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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.

Samsung 27" Class LED Monitor/HDTV Review

Work and play, all on one device

We’re living in a digital world where a vast majority of our entertainment is delivered without the need of having anything of substance in your hand. Music, movies, and television are sent directly to your PC, console, television, or mobile device. Samsung recognizes this and their Series 7 LED Monitor, the 27” T27B750, takes your digital content to the next level. Social media, entertainment, fitness, and of course, your PC usage is turned up to 11 as soon as it’s plugged in. The question is, with a price tag hovering around $549.99 is it worth the cost?

A 27” monitor needs to have some fantastic resolution, otherwise you’re simply staring at pixelated images on a big screen. Samsung doesn’t disappoint, showing off sparkling 1920×1080 resolution images with bright, vibrant colors. Oh, and it’s also delivered in HD, so while your friends are staring at a monstrous monitor, they can continue to revel when you bring up streaming video so clear that it allows you to pinpoint your favorite actor’s acne. And it’s use isn’t tethered to PC only. With a DTV tuner included and the option to go Picture-in-picture, you can watch television while you slave away on that presentation due in the morning.

In an attempt to meet the needs of your wireless world, Samsung has also installed built-in WiFi, ensuring that even if you don’t use this for your PC, your needs are still met. The purpose of the Wi-Fi is to essentially allow the monitor to act as a netbook of sorts. Your mobile devices, smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, can stream directly to the monitor, too. Got some pictures or a video to share from your Galaxy Note? Don’t bother huddling four or five friends around a tiny screen. Instead stream it seamlessly to this monitor and let everyone see comfortably.

The features coupled with the included remote gives users the ability to do things that leave your typical monitor looking impotent. Your old monitor doesn’t give you instant access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, or any of the other entertainment apps available online. The 27” Series 7 delivers all of this content without even needing a cable run from your PC. The WiFi allows you to download the apps and run them individually, meaning you can move the monitor from room-to-room if you wish. Additionally, you can even stream from a laptop to the monitor itself without the need of clumsy cables. Truly, the reign of the wire is over!

The application section itself is something worth noting. With so many options available today, knowing that they’re accessible from the Samsung marketplace, affectionately labeled ‘Smart Hub’ gives users freedom of choice. Dozens of categories are offered, each with free and pay options to allow even those on a budget an opportunity to enjoy the hardware to its fullest. Sports are highlighted with apps like ESPN Scoreboard, MLB.TV, and Samsung branded ESPN Next Level. Those trying to stay fit (and today, who isn’t?) can download workout videos to help sweat out the double cheeseburger from the night before and can even set workout goals while you monitor your personal BMI. Facebook, Twitter, Skype and other social apps are available, both to view or to update your friends with. Even games are available, though are far simpler than those you’d find on a high-end PC or console. With close to 1GB of available storage, you’ll be hard-pressed to fill it up, though with the amount of options it is entirely possible.

With its impressive remote, easy access to inputs like HDMI, USB, component, composite and others, and the Samsung Smart Hub, this monitor is clearly head and shoulders above most competitors. People use a monitor as simply a device the look at what they’re doing on PC, but Samsung has delivered a piece of hardware that goes beyond the normal threshold of monitor usage. With an easy-to-use menu system, simple installation, and countless usage options, anybody purchasing this 27” LED Series 7 Monitor is going to find every penny was spent wisely.

You can visit Samsung to view additional hardware specs and purchase options.

Caseable: Personalized cases for your laptop or tablet

You just bought yourself a new tablet and whether it’s a Nexus 7, iPad, Galaxy Tab, or any of the dozens of others available, you want it protected. But you also know that you can’t buy just any old tablet cover. You’re unique and you need something that shows people you’re unique. That’s where Caseable comes in, providing protection for your expensive gadget and giving it style. Whether you already have a design in mind or you want to choose from one of their stock photos, the overall function remains the same: protection.

 

Perhaps the greatest feature that Caseable offers is the ability to add complete personalization to the cover. Whether laptop or tablet, users can upload a picture to have it reflect their unique personality. Your favorite painting, a funny picture, even Justin Bieber (you know who you are) can be printed on the case itself which ensures you’ll always know the case is yours and so will everybody else. Even licensed and trademarked images are typically accepted; when questioned about possible legal action, College News was told, “there would be action against someone who orders 1,000 pieces of the Boston Red Sox logo and tries to sell it in front of the stadium,” but there hasn’t been need for any legal action thus far. If you have no particular image in mind, fear not! Caseable has a modest selection of pre-made images that will surely catch your fancy. Cases like the old-school Boombox look, the gentlemanly “Moustache Ludwig” case, or even complete lines by artists like Ali Gulec, Tom Christopher, and others.

