Monthly Archives: May 2016

Entering the world of VR: Getting lost in another world

“You look weird,” my wife says as I sit at my desktop PC wearing a Samsung GearVR headset.

“I suppose I do,” I replied – and she was probably right: It does look a little strange sitting in a room wearing a VR headset. It doesn’t look natural. It’s unlikely the norm in many households.

I’d always been fascinated by VR. I remember years and years ago when I was a junior reporter for a newspaper trying out some virtual reality thing that was set up in a suburban shopping mall. From what I can remember it had a bulky headset and the graphics were very Lawnmower Man (for younger readers, that was a movie that dealt with VR).

When I heard HTC and PlayStation were making VR headsets, I was interested and intrigued at the prospects of an immersive VR experience – but when I saw the prices my intrigue turned to disappointment. There was no way I was going to be able to justify spending several hundreds of dollars on a VR headset, no matter how much I wanted one. I needed a cheaper option. Samsung GearVR was that option.

I’ve done a review of the GearVR on this site already (and I was impressed with the few days I had it for) but since getting a Galaxy S7 I decided I wanted to experience VR in a cost-effective way but one that offered an experience better than Google Cardboard. I remember getting a Cardboard-like VR headset on the back of a Kellog’s Nutigrain box. It was pretty rubbish, to be honest, and I think I thew it out. As much as I’d like to have pre-ordered a HTC Vive VR headset, my budget didn’t stretch to the several hundreds of dollars that it would cost and besides, my current GPU – an ageing Geforce GTX660Ti isn’t grunty enough to power the Vive’s experience, anyway.

Since I had a Samsung phone I decided what better way to experience VR than with Samsung’s Oculus-powered GearVR headset? So I bought one.

I’m glad I got it, too. Sure it’s not as powerful at HTC’s Vive (which looks to be an amazing experience from people I know that have one) or the upcoming PS VR headset, both requiring external computing power, and it doesn’t have controllers that let you pick up virtual objects, I’m loving that GearVR gives me an awesome virtual reality experience for a decent price.

Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?

The headset

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Samsung’s GearVR headset – powered by Oculus.

20160526_220258The GearVR looks like a VR headset should, which is a good start. It’s made from white plastic with a three-point strap that secures it to your head and nice thick padding around where it rests on your forehead and around your nose (the top edge of the padding that rests on your forehead was a little rough for my liking, though).

The words “Powered by Oculus” are printed on the left hand side of the headset and there’s a D-pad and a back button on the right hand side. The headset has venting on the bottom and there’s a plate that can cover the phone, which offers venting as well. I haven’t experienced any heat warning from my phone while using the GearVR, but then I’m not using it for hours at a time.

When you put the GearVR on for the first time it feels a little weird, almost claustrophic, but after a few minutes I got used to it and my eyes adjusted to things. You slot your compatible Samsung phone into the front of the headset using two spring-loaded clips (make sure you unlock your phone) and unlike the Google Cardboard, there is a focus dial that lets you adjust the focus so you get things just right to suit your eyes. The Oculus software kicks in as soon as you pop the headset onto your face, taking you to a cavernous room that looks like a luxury home where you’ll find the menu system which shows icons to access your game and application library and the Oculus store.

The software

I’ve used the GearVR mainly for gaming but also for watching movies via Netflix and Oculus Video. I’ve recently bought a controller off Amazon which should arrive early June and I plan to buy space sim End Space GearVR, which needs a controller, and Minecraft VR, which also needs a controller. Some games require a controller, other games don’t. Those that don’t need a controller generally use GearVR’s head tracking to move you around the game world on such as in puzzle game Land’s End where you look at markers and the game automatically moves you there.

