Augmented Empire: An RPG trip down the VR looking glass

If it wasn’t for British development studio Coatsink’s Augmented Empire, my Samsung Gear VR would still be gathering dust.

Instead, it’s being used to order around characters in the city of New Savannah, the location for Coatsink’s latest game that’s described as a tactical RPG.

Coatsink will be most well-known for its VR games Esper and Esper 2, and Augmented Empire follows a similar tradition by placing the player in a comfortable chair, this time looking over proceedings, making orders to the six lead characters. The game features an impressive voice cast including Doug Cockle, who voices Geralt in The Witcher series, Kate Mulgrew from Star Trek Voyager and Orange is the New Black and Coatsink regular Nick Frost, who appeared in movies Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead.

Augmented Empire is a turn-based game where you can use either a game pad or gaze-based control to move the character you’re playing: You move two spaces around the play area then any foes in the area move two spaces. Combat follows a similar pattern, although you can dodge in coming attacks via a simple Quick Time event. The game twists the traditional RPG element by having the player viewing goings-on from a bird’s-eye view, letting you get a great view of the play area so you can plan the next move.

Visually, I was impressed with Augmented Empire and its cartoon-ish visuals that have a surprising level of depth and detail that I wasn’t expecting. You don’t expect much from VR visuals on the Gear VR but Coatsink have done a fantastic job in creating an interesting game world. At times the visuals reminded me of the Esper games, but darker and more detailled.

When I first got my GearVR, I couldn’t stop playing it: It was something new and novel and I devoured games like Darknet, Anshar Wars 2, End Space, Gunjack, Land’s End and the two Esper gamesl. After a while, thought I got bored with VR and the sore I eyes it was giving me and the headset sat on a shelf on my computer desk, gathering dust.

Thanks to Coatsink and Augmented Empire, though, I finally have a reason to dust off my GearVR and use it again.

Ultimate Ears Wonderboom: Pint-sized powerhouse

UE Wonderboom

For a pint-sized portable speaker, Ultimate Ears’ Wonderboom pumps out remarkable sound.

I’ve long been a fan of UE’s Boom Bluetooth portable speaker: We bought one a few years ago to take away on holiday and it proved a hit with the family (although arguments did ensue over what music playlist had to be played next) so I was excited to see how the company had upped the ante with this compact cousin. It’s upped the ante big time.

Like the UE Boom before it, the Wonderboom gives 360 degree sound, meaning you’ll hear the music no matter where you put it – and believe me, we heard it when it was being used: My teenage son loves his music while he showers so the Wonderboom was a constant companion at shower time (good job it’s waterproof, too, although he didn’t put the unit in the shower, it’s nice to know it’ll survive a dunking). Sometimes, we’d sit in the lounge during a weekend afternoon, just listening to music out of the Wonderboom and smile at how good things sound from such a small speaker.

The sound is so good on the Wonderboom that I could hear the music easily from a few rooms away. Like the UE Boom before it, this pint-sized unit features large volume up and down buttons and a charge port secured by a sturdy waterproof flap. No water’s going to get into this beast. It has a range of around 30m and pairing is quick and easy. The only niggle I have is the loop that you can pick it up with: It’s too small to slip a finger through.

Ultimate Ears reckons the battery life is around 10 hours, and it’s not far off that, when put through its paces at reasonable volume. Soundwise, the Wonderboom is excellent, offering toe-tapping bass, and nice mid-tones and high notes. Your music will feel right at home with the Wonderboom.

For a waterproof, portable speaker that offers fantastic sound and great portability, you’d be hard pressed to find anything better than the UE Wonderboom. Seriously, this is a wonderful Bluetooth speaker that will fill your home with the sound of music.


Enslaved Odyssey to the West: A great but flawed gem

I never finished my first play through of Ninja Theory’s Enslaved Odyssey to West: It’s niggles & frustrations just got too much for me, despite me really enjoying the journey tale of main characters Monkey and Trip.

