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Josh Smith

Josh has been interested in video gaming and technology since the early 80’s. Growing up in Maine has proven difficult, but he’s found ways to gain access to hardware and software not typically seen in rural parts of the country. Now living near the coast, Josh is happily married with two young children and is teaching them the ways of the Force. Unfortunately, it’s the Dark Side.

Video Game

AAA Video Game Titles: A Look Ahead in 2018

Move over Hollywood, Silicon Valley has taken over the entertainment industry.

Each year it seems the revenue gap between video games and movies widens, and the video game industry is the reigning champion. In North America alone, video games grossed more than $30 billion, while movies limped in with under $12 billion. Gone are the days of waiting for the next Hollywood blockbuster to drop. For 2018, it’s going to be all about those AAA titles.

It’s important to remember that video game release dates are very fluid. They’re ever-changing and delays happen often. With that in mind, here’s what you can look forward to for 2018—with rough estimates of when to expect them.

Monster Hunter

The first half of the year has historically been the slowest and 2018 looks to follow that same path. For the first time the Monster Hunter series will be available on a console other than Nintendo. Monster Hunter World (PS4, XBO) has a heretical following worldwide and, with the expansion to Playstation 4 and Xbox One, will continue its conquest.

Far Cry 5

Ubisoft will be releasing Far Cry 5 (PC, PS4, XBO) early in the year as well, helping to quench the thirst of what could be an early drought for gamers. The free roam, sandbox gameplay should provide hours of entertainment while waiting for the next wave of games to release. Additionally, Far Cry has a history of creating despicable, charismatic bad guys that add extra depths your adventure.

Super Mega Baseball 2

An honorable mention goes to Super Mega Baseball 2 (PC, PS4, XBO), an indie darling that won’t get the same attention as some of these other games, but should be viewed as a diamond in the rough all the same. Delayed from 2017, SMB2 will be launching just in time for Major League Baseball season and provides wacky, fun, arcade-style gameplay.

Crackdown 3

Looking into the last half of the year is nearly impossible. However, there are games slated for a 2018 release that don’t have dates yet, but even a casual observer could guess that we’d see them in the latter part of 2018.

Exclusive to Windows 10 and Xbox One is video game Crackdown 3, created for anybody who wants to be a crime-fighting super-soldier. Jumping tall buildings, throwing cars, and running down vehicles is just a fraction of the amount of awesome typically included in a Crackdown game. Throw in a sprawling map, collectibles, ridiculously designed weapons and sparkling visuals, Crackdown 3 has high expectations for Microsoft and gamers alike.

God of War

Playstation 4 isn’t without its own exclusives, either. With God of War, we’re finally going to get a chance to play a new story on the most recently released console. Moving on from Greek gods, players will experience a wider open world and a story that focuses on Norse Mythology.

Spiderman

Spider-Man is the other video game exclusive to PS4 and, since the trailer at E3 in 2016, has had fans champing at the bit for a chance to play. Because it’s not tied to a movie, comic book, or television show, the developers behind Spider-Man have been given the chance to tell a story on their own terms and fans should be excited.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Developer Rockstar announced the sequel to their wild west hit with Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, XBO), but the studio has a history of delays with most of their games, so that’s worth noting. Still, if RDR2 hits their 2018 release date expectation, gunslingers will get a chance to see life through the eyes of a new outlaw, Arthur Morgan. The game takes place prior to Red Dead Redemption, so expect to see a few nods to John Marston and his story as well.

Anthem

It’s worth mentioning that, to this point, every major video game title is one of an already established series. Game developers and publishers seem to be taking less risks, but 2018’s most anticipated title of the year is only new IP on this list. Bioware has teamed up with EA to release Anthem (PC, PS4, XBO), a third-person, online multiplayer, action RPG, and it looks breathtaking. Players are essentially mercenaries who use exo-suits (called Javelins) to complete contracts in an open world. Character roles are determined by which Javelin is equipped and players will need to work together to maximize their abilities. From what has been seen, Anthem’s environment goes from the depths of the seas to the tops of mountains and includes every ecosystem in between. EA’s own VP, Patrick Soderlund, has commented that he expects Anthem to be “the start of maybe a 10-year journey,” for the players.

Given EA’s recent bad publicity over loot boxes and micro-transactions in their video games, most notable Star Wars Battlefront II, one has to wonder how much influence they’ll have over Anthem. Bioware is a veteran studio though, and one with a solid reputation. Watch for Anthem to top the charts in 2018.

Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes review

The Star Wars gaming app is perfect for Star Wars fans

The Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes app is the perfect app for Star Wars fans. Gaming’s mobile marketplace is an ever-evolving organism filled with a variety of games that appeal to a multitude of players. Rarely will you find an app that uses a license that is so recognizable that, regardless of who sees it, nearly everyone will take a second glance. Appearing on iOS and Android, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes is exactly that app.

Like many free-to-play games, Heroes uses microtransactions to help fund the game and, for the sake of assisting with the review, $100 of in-game currency (called Crystals) was provided. Speaking toward how well designed and enjoyable the game is, an additional $75.00 was spent — with inevitably more to come — as I continue to play the game on my own, with no additional coverage expected.

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Aside from the simple point that the Star Wars license is eye-catching, particularly with the newest movie in theaters, there are a number of positive reasons with Heroes is worth your time and, to an extent, your money. The gameplay mechanics are rather straightforward and offer very little variation, but everything mingles together to give players a great “carrot-on-a-stick” experience, while also letting them feel powerful and providing as much entertainment as you care to find.

It’s worth noting that the support available to players is impressive. On the game’s forums and even within its own subreddit, game developers and moderators interact with players to find out what’s working, what’s not, and actively communicate (as best as they can) to actively acknowledge known issues. And while the image of support is there, individual technical issues are handled in a reasonable amount of time as well.

