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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.

Become a Knight of Pen and Paper

As the popularity of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons skyrockets, the folks at Behold Studios and Paradox Interactive have teamed up to present a snarky, digital look at what happens when friends sit down to enjoy some roleplaying. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and while I’ll be the first to say that it’s not simply geeks, nerds, or outcasts that play games like D&D anymore, the stereotypes that you see at the table are represented very well in Knights of Pen & Paper +1 Edition. Available on PC, Android, and iOS, players are taken on a turn-based, roleplaying adventure that takes advantage of all the basic implements of a tabletop game, including the vengeful, sadistic Dungeon Master (the DM) to control the story.

The setting is basic, with a few friends gathering to play their favorite game at the DM’s house. Each player is selected by you, and each come with their own particular passive skill. If you decide to play as the Jock for instance, you receive a +1 bonus to your attack. The Little Brother has improved initiative, and there are 12 other characters to choose from. After that, it’s up to you to decide which class they’ll excel at, with your basics like Mage, Barbarian, or Cleric available. An experienced player will know to group certain characters with particular classes in order to create a well-balanced team, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Each of these, characters and classes, is available to be purchased with in-game gold. And while it’s fairly easy and straightforward to earn the gold needed (you also start with a modest amount), using it to ensure your characters are well-supplied throughout your adventure will quickly deplete your funds.

Enter microtransactions.

As you progress through the story, adventuring in different areas and leveling your characters up, you’ll find that you may have need of a character who can heal or one who can deal more damage than you can do now. To obtain the maximum party size — five characters — you’ll need to grind your way to more gold or spend some real money to purchase the fake money. With all the ire about microtransactions though, you may find yourself spending $4.99, the maximum you can spend at one time. That’s because the game is fun.

Real fun.

The 8-bit visuals combined with a midi-like audio aesthetic create an atmosphere akin to the games we played in the 90’s. And while that art style is sometimes used to cover up artistic shortcomings, in this instance it works well. It may be that the narrative and dialogue sequences that play out from the point-of-view of the DM & players is reminiscent of those times when we experienced them first hand, or it may simply be that it’s just well-written. Fact is, the developers at Behold Studios clearly know how to create a turn-based RPG and can do it without taking themselves too seriously.

While it’s available on PC, the mobile versions of the game seem to fit more with the overall feel. There are few differences between versions, at least in play style, but the touch screen is more suited to selecting quests, upgrading characters as they gain levels, and maintains the humorous tone a bit more easily. With a price of $9.99 on PC and only $2.99 on Android and iOS, those looking for an enjoyable, humorous look into the world of tabletop gaming will find it here.

Overall score: 8 out of 10

Mad Catz Strike 3 Keyboard Wont Replace Your Significant Other … or Will It?

In the Mad Catz “STRIKE” keyboard family of hardware, the STRIKE 7 (pardon the dead image links) is clearly “The Favorite”. If we were to dabble in anthropomorphism, you could say that the STRIKE 7 is the older, more beloved sister, earning a PHD early, becoming massively successful in her field. That said, when introduced to the the STRIKE 3 you realize that it doesn’t have the same number of features and doesn’t offer the same benefits as its older sibling. That said, there’s something about the STRIKE 3 that turns you on. It’s slimmer, offers some meaningful benefits and, if given the opportunity to push her buttons, you’ll find she’s simply sexier. If I could get just five minutes alone with her I’d…

I’m sorry, sometimes my imagination runs away with itself.

The STRIKE 3 is beautiful though, offering a glimmering red sheen (or white or black) that immediately draws the eyes to it. Surprisingly, even in dusty conditions the keyboard doesn’t seem to attract much and when it does, a simple wipe is enough to remove the thin layer of surface dust that may have formed. In addition to the beautiful exterior, the backlighting is also on par with what you’d expect from the STRIKE family, allowing for magnificent hues to shine through to further accentuate the keys and the vivacious curves of the hardware.

And the software, ohhhh the software. It’s not that it does anything particularly well — it’s not going to give you a back rub after a long day or talk dirty to you at the most inappropriate times — but it doesn’t get in your way, either. With a simple download and install, you’re able to customize your keyboard shortcuts with only a basic understanding of ‘puters. It’s your M-and-C-keys that get programmed, and with twelve of them across the top and near the arrow pad, that’s a lot of customization. Even more so when you realize there are three different “modes,” meaning your twelve programmable keys just became 36.

And of those 36 programmable keys, users will find a multitude of options. One option might include media player controls, allowing for easy playing or pausing of your favorite movie. Another could be programmable macros for certain games like League of Legends or DotA 2, where timing and skill-chaining is a factor to winning. Or, if you prefer to have a nice clean desktop, you can even program each key to open a different program or application.

See? I told you the STRIKE 3 knew how to work it, but there is a drawback. Because the keys are static, with no particular identifiers beyond simple labels, it’s easy to get confused on which set of buttons are active and what the buttons actually do. Without creating a button guide you’re forced to continuously open the software to determine what, exactly, you’re using. But let’s face it, you’d be willing to do anything for her…

em>IT. You’ll do anything for IT. It’s not a woman. No. That’d be silly.

