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Bite-sized review: The Division 2 -Good times but better with mates

The Division 2, a squad-based shooter that takes place in a rather snazzy virtual recreation of Washington, DC, is a shooter that is best enjoyed with mates.

Sadly for me, though, I have the game on PlayStation 4 & don’t have an active PlayStation Plus subscription, which means I can’t play online games with mates, so as a single-player game, The Division 2 is less enjoyable. It’s still fun but not as enjoyable as a traditional single player campaign.

The Division 2 is an online-always game so when I say it’s single-player campaign, I mean that you can play the game’s online world on your own [ie as a single player] and if you pause, the game still carries on around you. Also, you can’t save your game where you like, so if you quit the game, you go back to the last checkpoint, which is usually at the beginning of a main objective.

I didn’t really get into the original Division: I liked it but I found I lost interest quickly. With this sequel it’s good to see that Ubisoft has built on the foundations of the first game, making Number two a really solid cover-based shooter where enemies will flank you and lay down the hurt as you try to breach inner city Washington’s run down, post-apocalyptic environment, now controlled by powerful gangs.

The better you do in your fight against your enemies, the more XP you unlock, which can be used to upgrade your skills and stock up on neat gadgets that can help turn the tide in your favour. Gadgets include things like a ballistic shield and a seeker mine but a particular favourite of mine is the briefcase turret that you can fling to a vantage point to provide covering fire. Helpful, too, is a drone that packs a serious amount of fire power, again invaluable in providing suppressing fire as you press forward.

Look, fans of squad-based shooters that can band together a solid team with online friends will delight in The Division 2’s game world and its myriad options for strategically taking out the bad guys as they delve deeper and deeper into the intricately detailed world, but players who can’t muster up a squad, or want an actual, traditional single player campaign, might not find as much to shout about.

Thanks to Five Eight distribution for the PlayStation 4 review code for The Division 2.

 

Remote Play iOS: A nice idea but give me a controller any day

If you’re a PlayStation owner and also own a PS Vita, you’ll [hopefully] know all about  the Remote Play function.

Remote Play functionality is a feature that’s been around [if my memory serves me correctly] as far back as the days of the PlayStation 3, although it wasn’t supported by a lot of games.

Essentially, what it does is let you stream the game you’re playing on your PS4 to your Vita’s screen while the TV that your console is connected to is being used by your better half to watch another six-hour instalment of the latest reality dating/marriage/building/cooking reality fresh from Australia (thanks, Trans Tasman neighbour for sending all these great shows to our shores!)

Any way, I digress: Remote Play functionality is a great idea but it does come with some caveats.

Firstly, games that are really graphically intensive games [Red Dead Redemption 2, Metro Exodus] can be laggy if you’re got a slow internet connection and often the Vita’s rear touch pad needs to substitute as the Dualshock 4 controller’s trigger buttons, which can be finicky at times. I also find that text is impossibly small to read when it’s displayed on the Vita’s screen, even when I’m wearing my reading glasses.

OK, so why am I talking about Remote Play now? Well, the latest PS4 firmware update that was out this week lets you remotely play PS4 games on iOS using PlayStation’s own Remote Play app.

So in the interests of gaming journalism, I decided to test out the new app and see whether it was something I’d use on a regular basis.

My game of choice was the third edition in Rocksteady’s most excellent Batman video games, Arkham Knight [which I’ve just started re-playing]. I downloaded the Remote Play app onto my Apple iPad (9.6-inch screen), keen to see of the functionality worked on a 9.7-inch screen as opposed to the Vita’s 5-inch screen.

The title screen of Batman Arkham Knight. The virtual Dualshock 4 is overlaid onto the screen when you’re holding your iOS device in landscape mode.

Set up of the Remote Play is simple enough: You click on the app icon then it establishes a connection between the PS4 and the iOS device. Once a connection is established, the PS4 home screen appears on your iOS device’s screen. If you hold your device in portrait mode, the screen is divided in two: The top half displaying what is on-screen, the bottom half displaying a virtual layout of the Dualshock 4 controller. If you hold the device in landscape mode, the virtual controller is overlaid across the screen image.