Eve Gunjack was the first game I bought for my GearVR and it’s one of the two I play the most. It comes from the same developers that are making the PC game Eve Valkyrie, and uses the head tracking to target enemies and the D-pad to fire guns and missiles and reload weapons. Visually, it’s impressive and the sense of scale as you look around is unbelievable.  I can see a controller good for this game as your arm does get a little tired after a while, seeing as it’s pressed up against the headset. It’s a bloody good game. It looks fantastic (it’s powered by the Unreal 4 engine), it’s fast paced and – importantly – you actually feel as if you’re inside a fighter ship taking on enemy fighters. You can look around the cockpit and it feels immersive (don’t look right behind you, though: You’ll see the empty space where your head is supposed to be!).

The only thing that feels off with Eve Gunjack is that it’s weird seeing “your”  arms but you can’t actually do anything with them. That where I see the PlayStation VR and HTC Vive having the big advantage over the GearVR: They’ve got physical controllers that you hold so that you can pick things up and manipulate the game world. You can move your arms to do things. That niggle aside, Eve Gunjack is perhaps one of the must-have games for Samsung’s VR headset.

Another excellent game is Land’s End, a great puzzle game set in a strange island environment where you use the GearVR’s head tracking to solve puzzles by joining broken lines or lifting stones to complete puzzles. It’s got a real serene feel about it and a real sense of loneliness and space about it. It’s on rails, so you don’t move around freely but instead look at markers that float in the air: Look at it and you’ll automatically move to the next spot.  I got so immersed in what was happening that although I knew that I wasn’t going to fall over the edge of a cliff that I moved close to, I felt as if I was going to.  This game is best played sitting in a chair that you can swing around, hence me often sitting at my computer desk in my DX Racer gaming chair. Land’s End is another must-have for the Gear VR.

 

Watching Netflix on the GearVR is a great experience, too. Once you pop on the headset and start the app up, you’ll find yourself on a couch in a mountain cabin, snowy peaks outside a window and a big screen TV in front of you.  Logging into my account was easy the I just used the touch pad to scroll through TV shows and movies and started watching. It’s in 2D but I was comfortable watching a 1/2 hour TV episode. I haven’t tried a full-length movie yet. It might be a little too much, I’m thinking.

Update: Since first posting this, I’ve bought Esper 2, a neat Portal-like game that puts the player in the shoes of a test subject with ESP. You have to move things with the power of your mind – and to get around the movement side, the game has you sitting in a chair the entire time! I’m liking it very much. Here’s 13 minutes of Esper 2 – there’s no audio though: The GearVR’s native capture utility doesn’t capture audio. I’m working on a solution.

 

Sure, the GearVR has its limitations and I hope developers will keep producing great games for it once the likes of the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR really gain traction with mainstream gamers, but I have no hesitation recommending the GearVR headset if you want to get a taste for VR for a reasonable amount and have a compatible Samsung phone. For less than $200NZ it’s a great investment if you’re a gamer that wants to experience VR.

I’m saving up to get a HTC Vive (God knows when that will happen) at some point, but until I have enough for that, I’ll keep using my GearVR. I’m loving it, even if it makes me look a little weird when I’m wearing it. VR is well and truly affordable.

 

Shadow of the Beast review: side ways hack ‘n slash

SOTB_PS4_Final_05_1462868539Meet Aarbron. That’s him on the right. He’s the chap lifting some poor sod up in the air. He’s a vicious killing machine that likes nothing more than slashing things to pieces with his razor-sharp talons. He’s the main character in Shadow of the Beast, the re-make of a game of the same name made waaaaay back in 1989 and originally appeared on the Amiga. This new one’s on the PlayStation 4.

Aarbron wasn’t always like that, though. He used to be a normal man. With a normal life. He probably did the gardening every weekend. Took the recycling bin out on Wednesday nights. Took the dog for a walk. That was until Maletoth came along. Maletoth isn’t a nice chap. He turned Aarbron into, well, a blood-crazed monster with razor-sharp talons.

This new Shadow of the Beast is made by Heavy Spectrum Studio, a small seven person team. I never owned an Amiga so I never played the original. I hear it was quite tough, although the music was great. The remake follows the same storyline as the original, though: Aarbron was captured as a child and turned into a vicious monster through magic and becomes the servant of an evil creature called Maletoth. The game deals with Aarbron chasing down Maletoth in an effort to make him pay for what he has done.