While it’s still the youngest and smallest version of the STRIKE family, the STRIKE 3 is still a mean piece of hardware. At only $99.99, it’s a fraction of the price of it’s older siblings, but still contributes enough to your relationship that it’s worth spending your time with it. I’m not saying that it will replace your girlfriend or offer you any intimate moments, but I’m not saying that it won’t, either.

Rebuild New York City with Lego Marvel Super Heroes

Simple mechanics have been a staple in the Lego franchise of games which is why getting deep into Lego Marvel Super Heroes is disappointing. It’s not that the gameplay is awful, it’s that it seems TT Games has stepped away from what made this franchise so fun to play. In most previous installments voice acting was nonexistent, forcing the narrative to be a pantomime of comedy mixed with stories we’re already familiar with. Now that we hear the Lego characters talk there’s a bit lost in the story telling narrative, which leads to an interesting scenario where players both benefit and suffer from the changes.

Lots of gameplay has stayed the same, but with the Marvel Universe at the forefront, players have an enormous stable of characters to choose from, rather than relying on characters with alternate costumes. The various costumes still exist, but villains and heroes both are on display as playable characters. The biggest change, and one that was implemented in previous Lego titles, is that your characters actually speak now. This hasn’t been a problem until Marvel Super Heroes, as characters can now accurately convey what’s happening and what players need to do, rather than the humorous physical charade that earlier games boasted.

Because of more conversation and less physical humor, the developers have attempted to compensate by creating levels that are longer and more intricate. More “moving parts” and trickier puzzles — at least by Lego standards — are presented to players, with a clear focus showing that gamers with a bit more cognitive problem solving ability are the target audience, rather than the youngsters we all expect Lego to appeal to. That’s not to say players of all ages don’t enjoy the game, it’s still very much a cycle of break things, pick up pieces, complete the level. The puzzles and steps required to move from one area to the next exceed what players expect from a game with such a young target audience.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is still fun though, and that’s what matters. The gameplay remains largely unchanged and for players who want to blast around as their favorite superhero, destroying things and picking up the pieces, worry not because it’s all here. For those of us who prefer to have another layer placed into the game, you’ll come away disappointed. Levels seem far longer than in previous years and require far more thought from the player, but it’s detrimental to your overall experience. For the first time in the series it seems that TT Games is requiring the characters to provide a majority of the game’s personality, rather than the overall level design and quirky narration. Sure, the player hub being New York City is masterfully crafted, but that acts only as a throughway to get from level to level. Don’t be discouraged by these words either. It’s still a bright, colorful game with plenty of options for play style, but as the franchise moves from one property to another, it’s clear they’re trying to do a little too much each time. Which ends up giving us a little less of what we’ve come to love.

Overall score: 7 out of 10

Scalawags and Scoundrels – Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag Review

As an assassin, you’re kind of pigeon-holed by society. Sneak here, stab that guy in the face, escape without incident and, heaven forbid you are caught, kill every damned person in the area. Hell, kill the animals too, just in case. With Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag your typical assassin gameplay returns, but there’s so much more. Truly, it feels like a new game and, full review be damned, I’ll just go ahead and say it: Assassin’s Creed IV is the best game of the franchise. It’s not that they’ve included the open seas as part of your world, it’s what they’ve done with it. Ubisoft has meticulously crafted a world filled with exploration, interesting combat (that allows players to play as a brute or as a silent killer), all-new hunting, crafting, and upgrading, and has done so on land and on the open-sea. Truly, Assassin’s Creed IV is two separate experiences that blur together to create a seamless, beautiful world filled with magnificent characters and vacation-like settings. That is, if you enjoy vacations where you blow people up.

And we all know you do.

The biggest change, of course, is the implementation of the open seas. Ship combat was introduced in Assassin’s Creed III and was effective, creating a nice change of pace from the tedious gameplay which was that game’s biggest issue. In Assassin’s Creed IV though, your ship is essentially a new character, one that grows and improves alongside Edward Kenway, the privateer-turned-pirate. Your ship, called The Jackdaw, is initially outfitted with some basic weapons and very poor armor. As you progress through the story, you’re presented with opportunities to obtain necessities like wood, metal, or cloth in order to upgrade the ship. Of course, how you come about these materials is nefarious to say the least.

Piracy. You’re a pirate and you steal things.

Once you’ve upgraded The Jackdaw though, barely a ship on the seas can stand up to you and, if you’re skilled at piloting your ship, you can make quick work of fleets of ships. The Royal Navy, often carrying tens of thousands of Reales which was the currency of the time, is a fairly decent target and their convoys are scattered throughout the world. For the hunter in you, harpooning is available, but is little more than a mini-game. Granted, you get some neat rewards and battling a monstrous white whale, one of the targets, can be really interesting, but after doing the same, “Search, aim, throw,” over and over again, it gets incredibly boring.

Nevertheless, when you spend so much time on the sea there are two inevitabilities. First, scurvy. Assassin’s Creed IV is proudly free of scurvy, so kudos to Ubisoft for not killing the fans. Second, boredom. The life of a pirate was actually pretty boring, raping and pillaging aside. Lots of time was spent in a drunken haze or swabbing the deck. There’s a seamen joke here, but I’ll let you just formulate it yourself. Regardless, Ubisoft has done a wonderful job of working with a widespread area that’s typically devoid of much traffic and turning the entire sprawling region into a living, breathing world. Certain areas present players with challenges of varying difficulties, none more awe-inspiring than the Legendary Ships that hold anchor at the corners of the map. These floating fortresses act as a beacon to any who dare to sail near, goading players to, “go ahead and try, if you dare.”

