• Your one stop for college news and resources!

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.

Does The Elder Scrolls Online measure up to the rest of the series?

The Elder Scrolls is a storied franchise and, after the monumental success of TES V: Skyrim, has gained enough notoriety that a massively multiplayer online game seemed like a wise decision. Players love online experiences, players love The Elder Scrolls, what could go wrong? Strangely, The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is an awkward mixture of success and failure, providing a beautiful, active world for players to explore, but at the same time removing part of the charm that has graced the world of Tamriel since the beginning.

As an MMO, ESO is quite the cliche. That is, it falls into the trap of presenting itself as an easily recognizable MMO, complete with all the trappings that you’d expect from any one of a million others. The touch that makes it feel semi-unique is the first-person combat that TES has implemented throughout the series.

I decided to step away from my normal sword & shield-type class and focus on something that dealt more damage. A rogue-class is perfect for early gameplay in most MMOs and I assumed (correctly) that dealing high damage early on would render most quests easily playable by myself. After my time in Skyrim, I also assumed that ranged combat would allow me to keep a safe distance as I dropped my foes from afar. Here’s where my error began; adjusting aim at range is far more difficult in ESO than in previous single-player titles.

To ESO’s credit though, after realizing that I wasn’t skilled enough to be an archer (not my character, but me as a player), swapping to a dagger-wielding bad-ass was simple. Ranking your skills works the same as it has previously, as well. The more you use them, the better you get. You can also gain skills by reading books, another nod to the world that Bethesda has worked so hard to maintain.

Characters start all over the world, depending on their race, and Tamriel is enormous. Players familiar with the franchise will immediately start recognizing familiar places like Daggerfall and Morrowind. Similar to other popular MMOs like World of Warcraft, each area consists of questlines and dungeons that scale in difficulty as you venture farther and farther away from your starting area.

Unlike some other MMOs though, the world is grimey. Settlements and cities dot the landscape, each with varying importance, but the motif remains the same. It’s a harsh land and there’s rarely a situation where you feel like you’re in a beautiful place, even with the major cities.

Wandering through the medieval cities also sees you introduced to NPCs that are often asking for your help. Quests are the main way to level up, as in any MMO, and the task of completing them varies from simple “find and take” quests to your expected “Kill a certain number of bad guys”.

It would be far easier and perhaps more enjoyable if the stealth system worked in ESO as it does in other TES titles, but in the sake of balance the entire system was forced to be changed. That doesn’t mean the eyeball doesn’t appear — closed for hidden, open for visible — it just means that it doesn’t allow you to actually commit theft or accomplish sneak attacks.

The balance in question is due to other players and what it would to player vs. player combat. Rogue characters have a stealth ability that lasts only a few seconds, but I understand the change to the overall system. Imagine an arena filled with characters all “hidden”, waiting to spot an enemy. Matches would last hours.

Aside from that, a key piece of TES’ fun is completely stripped from the game. Theft. By hiding, normally you could steal anything that wasn’t nailed down, leading players to have bags filled with dinnerware, cheese, and all sorts of ridiculousness. With an MMO though, particularly one that sticks to the fundamentals like ESO, there’s rarely anything to pick up at all. The charm of seeing a beautiful shield or a deadly dagger lying around and concocting a brilliant plan to snatch it is gone, replaced with quest givers and sparkling bodies of equipment ready to be grabbed.

I love The Elder Scrolls and the idea that I could live in a persistent online world seemed brilliant. Because the game simply cannot exist as we’ve seen it prior to ESO, means that players expecting to have the same experience will be disappointed. The lore still exists, as does the first-person perspective, but overall the world seems busier. With thousands of adventurers vanquishing evil, if the online game was anywhere near as diverse as the single player stories we’ve come to love, it would be boring.

Still, the charm of The Elder Scrolls is missing and in its place are generic MMO mechanics aimed at appealing to the common MMO player rather than the hardcore Elder Scrolls fan. If you’re the latter, you’ll enjoy the flavor brought over from the popular Elder Scrolls series. If you’re the former, you’ll be disappointed at how different The Elder Scrolls Online really is.

IOGEAR's Keymander puts the precision of mouse and keyboard onto your favorite console

There’s an ever-present battle raging between PC gamers and console gamers over whose platform is better. Ridiculous, I know. But it exists and for those who spend even a moderate amount of time in gaming community, it’s something we can’t get away from. PC gaming enthusiasts will argue that visuals will never be as impressive, nor controls more precise than on PC hardware. Console gamers argue that the barrier of entry is lower and cheaper on consoles and that there’s no need to worry about hardware becoming outdated.