I’d like to say Shadow of the Beast is purely a side-scroller game, but it’s not. Not really. In some levels, Aarbron is able to teleport forwards and backwards but the bulk of the action happens on a horizontal plane with Aarbron moving left to right. Encounters with enemies involve a small area being blocked off by laser barriers, forcing Aarbron to fight the materialising hordes before moving forward. In his quest to defeat Maletoth, who conjures up enemies by throwing his green blood about the place, Aarbron faces off against the dark lord’s foes using a variety of attacks using his razor-sharp blades. There’s plenty of blood on the ground, that’s for sure. There are buckets of blood. Pints of blood. Oodles of blood.

SOTB_PS4_Final_01_1462868539Aarbron can block enemy attacks, he can stun enemies, he can order spikes to rise out from the ground, impaling enemies. He can even, if you time it right, jump onto enemies and stab them repeatedly with his razor-sharp talons, spewing forth precious health. You have to pound the controller’s square button to do this move. Aarbron can also do a rage attack when his three-bar blood meter is full. The rage attack is a mini Quick Time Event where if you press the square button at the right time Aarbron slices and dices enemies. Chain attacks together and you earn more mana points which can be used to unlock special moves or the original version of the game and soundtrack.

I’ve got mixed feeling about Shadow of the Beast. On the one hand, it’s a marvellous effort from the seven-member Heavy Spectrum Studios, with great visuals and production values. It’s a reasonable price, too: It’ll set you back $NZ23.95. On the other hand, I found the combat got tiresome rather quickly and the combat doesn’t often flow as nicely as I’d like it to. If you time things right, thought, the combat is visceral and brutal.

Shadow of the Beast is entertaining and it’s a passion project for the small development team that have done a masterful job in re-imagining the game for the modern age – I take my virtual hat off for that – but I just can’t see it holding your attention for too long. I’d imagine that many fans of the series would play it just so they could unlock the original game and listen to its pretty neat soundtrack.

Time to revisit The Witcher 3, perhaps

It’s hard to believe that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt came out a year ago (my Gog.com account tells me I last played it a year ago). It was such an awesome game and the latest trailer and screens for the next DLC, Blood and Wine has me contemplating actually firing the game up again.

The_Witcher_3_Wild_Hunt_Blood_and_Wine_A_nice_day_for_a_walkThe_Witcher_3_Wild_Hunt_Blood_and_Wine_Sleep-tightOut on May 31, Blood and Wine (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4) is, says CD Projekt Red’s game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, lead character Geralt’s final mission. With more than 90 new quests, and more than 30 hours of new adventuring, he says it’s something that he believes gamers will remember for a long time.

“There’s also a massive amount of features we’re giving gamers with this expansion like a dynamic Point of Interest system, a new Gwent deck, new endgame mutation mechanics, and even a place Geralt can call home …. And it’s all happening in a new region as big as No Man’s Land in the base game,” Tomaszkiewicz says.

The_Witcher_3_Wild_Hunt_Blood_and_Wine_Thanks_for_reaching_outI didn’t play the first DLC but I’m really keen on checking this out. From what’s been shown in screen shots & in the trailer, the game world looks a lot more vibrant and colourful, which is something that I like (I’m sure there are dark moments with horrific monsters but yeah, I’m liking the vibrancy here).

It looks like Blood & Wine will cost $20.47 (it’s currently 10% off). It’s something that I’ll seriously look at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want to win a copy of Uncharted 4? Of course you do …

Hopefully,  you’ve read my review by now of Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End, the latest adventure for Nathan Drake.

PS4_UC4_3D_Inlay_R13In the review I said that Naughty Dog had saved the best Uncharted till last – and I stand by that. I loved the game from start to finish and now, thanks to the kind folks at PlayStation NZ, you have the chance to win a copy of Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End and an Uncharted cap.