Creating the Caseable is no easy task, either. There isn’t an assembly line or factory full of robots pumping these out. These are made with care, designed and crafted individually and get all the attention you’d expect. First the graphic, whether it’s user submitted or one of their own, is heated directly onto the case. The exterior of each tablet case is made from recycled polyester, while inside is a soft micro-suede. Laptop cases are crafted from recycled neoprene, and smartphone cases from recycled plastic bottles. Tough on the outside, soft and supple on the inside. Additionally, each one is hand-stitched right in Brooklyn, NY, so rest easy knowing you’re buying an American made product made with recycled material. You’re green!

 

The tablet case, while stylish, adds the protection you need from scrapes and scratches. The edges are crafted with a thin layer of rubber which adds increased safety during accidental drops and also acts as a ‘stopper’ if you decide to tent the case and use the tablet upright. Because of the design, dropping your tablet or laptop from low heights will show limited damage if any, but from great heights the case itself doesn’t add enough protection to prevent all damage. The lack of a velcro or magnetic tab to hold it close is also a concern, even with the elastic strap keeping it shut for the most part. Additional elastic straps inside will hold your tablet safely in the case and extensive testing showed that it would take some massive force to cause it to fall out. While the price is mid-level, with most tablet cases ranging from $44.90 to $49.90, the protection and benefit of having a personalized case make it well worth the cost. If you’re in the market for a new tablet, laptop, or (coming soon) smartphone case, Caseable will meet your needs.

Visit Caseable.com to order your own.

 

 

Disclaimer: Caseable provided a tablet case for review purposes

Far Cry 3 Review

Paradise turned prison

Imagine a taking a vacation to a deserted island with some of your closest friends. Nobody to call the police with noise complaints, no worrying about a designated driver, and absolute seclusion from all the worries of the world. Now imagine that island isn’t deserted at all; in fact, your group is abducted by pirates with the intention of holding you for ransom. That’s precisely the predicament that Jason Brody, protagonist of Far Cry 3’s story faces. He, his two brothers, and two female companions are nabbed during what should be a relaxing getaway to a tropical paradise. Instead, Mr. Brody is forced to fight for his life against ruthless natives and deadly animals in an attempt to save his friends and himself from imprisonment, slavery, or worse.

The world itself is sprawling, featuring dozens of events both scripted and random. And while players are free to roam the countryside at their own pace, it will be done blindly until you scale the radio towers scattered around the island. Each tower opens up visibility of an area on your map, showing points of interest, items to collect, and which animals are apt to be prowling the wilderness. With the animals and enemies teeming throughout every area, the island seems itself a living organism; the towers are no different. In a dilapidated state, the towers sway back and forth, groaning and creaking with each step the player takes. To scale the towers is no simple task and as you work your way from one to another their difficulty increases. Stairs, ladders, fallen planks, ropes, and other debris litter your path in an attempt to slow your progress. Make it to the top and you’re rewarded with a new section of map unlocked and a brilliant zip-line ride back down to the ground.

The animals, both predator and prey, litter the landscape and react similarly to their real-life counterparts. Goats, pigs, deer, and other docile creatures flee from you, while bears, tigers, komodo dragons and even sharks will hunt you down and snack on your hind quarters. It’s not as if players can avoid the animals, either. Early on players are have limited carrying space for money, items, guns, even ammo. By hunting down particular animals and skinning them, players can create larger weapon holsters, bigger wallets, or larger rucksacks that increase maximum capacity. Additionally, while prancing around the island players will also find plants, categorized into colors of blue, white, crimson, and green. Each plant is used in a specific recipe to craft syringes that can increase hunting, tracking, damage, resistance, or even heal. By seeking out animals and plants, a layer of progression is added that allows players to experience something other than the inherent violence of all shooters.

Unexplained is the reason how a typical American kid, thrust into a life-or-death situation, can suddenly take on the skills of a trained killer and fight off hundreds of people who know how to handle weapons. Jason Brody somehow obtains a supernatural tattoo (called ‘tatau’ by the indigenous people) that allows him to increase his own fighting skills. The experience he gains isn’t of supernatural quality; better gun control, stealthier movement, and other things are gained that lend a sort of realistic approach to the players skill progression. Which is why a ‘magical tattoo’ feels so out of place. Experience (XP) is gained anytime you dispatch an enemy, what changes is the amount of XP. By taking a stealth approach and quietly ridding the area of enemies, players can gain XP an at alarming rate. If a run-and-gun approach is more your style it can certainly be done, but with far less of a reward.

With any story unique characters are introduced, and Far Cry 3 is no exception. In fact, some of the most interesting characters of this generation reside on the island. The problem is that they’re cast aside so soon after introduction that players aren’t given an opportunity to increase their relationship. A drug addicted doctor, an underground CIA agent, and the female leader of the rebels are all magnificently designed but aren’t given any personal moments or lengthy interactions to give the player a sense of attachment. Even as you attempt to save the group of people you came to the island with, there’s no connection, nothing pulling you to want to save them except experiencing more fantastic gameplay.

