About Gerard Campbell

Video game blogger, cyclist, coffee drinker, father, husband.

Lucid dreams & walking nightmares: Darq developer interview

Darq, a 2.5D side-scrolling puzzler featuring a boy called Lloyd who is tormented by the horrors in his lucid dreams, is the work of essentially one man: Wlad Marhulets, who was a movie score composer when he decided to decided to check out videogame development engine Unity and make a video game.

After 3.5 years of development – and many, many hours later – Darq was released in 2019, has spawned two pieces of DLC (The Tower and The Crypt) and recently, the Complete Edition was released. Quite an achievement and Marhulets even wrote a book about his development experience.

Thanks to publisher Feardemic, I played the Complete Edition and I enjoyed it a lot thanks to its visual style that has hints of Tim Burton and game play that reminds me of Little Nightmares and Limbo.

After playing through the main game, I had a few questions about the development of the game, though, and Marhulets’ transition from composer to game developer, so I asked Feardemic PR man Scott Millard if I could ask Marhulets some questions about it – and he was more than happy to.

What follows is an email interview with on making Darq, the lessons he learned and his journey from composer to game developer. A big thanks to Wlad and Scott for their willingness to take part and to Wlad for the prompt reply to my questions!

Wlad, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve had a career in music with scores for Hollywood movies so what was the catalyst for wanting to make a video game? Was it something that you always wanted to do or was it a random, lightbulb moment that just popped into your head one day that you wanted to try something different?

Hi Gerard, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Although my name is listed in the credits of some Hollywood movies, I was still in the early stage of my film composing career at the time. Fresh out of college, I was incredibly lucky to join the roster of GSA, one of the most established talent agencies in Hollywood (representing such composers as John Williams). I got to score a number of indie movies and contributed additional music to a few larger films, working alongside Marco Beltrami, a renowned composer known for his scores for Scream, World War Z, and others. As I was learning the craft of film scoring, I came to realize that I had a strong desire for creating a project of my own. Something that would allow for full creative freedom. Something that I could both make and write music for. I didn’t know what it would be at the time. A short film? An animation? A video game?

Wlad Marhulets

Once, I had a month off in between film scoring gigs, so I decided to download Unity and just give it a try. I felt like a kid in a candy store – it was love at first sight. A month later, I had a little prototype that barely resembled what DARQ looks like now. A friend of mine, a filmmaker, encouraged me to put together a short trailer and upload it to Steam Greenlight (which was still around at the time). So I did just that. To my surprise, DARQ became #10 of the most upvoted titles on Greenlight. It was covered by major media outlets. I got thousands of followers pretty much overnight. It was both incredible and terrifying. What was I supposed to do? I had three to four months’ worth of savings. I also had a game that apparently was popular before it was even close to being made. Needless to say, at that point, I practically knew nothing whatsoever about game development. It seemed completely crazy to quit film scoring to pursue a career in an unfamiliar industry without any skills. While I did it gradually, I ultimately quit my career in film and transitioned to full-time development. I had to learn coding, 3D modeling, texturing, animation, game design, level design, marketing, community management, running a business, law, and many other things completely from scratch. It changed my life forever. 

How did you come up with the idea for Darq? Talk me through the thought processes and inspirations that lead you to wanting to make a horror/scare game as your first video game? It would seem like it would be a difficult genre for a first video game, right?

I spent about five seconds deciding what game I was going to make. Really. I felt no weight of that decision because it was supposed to be just a hobby project that was never meant to be seen by anyone. Making a psychological horror set in a lucid dream sounded like an interesting idea to explore. After all, anything can happen in a world that’s completely abstract, which creates endless opportunities for unexplored gameplay ideas. Although I don’t tend to have nightmares, I did have a number of lucid dreams in the past and they were quite fascinating experiences. I remember trying to read a book in one of them, but I couldn’t because letters would jump around. That’s why the title “DARQ” is the misspelling of the word “DARK.” That is also why all in-game text that is not a part of the user interface is always misspelled, animated, and hard to read. Again, the title was set in stone in a matter of seconds. No alternative titles were considered. There was no trademark database search. The first project I ever saved in the Unity engine wasn’t named “A rolling ball test.” It was named “DARQ.” 

I understand you had no experience in coding or modeling or anything to do with making a game when you started on Darq so just how challenging was it learning the tools ie Unity? How many hours and years of your life did it take from original idea to the final game and importantly, was it much, much harder than you thought it would be? Did you ever have moments where you seriously questioned what you were doing?

Yes, it was challenging. It took much longer than I thought it would. At first, I naively estimated the project would take six months to complete. The development of the base game, excluding the DLC’s, ended up taking over 3.5 years. According to my estimation, it amounts to over 10,000 hours of my personal time. During the first year or so, I started the game from scratch three times. I’d say about 1.5 years were spent on acquiring skills and experience. It wasn’t until the third version of the project that it reached a level of quality I was happy with. 

Half of the development was part-time, the other half was full-time. By “full-time” I mean: I worked on DARQ every waking hour. I took a few days off here and there, but generally, 100 hour work weeks were the norm. There were periods when I worked 16 hours a day. Before you feel sorry for me, let me emphasize that I loved every second of it and it was my choice to work this hard. While there were challenges and moments of incredible difficulties, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to work on DARQ. Did I question this endeavor? Yes, in the first year or so. Naturally, I was worried that I might end up wasting a significant amount of time pursuing something that could fail, both critically and commercially. With time, though, my worries went away when I realized something important: I was doing something that I loved doing completely. It’s a rare privilege and I’m grateful to have experienced it. If I had millions of dollars in my bank account, I would have worked on DARQ just as hard. The process itself was the ultimate reward, which made the outcome almost irrelevant. Of course, I still wanted DARQ to succeed and I made every effort to ensure its success, but I was working on it because I enjoyed it more than words can describe. 