The biggest caveat of any remote play solution is that you’re reliant on the stability and strength of your wi-fi connection. I was playing in a room where I was about 6 feet from the router, so the connection remained pretty stable [there was the odd, noticeable stutter] but, of course, your mileage will vary depending on how far away you are from your internet router and how strong the wi-fi signal.

OK, so what did I think of the Remote Play iOS app? I think it’s a neat feature but it’s not particularly suited to action games like Batman Arkham Knight, where precise movement and quick reactions are the difference between life and death, literally.

I was most interested to see how the on-screen virtual controller worked for driving sequences. Driving the Batmobile almost proved impossible: In tight environments, like the tunnel system in the Gotham Police Station, I was hitting walls and barriers, and in more open roads, the vehicle was sliding around uncontrollably. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

The next game I tested was Marvel’s Spider-Man, from Insomniac.

The on-screen overlay allows for a bit more fluidity but ultimately, the virtual thumb sticks just can’t provide that precision movement and fluidity that you get with Dualshock 4. Swinging between buildings and around the city worked well using the on-screen overlay but in the end, nothing beats a physical controller.

Remote Play on iOS is a great idea but I think that despite its smaller screen, the Remote Play on the PS Vita is a superior experience given you’ve actually got physical button’s that provide that tactile feedback.

That’s not to say I don’t see a place for Remote Play on iOS but I think it would have to be a platform game or something that wasn’t as demanding as a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, Arkham Knight and Spider-Man. A physical controller is a definite advantage over a virtual one.

Something I would like to see in a future update in the Remote Play for iOS app is the ability to connect a physical controller, perhaps via Bluetooth to your iOS device. If that happened I think the Remote Play app would be a no brainer.

Now, if only there was some way I could merge the screen of my iPad with the body of my PS Vita, I’d have the perfect remote play device …

 

 

Crackdown 3 review: Punch bad buys and collect the magic orbs

Microsoft’s Crackdown series can be summed up thus: Collect magic orbs then punch bad guys into the air and jump really, really high.

OK, that might be a little simplistic but c’mon, nobody ever played Crackdown for the story. They played it because you didn’t have to think too deeply about what you are doing – and you got to blow stuff up and jump around collecting agility orbs.

The original Crackdown launched on the Xbox 360 in 2007 and fast forward a few years and the latest installment in the Crackdown series is now out, Numero 3 now lets you … collect magic orbs then punch bad guys into the air and jump really, really high.

Crackdown 3, which was first revealed in 2014, has had something of a protracted development cycle, but, surprisingly, after years of reveals and teasing, it was launched last week with little fanfare by Microsoft Games. To me, that’s not a good sign of faith in a game.

Taking place in a cartoonish city dripping with bright neon called New Providence, the story is pretty generic and believe me when I say you won’t be playing Crackdown 3 for the narrative, which involves you – as Super Agent – taking down the leader of an evil corporation called TerraNova, which is masquerading as a good community citizen but is, actually, the complete opposite.

Most of the marketing around Crackdown 3 has been done involving former NFL player and now actor Terry Crews, and its good thinking on Microsoft’s part: Crews is larger than life (with larger than life biceps) so who better to cast as a genetically altered super agent who delivers the smack to wayward robots, mindless goons and organised hit squads and taking the city back, neon-coloured sector by sector.

Like the original Crackdown, the key to increasing your super agent abilities is upgrading them by collecting the glowing orbs dotted around the city. The five abilities are agility, firearms, explosives, driving and strength and you can focus on particular attributes to develop. A definite highlight of the game is that unmistakable “ting” again as you collect an orb.

Want to become a crack-shot marksman? Just use as many firearms as you can. Want to be able to drift and turn and pull off incredible driving feats? Just drive more. Want to be able to stronger? Just pick up stuff and throw it – and punch people. The more you use those particular skills, the stronger you become in that discipline.