And it is fantastic, on all accounts. Weapons feel markedly different from others, vehicles provide yet another layer of enjoyment, putting players in the air, on the ground, and over water with multiple options. Random, unscripted events are some of the most satisfying things to witness. For instance, as you trek across the island and retake enemy outposts (there are 36 in total), occasionally you’ll find an animal caged up. Instead of having to infiltrate the outpost, you can simply shoot the cage and free the animal. Often a tiger or a bear, now looking for revenge, will storm through the camp mauling enemy after enemy and leaving only one or two for you to finish off. It’s this sort of player improvisation that makes Far Cry 3 a wonderful gameplay experience.

Co-op and multiplayer is also included, both suffering from the same pro’s and con’s of the single player. The guns feel as if they have a certain ‘weight’ to them, lending a realistic quality to firing at your foes. The lobby system of multiplayer is an issue that cannot be overlooked. Instead of creating your party of three or four friends and finding a game, players are forced to first search for a game, then invite their friends. After that there’s still no guarantee you’ll be playing on the same team. For a game that hits on gameplay so well, it’s fantastically disturbing that having the option to play with my friends from the get-go is absent.

Having a free-roam shooter with role-playing aspects and seeing it set on a beautiful island is a recipe for success. Far Cry 3 hits on nearly every option they instituted, with one exception. Characters, skills, story, and side-missions are extremely superficial. Had more time been spent developing the characters, adding a deeper hunting and crafting system, and more explanation during the story, Far Cry 3 would be in the argument for one of the greatest games of all-time. Instead, with the wondrous gameplay and 30+ hours of story, it will have to settle for one of the best of 2012.

Overall score: 8.5 out of 10

Wireless PC to TV Pro Review

Turn your television into a PC monitor!

There are certain expectations you have when it comes to PC hardware. You expect it to be easy to install, easy to use, and to be useful. Diamond Multimedia’s “Wireless PC to TV Pro” meets those expectations and by doing so gives users the ability to treat their television as a PC monitor. College students, particularly those living in cramped dorm rooms or small apartments, typically don’t have the space or the financial means to maintain a PC with dual monitors. Also, most of the popular laptop monitors are 15” to 17”, which makes watching your favorite movie on iTunes or Netflix a challenge. Not anymore.

Installation is as easy as plugging the dongle into your PC’s USB port and dropping in the included disc to handle the software. The receiver connects to your television via VGA, which doesn’t support high definition, or through the included HDMI cable, which does. At that point your television is simply another monitor hooked to your PC, no need for a particular video card or having to purchase another monitor.

The quality is perhaps the most surprising feature of the device, as users can stream up to 1080p to the attached TV. Additionally, the audio is sent via 5.1 digital, ensuring that your entertainment experience is at its height. With a range of up to 30’ you’d be hard pressed to find a situation that this wouldn’t be ideal. Unfortunately line of sight is necessary, meaning you can’t stream to another room which may limit the overall use of the device. In fact, even walking in front of the signal can cause audio and video stutters to occur. Despite that, with a clear signal the quality of both video and audio is impeccable.

The way the device executes itself, as a second monitor rather than just a streaming device, is beneficial to users as it allows one tasks to be performed on each individual monitor; work on that important paper while watching your favorite movie on Netflix. If you’re not a student though, there are still benefits. Because most offices lack devices that can use HDMI input, the VGA connection allows for important presentations to be viewed in business meetings without the need of tangled cables running underfoot.

The Wireless PC to TV Pro is a device that you don’t know you need until you own it. After that, you’ll find that the benefits it brings to your PC experience are some you cannot live without. Whether you’re a student, a businessman (or woman), or a parent, having the ability to stream movies, games, or presentations adds another layer to your PC experience. Finally, with a retail price around $105.00 it will cost you far less than springing for a new video card and the monitor required to achieve the same results. If you need a second monitor or find yourself battling for use of the one you have now, this device is for you.

Check out the full specs at Diamond Multimedia’s website.

Xaviant purchases 50% stake in developer Blue Mammoth

In the world of video gaming it’s not uncommon to see studio mergers, closures, and buyouts; it’s the sad part of the business that reminds us all that one of our favorite hobbies is just that: a business. It’s always interesting, however, when a studio purchases a stake in another, especially when that stake is half of the company. That’s exactly what’s happened when Xaviant purchased a 50% stake in fellow Atlanta-based studio Blue Mammoth. After speaking with both studios it became clear why Xaviant, developer of the upcoming action/RPG Lichdom, would invest in Blue Mammoth, the group behind the free-to-play MMO Dungeon Blitz.

