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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.

State of Decay – Xbox 360's Zombie Survival Simulation

After watching the development and growth of State of Decay for at least two years, it’s always a wonderful feeling to see the game release to record-breaking sales and enormous applause as it did in June. With the unique position I had of seeing the game prior to completion and then diving in head-first as it graced my console, a strange realization was made. The game, despite its flaws and shortcomings, gives players something that rarely is presented in our gaming world today: a sense of fear. The foreboding feeling that once you make a mistake, it might end up being your last. And it’s this exact feeling that struck a nerve I wasn’t expecting, igniting memories of the day when arcades were booming and mistakes lead to the loss of digital-life and your quarter. You may think that it’s a stretch to compare a zombie-survival, third-person, with RPG elements to the simpler games in the stand-up cabinets. Comparing the gameplay certainly is, but the overall sense of dread is what triggers the fear.

The premise of State of Decay is one that is overused in today’s gaming market: zombie survival. What makes it successful is the way the survival is delivered, requiring players to meet and interact with different characters, complete with their own pros and cons, including unique personalities. In real life, people are all different, so why have we not seen the effects of personality clashes in zombie games to this point? Prior to now, everything has been focused on delivering as many bullets into as many undead as possible. Not this time, though. Instead, the focus is on surviving because death is permanent. That’s right, when your character dies, they’re gone for good. If you’ve got a full stable of survivors to go through, that may seem like an insignificant penalty, but because you’re able to increase each survivor’s individual skills, losing someone who excels at a particular ability can be detrimental to the group. This is due in part to the fact that your group of survivors is a cohesive unit, teetering on the edge of mayhem at every waking moment. You have to manage food, defenses, shelter, friendships and most importantly, the undead. In certain situations you have have your entire world melt down in front of your eyes, seeing survivor after survivor leave the compound because of one bad decision, leaving you facing an enemy with unlimited numbers all alone.

And alone you are, despite the constant struggle to make your group meld together into a trusting, friendly group, developer Undead Labs has confirmed that the previously anticipated co-op mode will not be implemented into the game at all. With a PC release still looming on the horizon, it’s a disappointing update to receive, as the gameplay itself — quite similar to games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row the Third — seems to play directly into a co-op scenario. But despite your own loneliness, the AI does a decent job in introducing you to new NPC’s time and time again. Certain missions and constant interactions let you discover that your rag-tag group of survivors can be a community. As you set out to explore the land, the largest to ever grace Xbox Live Arcade, you’ll find yourself traveling in cars and trucks, sneaking through infested neighborhoods, or sprinting to safety to avoid a roaming horde.

And despite the interesting take on zombie survival, there are still flaws. The visuals look dated, the controls feel stiff, and the narrative relies too heavily on the gameplay. Through all of that, the missions triggered when you know you have too few resources, the personality conflicts where you’re forced to choose what’s best for the group rather than your friend, or the decisions to turn away other survivors because you don’t have enough food for them, you’re faced with one basic emotion: fear. Fear that hasn’t been triggered since those days when you were leaned over an arcade cabinet, slapping buttons in a futile attempt to make the most out of your quarter. It’s that fear, that inevitable loss that makes State of Decay something more than just a zombie survival game.

Overall score 7 out of 10

Magic the Gathering 2014 – Duels of the Planeswalkers Review

Still one card short of a full-deck.

The history of Magic the Gathering is deep and, as fans of the card game know, is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. To keep up with the times, MTG has gone digital, releasing new versions annually and this year is no different. With Magic 2014: Duels of the Planeswalkers, Wizards of the Coast is releasing the game on every platform imaginable and is implementing new game modes to push your fetish for MTG to embarrassing levels of depravity. A new, story-based campaign is implemented, and the beloved unlockable decks and cards return to act as a figurative carrot to keep you progressing forward. As previously announced, a Sealed Deck mode is new to the series and allows players to open their own packs and build their own decks. The general problem with Magic 2014 is that, while it makes nods to game modes and features that players want, it doesn’t entirely answer the call.