To me, Darq has a lot of metaphors about illness and mortality layered all the way through it as Lloyd makes his way through his lucid dreams. Why did you decide on a boy called Lloyd as the lead character and what other games did you draw on for inspiration? It has real echoes of Limbo or Little Nightmares, to me both games with creepy and unsettling imagery rather than in-your-face horror moments.

During the first year of development, I spent a lot of time trying to define what DARQ is when it comes to story. As you accurately noted, its world is highly symbolic. Nothing you see in DARQ is there by chance. Every little detail is carefully thought-through and serves a purpose. DARQ can be seen as a puzzle game in which the main puzzle is to decipher its meaning. The game’s environment consists of clues and hints that are well hidden from plain sight but are very consistent in the way they communicate the game’s meaning. While I can’t reveal DARQ’s story just yet (we’re working on a comic book that will accomplish that and significantly expand upon it), I can mention a few things. The name Lloyd has a hidden meaning in Welsh: it describes a character of wisdom, experience, and literally means “grey-haired.” Perhaps Lloyd is not as young as he appears to be. Also, if you reduce his name to the first and the last letters, you get “LD,” which is a popular acronym for “Lucid Dream.” The world of DARQ has no doors except one, and every character Lloyd encounters on his journey hides their face in one way or another. There are many secrets here to uncover. 

When it comes to my sources of inspiration, unsurprisingly, they come from cinema. I grew up watching films by Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labirynth is one of my all-time favorites), David Lynch, and others. While my busy schedule as a musician didn’t allow me to play many video games, I did play Limbo before making DARQ. I was stunned by it, and no doubt, inspired by it. When it comes to Little Nightmares, I discovered it halfway through the development of DARQ. I absolutely adore it and I’m always honored when DARQ is compared to Little Nightmares, Limbo, and Inside – they are among my favourites. 

Puzzles play a major part in Darq so tell me a little about the decision to use environment manipulation combined with puzzle solving. What was behind that thinking?

The game starts by showing the player that walking on walls and ceilings is the main mechanic. It creates a nice introduction to the abstract nature of the world, but it’s just the beginning. As the game progresses, Lloyd learns how to control his “dreams” more and more, so in addition to walking on walls and ceilings, he discovers that there are practically no limits to what’s possible. He learns how to rotate the world, look at things from various perspectives, move quickly on the Z-axis (taking the 2.5D concept to its limits), and more. The puzzles are there to showcase all the new mechanics and to convey that all limitations and rules are often imagined and self-imposed. When designing the puzzles, I wanted to utilize the abstract quality of the Escher-like dream environments as much as possible. The puzzle I’m particularly proud of is the one with the rotating camera in the train level – you’ll know it when you see it. 

Darq released last year and was very well received by the press and gamers, and you’ve now released a complete edition as well. How did you feel once the game was complete and in the hands of gamers: How did that feel like for you: Relief? Uncertainty? Happiness?

Having spent so much time working on the game in solitude, it’s an incredible feeling to be able to share it with the world. I know how lucky I am and I pinch myself every day. I probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic if DARQ wasn’t so well-received, but seeing people truly enjoy the game is very meaningful to me. While for some DARQ will serve as entertainment, for others, according to reviews, it’s an unforgettable emotional journey that won’t be easily forgotten. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined that DARQ would be nominated for awards (and win some!) alongside AAA titles as Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Borderlands 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and others. Losing an award to my childhood hero, Hideo Kojima, was an honour. What else can I ask for? It’s both humbling and profound.

You’ve written a book about the experience of making Darq as an independent developer. Looking back at the experience, are you glad that you went on that journey and how did you keep motivated?

Looking back, I have no doubt that starting a game development studio was the best decision of my life. It was also the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and I’ve made many mistakes along the way. That’s why I wrote the book “GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Make Your First Game Successful” –  mainly to share the lessons I’ve learned on my journey, both by doing things right and by doing things wrong. When it comes to motivation, I never struggled with it when making DARQ. My guess is, if you struggle with motivation, you may be in the wrong field or working on a project that doesn’t inspire you. As cliché as it may sound, doing what you truly love makes a big difference.

You also wrote the music for Darq so do you see any shared similarities between the development and music industries? Do you feel you working in the music industry gave you a deeper understanding of the development process in Darq? What things had you learned as a composer do you think eased the transition into game development?

I think some skills related to music, or film music especially, can indeed come in handy when developing games. First off, writing music is one of the toughest things one can do for a living. It requires good social skills, a balance between sensitivity and thick skin, and a set of useful habits, such as the ability to concentrate for long periods of time and self-discipline. Both are necessary to achieve any long-term goal, such as making a game. Also, when scoring films, one inevitably develops a good understanding of timing, story, sound design, cinematography, editing, acting, directing, color, dialog, and other things that apply to developing games to some extent. 

What’s next for Unfold Games? I hear comic books are in the works based on the Darq universe but are more adventures planned for Lloyd? Or are you exploring new worlds and new characters?

Yes, the DARQ comic book is in the works! Not only will it reveal the hidden meaning of the game but also significantly expand on its story with new characters and locations. No sequel is planned as of now, but we’re hard at work on a new IP – this time it’s a “double-A” production with a pretty large team involved. The project is shrouded in mystery for now, but the official announcement is a few months away. Other than that, on May 1st we’ll be announcing the nominees of the UnfoldGamesAwards – a free-to-enter award programme for indies we organised in partnership with Intel, Unity, Pixologic, and a few other companies. As far as I’m aware, it’s the biggest free-to-enter competition for indie developers in the world when it comes to the total value of prizes, which include funding, cash, hardware, software, and services. It’s meant to be an annual event. 