There is no denying Crackdown 3’s campaign is fun, but truth be told, after a handful of hours, I found myself losing interest in the generic story and instead focusing on hunting down agility orbs. Truth be told, I found that more satisfying than delivering the boom to goon squads and bosses.

After a few hours of capturing monorail stations, freeing imprisoned citizens, destroying giant mining facilities and hijacking propaganda towers, though, I felt like I’d experienced all Crackdown 3 had to offer.

Some games, for example, are so engaging, so engrossing that I think about them when I’m not playing them. That didn’t happen with Crackdown 3. Not once.

Sadly, Crackdown 3 is a victim of being hyped up to the point that it could never deliver on what it originally promised and the result is a rather average third-person action game. It actually feels like a remaster of the original – which came out 12 years ago – but it’s not. It has nothing that makes it stand out from the crowd, and that’s a shame.

Even Microsoft’s grandiose plans of offering destructible environments where skyscrapers could be destroyed, causing them to topple onto other buildings (all thanks to the power of “The Cloud” ), has been relegated to the game’s multiplayer Wrecking Zone mode, which I haven’t had a chance to check out yet.

Look, Crackdown 3 is one of those games that you don’t have to engage your brain too much when you play it, which is what you want to do from time to time, I get that, but to me, there’s nothing here that captured my attention and wanted me to play it ahead of other games. The formula has stayed the same since the original Crackdown and  in the 12 years between the original and number 3, I would have liked to have seen some innovation and not just the same game with a fresh coat of paint.

For owners of Xbox’s Game Pass service, however, Crackdown 3 is a no brainer as it’s free for subscribers of the service, but for me, it’s an average game that fails to deliver on the lofty hype that was heaped upon it in the lead up to its release.

Xbox in New Zealand supplied a review code for Crackdown 3. 

Oppo R17 Pro review

 

I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about Oppo as a phone brand when I was asked if I wanted to review Oppo’s flagship R17 Pro smartphone.

Now, though, after a few weeks with the Chinese company’s flagship phone, while I still can’t say I know much about Oppo as a brand, I’m super impressed with the R17 Pro. So very, very, impressed.

The R17 Pro feels like a premium phone, and it feels substantial in the hand. It has a nice heft to it but it’s not heavy. The review model was a colour that Oppo calls radiant mist, which alternates between blue and purple hues, depending on the angle you’re holding phone. To my son’s disgust, I wrapped the phone in the supplied case: It wasn’t my phone and I wasn’t going to risk damaging it. He reckons the translucent rubbery case detracts from the phone’s good look but it does, believe me.

Sporting a 6.4-inch FHD+ screen with Corning Gorilla Glass 6, 6GB RAM, a Snapdragon 710 chipset and  128Gb of flash storage, the R17 Pro will do all you need it to and ticks all the right boxes. Of course, it has all the latest connection standards: Wifi a, Bluetooth 5.0, USB C (generation 3.1) and NFC.

As is the norm with flagship phones these days, the R17 Pro has both face scanning and fingerprint scanning for unlocking the phone. The finger print scanner is under the glass screen and there are no buttons on the handset, apart from a power button on the right hand edge and the volume rocker on the left hand side. The facial scanning is so bloody quick that the phone had unlocked even before I managed to get my thumb to the screen. I decided I’d deactivate the facial scanning and stick with the finger print scanner.

These days, a smartphone’s notch is a talking point and I have to say, the R17 Pro has a great notch, resting in the middle of the screen. Oppo says it’s inspired by a droplet of water and I can see that. A nice thing about the notch is its unobtrusive and doesn’t dominate the top edge of the screen.

Oppo’s phone has eschewed the common 3.5mm headphone jack – the supplied head phones have a USB-C connection, if you want to use wired headphones – but if you’re like me, chances are you’ll be using Bluetooth headphones anyway so the lack of a 3.5mm jack is a moot point to me. The R17 Pro is running Android 8.1 which is overlaid with Oppo’s ColorOS, which I have mixed feelings about, to be honest.