And then they kill you. And you love it. Mostly.

And contradictory to the gameplay on the water, the land experience rivals that of previous installments of the franchise, but adds so much more. Your expected free-running system returns and harkens back to playing as Connor — the grandson of current protagonist Edward Kenway — running up and over buildings, but also using the environment as a way of locomotion or stealth. Bushes and shrubs litter the landscape and are used by Edward for moving through restricted areas, eavesdropping (sadly yes, these missions are back), or taking cover after a particularly nasty battle. Conversely, players who decide to take a vertical approach will find no fewer routes in the trees than on the ground, a testament to the intricate design put into each and every setting. Because of the variety of design, there’s rarely ever one single “line” of movement that is the end-all to completing a mission. Most often, you can use the bushes to kill-then-hide bodies, or you can reign death from above and use your wrist blades to shishkebab unsuspecting enemies — there’s just no wrong way to kill a Templar!

And Edward Kenway, oh Edward. Most narrative from an Assassin’s Creed game focus on the “good guy put into a bad situation” character. Edward Kenway is different. In fact, from the onset he’s a bastard. Even in the few instances where you see the true Edward, the one showing his motives for doing what he does, it’s overshadowed by the fact that just prior to this memory showing his softer side, he killed 49 people, 12 crocodiles, 17 monkeys, 6 wild pigs, and sank 200 ships. I told you, he’s a bastard, and that’s atypical for any who know the franchise’s history. Because he’s such a scoundrel it’s easier to justify sinking a ship unprovoked. Or stabbing a group of englishmen “just because”. But that softer side, the family side of Edward Kenway, is there to reign in the scalawag and humanize the character, which creates an inner struggle with Kenway’s motivations.

Spanning an entire region of the world is no simple task, but filling it with meaningful, fun encounters is damned near impossible. Thankfully the folks behind Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag have recognized the issues from previous games and removed or modified them while building on the systems that actually worked. The combat can still be as simple as countering each attack, but the implementation of pistols and darts takes it a step up and allows players to really decide how they want to approach each battle. The open seas merge with land to create some interesting opportunities for Edward, but the free-running system still needs a touch of work. Often you’ll find yourself jumping this way or that, taking yourself out of combat or simply falling to your doom because your camera was angled one degree too far to the right. Overall though, Ubisoft should be proud of the product they’ve put out. To avoid spoilers the world outside of the Animus was intentionally not discussed here, although it seems that Ubisoft recognizes that it’s really a minor part of the game and built that experience to mirror that feeling. For anybody who’s on the fence about this franchise, don’t be. This game is worth your time and your money.

Overall score 9 out of 10

The PrintStik Bluetooth Printer is not worth your time

When provided the opportunity to review a mobile, Bluetooth printer that would easily sync with my tablets or smartphone, I leapt at the idea. “BRILLIANT!” I thought, to have access to documents on the road or when away from your home office or dorm room and be able to print them off, on a whim, and provide your customers and professors with documents without the hassle of being tethered to a large, bulky printer. Well, larger and bulkier than the PrintStik by Planon. Measuring at a teensy 11“x1“x2“, the PS905ME model isn’t a low-end piece of hardware in the PrintStik series and with a price of $299.99, you’d expect high quality, easy use, and compatibility.

Unfortunately you get none of these things.

On the topics of easy use and compatibility, it’s as if the printer is going out of its way to frustrate you. Typically tablet and smartphone users can use programs like PrinterShare or Cloud Print to print to Bluetooth devices quickly, easily, and cost free. PrintStik instead has opted to be compatible with only one app, PrintHand. It’s not as if the app is bad — it works to meet your needs — but the fact that the website links to the $12.95 Premium version leads consumers to believe it’s their only option. Only by searching for PrintHand by name will you discover the free version, and for a mobile printer that costs $299.99, I was particularly confused to think I would have to spend another $13.00 for an app to do what this device claims it does.

The experience doesn’t end there. The PrintStik is designed in a way that the battery, paper, and ink is combined into one inclusive package, reducing the amount that you have to carry with you. It’s a brilliant design and perhaps the greatest aspect of the hardware. The battery you don’t really have to worry about, as you can just turn it on when needed and it doesn’t wear down too fast, but recharging it to full in about three hours was a high note. The paper though, it’s a step above tissue paper, barely. Very flimsy, easy to see through, and won’t hold up to being manhandled, it’s because of the poor quality of the paper used that tearing it from the printer results in ugly frays at the bottom in most instances.

Oh, I didn’t mention that before? Yes, the paper is on one continuous roll, with one roll being the equivalent of 20 pages of paper. When you run out of a roll, you simply load in another roll, the problem is that it will cost you $29.99 to purchase three additional cartridges of paper, averaging out to about $0.50 per sheet. You may be thinking, “AHA! I’ll just load in normal paper that I can buy at an office supply store for far less!” I thought the same thing and was woefully disappointed to find that the printer will not print on normal paper. At all. And what’s worse is that the text printed on the flimsy, unreliable paper is faded to the point of looking aged.