I told you it was ridiculous.

Thankfully, the minds at IOGEAR have stepped in to render at least one of those arguments moot. It’s no secret that using a keyboard and mouse while playing games, particularly shooters, will give you more precision. Faster aiming, precision handling, and faster shots (for semi-automatic weapons) gives you a leg up on the competition.

If you’re on a console, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, or Xbox One, you’ve formerly been stuck with just the controller in your hand. Well, no more. With the Keymander, PC gamers need not fear the loss of precision when moving over to play a console game. Which is inevitable because all PC game enthusiasts have friends who have been trying to get them to buy a console for months now.

I’ve used hardware like this before, in my quest to try and be better than my opponents without actually being better than my opponents. The Keymander has the simplest setup that I’ve encountered, with a complete setup taking less than five minutes. Simply put, you plug in the keyboard, mouse, and wired controller to the appropriate port — easily distinguishable, by the way — then connect the Keymander to the PC and console.

That’s it. You’re done.

After downloading the Keymander UI and updating drivers (another quick, easy step), you’re left at the mercy of the hardware. And it works really, really well. You can save and load multiple profiles for each of your different games and consoles. To customize them, it’s a selection on the UI, then you’re presented with a layout of the controller showing which button corresponds to which key on the keyboard or mouse. Again, changing your button layout is just a click or button-press away.

I’m not extremely excited about the “turbo function” within the button mapping. Using the Keymander might be seen as a little “cheap” by some gamers as it is, to include a function that isn’t inherent to a controller is cheating. The ability to calibrate and adjust sensitivity on the fly is fantastic, and quick-loading profiles is a brilliant touch, but that turbo option still feels extremely dirty and may result in being banned from some multiplayer game servers.

If you don’t mind the cables, there are six of them that run into the Keymander, there’s very little downside to the $99.95 hardware. Bridging the gap between PC and console gaming is something that every developer strives to do, regardless of whether it’s hardware or software. IOGEAR has done it with their Keymander. It’s clearly not equipment for casual gamers, but for those who tend to fall into their digital space, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better.

Insight Editions publishes supplements to your favorite gaming experiences!

We’ve all got our favorite gaming franchise. You might obsess over Call of Duty, or have a weekly raid in World of Warcraft. You might even boast about your six max-level characters in Diablo III, but whatever it is that you’re a fan of, there’s a market for it outside of the digital world that you exist in. We can’t play video games 24 hours a day, seven days a week (trust me, I’ve tried), but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy your favorite digital world in a non-digital capacity.

a href=”http://www.insighteditions.com/”>Insight Editions exists to help with that and recently sent me a copy of Blackbeard: The Lost Journal from within the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag universe. I’m a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed lore as a whole, so getting to peek into a different character’s perspective intrigued me. The series, for those not familiar, takes historical events and tells them in a way that makes it seem that secret societies are running the world. A fun conspiracy theory with enjoyable gameplay mechanics.

The book is a magnificent addition to an interesting franchise. For those who have played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you know that Blackbeard is an important character throughout the game. Edward Kenway, the main character, meets up with Blackbeard a number of times throughout the story of Black Flag, but The Lost Journal chronicles Blackbeard’s own adventures during the periods when he’s not with Kenway.

The first thing to know about Insight Editions is that the quality of their work is impeccable. The spine and binding of the book is surprisingly durable, even after excessive use and exaggerated opening. The pages are made of paper that is durable and borders on card stock, ensuring no accidental rips occur. Even when you’re inside the book, the maps and visual aids that help enhance your experience are glued on in a way that ensures nothing is accidentally removed.

The quality alone is enough to justify the $39.99 price. It’s the content that makes it a bargain.

Granted, not everybody is going to spend that type of money unless they’ve bought into a particular franchise. It’s not just words on paper, though. As mentioned, there are added attachments, pictures, and side notes included by Blackbeard and his mysterious author throughout the entirety of the book. The story, told alongside the narrative we know from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, weaves masterfully in and out of Kenway’s own tale, resulting in a piece of literature that could be seen as a companion to the game.

Be warned though, once you start down the hole that is Insight Editions, it’ll be hard to stop.