Darq The Complete edition is available now on Steam ($NZ24.75) and GOG.com ($NZ22.45) for PC and available on Xbox ($NZ29.40), PlayStation ($NZ31.95) and Switch ($33).

Evil Genius 2: World Domination

Apologies for the lack of content here lately: Work life is hectic at the moment.

I’ve got some cool stuff coming up (hardware/developer interview) but I thought I’d post my review of Rebellion’s Evil Genius 2: World Domination which was originally posted over at Koru-Cottage.com. Enjoy.

It’s hard work being an evil meglomaniacal dictator in Evil Genius 2, believe me.

I mean, between ensuring you have enough energy to keep the lights on in your ever-expanding lair where you’re plotting world domination. You also have to deal with workers (aka minions) who are more concerned with what’s for lunch than guard duty and infiltrating enemy agents hell bent on ensuring you don’t achieve, well, your goal of world domination.

A sequel to the original Evil Genius, a real-time strategy/world builder game from Elixir Games in 2004, Evil Genuis 2: World Domination has a real Austin Powers/Despicable Me feel to it and for my playthrough I picked Maximillian, a despot who actually appeared in the original game. He’s one of four selectable dictators, each with different abilities that can influence game play. Maximillian, for example, can order minions/workers to prioritise tasks and train faster. Other characters include Red Ivan (who appeared in the original game), Emma and Zalika.

Evil Genius 2

The premis is quite simple: Increase your criminal network and take over the world.

If you’ve played any sim game at all, you’ll know what to do: Build up your base and spread your influence across the globe. You have different room types to pick from: Power stations, mess halls, barracks, training facilities, prisons, armouries and infirmaries, for example, then once you’ve decided what you want to go where a troop of henchmen, resplendent in orange jumpsuits, trot in enthusiastically, brandishing underslung ray guns, and disintegrate the bedrock, replacing dirt and stone with shiny walls, polished floors and flashing lights. You then add the necessary equipment to the room, such as a power generator, an incinerator or a security desk, then order your minions to get to work.

Evil Genius 2

Being an evil dictator doesn’t come for free, though, with everything costing gold so you’ll need to launch dastardly schemes from the world map that will not only help spread your evil influence but will provide much need cash to fund your base, which from the outside looks remarkably like the island of the TV show Thunderbirds. FAB!

Learning new and evil skills

It was during the tutorial that I realised the importance of ensuring you balance room size with power needs to ensure the lights stay on.  I was merrily dropping down mess halls and research facilities left right and centre but suddenly – bam – everything went dark: I’d underestimated how much power my lair required.

I also realised rather quickly that I needed to work on my interior design skills as I tended to make rooms too big, leaving little room for more important rooms later on. Rooms like armouries, sleeping quarters and, importantly, vaults to store all the gold that I was accumulating. I also realised too late that I had a tendency to forget doors, meaning power plants nestled idly next to barracks which merged with training facilities. I guess you could call it an open-play lair.

Evil Genius 2

The tutorial does a good job of laying out the ground rules but I felt it could have been a bit shorter and like most management sims/real-time strategy games like this, I quickly found myself wishing I had another set of arms as I tried to maintain the fine balance between ensuring I had enough minions and security staff to deal with agent infiltrations (of which there were many) but also ensuring funds kept flowing through schemes and other nefarious undertakings.

Their mission, should the choose to accept it…

I’ve mentioned the enemy agents who arrive on your island, who arrive by means of sea-faring vessel, posing as visitors to your front of a glamourous casino (how ingenious). Agents are bad for you and your aspirations of world leader and can be either captured, killed or distracted but I found that the game’s AI didn’t quite do what it should have so defeating agents proved a little harder than anticipated. I lost count the number of times infiltrating agents were able to wander deep into my lair, taking photos as they went, before finally being spotted by my minions.

Evil Genius 2

I also found that early on, my minions were woefully underpowered against the agents, with most confrontations ending up with minions being dispatched with a roundhouse kick to the face or punched in the solar plexus before winding up in body bags. Once you succeed in capturing an agent, though, you can interrogate them which provides vital intel that opens up more options and schemes in the world map (be warned, though: They will eventually escape captivity, forcing another round of fisticuffs).

In an effort to beef up base security you can increase surveillance with security cameras and guard posts and lay dastardly traps in strategic locations around your lair in an effort to outwit invading agents and even the odds a little when several are lurking about. Sadly, most of the aforementioned traps proved next to useless – one of them is a comedy boxing glove attached to a spring and either did little damage to an agent or they bypassed it completely, allowing them to move deeper into my lair.

Evil Genius 2

Herding Minions requires juggling skills

Now, I’m no stranger to games like Evil Genius 2 but I did find training more superior minions a little confusing, too, and I’m not sure whether it was just because I didn’t pay attention during the tutorial or I was just doing it wrong but for the life of me I was unable to train more brutish guards that would have been much ore effective against agents.

Graphically, Evil Genius 2 has a nice cartoony feel to it that works well and really fits with the evil-ruler-wanting-to-take-over-the-world vibe. Colours are bright and vivid, and minions trot about comically, going about their business.

While Evil Genius 2: World Domination gets a little repetitive around the five hour mark as you settle into the fine balancing tasks and maintaining your lair and the AI needs a bit of an overhaul to even out the odds a little, it’s a lot of fun, especially when most of the time in video games you’re playing the good guy out to save the world.

Virtual trainer Zwift sees popularity almost double over last year

Zwift, the global online fitness platform that was the friend of many athletes during COVID-19 lock downs, has announced the return of the Tour of Watopia for 2021, which started on March 29, a five stage virtual event .

