-hand combat.

Each to their own, I suppose.

Anyway, Dishonored 2 is out in November and this time you get to play master assassin Corvo Attano, who took the central role in the first game, as well as Emily Kaldwin, who was a little girl in the original game but is now all grown up and Empress of Dunwall.

Things have turned to custard, though, and the throne has been seized by a mad witch named Delilah, and it’s up to Emily and Corvo to travel to the coastal city of Karnaca and get rid of those responsible and reclaim the throne.

The game is out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on November 11 but maybe I should brush up on my assassinating skills before I tackle the streets of Dunwall again, eh?

 

ReCore review: One girl and her robots

Meet Seth, Mack and Duncan.

They’re Corebots and the co-stars of the Xbox One/PC game ReCore, a game from Japanese game developer Keiji Inafune, the man behind the Mega Man series, and a development team that have worked on a variety of games, including Metroid Prime.

Seth, a spider-bot, is good at climbing, Mack, a dog,  is good at headbutting other Corebots and Duncan, a gorilla, is good at smashing pretty much anything you ask him to.

This is Joule, she’s the main human character in ReCore.

Hero Shot of Joule

Hero Shot of Joule

 

Joule has been sent to the planet Far Eden to help set up terraforming operations before humans start colonising the planet. Unfortunately, things seems to have gone pear-shaped and Joule wakes from her cryosleep decades later than she should have and finds the robots designed to help make the planet habitable have turned rogue and Joule has to sort things out.

As she explores Far Eden, Joule must search for things called prismatic cores, glass prisms of light that unlock doors to help her progress through the game world. ReCore is very much an action RPG game, in that Joule has to search dungeons and complete challenges to get enough prismatic cores to progress.

Platforming is the heart of the game, drawing inspiration from Inafune and his Mega Man heritage no doubt, with plenty of double jumping and boosting to grab out-of-reach platforms. Combat, too, is a prime focus of the game, with Joule and her robotic pals having to fight plenty of corrupt robots as they scour the planet.

Joule using Seth to traverse an area

Joule using Seth to traverse an area

Seth, Mack and Duncan can be upgraded and modified to make them more powerful and stronger and Joule herself is a handy scrapper, too, able to zip and jump around thanks to a jet pack and an energy weapon that fires four different coloured charges: Red, blue, white and yellow. Shoot an enemy with the corresponding coloured energy and you’ll do more damage and defeat it quicker.

Destroyed, enemies explode in a satisfying shower of collectible parts but Joule is also able to rip out a vulnerable enemy’s core using a grappling hook. What ensues is a satisfying tug of war between Joule and the defiant Corebot as both battle to hold onto the core.

recore_enviro4ReCore is a fun game with a genuinely interesting dynamic between Joule and her bots but it’s hampered by some incredibly long long load times on the Xbox One and some frustrating platforming sections which will almost have you throwing your controller across the room. At least, I found some of the sequences frustrating.  There’s also a fair bit of backtracking and grind to search for more prismatic cores when you  realise you don’t have enough to progress.

ReCore is also one of the first games in Xbox’s Play Anywhere scheme where if you buy a digital copy on PC or Xbox One, you get another copy for free on the other platform, and it works. To be honest, I played it on PC as it proved more stable than the Xbox One version with improved graphics (there is still some glitching, especially when you quit the game) and much faster load times. I was also impressed that I was able to have the graphics cranked up quite high despite having a few-years-old nVidia Geforce GTX660Ti (I’m sure locking the frame rate to 30 seconds also helped a lot).

Another thing in ReCore’s favour is the price: It’s only around $NZ60, which for a new game is a great price.

I enjoyed ReCore but wonder whether it might have been rushed out of that gate a little early. A bit more spit and polish and it would have been a great game, rather than just a good game. I’m intrigued to see where the franchise goes from here.

 

Esper developer announces release date for platformer Shu

British game development studio Coatsink, probably most well-known for its VR game Esper and Esper 2, have announced the release date of its next game – and it has nothing to do with Virtual Reality or mind-control.

Shu, described by the team at Coatsink as a “hand-drawn and carefully crafted platformer”, will release on the PlayStation 4 and on Steam on October 4. It will also be available on Sony’s PS Vita later this year.

Here’s what the developer says about the 2.5D side scrolling adventure game: “Control Shu and a colourful trail of hand-drawn characters as they run, jump and glide their way up an ancient mountain, forever pursued by a monstrous and unrelenting storm. Can you outrun the end of the world?”

I’m guessing that monstrous, evil-looking purple thing chasing Shu and friends is the unrelenting storm. It doesn’t look very happy, does it?