With flimsy paper, poor text quality, and very little cost benefit to the device, it’s very hard to suggest this to anybody for any reason. There’s no noticeable way to change the ink when it runs out, nor is it mentioned on the PlanOn website, creating additional problems that are inevitable should someone find reasons for consistent use. The paper is very much like receipts from your typical grocery store, so for business transactions that need a receipt you may find this a benefit, but for basic business, school, or personal needs, the PrintStik PS905ME is just not worth your time or money.

Profit, Piracy, and Popularity: Rise of Venice Review

Everybody dreams of getting rich and in Rise of Venice your task is exactly that. As the Captain of a ship, and eventually your own fleet, your objective is to rise through the ranks of Venice’s political hierarchy, using gold to gain influence and power. Keep in mind that no political advancement can occur without a fair bit of personal espionage to your adversaries, so in many ways Rise of Venice is true to life. All political cynicism aside, the gameplay is very similar to Port Royale 3, and with good reason. Kalypso Entertainment is the driving force behind both of them, but where Port Royale 3 seemed to stumble, Rise of Venice continues the journey, taking players around Italy’s coastline and over the surrounding seas. The objective is simply: to monitor the goods that each city produces and those that each city needs. You purchase goods at low cost, then sail them to a city that will pay you enough to make a profit. Rinse & repeat. Granted, it’s never that simple, as outside variables seep into the equation that can make or break your family.

The most accurate and perhaps pointed description of the gameplay is that it’s a slow burn. It’s a grind, and players who aren’t willing to sit down and dedicate themselves to reaching a higher status should simply walk away. This is not a title that you can easily master, having unlimited funds at your disposal after only a few hours of play time. No, mastering the market is a learned skill and is made all that much harder in the beginning, when you’re sailing with just two ships. Two because your uncle, an old seafarer himself, has agreed to captain one of your vessels, allowing for your convoys to sail the seas to buy and sell goods. As you slowly begin to make money, you’ll find yourself gaining status at different ports, depending on whether you’re delivering goods that they need, or if you’re buying everything they have to offer and leaving their citizens without materials themselves.

Thankfully players don’t have to simply sit back and wait for each ship to make the voyage — sometimes taking days of in-game time — due to the ability to speed up or slow down time as necessary. This will allow certain actions to be “rushed” or, if you’re the type of player who wants to investigate each and every detail, paused. With such a lengthy game, why would you want to pause the action, you ask? As you complete tasks and missions, assigned as part of your steps for advancement or as side missions to increase your reputation in towns and with the Council of Ten(the guys who decide whether you’re promoted or not), you’ll get notifications about problems that cities are having. Droughts in Acre, fires in Venice, not enough building materials in Alexandria — each have varying consequences, but each can be manipulated to give you profit, depending on how you react.

Admittedly, I didn’t finish the game’s main story and the primary reason for that is due to the extremely slow pace of the game, even when set to maximum speed. There are unique areas to visit outside of the cities, but most of them, even those that give you different options on how to interact, have static responses, leading to nothing more than some flavor text that ends up getting bland after the fifth or sixth area you find. Additionally, there were no cities or other areas, at least in the 10+ hours of gameplay, that were unlocked to provide additional scenery. Players are expected to simply complete missions, typically consisting of delivering items to a particular city or erecting a unique building, then maintaining a certain level of wealth to earn the ability to rank up. Juggling reputation with the Council of Ten can be tricky, but you can bribe them for a small bump to your reputation and, when the time comes for a promotion, only five of the Ten need to vote “yes” for it to pass.

Sea combat also exists, though if you’re able to build your convoy in a way that includes escort ships, your “muscle”, you can avoid most battles. Should a pirate get brave enough to pick a fight with you, you have an arsenal of defenses at your disposal. Assuming you’ve armed your sailors, you can attack the enemy with a variety of options that can cripple their manpower, destroy their sails, or damage the ship directly. If you’re looking to add action to what it otherwise a mundane, brain-teasing title, the ship-against-ship combat is the answer. Though not particularly difficult, it adds a change to the normal gameplay that will be surprisingly welcomed.

Rise of Venice has far too many intricacies to detail each and every one of them, but the game is a unique title that will have a niche audience. With a premise that’s similar to the stock market — buy low, sell high — it works due to the interface and the beautiful, colorful design of the landscape. The ability to zoom out and manage your convoys mixed with the ability to zoom in and provide personal attention to each of them as they complete missions is a nice touch. It’s easy to navigate and, despite the considerable number of captain abilities, goods and services, options for trade routes, and individual city maintenance, it’s not confusing to learn and provides players with a gradual learning curve as the game begins. Still, if you’re looking for a one-off, a game you can play for just a couple minutes a day, this is not it. But if you’re looking for something that is difficult to master and, despite the tedious nature of the gameplay, provides an interesting take on business-meets-videogame , Rise of Venice may be for you.

Overall score 6 out of 10

Ellen Page & Willem Defoe Star in Beyond: Two Souls for Playstation 3

Much like you can spot a movie directed by Michael Bay or the Coen Brothers, David Cage is making his mark on the games he directs. Working with developer Quantic Dream, Cage again directs an experience that moves away from your typical game style and instead implements a sort of interactive narrative, putting players in the role of the protagonist and allowing them to define certain choices that can bend the experience at will. With Beyond: Two Souls, stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe sit atop a stable of actors that are familiar with the big screen and, due to that experience, are able to lend their voices to make their acting perhaps the most impressive part of the game. That’s not to say the environments and character rendering aren’t things to raise your eyebrows to, but without the voice talent of the cast, Beyond: Two Souls wouldn’t even be worth experiencing.