For the single player campaign, Chandra Nalaar is on full display using her fire magic to seek  revenge on the villainous Zorislav. To get the opportunity to face him in battle, you must journey through planes like Innistrad and others, defeating four particular challenges in order to face the ruler of the particular plane. Win, and you unlock another deck for use. Lose, and you’re stuck trying again. Winning any match will unlock one of thirty unlockable cards available for each particular deck, but you’ll only earn cards for the deck you’re using at the time of the victory. The biggest challenge is perhaps the first battle after the tutorial, versus Chandra Nalaar herself. Because you’ve got only one deck, designed for a specific type of combat, and you’re pitted against another deck that’s designed specifically to torment you, it can get frustrating very quickly.

The newest addition is the Sealed Deck mode, which sees players opening their own packs of Magic the Gathering 2014 cards and creating a deck, arguably one of the most joyful moments from the original tabletop card game. As you progress through the sealed deck mode, you’ll unlock up to three additional packs to open to enhance your deck. Once through that you can take your sealed deck online, however whatever the Gods of Luck granted you within your packs is what you’re stuck with. After opening the initial packs plus the additional you gain from the Sealed Deck Campaign, there’s nothing else to do except purchase another deck slot, unlock those initial pack and then progress through the campaign again. While it’s a great step forward, beyond the online play the use of Sealed Decks is limited. Players can’t use their own decks for the single player campaign, free-for-all matches or two-headed dragon. It’s frustrating, particularly for dedicated players who, beyond slight modifications to particular cards and rules, see little variation in overall gameplay.

Admittedly, Wizards of the Coast has to do something to ensure that their tabletop card game doesn’t suffer from reduced sales due to the implementation of digital options, however most Magic the Gathering players who have grown with the card game are dedicated to it on all fronts. The campaign is robust and helps explain some of the lore in the world of MTG, opening the door for novels that are available. After the campaign there are still plenty of options with both single player and online multiplayer. With the game appearing on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, iOS, PC/Steam and for the first time on Android devices, having a cross-platform option would help justify purchasing sealed decks for online play. As it stands, those looking for the deep experience inherent in the Magic series will certainly find it here, but it’s not quite on par with the game we know and love.

Overall Score: 7 out of 10

Kingston MobileLite Wireless – CPR for your smartphone

Self-describing your product as the “ultimate wireless companion” is bold, but Kingston makes bold decisions. That’s clear with the MobileLite Wireless, a device that acts as wireless cloud storage, streaming device and battery backup. By implementing useful options and removing any unnecessary fluff, Kingston has released a product that will meet many of the simple demands you have when traveling with your smartphone or tablet device. Taking advantage of being compact, the MobileLite screams convenience, fitting into most pockets, purses or messenger bags with ease and looks similar to some laptop batteries, though far lighter. The drawbacks of the device are as concise as the benefits, falling mostly to a discussion of how it offers some, but not enough of what the user needs.

The gray & black finish is ideal because it gets manhandled often and a lighter color, Apple’s signature white for instance, would easily become dirty. Measuring a hair under 5.5”x 2.25”x0.75” and weighing under 100 grams, you’d expect a drop or a jostle to be the end of your gadget. It’s resilient though, with a hard plastic shell and thin metal (perhaps aluminum) cover to protect from most damage beyond superficial scratches and dings. The design is also ideal for data storage and transfer, with ports on either end for different connections. One end features an SD/HC/XC card slot (mini SD card adapter included), while the other is for USB and micro-USB. The micro-usb slot is used specifically for charging the MobileLite Wireless, while the typical USB port is multi-use.

The first use acts as charging option for your smartphone due to the 1,800mAh Lithium-polymer battery located within the MobileLite. While that’s not enough to competently charge a tablet, using it for your smartphone is ideal, regardless of brand and model. Understanding your phone is key and, though none of us typically allow a phone to discharge to 0%, knowing when to attach this Kingston life-support can be the difference between frantically applying technological CPR versus a well-child…er, phone checkup. The second USB use is for expanded storage. If the SD card is full (or too small for what you’re working on) simply attach a flash drive of any capacity and increase your storage.

