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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.

Diablo III on consoles: hands-on Preview

Hell returns with a thumbstick

“There is no exclusivity contract with [Sony] Playstation. However, we have nothing to announce at this time,” was the answer I was given when finally presented with an opportunity to get hands-on time with Diablo III from Blizzard Entertainment at PAX East 2013. It was certainly a surprise to hear that, because without directly saying they hope to release on the next generation of consoles (Wii-U or the next Xbox perhaps), the implication was there. Strangely though, that nugget of information was dwarfed by the gameplay shown on Playstation 3. In fact, of all the titles available at PAX East this year, Diablo III might be the most surprising.

While the story, characters, and skills remain the same as the PC version, the development team at Blizzard made it a point to present a game that wasn’t simply a port. Using that word, “port,” carries negative connotations within the videogame industry. Typically it suggests that the development team simply made the game playable on another piece of hardware, which generally means gameplay issues will become apparent and overall will present a lackluster experience for players. Fans of the Diablo series won’t have to worry about that it seems, as the team has made enough gameplay changes that the title now seems more streamlined and customized for a console experience.

First, the control scheme allows you to use the left stick for movement, a drastic change from the routine click-to-move that PC players are familiar with. This creates a faster rate of movement and, arguably, gives players more agility to flee from danger or dodge attacks. In addition, the skills have been moved to the face buttons, with ‘X’ being your action button. Attacks and potions are positioned on your triggers, making the console controller a deadly weapon — and not simply by swinging it around your head, either. With the buttons mapped appropriately, it’s as if the game was originally designed with consoles in mind.

Another welcomed change is the event log, a small text-based notification system that tells you what’s happened in your particular game. When you pick up a piece of loot, whether it’s weapons, armor, or jewelry, indicator icons will appear that help you identify whether it’s better or worse than what you’re actually using. With a simple button press, the item is then equipped without having to enter the inventory screen, which has also been revamped.

In the instance that you do have to spend a bit of time looking at your inventory, gone are the days of piecing the items together in a puzzle-like game of “make room for more!” Instead, the inventory is simply broken down into X number of slots, with each item taking up an individual slot. Your character model within this screen is also different, being given a wheel-like menu for items equipped. Directly below that is your stats, which has helped make your character management far more efficient and arguably simpler than its PC counterpart.

The final changes are perhaps the most argued over in the world of PC gaming. Always-online DRM was implemented on PC to prevent piracy, meaning you must always have a connection to the internet to enjoy Diablo III. For consoles, it’s now removed; this may be due to the console manufacturers themselves having implemented anti-piracy strategies, but the move is sure to make waves among current PC players. Even better, should you decide to stay offline to play, your friends can still join you due to the 4-player co-op modes being both online and localized. The auction house, another implement that was designed to help create a flow of money for both player and developer, has been completely stripped out, meaning players will have to rely on their own gameplay to get the best equipment for their character.

Despite limited hands-on time with Diablo III at PAX East, I still left feeling confident in the changes that have been made. On PC, the game lost a bit of its intrigue with the auction house and lack of offline play. With consoles entering the fray, interest will be renewed and invigorated with a torrent of players looking to experience the game as newcomers or simply looking for a new platform to help send demons back to the hells they spawned in.

Review – GAEMS UNSC Vanguard Personal Gaming Environment

Your favorite game console just went mobile

Gaming has evolved into two different, but interesting, flavors: home and mobile. With the mobile market booming thanks to smartphones and tablets dominating the market, a common complaint from hardcore gamers is that the games they love aren’t available during travel. Because tablets and smartphones don’t yet hold the same amount of power that your favorite console has, people are often limited to the types of games they can play. Granted, there are some amazing games available on mobile devices, but nothing quite on the scale of your favorite console games. There is one device though, that helps combat the agonizing trips you’re forced to take; when visiting distance relatives, holidays at the in-laws, or even on spring break, GAEMS UNSC Vanguard allows you to bring your own gaming environment with you, wherever you are. With a pricetag of $349.99 the question is, “is this really worth the cost?”

Packed full of impressive hardware, but still designed to allow for mobility, the GAEMS UNSC Vanguard dons the UNSC logo and colors familiar to Halo fans around the world. The shell itself is made from a hard plastic, designed to protect the hardware inside from most impacts, though more major collisions are sure to cause damage to the console, the screen, or both. Fear of the device opening and your contents spilling onto the ground are unfounded, as there are two heavy-duty plastic latches that hold the clamshell design together, each of them with tabs to attach a lock for added security.

And while the design and protection is surely important, it’s the hardware itself that folks will take note of. The most noticeable feature is the 19” LED HD display that is expertly attached to the top shell as you open the Vanguard. The increase of nearly 4” over the earlier model, the G155, adds to the overall experience. Granted, players typically spend their time on something much larger, but portability is a top priority in this design. Not that an explanation is needed, because the quality of video that beams from the display is magical. Sure, that’s a sensationalized description of a high-end monitor, but it’s well earned. The included UNSC-branded remote allows easy access to modifying your screen brightness and volume controls, but is small and those who are absent-minded may lose it easily. Controls are available on the monitor itself though, and the implemented LED lights match the overall motif, monitor backlights and all.