Those looking for the stereotypical gamification will be disappointed, as there are no points, no life-and-death risks, and no player-driven tension. Instead, players are taken on a narrative adventure that happens to include choices that lend the player a feeling that they’re impacting the story line when, in fact, the variations are not as important as you’re led to believe.

Playing as Jodie Holmes, you’re a unique girl with an interesting secret: a spiritual entity has tied itself to you. It’s not a ghost or an angel, it’s simply “a thing”. And this thing’s name is Aiden. To add an element of gameplay, cooperative mode is included where one player controls Jodie, the other Aiden. Unfortunately, when there is no real “cooperative play,” due to being forced to control one or the other, never both at the same time. This leads to spans of boredom and inevitably will result in it being a single-player game, unless you have a very patient duo. Another attempt at adding elements of gameplay is the use of the Playstation 3’s six-axis controller, used to complete certain maneuvers during the story. While most actions are tied to the shoulder and face buttons with some use of the right and left thumbstick, causing players to rapidly move the controller up and down or to twist it seems forced. You certainly must applaud their attempt to remove the tedious button pushing that exists throughout, but this is not the answer.

The storyline itself is odd, showcased with a back-and-forth element that tells a bit of Jodie’s current story before flashing back to her childhood. The times when you’re witnessing Jodie as a child — anywhere from age 6 or 7 to age 17 — it feels empty. At least when you’re a woman, training at the CIA or being chased by them, there are action scenes that keep the suspense at a fever pitch. The flashbacks attempt to introduce drama to help round out the narrative altogether, but more often than not end up feeling like filler content, used to separate the best parts of the game.

Though it’s not your typical game, as you begin to play through you will find yourself connecting to certain characters, including Aiden. While you can’t hear his voice or understand his thoughts, the projection of Jodie’s answers and commands to him do a magnificent job of telling the story of his motivations, some of which directly conflict with Jodie’s own wants and needs. It’s when you finally begin to understand the desires and regrets of each character that an unexpected plot twist is introduced and a heightened supernatural element is introduced. It’s important to understand that because it’s in that moment when you’ll begin remove yourself from the immersion once again.

With a beautiful scenery, well-developed characters, and interesting story-design, Beyond: Two Souls is the sort of title that is simply described as “different”. Despite being given a range of choices across the entire game, most choices are meaningless until the end, when it becomes clear that you’re setting yourself up for alternate endings. The relationships that the characters build are sincere, but the implementation of the paranormal that goes beyond just Jodie and Aiden is distracting and minimizes the connection they have, despite narrative explanations and game endings. If you’re a typical gamer who looks to be challenged by opponents, this is not the title for you; if you’re looking for a new experience and a step away from the typical grind of today’s titles, you’ll not want to miss this.

Overall Score: 6.5 out of 10

Review – Grand Theft Auto V's Hits and Misses

It’s been nearly a month since Grand Theft Auto V released and you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz. A three-day record of over $800 million in sale which lead to more than $1 billion overall for developer Rockstar. Countless perfect or near-perfect scores with entire reviews dedicated to lauding the advancements made to the free-roam genre. And while the writing — the story in particular — is an amazing extension of the overall gameplay and every piece fits neatly into the personality of the three main characters like a jigsaw puzzle, the game is being exaggerated. It’s not that the game isn’t good, excellent even, it’s that Rockstar has made advancements to the game world at such a level that they’ve attained a nearly true-to-life simulation experience. Admittedly, that’s an amazing feat, but there’s an inherent problem: our normal, everyday life is pretty boring and when you step outside the craziness that GTA V offers, that world is pretty boring, too.

There is craziness in the world of Los Santos, the imaginative world that is the setting for GTA V, most of which is created by Franklin, Michael, or Trevor, the three protagonists that players can switch between. Typically the trouble is injected as players are simply roaming around the world, moving from one story objective to the next. Often you’ll be met with a random event, such as spotting a mugger or a car thief, and you’re asked to stop them. Get the money back from the thief and you can return it (for a small reward) or keep it for yourself. Further, alternate events occur that are typically mundane, often offering simple rides to an NPC’s destination. The saving grace from these incredibly boring missions is that Trevor, the meth-addicted psychopath that he is, can deliver those in need to a local cult, resulting in a small stipend into your bank account. What is just grossly mundane, essentially having players act as local police on beat patrol or as a taxi service, is only made fun and interesting by elements that players inject, and even then is limited.

Aside from the random events though, players will find some of the most interesting narrative ever to grace a GTA title. This may be due to the three-pronged approach that the writers have taken with Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. In years past players became familiar with one character, learning earnestly what his motivations were and why he was trying to claw his way up from the gutter. With the three characters in GTA V players will find that each of them is, in their own way, sitting at rock bottom. Michael desires respect and love, neither of them being provided by his family. Franklin is looking for a way to get out of the ghetto and, despite being a homeowner, has a live-in reminder of his status with his aunt and her flavor-of-the-week interests. Trevor is simply trying to make a name for himself as a businessman, but what sort of business savvy does a criminal-turned-meth addict have? It’s this conflict with the characters that creates some of the best tension within the game, both with the other characters and NPC’s, and with themselves.