The point of all that storage is simple: WiFi connectivity through your MobileLite. A simple setup allows you to connect your phone or tablet to the MobileLite and access the files stored within. This allows for simple transfer or access of pictures, files, even movies. Once connected, the MobileLite app can then connect through the device itself and remain connected to a WiFi hotspot, public or private. Because you can have up to three users connected to the MobileLite at once, you can essentially use it to tether multiple devices if you happen to be somewhere that allows only one connection or requires additional fees for multiple devices — a hotel for instance. Additionally, for those long road trips when you have your friends, parents or children in the back seat who don’t want to agree on what to watch, you can stream three separate videos at the same time, depending on what you’ve already stored yourself.

For those who routinely find themselves with a flash drive and no way to read the data on it, in a situation where you want to take more pictures, but can’t due to limited phone storage capacity or facing a flashing red battery as you watch a dearly loved friend slowly fade in front of your eyes, the Kingston MobileLite Wireless is your answer. At an extremely affordable $59.99, you’ll find reasons for consistent use and, in the event of an emergency, you’ll be glad you have it.

Samsung NX1000 Smart Camera – A device that lives up to its name

The instructions for a camera are simple: point and click. Voila, you have your picture. Samsung could have easily presented a camera that offers those simple features, but instead decided to treat the NX1000 Smart Camera much the same that it treats its smartphones: by packing in dozens of features. And surprisingly, they opted not to pack in empty features, that is, features that are useless to any except a particular crowd. No, Samsung designed the NX1000 with a broader target audience: people. People like to take pictures and, in our ‘instant gratification’ generation, want to share them immediately. Samsung knows that they’re competing with smartphones simply because of their ease of use, the NX1000 needed have a better picture, be as easy to use and pack in more features than the smaller device that we all carry around.

Thankfully, it meets all of those requirements.

The picture is of the most importance, so relax knowing that each photo is delivered via 20.3 megapixels. That means the quality would fit on a 12”x18” print and look damn good while doing it. The included 20-50mm lens also removes one of the headaches typically coupled with purchasing a quality camera: buying a lens separately. Lots of cameras have beautiful pictures today, but it’s the camera’s features that sell you on the product. Take for instance the built-in WiFi; the ability to connect to a wireless network is brilliant, giving the budding photographer instant access to Facebook, Picasa, Photobucket and Youtube (yeah, it shoots HD video as well). You can also upload directly to your Skydrive or print via the personal wireless network.

Sometimes you’re not near a WiFi network though — probably more often than not if you’re taking your camera to the beach or on your cross country trip. Samsung knows this and has created options for tethering the camera to your smartphone, bridging the connection between the NX1000 and the internet. You can use your camera to take a picture, which then appears on your phone allowing for instant sharing. The transition from camera to phone is a bit slow though, going only as fast as a Bluetooth connection allows. Instead, opting to use your phone as a viewfinder — yeah, it does that too — is a faster option and allows for more interesting use.

The design features a mirrorless system, resulting in a smaller base, lighter weight and an overall reduced size which makes it ideal for travel because it fits in most spaces. The CMOS image sensor is what allows the camera to go mirrorless and enables a fast, accurate auto-zoom feature that takes the legwork out of snapping beautiful images. For those who want to project the idea that they’re skilled in photography editing without the hassle of actually learning it, there are options for you, too. Selective color snaps photos in black & white, but allows you to select red, green, or blue to stand out, a common trick used by beginner photographers to draw your eyes to a particular object. Additional options make themselves available for nothing more than having a good time. For instance, the Magic Frame option allows you to snap a picture that is then embedded on the surface of the moon or a magazine cover without the pesky need of Photoshop or other image editing software.

Clocking in at $349.99, the camera isn’t cheap, but with the quality and features included, it’s beyond affordable. For most, purchasing a quality camera for work or play can reach into the thousands of dollars, but Samsung has focused on features that are impressive but don’t break the bank. The wireless and smartphone options create a unique blend that is ideal for people on the go who don’t want to sacrifice immediate sharing, but isn’t presented in a large, gaudy piece of hardware. For those who like quality, extra features and saving some money, the Samsung NX1000 is exactly what you’re looking for.