Dell's Inspiron 14 7000-Series Notebook: Ideal for your college life

PC enthusiasts know how to find value from their rigs. For others, the price tag does all the talking, which is why when you’re a college student, sometimes budget outweighs the hardware. Last month I had an opportunity to get my hands on a Dell Inspiron Inspiron 14 7000-series notebook to determine if that line was worthwhile for the college lifestyle.

I was surprised to find that, even at $1,049.99, it is.

The Inspiron 14 7000-series line of products starts at $849.99, but the model I had my hands on was Dell’s highest tier. The size is the first thing you’ll notice when you receive the notebook. It’s small. Impressively small, in fact. It’s only slightly over four pounds and is easily carried or stored in a bag for travel. Granted, the lack of an optical drive helps cut down on the actual real estate it has to take up, but it’s less than an inch tall, even when closed.

The screen is slightly smaller than 14”, so for those who enjoy sprawling screens will assume that this is lacking. They’d be wrong, of course. With touch capabilities, the screen is durable and is a backlit LED. Surprisingly, it’s not Gorilla Glass, but is specially designed by Dell, called “Truelife” technology. It looks beautiful. Max resolution of 1920×1080 ensures a Hi-Def image so you can browse videos or watch Netflix comfortably.

The GPU itself is the Intel HD Graphics 4400 and it isn’t necessarily going to power your high-end gaming habits, but is passable for some titles. Batman Arkham City for instance, runs between 25-30fps, even during fight scenes or when gliding through Gotham. Metro Last Light on the other hand, even at low settings, stuttered to below 10fps. Depending on the title you’re looking to play, you may hit a wall. Intense visual titles like the Crysis series will be lacking, but for League of Legends or an MMO, it will suffice.

Powered by Intel’s 4th generation i7, the 4500U processor is also on the low end of the spectrum, holding a clock speed of around 1.8GHz. Built for notebooks, it’s surprisingly efficient. Windows 8.1, the OS included, runs lightning fast and can handle multiple commands at once, which is an attribute of the i7 4500U. It’s due to the max turbo frequency totaling 3GHz, meaning when your processor gets too “crowded” with information, it can speed itself up to 3GHz in order to meet your requirements.

The two biggest issues I have with the Inspiron 14 7000-series is the heat and the available ports. If you’re using the notebook for a moderate length of time, the surface between the keyboard and the screen will get noticeably hot. Not, “I’m going to burn your fingerprints off,” hot, but enough so that you won’t want to rest a hand or — if you’re insane — a candybar there (you know someone who would do this).

I was also disappointed that the notebook has only two USB 3.0 ports. There are no others, not even the nearly-obsolete 2.0 USB ports. They’re positioned so that one is on the right, one on the left. The positioning makes it clear that they put thought into the ports, but if others (even just one) were left out simply to save space, it seems a bit shortsighted. If you’re hoping to use a USB headset and mouse, that game controller will have to go. With so many accessories that are USB-dependent, having to choose two can really limit your experience.

The most surprising, and perhaps most important, aspect of Dell’s Inspiron 7000-series is the battery life. You want a notebook to have some juice; odds are you’ll be on the go. The battery included here is integrated (you can’t remove it) and holds 58 watt hours (WHr). In standby mode, even after five days, the battery was still over 80%. With moderate use — two to three hours a day, with no recharge — five days still had more than 60% usage. Granted, the screen was dimmer than normal and the usage was basic video and web browsing, but it’s still damned impressive.

The price of $1,049.99 might be a touch out of your price range, but Dell’s financing options are available and if you’d prefer a lower model, the options are there, but with obvious performance implications. The 500GB HDD is an average amount of storage to have, but you’ll see advancements in the coming months that may render it sub-par. Until then, combined with the 8GB of RAM, the Inspiron 14 7000-series notebook is definitely worth your attention.

strong>Processor
4th Generation Intel Core™ i7-4500U processor (4M Cache, up to 3.0 GHz)
Operating System
Windows 8.1 (64Bit) English
Memory
8GB Dual Channel DDR3L 1600MHz (On Board)
Hard Drive
500GB 5400 rpm SATA Hard Drive + 32GB mSATA Solid State Drive
Video Card
Intel® HD Graphics 4400
Display
14.0 inch LED Backlit Touch Display with Truelife and FHD resolution (1920 x 1080)
Wireless
Intel Dual Band Wireless-N 7260 2×2 AGN + Bluetooth 4.0
Primary Battery
58 WHr, 4-Cell Battery (integrated)
Externally Accessible
(2) USB 3.0 incl. 1 with PowerShare
HDMI v1.4a
Combination headphone/ microphone jack
Noble Security Lock
AC Power In
Multi-media Card Reader
Digital (SD) Memory Card
SD High-Capacity (SDHC) card
Secure Digital Extended Capacity (SDXC) with UHS 50MB/Sec
Dimensions & Weight
Width: 13.6” (345mm)
Height: 0.6” (15.3mm)
Depth: 9.4” (240mm)
Weight of 4.4 lb (1.99 Kg)