The speakers, integrated into the monitor, provide a clear stereo sound and despite their relatively small size, they’re powerful enough to call the attention of people in your area … who will kindly ask you to turn it down. Fear not though, because players who want to keep the audio to themselves or simply don’t want to deal with anybody around them will find solace in two 3.5mm headphone jacks, useful when you’re playing with a friend. Be cognizant of how you insert your headphones though, in testing the connection seemed touchy, resulting in poor connection and poor audio quality. Simply turning or wiggling the input fixed the issue, though it’s still noteworthy.

The setup is easy too, requiring users to simply seat their console in the device and strap it in using the mesh straps to ensure the console doesn’t move. Typically the UNSC Vanguard comes with a foam mat to place the console on, providing added traction, but was absent from the review unit provided to College News. This is notable because without the foam mat, positioning the console was tricky, as the straps cover the heat vent on top of the Xbox 360 Slim model and result in overheating and console freezing when not properly installed.

Upon securing your console, which can fit a Playstation 3 Slim, but may draw questions in a Halo branded device, it’s simply a matter of attaching the cables before you’re ready to play your favorite game! The HDMI cable provided is short enough that it stays out of the way of the power brick for your console and the AC adaptor for the UNSC Vanguard itself. It may seem that these cables would be a hassle to haul around with you, but provided are two storage pouches that have enough space for the power bricks and cables, plus a little additional storage for one controller. Again, the design focuses on portability and limiting weight, but storage capacity for at least two controllers is ideal. A unified power source, where the Xbox plugs directly into the GAEMS unit itself might be the easiest way to free up space without having to increase the overall bulk.

There are two primary questions all gamers have with hardware like this. First, is it worth the $349.99 retail price? Second, will I use it often enough to justify spending the money? The simplest answer to both is a resounding “Yes!” The price is steep, but any hardcore gamer will find multiple uses for the GAEMS UNSC Vanguard.If you’re simply in need of another monitor due to sharing your primary one with a roommate or significant other, the quality provided and the easy access will justify the purchase. If another monitor isn’t an issue, but you’re a gamer and long for your favorite game while on your trips away, regardless of distance, this makes it easier to bring your loved one along; the console, that is.

You can visit GAEMS at: http://www.gaemspge.com to see their other options for personal gaming environments.

Review – Crysis 3

Beautiful, yet bland.

The Crysis franchise has made a name for itself by delivering breathtaking visuals on both PC and consoles. Though the consoles are somewhat limited on what they deliver, hardcore PC players who have invested in their system have been rewarded with what is arguably the most realistic, pleasing graphics to date. So good are the visuals that they spawned a phrase that will forever be a metaphor to determine the power of a PC, “Can it run Crysis?” But good visuals are only a fraction of what gamers look to when deciding what to play and, as technology continues to propel forward at unclockable speeds, beautiful flowing water, windswept landscapes, and spark-flying battle sequences are becoming the norm. Players are looking for unique features and, above all, a deep, fascinating story. With Crysis 3 though, players may be left wanting.

Crysis 2 saw the original protagonist, “Prophet”, ends his own life and the story continue with a new character. This time however, Prophet is back due to what essentially is his essence being stored within the nanosuit he wore. With a throwaway explanation as to why Prophet suddenly returns quite literally from the dead, the story begins with a group of soldiers attempting to break you out of stasis, where you’ve been placed for protection. Theirs, not yours. An old friend has a different plan though, and before long you’re face-to-face with another former super-soldier, “Psycho”. Having been removed from the suit though, Psycho is trying to prevent the same from happening to Prophet. Prophet is special, after all, and not just because of his heroics in the inaugural game; as Psycho has been removed from his nanosuit, or skinned as it’s called, so have all of the others, Prophet the exception. That makes Prophet an invaluable asset to the rebels, a group of soldiers who have been fighting CELL since the disappearance of Prophet some 20 years ago.

Prophet is expected to put his suit’s capabilities, mostly stealth and advanced armor, to use in order to infiltrate CELL, who has begun using Ceph technology to essentially create an unlimited source of power. With that type of technology, CELL has advanced into a position of near-dictatorship, with the rebel forces offering little resistance along the way. It’s a solid storyline, despite it being overshadowed by a clear feeling of emptiness that the player is expected to ignore because Crytek, the developers, offered a few lines of dialogue to help players forget the fact that the main protagonist clearly should be dead. The attempt is to try and overshadow the obvious weakness with heart-pumping action and beautiful environments. The latter is certainly delivered, but not in scale that would help players forget the former.

The gameplay itself is delivered in two ways: first being a stealth option that players can use to slowly and quietly use to pick their way through each level; the other being to forget stealth altogether and simply blast your way from checkpoint to checkpoint. Giving players an option for play style is brilliant, unfortunately for players opting to sneak their way through each level, every encounter you attempt quickly devolves into a hectic spray of bullets. It seems that enemies have a near-360 degree vision and at the first sign of trouble, typically Prophet dispatching someone using his bow, the entire area becomes abuzz with activity as they frantically search for you. This nuisance makes stealth combat nearly impossible, limiting players to sneaking through an area or engaging enemies directly. Players can certainly learn intricate design of AI to try and pick them off quietly, but it requires a deep knowledge of particular paths and level layouts, something most won’t be willing to learn simply because the payoff isn’t worth the time investment.