In April 2012 Dungeon Blitz was released after nearly three years of development and was done so by a small team of industry vets. Competing with games like World of Warcraft and the recently ended City of Heroes (of which some of the team actually helped develop) was not a battle that the team would win, but not for lack of passion. Instead Blue Mammoth focused on delivering the game with a free-to-play model and released it on Facebook in the middle of the browser game-craze. Matt Woomer, CEO of Blue Mammoth, notes that, “Since we shipped in April we’ve had 1.8 million people come in and create accounts. Just last month we still had over 600,000 active players.” Impressive, considering the rapid decline of companies like Zynga, famous for their collection of -Ville games. The problem with a free-to-play game is establishing a steady stream of money in order to maintain the game and ultimately expanding. The Xaviant deal will allow Blue Mammoth to “start expanding the game more aggressively in terms of releasing more content and releasing more zones” says Woomer.

But what about Xaviant themselves, what do they hope to gain from the deal? “The first title from Blue Mammoth, Dungeon Blitz, has seen some amazing success that stands on its own.” Michael McMain, CEO of Xaviant, said, “So it was really more about expanding our focus than it was about supporting Lichdom (their own in-development game).” Rather than looking for a way to immediately bolster their game Lichdom, Xaviant has taken strides to bolster themselves as a company. And it’s a move driven not by profits or ‘bottom line,’ but rather because of belief in the people that make up the company itself. “Investments at this level are more about people than they are about a company or organization.  When I first met Matt (Woomer) and (co-founder) Lincoln (Hamilton) I knew right away they were each an amazing talent,” McMain doted, adding “If they were simply employed, I would have hired them.  If I was seeking a job, I would have tried to work for them.”

It’s a breath of fresh air when two companies work together in the gaming ecosystem. When one company, boasting a successful online MMO, gets an injection from another company looking to build their own stable with successful studios and, to get more granular, passionate people, it can help them reach their goals without the unscrupulous business practices that we see as commonplace today. With smaller studios using staff as opposed to profits as the driving force behind reaching financial agreements, it allows them to feel a sense of pride beyond delivering fun games to their community. When asked what the key factor was to reaching this agreement, McMain said, “they focused on building something people would genuinely enjoy, rather than simply focusing on something that would drain money from a player’s wallet … these guys nailed it”

You can play Dungeon Blitz for yourself at http://www.facebook.com/DungeonBlitz

 

Call of Duty Black Ops II Campaign Review

The past catches up to the future

It’s a difficult task to release a sequel to a popular game. It’s especially daunting when it’s the sequel to the best-selling game of all-time and that game is the most popular for its online play. Developer Treyarch realizes this too, but still approached the single-player campaign with fervor in an attempt to create a story as captivating as the multiplayer experience. And they succeeded.

A spiritual sequel to the story from the original, in Black Ops II you play as David Mason, Alex Mason’s son, in the year 2025. Like his father, he’s hot on the heels of terrorist Raul Mendoza, and travels to Frank Woods, Alex’s old partner and original badass from the first game. Using the same flashback setup that was so successful from the original, dialogue between Frank and David triggers story sequences from 1986-89 showing their covert missions across the globe, laying the groundwork and emotional connection that players will build upon throughout the entire campaign. While the flashback tactic has been used, both in previous Call of Duty games and other popular shooters, it’s still surprisingly effective. The conversation between the two triggers action sequences that teeter back and forth between the 80’s and the near future, showing off weapons and conspiracies from the Cold War era and unique, hi-tech equipment from the ‘New Cold War’.

You’d think that the constant flip-flopping between the past and future would present a poor gameplay experience, especially when considering the difference nearly 30 years can make in terms of technology and weapons available on the battlefield. Surprisingly the transition is seamless, partly due to the engrossing story that players will experience. Often players will forget which era they’re in only to be reminded by the lack of tech attached to guns or the absence of unmanned sentry bots patrolling particular areas. At the beginning of each level players will routinely be presented with a unique introduction, something Call of Duty has arguably come to use excessively. It’s not that the intro sequences are bad, quite the contrary; swinging from cliff to cliff using Spiderman-like equipment or using personal jet-packs to zoom into the battlefield is an amazing experience to have. The problem is that far too often it’s presented at the start of a level, rather than using it as a bridge to link two amazing sequences together. What happens is that levels feel as if they’re scripted with A.) amazing intro, B.) battle scenes and, C.) intriguing end point. The levels that use unique sequences are some of the most well-presented levels to be projected to players since Call of Duty began. A two-part city battle through the streets of L.A. is conjoined by an amazing fighter jet sequence that creates a masterpiece of violence and brings the entire story to a crescendo at the perfect moment.