During my time playing, I encountered a technical issue that resulted in me not unlocking Darth Vader when I should have. The initial call was indeed frustrating — I was passed back and forth between the same two departments four times — when I spoke to the final customer service representative, I was assured that I wouldn’t be transferred and someone would be getting back to me instead.

Surprisingly, they did, and my issue was corrected.

Support experiences aside, the gameplay itself sees you forming teams of five characters from within the Star Wars universe and battling through varying modes, including form of player-versus-player. The combat is turn-based and to maximize your chance of success, you’ll want to pair characters with others that supplement their particular styles. The only character position that matters is your team’s leader, as they add bonuses to the entire team.

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One gripe, echoed amongst the community of players, is the game’s take on “microtransactions”. While you can purchase crystals, which have a number of uses (including potentially unlocking high level characters), the character packs themselves are priced well above anything that could be considered “micro”. Initially there’s a $4.99 pack that is reasonable, but after that you’ll see prices ranging from $17.99 to $99.99. Because the crystals don’t guarantee you a particular character, or any character at all for that matter, saving them is your best option, which makes the pricing of character packs even more frustrating.

Additionally, there are various game “currency” and different types of “energy” which you’ll use to embark on different conquests and earn different rewards, as is common with games like this. As you get deeper into the game you’ll find that two modes in particular, player-versus-player and the Keycard Battles, have frustrating rules or weak rewards, which means many will skip those options altogether, cutting out two slices of the game immediately.

There’s an enormous stable of characters from varying time periods and they all appear in the movies or cartoons, so you won’t end up staring at a character that isn’t familiar to someone. Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes isn’t difficult to play, but learning character nuances and which teams synergize well is difficult. The community itself has dedicated hours to helping each other directly or through fan-made databases, a testament to the draw the game has.

Overall, Heroes is a great experience superficially, used only to waste small amounts of time, or deep, with hours and hours of planning. It’s not necessary to spend money to have fun, but unless you’re lucky (or incredibly efficient), you’re going to be behind those who pay at nearly every stretch.

Some parts of the game need better systems in place for advancement and balance, something the development team has acknowledged, but there are still no confirmed changes on the horizon. Still, in spite of that, you’ll find yourself enjoying your time whether it’s a few minutes or a few hours.

2016 last minute tech gift guide

Everything that a college student would love when buying last minute gifts

Welcome to our 2016 tech gify guide It’s that time of year again, when the retail world is buzzing with amazing sales and we’re shopping for gifts for our loved ones. Unfortunately, you don’t know what to get the people you care about the most. Every time you ask what someone wants, they always shoot back a discouraging, “Oh, I don’t know,” or the equally frustrating, “I don’t care. I’ll love anything.”

No, they won’t.

You could always knit a sweater or whittle a duck from that great piece of driftwood you found, but with your limited time your loved ones will end up with just the sleeve of a sweater or a mangled piece of wood that nobody wants on display in their house. Fortunately for them, you’ve got their interests at heart. With these gadgets you’ll either be making their lives easier, provide them with some entertainment, or give the gift of relaxation.

You should also read: Your Last Minute Tech Gift Guide

 

•       CLUG ($25) – Who doesn’t enjoy going for a nice bike ride? For those friends who have dedicated their time to the exercise/hobby and have limited storage space — whether it’s in an apartment or a dorm room — CLUG remedies the problem. By attaching this to a wall, without being skilled at carpentry, your bike can be stored vertically in an out-of-the-way location. It’s the world’s smallest bike rack and comes in various sizes.

•       The Foot Hammock ($39.99) – Sure, it seems a little silly, but with all the time spent at a desk, whether working or at home, being able to kick your feet up is a blessing. It’s not tech in the sense of gadgets or gizmos, but it’s an accessory that will certainly enhance your experience when sitting at your PC. It’s easily installed, surprisingly durable, and comes in different styles and colors.

•       Phiaton PS 202 NC ($89.00) – When it comes to exceptional sound, Phiaton has that ­category on lock with their headphones never being a disappointment in the audio department. If you want to drown out the sound of annoying people then these are definitely the headphones for you or your loved ones during the holiday season.

•       DJI Osmo ($649.00) – Eat your heart out, selfie-stick. The company known for their quad copters has released a top-of-the-line video camera that is as incredible as it is useful. Using the DJI Go app, your phone acts as the viewfinder while you pan around, recording your videos in 4K resolution. The 3-axis design gives the operator room to move without your videos seeing every shake or wiggle of your arm. One of the more impressive – and expensive – gadgets of the year, the Osmo is one of those items that advances mobile videography for professionals and amateurs alike.

•       Uptown Artworks Custom Pillow ($99.00) – The perfect gift for a college student is to give them a little something to give their dorm room some pizzazz. Uptown Artworks Custom Pillows are perfect for this. The pillows are really made well and the best part is that you can customize it anyway you please with 2 lines of custom writing and any colors you want to incorporate in your pillow. You can really impress with the gift of this awesome customized pillow.

•       Samsung Note 5 (Price will vary) – Samsung’s line of Note phones gets better every year, but one has to wonder how they’ll outdo this year’s version. With a screen measuring 5.7” and a stylus that is the most useful yet, using it to write yourself notes, sign documents, or anything else that requires hand-writing is easier and more accurate than ever. The 16MP camera shoots in 1080p video at 60fps, it has a fingerprint scanner, speakers that pump out surprising sound quality, and supports wireless charging. Technically speaking, the phone has two CPUs and a dedicated GPU. Yes, it’s a phone, but it’s more advanced than some PCs we had only 10 years ago.

•       Samsung Wireless Charger ($39.99) – If the person you’re buying for already owns any model Samsung Galaxy S6 phone, taking them to the next level of technology is the next logical step. Plug in the charger and then simply set your phone on it to get it juiced. Granted, it’s limited in compatibility right now, but as more and more devices start to include this technology, it’ll prove to be invaluable.