An interesting implementation comes with the character customization that players can access as they acquire suit upgrades, which come scattered throughout each level. These upgrades allow for unique suit abilities that cater directly to a player’s style, embracing stealth or armor abilities to enhance the already lethal options of the nanosuit. With three particular slots to choose abilities, players can enhance stealth options to make it easier to traverse levels quietly, or beef up their armor ability for the inevitable firefight.

Once players move on from single player, a robust multiplayer option is available and delivers a high level of competition that players in the multiplayer community seek. Unfortunately, some short-sighted decisions turn the game into a disappointing overall experience. Building on a perk system, players will create unique classes that follow the single player system closely. Because all players are wearing nanosuits, the stealth and armor abilities return for players to embrace while in combat. Unfortunately this is where the multiplayer falls apart. Any veteran of multiplayer first-person shooters will tell you that dealing with campers, that is players who don’t move from one area, is a touchy situation. The intent of a game is to keep players mobile and the brilliant verticality of each multiplayer level seems to lend an inherent truth to that fact. With a nanosuit that can cloak players though, you’ll find people sitting in one corner for the extent of a match, which ruins the experience for those players who opt not to use that effective, but cheap, tactic.

Remove the cloak feature from multiplayer though and you’ve got a robust, fun experience that players will enjoy. Often players may argue that particular weapons are overpowered, but that’s part of the online community as a whole. With sprawling levels that allow vertical movement as much as horizontal, a weapon system that implements new attachments and skins as you level them up, and rankings that increase as you play, the system is strikingly similar to some of the more popular FPS multiplayer experiences that are available today. The nanosuit is integrated to offer something new and unique to the gameplay and on the whole it does. Unfortunately for those one the business end of a shotgun-wielding camper, it also adds unintended grief.

Technically sound and as beautiful as can be, Crysis 3 delivers some great action and unique elements to players looking for something beyond the typical run-and-gun of the FPS genre. The lackluster story gives players little to pay attention to and does little to urge players to even pay attention to what’s happening overall. The new weapon, the bow, is shockingly satisfying to use, even while your enemies are sending bullets your way. The multiplayer is fun, but for the active camo that players use to turn it into a camp-fest. If you’re looking for something new, Crysis 3 is certainly it. If you’re looking for something new and amazing though, it’s not.

Overall score: 7 out of 10

Review – Casio XJ-A246 Projector

Consumers are very particular when it comes to watching television, playing games, or using their PC. Quality has to meet cost, but recognizable branding is also important. Casio is a name you’re familiar with due to the array of products they deliver to consumers. With their hands in so many technological cookie jars, you might expect that quality would suffer because of it. With the XJ-A236 projector though, Casio has reached a unique level of consumer satisfaction. Though a little pricey, the options engineered into the device transform the projector from a simple viewing medium to a tool, useful for a variety of projects.

It’s small, that is certain. Less than two inches tall, and with dimensions just barely larger than a standard piece of paper, you’ll have no problem finding a place to use it. With the leveling knobs and ‘kick-stand’ used for raising the angle located covertly on and in the device, the design allows for an almost minimalist look. Minimalist is certainly not a description of the overall device, though. First, the Casio projector attaches to your device via VGA, HDMI, USB, RS232 or even WiFi. Yes, you can connect to a wireless network via 802.11 b/g/n, but getting it to connect may be a chore. During tests, each attempted connection to a home wireless network failed. Whether that’s related to operator error or something within the projector itself is not entirely clear. Audio leaves a bit to be desired, powered by a tiny 1-watt speaker. In general design terms, the speaker doesn’t add weight or size to the projector, which may be precisely why it’s included. A projector already so cognizant of its size would benefit from a larger, more voluptuous audio system, regardless of the added heft. Volume options are included that allow fine tuning, but an output to surround sound is far more desirable. It’s to be noted though that the speaker, regardless of size, is there; something that many projectors are lacking.

On the software end there are features implemented that help make this quite easy to setup and use. Quick and easy is a theme visited often, but coupled with options that help you “go green,” users with an eye on the environment can enjoy the device guilt-free. First, many of the options are set to automatically adjust themselves to whatever your surroundings are. Color and brightness adjust themselves and are delivered in beautiful 1080p HD. For users looking to get the best possible picture though, adjusting the settings is a must. While auto-adjustments are an easy fix, sometimes the whites can come through a bit too bright, washing out the other colors. Which is odd, considering the contrast ratio comes in at 1800:1, certainly a good number, but not quite reaching the desired plateau of 2000:1 or higher that a lot of high-end projectors have. To see the contrast ratio paired with brightness of 2,500 lumens, quite impressive for such a small piece of hardware, seems an odd coupling. Contrast ratio, responsible for bright whites and dark blacks, is considered “good”, while the lumens, the overall brightness of the image, is wonderful.

Keystone correction is another impressive implement, allowing users to be offset from the surface the image is projected on by about 30 degrees. Instead of a lopsided image, you’ll see the XJ-A246 auto-correct itself and give an even, uniform image. This option is perfect for smaller dorm rooms or apartments that don’t have massive space and need the project to sit out of the way. Of course, you could always mount it to the ceiling, as that compatibility is also included. This Casio projector is also low-power, meaning it uses less to operate. It operates between 130w and 270w depending on whether you’ve activated Eco mode, and less than 1w when in standby. The bulb gets around 20,000 hours of use before it needs changing, resulting in less waste and less added cost for owners.