Still, even with the overuse of the typical level design, Call of Duty: Black Ops II may be the best single player experience the series has delivered to date, partially due to the presentation, partially due to the introduction of choice. Shooters are routinely linear, giving players limited influence over their own world. Instead players experience the world and what it has to offer. To add some flavor, Black Ops II decided to introduce story choices, class setup, and optional ‘Strike Force’ missions to the fray. The story choices play out in a way that allows players to feel like they left their mark on the world (or on their allies, in some cases). And the choices themselves aren’t trivial, either. Players will consistently be torn between doing what their emotions tell them versus what their brain tells them. Pulling the trigger or twisting the knife never comes without consequences and thankfully that lesson has been tattooed all through the campaign. Like multiplayer, players are now given the opportunity to outfit themselves with the gear they want to use throughout each campaign mission. Gone are the days of toting a pistol or AK-47 through countless levels looking for an enemy SMG because it just ‘feels better’. Now, you can choose from a number of SMG’s (if you’ve unlocked them) and then outfit them with the attachments you prefer. It’s a small concession to be sure, but it’s clear that Treyarch’s underlying tone of “player choices” extends between multiplayer and campaign alike creating less of a disconnect between the two modes than ever before. The one misfire is the aforementioned Strike Force missions. The intent was to give players a ‘real-time strategy meets shooter’ option on the game, with each mission lending some variable to the main storyline. Instead, the execution gives players poor ally A.I., near-impossible odds, and leaves a bad taste with most players that makes them start to resent having the missions presented to them. Still, after seeing how the rest of the game plays Treyarch may implement this again in future games with much more success. As it stands it’s a broken, unfun add-on that most players would take note to avoid.

Still, in spite of the problems (and there are few), the successes of the game and franchise have continued and now peak with Black Ops II. Treyarch has learned to rehash gameplay mechanics and story elements into an intriguing game that doesn’t feel like the same old thing we’ve seen from every shooter. While it’s still “walk, aim, fire”, the outlying elements of the game take the simple mechanics and toss in flavor that players will be thankful for. Call of Duty may rely on the same recipe for success year after year, but this year at least  the campaign has added some zest and spices that will leave even the hungriest gamer craving more.

Overall score: 9.5 out of 10

Call of Duty Black Ops II Multiplayer Review

The annual release of the Call of Duty series has forcefully wedged itself into a position of volatility with fans. Much like religion or politics, speaking of COD, whether for it or against it, is sure to illicit passionate responses. Most against the yearly release will gleefully point out that the experience is largely the same year after year. Fans though, simply cite the monstrous sales figures as proof that there’s COD, then there’s everyone else.  This year though, developer Treyarch has implemented enough changes into the release of Black Ops 2 multiplayer that it deserves to be acknowledged on its own.

Truly, the COD series can be simplified (and often is) as games where “you just run around shooting people” by those who either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the required team tactics that are needed to emerge as the victor. Every player has a role, whether you’re the player using low kill streaks and playing defensively or you’re the slayer, sitting in the thick of battle and facing multiple foes by yourself consistently. Because of that, a new class system has been introduced that allows players to customize each class specifically to their own play style. Don’t use secondary grenades? Fine, don’t equip them. That frees you up to equip other bonuses like multiple lethal grenades or additional gun attachments. With the 10 points you’re allotted, players can create millions of different options using multiple guns, perks, and equipment.

Also gone are the typical kill streaks we’ve become accustomed to, now replaced with score streaks instead. Rather than using kill after kill to unleash your UAV, attack chopper, or even dogs (yes, they’re back), players build toward those rewards by scoring points consecutively. Sure, kills yield a large amount of points, but now players are more apt to play toward objectives rather than camping in the back of a map and sniping at every opportunity.

Speaking of maps, Treyarch has done a wonderful job creating environments that mimic those found in single player, but also allow for multiple play styles to emerge. Gone are the days when players see maps designed specifically for sniping or SMG’s; instead players find ample opportunity for various weapons at specific points on each and every map. Not only has Call of Duty evolved its play style, but the release of Black Ops 2 shows that the maps themselves have been given designed specifically for all players.

He has NO chance

It may be those maps that create some of the issues apparent in this release, though. The spawn system consistently places players in the crosshairs (sometimes literally) of the enemy. Even in matches where spawning would be allowed more freedom, Kill Confirmed or Deathmatch for instance, players are inexplicably spawned in the midst of the enemy’s presence. Players may die within seconds of spawning four, five, or six times before the game recognizes that the spawn point should be moved or that the player should be spawning with his or her own team, rather than with the enemy. It creates a volatile and often lopsided conclusion to each match.

The other major issue – another not entirely in the player’s control – is the game connection and the player being forced to rely on it for survivability. An issue that didn’t seem to crop up until last year’s installment Modern Warfare 3, the dreaded ‘3-bar connection’ affects hit detection and player lag. In the original Black Ops, a 3-bar connection (on a scale of 4) wasn’t the end of the world and still allowed players to maintain a high level of play. This time around, without peaking with a 4-bar connection you’ll face a severe disadvantage. Thankfully, these two major issues are able to be fixed by future patches, the question though is: will it be?