Here are some screen shots to give you an idea on what it looks like. No word on regional pricing yet from Coatsink.

This storm is very hungry

This storm is very hungry

Here the storm is smiling.

Here the storm is smiling.

Shu and friends are about to take a leap of faith.

Shu and friends are about to take a leap of faith.

PlayStation Neo becomes … PS4 Pro

sony-announces-playstation-4-pro-147328048462I watched the PlayStation event this morning and, if I’m being completely honest, I was left a little underwhelmed. It was a low-key briefing – it only lasted about 45 minutes – with lots of talking, but I didn’t go away from the briefing yelling at the top of my lungs, “Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna pre-order me a PS4 Pro.”

The briefing revealed the aforementioned PS4 Pro  and also perhaps one of the worst kept secrets as far as PlayStation was concerned, the PS4 Slim which everyone knew about weeks ago but PlayStation acted at the event as if it was a surprise when they announced it today. That was just a little weird. The PS4 Slim will launch in NZ from September 16 for $489.95 for a 500GB console or $569.95 for  1TB model (September 29).

The PS4 Pro will retail in New Zealand for $639.95 and launch on November 10. That’s a really sharp price but the owner of a current PS4 that does all I need it to, I won’t be upgrading any time soon.

If you want the technical specs of the PS4 Pro, you can find them here (thanks Eurogamer) but my take on the PS4 Pro is that unless I have a 4K TV, which I don’t (and I’m not planning on buying one soon), I’m best to stick with the launch PS4 I have. I’m fine with that. The games look great on my PS4 and while Sony says owners of 1080p TVs will notice a difference with the PS4 Pro,  frankly, my eyes are getting so bad I can’t actually see the difference between 4K and 1080p unless I’m up really close and my nose is pressing on the screen (OK, I’m not that bad but, you know, old age …)

PlayStation said a firmware update next week will enable HDR (High Dynamic Range) capabilities on all current PS4’s, which is great, but again, that’s pointless on my 1080p TV as I’m pretty sure it can’t output HDR. Right now in my life, 4K and HDR gaming isn’t an option so I’ll stick with my perfectly fine current generation PS4.

frontps4proPlayStation sees 4K gaming as the future (but showing off 4K content over a 1080p stream is never going to do it justice) and the Pro will do 4K content playback but strangely, it doesn’t come with a 4K Blu Ray drive, and that does seem an odd omission, given that the recently released Xbox One S, which I believe is cheaper, comes with one as standard.

My take on this, though, is clearly Sony doesn’t see the future of 4K entertainment in physical media (ie Blu Ray discs), evidence by PlayStation’s Andrew House pointing out how many hours of 4K content would be on streaming service Netflix by the end of this year.

That said, I can see why PlayStation have come up with the PS4 Pro. It’s releasing its entrant into the VR wars, the PS VR, next month and the PS4 Pro will offer better VR performance than the current PS4. (I’m still tossing up whether I’ll get a PSVR so if/when I do, I’ll perhaps contemplate a PS4 Pro)

Also, if you’ve always thought about buying a PS4, but never got around to it, and do own a 4K TV then it seems November will be your lucky month, won’t it? The cynic in me also wonders whether PlayStation hopes that the PS4 Pro will help sell more of its own 4K TV sets …

Part of me can’t help but wonder whether PlayStation has jumped the gun here with the PS4 Pro in a response to Xbox’s Project Scorpio console which isn’t even due for release until the end of next year. Surely the PS4 Slim could have filled the gap until next year when the company could have announced its competitor to Project Scorpio.

The PS4 Pro will almost be a year old when Xbox’s more powerful console comes to market and I can’t help but feel that Microsoft have the upper hand here, given that Project Scorpio is more powerful than the PS4 Pro already – and  it’s hardware configuration could change dramatically between now and the end of next year.

Speaking of Xbox, the company couldn’t help having a dig at PlayStation in this tweet suggesting its own Xbox One S was a better option:

My son and I were talking about hardware announcement cycles this morning and it seems to me that games consoles are almost going same way as mobile phones, with a new model being announced almost every year.

To be honest, I’m contemplating whether might even just invest the money that I might put into a new console into upgrading my PC’s GPU (it’s got an Intel i7 CPU  and 8GB of Ram so I’m OK on that front. My GTX660Ti, however, is well past its use by date), connect it to my 55-inch TV using Steam’s Big Picture mode and do it that way, meaning I can still game from the couch using a controller (and to all those who  bleat “You’re not a real PC gamer if you use a controller!” I say, bollocks to you).

Right now, I don’t see any benefit for me buying a PS4 Pro console unless a 4K TV magically appears in my lounge to replace my two-year old LED screen, and that’s not going to happen.