Ubi-Art's latest release, Child of Light, lives up to expectations

Roger Ebert said, years ago, that video games can never be art. It’s a shame he passed, because given the opportunity to play Child of Light, I think Mr. Ebert would change his mind. The first game released under the Ubi-Art framework, Child of Light takes your typical turn-based RPG and adds a beautiful watercolor motif. The game plays like a magical fairytale, complete with narrator to guide you as your party travels through the mythical Lemuria.

The story is told to players by a narrator who explains that here in the real world, Princess Aurora is on the brink of death. Instead of passing over though, she ends up in Lemuria, a land covered in darkness. The tale begins as players awaken to the strange land, only to be met with dark, drab colors. Princess Aurora stands out against the backdrop, with flowing red hair and a bright nightgown, she’s a noticeable contrast in the desperate place, a clear metaphor for the struggle of light versus dark.

To get home, she’s told, she must reunite the sun, the moon, and the stars in order to bring the light back to Lemuria. Quite fitting, you’re soon partnered with a Firefly, a shining bit of light from an ethereal plane. The Firefly, name Igniculus, is not only there as a companion, but can also be controlled with the left thumbstick or by a second player, adding co-op play to the mix. While the co-op isn’t necessarily exciting for the player using Igniculus, he is useful. Opening certain chests and collecting items on the screen that Aurora can’t reach is his basic function, but inside of combat Igniculus can heal characters for a small amount, and can slow an enemy’s turn considerably, assuming there’s enough light left in his meter, which can deplete and refill rapidly. While these mechanics are certainly something for the second player to do, it’s not as engrossing as actually playing and will grow boring for your ‘player 2’ very quickly.

Initially you’re only walking through Lemuria, and given the distance you travel throughout the game, it’s no wonder that you’re presented with a set of fairy wings early on. Not only does it serve as faster mobility, it also serves to complement the level design. Because you’re on a side-scrolling, 2D plane, including verticality opens up many more areas and allows implements, like weather to affect your movement, or environmental damage that makes your flight paths require a touch more precision as you get to later stages.

Because of the side-scrolling mechanic, enemies on the map are visible and can engage you if you’re not careful. Likewise, if you sneak up on an enemy, or use Igniculus to blind them, you can surprise the enemy and start the combat at an advantage. A meter sits at the bottom of combat to show whose turn is next and a section of the meter is reserved for your action. Some actions are instant, some are fast, and some can be very long. If you’re attacked while you’re in your action and inside that section of the meter, you’re interrupted and set about halfway back on the meter to start again.

This is the weakest part of the game.

Often you’ll find that enemies can string together a set of interrupts that can last five turns, sometimes longer, resulting in your team scrambling to stay alive. Further, when you interrupt enemies, particularly boss-types, an “interrupt counter” triggers that makes your battle that much harder. It certainly forces you to play a sort of mini-game, where you’re constantly deciding whether to attack a particular enemy or not, but if you make one bad move it can result in a “Load Game”.

In combat you’re only using two party members at a time, but they all receive and share experience whether they participated in the battle or not. There are times when, mid-combat, you’ll swap one character out for another, but it’s not as often as you’d think. Throughout the game you can get by with four or five combinations overall, and that’s from a party totaling eight (including Aurora).

As you finish, having traveled all across Lemuria, meeting friends both anthropomorphic and human, the game can best be described as a masterful mixture of titles like Dust: An Elysian Tale and Bastion, combining the world of fantasy into a beautiful display of sights and sounds, complete with a Motherly narrator who acts as if she’s telling a story to her children at bedtime.

The turn-based combat might get monotonous for a time during the 10-or-12 hour range, but the wrap-up of Child of Light is so fast-paced, that the last third of the game feels as exciting as the start. The music helps create the essence of fantasy and mingles with the art-style in a way that there’s no doubt Child of Light is one of 2014’s must-play titles.