Create-a-class

The removal of ‘pro perks’ and contracts is also something to be noted. Whereas Black Ops gave players something additional to work towards, minor goals and different objectives to complete, the sequel has nothing even comparable to that. That absence makes players feel like the only worthwhile objectives in the game are ranking up and winning each individual match. The loss of those meta-games, progression systems built within the original framework to give players additional objectives, seems like a rare miss in this series.

Another returning treat is the lauded Zombies Mode, although it has undergone some definitive changes as well. Now running on the multiplayer engine, it now comes in four flavors: TranZit, Grief, Survival, and Custom mode. TranZit is similar to Survival, in that the gameplay is what players will remember from previous installments, battling wave after wave of the undead. TranZit though, will allow players to move from area to area with particular objectives to be completed at each transit stop. Grief may well be the biggest change, pitting two teams of four against the zombies and indirectly causing competition to unfold between the two teams. You can’t kill or revive the enemy team members, but the zombies will attack either of you without regard to loyalties. Truly, the new twists and additional flavors to an add-on that was fast becoming stale is a welcomed sight and one that will cause players to return again and again.

Surely, Call of Duty Black Ops II is an amalgamation of “same but different” with its unique class framework melded with the recognizable gameplay of previous titles. It’s a wonderful installment and meets the requirements that fans wanted with Black Ops 2, though it has a few issues that need to be ironed out to be considered one of the greats. The guns feel wonderful and the level progression is a fantastic pace, but the series has taken a step back after removing the contract system and the pro-level perks introduced in the original. Despite that, fans of shooters will be hard-pressed to find a better one in 2012.

Overall Multiplayer Score:  8 out of 10

Review Rewind: Transformers Fall of Cybertron

More than meets the eye!

As gamers wade through the massive list of amazing holiday releases, it’s important to take a look back at games that released earlier this summer that are still available and being pumped full of new content.  Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is one of these games; for lovers of the ‘Robots in Disguise’ some fanservice has been created that gives a nod to some of our favorites, while newcomers and those of a younger generation can use the game as a great way to introduce themselves to Transformers via Highmoon Studios’ take on the franchise.

I’m not some hardcore ‘leave my childhood alone!’ fan who preaches purity and canon that doesn’t stray from the story told since our childhood. Because of that tiny fact, it’s easy to peer into the story of Transformers: FoC and get captivated. Following up the surprisingly successful War for Cybertron, the story continues by focusing on the division of Autobot vs. Decepticon and the struggle to flee the planet in search of more Energon, needed to power the artificial race. Players will witness fully the heroic selflessness of the Autobots and the inner strife that makes up the Decepticons; rather than playing two separate campaigns with different motivations, players instead will experience an intertwined tale that embodies what each faction stands for.

It’s fun and causes a bit of confusion, though for the better, when players can experience each side of a battle. The Decepticons, arguably possessing far better (and cooler!) abilities and able to transform into some amazing vehicles, maintain the typical ‘evil outlook’, always choosing personal gain over that of the group.  Autobots, as expected, are the antithesis of the Decepticons and stand for all that is good — a testament to the will of their leader Optimus Prime. The Zoroastrianism basis of good battling evil is the primal conflict and is embodied even in the vehicles themselves.

Because the battle rages on Cybertron, the Transformers home planet, the recognizable vehicles aren’t so recognizable. Optimus sheds his 18-wheeler look for something less iconic, but equally intimidating and Bumblebee has not yet found his Volkswagen Beetle shape, instead sporting a ‘car of tomorrow’ design.  All others are also yet to discover the human creations they will eventually fashion themselves after, which leaves it up to Highmoon Studios to cast their own interpretation of the characters, but also invents problems for those looking forward to the classic designs. Each design has a particular function, too. It’s clear that time has been given to each character, outlining their strengths and weaknesses and taking advantage of their critical skills. Decepticons excel in combat, using direct and powerful attacks to win the day. Autobots use misdirection and subterfuge (yes, stealth) to complete their objectives, with one obvious exception: Grimlock. Yes, the Tyrannosaurus Rex himself (and other dinobots) makes an appearance, though with little explanation as to how they know what a dinosaur looks like. But that small oversight can be ignored because it’s Grimlock. In another nod to fans everywhere, the story also explains why Grimlock has been portrayed as a nitwit for over two decades, despite his obvious strength and battle prowess.

And after players complete the campaign, online multiplayer will greet players looking to take their experience farther. The gameplay, while similar to the single player, is akin to what you’ll find in most third-person shooters. Team-based combat is apparent, with those who travel with allies typically being victorious during each encounter. The exciting part of the multiplayer lies within the personal customization that players are given. While it’s fun to play as iconic members of the Transformers, having the option to create your own character, complete with colors, armor pieces, various heads, and even metallic hue forces most players to invent some elaborate backstory of their own.