The impressive zoom options, bright color, ideal size and weight (about 5 lbs), the Casio XJ-A246 is ideal for smaller spaces. It doesn’t get overly hot, so risk of injury is low, the picture is beautiful once the image is adjusted, and the multiple inputs allow for uses ranging from gaming to presentations or projects, to simple movie-watching. An MSRP around $1,299.99 does seem a bit much for this device though. If your intent is to remain mobile, taking the projector with you for extended use, than the price is ideal; if you’re looking for a projector to remain stationary in your home, you may have better luck finding something that offers fewer options at less cost.

Review – Assassin's Creed 3 – Tyranny of King Washington – Infamy

*This article may contain spoilers of the main storyline from Assassin’s Creed III. If you have not finished the game or do not want to know key plot points, be warned that this review will talk about the fate of Desmond and Connor, the main characters of Assassin’s Creed III.

The Tyranny of King Washington DLC for Assassin’s Creed III is expected to be a unique alternate history of our country, one where one of our founding fathers, perhaps the most recognizable and our country’s first president, has become drunk with power. The story spans three chapters, the first having been released on February 19th entitled Infamy. Set in the same wilderness players became familiar with during the game’s main story, this installment of content equips much of the same criticism that the game does. Plagued by shallow gameplay and rocky narrative, making a case for Infamy will be difficult, even for the most hardcore Creed fan.

Waking in an alternate timeline, Connor, who remains known as his native name Ratohnhake:ton,  is reunited with his once-dead mother. It’s immediately clear that Connor is aware of the unique circumstances afoot, as he is shocked to see his mother alive once again. It’s a fleeting feeling though, as he’s plunged into conflict once again. This time though, it’s not the Red Coats falling to his tomahawk; instead, it’s the Patriots who feel the sting. Upon meeting George Washington, now fueled with a scepter that wields the power of a piece of Eden, the character is immediately hated. Instead of the expected inner-conflict that some players might want, there’s a strange want to remove the tyrant from power. And while that breeds a certain anti-American sentiment, the context of the story itself is that which we’ve laid the foundation of our country upon: protecting those who cannot protect themselves.

While the premise of this unique story is interesting on its face, it’s the execution that brings it back to reality. It’s not that the game is bad, it’s just not what we’ve come to expect from Ubisoft. The combat remains largely the same with the exception of a new supernatural ability that Connor discovers. Empowered by the essence of the wolf, the same skin that he wears on his head to form the makeshift hood reminiscent of previous Assassin’s Creed titles, Connor earns the ability to enter a “ghost-wolf” form in order to move unseen, albeit at the cost of his own health. To help him in battle, a small pack of ghost-wolves can also be summoned that easily overrun enemies. It’s a wonderful addition to an already appealing franchise, but their overall implementation will leave you wanting. In order to face Washington and end his reign, Connor infiltrates a heavily guarded Patriot camp using the aforementioned abilities. Using subterfuge as the primary ability, as overt combat results in a mission failure, Connor must follow his target in order to determine where best to strike in order to get at Washington. What should be the end of the story, heightened by intrigue, ends up being a confusing interaction between you and another character, one rarely used previously — at least, in the Xbox 360 version.

With collectibles aplenty, an interesting story and a beautiful winter landscape, the Infamy DLC does add a bit more to your Assassin’s Creed III experience, but if you’re looking for more depth than provided during the main campaign, you’re looking in the wrong place. The story ends somewhat abruptly and the missions, particularly when you’re attempting to earn your ghost-wolf pack, are poorly thought out. For 800 MS Points ($10.00) fans of the series will find value, although you may be better off to wait for the entire Tyranny of King Washington DLC to release and play through it all, rather than piecemeal, in order to understand the full scope of the story and get maximum enjoyment out of it. Of course, the untold story still remains to be seen in the coming months.

What we saw from the Playstation 4 Reveal

It’s good to be gaming

Sony held their 2013 “meeting” on February 20th to unveil their next-generation of console to the gaming public. The Playstation 4 was confirmed with a release coming this year, but not price or even image of the device was discussed. What we did hear was that the PS4 is packed full of computing goodness, has developed a new controller, has some fascinating first-party titles on the docket, and is implementing their recent acquisition of Gaikai in interesting ways. As we wind down on the longest console generation gamers have ever seen, the announcements made by Sony are certainly intriguing, but were they enough?

A lot of the discussion regarding the upgrades within the system itself focused on hardware and the potential for it. The brain of the device is from AMD and is an impressive 8-core 64-bit Jaguar CPU. The GPU, for graphical processing aka “making things pretty,” is from Radeon and was only vaguely explained via the power it delivers. For those keeping track at home though, 1.85 teraflops of RAW POWER is intriguing and should make for some improvements in the coming years! 8GB of unified GDDR5 memory versus the total 512MB of RAM seen in the Playstation 3 also means the console will essentially compute and react faster.