Zwift is essentially fitness e-sports, be it cycling or running, where users pay a monthly fee and get to participate in virtual events with other participants around the world and features multiple courses, group rides and races. Zwift tells me Kiwis have embraced the platform over the past year, seeing year on year popularity almost double as fitness enthusiasts kept fit during lock down last year.

It’s not just weekend warriors that Zwift is proving popular with, either: Professional cyclists like Ella Harris, from Dunedin, used the platform during lock down to keep themselves in shape.

Zwift utilises an app that connects to exercise equipment like smart bike trainers and treadmills and uses massively multiplayer online gaming technology to create 3D worlds for riders and runners to explore. Circuits include London, New York and Paris and riders earn XP that they can use to “level up”, buy virtual clothing, accessories and bikes like the Specialized S-Works Venge so they can customise their avatar.

Zwift’s Tour of Watopia (ToW) allows riders and runners to fast forward the rewards with double XP and for those new to the training platform, there are rookie rides and runs led by some of the most knowledgeable Zwifters and participants can learn the how-to’s of a group event while earning Double XP. The rides are kept at a pace that encourages riders to stay together.

The Tour of Watopia runs between March 29 and April 29 and you can find out more at zwift.com/tour-of-watopia.

Nanoleaf strip lights & bulb review

Please note, this is not my house. Anyway, I would never eat that much popcorn in one sitting.

A few years ago, my father-in-law had a relatively big TV (I think it was a Panasonic) and it had LED lighting either side which would bathe the wall behind it with a soft blue glow. I always thought it looked kind of cool.

Now, thanks to Nanoleaf’s new Essentials lightstrip starter kit, I now too have my Samsung TV emitting a soft blue glow – or purple or green or orange – and it does indeed look cool.

The lightstrip is part of Nanoleaf’s new Essentials range (there’s also a rhombicosidodecahedron shaped bulb: Try saying that three times after a few drinks) which range in price from $NZ50 to $NZ100.

Tripping the light fantastic …

The lightstrip comes in a 2m length, which you can cut to size (but only at designated points clearly marked) so chances are, like with my TV, the final length will either be too long or two short (you can’t reconnect the cut portions).

I had a bit of overlap at the edge of my TV so I had to get creative and ended up sticking it to the side a nearby gaming console (sorry Xbox Series X). You peel off a protective tape to reveal a 3M adhesive strip then press down firmly to make sure it sticks to the surface. It’s incredibly simple to set up.

There are 21 LEDs per metre in the lightstrip, clustered in groups of five, and they’re bright: Bright enough to cast a glow on the walls behind my TV. They work best affixed to a flat surface but I’ve had no problems so far with the slightly curved back of the TV .

The lightstrip has 21 LED bulbs per metre, providing plenty of illumination.

There’s a control box that controls the light strip that connects to the strip via a ribbon-type connection, which in turn connects to the power adapter. The remote is rather bulky and you can also attach it to a surface using 3M sticky pads. I just attached it to the back of the TV to get as clean a look as possible.

I hardly used the control box, to be honest: I connected to the smart bulb and light strip using Nanoleaf’s smart phone (iOS and Android) app which let me control everything. The lighting range is also compatible with Apple’s Home App and Google’s Assistant.

Nanoleaf’s smart phone app lets you control the Essentials range using your iOS or Android device.

Nanoleaf says the light strip can display 16 million plus colours, is thread enabled (an IP based wireless protocol supported by Apple, Google and Samsung but you need a compatible border router such as a Home Pod mini) and can be voice controlled. It’s rated at a maximum of 2200 lumens and has a lifespan of 25,000 hours.

I don’t have a thread enabled router so connected to the lights via my smartphone using bluetooth and there’s a slight delay changing colours when you first turn it on but it’s nothing that ruins the experience (and was much more noticeable on the smart bulb).

I was impressed how a simple light strip can add a bit more atmosphere to our lounge, especially at night when the only other light on in the room is a lamp. My wife likes it, too, which is a bonus.

I was watching Taskmaster UK not waiting for Meet the Spartans to start. Honest.

I haven’t managed to work out whether Nanoleaf is right in its claim the lightstrip can display 16 million+ colours which are changed using a colour wheel or pre-set tones. You can also adjust the colour temperature and brightness of the LEDs using the app.

Nanoleaf says that the Essentials range features a circadian lighting mode that automatically adjusts to the natural colour temperature of the room and sets different colour tones for morning, daytime and evening. You enter your location in the settings menu and the light syncs with the estimated sunrise and sunsets in your city. It’s a nice feature but I really didn’t notice much difference.

It comes in a bulb, too

I put the smart bulb into my bedside lamp and it emits a good amount of light – Nanoleaf says it has an average brightness of 806 lumens and maximum brightness of 1100 lumens – but I did have a bit of trouble connecting the bulb to my phone during the initial set up. It took a few attempts to get a stable connection.

When using bluetooth, there is a noticeable lag when you first connect to it and change colours. It rights itself but from time to time it’s there. For me, the light strip is the winner here but the smart bulb offers myriad options, especially if you have a few lamps around your home that you can work with.

The smart bulb adds a bit of pizzaz to night time lighting.

Overall, I was really impressed with Nanoleaf’s lightstrip: It’s sturdy and well made and offers excellent colour range and performance. I hear that Nanoleaf are planning more updates in future as it would be nice to be able to sync, say, the light strip to music like you can with Nanoleaf’s panels.

Both are great cost-effective options to add some colour – be it bright or subtle – to your lounge, gaming room or underneath your TV.

D-Link DCS-8300LH v2 wi-fi camera review

Home surveillance cameras are a bit like insurance: They’re not really something you want to have to set up around your home but they offer peace of mind when something goes wrong – and you need to call the insurance company.