NCAA Football 14 Review

The same, but different…

It’s a difficult thing to introduce a title year after year with expectations of decent sales, but that’s exactly what EA Tiburon is tasked with annually. In the 17th release of the title, EA is introducing the Infinity Engine 2 which makes some drastic changes to the way the game handles on both offense and defense. If you enter the game expecting to use the same tactics and maneuvers from previous years, you’ll find yourself facing staring up at a scoreboard deficit that isn’t easily overcome. It’s in that sense that NCAA Football 14 feels like a new game, but thankfully the new features don’t end there. With new implementations littered throughout each of the gameplay modes, EA has gone to lengths to ensure players don’t feel like this is simply a rehash of previous iterations. The questions is: did it work?

The most important feature is the new Infinity Engine 2, as it’s used to improve on the physics of the game overall. Previous years included a physical system to mobility, meaning bigger players moved slower but were also harder to take down for some of the smaller, quicker players. That improvement returns and seems more accurate this year, as your beefier players seem more difficult to tackle overall. Tight ends and running backs with high strength excel at slowing the game down and grinding out yards where an agile receiver has more difficulty excelling. The passing game overall seems more difficult than in previous years, relying on a receiver’s catching ability to haul in difficult throws. Unwanted contact during the catch is also a large factor, which was always apparent but never quite so blatant as this year.

The running game may have seen the biggest overhaul, taking the typical truck system and improving on it. If you run as in years past though, you’ll find yourself grossly frustrated and with very minimal gains. That’s because in NCAA Football 14, the right stick rules all. Instead of the simple jukes, trucks or spins that you’ve become accustomed to, this time around you can perform combination maneuvers. A left-right double juke works wonderfully in the open field for instance, but may not work in traffic. Instead, a juke-spin may get you the space needed to gain you the extra five or ten yards needed for a first down. Balance is also a contributing factor, as players with a habit of forcing the right-stick forward in order to run over opponents will find themselves leaning too far and falling over. To compensate for that, and for semi-solid hits that don’t entirely bring you down, players will see an indicator telling them which direction to flick the right thumbstick in order to keep their balance. It’s that sort of give-take with the mobility system that makes the game feel more realistic this year.

The game modes have also undergone some changes, but only to particular characteristics of each, as drastically changing them would remove the charm that each has. The most glaring is the change to coaching and recruiting in Dynasty Mode. No longer do you have to tactically determine phone calls and spend copious amounts of time meticulously contacting each recruit. Instead, coaches can simply allot a pool of points from a finite total that they want to dedicate to each player. As you determine what is important to a player, your coach will receive bonus points depending on how well your school handles key characteristics that are important to a player. Have a gaping hole at running back? A running back looking for playing time is more apt to keep an eye on your school. As your points add up, you’ll find that you’re the frontrunner for particular players. Don’t sleep on a coaches individual skills though, because as you play and earn experience for your coach (achieved from in-game accomplishments), you can enter an RPG-like skill tree that grants particular bonuses. Recruiting bonuses for particular times of the year or options to force yourself into the player’s view are just some of the benefits you can get. Additionally, your coaches skills can be angled toward the field as well. Earning the ability to prevent players from being rattled or staying hot in close games is invaluable, but you’re faced with weighing the benefits yourself because as you play, you’ll find it harder and harder to earn the skills needed to get better.

The Ultimate Team and Road to Glory modes return and remain largely unchanged, although for those falling into the rabbit hole that is Ultimate Team, you’re urged to play the demo for NCAA Football 14, as it provides some valuable players when you finally purchase the full game. Online play and Online Dynasty also return with few changes, the exception being the engine itself. Thankfully, the game is a large step in a direction that allows players to feel good about their purchase. The new engine and improvements to particular game modes will justify the purchase, while what you loved about previous versions remains unchanged while still feeling “new”. If you’re a fan of football, whether you have your own team or just enjoy the sport, NCAA Football 14 is worth the investment.

Overall score 8.5 out of 10

Saints Row IV Preview

The best Superman game never made

Despite the turmoil of former game publisher THQ, the team at Volition was snatched up and chained to a wall to continue the development of the newest installment in the Saints Row series. On August 20th, fans will finally get a chance to see what countless hours of torture via cattle prods have created when Saints Row IV releases to the public. College News had a chance to go hands-on with a preview build of the game and it did not disappoint. The new gameplay elements mixed with the old have created a strange environment that’s clearly focused on one thing: giving players what they want. Superhero-like abilities melt into dangerous gunplay that create an amalgamation of some of pop-culture’s most popular references.

