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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.

Croaking Ass and Taking Names in our PAX East Game of the Show: Gigantic

There’s no point tip-toeing around the fact that Gigantic was my “Game of the Show” for PAX East 2015. It was equal parts fun, exciting, and difficult. From the art style to the gameplay, everything I experienced (during the admittedly small window I had) made me think that this is the next title to make a splash, both with fans and in the eSport world. Gigantic is fitting because it’s both the name of this fast-paced combat game, and the expectations I have for it.

The pregame to my hands-on time was spent in front of a wall where Motiga, the developer, had hung pictures of each playable character, including the two announced specifically during PAX East. Each poster gave a brief description of the role that the characters play. My “coach” for this meeting, Game Designer John Hargrove, explained who each character was and provided a brief synopsis of the skills that I could expect to see when playing them.

For the sake of a good story, I settled on Wu, a martial arts master who also happens to be a frog. Hargrove was subtle in his suggestions that Wu might be for players a little more experienced than I am, but it’s a Kung Fu frog. How can you not choose to play a Kung Fu frog? We sat down at our kiosks for our first Gigantic experience and, while it’s going to be available on Xbox One, the show featured only PC options.

For those of you familiar with the gameplay of MOBAs like League of Legends or DotA 2, the map layout will be familiar. Gigantic doesn’t have the three lanes quite as defined as your prototypical MOBA, but the map is laid out in a similar fashion. Each team has three points on their side of the map, labeled A-F, and you capture your initial three points as quick as possible. Doing that gives you the option to grow your own creature on that point, each with their own special ability. Area healing, for tactical retreats, is used often, but I prefer the critter that drops a limited radar in his vicinity. It allowed me to see which enemies were around me and, as you’ll find out, I took advantage.

After establishing your initial three points, you then move into enemy territory to begin your skirmishes and try to take the enemy’s points. By defeating your enemy and taking points, you’ll earn XP that allows you to increase your abilities. Each ability, of which you have four, has a specific tree you can move through, allowing for very different builds on the same character every time you play. During my play time, Hargrove explained that every character has a polar opposite that does well to essentially “cancel out” your abilities. Meaning the balance of the game is set in a way that no one character is going to ensure a victory. However, because of the ability to customize your abilities, even if you’re going against a character who is designed to keep yours in check, you can upgrade him (or her) in a way that helps your own cause.

It was a few minutes into the math when I was told that our Titan, the “gigantic” creature (a dragon in our case) that lives in our HQ, was moving out to battle the opponent’s Titan, a griffon. This is the entire point of the contest, to rack up kills and capture points so that our Titan will leave his haven in order to give us a chance to win the game. As the two battled, eventually the enemy’s Titan was knocked down, opening it up to attacks. We moved in as a team and did considerable damage before it stood up, forcing us out once again. “Do that three times,” Hargrove said, “and you win the game.”

It was about that same time when Hargrove changed from “Coach” to “Admirer.” After heeding advice about which skills were best used in specific scenarios and when to attack versus falling back, I fell into a rhythm. The words NEMESIS! flashed up on my screen and were quickly explained as, “When you kill the same enemy three times and they haven’t killed you, you’re their Nemesis.”

Those words popped up three more times before I had my second death.

The magic of the game had noticeably settled in when, as scenarios were playing out in front of me, Hargrove would begin to offer advice on how to proceed, only to stop halfway through as I executed what he was going to say before he finished the thought. Soon, across the room you began to hear developers grumbling and, eventually, raising their voices asking “Who’s playing Wu!?” and “We need two people to get on that side because whoever is playing Wu is kicking our asses.”

TRIPLE KILL flashed up on screen and Hargrove was behind me, grabbing the attention of those around him, to witness what was happening. “A triple kill is pretty hard to get, nice job…” but before he could finish the sentence, TRIPLE KILL flashed up again. I felt like a Gigantic God.