•       Samsung Gear S2 ($299.99) – Get on the smartwatch bandwagon, people. While their first iteration was interesting, it had some kinks to work out. This time around Samsung doesn’t disappoint. The simplistic design makes it beautiful, the technology inside makes it useful. Whoever opens this will immediately start to feel like James Bond, but even Bond would be jealous. Users are able to track certain health details, download dozens of useful apps, and it’s compatible with the wireless charger, making it one of the most versatile smartwatches available on the market.

•       Orbitkey ($29.95) – Another accessory, the Orbitkey takes your keychain and condenses it to a more compact, foldable device complete with USB flash drive. Unless you’re spreading holiday cheer to a janitor, most people will get use out of condensing their key-chain to the essentials. Having access to a flash drive is always useful, and the device is so easy to use, even your Nana would understand it. You’ll have to sit through 8GB (or 32GB!) of her vacation pictures, though.

•       Phiaton BT 100 NC ($99) – Usually it’s really hard to find a pair of headphones that isn’t a mess to workout in, but Phiaton has finally perfected some wireless headphones that are perfect for the person on the go. Featuring their noise-cancelling technology, these in-ear headphones are also sweat and water resistant, so you don’t need to worry about electrocuting yourself while you are at the gym. These have impeccable sound, so you will feel like you are right at a concert when you are making those gains.

•       Grovemade Laptop Stand ($129) – If you’ve got relatives with a taste for the finer things in life, it can be hard to shop for them. Grovemade’s laptop stand is as beautiful a piece of furniture as you’ll find. It’s affordable and matches other accessories that they offer, making it both useful and attractive. It fits any laptop and supports far more weight than you’ll ever put on it (200lbs). Grovemade’s entire collection is as close to art as you’ll see and whoever opens it will be impressed and thankful.

•       Jamstik+ ($299.99) – It’s not always easy to travel with a guitar. They’re long and awkward, but thankfully the Jamstik+ is an iPhone accessory that lets you rock out anywhere while being small enough to carry over your shoulder, or in your backpack. Jamstik+ connects to your iPhone, allowing you to play real guitar tones straight out of your phone speaker, and you can use integrated apps such as Garageband to record anything you play for export into your editing tool of choice. It’s a great solution for the creator on the go. Jamstik+ currently only works for Apple products, so you’ll need an iPhone or an iPad.

•       Zipbuds Slide ($89.99) – Tangle free headphones are easy to promise but hard to deliver. Fortunately the people at Zipbuds found a way to make good on these claims and delivered a quality pair of earphones that feature an innovative groove and slide technology that allows you to literally zip the buds together just by pushing up on the adjustable slide. They’re super lightweight, and they sound great at any volume which means they’re a perfect companion for runners or people hitting the gym.

•       Bracketron Mi-T grip Mount ($22.95) – Putting your phone on the dash while trying to talk, use the gps or play music can result in the very least a cracked screen. The Bracketron Mi-T Grip Mount prevents these type of accidents by suctioning to the dash and clasping onto the phone. Even doing doughnuts will not result in your phone flying everyhere with the Bracketron Mi-T grip Mount.

•       Loopy Case ($39.99) – Who would have thought such a simple addition to a generic phone case would be revolutionary? With the successfully backed Kickstarter, Loopy Cases bring their cell phones with a silicone swoop to the word, signifying that cell phones could only be that much better if we had something to hold onto them with. You won’t ever have to worry about needing a free hand, as the loop will allow you to essentially throw your phone behind your fingers, freeing up your hands for anything you need while still knowing your phone is still lovingly safe between your fingers. Currently available for the iPhone 6, 6+, 6s, 6s+, and Galaxy S6 phones.

•       Tuis ($129.95) – Reasonably priced, stylish design, and impressive audio quality are packed into these wireless headphones. Bluetooth and aux connectivity give you options depending on your needs, but what’s most impressive is the 16-ish hours of playtime. The size, with folding hinges for packing it away, coupled with the battery life make these perfect for that someone who’s constantly on the go.

•       Lightrunner Universal Armband ($39.99) – Griffin Technology has a great reputation in the tech world with their high quality craftsmanship that they put into their products. The Lightrunner Universal Armband is no different and is the perfect accessory for any runner. The Lightrunner Universal Armband also has built in LED lights that can flash up to three different patterns, so you are visible at night. The Lightrunner Universal Armband is compatible with the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 5C, 6 and 6S. It also compatible with the Motorola DROID Mini, Motorola Moto X 2nd gen, Motorola Moto X 1st Gen and the HTC One.

•       V-Moda ZN ($180) – If headphones could be sexy, then these would definitely be the sexiest pair of in-ear headphones on the market. These are the first in-ears that V-Moda has released on the market in 4 years and it was definitely worth the wait. ZN uses a patented zinc metal housing technology that amplifies acoustics and sound quality for an amazing audio experience. If you are going to splurge on some in-ear headphones, then this is definitely it.

•       Hercules DJControl Glow ($79.99) – If you have a beginner DJ in your life then you will definitely want to check out this awesome DJ controller that is made especially for people who want to get a hang of what DJing is all about. This controller glows in the dark, which makes for a cool party accessory within itself. You can mix two tracks with the Hercules DJControl Glow, but that is all you will need to know how to do if you are starting from the basics. DJControl Glow is the perfect present for any music enthusiast.