It would be an insult to developer Volition to say that the story impaled in each of the Saints Row titles is negligible, as the stories are always typically well-done, if not completely ridiculous. That trend continues with the fourth title, seeing the Saints (a former street gang) ascend to the height of power as one of them — you — is now President of the United States, with the others filling in your cabinet. During a typical press conference, where on your way to the podium you are faced with choices like ending world hunger or “f*cking cancer” then punching a senator in the face or the groin, the White House is invaded by a group of hostile aliens intent on enslaving the human race. After a brief skirmish, you’re captured and thrown into a Matrix-like virtual world reminiscent of the Saints Row the Third, only fabricated.

Because you’re plugged in, you have to rely on your faithful friend Kinzie Kensington to relay information about your environment to you. For instance, the aliens have created and rule this world, so you must invade different types of hotspots and fight off the aliens in order to weaken their grasp. To accomplish that, you use quick wit and puzzle solving techniques. OK, not really, there’s no room for that in Saints Row IV. You use big guns and, as you begin to unravel the code within the faux-world, you’ll discover superpowers to help you in different ways. The two initial powers help with locomotion, granting super speed and an incredible jumping ability, but as the preview progresses you’ll also earn an ice blast ability, used to freeze vehicles, enemies and innocent bystanders respectively. Littered throughout the world are collectibles that act as a sort of currency and, similar to the cache used to upgrade your basic abilities, can improve your superpowers as well. Super speed upgrades include reduced stamina cost or faster mobility while your jumping ability can inherit an ability to allow you to jump higher or allow you to glide, emulating a basic flight.

In typical Saints Row fashion, dozens of mini-games are scattered throughout the world for players to enjoy. Car thefts, “virus injections” where you fend off waves of enemies and even races used to show off your blazing speed. The free roam gameplay returns alongside the ridiculous character creation with customizations that allow players to create a steroid-enhanced George Washington with American flag face paint or any other insane combination you can think of. The story is superficial, pitting you in a seemingly impossible situation of defeating aliens that are more plentiful and more advanced than you are, but that’s the joy. Instead of creating a weighty, thought-provoking story, Volition has opted for incredible gameplay, dozens of weapons, super powers and explosions. Saints Row IV may very well be the best (most ridiculous) Superman game that was never created.

Touch and Go with the Viewsonic 23" Smart Monitor (VSD220)

We’ve arrived at a time when a PC monitor is more than just a conduit to see what you’re doing on the screen. Viewsonic makes that readily apparent with their VSD220 smart monitor and the features included. By combining a stand-alone tablet with a touchscreen monitor, Viewsonic delivers options that allow for use as a 21.5” (viewable) HD monitor or an enormous Android tablet. The practicality of a tablet that size is called into question, as is what effects the dual-functionality has on the power of the device. Surprisingly, the computing side sees negligible degradation and, despite the limited portability, the VSD220 itself is an impressive piece of hardware.

As a monitor, the resolution clocks in at 1920×1080, providing HD graphics or picture for games or movies. The screen allows for dual-point optical touch, which means when you touch the screen it is highly accurate and allows you to use multiple touches at the same time, though the multiple touches rarely get used when in monitor mode. The built-in speakers are of average quality, but the disappointment is that the only output is a headphone jack. Unless you specifically set up a sound system from your PC, the monitor has no options for you. Another odd choice is the use of micro-HDMI, thankfully included in the box itself. Straight HDMI-to-HDMI would have been more practical, but perhaps the engineering inside allowed limited space. Whatever the reason, micro-HDMi is typically used for smaller hardware, cameras and camcorders and is less widespread than your plain old, vanilla HDMI cable.