It’s always a bonus when you’re first experience with a game is a good one, and who’s to say whether the development team we were playing was letting us win or not, but at the end of the match the team of first-timers had squelched a team familiar with the game, my final tally being 19 kills and 5 deaths. Assists weren’t counted, because the only people who talk about assists are the ones who can’t get kills.

What I had witnessed didn’t really hit me until later. I spoke with some of the developers, Coach Hargrove mostly, about what the game is, how they’re proceeding, their excitement, and all sorts of implements that may come later, but it was only when I looked back that I realized what had happened. A developer, someone who works on the game every day and, assumedly, hits points where he’s just aching to do something else, got excited watching a match. Excited to the point where he was talking trash, politely, about what he was witnessing.

While I’d describe Gigantic as a sort of “MOBA meets World of Warcraft Dungeon Raid meets PvP,” perhaps the most impressive description I could bestow is that, “It’s an eSports title that will take the scene by storm.”

Impromptu PAX East indie developer meeting sneaks a peek at Volume

Fate is a strange mistress. She’ll step in at the oddest times and present opportunities that you never would have had otherwise. Fate played her game at PAX East 2015 on Saturday morning while I was resting my sore feet and prepping for my first media appointment of the day. The show floor had just opened, which meant that the halls were nearly barren, aside from the lines waiting to enter their first panel of the day. An empty chair is hard to find at the convention hall, so when a young english man asked if he could take the seat across from me, of course I didn’t mind. We struck up a conversation about how much we were enjoying PAX East and, as he noticed my media pass, he mentioned that his first media appointment of the day had cancelled and asked if I’d want to see the game he was there to show.

When someone wants to show you their game, especially at PAX East, never say no. That “someone,” in this case, was Mike Bithell, developer of Thomas Was Alone, popular PC indie platformer. While never having experienced the game for myself, I know of it and told him so. “That’s fine,” Bithell assured me, “my new game, Volume, is nothing like it.”

Understatement of the year.

Releasing on PC, Playstation 4, and PS Vita (with cross buy) “later this year,” Volume is a stealth-based puzzle game that requires precision control to complete a level flawlessly, but also has a degree of forgiveness for when you inevitably screw it up. The objective of this top-down title is to move throughout each level collecting gems. The difficulty comes in the form of roving enemies, each with different lines of sight, weapons, and patrol paths. Sure, you can see the sight lines of the patrols and hide around corners to avoid them, but timing and decision making is your biggest ally, rather than pure speed. Once you’ve collected all the gems, you’re able to proceed to exit to continue on to the next level.

You’re not without tricks of your own though. Scattered throughout some levels are gadgets that you can obtain and will be required to use in order to see success. There are nine gadgets in all, but only two were on display: Ricochet Noise and Disguise. Disguise sees you to don the outfit of your enemy, allowing you to pass through their sight lines without being gunned down. It’s got a very short timer though, so triggering it at just the right time is critical, otherwise you’ll find yourself at your most recent checkpoint. Ricochet Noise is entirely different, it’s a gun that allows you to bounce noise off of walls, only to trigger it at a certain moment. If you’re within range of an enemy when you trigger it, they’ll want to investigate and, as expected, will abandon their post, opening the way for you to sneak through.

It’s very reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid’s VR Missions, but one thing stood out: the narrative. Voice acting is done by Youtube Vlogger Charlie McDonnell and Danny Wallace (Thomas Was Alone, Assassin’s Creed), and even from the little I was able to witness, they work very well together. Conversations with the AI has a very “Portal-like” feel to it, something many games have mimicked to differing results.

The final experience was what surprised me most. Built on Unity 5, Bithell included a level editor for players to challenge the community. While there are leaderboards attached to the game, here is where you’ll find the community’s glory. Everything in Volume is available in the level editor and one level that was shown was very reminiscent of Pac-man, although lacking the tell-tale “wakka wakka” sound.

While a release date wasn’t expressly stated, Bithell made it a point to stress it would be, “hopefully before Metal Gear Solid 5,” which has already been announced for September 1st. The price was quoted at “around $20,” but both pieces of information could easily change. Game time for the development team was quoted around 5-6 hours, but for players on their first voyage, it could be 8-10.

