Monthly Archives: December 2015

The final post for 2015: Thanks for your support

notepad-with-pencil-of-spiral-bindingSo, 2015 is almost at a close so this will be the last blog post for a week or 10 days as I’m heading away on holiday tomorrow for a few days to try to relax, test out my new mountain bike and have a change of scenery.

It’s been a relatively good year, video games wise for me, although perhaps I haven’t played as many games as I would have liked (I’m sure I can rectify that next year: I am to finish some of the many partially completed games on my Steam list).

It was a year of some average, overhyped AAA titles and some unexpected surprises.  It was a year I finished one part-time job and started a new one, which turned into a full-time job not long after. It was a year of highs, it was a year of lows. It was, well, a year.

The blog itself seems to have gone from strength to strength, at least I think it has as it seems to be picking up more subscribers and readers, but during at least one point during the year, I contemplated shutting down the blog. I wasn’t sure I had the energy to keep it going, whether anyone would care if I kept it going.

But I did keep it going, obviously, and that was due to you, the reader that has supported the blog. I know this isn’t the biggest or best blog around and it’s popularity is tiny compared to the numbers I got when I was a blogger for a major online news site, but I appreciate that you take your time – no matter how small that amount of time is – to read (or, at least, browse through what I’ve written) my ramblings on this forum. I really, really do appreciate it..I want to thank you for your support. I know this blog is never going to get thousands of viewers every month or be “The World’s Biggest Gaming Site” but I appreciate every single reader that visits. Seriously, I do.

The blog market, and the video game blog market especially, seems to be crowded, with more and more writers clambering to reach the top and be the next big thing. I don’t need to be the next big thing and I’m not going to promise the world to get you to read.  I’m too old for that now. I just want to keep writing content that will, hopefully, engage readers and keep those loyal ones hanging around for a little longer. I hope my experience speaks for itself and keeps loyal readers around for at least a few more months.

So, that’s it for 2015. As far as the blog goes, I want to try and step it up a gear in 21015: Post more regularly, have more content, generally make it better.

So,  have an awesome New Year’s Eve, whatever you have planned. Play some games, relax, drink your favourite drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and here’s to 2016. May it bring challenges and new surprises. See you on the other side.

 

My most loved games of 2015

When I wrote for a metropolitan newspaper, I did the obligatory “Games of the Year” write-up, which culminated in my best pick as Game of the Year.

I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m not going to decide from the games I’ve played this year (which hasn’t been as many in past years) which one is the best of the lot. What I’m going to do is tell you which games were my highlight of the year, in no particular order.

Let’s start, shall we?

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I've written about the game they star in, too.

The cast of Until Dawn: They quite like what I’ve written about the game they star in, too.

Until Dawn: Something of a surprise hit to everyone, which is even more surprising as I can’t recall it getting a lot of marketing love from PlayStaiton. It’s also a game that I didn’t actually play until after watching a YouTube walkthrough. Yep, that’s right: I played it after watching a video playthrough. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of horror games and Until Dawn is a horror game, through and through, so I wanted to see how scary it was going to be. It has jump scares but it’s almost like a pick-your-own adventure where you determine the path that the characters take then they do it. Yes, it’s cliche-ridden and holds your hand at times but it’s horror done right.

BatmanBatman Arkham Knight: Probably one of the only AA titles that I really, really enjoyed this year. I’ve always liked Rocksteady’s take on Batman and Arkham Knight was no different, even if the Batmobile might have been overused too much and there were too many of those damn tank battles (those who have played it will know what I mean). What I’ve always liked about Rocksteady’s Batman series is the grittiness and the ever presence darkness that Batman is all about. Arkham Knight might not be the best in the trilogy but it’s damn good. [I’m sure someone will exclaim “But you can’t say Arkham Knight was a good game because it was broken on PC!”. Actually, I can say it was a good game because a) I played it on PS4 and had no problems  and b) it’s my list and I can have whatever games on it I like.]