The Android side of the system, running on Ice Cream Sandwich, is far more impressive and justifies the $424.99 price tag. The dual-core 1GHz processor is a TI OMAP 4430, of the family that you see in other popular tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1”. Combined with 1GB of LPDDR2 memory (mobile memory), and 8GB of onboard storage memory, the tablet isn’t overly impressive, but still operates smoothly for most of the projects you’d have a tablet perform. Don’t forget, of course, that despite it’s average internal hardware, the tablet is still nearly 22” viewable and you’ll be playing Angry Birds or whatever your favorite app is in size and clarity that is rare.

The downside is the mobility, or rather the lack thereof. To simply forget the fact that hauling a 23” piece of hardware is impractical, the fact that it lacks internal battery makes the common benefit of a tablet simply nonexistent. The smart monitor becomes a stationary device and even faces certain incompatibility with some popular apps. The MOGA Pro controller and app, for instance, will not work with the device, despite the size and resolution being a seemingly perfect match. The kickstand in the back does little to help the design, leaving the bottom of the monitor lying flush with your desk. Those with elevated keyboards will find a need to pull it away from the monitor in order to see the bottom of the screen.

That’s not to say that the drawbacks of the device outweigh the benefits, quite the opposite in fact. In a world where a 10” tablet is “large”, one the size of the VSD220 is enormous. Average hardware isn’t enough to seriously cripple the device and doubling as an HD PC monitor makes it exponentially more useful. Quick, easy setup gives way to multiple options and viewing mobile apps at an non-traditional size would expect to see certain texture issues, but if it is HD-compatible it comes through crystal clear. It connects to your network via Wi-Fi and has a touch-response time of around 5ms, meaning it’s surprisingly fast when you want to use the screen rather than the mouse. Finally, with a three year warranty, you’ll be protected should the monitor encounter any problems. All-in-all, the smart monitor is a beautiful piece of hardware and, as components become cheaper and smaller, expect Viewsonic to continue that trend going forward.

Genius SW-G5.1 Gaming Speakers Review

High sound, low cost

We’ve all been to a party where the host had sub-par speakers, or been immersed in our favorite game, only to be snatched away from the experience because of audio distortion. In most situations, typical PC speakers just aren’t good enough to get the job done for anything that requires even a semblance of high quality audio. Conversely, to build your own custom system or buy a high end surround sound audio system can cost thousands of dollars. That’s why Genius engineered their SW-G5.1 3500 Gaming Speakers, to meet the needs of those who don’t want to put excessive amounts of money into audio, but don’t want to sacrifice their experience either. The SW-G5.1 provides surround sound, high quality audio with a beautiful finish to create a product that not only sounds great, it looks pretty darn sexy as well.

How your speaker system looks is certainly interesting, but it’s not something to consider when shopping. Price and performance are typically the key factors which is what makes Genius seem … well, genius. The glossy black finish is sharp, particularly in the dark with your monitor casting images of your favorite title around the room. The speakers themselves are a metallic red, allowing an interesting contrast to the speaker housing. Don’t be fooled though, the speakers are not metal — which would sound noticeably better, but also cost significantly more. Don’t get confused though, the foam and rubber combination sounds surprisingly sharp and will shake your walls with impressive clarity.

Although Genius is advertising the speakers at 80w of power, the wattage doesn’t give a clear indication of the audio that this system is capable of. It’s the decibels that are far more important and at maximum volume of both the 6.5” subwoofer and surrounding speakers, the SW-G5.1 chimed in at an impressive 68db. Unfortunately, at max setting the bass started to distort enough to be noticeable, but ratcheting it down a bit made it clear and enjoyable once again. Should you run into a situation where you’re unable to keep the speakers at max volume, whether it’s ornery neighbors or roommates, the system also allows for headphone listening via the front-facing jack. Unfortunately, the inputs are limited to line-in (iPod or MP3 player), 2.1/2ch and 5.1ch, meaning PC is really the only option for you. Had a component or HDMI input been included, the value for the speakers would increase exponentially.

Retailing around $149.99, the Genius SW-G5.1 is extremely reasonable. The audio provided is crisp and clear, the set looks beautiful and whether you’re playing games, music or watching movies, your expectations will be met. A remote is included and a color-changing LED light is provided to add some ambience, although the actual effects are negligible. Despite the limited features you’ll end up with quality speakers at an affordable price, and those are the most important features.