You can find more information about Volume, including news updates, at Mike Bithell’s website.

Mayan Death Robots on display at PAX East 2015

You’ve got to respect a developer who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth regarding their reason for creating a game. At PAX East 2015 I met with Seleni Studios, the developer behind Mayan Death Robots, a fun, new multiplayer game similar to Scorched Earth or Worms. The explanation for how the game came into existence is only part of the reason why it’s so compelling though. According to Lead Designer Karel Crombecq, he was a huge fan of this genre, particularly Worms, but was frustrated by seeing what was essentially the same game put out time and time again, with only slight changes to the gameplay. I’m paraphrasing of course, but instead of simply complaining, like most of us do, Crombecq decided to do something about it.

That something is Mayan Death Robots.

With multiple robots to choose from, there’s enough variation to make for a decent game of cat-and-mouse, but not so many that you become overwhelmed with options. Of note: no microtransactions, so don’t worry about someone having access to a robot you don’t have. The objective is not to destroy your opponent’s robot, surprisingly. Instead, you each have a “box,” (for lack of a better word) that you’re trying to protect, while trying to destroy your opponent’s. The box can be destroyed by direct shots, falling damage, or you can dig it right through the map and have it fall out of play. Whoever does it first wins!

Each player is presented with three options at the beginning of the turn, which run concurrently and not one at a time, so all players choose and execute at the same time. Your options are jump, allowing you to move your robot around the battlefield. Combat, which sometimes consists of using the robots specialized weapons or a random weapon that sometimes gets thrown in, but is useable by both players. Or build, a wonderful tactical option. Build allows you to place additional “earth” on the map, which gives you the option of closing in your box as a defensive measure, or you can box in your opponent if you want to be a prick.

I boxed in my opponent and was subsequently called out for my “prickishness.”

The game isn’t particularly difficult to play, one of the staples for any good multiplayer title, but the slight randomness, robot abilities, and array of maps makes it a title that’s going to be hard to master. With indie titles on full display at this year’s PAX East, it would have been easy to overlook Mayan Death Robots were it not for the beautiful color scheme, passionate developer, and the small crowd gathered at the booth shouting “OH!” and “AWWW!”

Mayan Death Robots is set to release later this year on Steam, but you can download the demo now.


We Look Into The Future of Technology With Ford’s Futurist Sheryl Connelly

With a title like “Futurist,” one would expect that the job comes with a time machine. But Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s Futurist, doesn’t need artificial hardware to see into the future; she does it all on her own.  A graduate of Michigan State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance (which she turned into a Master’s Degree and eventually a Doctorate), Connelly’s job is to identify trends that the automotive company can use in development of their future vehicles, but what makes it so difficult is the fact that she has to do it without looking at the automotive industry.

“I never look at cars. I never look at the automotive industry as a whole,” Connelly says. “Ford has plenty of subject matter experts in that arena. My job is to look outside of the automotive industry. I look at social, technological, economic, environmental, and political arenas all in the hope of trying to identify trends that will shape consumer values, attitudes, and behaviors.”

Imagine that a major car manufacturer needed you to identify the world’s next major trend in order to start designing automobiles that would acknowledge and embrace the trend. Looking back, America’s obesity epidemic seems likely the trend that would have been identified, and it was, but Connelly says that it’s not the biggest issue, called a “Megatrend,” she identified.

“Aging population is probably one of the greatest trends that we’ll face in our lifetime, both from a social and economic standpoint,” she asserts. “So if I’m talking to someone in corporate [offices] about aging, we might look at dependency ratios, which is something economists use to determine how many workers do we have supporting the non-working population.” That information gives both Connelly and Ford an idea of whether the economy will be growing or contracting, allowing the company to prepare and market to the population.