With the added horsepower of the console, additional features can be implemented that will enhance the overall experience. Sony acquired Gaikai in 2012, who specializes in cloud streaming services. With this technology in their stable, Playstation 4 will allow users to implement streaming features that have been unseen to this point. Download a game and immediately start playing while the download is still in process. This creates a sense of immediacy, something Sony stressed highly during the announcement. Additionally, friends can view your gaming progress akin to a live stream, right from their own dashboard. And if you happen to get stuck at a particular point in a game, the Playstation 4 alleges that you can have a friend take control to help you through it. That is, if your ego allows it.

Social media was also a talking point, but thankfully less than expected. Instead of resting on buzzwords and talking strictly about Facebook and Twitter, Sony explained that users will have the option of sharing video cuts to some social media platforms, even giving examples of one such cut being shared to Facebook during the meeting. Partnering with UStream, Sony expects users to continue the trend of sharing gameplay videos, something magnificently popular right now. The question though, is that if everyone is streaming and sharing videos, who is watching them?

We all expected the hardware and software to be impressive, though the announcement was more to tell us what, exactly, we can expect in performance. Arguably the most important aspect of any console is the controller. Software can be upgraded, developers will learn how to best use the internal hardware as time passes, but the controller is static; it doesn’t change. It’s also the tool that every gamer understands. While we all play different genres or spend time with multiple titles, the controller itself is our primary tool. Sony, recognizing that, has opted to engineer a controller that implements new thumbsticks showing a concave design rather than the convex that we’ve seen on each Playstation since its inception. The Dual Shock Controller 4 seems a bit wider than we’ve typically seen, but that’s due to the new touchpad implemented on the front. It’s akin to the PS Vita handheld, though what benefit it will give to gamers remains to be seen. Most intriguing with the new controller is the implementation it has with the new camera peripheral announced, called “Eye”. It’s a redesign and reimplementation essentially, but Sony alleges that the LED light bar on each controller will act akin to the failed Playstation Move, which also made an appearance. Finally, the new Share Button resting atop the controller will allow users to share their videos and gameplay experience with a simple press. It’s clear that Sony is recognizing that gamers want to share their experiences with their friends and are implementing ways to allow it to happen without a tricky, convoluted process.

Sony couldn’t have an event to show off hardware without giving demonstrations of how it performs. Unfortunately, the audience was presented with mostly tech demos and CGI cuts, though some gameplay was shown. Most exciting is the stable of titles, first party and third, that Sony wheeled out for show. Returning first party titles included inFamous and Killzone, while new titles Knack, Drive Club, and Witness made their debuts. Little was shown of each game beyond a simple video trailer and minimal footage, but the promises made and the conclusions drawn indicate that the titles are impressive, are unique, and create a wonderful gateway into the world of next-gen consoles.

Some third party titles were revealed and are perhaps more impressive than Sony’s personal docket. Capcom showed off a tech demo of Deep Down (title pending), a game strangely reminiscent of their Dragon’s Dogma release last year on current-gen consoles, though far better looking. Activision Blizzard dropped by to announce that Diablo III would be appearing on PS4, drawing applause and anticipation. With the company having their best year in their history during 2012, it’s interesting to wonder what the storied franchise has to offer fans on console. No additional information was given beyond the announcement, leading to deeper questions from the gaming community. Activision also announced that their publishing deal with Bungie will land the upcoming title Destiny on the PS4 with exclusive content to come shortly thereafter. Bungie, known for their remarkable Halo series on Xbox consoles, recently held a conference with gaming media to tease the upcoming title.

As expected, Sony presented titles that gamers wanted to see and covered an array of genres. A new Final Fantasy title was said to be in development, though nothing of substance was revealed. Sadly, while Final Fantasy VII was mentioned, there was no discussion of the remake that gamers have been clamoring for. It’s clear that Sony wanted to show off the hardware and software, but also wanted to present games that appealed to a wide audience. It’s an acknowledgement that Sony understands that the definition of gamer has evolved from what it was even six years ago when the Playstation 3 launched.

Sony used the event to get in front of Microsoft, their largest competitor, with the announcement of their latest console. They shared hardware, software, and titles that we can all expect to see once the console launches. What we didn’t see was the console itself or a price point for the device. E3 is in June and it can be expected that more information and perhaps deeper demonstrations will be delivered. Now gamers sit and wait for Microsoft to announce their next console and they have arguably set themselves up in a better position. By letting Sony announce first, Microsoft understands precisely what the gaming community wants to see at the announcement. Microsoft released the Xbox 360 ahead of the PS3 and it’s been stated that for Sony to regain the larger market share in North America (it’s an even race in Europe, while Sony owns Japan), they need to get ahead of Microsoft’s release. Now, Microsoft sees the bar set and can raise it themselves. Ultimately though, it’s about the competition. Microsoft versus Sony in the battle for next-gen supremacy. As long as they’re at war, consumers will benefit; 2013 is going to be a great year for gaming.

'Witness' aerial view

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance Review

Dismemberment at its finest!

It’s always big news when a storied franchise decides to release a game on a console different than what their history shows. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance is doing just that, but it’s hardly the first in the Metal Gear series to appear on the Xbox 360. It is, however the first to release concurrently on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, which is notable because it signifies Konami recognizing the importance of Microsoft’s console. Setting aside the simple significance of the release, the game itself is action-packed and holds some of the best combat sequences on the last few years. There are issues though, particularly the game suffers from relentless difficulty spikes and limited replayability.