•       Kodiak Plus ($99.95) – In a world where you can access unlimited information in a matter of seconds, don’t let a dead battery be your roadblock. Outdoor Technology’s Kodiak Plus offers 10,000 mAH, which is more than enough to recharge your phone or tablet when you need it most. It offers two ports for charging two things at once, a shockproof case, and can resist being under 3′ of water for a half hour. It’s a bear of a device.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider saw the same formula as the rest of the series, but had a game breaking bug

Rise of the Tomb Raider shows that our good friend Lara Croft is at it again, exploring crypts, discovering ancient artifacts, and since re-emerging in 2013, allowing all to experience the Croft Family’s interesting history. With Rise of the Tomb Raider, those dynamics return to deliver an emotional tale where Lara ventures into the mountains of Siberia in order to restore honor to her dead father, who died with the world thinking he was a kook. Unfortunately, some might find that adventure incomplete because, as I found out, there’s a game-breaking bug that renders the game unfinishable.

Before getting to the apex of disappointment, it’s important to explain that Rise of the Tomb Raider is an incredible mashup of adventure, stealth, combat, puzzles, story, and visuals. If you were a fan of Tomb Raider from 2013, you’ll love it this time, too.

A series of flashbacks helps lay the foundation of why Lara is so determined on exploring Siberia and helps establish key characters that will appear or are discussed during your adventure. They’re where you’ll hear of the Shroud, a garment that gives eternal life and the object of Lara’s lust. You’ll also meet Trinity, the antagonist organization that is efforting towards obtaining the Shroud before Lara. Trinity has money and mercenaries at their disposal, making Lara’s job that much more difficult.

The world that Rise of the Tomb Raider lives in complements the story and allows for some fantastic transitions between cutscene and gameplay. Open, snowy environments change to ice-covered caverns and then fade into valleys and rivers. Exploring, via zipline or ice pick, allows for the world to exist horizontally and vertically. Collectibles, side quests, and exotic animals inhabit the world for Lara’s taking and, to discover some of the more useful items, are important to find.

SPOILER WARNING: Below you will read specifics on what lead to the game being unfinishable. Some main story elements will be discussed. The story itself will not be spoiled, but minor surprises will be. SPOILER WARNING.

Up until the game decided to throw a roadblock up, it was one of the more enjoyable times I’d had with a game this year. At one point during the story, you set off to find Jonah, a friend and the one person who seems to have stood by Lara’s side in her quest to find the Shroud. Making your way through the level “Research Base,” you get to a point where you’re moving from tower-to-tower.

After one long jump, you swing across a chasm using one of your tools, then land on a tree branch and swing into a dilapidated wooden shack. As you break through the roof and land on the bottom floor, the path is laid out for you to continue. Jumping from the edge, you’ll grab a handhold, but break that and land on a steel pipe. The pipe swings to one side, Lara clinging on, and deposits you on another steel crossbeam.

From here, you continue on and finally get to your friend, Jonah. The rebel group you’ve allied with is assisting to him while Trinity’s soldiers start moving in. In one of Lara’s moments of “badassery,” she tells the group to “Bar the door.” and walks out to face the soldiers. Here’s where the problem starts.

If you’re one who who likes collectibles and wants to make sure you find them all, know that you’ll find maps showing them in each area. For “Research  Base,” one of these maps is on the tower just before you rescue Jonah. Prior to fending off the Trinity assault, you can rest at one of the many camp fires in the game, which are also used as fast travel points. I had missed two collectibles and decided to get those before continuing on.

Fast traveling to the beginning of the level, I made my way through, picked up the collectibles and finished one of the many Challenges that exist in the game. By the time I found the second, traveling back to a camp fire to fast travel would have taken just as much time as simply walking to the area I had originally left. Here’s the problem.

Remember the dilapidated shack? The game sets a checkpoint immediately as you crash down into it. Unfortunately the steel pipe, the one that swings you to the cross beam, never reset itself. This lead me to being stuck in the shack. I couldn’t move Lara forward because there was nothing to grab onto, but I couldn’t backtrack because each jump prior to that is just high enough to be out of reach.

Lara stuck. Rise of the Tomb Raider is now unfinishable.

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The issue was reported to the studio in the hopes of a fix, and it was acknowledged and passed on to the development team, but as of the date of this article, nothing has been fixed. The issue itself requires players to do something very specific, but it’s such a common thing to do that there’s no doubt others will hit the same wall I did.

I can’t say the game is disappointing, because the 20 hours I spent playing prior to the issue were incredible. Stealth mixed with all-out combat masterfully and the story is interesting and sprinkles in realism with the supernatural. No, Rise of the Tomb Raider is not disappointing, but if you hit the same issue I did, you’ll be disappointed. Because you won’t be able to finish a game that, up until that point, was satisfying.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

The popular series still has impressive elements in this latest addition

In years past, Assassin’s Creed games have been highlighted by the battle raging between the Assassins and the Templars and with this year’s installment, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the focus isn’t entirely on that centuries old war. Instead, this time around the focus is on contrast. Contrast between your main characters, Jacob and Evie Frye, the social classes of Victorian London, and of London itself. After some … “technical hiccups” last year Assassin’s Creed Unity, a magnifying glass was set upon Syndicate, and it holds up well.

Jacob and Evie Frye are twins and in an interesting spin, you’ll be playing as both of them. When out wandering London, participating in any of the dozens of different things to do, you can swap between Evie and Jacob seamlessly from the pause menu. Story missions are particular to one or the other, but the game will automatically swap you to the appropriate Assassin when you initiate it.

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The difference in personality is robust and quickly apparent, similar to most siblings. Evie is more determined, conscious of her actions, and focused on completing tasks the “proper” way, while Jacob likes fun, loves danger, and struts around with an ego the size of Big Ben. For all their differences though, one couldn’t exist without the other. Evie and Jacob are, individually, flawed characters, which is what makes them so interesting. Together, they act as the other’s counterpoint and, through the love and respect they have for each other, make an unforgettable team.

The most impressive part of Syndicate is how delicate the transition between districts can be. Initially you’ll wander within some of the poorer sections of London, witnessing brutal child labor, clogged streets, pollution, and debris littering every corner. As you progress, you’ll eventually make your way into the upper-class area. Roads have regular upkeep, carriages are far nicer, and beautiful parks with lush, green grass are common.