However, Connelly acknowledges that whoever she’s talking to will have a different response to the information she’s providing. “If I’m having the same conversation about aging with a designer or engineer, we would discuss the physiological changes that come with aging.” She identifies, “reduced response time, impaired vision, and limited range of motion” as byproducts of aging. “These are things that are [addressed] on the vehicle today. Active Park Assist is designed, in part, for people with limited range of motion.”

Not all trends are created equal, either. While aging and obesity are major trends, topics of discussion that can affect all types of businesses for extended periods of time, there are also trends that are shorter lived. Micro trends tend to last up to five years and are what Connelly focuses on when she publishes her expectations. Micro trends could last 10 or more years, though it’s rare. Information addiction started as a micro trend, for instance, but has emerged as a macro trend and is something that Connelly recognized years ago.

One trend that should be recognized was part of Connelly’s report for what to expect in 2014. In it, Connelly discusses the “tug of war” that is happening between a population who are using technology to take advantage of any and all information available to them. This is referred to as the “fear of missing out.” On the other hand, there’s another group who is determined not to live life staring into their smartphones or tablets, or becoming addicted to social media. This group, the “joy of missing out,” are determined to focus on the parts of life that matter and enjoy them.

It’s a trend that resonates particularly deeply with Generation X and Millenials, which Connelly has identified, with many turning away from social media and losing interest with being constantly connected. Additionally, in Ford’s 2014 Trend Report, Connelly recognizes society’s sudden need for a “digital detox” which is paired with the “slow movement.” In each of these instances the trend is to step away from what is now considered normal and simply slow down.

“Finding ways to disconnect is becoming increasingly difficult,” Connelly recognizes. Work, family, social, and news are just some of the outlets that we stay plugged in for. Ford even has their own technology, called “Sync,” that it uses to keep people involved, even when in the car. “Sync 3 [recently announced] will act even more like a smartphone, will be more intuitive and streamlined. But I think the feature that includes the Do Not Disturb button will become more used in the future, when people look to their cars for sanctuary.”

The hardest part of being a Futurist is recognizing that it’s “pain” that triggers the most change. Financial pain, triggered in part by gas prices or low wages, is something that has caused change recently, but how difficult is it to predict trends and changes in the future? Connelly likes to start at three years because that’s the typical period for a product development cycle, but it’s not unheard of to look 30 years in advance to try and prepare for the future.

With such a long period between design and when “the rubber hits the road,” as Connelly puts it, there’s always a chance that the trends identified will be unpopular, uninteresting, or obsolete by the time they’re implemented in Ford’s automobiles, and that’s what makes Connelly’s position so important to Ford. In a time when innovation is rapid and unpredictable, the job market is only starting to recover, and are people are living and working longer than ever, Connelly has never had a more difficult job in front of her. Not surprisingly though, in the recently released Trend Report for 2015, Connelly seems to have again identified the trends that will matter most to all of us.

Why Crashing a Quadcopter Drone is the Best Way to Review It

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the DJI Phantom 2 Vision is that I crashed it within the first 10 minutes of use. It sounds ridiculous, I know, and at the time I was panicking. It’s not often that I get to review a quadcopter drone, nevermind one that’s professional and isn’t one of the cheap knock-offs that’s flooded the market. Still, unintentionally crashing the drone did two things. First, it made me respect the maneuverability. Second, it gave me a chance to test the durability, because if this is your first experience with a quad-copter, you’re almost certainly going to crash it yourself.

Being that I had no experience with drones, there was concern regarding every step of use. Starting with setup, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a step-by-step outline that shows exactly what you need to do prior to take off. Charging the batteries took the longest, as there’s no way to speed the process up, but assembly of the Phantom 2 Vision itself was incredibly simple.

Likewise, in order to take advantage of the attached camera, you’ll need the DJI Vision App, free on Android and iTunes. You will need to create an account to use the app though, which isn’t mentioned and was only discovered when trying to use it at first lift-off. It’s another easy step, but it seemed a minor speed bump in an otherwise hassle-free setup.