At the moment, our neighbourhood Facebook page (yes, I know, I know) seems to be a constant stream of posts about car break-ins, people wandering onto other peoples’ properties uninvited and general dodgy behaviour so some form of home security system seems warranted these days.

Last year, I looked at D-Link’s DCS-8302LH wi-fi security camera, a reasonably priced and capable home surveillance camera. Now, it’s time to look at the 8300LHV2, a more streamlined security camera to add more security to your home network. Thanks to D-Link in Australia for sending across a review unit.

Like the 8302LH camera, the 8300LH offers a full HD image (D-Link says it’s 1080p at 30 frames per second), a 2 megapixel CMOS sensor, night vision (up to 5m) and motion detection. The 8300LH offers a field of view of 120 degrees, which is less than the 8302LH, but has something called edge-based person detection as well as a built in microphone/speaker, which is ideal if you want to install it outside and want to capture audio. It is mains powered so you’ll need a power outlet.

The 8300LH has an RRP of $NZ149.99 and $AU129.95.

The nice thing about these D-Link cameras is that you can be up and running out of the box within minutes as the whole installation process uses a smartphone-based app. Handily, because I already had the 8302LH installed, the app automatically assigned my wi-fi network to the new camera and it was all systems go. You can also connect via ethernet cable, if you want.

D-Link’s Myd-link app lets you adjust camera settings like motion and person detection sensitivity, night vision modes and storage modes. Like it’s brother, the 8300LH can store captured footage to either a microSD card of D-Link’s cloud based offering which ranges in price from free to $US100 a year (which saves a month’s worth of recordings to the cloud at a time).

At the moment I park my car outside on the driveway, so I decided to set the new camera in a spare room that looks onto a road that has a lot of foot and vehicular traffic. I adjusted the sensitivity window of the camera to take in the driver’s side of the car and a portion of footpath.

I got multiple notifications to the app throughout the day (and night) of movement captured by the camera and I’d suggest that if you’re contemplating buying one, adjust the sensitivity until you’re happy with the level of notifications you get (or mute the notifications on your phone by turning on the privacy mode via the app).

To be fair, I wouldn’t normally want to place the camera in such a high traffic area as constant notifications do get annoying but the 8300LH alerted me to any goings on so it did its job admirably.

I also tested the camera in a living room that had a view of the front door and in the garage where I could get a view of a side gate. Thanks to the camera, I saw the food meal courier deliver our dinners for the week from the comfort of the cafe I was having a coffee at. Thanks, mate!

I like that I can capture a screenshot or record video from the live view if I’m alerted to movement using the app. You can also change the resolution from 1080p to 720p using the app as well, although it does look like it defaults to 720p.

The D-Link can be installed inside or outside but here’s a tip: Don’t have the camera too close to a window like I did for one test. The image quality is perfect during daylight hours but at night time, the night time IR sensor bounces back off the glass, blurring the image with a bright light which means much of the detail in the scene is hard to see. It’d suggest a high vantage point not too close to a window or glass.

I don’t have much to gripe about with the D-Link 83000LH but if there was something it would be that the supplied charge/power cable is quite short so you’ll need to position it close to a power outlet or use an extension cord it you want to set it up at a vantage point where a power outlet isn’t nearby.

Overall, I was impressed with D-Link’s 8300LH: Like it’s sibling, it’s an excellent, affordable option for home security that will give you that extra layer of peace of mind when you can’t be at home 24/7.

Lazer Coyote helmet review

This product review is something of a departure for the blog so hear me out.

Up until now, this blog has been a catalogue of video game and hardware thoughts and reviews but I’ve decided to expand on the usual theme every once and a while and write about one of my other passions: Mountain biking.

Now, I’m not as good as I think I am at mountain biking and I’ve only really being doing it for the past five years after what seems a lifetime of road bike riding, but for me, it’s quite a stress release to get out on two wheels and hit some dirt trails after a mentally exhausting week in the office. For me, there’s nothing quite like zipping through forested tracks to bring a little calm to things.

So, every now and then, I’ll post about mountain bike-related things: It might be a new piece of clothing or a new piece of kit for my bike but it’ll mix up the gaming and tech content, hopefully broadening the appeal of the blog. First up is a new helmet that I got last Christmas: Lazer’s LZB-23 Coyote MIPS helmet.

Lazer was founded in Belgium in 1919 and note, this blog post isn’t sponsored by Lazer or a local bike shop: This is me, an average bike rider, doing a review of a helmet I own and I have found a great product.

MIPS and the technology behind it

MIPS – or multi-directional impact protection system – is protection built into the helmet that helps reduce rotational forces that can occur during certain impacts. Essentially, there’s a layer of protection inside the helmet that is designed to mimic the brain’s own protection system that will reduce the strain of rotational forces, thus lessening the risk and severity of brain injury if you have a crash.

The good thing about MIPS is that a MIPS-equipped helmet looks almost identical to a non-MIPS-equipped helmet except for when you look inside, there will a thin liner beneath the pads. The only indicator that the helmet is any different to one without MIPS is that some brands have a small yellow MIPS logo on there – or in the case of Lazer’s Coyote helmet lots of little MIPS logos dotted all over the liner.

Lazer’s Coyote helmet is MIPS equipped and the yellow dots on the inner liner confirm that.

My dear wife bought me the Coyote as a Christmas present (I don’t know what it cost her but it ranges at retail for around $NZ180) and it’s probably the best mountain biking helmet I’ve used since I picked up the sport. My previous helmet was a Giro Phase which I picked up during a well-know New Zealand outdoor pursuits retailer’s regular online sales. I’ve been a long-time Giro wearer – my current road bike helmet is a Giro – and the Phase is a good entry level helmet but it’s pretty much an entry level helmet that does the job and that’s it.