I may be proven wrong but right now, I’m not jumping on the PS4 Pro bandwagon just yet. I’ll be watching with interest.

 

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: the best of both worlds

20160828_171317

My current laptop is a 2011 MacBook Pro.

It used to be my wife’s. It would have been good in its day but now: Not so much. It takes what seems like forever to boot up (I could easily make a cup of coffee and start drinking in the time it takes to finally get itself sorted), I only get about an hour or so on battery before it needs plugging into mains power and it can’t play games very well. It’s past its use by date.

I love to replace it if I could – and I’d replace it with a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. That’s it in the photo at the top of this post.

For the two weeks or so I had the Surface Pro 4, it was my go-to device for my writing work, my web browsing and my digital entertainment consumption – and it ticked all the boxes for me.

20160828_171254Measuring 292.10mm x 201.42mm x 8.45mm, and weighing around 786 grams, the Surface Pro 4 is a laptop/tablet replacement device that I really did love the more I used it, especially with the stunning 12.3-inch PixelSense screen (offering a resolution of 2736 x 1824) that displays colours vibrantly and vividly. The kickstand is a nice change from the usual kickstand that comes with tablets: It’s a solid hinged design not the foldable cover type, so it’s secure and solid, and thanks to the hinges, it means you can adjust it to the perfect position.

Packing an Intel i5 CPU, 8GB of Ram, an Intel HD 520 GPU and a 256Gb Solid State Drive, the Surface Pro 4 will easily do all you need it to and the fact that it doubles as a tablet, when it’s not attached to the Type Cover keyboard, adds to the appeal. The device comes with one USB 3.0 port, a microSD card reader, a mini display port, a headphone jack and is running Windows 10 Pro.

One of the things I loved about the Surface Pro 4 was that I was able to set it up so that I could login using facial recognition software, meaning I didn’t have to type a password to get up and running. All I had to do was look into the front facing camera, the device would recognise my face and I was good to go (a winking face icon showed that all was ready). It was great not to have to enter a password to login into the device.

20160828_171303The Surface Pro 4 comes with a stylus, which attached to the side of the tablet magnetically, but sadly, the Type Cover which is a great keyboard that was easy to touch type on with keys that had a decent amount of travel, is an optional extra, meaning you have to pay for it separately if you want it. C’mon, Microsoft: You’ve got a great tablet/laptop replacement here just include the Type Cover as standard. Everyone wins.

 

FreshPaint-8-2016.08.10-12.41.35I loved that I could use the stylus and the touch screen to sign documents for my accountant and scribble notes for this review.

I also loved that I could use the stylus and tablet format to use sketching software app Fresh Paint to get back into drawing. I did a quick sketch of the view next to my desk at work, which you can see here. I loved that the Surface Pro 4’s stylus could be used like a pencil, paint brush or pastel, meaning it’s ideal for creative thinking and ideas people.

The Surface Pro 4 isn’t designed as a game player but I thought I’d test it out with some of my favourite PC games, anyway (this is a gaming website, sort of) so I installed the Tomb Raider reboot, Portal 2 and Batman Arkham City.

Using bench marking software PC Mark 7, the Surface Book Pro posted a score of 5025, which while not stellar and wouldn’t threaten any dedicated gaming laptop, it’s a respectable score for a device not considered a gaming platform (I understand there is a model of the Pro 4 that has a nVidia graphics option). The Surface Pro 4’s aluminum chassis has grills along its edges that help dissipate heat when it gets too hot and I could definitely feel the heat coming off it while testing the games out.

The device managed an average of 54 frames a second on Tomb Raider (at a resolution of 800×600) and Batman Arkham City. Crank the resolutions higher and frame rates plummeted, which shows the Pro 4 isn’t a out-and-out gaming device, and wouldn’t handle more graphically demanding games such as the recently released Deus Ex Mankind Divided for example, but as far as I was concerned, it didn’t embarrass itself when it came to playing some of my favourite Steam games.

I loved my time with the Surface Pro 4 and if I had any niggles about it, it would be that I would liked to have seen another USB port on it so that I could plug in, say, a USB drive AND a mouse (or wireless controller, perhaps).

When I get around to replacing my ageing MacBook Pro (and the way things are going it won’t be too long), I’m definitely adding the Surface Pro 4 into the mix. At around $2439 for the specification I had, it’s probably not too badly priced for what you get, although you can get comparable laptops for cheaper when they’re on special.

Look, I loved that the Surface Pro 4 was powerful enough to act as a laptop replacement yet offers the portability of a tablet when I need it. The best of both worlds, right?