Don’t feel obligated to have played the previous installments in the Metal Gear series because Revengeance does a wonderful job at giving new players enough groundwork to feel as if they’re aware of what’s happening in the universe. For those die hard fans who have a history though, there are plenty of references that you will pick up on. It seems that the developers at Platinum Games were also feeling quite nostalgic, as there are humorous quips, one-liners, and even achievements focused on gameplay elements of yore. For instance, during a particular sequence the protagonist, Raiden, picks up a cardboard box akin to the one used in previous titles to help avoid detection. In a moment of hilarity, one of Raiden’s team members asks what anyone would ever use a cardboard box for. It’s those tiny moments, those seemingly insignificant nods that make players aware that the developers are aware of the lore included in the series.

It’s strange then, that more stealth isn’t implemented in a game that has stealth roots. Instead, Raiden embarks on a mission that acts as a strange metaphor for the state of our current world. It seems that our futuristic government has opted to privatize much of the public security forces and in doing so, has allowed Steven Armstrong, the man contracted for this security, to rise to power within the United States government. World peace is hard on the profits of a war-mongerer though, and others band together to ensure that the U.S. is thrust into combat once again. Because of the story being heavily weighted towards combat, the action throughout the game is less focused on sneaking and more focused on slicing people’s limbs off. Indeed that’s literal, because the combat engine allows for precision slices with Raiden’s powerful sword, dismembering enemies and, during those moments you feel particularly twisted, potentially leaving enemies in dozens of pieces scattered throughout the battlefield. The surgeon-like slices will allow Raiden to replenish his life with “Zandatsu,” a mode that shows how to cut your enemies and then rip their spine out and absorb their essence.

Yeah, it’s awesome.

Beyond what is arguably the best combat of the year thus far, Raiden earns a score for each area and then an overall score for the level. That score can then be applied to particular powerups that you gather throughout each level. The effectiveness of your sword can be improved, new skills learned, and you’ll even inherit the weapons of foes you vanquish through boss battles, of which there are many, though with mixed results. The boss battles are of the typical breed, requiring you to recognize a particular pattern, then counter it at exact moments. The problem is that these battles, while visually pleasing, can see an abnormal difficulty spike compared to the level you just completed to get there. One saving grace is that the boss battles have checkpoints, but that just proves that the developers understand the difficulty themselves — so why not remedy another way? Finish your opponent though and you’re given an amazing cut scene each and every time, though particularly gory.

Through collectibles players will earn VR missions, which are challenges that require a particular objective to finish, again earning the player a rank. This is really the only form of replayability that you’ll find unless you’re a hardcore Metal Gear Rising Revengeance fan and intend on defeating the game at higher difficulties. There are certainly optional missions throughout the game and even missions that allow for a fail-state and alternate route should Raiden not succeed at a particular objective, but the over-arcing story will remain largely the same. That’s not to say it’s boring or not enjoyable, but even dismemberment can get tedious time and time again.

Overall MGR:R is a fantastic installment into this storied franchise and will offer players, old or new, a wonderful experience through combat, story, and visual effects. Using a sword or other acquired weapon in lethal ways is pleasing and will make players feel nearly invincible. The boss fights, particularly the last in the game, leave a lot to be desired though. Overly complicated and frustrating even on easy, anybody playing through on the hardest difficulty, aptly named Revengeance, should be disciplined and ready for one of the hardest games in recent memory. On the easier settings though, the game is typically more forgiving and makes the 8-10 hour campaign worth seeing.

Overall score: 8 out of 10

Epson Powerlite Home Cinema Projector Review

Putting the ‘home’ back in home theater

Owning a projector used to be reserved for people with home theaters and stadium seating, but with the advancements in both technology and imaging, Epson makes owning a projector practical. The typical environment has gradually shifted from impressive home theater to home and dorm use; in a world where we’re constantly trying to make more space, having a projector helps us reach that goal. Granted, there are still issues to overcome and the everlasting debate of OLED or LCD versus projector still rages, but advancements in technology are constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth to determine what’s best for consumers.

The Epson Powerlite Home Cinema 8350 is a hardware leviathan, weighing 16.1 lbs, and measuring 17.7″ by 15.5″ by 5.7″, large by projector standards; with all of that real-estate, you’d expect that it handles itself with power and grace. You’d be right, of course. The bulb itself is good for up to 4,000 hours — that’s almost 170 days of straight television watching. While you’re spending five and a half months in front of the 100” screen, you’ll be enjoying it in 1080p high-definition. You may be asking yourself why would you want a 100” screen? The real question is: why wouldn’t you?

The multiple uses also lend a feeling of versatility to the device, due to its seven inputs. Two HDMI, component, composite, S-video, VGA, and an RS-232C serial port allow for watching movies, playing games, using it as a PC monitor or implementing it during your teaching endeavors. The biggest issue is the lack of on-board audio, but it’s an issue that is inherent in most projectors industry wide. Besides, adding audio to the projector would increase the size of what is already a hulk of a device. To compensate for the absence of speakers a 3.5mm audio-out port allows for connection to a surround sound system or an audio bar.