All charged up and ready to fly, the drone sat quietly in a field behind my house. After performing the preflight requirements, turning everything on and ensuring it was responding, the propellers came to life, buzzing like a beehive and taking me by surprise. YOU DO NOT WANT TO GET HIT BY THESE PROPELLERS. I can’t say that enough, because these things will hurt. The controller came with a wrapping that indicated which sticks controlled which action, so I left that on in order to ensure I didn’t do anything stupid.

It was hovering about eight feet in the air as I got my bearings, strafing side-to-side, moving up and down, and twisting around in an effort to understand how the hardware responded to my requests. Impressively, it followed directions better than most children, mine included. Within just a few minutes I had the Phantom 2 Vision forty to fifty feet in the air, repeating all the directions I had given it when it was lower.

My fatal mistake was not paying attention to the camera. Because you’re able to watch (in real time) what the drone is doing, you have a better idea of how to control it if you’re watching your smartphone, brilliantly attached to the controller itself. My inexperience had me flying the drone directly towards a tall pine tree, unrecognizable from the dozens of others that litter the landscape. I recognized my mistake though, and instead of panicking, I let off the controls.

It hovered, masterfully, in the area I stopped it. Unfortunately, that area was only just big enough for the quadcopter itself, with branches encasing it on all sides. Because I had it turned around, the controls were suddenly foreign, and I made them that way. Had I just looked at my screen, with the image projected, I would have been able to maneuver it out without incident. Unfortunately, I pushed the stick the wrong way.

Have you ever spoiled a surprise for someone? A gift or a party or something? And the entire room stops, inaudible gasps unable to leave their throats, then you realize what you’ve done, your stomach drops, your throat gets tight, and you get light-headed? That’s what it feels like to get a $799 quadcopter stuck in a tree almost fifty feet off the ground.

Quickly turning off the controls, to prevent the branches from wrapping up in the propellers, I began troubleshooting ways to get this thing out of the tree. Troubleshooting stopped when the drone began to fall. Different thoughts began as it hit the ground and I was suddenly seeing pieces of it, things I’m positive belonged on it, coming off. I picked it up from the ground, gathered the pieces, and began to assess the damage.

What I saw absolutely shocked me. It wasn’t that bad. A couple of propellers had broken — no problem, four extras were included for people just like me, the camera had popped off (easily reattached), but the most damage was done to one of the propeller arms. It was bent enough to be noticeable. I took my time and with some effort it was bent back into place.

The moment of truth — I restarted the drone and … it worked fine. A little banged up, I’ve been able to use it without issue for the duration of my time reviewing it, which was been substantial.

The battery life is significant, though recharging can be lengthy if you run it dry, but with an extra batter, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how long you’re able to use it without needing to call it a day. It’s extremely agile, as I found out, but doesn’t have a steep learning curve to use. I’ve tested it in cold weather, warm weather, wind, and at different altitudes. It responds the same every time, though heavy wind can be a little concerning, particularly for an amateur or if you’re overly concerned with crashing it. Again.

All-in-all, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision is a wonderful piece of hardware for anybody who is a hobbyist, is looking to get into professional work, or is looking for a “new toy” to spend some time with.

The King of the Entry Level Gaming Keyboards: Tesoro Excalibur

PC gamers are familiar with the dozens of options facing them when they’re shopping for a gaming keyboard. Dozens of buttons reflect retail prices in the hundreds, and for good reason. Gaming keyboards, when used correctly, can be enormously beneficial. They really do give you an advantage over your competition, depending on the game and the keyboard, of course. But every now and again you’ll come across a keyboard that’s so painfully simple, one that doesn’t have LED screens, attachments, hundreds of buttons, or software that takes a rocket scientist to master.

The Tesoro Excalibur is that keyboard.

At first glance, Excalibur is just a keyboard, the same as the sword it’s named after is “just a sword.” You’ll find that after pulling it from the stone, Excalibur is much, much more. Beauty, design, versatility, and cost come together to provide a great experience for novice and expert alike, a fact confirmed through how the hardware was reviewed.