Neverwinter – A free to play MMO unlike any other

The realms of Dungeons and Dragons (most commonly known as D&D) are no stranger to being portrayed in videogames. Arguably the quintessential RPG, the tabletop D&D game has been creating and destroying friendships for almost 40 years. Most recently in the digital space, Perfect World Entertainment & developer Cryptic Studios are strapping on their armor and taking a stab at the world of the Forgotten Realms with the free-to-play MMO Neverwinter. Taking a step away from your typical “tab-targeting” MMO system, Neverwinter implements a unique active combat system that relies as heavily on player skill as it does on character development. By adhering to all the wonderful aspects of MMO and implementing some key changes to keep players more involved, including the ever-present quest for finding better equipment. As a free-to-play, microtransactions are included and the most difficult part of Neverwinter is trying to support the sheer volume of microtransactions within the game.

Character creation is simple, although you’re limited to having only two characters; anymore and you’re paying a fee per character slot. Your basic races are included, elves, humans, half-orcs, tieflings, half-elves, halfling, dwarf and, for some, drow. Class options are also directly from the core group mechanic, allowing players to play as a control wizard, great weapon fighter, devoted cleric, trickster rogue or guardian fighter. The theory is that different play types for each class will be made available in the future, giving players multiple roles to play as a wizard or rogue, etc. It’s already announced that additional races and classes will be made available at a later time, undoubtedly with microtransactions associated with them.

After choosing your race and class it’s time to work on ability scores. Using a semi-random dice roll, players can adjust stats to their liking, but rolling and re-rolling until you see 18’s across the board, instead a set of main-abilities sees the most variation, with some of the unnecessary ones (depending on class) getting very little adjustment per roll. Having legitimate rolls would have made the experience far more like the actual D&D tabletop, a step that Cryptic Studios went to lengths to implement, but would also break the game, overall. For the sake of parity, the choice is a good one.

As mentioned, the combat system is surprisingly robust, requiring players to actually pay attention during combat rather than selecting a target and running through a routine of key-presses to dispatch them. Instead, a reticule is used to target foes and, using a system that is quite similar to the current 4.0 tabletop system of D&D, particular skills are triggered that have varying effects. You “at-will” skills are mapped to your left and right mouse buttons and can be used with no cool down. The “encounter powers” are your basic skills tied to cooldowns, but are more powerful than your at-will powers. Finally, your “daily skills” require a combat meter, filled by landing at-will and encounter powers, to initiate. These are the most powerful and quite devastating, sometimes triggering additional effects to enemies or buffs to you and your party.

In typical D&D fashion, leveling up allows you to selectively improve particular characteristics of whichever class you’ve chosen. Every level you’re granted points to improve your abilities, including particular passive options that will help your survivability. Every few levels you’re granted an ability point, used to raise your strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, charisma or wisdom, each affecting your character in different ways. To make it feel more “MMO-like,” a skill-tree is also provided, allowing players to increase a number of abilities on their way to an ultimate choice of a Paragon tree, drastically increasing the skills and usefulness of the particular character.

To be successful in the MMO space, combat can’t be the only hook for players. Crafting is available, but acts as a buffer for players to earn XP to level up and to advance their crafting professions to allow increased benefits. Leatherworking for instance, allows players to craft armor that may be better than what is currently equipped. Using a variety of implements, including NPC’s and various tools, the armor can be upgraded and player’s potentially receive better gear. Each action takes a particular amount of time, depending on the rewards. For minor XP and reward the task may be only five or ten minutes. For the more advanced rewards tasks can take up to 18 hours to complete. Thankfully, Neverwinter offers a gateway on their site to allow players 24-hour access to the professions, meaning you can remain efficient from your smartphone or right from your office.

What may be the most frustrating part of Neverwinter is the microtransactions. Granted, publisher Perfect World needs to make money in order to maintain the game and no monthly fee is something to commend them on. The overall volume of microtransaction is surprising though. It’s not as if you need to “pay to win,” but a lot of the minor benefits that come with most MMO titles are locked unless users are willing to pay a fee. A slot for a third character or renaming any of your already established characters requires “Zen Points” — a form of currency purchased on Perfect World’s website.