Overall score: 9 out of 10

em>Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided for review purposes

Ripoff or Replay – Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes Begs the Question

In preparation for Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain, due to grace consoles “sometime in 2015,” Konami decided to release a prologue to the game entitled Ground Zeroes. Here, Snake is let loose in an enemy’s camp and ordered to rescue and extract Paz and Chico, characters who made an appearance in Peace Walker, the last title in the Metal Gear franchise. For those unfamiliar with Metal Gear, there is little to fill you in on backstory. Thankfully it’s not entirely necessary.

Because Ground Zeroes acts as an introduction to the newest game, even a demo of sorts, there isn’t an entire need to go deep into the plotline of the game, nor to fill in much backstory. The $29.99 price tag is what has a lot of people up in arms though, considering an entire playthrough can take you between 18 minutes to three hours, depending on how you play and how often you go back. The question then is, “Is the price justified?”

Yes and no.

OK yes, vague answers to self-imposed questions are cliche, but there’s really no other way to answer that question and, if you’ve paid attention to gaming, it’s a question that everybody is asking. If you’re a Metal Gear enthusiast or if you’re someone who replays your games over and over again, squeezing every ounce of playability out of them, you’re going to be very happy. Transversely, if you play Ground Zeroes and move on, you’ll feel cheated.

The gameplay is very reminiscent of Splinter Cell, which is to say both are three-dimensional, espionage, third-person shooters, where you find yourself putting a bullet into every light bulb you see. Like spies do. Initially though, you’re only objectives are to find Paz and Chico, captives within this military base. Because you start outside of the base, using “spot and mark” tactics works best to keep an eye on where enemies are as they patrol on foot or in military vehicles. Sentries are also in guard towers, meaning you need to have eyes on your enemies at all times, otherwise you’re spotted and all hell breaks loose, typically ending with you standing over a pile of dead bodies.

Victorious? Yes. Covert? Not so much.

You’re a spy, so you need to stay hidden and take enemies out without them (or their friends) becoming aware of you. That also means disposing of bodies that are both dead or simply knocked out (you can do both). After all, you don’t drive around a military base and see your buddy Frank lying on the pavement without getting a little curious. Even if your buddy Frank is a drunk, it still throws up some red flags.

So it’s up to you, as Snake, to stay hidden, stay quiet, dispose of enemies, and hide their bodies. Precision controls are required in that case, as moving from cover-to-cover can easily be ruined with an unintended leap over a barrier or if you accidentally slip into an open, well-lit area in front of a group of guards. Which happened.

A lot.

There is a feeling of precision when you’re firing your weapon — even if you’re not in the slo-mo “reflex mode” that occurs when you’re spotted for the first time — that makes you feel like a well-trained killing machine. Transitioning to movement is a hassle though, as it feels a little too loose. While crouched behind a box or on the side of a wall, often a directional command was misconstrued and resulted in me popping up and seemingly yelling, “GUYS! HEY! I’M HERE!” before a flurry of gunfire left me sobbing in a bloody heap.

Slowing down and playing covertly versus a run-and-gunner definitely helped remedy that, but if you’re in a situation where you’re forced to make a split decision, you may end up reloading a checkpoint. Granted, most of these issues happened while in the open, which takes place during the first part of Ground Zeroes. After moving inside it was easier to maneuver, but could also be that I had become more familiar with the controls by that point.

After rescuing each captive, a grizzly scene that impacted me far more than I was expecting due to the nature and subjects (they’re children), Snake is required to get each of them to their own individual extraction point. That’s when Ground Zeroes is over, at least the main story portion.

Here’s where it gets interesting, because after that initial run-through, a fairly simple, straight-forward mission with an enjoyable ending cut-scene, players are greeted with an enormous amount of content that they unlock depending on how well they performed. New weapons are introduced to offer variety if you grew bored of the pistol and assault rifle you start with. Side missions, called “Side Ops”, are also newly available and offer four new objectives to complete. Depending on your console of choice, additional characters can even be unlocked.

With collectibles, multiple characters, unlockable weapons, gadgets, and missions, as well as the prologue to a highly anticipated game releasing on Xbox One and Playstation 4, it’s hard to see how anybody can argue that Ground Zeroes is lacking in content. That $29.99 price point is the reason, particularly if you play it and never go back.