life-is-strange-episode-1-0016Life is Strange: Dontnod’s episodic coming of age story about Arcadia Bay teenager Max Caulfield (with a little bit of super powers thrown in) was a bit of a slow burner for me. I played the first episode months ago, and liked it, but it didn’t capture me right away. May it was the at times cringe-worthy dialogue, but I could see it had promise and Max’s ability to rewind time to change events held all sorts of interesting propositions. For some reason or another, I didn’t start playing the second episode until few weeks ago. I finished it a couple of nights ago and I’m interested again. It was if the writers stepped things up a notch at episode two and it’s not captured my attention. Hopefully, I’ll finish the other episodes before the end of the year.

screenshot0607Everybody’s Going to the Rapture: Yes, The Chinese Room’s latest game could be described as a walking simulator because that’s what you do most of the time but I loved it for the story that it told and the emotional narrative. Set in a quaint English village after an apocalyptic event, the player has to unravel and piece together what has happened to the villagers by tracing the paths left by, I guess, their spirits that are still around the village. The story telling and emotional voice acting is what gripped me from start to finish. I didn’t care that it was slow-paced and measured. It was quite nice not having to shoot anything, either.

rise-of-the-tomb-raider08Rise of the Tomb Raider: The latest game featuring long-time video game adventurer Lara Croft is perhaps one of the best as she once again tries to find a precious artifact that will destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands. While being an Xbox One exclusive for the time being may harm the sales of the game, Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot because, pure and simple, it features more tombs to explore, and that, for the most part, is why people started playing Tomb Raider games. Rise is a return to form for the series.

What are your favourites for the year?

Samsung Gear VR: Virtual Reality in your living room

I’m standing in a shark cage, steel bars inches from my face. Bubbles rise to the surface of the crystal-clear water. I turn my head 360 degrees and see nothing but ocean and the rising bubbles. It’s a serene scene.

After a few moments, there’s movement in the distance. A dark shape slowly moves towards the cage. Then another.  I can’t make them out at first they become clear soon enough. They’re great white sharks.

For a moment, I actually flinch a little when a shark gets too close to the cage. Welcome to the world of virtual reality thanks to Samsung.

.I’ve used a pair of cardboard VR goggles from the back of a cereal box before (they were pretty useless) but Samsung’s VR headset is my first experience with a modern, affordable VR headset.

20151222_145751The headset looks like a fancy pair of goggles and is quite bulky but it’s solidly built and, surprisingly, fit comfortably on my head. A Samsung phone (in this case an S6) clicks into the front of the unit using two latches, one of which has a connector that fits into the phone’s mini USB port. There’s a scroll wheel that lets you adjust the focus. You plug headphones into the phone’s headset port..

[Update: Someone has asked me how I found the image quality: Whether I found things blurry. Some times it was a little blurry, but I wonder whether part of that was down to my deteriorating eyesight. A professional lifetime of staring at computer screens might be starting to take its toll …]

When you put the headset onto your head the phone’s software and the Oculus operating system kicks in, and this is your first experience of virtual reality. You find yourself in a large, cavernous room/apartment, with a pool at one end and wooden floors below you. I found myself rotating my computer chair so that I could take in everything around me. It’s fascinating (I really recommend if you’re going to use a VR headset, do it seated in a chair that can rotate. It helps with the experience)..

It’s hard to describe what VR is like without seeing it for yourself. You have to experience it for yourself to actually “get it” and see what it’s like. I could rabbit on for hours and hours on how I found it but you have to experience it for yourself to really understand what it’s like.

The view from the front of Gear VR. The phone clips in front of the two lenses.

The view from the front of Gear VR. The phone clips in front of the two lenses.

The Gear VR proved a hit with my family, too, with older members reaching out and trying to touch dinosaurs that weren’t there and  “Oohh” when dolphins swam past them. It showed to me that VR has no barriers and Samsung has made it accessible to the masses.