The poor sections of London are washed out, clouds and smoke blotting out the sky, and a gray film covers everything and everyone. The nobler areas, Westminster for instance, are bright, sunny, colorful, and welcoming. Dividing these areas is the river Thames, a bustling, clogged channel filled river boats, both stationary and not. Seeing the organized chaos of the Thames is daunting at first, but you’ll discover that the river acts, not only as a divider for the city, but as a world in itself.

Unfortunately, if you’re not a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, Syndicate isn’t going to make you reconsider. While the inclusion of a grappling hook is helpful, not much has been done to improve the parkour system. Scaling and descending buildings is back, making things easier throughout, but the overall smoothness of running and jumping through London is lacking. Oftentimes the layout of rooftops alone is enough to frustrate you, as you’ll get stuck on chimneys (so many chimneys), eaves, or simply jump off a building altogether.

The technical side, while far better than Unity, still has its issues. Falling through the ground,  getting lodged under trains, and having the game crash altogether happened far too often to be ignored. Additionally, though it doesn’t affect all players, some collectible items will disappear from your map, making 100% completion nearly impossible without uninstalling, then reinstalling the game.

And despite those problems the game is still impressive in all other categories. There’s so much to do in London, aside from the story, that you’ll find yourself spending hours trying to see it all. Jacob and Evie’s recurring interactions with famous London-dwellers like Dickens and Karl Marx aren’t brief, nor are they too long and, thankfully, no one character overstays his or her welcome.

Finally, it’s clear that Ubisoft has started to reign in the modern day story that seemed to have gone off the rails. Instead of drawn-out sequences in an office building, you’re given cut scenes showing what’s happening between the Templars and the Assassins and, coyly, it’s intermingled with what you’re doing and seeing through the eyes of Jacob and Evie Frye. For a series that has existed in the past, it’s finally doing a good job of making the sci-fi angle enjoyable and interesting again.

With so much to do throughout the city of London, fight clubs, carriage racing, and stopping child labor to name a few, you won’t get bored with what Assassin’s Creed Syndicate offers. Then again, if you moved away from the franchise, there’s little here that’s new or improved enough to suggest you come back. The story is magnificent, holding perhaps one of the best endings in the series, but the gameplay for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate remains largely the same.

Overall Score: 8 out of 10

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Experience our Skylanders Superchargers review

This fun and colorful game is sure to keep you entertained

It’s the series that invented the “Toys to Life” genre, and this year’s installment builds on the brand, adds new gameplay, and maintains the fun and humor that made it famous, which is why this Skylanders Superchargers review is especially exciting. For the last four years, Skylanders has asked people, old and young alike, to defend Skyland from Kaos and his army of villains. This year Skylanders SuperChargers has hit store shelves with new characters and, for the first time in the series, vehicles devoted to the battle against Kaos.

It’s hard not to know what Skylanders is, but in the event that you’ve ignored the gaming world and the electronics section of most retail stores over these last few years, the essence of the game is that you place a particular figure on the “Portal of Power” and then get to play as them inside the game. Characters fall under different elements (water, fire, or air for instance) and gain better abilities the more they’re used.

With Skylanders SuperChargers the series takes a turn (pardon the pun) and the vehicles add an entirely new element (again with the puns) to the game. Vehicles are also assigned an element and, if you match a particular character to his or her corresponding vehicle, get souped up, or “Supercharged.” The vehicles are used in a variety of ways, with all of them fitting into the game in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Using your vehicle is different than what you’ve experienced in previous games, but boss battles, level transitions, and racing (of course) are gradually introduced in a way that isn’t overwhelming and helps you learn easily.

The game can be difficult though, but if you have a child or a problem with collectibles, odds are you’ve spent more than your fair share purchasing many of the hundreds of characters available. That means when one of your character drops to zero health and is “knocked out” (not “dead,” another great thing about the game), you’re not overly concerned. Just slap another on the portal and pick up where you left off until you finish the level.

Also read: Halo 5: Guardians Review

 

Those same rules apply here in Skylanders SuperChargers and all of your old figures still work, too. The difference now is, where certain parts of many levels were blocked off unless you had a Skylander of a particular element, this time you need a vehicle of that element to access it. To be blunt, it’s clear that vehicles were added as a way to get players to purchase more toys, instead of circumventing that with figures they’ve already purchased or inherited. And that’s OK, these companies need to make money in order to stay operating and they’ve implemented the vehicles in such a wonderful way that you won’t mind spending a few dollars here and there to grow your collection.

The game isn’t without its faults, though there are few. First, the camera is perhaps the most frustrating part of the whole experience. It’s fixed behind characters and, because the game is third-person … err, third-creature? … habit is to try and move the camera around to get a better view of whatever level you’re on, but you can’t. It wouldn’t be such an issue if the levels weren’t so crazy. It’s nice to get puzzles and see mayhem breaking loose constantly, but sometimes the levels are designed in such a way that, without custom camera movement, it feels like the entire game is working against you. Finally, and this is a bit nitpicky, but characters drop to zero health way too easily. Even when fully leveled, driving a Supercharged vehicle, you’ll have to swap out a Skylander four or five times during one single boss fight.

Still, the game is fun, there’s no better way to describe it. The cast of characters you’ve fallen in love with all make a return, complete with their own style of humor that appeals to both children and adults. The story has evolved, and while it still hasn’t moved beyond the whole, “We need help to save our world … AGAIN!” narrative, it does a nice job of feeling different beyond the inclusion of vehicles. Skylanders SuperChargers is one of those rare titles that appeals to anybody, both in playing or watching. The magic is in the figures, and this year that magic is supercharged.