The intent of the game is clearly to have players enjoy multiple playthroughs, try different tactics or paths, and get better at maneuvering Snake overall. It’s a good introduction to Metal Gear Solid V, a game that will probably be heavy on cutscenes due to the massive amounts of backstory that needs to be filled in. If you’re looking for a quick payoff though, something you can play without giving it a second thought on completion, Ground Zeroes is not it. You’ll be left feeling used and cheated.

For those who want content though, those who take a walk down the same road every day and see something new each time, you’ll easily find enough content to justify the purchase. The question is whether Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain will follow the same formula or if it’s just the Ground Zeroes prologue.

Overall Score: 8 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for review purposes.

Building Tolkien Tales with LEGO The Hobbit

For years the LEGO series has entertained us with their own unique, cute humor that causes even the most hardcore of gamers to crack a smile. In LEGO The Hobbit that remains largely unchanged. As with each license released within the LEGO Universe, different gameplay elements are introduced to make the game feel unique, when in reality the only that changes is the narrative — and that’s taken directly from an already established plot line!

I know that sounds bad and in any other circumstance I’d expect it to come across exactly as it sounds. With The Hobbit though, it works. There’s a charm to the game overall, one that shines a light of hilarity and takes the overall tone of the movie The Hobbit and flips it on it’s head.

Suddenly it’s funny and light-hearted. Aside from the technical problems, I mean.

Technically speaking, LEGO The Hobbit is surprising and not in a good way. Playing on current-gen systems, Xbox One to be precise, seeing framerates drop in common areas where you’re simply passing through is disappointing. Even if you’re not destroying everything you can see, grabbing the game’s currency of LEGO tokens that pop out of them, the game stutters. It actually stutters and, in worst case scenarios, results in a hard freeze of the game, forcing you to quit and restart. Granted, the lock-ups occur far less frequently, but they exist.

The other issue is the fact that LEGO has taken a stance overall to allow the characters to have a legitimate dialogue. Most recently the games simply cut dialogue from the movies they’re based on, which takes a key part of what made the series a smash-hit and dulls it. The pantomiming we saw from LEGO characters in early titles has been replaced and it feels lazy. The humor is less over-the-top because dialogue doesn’t force the characters to act out the scenes we all clearly know from the movies, the narrative feels looser because it can rely on audio ripped from the movie, and the memorable scenes from the movie are far less ridiculous because both of the issues previously mentioned.

With a LEGO video game though, it’s like pizza. There are great ones, there are good ones, but there really are no bad ones. That also rings true for LEGO The Hobbit. They’ve implemented a crafting system seen in some previous games, where in addition to the normal LEGO currency you gather as you destroy every-damned-thing in a level, you also pick up random pieces of debris used for crafting. When you reach a particular crafting station, if you’re able to quickly and accurately navigate the mini-game — centered on building with LEGOs, naturally — you can score some major bonuses to your bank account.

As you progress through the game, different “hub worlds” are opened up and act like the center of a wheel, with each spoke reaching out to a story level, hidden item, side-quest, or some other nonsense that ends up being delightfully fun. Because of the scope and my familiarity with previous LEGO installments, the hubs seem to be implemented to artificially add length to the game and isn’t entirely needed. It definitely makes the game look far more expansive than it is, but it’s an unnecessary illusion.

I’m sure you’re reading this as more of a universal “What’s wrong with the LEGO Video Game Universe” than as a review of LEGO The Hobbit, but they’re both interchangeable, really. Since coming out of the gates swinging with the delightful LEGO Star Wars games, developer Traveller’s Tales has done their best to implement changes that make the games seem as if they’re evolving, something generally applauded in the game industry.

When it comes to the latest release, The Hobbit would most definitely benefit from mechanics from earlier titles. Though the game only features the first two movies of the trilogy (the third is coming as DLC around the time that the final movie hits DVD, assumedly), it’s still masterfully done. There’s an enormous stable of playable characters, you gallivant all across Middle-earth, and you get to relive The Hobbit from the point-of-view of multiple characters, each with the light-hearted mindset of the folks from LEGO and Traveller’s Tales!

Despite all the choices I’m forced to criticize, it’s still amazingly fun and addicting. If you’re looking for an escape from the normal hustle and bustle of mindless violence, the creation of pools of blood, or the blazing speed of racers, you can’t go wrong with LEGO The Hobbit.

Overall score: 7 out of 10

The Frenzied Mess of Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2

It’s been years since I had the pleasure of diving into a Castlevania game, so when it was announced that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 would be gracing consoles, it was the perfect opportunity to catch-up on one of the storied franchises in gaming history. Knowing that the first  Lords of Shadow installment was generally well received (despite a few who may have hated it), the anticipation was high. I had assumed that my voyage back into the Belmont bloodline would be exciting, dangerous, and fun.