Oppo touts the R17 Pro’s camera – and it seemed to be a good one, based on my average photographic abilities. The R17 Pro has a 12MP primary camera , a secondary 20MP lens, and a third TOF (Time of Flight) 3D stereo camera that adds depth to photos. It has a 25MP front facing camera and the phone, like others in its price bracket, uses AI algorithms to automatically identify what you’re taking a photo of (ie, animal, sky, face).  Images seemed clear and bright and not over saturated and with good definition.

Here are some photos of my dog , who seems to be my default image model, when it comes to smartphone photos.

I was impressed with the phone’s battery life, The R17 Pro has dual 1850mAh batteries and Oppo says the phone can reach 40 per cent charge in 10 minutes . While I didn’t time that so I can’t verify if it’s true, the phone recharged from zero to a useable state really quickly, and I got about a day and a half of moderate use before it needed a quick top up.

I used the phone in normal day-to-day conditions and ran benchmarking software 3D Mark’s suite of hardware-crushing tests to put the phone’s hardware under pressure. Testing the phone with the Sling Shot Extreme benchmark – recommended for high-smartphones – the R17 Pro scored 1816 points using the OpenGL API and 1435 using the Vuklan API, and 2655 points in the Slingshot test – well short of the top-end Galaxy S9, Google Pixel 2 and Apple iPhone X, which are pricier and have higher specs.

Look , for a brand I knew very little about until I was asked if I wanted to review this phone, I’m really, really impressed with the R17 Pro. It retails for just a tad under $NZ1000, and should make it attractive to people wanting a capable, mid range smartphone.

It’s unlikely Oppo’s R17 Pro will knock Samsung and Apple off the top spot with consumers keen on high-end smartphones, but Oppo is definitely making loud noises that the other two should watch their backs closely.

Huge thanks to Campaign Lab for providing an Oppo R17 Pro handset for review

Post Black Friday, according to PriceSpy

Last week, I ran some comment from price and product comparison site PriceSpy about Black Friday, one of the – if not the – biggest shopping days in the US.

PriceSpy got back in touch this week, with some stats on the Black Friday sales in NZ. Its NZ country manager Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett said despite the growing popularity of Black Friday, PriceSpy’s data revealed the average discount offered by retailers was lower than expected, at just 12 per cent per product (5% less than 2017).  Nearly a quarter of overall products (23 per cent) received a price reduction and just five per cent received a price increase (half of that seen from the previous two years).

“In terms of what people were looking to buy, the most ‘searched for’ shopping categories were mobile phones, headphones and gaming consoles, with the most popular products the PlayStation 4 Pro, Apple AirPods and the Nintendo Switch.

Martinvesi-Bassett said, interestingly, when PriceSpy looked further into the historical price information for the most searched for Black Friday products, two out of the three were actually found to be cheaper to buy at different times of the year:

PriceSpy says on Black Friday, the PlayStation 4 Pro was actually 4% more expensive than its lowest price, which was in early January; Apple AirPods proved to be 11% cheaper than it’s lowest price, which was in early July; and the Nintendo Switch was actually 6% more expensive than it’s lowest price, which was in early October.

The most popular sites for searches were PB Technologies, Harvey Norman and JB Hi-Fi.

So, anyone buy anything in the Black Friday sales? I didn’t.

Black Friday is almost on us!

 

Black Friday is fast approaching –  the day following US Thanksgiving and generally the busiest shopping day of the year in the US  – and price and comparison site PriceSpy, has told me that  the number of Kiwis searching out Black Friday discounts is growing exponentially, increasing for a second year running.

Black Friday sales must becoming more popular in NZ these days as I’m seeing more and more retailers pimping their sales.

Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, New Zealand country manager for PriceSpy, says Black Friday is fast becoming a serious sales shopping day for Kiwis who are looking to buy products at a more affordable price ahead of Christmas.  In 2016, PriceSpy witnessed a 61 per cent per cent year on year increase in visitor numbers on Black Friday and last year, this number grew a further 14 per cent.