Before settling on the Coyote, I tried several helmets on, at several bike shops, over several weekends and eventually settled on the Coyote after chatting to the helpful staff at Evo Cycle’s in Christchurch. Helmets can be weird things: The fit and comfort is all dependent on the peculiarities of your nonce and I ended up with a medium (55-59cm) Coyote, tipping the scales at 370 grams.

What I like about the Coyote over my previous Phase is that back-of-the-head protection that the Coyote offers: It extends further down the back of my head, offering more protection. Like with all new helmets, it took me a couple of rides to adjust to the feel and added weight compared to the Phase which comes in a 342 grams but soon enough the Coyote felt comfortable on my head.

The Lazer Coyote offers more back-of-the-head protection than my Giro Phase helmet.

The Coyote’s chin strap is comfortable enough and as is the norm these days the helmet’s “tightness” on your head is adjusted by a ratchet know at the back: turn clockwise to tighten the internal liner, turn counter clockwise to loosen it. Simple enough.

The Coyote has 19 vents across the surface of the helmet – the widest being across the top and at the back – and not once have I suffered “hot helmet head” while out riding, even on hot days. The helmet has remained secure and and my head cool every time.

The Coyote has 19 vents across the surface of the helmet, ensuring plenty of air flows across your head.

Perhaps the only gripe that some riders might have with the Lazer Coyote is that the front visor isn’t detachable (as it is on the Giro Phase via two velcro dots). Personally, I haven’t had any vision issues with the fixed visor on the Coyote but then again, I’m not going 6000km/h down black trails at the Christchurch Adventure Park or advanced grade tracks where perhaps an adjustable visor might prove useful.

The front view of the Lazer Coyote (apologies for the glass: I needed to prop it up with something).

For me, Lazer’s Coyote is the best mountain biking helmet that I’ve used: It’s comfortable, offers excellent protection and is stylish, and I can see myself hitting the trails with it on my head for a long time to come. Luckily, I haven’t had to test out the MIPS protection – touch wood – in a real-world setting.

Long may that continue.

Do you want to see more mountain biking related content on the site? Let me know.

PSA: PS5, graphics card demand outstrips supply

Data from product comparison site PriceSpy has confirmed what many gamers still trying to get their hands on hardware like a PlayStation 5 or a new nVidia 3000 series graphics card already knew: A global shortage is leading to high demand and inflated prices.

The illusive PlayStation 5.

Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, New Zealand country manager for PriceSpy, says: “Our data shows Kiwis have never been more into gaming goods than now, with the PS5 a clear winner that many want in their homes. In fact, the console is currently the most-popular product on our website, above some 139,337 other indexed items. Since the start of this year, we’ve seen significant growth across the shopping category of graphics cards both in New Zealand and globally.”

PriceSpy’s key findings:

  • In New Zealand, popularity for graphics cards doubled on PriceSpy, compared to the same time in 2020 (up 111 per cent)*
  • Globally, popularity for graphics cards increased 276 per cent, compared to the same time in 2020****.
  • Consumer buying interest for gaming products, such as the PS5 and graphics cards has skyrocketed this year*;
  • Kiwi shoppers could struggle to find stock availability due to global supply shortages;
  • Whilst the launch of two popular gaming consoles in November last year may play a contributing factor to the shortage of supply, so too is the fact that more people than ever are staying home globally – and these people want to keep entertained;
  • The recent rise in the price of the cryptocurrency, bitcoin, is also driving up consumer buying interest globally for graphics cards, which are required to mine bitcoin currency;
  • Covid-19 has continued to globally affect manufacturing, supply chains, distribution channels and demand;
  • All of these factors are impacting the overall price of goods. The new PS5 for example can only be purchased second-hand, with prices reaching as much as $1650 on Trade Me. And, according to PriceSpy’s price index, the indexed price point for graphics cards has risen, up nine per cent year-on-year since the start of the year.

As a result of Covid-19 impacting manufacturing processes, supply chains, distribution channels and consumer buying interest rising, PriceSpy warns, many shoppers may struggle to physically get hold of these in-demand items from retailers due to global supply shortages.

Matinvesi-Bassett continues: “Since the PS5 first launched, consumer buying interest for Sony’s latest flagship console quickly skyrocketed. In fact, before it was even released in November 2020 last year, it was already the most-clicked on product on PriceSpy, above thousands of other items.

“But, with global supply chains affected by Covid-19, stock soon ran out – and popularity quickly dropped off. However, since the start of February, even though stock levels have not yet returned, consumer buying interest has once again peaked – with the PS5 ranking again as most-clicked on product on PriceSpy.”

The lack of product availability also appears to be driving up the price of the PS5 on the second-hand market, with prices on Trade Me reaching as much as $1650, $831 over its RRP**.

And it’s not just the PS5 that’s increasing in popularity and price…

“Graphics cards may not be an item that appeals to everyone, but our data shows popularity has peaked, increasing 111 per cent year on year*, which is extremely high. We believe this additional demand is driven by a number of reasons,” says Matinvesi-Bassett.

There are several reasons why graphics cards are sold out:

Supply issues
Firstly, there’s the production aspect.
Many Chinese factories stopped manufacturing graphics cards during the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. The graphics card manufacturer, AMD, has probably also needed to use a significant part of its production capacity to provide the new gaming consoles with graphics cards. All this means that manufacturers have not been able to produce as many cards as required.