I was wrong.

em>Lords of Shadow 2 starts off better than expected, with a complete breakdown of the storyline to this point, which was perfect for someone like me, only now revisiting the franchise. Gabriel Belmont, the latest in the storied line of Belmont vampire hunters is Dracula himself. It was jarring playing as Dracula, despite being of the Belmont clan, because Dracula has always been the enemy.

Still, the storyline is exciting: Dracula is pulled out of his near-death slumber to help stave off the invading armies of Satan. There are twists and intrigue along the way, but unfortunately I didn’t get to see it. Of the roughly 20 hour campaign, I played about five hours before casually setting the controller down and backing away.

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 is a game that introduces an overwhelming number of ideas and never finishes them before introducing the next. From combat to movement, narrative to puzzle-solving, it’s as if a dozen great ideas were conceived, only to be vomited out all at once. You could rifle through the pile of stench to find some worthwhile morsels, but the sheer act of bringing yourself to be elbow deep in it isn’t worth what you’ll bring away.

Combat I saw wasn’t awful, but suffered from the same spastic nature of the game. The whip combat, a mainstay in the series, is superbly satisfying and as you get into a rhythm, cracking it this way and that, you’ll learn to master the quick attacks, power attacks, and aerial assaults with ease. Immediately introduced in the combat is the use of the Void Sword and Chaos Claws, which act in the same way as the whip, but are implemented as ulterior options to dispatching particular foes. The smoothness of whip combat is often interrupted by the frenzy of swapping from sword to claws to whip on the fly. Though it’s a smooth transition, it’s still jarring in the overall flow of combat.

Locomotion is not awful, and for any who played games like Darksiders, you’ll appreciate the meld of modern-day with the aesthetic of a dark, Victorian age motif. The areas, at least to start, are enclosed and often require some sort of gimmick to move through them, as you’re far too weak to deal with the death dealers that have been placed in your way. It’s at these points that you’re required to use your stealth ability, transforming into a rat, or your distraction ability, throwing a cloud of bats at enemies, to get past them undamaged.

It’s all of these options that seem like they’d work well together, but the implementation of them feels like a splinter in the tip of your finger: uncomfortable at best. Even a boiled down option, such as moving from room to room and engaging in tedious combat seems a better option, as again, the whip combat is the most enjoyable part of the game.

Boss fights are also important and, surprisingly, well done for the most part. There are some gimmicks thrown in, but that’s expected in a game like this. Those that stick to the recipe of, “see the pattern, learn the pattern, counter the pattern,” will have little trouble dispatching enemy bosses, but inevitably will have to wander back into the sub-par overall gameplay.

When you’re not sneaking through rooms as a rat or throwing clouds of minions at your enemies, the rooms are fairly wide open and sprawling. It’s a shame that the map design, in particular directions to your next missions, are as awful as they are. Often times you’ll end up going from room-to-room, jumping and swinging from ledges, only to end up confused and with no sense of where you should be going. More often you’re faced with a collectible or a power-up that you think is reachable, but are unsure if you need an upgrade or if the level is simply designed poorly.

It’s always hard to tell.

While I only completed a handful of boss encounters and spent about 25% of the assumed gameplay in the world, it’s easy to point out the many flaws that the game has. That said, there are a few things done right and any fan of the Castlevania series will probably find enjoyment from their time in the world. Not much, but some.

Due to not finishing the game, I cannot award a score.

DISCLAIMER: A copy of this game was provided for review purposes

Zoosk makes online dating as easy as checking your inbox

Zoosk is an online dating site that you’re probably familiar with. Being happily married for the last six years, I’ve not had the need to slog through date after date looking for “the one” in quite some time. It’s a chore, isn’t it? You both have your typical first date questions where you try to get to know one another, you have to gauge their personality to see if it’s compatible with yours, and when all is said and done, chances are neither one of you will be interested in a second date.

That’s where Zoosk comes in.

First, they have this “Behavioral Matchmaking” that the whole site is founded upon. It’s the backbone of matching you up with your dream boy/girl. If you’ve ever signed up for an online dating site though, you know that half of the effort comes from simply sorting through message after message, trying to glean from a few sentences whether the person contacting you is worth your time.