Players can also earn another form of currency called Astral Diamonds, useful for dozens of actions within the game. Options for speeding up many of your actions are available, but cost Astral Diamonds depending on the amount of time remaining, the more time you’re saving, the higher the cost. Additionally, as you modify your equipment with magical runes, to remove them — if you find something better — will cost you Astral Diamonds. This currency is also used on the auction house and can be found by doing certain actions throughout the world. Players will always have access to Astral Diamonds, which can also be used to buy Zen Points, but despite the fact that players aren’t required to buy Zen Points or rely on Astral Diamonds to succeed, those who can afford it will find it easier to advance.

Cryptic Studios has clearly played their fair share of D&D throughout the years. Implementing things like mounts, special companions to help with your adventures and notable areas from around the Sword Coast, it’s clear that special attention has been given to ensure that Neverwinter appeals to MMO players and D&D players alike. The unique combat system will keep players engaged and the instanced dungeons allow for rare weapons and armor to be discovered. Because it’s free to play, you’ll find that there’s really only one risk to trying the game: getting addicted.

The Stinky Footboard – PC Hardware for your feet

The peripheral you never knew you needed

There are all sorts of silly peripherals for PC gaming, ones that claim to add features or are so sophisticated that players need a Ph.D to install and learn to use them “correctly”. Some are for aesthetics or to show off pride in a particular title. Then there are the peripherals that legitimately enhance your gameplay experience. Of those, few rely on simple mechanics and function to increase your efficiency. Recently the Stinky Footboard burst onto the scene with snickers and giggles aimed at the silliness of the name and the function of it altogether. After spending even a minimal amount of time with it, one thing becomes increasingly apparent: the Stinky Footboard will force itself into your gaming habits forever.

To explain what the hardware does is surprisingly simple, almost insultingly so: a board lays flat on the floor and players can access multiple “buttons” to do particular things in their games. The glory comes from the ease of installation that players will find. Simply plug the device into your PC via USB and the software is installed. After that, if the game you’re playing allows keyboard input (sorry console players, you won’t see a compatible version for a while), the Stinky Footboard can be used. There are four directional buttons on the footboard and each is programmable to a particular function in your game. In an MMO for instance, you can map your health potion and mana potion to two particular directions, allowing easy accessibility in dire situations. Shooters, like Call of Duty, allows players to map lethal and support grenades, knifing or even crouching to your directional buttons. The benefit to players is that your fingers can remain on the important buttons, typically offensive or defensive abilities, without worrying about the support options that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

The footboard software allows particular profiles to be created and saved, depending on the game that you’re currently playing. While some of us will dedicate hundreds or thousands of hours to any one particular title, there are just as many who spread their gaming out over dozens of others. With easy-to-use software, you’ll never have to concern yourself with remapping over and over, relying on previously saved profiles for particular games or even particular in-game characters who have differing skill sets. Hardware is also included to allow you some semblance of customization. With six additional springs and adjustable tension, called a TBOX™ because it sounds cooler, users can change the amount of resistance to a comfortable level. It’s a great option for those with a lead foot who constantly are pressing the buttons inadvertently.

The final benefit is one that isn’t immediately apparent. Because people from all walks of life enjoy playing games, sometimes there are physical disabilities that make certain genres or titles very difficult to play. Soldiers, some of the most passionate gamers in the world, face a loss of their favorite hobby if a bullet or explosive disfigures their hand. The Stinky Footboard helps to solve that issue. By allowing four buttons to be mapped to the foot, a hand requirement can essentially be completely ignored. Additionally, two footboards can be used simultaneously and, while it would certainly take some time to learn to use feet exclusively, the option is there.

It’s not just MMO and FPS games that benefit, as racers can map an accelerator and brake, MOBA fans (think League of Legends) can map skills, and even strategy game players will find some use. The Stinky Footpad seems like an unnecessary peripheral, particularly at $119.99, but if you enjoy gaming and you dedicate your time to becoming more efficient at whatever titles you’re playing, it will rotate into a “must use” peripheral nearly immediately. It’s truly a piece of hardware that you never knew you needed.