Beyond the story and the writing, the gameplay takes a step away from what we’ve associated GTA with historically. You’re still stealing cars, murdering innocents, and outrunning police, though rather than an entire radius to escape to drop your wanted level, the line-of-sight cone used by police this time around works far better and is a more accurate representation of how police will spot you — though by no means entirely accurate. The key points of the game are well-planned, intricately setup heists which require extensive prep work to execute and while these are masterfully done, the steps leading to them can be mundane. For such a key part of the game, for such a fun, exciting moment that is enormously rewarding, the fact that it’s precluded by what amounts to no more than “busy work” is disappointing. Having players obtain masks on a pier, unidentifiable work suits from Ammu-Nation (the local gun store), then boosting a garbage truck and a tow truck are not what you’d consider fun. Surprisingly though, the result of your labor is a robbery and getaway that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Other adjectives fit as well: adrenaline-pumping, action-packed, death-defying, and dozens of other cliches that hardly do it justice. Perhaps it’s that heightened sense of adventure that casts such a bright light on the menial tasks. It’s not that the steps taken prior to the heists are bad — quite the opposite, they’re technically sound and it’s interesting to see everything happen according to plan.  The point remains though, lots of what GTA V has to offer seems to be just “filler”.

The filler exists in other places as well. The world is enormous and any reasonable person can understand that intrigue and adventure doesn’t rest around every corner. Rockstar is no ordinary developer though and they’ve done their due to ensure that there is something to do at every corner of the city and outlying countryside. Unfortunately, most of the events fall into the same category as most of the other activities: unremarkable. In the world there exists tennis, golf, darts, yoga, triathlons and more. While it’s commendable that level of detail can be included in a game, it’s hard to imagine anybody putting in GTA V thinking, “I think I have time for 18 holes, stealing those cars can wait.”

Transversely, some content in the game is so well done, so intricate and thought-out, that I’m left wondering if I’m playing the same game. Playing as Michael, a level-headed man with a cheating wife, spoiled daughter, and foul-mouthed son, you’ll find yourself spending time at your therapist. Strangely, what you’d expect to be a waste of time provides a deeper look into the motivations behind your character and how he views his inner turmoil. Likewise, side missions are rife throughout the map, presenting opportunities to step outside your normal “point-A-to-point-B” mission system to give players something unique and fun to do. Paparazzi missions create an element of stealth mixed with voyeurism while celebrity item thefts help create a parody of the Hollywood lifestyle. Additionally, missions that take advantage of each character’s own “special ability” exist throughout the world to act as a speed bump in the road that is your main story. Though these speed bumps are typically bodies that explode into confetti and nudity when you run them over, making you want to find them as often as you can.

Online gameplay is available as well, unfortunately that element was never stress tested against an enormous player base, causing problems at launch that made it unplayable for everybody. Some problems still linger, resulting in lost characters (both online and in single player), broken missions, and other nuisances that could have been avoided. Rockstar went so far as to issue a statement explaining that online would experience problems, but that players shouldn’t get discouraged because the problems would be resolved as soon as possible. An unconfirmed report even indicated that Microsoft’s Xbox division reached out to offer some assistance to resolve the server issues, but the offer was ignored.

If you’re able to connect online — which has admittedly been better as of late — you’ll create your own character, a process that’s so intricate that you can even determine who your parents are. Once finishing the tutorial you’re greeted with the open world of Los Santos where you and up to 15 other players can … roam. If driving around the city randomly killing the other players isn’t your thing, which doesn’t really get you anything except a pissed off player, you can partake in a variety of events. Races, deathmatches, even buying your own home is an option and the longer you play, the more money you earn and the higher your rank goes.

Grand Theft Auto V is an amazing game and the world that Rockstar has made is nearly perfect. The biggest problem is that the world is so advanced that they’re able to simulate real life, normally an accomplishment, but in the world of GTA V I don’t want to simulate life. I want to steal cars, murder prostitutes, sneak into strip clubs and get free lap dances, and earn millions of dollars doing it, things I’d never do in the real world. That needs to be said so that people understand that the GTA series is violent, but that doesn’t mean I want to do these in real life. I’m looking at you, Jack Thompson. There isn’t another game that can compete at a technical level with GTA V. It’s beautiful, the audio, including soundtrack and talk radio options, is flawless, and seeing what Rockstar has done to take advantage of hardware that’s eight years old inside of these consoles is breathtaking. But fantastic tech doesn’t immediately make the game perfect. If Rockstar is able to make the mundane tasks interesting, their next title very well may be the greatest game ever developed. For now though, Grand Theft Auto V will have to settle for “just a really great game.”

Overall score: 8.5 out of 10

A look at Kingston's HyperX SSD & Memory, for those in need of a hardware upgrade

Earlier this year PC memory and storage — both RAM and HDD/SSD — were at rock-bottom prices. Due to some external events, the cost of hardware has slowly started creeping up, meaning anybody looking for an upgrade will want to do some research before firing off hundreds of dollars. Kingston, a well-known name in the industry, presents options for both the RAM and storage section of your home PC and their prices are on par with the rest of the industry. Of course, the price is only one important part of the hardware. As it’s boiled down and we get a look at the specs, it’s easy to see that Kingston offers quality products at a reasonable price. The fact remains that the numbers matter, specifically when you’re looking at speeds. So how does the Kingston HyperX Predator RAM and HyperX 3K 240GB SSD stack up?