More time at home
Covid-19 has seen us all spend more time at home, which has resulted in an increase in popularity of all types of entertainment, including gaming consoles – up by almost a third year-on-year***.
Similarly, more may be looking to upgrade their gaming equipment, as consumer buying interest on PriceSpy for CPUs grew 58 per cent* and graphics cards up 111 per cent*.

The rise in price of Bitcoin
The price of Bitcoin has risen exponentially over the last three months, further increasing consumer buying interest for graphics cards which are used for mining.

Supply levels demand – driving up the price of goods
For the PS5, it is only available ‘second-hand’ via Trade Me and is being sold at a much higher price than its RRP.

With availability of graphics cards now scarce, the indexed price point for these items on PriceSpy has risen almost nine per cent since the start of this year.

“Without a doubt, Covid-19 continues to affect the retail sector. From manufacturing, supply chains, distribution, consumer buying interest and price. It’s therefore more important than ever that consumers carry out important price research before they buy, to make sure the price they are purchasing at is fair and reasonable and not over the odds,” says Matinvesi-Bassett.

*Kiwis’ buying interest between 1 January and 1 March 2021 vs 1 January and 1 March 2020.

**Prices correct as of 2 March 2021

***Between 1 January and 1 March 2021, Kiwis’ buying interest for gaming consoles increased 30 per cent year-on-year. Source: PriceSpy

JBL Quantum 800 review

JBL’s Quantum series of gaming headsets have been out for a while now: I reviewed the Quantum 600s on the site last year, saying my “ears were in aural heaven” but now, I’m taking a look at JBL’s Quantum 800s, a more feature-packed wireless headset and it’s second from the top in its gaming headset range.

I use the Quantum 600s as my daily gaming headset and despite the two being essentially identical in design and build, the 800s just seems more premium with a more comfortably fit. I’m not sure whether it was mind playing tricks on me but the ear cups on the 800 felt more comfortable than those on the 600s, with the leather-covered memory foam feeling a lot more dense and more secure over my ears. The headphones withstood a bit of twisting and didn’t seem to move around much on my head when I moved it from side to side.

The left ear cup houses a flexible, fold down boom mic, a mic mute button, a volume wheel, a game/chat balance wheel, a 3.5mm input and a USB-c charge port. The left ear cup also sports a a button that activates the active noise cancelling functionality. The right ear cup is home to the power/pairing button and the Bluetooth connection button.

The Quantum 800s support surround sound options DTS and JBL’s own Quantum surround sound which gives you 7.1 audio right into your ears. It also has Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity meaning you can connect your phone or another mobile device to the headset so you can still hear listen to music or hear incoming phone calls when you’re gaming. You can also use them with a console like a Nintendo Switch using the 3.5mm cable.

Speaking of the cables, it’s a small thing but the USB-c charge cable and 3.5mm cable are a nice braided cable with alternating orange and black highlights rather than straight black plastic. It’s just a small thing but shows JBL want the whole package to be a high-end one.

Like the 600s, the 800s connect via a USB transmitter and JBL’s QuantumEngine PC software lets you tweak things like in-built sound presets (clarity, deeper bass, boost high end tones or FPS specific soundscape), surround sound settings and the ear cups’ RGB lighting. I switched the lighting off as I’d rather have battery life than flashing lights, thanks. JBL promises around 14 hours with the lighting turned off and that seemed about right, although I didn’t record how much time I got between charges. Battery life is much less, of course, if you’re blasting the RGB 24/7.

The tagline for the Quantum series is “Sound is survival” so how do the Quantum 800s sound compared to the 600s which I use regularly? Much, much better, if I’m honest. I felt that the 800s delivered slightly better sound than the Quantum 600s, delivering impressive deep bass and nice, crisp highs. I tested the 800s playing games like God of War on PS5 – you can use them with consoles using the USB dongle but will need to use the 3.5mm cable on an Xbox One X console – and really noticed that the headset was able to deliver immersive and impressive sound while I was gaming.

Perhaps the biggest advantage the 800s have over the 600s is the Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) functionality, which is activated by the button on the left ear cup.

A robotic voice lets you know when ANC is on or off and believe me, you can actually hear the difference when it’s active: It drowned out the reality TV playing in the next room and let me concentrate on what I was doing on my PC: Playing games. Sure, JBL’s ANC isn’t as good as on my Bose QuietComfort 35iis but for a gaming headset, it’s an excellent feature to have when you just want to concentrate on the mission and drown out external noise.

JBL is really aiming high with its Quantum range of gaming headsets and for me, a good gaming headset must do two things: Deliver great sound when I’m gaming and be comfortable. JBL’s Quantum 800 headset delivers on both counts. Two thumbs up from me.

Thanks to JBL for the review unit. The Quantum 800s will retail for around $NZ400.

Hitman 3: IO hits the bullseye

There’s a moment in the opening minutes of Hitman 3’s Chongqing, China, mission when you realise that there is actually a real-life human being inside genetically engineered killer Agent 47.

The “moment” happens on an over pass near Chongqing’s train station where a young woman is staring out over the harbour, puffing on a cigarette as rain falls onto the neon-lit streets. She asks Agent 47 whether he has seen a woman with a green top. He replies he hasn’t then the woman tells 47 how the woman’s friend has been rock over the year and perhaps she has decided not to come meet her for drinks.

It’s what happens next that surprised me: Agent 47 tells the woman, sagely, that her friend agreed to meet her at 4am, in the rain, and that wasn’t the actions of someone who didn’t care. He then suggests she pick up the tab to show how much she appreciates her friendship. The conversation ends and Agent 47 goes on his way but it’s a powerful sequence with masterful writing. In those few sentences Agent 47 shows that despite a life filled with murder and mayhem, he can show human emotion when needed.