Sadly, oftentimes they’re not. And Zoosk knows this! That’s why they’ve moved their Behavioral Matchmaking system to your inbox. With the change, half of your effort is removed. Instead of going through message after message, tediously clicking, “Delete” as you long for your other half, Zoosk instead will now move your best matches to the top of your inbox.

Imagine opening up your email and the person you’ve been waiting your entire life is right there at the top. And these matches are all made based on behavior, not some silly questionnaire that you have to fill out. Less time in your inbox means less time wasted on empty dating attempts.

Granted, I’m not familiar with the dating scene anymore, but with the technology implemented by Zoosk, you don’t have to be an expert to find love. All you need is a PC and a personality.

Take gaming to the next level with BenQ's XL2420TE Gaming Monitor

Television and monitors are moving at such a fast rate that sometimes it’s hard to keep up on what technology legitimately works and what’s added to the box as “fluff”. Recently, I’ve had my hands on BenQ’s XL2420TE Gaming Monitor in order to determine just what makes this specifically designed for gaming. Additionally, with an MSRP of $397.00, one has to wonder what, if any, other benefits the monitor brings to the table … err, desk.

The Basics

The design is the first thing people notice as they look at your work station. With a unique ability to tilt, the screen can go from 22.5”x13.25” around the bezel to the inverse. The Screen itself is 24” (diagonal) and is a 1920×1080 resolution LED, making it ideal for those who want high res gaming, but can’t quite get to a 4K monitor yet. Inputs are basic, with two HDMI ports, DVI-L, D-sub, display port 1.2, and a 2.5mm jack.

The Big Things

In my time with the monitor, it became clear that there are some extremely important features available that are worth noting. Let’s start with the S-Switch, a dongle-like accessory that’s used to navigate between screen modes. That’s right, you can modify your monitor’s settings and switch between them quickly, much like an audio equalizer acts for different music genres. If you download the Game Mode Loader from BenQ’s site, you can modify the settings of your monitor to quickly swap between three separate settings. It’s rare that the common gamer it’s actively playing more than three at a time, so three isn’t too limiting. Further, if you’d rather have one setup for media — movies or streaming content — it’s easily done with the push of a button.

There are also two technologies designed within the XL2420TE that are aimed at enhancing your gameplay. Black eQualizer is perfect for darker environments, while the “Zeroflicker” technology is vaguely explained as a way to enhance your experience for those longer play sessions. One of these technologies is noticeable, the other is not.

Black eQualizer is designed to enhance the darker areas of your screen, shadows and such, without taking anything away from the aesthetic overall. It’s noticeable in most games, but negligible in titles like Spec Ops: The Line, where most of your time is spent in bright environments, rendering the shadow enhancements moot. In titles like Metro: Last Light though, players will notice a change. Those dark environments, particularly for players like me who have poor vision and are color blind, are often ruined by the fact that darker scenes are hard to see. The Black eQualizer indeed helps in making the darker colors seem more vivid without washing them out. Some brightness modification is still required in certain instances, but far less.

The ZeroFlicker technology on the other hand is simply not noticeable. I have no qualms pointing to the fact that marathon gaming sessions — 6 hours or more — are common during my week, so my body is familiar with the strain and I’ve developed ways to combat it. Still, with the ZeroFlicker designed to reduce strain on your eyes, and advertised as such, I expected something far more noticeable.

The Small things

In addition to the key components of the XL2420TE monitor, there are a few minor design choices that should be mentioned. First, the touch panel on the side of the monitor is responsive and very easy to use. There’s a wheel on the S-switch that also makes changing monitor options and settings extremely simple. There’s also a hook on the back of the monitor where you can hang a gaming headset when you’re not using it. That simple design choice is perhaps my favorite because it helped unclutter my desk, which is no small feat.

Typically, monitors give anywhere from 2-6ms response times, but BenQ might as well be nicknamed “Mario,” because it one-ups the competition with their 1ms response. The XL2420TE also boasts a 144Hz refresh rate. As mentioned, these are all fantastic design decisions, but with other features over shadowing them, they’re easily overlooked.

My time with BenQ’s XL2420TE was extensive, having used it for many months in order to reflect on the features it has versus some competitors. Nearly $400.00 retail, the price can be a little daunting if you’re living on a dorm room budget, but for PC enthusiasts looking for a way to display their favorite games and have their media options “pop,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find something of this size and quality.

Frankly, I’m sad I have to send it back.

DISCLAIMER: BenQ provided the XL2420TE for this review.