PriceSpy reckons based on historical data, Black Friday is now three times larger than any other Friday during November.

It’s not all bargains, though, as Martinvesi-Bassett says for the last two years PriceSpy’s figures show 10 per cent of all products listed on the site actually received a price hike on Black Friday. Similarly, 17 per cent of the top 100 products listed on our site last Black Friday, also increased in price by an average nine per cent.

“We therefore couldn’t recommend strongly enough that consumers need to do their research ahead of time, as there’s nothing worse than making a purchase to later find you could have bought it cheaper on another day,”she says.

PriceSpy is also predicting that the most popular NZ stores for Black Friday shopping will be PB Tech,Expert Infotech,Harvey Norman, Mighty Ape and Heathcote Appliances. PriceSpy also predicts the most popular items will be Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 smart phone, Ultimate Ears UE Boom 2, Apple AirPods, Apple iPad 9.7” 32GB, LG’s 65-inch OLED TV,Dyson’s V8 Absolute vacuum,Fitbit’s  Charge 2 sport watch,Sony’s  Playstation 4 Pro console andGoPro’s  Hero 7 sports camera.

I guess we’ll see whether it was right next week, won’t we?

So, anyone got anything they’re planning to pick up on Black Friday?

Bite sized reviews: Forza Horizon 4 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft Game Studios) Reviewed on Xbox One

What is it: It’s a car racing game, where you, well, race lots of different cars (buggies, trucks, sports cars, muscle cars) around some gorgeous English countryside.

What can you do in it and what I liked:  Simply put, you drive cars around roads but look, while I’ve never been a huge ‘fan of racing games, there’s something pretty special about driving a virtual car through a quaint village – taking out road signs, trading paint with other cars and then crashing into stone walls. You can race against AI controlled vehicles or just sightsee along back country roads. I also like that there aren’t loot boxes anywhere to be seen and the addition of seasons really showcases the visuals.

What can’t you do in it and what didn’t I like: Well, you can’t drive your car into lakes and abandon it. Believe me, I tried. Several times but the car just kept warping back to the road side. Disappointing, Microsoft. Jokes aside, the AI for other cars is pretty stupid at times, and the loot boxes might be gone but the wheel spins that are used to dish out rewards just seems a little tacky.

Verdict: Forza Horizon 4 is a dream for motor racing fans and Playground Games have scored another hit with its automotive monster. It could also be the best looking racing game on the planet and if you’re a diehard racing game fan, this could be just the ticket for you and your Xbox One.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft) Reviewed on Xbox One

What is it: The latest installment of the AC series where characters relive the memories of ancestors from the past using a device called the Animus. This time we visit Ancient Greece.

What I liked: Like previous AC games there’s a lot of climbing and stealth and killing. Lots and lots of killing. I like, though, that Ubisoft has tried some new stuff here with things like dialogue options during conversations and the combat is deeper than previous titles (although it took me a little time to get the perfect parry).  You also get to explore ancient Greece which is pretty cool (I liked the Egyptian setting of the previous AC game, too, but Greece is a nice touch).

What I didn’t like: While I enjoyed the opening Spartan battle scene, involving  King Leonidas  (it reminded me a lot about the movie 300. There’s even an achievement called 300), my poor launch Xbox One seemed to be creaking under the strain of all the on-screen enemies . There were also a few visible stutters during cut scenes and during game play . 

Verdict: Look, it’s an Assassin’s Creed game so if you’ve played one, you’ll know what to expect. This one, though, relies a lot more on RPG mechanics where you have to make smart choices about equipment and skills so there’s more brains to this one than previous titles, which I liked a lot. AC Odyssey is a solid game but, sadly for it, I played Red Dead Redemption 2 before it and  Rockstar’s game spoiled my enjoyment of Ubisoft’s latest. Make no mistake, I will go back to ancient Greece once I’ve finished exploring the American frontier.

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