It’s odd that the most influential portion of a multiplayer experience is the character creation, but the combat itself is simply average with one notable exception. Selecting your character type determines what type of vehicle you transform into. Heavy tanks, speedy cars, and flying vehicles are available, each with their own particular uses. It adds another layer to the multiplayer experience, forcing players to choose which form is best suited for a particular skirmish, but still feels average at best. Thankfully the developers at Highmoon Studio aren’t letting the game grow stale and have plugged in three packs of downloadable content since the game released in late August, each of them adding characters and customizations to the multiplayer experience.

The best part of the game is the single player experience and, as holiday blockbusters release, the multiplayer community will take a population hit in the coming weeks and months. Despite that, the game is still a solid experience, delivering levels that progress through changing environments and delivering combat that is not just the same ‘shooting gallery’ approach that most shooters rely on. Mixing in stealth, a solid story, and iconic characters from the series, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is certainly worth your time.

Overall score:  7.5 out of 10

 

Tritton Warhead 7.1 Gaming Headset Review

Sounds like a winner!

With the massive success that online gaming has seen in the last few years, it’s no wonder that gaming headsets have seen the results, too. In games where you need to rely on sight and sound to be successful, a headset gives you an advantage over all competitors. Finding a decent headset is the challenge, though. With so many options available to gamers, it can be a daunting task to find one that meets a players requirements of quality, comfort and durability. Tritton has been a major player in the gaming headset market for some time and recently released their new Warhead 7.1 for Xbox 360, a hulking beast of a headset that provides amazing audio, simple installation, and removes the most annoying part of every headset: the cords.

Wireless is a term that gets tossed around haphazardly when discussing headsets, but the reality is that no headset has been truly wireless. Typically players will have wireless audio streamed to their ear holes, but game and party chat still requires a cable to run from the headset to the controller.  This is due to Microsoft’s patent on their wireless technology and their refusal to license its use to a third party; that is, until now.  Tritton has worked an agreement with Microsoft to make the Warhead 7.1 completely wireless, meaning all audio, chat and game, is delivered and sent from headset itself, no strings attached. Literally.

The concern is the quality of the audio; in terms of wired vs. wireless, typically the better of the two comes with a cable dangling from your ear. Once you decide to don the headset itself, you’ll find that Tritton doesn’t slap a claim like ‘7.1 surround sound’ on the box without merit. The audio is brilliant and surround sound lives up to the claim. In games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, enemy soldiers are easily heard even through gunshots and explosions while other genres deliver as well. NBA 2K13 features squeaks of player sneakers on the parkay floor and the clangs of opponent misses, while clearly relaying the swoosh of the net as you sink an 18-foot jump shot in Kobe’s face.

Games aren’t the only use though and as Microsoft yearns to make your Xbox 360 the hub of your entire entertainment catalog, the Warhead 7.1 provides additional modes that highlight the best things about your whatever experience you crave.  For movies and music, a simple button press changes the EQ settings to highlight the audio that’s needed to enhance the experience depending on your own personal preferences.

A lot can be said for recognizing what users need versus what users want. To sell the Warhead 7.1, Tritton needs to provide a headset, a mic, installation cables, and the audio base itself (to deliver the 5.8 gHz signal to the headset). Not content with simply offering the minimum, the addition of extra pack-in accessories takes into account what users want. An optical audio cable is included for those with the ability to use one — an option not typical in the gaming audio world. And not one, but two batteries are supplied which are easily transferrable. One sits in the audio base to charge, while the other provides up to 12 hours of continuous streaming before needing to be replaced.

Even the engineering of the headset has been meticulously crafted to allow seamless transition and easy accessibility to each button and knob. Game and chat volume are controller separately, each knob appearing on a different side of the headset, respectively. In addition to the simple up and down motion, they also push in, allowing for quick muting of game audio or giving players the option of hearing themselves talking through the monstrous 50mm speakers. Comfort was also a big concern, with Tritton crafting headsets that sit both on and over the ears, with the former causing stress issues after long play sessions. Despite the heft of the Warhead 7.1, the over-ear decision coupled with the tight headband makes the comfort a non-issue until 10 or 12 hours of gameplay, at which point the leather-like earpads coupled with the constant pressure applied to your head will start to grow uncomfortable.

True wireless is a wonderful evolution to gaming audio and by partnering with Tritton, Microsoft has selected a partner with a fantastic reputation. The Warhead 7.1, also available with a Halo 4 motif, combines style and quality to give users an experience that enhances games, music, and movies in ways that your television speakers and most surround sound systems can’t compete with. Retailing at a hefty $299.99, the price may turn some away. But those who are willing to approach it as an investment will quickly find that what’s in the box far exceeds the price.