Kingston HyperX 3k SSD (240GB)

We’ll start with the storage, the HyperX 3K SSD, and an impressive box of goodies. Along with the drive and the case mount (SSD’s are notoriously small), Kingston includes an enclosure to allow users the options of mounting the SSD within the PC, or using it as a mobile, external drive. And because of the solid-state for which the drive is named, dropping the drive is far less dangerous than your typical HDD, filled with moving parts all ready to break and ruin your day.

Performance is the most important aspect of the SSD and Kingston advertises their HyperX 3K to have 555MB/s read speed against its 510MB/s write speed obtained using ATTO Disk Benchmark 2.41, both quite impressive. Using the most updated version of ATTO Disk Benchmark, version 2.47, shows results similar, though not quite as advertised. During home tests, the maximum write speed was slower than advertised, capped at 488MB/s, while read speeds were actually faster, giving results of 540MB/s.

Stepping away from ATTO Disk Benchmark and relying on a different program, CrystalDiskMark 3.0.2, results were slower than advertised still. Sequential read and write provided results of 405.3MB/s & 127.4MB/s, respectively. Further, random read/write tests, performed with different packet sizes, show that the SSD tops out at 144MB/s, although that’s with a queue depth of 32 with 4KB packets — the largest of the test. What that means is that Kingston has ensure that the larger the read and the more actions performed, the more efficient the drive is. That’s of import due to a large number of gaming enthusiasts using SSD’s for their most used game, taking advantage of the benefits an SSD brings.

The advantages are, of course, the read/write speed already discussed. For those unfamiliar with the specs of your typical HDD versus Kingston’s HyperX 3K SSD, the results are clearly in favor of Kingston. Using two separate HDD’s, one a Western Digital Velociraptor (1TB), the other a Seagate Barracuda (3TB), with the exception of one test — sequential write — the HyperX 3K SSD annihilated the competition.

Priced between $194.99 and $268.00, depending on where you’re shopping, the average cost of $239.99 was expected, as SSD’s tend to cost approximately $1.00 per GB of storage. For enthusiasts looking for a noticeable different in read/write times, Kingston’s HyperX 3K SSD fits the bill. With impressive speeds, though not quite as advertised, and options for users to go internal or external Kingston has done well to make this attractive to an array of customers. Installation is still a bit of an ordeal, forcing users to walk through an obstacle course of steps before use, but for anyone who can follow directions and has even a trivial knowledge of hardware installation, it’s uncomplicated and in the end you’ll have a fast, efficient, reliable SSD.

Kingston HyperX Predator (2x8GB)

Aesthetically speaking, again starting with the most unimportant aspect of the hardware, the HyperX Predator is an eye-catching metallic blue, emblazoned with a black ‘X’ to leave no doubt what brand of hardware you’re dealing with. While most memory is decorative to a degree, the heatsink attached makes the Predator far more noticeable. It’s hard not to notice a 2.1” blue chip sticking out of your motherboard, after all. And with the extension being a heatsink, Kingston ensures that substance is added to the style. The downside, from a motif perspective, is that the Predator comes in just the one color. So if you’re designing your PC with the intent of showing off the beautiful insides, you’ll have to find other hardware (and LED lights, though they’re not as popular as years past) that sticks with the color scheme.

The Predator (DDR3 SDRAM, 2x8GB) tests show that it excels in having low latency, showing 74.6 ns using MaxxMEM for benchmarking; this latency is important because it’s the delay from the moment the memory gets a request to the time it’s performed. The Predator’s copy and read times are also impressive, boasting 8,186 MB/s and 8,666 MB/s respectively. Kingston has shown with this iteration that they excel at access and response, giving results that exceed most consumer brands and models at a similar price point, during basic testing.

One category to be wary of is the memory’s write-speed, clocking in at 5,126 MB/s, which affects the rate at which data is stored on the Predator. Against other memory in its category, the HyperX Predator scored lower than most (again, using MaxxMEM), though admittedly overclocking — which was not done for this testing — would change results. These speed tests indicate it will take longer to get the information stored to the RAM than it would for some other brands, but once it’s stored and being accessed, the Predator is at the top of its class. It should be noted that other Kingston memory also scored in a similar way, showing fast read/copy speeds versus slower writing.

Reports have shown that the HyperX Predator can run at a high temperature as well, despite it being tested and confirmed to operate up to 85°C, though in the test system it ran without heat issues. Of course, the system used for testing has five fans moving air through, so that’s not unexpected. With just one fan though, others had similar results. That may be attributed to the heatsink, mentioned previously.

The Predator’s timing parameters showed CL11-12-11-24 (XMP Profile #1) on the information that was sent with the test samples. Actual tests show a significant difference, and for the better. After installation and use, results of CL9-9-9-24 (XMP Profile #2) were given, meaning the memory had lower latency and was performing better than expected. Note: Kingston’s own spec sheets do indicate that this is possible, so it may simply be a matter of an ideal conditions or a setting inadvertently triggered by me.