Entering the competition is simple. All you have to do is tell me what is your favourite moment from an Uncharted game. It could be the opening moments of Uncharted 2 or it could just be some of the amazing locations the game has visited: It’s up to you. To enter, you have to either write a comment on this blog or visit the Gamejunkie 2.0 Facebook page and post a comment there (feel free to like the page as well!)

Like any competition, of course, there are some T&Cs:

  • The competition is only open to people in New Zealand with a New Zealand residential address.
  • The competition runs from 8pm, Tuesday, May 10 until 8pm, Sunday, May 15.
  • You must be aged over 13 to enter the competition.
  • To enter,  you can either post a comment on this blog on your favourite moment from the Uncharted series or on the Gamejunkie NZ Facebook page. One entry per person, please.
  • The prize (1 x Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End game, 1 x Uncharted 4 cap) will be drawn after 8pm, May 15 and the winner notified by email or direct message. The game is PlayStation 4 exclusive so you’ll also need a PS4 to play it on (you’ll have to supply that yourself).
  • The judge’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

Cap UC4So, what are you waiting for? Get your entry in!

 

 

 

Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End: Saving the best till last

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has been responsible for me losing sleep.
It turned out it was one of those “A few more minutes then I’ll go to bed” games. Most gamers would have been there. All gamers will know a game like that.
city_09I finished Uncharted 4’s narrative campaign in 16 hours, 31 minutes and 56 seconds on moderate difficulty (I’ve heard things are fairly tough in the hard and above difficulties) and loved it. According to the in-game stats, I spent 2 hours 14 minutes and 34 seconds of that standing still, I climbed 5652 metres, collected 25 of 109 treasures and defeated 583 enemies. I plan to play through it again (I haven’t gone near the multiplayer yet. If I do, I’ll do it when the servers go public but Uncharted has always been about the campaign for me).

During two late night sessions when I played until 2am in the morning (one of them Monday night) I remember looking at my watch at 11.30pm – I was the only one up: My family had long gone to bed – and saying to myself “OK, a few more minutes and I’m off to bed”. The next time I looked at my watch it was 2.10am – and I had to be up at 7am to get ready for work.

ope_01I can’t remember a game that has hooked me so much as Uncharted 4. It’s good. It’s very, very good.
Set three years after the events of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake, the intrepid adventurer from the previous three Uncharted games, has apparently left the world of fortune hunting behind him but when his older brother Sam turns up, he’s convinced to head off on a quest to find the treasure of fabled and feared pirate Henry Avery.
What follows is a roller coaster ride of adventuring globe-trotting that is, to me, the best of the series.  Naughty Dog have definitely saved the best to last. Uncharted 4 might not have the big set pieces like Uncharted 3 did or the unforgettable opening of Uncharted 2 but it’s all the better for it.

dive_01Visually, the game is stunning – I think that will come as no surprise – with locations including lush verdant valleys, abandoned towns, underground tombs and the depths of the deep blue sea, but for me, the Uncharted games and Naughty Dog have always been about the narrative, about the relationships between characters. There is a reason that ND’s other stellar game The Last of Us is so good: The relationship between its two lead characters – and it’s the same with Uncharted 4. The relationships are front and centre.

The main thing that really hit home for me with Uncharted 4 is that it’s about the relationships between Drake and those he loves, especially the relationships he has with Elena Fisher (who he is now married to), and his brother Sam, who Drake thought was dead. Sure, Uncharted 4 has gunplay  and climbing and bad guys and treasure but it’s all about the characters. This may sound really weird, because we’re talking about digital actors here,  but at times I almost believed they were human: They looked and behaved so realistically.

home_01Case in point: During one late game cinematic, I watched Elena who was standing in the background as Drake spoke and her mannerisms and body language felt like I was watching an actor and not a collection of pixels rendered on a TV screen.