Perhaps the strangest sensation with the underwater demo is that you can’t see your hands or feet, or any part of your body. It’s quite disorientating not being able to see your limbs as you look around a virtual space but your mind is tricked into thinking you’re actually in the scene strapped to your head.

I was watching an episode of Mad Men using the Netflix apps (yes, you can watch Netflix using the Gear VR) and you’re transported to a chalet in the mountains. Out the window to your left are snowy mountains, To your right are movie posters. There’s a log fire, a plush leather sofa and a wall-mounted TV surrounded by stone columns. It’s sort of holiday cabin I wish I could afford.

Anyway, at one point, my mind started believing what I was seeing and I tried to put something I was holding in my right hand onto the right hand side of the couch. I actually believed I was siting on a couch, watching Netflix.

I demoed some first-person shooters using a supplied bluetooth controller but the technology isn’t quite there yet to create a really immersive experience. My friend Ross, who recently tested out a Samsung Gear VR as well, was able to get a VR version of Quake running. I couldn’t work it out. One thing I noticed was that I couldn’t use the headset for too long or else my eyes started getting sore.

Virtual Reality is in its infancy but if announcements at gaming trade shows is anything to go by VR is the in-tech at the moment: Is it the next 3D?

Here's me wearing the Samsung Gear VR. It's hard to look cool wearing a VR headset, to be honest.

Here’s me wearing the Samsung Gear VR. It’s hard to look cool wearing a VR headset, to be honest.

What Samsung VR headset has done is bring virtual reality to the living room at an affordable price.  The headset unit will set you back $200, which I think is pretty reasonable for the hardware. Of course, you’ll need a 2015 Samsung phone but lots of people have those nowadays.

I haven’t tried a Oculus Rift unit so I can’t compare the two and say whether one’s better than the other but I was impressed with the Gear VR and how immersed I felt in its virtual reality worlds. And at $199, it’s affordable but there’s one caveat: You have to have a 2015 Samsung smart phone to make it work. I don’t so I’d have to buy a Samsung phone as well as the headset so it could get pricey!

I wasn’t sure what I thought about VR until I’d tried out the Samsung Gear VR and now I’m sold. VR still has a way to go to go to make it a truly immersive experience but there’s something about being able to fool your brain into thinking that you’re actually watching a dinosaur waking up or sitting in a shark cage, surrounded by aquatic life.

 

Element: The realtime strategy game for those who don’t have lots of time for RTS

element_005According to Tauranga, New Zealand game developer Flightless, Element is a real-time strategy game set in space “for people who don’t have time to play realtime strategy space games”.

The game is currently on Steam Early Access for PC, Mac and Linux, and over the years, I’ve covered games made by Flightless (most notably its iOS game Bee Leader) so was lucky enough to get a Steam code for Element.  As you can see from the screen shots, it’s got a really nice art style to it and colour palate. I also hear it was received favourably at this year PAX Aus, and, frankly, I can see why.

element_008Element’s story is set in a time where you are onboard a space craft escaping a decaying solar system. You must visit each planet, mine enough element and defeat the enemy to progress to the outer planets and beyond. You’ll build attack and defence units and assault enemies while mining the planet you’re on for valuable resources using the elements of fire, earth, air and water.

I’ve had a few games of Element and things start off easily, with just a few enemy units to get rid of, but as the game progresses it gets harder, and you find yourself having to flick between mining resources and attacking enemies. You’ll find yourself rotating the planet as you plonk down defensive units then target enemy attack units, hoping to shoot them out of the sky before they destroy your base.

I think Flightless are on the money when they said Element is a realtime space strategy game for those who don’t have time for realtime space strategy games which, let’s be honest, require hours and hours of time to play. I like that Element is the sort of game that you can play through one or two campaign then call it quits for the night but still feel satisfied.