The setup is quick and easy, requiring only access to a plug and a level surface to place the projector on. Once there, simple adjustments to the bottom feet allow you to ensure your picture is level and evenly distributed on whatever surface you’re projecting on. Typically you’d want to use a projector screen or a custom-painted wall made using projector paint. For those unable or unwilling to go that extra step, the projector works surprisingly well on simple wall paint regardless of color. Tested in multiple rooms, each with different paint shades, the device held up well, beaming an image with minimal picture tinting and minor glare. That’s mostly due to the E-TORL 200w UHE lamp and the 2,000 lumens of white and color brightness that is projected. For those not versed in the technical specifications of televisions and monitors, suffice to say it’s very bright, holds colors extremely well, and projects an image with sparkling clarity.

Ultimately, the benefits of the device far outweigh the disadvantages. You need a little distance between the projector and the surface you’re projecting on and the distance needs to be clear of obstructions to avoid shadows. The absence of on-board audio can also be frustrating, but most consumers looking into a projector expect this issue and plan accordingly. With a screen up to 100” diagonally, beautiful HD picture on most surfaces, and an impressive lamp, anybody looking to create a theater experience would be hard-pressed to find a projector that does what Epson has accomplished with their Home Cinema 8350. Even in situations where low-light isn’t an option, the picture is still easily seen.

The debate will constantly rage, pitting projectors versus OLED/LCD televisions in a winner-take-all deathmatch, but if companies like Epson continue to engineer high-end hardware like the Powerlite Home Cinema 8350, the battle will last far longer than their competitors hope. Retailing around $1,299.00 you can expect to get service on par with that of a fixed screen. Having an HD experience at 100” is tough to accomplish at that price though, and if you’re looking for a theater experience in all facets of entertainment without leaving your home, look no further than Epson.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Review

Ripley would be ashamed

When Aliens: Colonial Marines was shown at PAX East last year, the dynamic lighting, creepy fog, and gleaming visuals caused expectations to soar. Gearbox, beloved developer of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 was creating a reputation of delivering top-notch, quality games … Duke Nukem Forever aside. The release of A:CM though, will leave a bitter taste in your mouth as the story, visuals, and overall aesthetic of the game fall well short of the expectations from the early viewings. Instead of a horror/action game that elicits fear and suspense, players are met with a washed-out version, from top to bottom, of what the game should be.

Playing as the marine Winter, your squad responds to a distress signal and boards Sulaco, the ship in danger. Immediate suspense is triggered with an explosion and loss of squad mate, but the tension ends there. From that point the story is an empty stumbling from one objective to another with simple, linear action in between. Maintaining a strange ‘No Marine Left Behind’ motto, the squad continues to press forward to rescue kidnapped members of the team or to meet back up in order to finally finish their mission. The first part of the game has players traversing the ship which allows some semblance of tension, but that may be attributed to the fact that players keep expecting danger and horror to present itself. You’ll quickly find though, that there is little horror to be delivered and what is shown is quickly dismissed because of awful visuals.

Eventually players find themselves on the planet below which removes the feeling of being boxed in, arguably a key element to feeling helpless in the Aliens movies. Instead, traversing a broken, cocooned planet will give players a strange feeling of openness, even during the scenes that occur inside. Warehouses and laboratories present themselves with the intent of creating a sinister motif, but instead present strange action sequences completely devoid of any dread. Even during the sewer level, where alien husks litter the waist-high water, the height of any fear occurs when a wandering alien saunters by, ignoring you as you remain quiet — a cue taken from your squad-mate who unsurprisingly has come across these aliens, despite being separated from him only moments ago. It’s the forced fear that acts against Aliens: Colonial Marines, like the cute girl who tries too hard to be funny; once you realize how bad they’re trying and failing, every time it happens thereafter just makes it worse. Scenes that should inject some sort of response tied to fandom is poorly executed and feels empty. Even using the enormous exosuit, a canonical scene from the movies, is lacking any feeling whatsoever.

The multiplayer does add some minor enjoyment to what is at best an average game. Players can play in deathmatch or objective based games, each of them a bit different than the next and varying from the typical FPS multiplayer modes we’ve seen time and time again. In Extermination for instance, players acting as Marines are tasked with moving from point to point in an effort to capture a particular area and, once accomplished, destroying the alien eggs waiting to hatch. Their opponents, the aliens, are asked to simply stop them from achieving that. Once the round is over, teams switch sides. Leveling up, something that is in the campaign and carries to the multiplayer, unlocks new options for your weapons, new player customizations, and new abilities for your aliens. What ends up being a confusing mess is the fact that players have two rankings, one for marines and one for aliens. Your rank determines what you’ve unlocked and, essentially, how good your character actually is. Finish the campaign before venturing into multiplayer and you start with a Marine well into his career, while your alien is a weak, confusing organism that will get mauled repeatedly by shotgun wielding Marines for the first few hours of gameplay.

Tying in a license to a beloved horror movie like Aliens immediately lends credibility to the game itself, however after the lackluster story of Colonial Marines paired with visuals straight out of last generation’s consoles will prove an instant disappointment. Expectations were high for Aliens: Colonial Marines, but the generic story leaves much to be desired. In a world as robust as the one the license lends, the game should have been a AAA title to help kick off 2013, instead players are left with what would be a mediocre budget title if the Aliens license wasn’t attached.