I felt more connected to Drake and Elena more than I had in previous games and they look older too: We’ve been through a lot together and I put that connection down to ND’s Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, who both skipped Uncharted 3 to work on The Last of Us. It shows: This is probably the best narrative I’ve seen in an Uncharted game – or perhaps any game in recent memory – and I felt invested in the characters. Not many games do that to me.

The game’s environments are more open, too, allowing you to reach an objective using a variety of paths, and combat feels more weighty than in previous Uncharted games and while at times the odds seem stacked against Drake, using the environment to your advantage works beautifully here.

You can now use a grappling hook to help take enemies down as well as swinging across gapping chasms and, yes, ledges and handholds still crumble when Nate is climbing a precarious cliff face or building but I never grew tired of it.

city_06I liked that I could tackle the combat situations all guns blazing, if you want, but that will attract the attention of every enemy in the vicinity, of  course, or you can creep through long grass (yes, creeping through long grass is now a feature), taking out as many enemies as you can quietly. I tried to handle as many situations as I could this way: Take out a handful of enemies quietly by pulling them off ledges or from the vantage of vegetation then using the grappling hook to swing across a gap, punching down an enemy from above. It’s so satisfying, believe me.

Uncharted 4 is also a game full of little details that help you feel that the game world is a living, breathing place and the characters have conversations amongst themselves while Nate is off climbing a ruined building. It’s those little things that give the game more grounding in reality and makes the characters more believable, more real. Driving through Madagascar,  I knocked over several rock piles, prompting Sam to say:  “You do realise that someone probably took hours putting those rocks there?”
The puzzles are back, and they’re not too taxing if you pay attention to sequences and clues you’ve picked up and I could go on for hours about Uncharted 4 but I’m going to stop.  You’ve realised by now that I loved Uncharted 4 and it’s the best  of the series because its characterisation is front and centre.
If I had any niggles it would that I felt there were perhaps too many “Oh, can you find something to help get me up to that out-of-reach ledge” moments. Generally that something involved a large crate on wheels.
Uncharted 4 is a triumph of narrative and proves Naughty Dog are masters at creating characters you can believe in. It is a fitting farewell.
Thanks to PlayStation NZ which provided me with a review copy of Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End. 

Sony SRS-XB3 review: It’s all about the bass …

It’s all about the bass with Sony’s SRS-XB3 ($299), a portable speaker that really packs a punch when it comes pushing out the “doof, doof, doofs”.

srsxb3rThe SRS-XB3 – I’m putting two and two together here and assuming the XB stands for Xtra Bass – comes in numerous colours. The one I got was red. It was a little garish for my liking but looked nice enough sitting on the black granite bench top in my kitchen.

It’s a heavy speaker, which is a good thing. The weight comes from the bass speaker in the back of the unit and that weight is important: It helps move air to create that deep, low bass that a good portable speaker needs  The weight also means the unit won’t bounce around if you turn things up too loud.

The XB3 is paired via bluetooth (and can also be used as a speaker phone)  and there’s a button on the top labelled “Extra bass”. Press this and, well, it does what it says on the tin: Provides music with extra bass. It works, too, and sound is noticeably more bassy when the button is turned on. I played music then pressed the button on and then off. On and then off. On and then off. There’s a noticeable difference in bass heavy music when it’s active.

The XB3 is being touted as a speaker for electronic house music, which isn’t really my cup of tea so I had it playing what I like through it: A bit of The Foo Fighters, some Jeff Buckley, a touch of Muse and, just because I wanted to hear it loud, Jump by Van Halen. The XB3 handled them all admirably, providing good bass, although I thought that at high volumes high end notes were a overpowered by the thumping bass. Van Halen sounded better than Jeff Buckley on the XB3, which didn’t come as a surprise.

My usual bluetooth speaker is a Logitech UE Boom and it’s a cracker of a portable speaker, if a little light on the bass. As I said earlier, I don’t like electronic house/dance music so I wouldn’t be playing the sort of music that the SRS-XB3 is aimed at but I’d be more than happy having one sitting in the backyard pumping out the tunes as I did the gardening or providing the background music while I burned the sausages on the BBQ.