Here’s me playing through Element’s tutorial level:

I’m really liking Element so far and I’ll continue working my way through its planets. No doubt things will get tougher as it progresses, with tougher enemies and challenges, but I love its art style and, importantly, it’s a realtime strategy game that has mission campaigns that are short enough for busy people, like me (and I’d say you too, dear reader) so I don’t have to dedicate a million hours to progress.

I love, too, that Element is from a New Zealand developer that I’ve followed closely over my years as a games writer.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Element.

Huawei Smartwatch: A classy and stylish piece of wearable tech

Since getting a Huawei smartwatch, my usual watch, an LG G Watch R, has been sitting unused and idle, gathering dust. Well, that’s not true: My teenage son has decided to flit between the LG and my FitBit surge.

I’ve hardly taken the Huawei watch off my wrist in the past two weeks. In fact, the only time I’ve taken it off is when I have a shower and when it needs charging. I really grown to love the watch, which makes my LG seem, frankly, bulky and unwieldy.

The Huawei makes a class impression from the moment you open the rather large box it comes in. The matte black stainless steel version that I had (it also comes in a stainless steel and gold versions) was nestled on a faux leather liner in the box, with the watch placed strategically in the middle. It oozed class and style.

An email notification appears on the Huawei's AMOLED screen. Swipe to the left to close it, swipe up to dismiss the program.

An email notification appears on the Huawei’s AMOLED screen. Swipe to the right to close the email,  swipe up to dismiss the program. Easy.

With a 1.4-inch AMOLED screen (with a resolution of 400×400) and 4.2mm in diameter, the Huawei watch will suit smaller wrists and won’t look out-of-place on your wrist, like I feel that my LG does at times, and I liked that the watch’s strap was a standard 18mm strap, meaning you can replace it easily. It comes with all the features you’d expect  a wearable to have, including a surprisingly accurate heart rate monitor. The only button on the watch is one set at the 2 O’Clock position. On the back is a heart rate sensor.

I’ve had my LG smartwatch for a few months now so I’m no stranger to Google’s Android Wear smartwatch software, so using the Huawei felt intuitive and familiar. With a smartwatch your preaching to the converted and I can’t actually imagine not having one these days. I used the Huawei’s inbuilt alarm to wake me in the morning and track my steps throughout the day.

The Huawei Smartwatch's sporty green watch face. That green circle? That fills up the more active you are.

The Huawei Smartwatch’s sporty green watch face. That green circle? That fills up the more active you are.

 

The screen is fantastic on the Huawei watch: Colours are bright and vivid and everything just looks much clearer than on my LG, even with my ageing eyesight. The display really is superb.

Navigating through the Huawei’s mentions are as you’d expect with an Android smartwatch: You swipe left and right through the screens, up and down to find the app you want and then tap the icon. It’s easy, to be honest.

You can change watch faces either by touching and holding the watch face itself then scrolling left and right to the face you want or through the Android Wear software on your phone. The Huawei had a good selection of watch faces that suit a variety of situations and you can buy new ones for a handful of dollars. My personal favourite watch face was green sporty, which shows your activity during the day through a green circle that progressive moves around the watch face the more steps/activity you do throughout out the day.

The Huawei uses a magnetic docking station (it attaches via some gold contact pins on the underside of the charger) and battery life was what I expect from a piece of wearable tech: I got roughly a day to a day and a half, depending on how many notifications I got throughout the day, before it needed recharging. Charging was quick, too, and I’d usually plonk the watch on the docking station when I was getting ready for work in the morning and it would be close to fully charged by the time I was ready to go.

The underside of the Huawei Smartwatch. The gold pins magnetically clip to the charging port.

The underside of the Huawei Smartwatch. The gold pins magnetically clip to the charging port.

The big question is: Is a smart watch essential? Well, no, it’s not but for me, as I said earlier, I don’t think I could live without one. Wearing one has made my life a whole lot easier and the Huawei looks classy enough to wear everyday.