Risen 2 Review (Xbox 360)

Fun, but not good

A welcomed step away from your typical fantasy or sci-fi role-playing game, Risen 2: Dark Waters puts players on the open sea. Embracing a stereotypical, foul-mouthed, treasure hunting scalawag, players take the role of an Inquisitor-turned-pirate in an attempt to halt the evil sea witch Mara and her pet Kraken from taking rule of the oceans. As frustrating as it is interesting, Risen 2: Dark Waters will leave players with confused looks on their faces as they see poor visuals and unresponsive controls, but also a wonderfully deep story and knee-slapping comedy.

It’s not that the visuals are poor, it’s just that they’re not good. Most of your time is spent on tropical islands, trekking through jungles, and traversing caves, but each area is disappointingly similar to the last. Even in cities and villages that are on separate islands give a sense that they used the same architect for each project. That, or they’re using pre-fabricated villages from the local ‘Save-M-arrrrrrt’. Also, despite being on Xbox 360 (also available for PC, and it looks far better) there are noticeable frame rate issues. Typically when battling grave spiders, a particularly nasty opponent, you’ll see stutters Xbox players are simply not accustomed to. Finally, though noticeable in some online or PC games, lag occurs throughout the game (single player only) when trying to pick up items. The hero may pick up four or five different pieces of gold or herbs, only to have a pause of 10 or 15 seconds before a screen indicator lets you know that it has been retrieved.

Despite the issues with the visuals, the character dialogue does enough to pull the player on, penduluming back and forth between semi-immersive and humorous. Be warned that this game is explicit; you’re dealing with pirates after all. There are more utterances of ‘the F word’ than a Tarantino flick and beyond that there are insults hurled that cause jaw-dropping gasps. Voice acting is, again, average and with a better group used could have pulled players in further. Instead you’ll get the sense that the game doesn’t take itself seriously enough; which is wonderful if that’s the case, but at key moments it’s clear the the intent is to cause some emotional attachment to characters or situations. Each time that occurs, the personal attachment is lost.

 

The story isn’t bad, though. Even with voice acting that is more comical than dramatic, the story pulls the hero from island to island in an attempt to collect various weapons of power, each with its own role in defeating Mara and the Kraken. Along the way the hero goes from Crewman to Captain and starts recruiting his own team, each with their own individual roles. The benefit to adding to your crew is that most often you’ll be selecting someone to accompany you on your journey. Of course, the person you select should compliment your own play style.

Your character has multiple ‘build options’ as you progress through the story, allowing you to specialize in blades, guns, cunning (thievery), or voodoo. As you kill enemies or discover new locations you build ‘fame’ which is then converted into building your skills and unlocking new talents.

The blades skill focuses on sword weapons and allows the hero to block, parry, and riposte enemies who enter the melee. It also allows power moves to be unlocked which can do massive amounts of damage. Unfortunately, the melee battles suffer from stiff, gangly controls. Too often you’ll find an enemy who attacks you repeatedly, interrupting your attack and leaving you at the mercy of yet another attack. As you get into this cycle, the only way to remedy it is to remove yourself from combat completely, then start anew, causing frustration and refusing to let players actually get immersed in the combat system.  Guns on the other hand, work well and despite being a touch overpowered, give players the perfect pirate feeling. Muskets, shotguns, rifles, and pistols all do massive damage if they hit their target, but also require a moderate reload time. That is, until you’ve spent enough fame to enhance your skills.

Cunning primarily adds support skills like lock-picking, sneaking, and silver-tongue, which is the ability to convince those you talk with to agree with you. Considering the massive amount of treasures to loot and NPC’s to chat with, players should expect to put time into leveling this up as quickly as possible.

Finally, voodoo is available very early in the game, but at the expense of your firearms. If you choose voodoo, essentially siding with the natives, you’re forced to forego your training with the Inquisitors, responsible for firearms training. Likewise if you choose Inquisitors, the voodoo trained natives will shun you from their training. Voodoo allows for a very interesting angle, using dark magic to manipulate your enemies. This creates a unique opportunity to finish missions in alternate ways and gives incentive for additional plays of the story.

 

Truly, Risen 2: Dark Waters can easily be described as, ‘not good, but fun’. It has numerous design flaws, poor visuals on the Xbox, and lacks the sharp voice acting that helps bring games to another level. In spite of all of the problems, players will still find themselves enjoying most of the 40 or 50 hours of gameplay. Lock-picking, something typically mundane in RPG’s, allows players to be active and engaged. The story, despite coming to a crashing halt after the enormous voyage the hero embarks on, is easily followed and fun to play. Side missions are countless and range from simple treasure hunts to seeking legendary items and even include multiple social situations. Risen 2: Dark Waters won’t be listed in any Game of the Year discussions, but it’s a fun time for those looking to escape the typical sci-fi or fantasy RPG.

Overall Score: 6 out of 10