Overall score: 5 out of 10

Omerta City of Gangsters Review

An offer you can refuse

It’s not often enough that games delve into the world of organized crime, but that’s precisely what developer Haemimont did with Omerta – City of Gangsters. Teaming up with old pal Kalypso Media, the developer delivers a fantastically unique experience that merges city simulation, combat, and elements of role-playing for character development. The game goes out of its way to deliver an experience directly customized to the player’s expectations and while it certainly succeeds on some levels, the lack of technical polish and constant issues that arise take the game from a fun, new way to experience city simulation and makes you want to make it sleep with the fishes.

The story is arguably the best part of the game and it’s use of 1920’s gangster cliche isn’t annoying, but rather charming, especially for fans of films like The Untouchables, A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas, or any other of the hundreds of cliche mobster movies. As a newly arrived immigrant, you quickly fall into the world of organized crime. Unlike most who end up dead in the trunk of a car though, you’re smart; you’re savvy. You know that in order to succeed, you can’t go this alone and because of that, you begin recruiting competent men and women who can run jobs and, in dire times, handle a weapon.

As you develop your reputation and begin working for other bosses, you quickly have visions of grandeur. Soon, you’re scheming your way to the top and using your own influence to take control of neighborhoods resulting in additional cashflow. With that money you’re able to import your brother from Italy, the object of your transgressions to begin with. Before long though, your brother lands a job with the Feds and a bitter rivalry heats up between the two of you. As you continue to move up within the Mob, your brother is making your world hard for you. It’s then that you’re faced with a dilemma: do you let him live?

As mentioned, it’s as cliche a story as you’ll see, but something presents endearing moments for both the player and his brother. Other characters won’t provide any sentimental attachment and you’ll soon find that the only loyalties you have are to those who can shoot a pistol or spray a tommy gun. Beyond that, you’ll have no real connection to them, which is a shame because 16 different mobsters are introduced throughout the campaign, each with their own unique personality. The Tucci brothers, Mario and Luigi (yes, I’m serious), give a nod to the lovable plumbers from the world of Nintendo. Mario shouting “It’s a-me, Mario!” each time you order him on a mission, while Luigi is strangely obsessed with doing things better than his older brother is a funny, interesting implementation to the game. 

The expectation of a sim/strategy game is that players will be presented with difficulties on both sides of that description. For those looking to simply enjoy the game or if you need a strict difficulty that requires careful precision, the varying difficulty settings do a great job of giving you either. You’ll select a neighborhood to settle in and establish a hideout, which is upgradeable and allows you to establish better buildings within the neighborhood as you do so. All of the available buildings aren’t visible though, and you’ll need to contact informants to discover the locations of important places. Your informants can be easily swayed with booze, or might require you to have a particular fear or likeness rating, established by setting up certain buildings within the neighborhood. Open a soup kitchen for instance, and you’ll be well liked within the community! It doesn’t provide income and in fact does just the opposite, requiring you to pay to keep it operational, but the player must determine the benefit versus the cost in order to succeed.

And that’s precisely the balance that must be mastered to continue on, determining benefit versus cost and risk to advance your own position. As you establish illegal breweries or speakeasies, your day-to-day operations will develop a “heat rating”. Once you have a five-star heat rating, the police will open an investigation into your activities and, upon completion of that investigation, will end your game. You’re a crafty mobster though, and you’ll use your connections to bribe the police or simply frame an enemy to get out of hot water. As you continue to pull jobs, raiding warehouses to steal liquor or beer or ambushing gun runners, all of which are used as a sort of currency within the game, you’ll be met with resistance, resulting in combat scenarios. Using your team of gangsters, you’re moved into a third-person strategy mini-game where players must use the skills equipped to complete a task or, most often, leave the enemy in a bloody pile. Shotguns, tommy guns, pistols, and melee weapons each have their own pros and cons, but battles play out identically from mission to mission and the reuse of many of the same maps leads to a very redundant experience. Soon, players will find that any combat scenario that can be simulated (some you can’t), should be.

 Despite the combat’s redundancy, the multiplayer aspect of the game does give something to work towards and presents a surprising level of anticipation as you play. There are two co-op missions and two versus missions, each unique and presenting difficulty and interaction far in excess that which is embodied within the main game. Still, with the limited mission options, the multiplayer grows flat after very few matches.

 

While it’s a unique spin on the genre entirely, the lack of technical polish is what will reduce your overall experience. The soundtrack seems interesting, focusing on the jazz sounds we love from the 1920’s, but an early glitch will cause the same track to play over and over until your eye starts twitching in annoyance. Hard freezes also plague the game, forcing players to save far more often than necessary or risk losing important spans of gameplay. Finally, some missions suffer from glitches that cause constant no-win scenarios because certain interactions don’t trigger, forcing players to replay the entire mission from the start. In a game where tactics and planning are paramount to victory, these problems are unacceptable and will flat-out ruin your experience.

With its charm and change from the games we’ve typically seen this generation, Omerta – City of Gangsters suffers from a lack of polish and far too many technical problems to be considered even a diamond in the rough. There are certainly some redeeming factors to build upon and if key elements of the game are improved this could be be a surprise hit in the coming years. As it stands today though, it’s an offer you should refuse.

Overall score: 4.5 out of 10