Installing 16GB (2x8GB) of Kingston HyperX Predator memory isn’t for those looking to build a low-tier PC that will be used for browsing the internet and using Facebook games. It’s for enthusiasts that need low latency and high read access times. Gamers and video editors will get use from these and can justify the cost, which is around $163.99. Because memory has started creeping higher and higher, we know that research is going to be ideal when you’re in the market for some new memory. Kingston’s lifetime warranty, aesthetically pleasing design, and high-end results once again thrust them into the spotlight and may be exactly what you need to upgrade your system without breaking the bank.

A look at the PNY GTX 770 – One Impressive GPU

PC gaming has created a constant give-and-take of high-performance hardware battling against an individual’s budget. The unfortunate truth is that most enthusiasts won’t be able to afford top-of-the-line hardware at every turn of their setup. Instead, you’re forced to decide where to put your money in order to get the biggest bang for your buck. Seeing a price of $399.99 is not unusual for a graphics card, but justifying it can be difficult if you’re deciding which to buy. The PNY GTX 770 does not skimp when it comes to performance though, even when plugged into a mid-level system. One powered by an AMD A8 6800K 3.6GHz quad-core APU, the machine used for testing, for instance. Some of today’s most popular games — save one — will run at ultra-high settings, 1080p resolution, and still maintain a high-50’s or steady 60 frames per second with ease.

Of course, it’s easy to simply tell you why the GPU is a worthwhile investment, it’s another to understand why. Let’s begin with the visual aesthetic of the hardware, perhaps the most unimportant part of the card, but nevertheless semi-important to some. It’s not uncommon to put a window on the side of your tower to show off your hardware or cable management skills. Most hardware manufacturers understand this and add a touch of “ooh la la” to their card designs, and the GTX 770 is no different. PNY took the GTX 770 reference design — that is, the design released with the intention of allowing others to copy it — and made it their own by taking the customary cooling power of the NVIDIA Titan and, rather than relying on one fan to keep, kicked it up Emeril style to include three fans. Not only does this make the card more impressive to look at, it keeps the device cooler and operating at its highest level. Quite surprisingly, the card doesn’t make a racket, even with the three fans in motion. The sound maxed out at a hushed 50.1db over three separate tests, each while attempting to overwork it.

It’s the performance you’re concerned with though, most notably how some of your favorite titles compare to each other. It’s worth mentioning that each game auto-detected settings at ‘High’, but that may be due to a slight bottleneck with some of the other components within the test PC. When manually adjusting the settings to 1900×1080 resolution (1080p), Ultra-high settings, and anti-aliasing, the GTX 770 performed admirably in nearly every study. By reviewing three separate titles, each in a different genre, the intent was to determine if there was any particular handcuff for the GTX 770.

em>The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (Role-playing, released November 2011) proved to be no match for the GPU, running at ultra-high settings with a steady 58-60 frames per second (FPS). With enemies so detailed you can see the exasperated surprise in their face moments before striking them down with your weapon of choice, it was clear to see why PC is the platform of choice when Skyrim is concerned.

em>DiRT 3 was next up (Racing, released May 2011) to test the effect that rain, snow, mud, and dirt has on the visual experience. To be pointed, the GTX 770 continued to run at 59-60 FPS with no issues. No stuttering, screen tearing, or pixelation occurred at any point, although some racers may continuously fall to the back of the pack as they stare in awe at the scenery, stunning at every turn.

In an attempt to push the GPU to its limits, the big guns were called out. Crysis 2 (First-person Shooter, released March 2011), notorious for its stress testing, was initiated with ultra-high settings and succeeded in triggering a reaction. From the onset, players will see the FPS drop to 30-52, depending on the situation and the total enemies on-screen. Crysis 2 has a reputation for this and it wasn’t unexpected. Thankfully, at a lowered setting of ‘High’, PNY’s card was operating at a steadier 50-55 FPS with very little slow-down.

For more recent titles, Splinter Cell Blacklist, Tropico 4, and Magic 2014 were tested and, unsurprisingly, maintained a steady 60FPS. This may be due to the 2GB GDDR5 RAM selection, an upgrade over GDDR3 seen in some later models. The bandwidth that GDDR5 handles over its little brother is significantly improved, and coupled with the 256-bit memory interface, allows for an impressive amount of data to be handled at once.

The PNY GTX 770 carries a not-so-unusual price of $399.99, so those building a budget gaming PC may cringe a bit at the cost. Fear not, with mid-level hardware littered throughout the system, the GTX 770 will earn every penny of the $399.99, particularly when you compare it to other GPU’s that may save you a buck. The NVIDIA GTX 660 Ti for instance, shaves a hefty portion of the cost off, as it retails around $284.99, but the quality improvement from one to the other is more impressive than $115.00 you’d save. Additionally, for those looking to make the ultimate sacrifice and rely on one of the AMD APU’s, do so with caution. It’s not that the APU’s cannot handle current-gen gaming — they’re surprisingly resilient — but the overall quality lost when relying on an APU versus PNY’s GTX 770 is like comparing a Ford Focus to Lamborghini Diablo. Sure, the Focus is reliable, but any enthusiast who spends even a moment in Diablo will never go back.

Buy the Lamborghini. Buy the PNY GTX 770.