OK, touching moment in Chongqing out of the way, Hitman 3 is a truly fitting farewell for the trilogoy started by developer IO Interactive in 2016 and follows the format bedded in by the two previous games: A handful of locations (this time around 47 will visit places like Dartmoor in England, Mendoza in Argentina, Chongqing in China and Berlin), a variety of targets and multiple ways to reach your end goal.

The opening mission, for example, sees 47 infiltrating the tallest building in the world, the Sceptre in Dubai, to assassinate two wealthy targets – but he’s not alone, this time he’s assisted by former foe Lucas Grey.

As I moved to the entry point in the Sceptre, 47 bumped into a tool box that was sitting on a work platform, spilling tools from the container. I just watched as the tool box – and the tools inside – spun aimlessly for what seemed like an eternity before clattering noisily onto a girder hundreds of metres below me.

As with previous Hitman games, wardrobes, cabinets, dumpsters and freezers are 47’s best friend again – they’re great locations to stash bodies out of sight – and once again, the beauty of the Hitman games is the open-endedness of the game play. There are myriad ways to assassinate targets so they look like accidents using a variety of implements: letter openers, poisons,  exploding golf balls, cans of drink, bananas … and it’s this open-endedness that means you’ll come back to a location time and time again to eek out all its little secrets.

Something I really love about the recent Hitman games – and the opening conversations is a good example of this – is the dialogue from and between NPCs, some which might lead to important information about targets and their movements and others which are just downright amusing and fun and just add to the immersion of the game world.

Examples? One time, Agent 47 was getting getting frisked by a security guard who proclaimed “No need to flex you don’t need to impress me”. Another time, 47 was following too closely to an NPC who turned around saying “Hey, space bubble, buddy”. Then there was the time a commando radioed command after spotting 47 throw a can of soft drink at a soldier’s head:”Eyes on comedian throwing things at people.”

I sometimes found myself hiding behind a desk or object just to eavesdrop on conversations, like the NPC who was lamenting to a work colleague he thought was his friend that he had just been fired by his employer for no reason and could they still be friends.

The Hitman games are all about planning, planning and planning but sometimes, though, the series is at its finest when you bumble an assassination attempt & things turn to shit but somehow, some way, you manage to complete your task and get to an escape point. Other times, though, you’ll make such a meal of it that it’ll turn to custard mere metres from an exit point and there’s no choice but to reload a saved game and try better next time.

Of the locations in Hitman 3, I’d have to say my favourites are Berlin and the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.

Berlin is brilliant because it’s unlike previous missions in that you’re not actually sure who your target – or targets, in this case – is: Just that you need to locate the ICA agents that have infiltrated the rave at an abandoned nuclear plant and eliminate them before they spot you. The beauty here is the game forces you to get close to people until you can identify them sufficiently to mark as a target. What makes it tense, though, is the ICA agents know what you look like so it’s an intricate game of cat-and-mouse.

The Carpathian Mountains mission is brilliant because it’s set on a train and, look, I don’t want to spoil it for you but it’s a no-holds barred, all-gloves-are-off mission where Agent 47 goes weapons free without repercussions. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I said in the beginning of this write-up, Hitman 3 is a fitting farewell to this trilogy and one that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish, despite having the odd janky character animation and the pain-in-the-arse always online aspect which does grate from time to time, especially when you get disconnected from the server mid-location!

Developer IO Interactive’s next game is based on British spy James Bond and based on the brilliance that is Hitman, I for one, cannot wait to see where they take Double Oh Seven.

Thanks to Bandai Namco in Australia for the PC code for Hitman 3. I completed the main story then proceeded to visit the locations again, dabbled in some of the sniper challenges and played through some of the contract missions.

Dear, 2021. Please be better than 2020. Please.

As I write this, it’s 11pm on a Tuesday night on January 26. My phone tells me it’s still 27.1 deg. At 11pm at night. I’m uncomfortable, sweating and can’t sleep – so I’m writing. I’m not sure it’ll make sense or be coherent but here I am, writing because it’s too hot to sleep.

Welcome to the blog for 2021 and to be honest, it hasn’t been a good year personally for me so far. Actually, it’s been quite shit so far, if I’m being completely honest, with the sad news that our fluffy companion of six and a half year – Drew – the Samoyed who featured in photos in many of the smartphone reviews that appeared on this blog – passed away unexpectedly on January 10. I’m devastated and he will be missed incredibly.

Anyway, back to the blog and the plan for this year. Frankly, I don’t have a plan for this year: What happens, happens. I’ll hopefully still be supported by the longtime PR across New Zealand and Australia that have continued to support me for the past few years and I’ll be able to write down my thoughts and share them with you as I have previously.

Anyway, games. You want to hear about games. At the moment, I’m playing Hitman 3 (thanks to the fine Kerrin at BandaiNamco Entertainment) and I’m loving it. Really, really loving it and I didn’t realise how much I missed Agent 47 as a video game protagonist until I started up the game.

Look, I’ve played most of the Hitman games – old and new – on various platforms and I’ve enjoyed most of them, apart from perhaps Absolution which I didn’t hate but …. I didn’t adore either. It was just “meh”, I suppose, when I think about it.

These last three Hitman games, though, are special and H3 is something really special, with great locations, great open-ended game play and as always amazing replayability where you’re always going to back to see if you can eliminate a target in some new outlandish way using a rubber duck, a banana or an exploding golf ball. Or perhaps a combination of all three.

I’ll get a review up in the coming days (early next week, probably) but in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, here is a launch trailer for Hitman 3. Oh, and I really appreciate you for visiting. If you’re a longtime reader, I’m glad you’ve stuck around and I appreciate your support. If you’re a first time visitor, have a look around and hopefully you’ll like what you see and come back again.

Here’s to 2021 not being shit, eh?