Overall 8 out of 10

You should also read: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

We reviewed the new Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

The perfect mix of “pants-on-head crazy” and incredible gameplay, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is my first foray into the MGS series since the original Playstation. Yeah, it’s been a long time. And not for lack of want, being plugged into the gaming culture has kept me abreast of the universe Hideo Kojima created, but only to a small extent. Curious, I decided to leap back in without any additional research to find out if I’d be confused or if the game was approachable by those who haven’t had the pleasure of staying current on their Metal Gear Solid knowledge.

Short answer: it is.

You should also read: Halo 5: Guardians review

Normally I’d save this for the end of the review, but Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is so great that I feel it needs to be mentioned immediately: this will be on everybody’s “Game of the Year” list. It’s that good. Not knowing what to expect, I waded in slowly and carefully. But thanks to the fantastic free-roam gameplay, amazing gunplay, impressive characters, and mountains of content, it wasn’t long before I felt comfortable and familiar with the world.

Essentially, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a prequel, an origin story of sorts, introducing you to the trials and tribulations of “Big Boss,” who is the antagonist in many games in the series. It’s strange playing a hero when I know that the lore of the universe sees him become “the bad guy” — but no bad guy ever thinks he’s bad, right? Still, the effect it has on you is present, but not exaggerated.

What makes the game so wonderful can be summed up in a word: gameplay. You’ll visit two countries throughout your time within the game, both are vastly different from each other in terms of geography and wild game, but enemies and outposts only look different, but act much the same in each area. Still, as you approach each enemy location there’s an enormous amount of options. Stealth, run-n-gun, or a hybrid seems like a simple set to live by, but packed within each is an array of approaches and combat options that makes every encounter unique.

As The Big Boss, you’re tasked with running your own quasi-military, stationed out of a customizable, upgradeable facility called “Mother Base.” For those who opt out of simply killing anybody in your way, you’ll gain the ability to use your “Fulton extraction.” When you knock an enemy out, whether it’s via hand-to-hand or tranquilizer, you’ll attach a massive set of balloons to them and send them back to Mother Base. There, after joining your squad, they’ll be added to a special team and help improve a different aspect of Mother Base. If you’re lucky, some will offer special skills, like decreasing research time on upgrades or unlocking new weapons. Micro-managing Mother Base is a game within itself and can be difficult, particularly early on.

The next level of customization comes in the form of weapons and companions. You’ll see additional side quests while you’re roaming the world and, upon completion, you’ll start unlocking and upgrading everything you bring with you. Different companions offer varying abilities and can modify your approach to every task undertaken. Changing your gear and your companion often creates surprising depth to something that can become tedious and overlooked if you’re not careful.

The story is … well, it’s crazy as hell. Not having knowledge of the Metal Gear franchise’s timeline is frustrating when you start out. There’s a paranormal aspect intertwining with what I know of 1980s military and politics (the game is set in 1984), so a lot of research was necessary in order to wrap my head around what I was seeing. Using MetalGearTimeline.com as a reference made it easier, but the game plays out like a Shamylan film, featuring absolutely insane twists and turns that pop up out of the blue and keep you exclaiming, “WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST SEE?!

As an outsider to the series, the story, while raising eyebrows, was the weakest part of the game. It stayed interesting only in the, “I’m going to keep playing to see what else could possibly happen,” sort of way. I should say outright that the story is not bad, and despite those missions that make you double-take, there are many that can trigger a heavy emotional response. Be warned though, there are a few so different from the rest of the gameplay that they stand out in a negative way.

Still, the combat, the customization, developing your team and your base, it all comes together in a way that captivates and hypnotizes you. Calling it a “time machine” is the best explanation of how Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain plays. You’ll have some free time, sit down to play, and in what feels like only minutes, you’ve lost hours.

The story is odd, yes, but what you’ll experience in between those missions more than makes up for the craziness. The difficulty helps make the game feel new time and time again, while there’s so much to modify that one person’s experience will be entirely different from another’s. Besides, there’s not many games where you can upgrade your chopper so that it flies in with “The Final Countdown” blaring, which more than warrants a purchase.

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Overall Score: 9 out of 10

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Blood Bowl 2 game review

We reviewed the fantasy sports video game Blood Bowl 2

If you’re familiar with Warhammer, you’ve inevitably heard of Blood Bowl, which is why we have Blood Bowl 2 game review. If you’re not familiar with the dark fantasy world, know that it exists in tabletop gaming, novels, and digital games. Out on PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4, Blood Bowl 2 is a digital interpretation of the tabletop game that resembles football. Though slower and more methodical, requiring a good strategy each time out, Blood Bowl is what you’d get if you crossed the NFL and a butcher shop.

It’s hell. But an entertaining version of it.

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Like the football you know, teams have 11 players each, but that’s where the rule similarities stop. Blood Bowl 2 is a turn-based contest with each team having eight rounds per half. If you’re on offense, it’s your job to move the ball down the field and score. If you’re on defense, taking the ball is your goal. Regardless of which side you’re on though, carnage and destruction is always at the forefront.

On your turn, you have the option of moving a player or taking an action. An action typically consists of having one of your players throw themselves into an opponent in order to move them around the field. Getting knocked out, injured, or even killed on the field of play isn’t uncommon and is a useful tactic to ensure your opponent is stuck playing with less players than you have.

The game is true to the Warhammer universe, and remains shockingly accurate in its portrayal of the different races that exist. Dwarves are hearty and stout, relying on strength, but having very little mobility, while elves are the polar opposite. Other teams, like Skaven, Chaos, and Humans also inherit the traits you’d expect if you know the world, but it’s not a requirement to play. Developer Cyanide does a good job of explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each team through audible and visual cues that you’ll pick up. Some are subtle, some are very noticeable.