Last weekend, I decided to reinstall it on Steam and make my way through it again. I’m really glad I did. Sure, the niggles & frustrations are still annoying me from time to time but I’ve put those aside to focus on the story and the relationship that develops between the two lead characters. That’s the really stellar thing about the game: The relationship.

The game takes place in an apocalyptic world 150 years into the future where robots still present the biggest challenge and danger and very few humans exist anymore. The world is one full of danger at almost every turn.

One of the game’s biggest strengths is its combat, which while relatively simplistic, sees monkey battle a variety of mechanical beasts using a staff that can not only bash the shite out of foes but can fire plasma bolts that can stun and blast enemies. Chain enough hits and Monkey can perform a takedown move which will short circuit larger foes. The story is written by Alex Garland, the same writer behind one of my favourite movies, Dredd, and features Andy Serkis (he who did the motion capture work and voice of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) and Lindsey Shaw.

I think what really sells me on Enslaved is the developing relationship between Monkey and Trip and the emotions that develop as their bond grows and the pair learn to trust each other and work together. It’s a game that treats its players like mature adults not reliant on clichés and gimmicks to move the narrative along. There was some DLC released featuring a character called Piggy but I haven’t got that yet. Maybe I might pick it up.

Sometimes, taking a break between playing a game can make you enjoy it more the second time around. That’s definitely the case with Enslaved Odyssey to the West. Hopefully, Ninja Theory might decide to make a sequel. I’d pay to play that.

Nintendo 2DS XL: Big screens & ditch the 3D

Nintendo 2DS XL ($229)

Nintendo’s new 2DS XL could be the best version of its handheld that I’ve ever used.

The 2DX XL plays 3DS and DS games (although it won’t display 3DS games in 3D, of course)  and also comes with a 4Gb microSD card, which handily means you don’t have to buy one like you had to with previous DS models.

Compared with my original version 3DS, the 2DSXL model has some subtle design tweaks, too, which keeping the much-loved clam shell design. Besides the bigger screens, the power button is now on the front edge rather than on top next to the screen; the start and select buttons are physical buttons and the microSD slot and stylus are now located at the front, rather than the back, of unit. The 2DS XL also has new shoulder buttons and a small joystick-like button above the face buttons.

The design is more rounded than the angular edges of the original 3DS, too, with a really nice aesthetic and it really does look smart. It comes in two colour variants: Black and blue, and orange and white. It also has a nice ribbed finish on the top surface when the unit is closed, giving it a more top-end feel to it. If I had to be picky, sometimes I had trouble turning it on as the power button is almost flush to the body of the unit – and I chew my finger nails!

The big selling point for the 2DXL is that with the ability to play games from previous Nintendo DS handhelds, it has a huge back catalogue of games, and it was really nice being able to play 3DS games like Luigi’s Mansion 2 and New Super Mario Bros. 2 and maybe it’s because I’ve got ageing eyesight, but I found the games much more enjoyable in 2D rather than 3D.

Battery life seems pretty good, giving me around 3 to seven hours of activity, depending on-screen brightness and how demanding the game I was playing was. Of course, if you have the brightness all the way up then your battery life will be dramatically less.

Bottom line: Should you buy the Nintendo 2DS XL? If you already own a 3DS and like playing your games in 3D, then probably not. That said, if you’re a gamer that can take or leave 3D and wants a cheaper handheld that can play a humongous back library of 3DS and DS titles, then Nintendo’s latest handheld is hard to beat, although a price point of around $200 would have made it even better value.

Arms: Punching good times on the Nintendo Switch

Like it did with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch, Nintendo has struck  gaming gold with pugilism simulator, Arms.