Wearing a smart watch is part of my daily routine. And since wearing a smart watch, I don’t look at my phone nearly as frequently as I used to: The smart watch lessens the number of times I pull my phone out of my pocket to check that message, that email, that social media comment. If I get a notification (be it email, social media or email), all I do is check my watch and if it’s urgent, I’ll get my phone and reply. If it’s not, I’ll just leave it till I’ve time to answer.

If there was any negative to Huawei’s watch it’s the price: The black stainless steel watch (with matching black leather strap) will set you back around $750, while the gold-plated version is close to $1000, which makes the Huawei considerably more expensive than some other Android smart watches on the market. As a comparison, my LG G Watch R was about $479 when it first came out.

Make no mistake, Huawei’s smart watch is a premium piece of hardware with an absolutely stunning and vivid screen that makes it one of the best Android smart watches around right now, but it’s going to face stiff competition in the coming months as manufacturers bring new hardware to the market, one of those being Samsung and its new Gear S2 [Look out for a review of Samsung’s smart watch soon]

It’s going to be an interesting few months for fans of wearable tech.

What the feck is Baba Yaga? It looks scary, that’s what

I liked Rise of the Tomb Raider. I actually liked it much better than the 2013 reboot (I liked them both, but I liked Rise better).

Last week, at The Game Awards, Crystal Dynamics revealed some story DLC that’s coming out in early 2016 and, frankly, it looks as freaky as shit, dropping Lara Croft deep in something called the Wicked Vale, somewhere deep in the wilds of Siberia.

Croft’s mission is to find a missing man, presumably part of a Soviet expedition that went missing,  but, according to information, what she finds is much, much worse: A witch called Baba Yaga.

According to Slavic legend (thanks Wikipedia), Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking woman. The legend says Baba Yaga flies around in a ,mortar, wields a pestle and lives deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs or sometimes a single chicken leg. That’ll be the creep hut that we see stalking the forest.

Apparently, though, it’s ambiguous whether Baba Yaga is out to help visitors or scare the shit out of them.

Crystal Dynamic said Baba Yaga: Temple of the Witch, will have see Lara face off against deadly new adversaries, exploring a new puzzle-filled tomb and solving a decades old mystery, all culminating in a “showdown with an ancient and mythic evil”

I don’t know about you but I’m getting the creeps already, and that’s just from watching the trailer. The add-on isn’t due until sometime next year, which means I’ve got plenty of time to get worked up about it.

My week in gaming: Old skool point-and-click adventuring

I’ve been old-skooling it in gaming this week, after picking up a Lucasarts adventure game bundle off Steam last week. I haven’t played any Fallout 4 since picking up The Dig, Loom, Indiant Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the princely sum of … [drum roll please] $2.99.

A coincidence, do you think?

I’m enjoying The Dig, although to be fair, I’ve always been a fan of Lucasarts’ point-and-click adventure games. It’s a nice chance of pace from games like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4, which I’m starting to wonder has just too much stuff to do in it. I’m not sure I have enough hours to devote to a game that takes 50+ hours to finish!

TheDigastronautsThe Dig seems to have had a mixed reception from both gamers and critics, and to be fair, some of the puzzles are ridiculously difficult (there’s one where you have to work out the sequence of colours for a robot arm to pick up a lens) but I’m hooked in the story, which tells of three astronauts who end up on a strange alien world after an asteroid threatens to hit the earth.

Key_Art_-_Psychonauts_2.0In other news, you might have heard that Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine have announced Psychonauts 2 and they need our help to fund its development. I’m excited about this (even though I gave up on Broken Age despite backing it). So excited that I pledge some dollars to it tonight. Well, I think I did. I still haven’t received a confirmation email yet. I hope that doesn’t mean something bad.

On the hardware front, I’m currently looking at a Huawei watch and I have to say I’m impressed. My poor LG G Watch R hasn’t had a look in since I’ve had it. I’m also getting a Samsun Gear 2 smart watch sometime next week. I’ll post my thoughts as soon as I can.

What have you been playing? Have you been old skooling it as well?