Career mode is a story-based walkthrough where players should start their experience instead of simply hopping into online or even building a team for the single player modes. The career does a wonderful job of introducing each aspect of the game — there are a lot of rules — in a way that’s not overwhelming and gives new players a chance to actually learn, something that Blood Bowl didn’t do when it originally released on PC in 2009.

It’s not without criticism though, and unfortunately some of the biggest criticisms come from the “random dice rolls” that occur throughout the game. Being turn-based, each time you attempt something, whether it’s a block, tackle, or other maneuver, you roll a dice on screen to determine success. If you have teammates nearby or your character has skills that enhance the move you’re attempting, you can roll two or three dice, then choose the one you want to perform — a clear bonus. Unfortunately you’ll often find yourself failing on things you should clearly be able to do. Sometimes the game will tell you the rate of success and, despite being heavily favored, you’ll fail over and over again. It’s incredibly frustrating when you roll three dice and all three lead to failures, then you use one of your limited “re-rolls” to try again and get the same results.

The game can sometimes feel rigged.

The other issues are more technical, at least in the Xbox One version. To start, certain weather conditions cause noticeable frame rate issues. Icons that appear over a character’s head will sometimes span the length of the field, and character model animations sometimes clip through each other. The worst thing about the game is the load times, both during a game and loading it up. The AI can sometimes take two or three minutes on its turn before it starts moving. With loading screens taking a minute or more in some cases, having your opponent drag their feet is just agonizing. It’s not going to ruin your overall experience, but it’s noticeable nonetheless.

Despite the frustrations and visual hiccups, the game is incredibly fun, though it needs to be mentioned that the gameplay is very slow. You’re not playing Madden, you’re playing a digital reconstruction of a tabletop game. Every team has a variety of character models, each with their own strengths and weaknesses to be used or exploited during a match. The announcers, Jim (a vampire) and Bob (an Ogre) aren’t voiced particularly well, but their dry humor and constant Warhammer references are enough to make any fan crack a smile.

It’s been six years since the first iteration of Blood Bowl appeared in a video game and, despite some flaws, the team at Cyanide has made some wonderful strides in bringing Blood Bowl 2 to the attention of the masses. With online play and enough single player content to keep you entertained for a long time, including team and stadium creation, the $49.99 price is worth it. The downside is that if you’re not immediately in love with this kind of gameplay, there’s nothing added later in the game that will change your mind.

Overall Score: 7 out of 10

You should also read: Move over Saints Row, there’s a new ridiculousness in video games

We reviewed the DaVinci Ascent vaporizer

College News analyzed the functions of this multi-faceted vape

Let me just start off by saying that we reviewed the DaVinci Ascent vaporizer. Look, I’m going to be blunt, odds are you or someone you know smokes marijuana. If you live in Colorado or Washington, you probably know lots of people. Done responsibly, weed isn’t a terrible thing. Like anything though — not just drugs — smoking in excess can have undesirable effects and consequences. I used to smoke it daily, but life, family, and basic loss of interest means it’s not something I participate in any more. That said, I have many friends who still smoke pot. And not “friends,” with the air-quotes and a wink, but people who are occasional smokers and some or are plugged into the weed culture.

Those are the guys who introduced me to vaporizers.

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Over the last couple of months I’ve been using the DaVinci Ascent, provided to me by the company, to find out why the sudden interest in vaporizers has skyrocketed. My personal experience still has me questioning vaporizing overall, but there’s two reasons for that. First, I’ve never been much of an herbal therapy type of person. Second, I didn’t use it with marijuana. That’s not to say it wasn’t tested with it — just not by me.

Before that though, it’s important to talk about how easy the DaVinci Ascent is to use. It comes with specialized canisters, so you can use it for oils in addition to the loose-leaf products. After loading your herb of preference or oil into the chamber, you can dial in your desired temperature. By pressing just a couple of buttons, your vaporizer is activated and the digital readout will tell you when it gets to the desired temperature. It comes with an instructional booklet, which I recommend you read prior to use.

The digital temperature gauge is important because different herbs are activated at different temps, including marijuana, so it’s important to do your research. Thyme, for instance, activates at 190 degrees and is said to give the user a light buzz and has certain gastric benefits, where St. John’s Wort, activated between 100-150 degrees, is a natural antidepressant and can help you sleep better.

It’s worth noting that St. John’s Wort can reduce the effectiveness of birth control. Aside from preventing unwanted pregnancies, other herbs can have side-effects. KNOW WHAT YOU’RE PUTTING INTO THE VAPORIZER, AND KNOW ALL THE EFFECTS BEFORE YOU TRY IT.

To recharge, you simply plug it into the included wall-charger. A USB-charger might be more universally useful, but the size of the battery and charge it needs to fill is more than a USB could handle. You’ll get a modest number of uses from the Ascent before it needs another charge, making it a great piece to carry with you on the go. It’s about the size of a cell phone, but far thicker. You can fit it in your pocket, but it’s probably best left in a bag. It comes with it’s own carrying bag, but it closes up so tightly that it’s not necessary if all you’re concerned with is spills.

Now the information you’ve been waiting for — let’s talk about vaporizing marijuana. A close personal friend of my family has been battling cancer and has a medical marijuana card, something not uncommon here in Maine. As a former cigarette smoker of 40 years, smoking marijuana in the forms he knows — rolling a joint or smoking from a pipe — can lead to some pretty intense coughing fits. He’s been smoking it for years, but his medical condition has allowed him to get it from a dispensary where the variety and quality is far better than, “calling that guy to see if he has any.”

When I initially approached him about using the DaVinci Ascent, he was hesitant. He’s been smoking for years and is happy with what it does for him. He leaned on, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” as his excuse to stick with what he knows. That stance didn’t last long.

After sitting with him and showing him how to load it (and charge it, set the temperature, etc.), we looked up the temperature needed to activate marijuana. Surprisingly, we got two results. Each of them caters to a certain community of users.