As the name suggests, this punching game centres on the arms of the pugilists, which are spring-loaded with one of three different “gloves” providing light, medium and heavy attacks. Take Spring Man, example, his toaster arms look like boxing gloves, his boomerang arms fire two-bladed boomerangs and the tribolt arms fire three rockets at foes. You can mix and max so each arm has different gloves, if you like. Punch your foe with the left arm then knock them down with the right!

The game play is mixed up with skill-based rounds every now and then: It might be having to punch beach balls over a net before they explode or knock down targets or knock your opponent into a basketball hoop. The fighter that scores the highest moves onto the next round.

While you might think Arms would get repetitive quickly, it doesn’t as it has enough depth and a roster of 30 fighters (each fighter has their own unique ring, too) to keep things moving along nicely. You can use either the JoyCons unclipped from the Switch, waving them around, or using a controller or attached to the Switch itself. I actually felt more control waving the JoyCons around as if I was actually fighting. It just felt more natural, with pushing both hands forward grabbing opponents and turning them into each other putting your fists up to guard your face.

The fighting isn’t that deep but you can curve punches to catch opponents unawares, dash and jump, as well as using the arena environments to your advantage. One takes place in a street with parked cars as obstacles while another has platforms that rise and fall as you’ve playing. Grabbing opponents with both arms and throwing them to the ground is great fun. I haven’t played any online matches yet but the game play modes include ranked matches.

Arms looks fantastic on the Switch, too: It’s running at a crisp 720p and 60 frames a second, in both docked and un-docked mode.

With Arms, Nintendo has again delivered a knock out with a game that is simply put, fun. Arms is FUN. Pure and simple.

Jaybird X3 earbuds: Bluetooth sports buddies

Jaybird’s X3s are probably the first set of earbuds that didn’t feel uncomfortable in my ears.

The beauty of the X3 earbuds is that you can wear them either over the ear (with the cable running behind your ear) or under the ear, just like normal ear buds. I tended to wear them under the ear, using a fin, mainly because that’s how I’m used to wearing earbuds. I can see the over ear method ideal for sports like mountain bike or running.

Unlike many other ear buds that I’ve tried, the X3s managed to fit snugly into my ears without falling out. The ear buds come with a variety of ear tips and ear fins (as well as cord clips so things don’t get tangled up) so you can get the perfect fit. That said, I did manage to “misplace” one of the silicon ear fins while I was out riding my bike. I have no idea how that happened.

Like all modern pieces of tech these days, there is also a smartphone app for the X3s which lets you set custom sound scapes and the like, and they connected first time, every time when I turned them on, unlike some other Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried in the past. A female voice tells you how much battery life you have left, which is a nice touch. The control module is about 3cm from the right earbud, and it was the perfect spot for me to access.

The X3s worked flawlessly at the gym: I’d put my phone in one of the cubicles in the gym area and the connection would be sweet. The music dropped out occasionally but generally, it was as solid as a rock. On the bike, though, things weren’t so simple. For some reason, whenever I used the X3s on my bike, the music would cut in and out, often for multiple seconds at a time, even though my phone was in my cycling jersey’s back pocket that was 2 feet away, at most. I couldn’t fathom it: Often the first couple of minutes were punctuated by songs cutting in an out.

My son, who bought a pair of X3s a few months earlier, wondered whether it could be to do with the Bluetooth version on my phone, and I suppose he could be right. Any technophiles smarter than me think he might be right? The X3s use Bluetooth 4.1 while my Samsung Galaxy S7 apparently uses Bluetooth 4.2.

The sound from the X3s seemed great to my ears, delivering consistent tones whether it was the Smashing Pumpkins and Jeff Buckley or The Prodigy or Disturbed. Of course, I tested the sound purely unscientifically.

Jaybird’s X3 earbuds will set you back anything between $197 to $229 in New Zealand, depending on the retailer, but given how well they perform, especially when used at the gym, I don’t think that’s too bad. These are my earbuds of choice right now – and will be for a while, I reckon. There’s no way I’ll go back to those budget ones I used to use.