First, for those out there who don’t want to experience the high that comes along with marijuana, vaporize it at a lower temperature. This will activate the cannibidoil (CBD), allowing the user to get those benefits. Reduced nausea and vomiting and combating tumors/cancer cells are two of the known effects, as well as reducing depression and anxiety. If someone is battling cancer, but doesn’t like getting high, vaporize it somewhere around 150-170 degrees.

If you enjoy the high, you’ll want to dial in between 350-400 degrees, but this will vary for each individual. For my friend, we decided to set it at 380 degrees and the results were, to use another direct quote, “Wow, man. This is incredible.” That’s because at this temperature, the THC is activated, which is what results in the high.

The high, in this case, was stronger than he normally obtained, while he used only a fraction of the weed he would normally. That’s because the vaporizer activates more of the THC in the marijuana when compared to smoking it in the classic way. Less gets wasted and more goes into your body. That’s why you can use less but get a better high.

The most important aspect of this, at least for this particular person, was that there was no coughing. A slight smell of burnt popcorn filled the air, but you couldn’t smell the marijuana at all, he didn’t have a coughing fit for the first time in years, and his high was better than ever. To help, I let him keep the DaVinci Ascent and, weekly, I get a phone call explaining how much he loves it.

Unfortunately, DaVinci can’t market the device for use with marijuana, thanks to federal laws, but make no mistake, this vaporizer works wonderfully with it. There’s no ridiculous cloud of smoke when you exhale, which makes it very discreet if you want to carry it with you. Normally priced at $249.99, you can get it for $199.99 right now at the DaVinci website (http://www.davincivaporizer.com/ascent-vaporizer-by-davinci/). Whether you’re a habitual smoker or casual, there are immediate benefits and the device will pay for itself.

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Lifeworks and iHome Accessories help college students

College students can organize their life with Lifeworks and iHome accessories

Thankfully for college students, and iHome accessories help students stay on the go. Being constantly on the go is hard enough when you’re a student, but when you start piling on other stress unnecessarily, you run the risk of forgetting something important. Running between classes, visiting home, studying, and still making time to have a social life can run you ragged, but there are tools available to help make your life a little easier. Aimed at those of you with an active lifestyle, Lifeworks and iHome are two companies creating products to help ensure you can access anything you need, any time you need it.

First, iHome specializes in mobile accessories, mostly for Android and iOS devices. If you’ve ever been stuck somewhere with your phone nearing critical levels of battery life, the iHome PowerClip would be just the item to provide technological life support. At only $29.99, the smallest version of the PowerClip is the perfect cross between size and power and looks sleek and stylish as well.

The iHome PowerClip is easily charged while you’re at home, then you simply carry it with you for those emergency situations. At 2,600 mAh, it doesn’t take long to charge, even when it’s running low on juice, and testing showed that it maintained a near-full charge even after days of no use. To put it in perspective, most smartphones have batteries between 1,900-3,000 mAh, depending on the make and model, which means the PowerClip can charge your phone to nearly full, allowing you that precious extra time you need to get home or to a wall charger.

From a design standpoint, it’s small enough to fit in a pocket or a bag, but can also be clipped onto something using the included carabineer. It comes in black, blue, silver, red, and green, which means it can match nearly any color carrying bag or purse you might have. It’s easy to use, not gaudy or overly noticeable and, if you’re someone who needs more power than the 2,600 mAh, has options for 5,200 and 7,800 mAh models. You can see their full lineup at iHomeCases.com.

 

Carrying a mobile battery, smartphone, laptop, tablet, or any number of devices is pretty difficult though, so you’re going to need something to make that easier, too. This is where Lifeworks steps in, with their Shoulder Bag. For those familiar with messenger bags, the Lifeworks Shoulder Bag is every bit your typical carrying accessory, but is sized smaller than you might think. Upon first glance, there’s concern that everything you need may not fit safely inside, but as you spend time with it, it’s clear that whoever designed it is clearly a space-saving genius.

 

It weighs less than two pounds and measures 18.5” x 13.75” x 5.8”, clearly not a massive accessory. However, it boasts pockets and storage galore. The top-front pocket is one of the smaller spaces, but fits anything you might need to access quickly, like, perhaps, a mobile battery. Below that is a much larger area where you can store pens, business cards, headphones or earbuds, and other items that don’t require lots of protection. With no external padding, putting a phone or tablet in those pockets isn’t wise.

 

Inside you’ll find a padded, lined sleeve for your mobile devices. It sits up from the bottom of the bag to ensure accidental drops don’t result in cracked screens, a saving grace for those who bring their bag everywhere and pack it with everything. You can also fit a laptop (up to 15”) inside, but that will begin to limit the additional storage you have.

Without a laptop, you’ll be able to fit a textbook, tablet or iPad, notebook, day planner, and still have room for a novel or something akin to that size without overstuffing the Shoulder Bag and straining the zippers. With a laptop inside, the day planner and perhaps the “novel-sized whatever” will have to go. The zippers can certainly handle the strain, should you require it to be stuffed full, but as with any bag, too much of that can cause damage to both your items and the bag.

There’s a pocket on each side as well, one to hold a small drink and one that zips up. The pocket that zips up is perfect for any medication you may have, but the drink pouch is very small and you’ll find yourself rarely using it because of that fact. Carrying the bag is easy though, as the strap is adjustable and comes with a fairly well-made pad to prevent hurting yourself. If you’d rather, the size of the Lifeworks Shoulder Bag allows you to forego the strap altogether and carry the bag like a briefcase. First impressions would tell you that you could get something bigger than the Lifeworks Shoulder Bag for the $59.99 price it demands, but the design keeps your items safe, gives you plenty of options for storage, and isn’t overly bulky, making that price a fantastic deal. You can see the bag, and other accessories, at GoLifeWorks.com