The Excalibur looks like any old keyboard with its basic size and shape, and doesn’t include any special macro keys or profile buttons. That doesn’t mean they’re not their, only that there are no added buttons littered here and there, which sometimes can make keyboards look cramped, or worse, daunting. Because of the simplistic design, Tesoro advertises Excalibur as “classic,” with function at your home or office.

The keys are backlit in blue, and you can assign “zones” to light up, but frankly if you’re not in love with the soft glow coming from the entirety of your Excalibur, you’re insane. For customization, you have the option of selecting the type of switches, which will affect the sound and resistance of your key presses. For purposes of the review, the Excalibur had the “Kailh Blue” switches, providing an audible “clicking” noise when you use it, with a little bit of resistance when you press the keys.

Despite not having an overwhelming number of extra keys, users can still take advantage of macros and profiles, allowing for full customization in your favorite games. Sporting 512Kb of on-board memory, you’ll be able to have five separate profiles, each holding 200 macros.

After spending a lengthy period of time with the Tesoro Excalibur, it was nice to not grow tired of it. While it doesn’t look like it would be something that a hardcore gamer would depend on, for those who have a robust library of PC games, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how useful and reliable it is. Priced below the magical $100-mark (retailing around $89.99 unless you can catch it on sale), it offers more than your standard keyboard. Perhaps the best thing about the Excalibur is that as your need for more options and macro keys grows, and you begin investing in higher-end hardware, you’ll always be able to go back to the Excalibur if you’re in a pinch or if you need to simplify your gaming setup.

Dying Light is a tale of two experiences

We’re in the midst of a zombie obsession, one that’s invaded television, movies, and especially video games. After some delays Dying Light is upon us, savagely clawing at our faces and biting at our necks. If you’re not careful, the infection will set in and then all hope will be lost. You’re one of “them,” an obsessed zombie hunter with a love of crazy weapons and countless references to other pop culture hits.

It’s really a tale of two experiences from top to bottom though, but surprisingly there’s not much to get discouraged by, but Dying Light is not without fault. The heads and tails of the game can be defined by the story, the parkour, and how you choose to play it. If you wander in expecting an entirely serious, end-of-the-world experience, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not to say that the game isn’t fun or entertaining though, far from it.

Set in fictional Harran, the city has been quarantined due to the outbreak of undead, which are thankfully referred to as “zombies” for the most part, and not some made-up word meaning the same thing. You play Kyle Crane, member of the governmental organization GRE, tasked with infiltrating the city to track down some intel that would be particularly damaging if it were to be released publicly.

Crane’s interactions with certain characters makes it clear that the narrative is trying to create personal relationships, but it falls short of that. Emotional bonds aren’t very strong and the most passionate you’ll feel during the game is when you meet the antagonist. Rais seems like he’s modeled after Far Cry 3’s own Vaas, but instead of being charismatic and unhinged, you’ll look at Rais with a simple, “This guy just needs to die,” attitude. Thankfully Crane says a lot of the things that we would say ourselves. Rather than some ridiculous commentary, Crane drops curse words and threats like you’d expect.

The parkour, a technology that developer Techland researched and invested heavily in, is fantastic when you’re free-running through the streets of Harran. As long as you’re paying attention to where you’re jumping, leaping over cars, up walls, and from roof to roof, you’ll enjoy the transition. It’s not entirely fluid and seamless, because that’s not realistic but if you’ve seen real parkour, Dying Light gets it spot on.

The downside of the parkour is the forced platform sequences, when you have to climb enormous towers or scale half-made scaffolding on the side of buildings. Often you’ll find that you have to slow yourself down in order to ensure balance, defeating the purpose of the parkour altogether. There’s a remedy to that, the Just Cause-like grappling hook, but during the sequences in question, the hook isn’t available for use.

Finally the overall gameplay experience is entirely different in solo play as opposed to co-op. Alone, you’ll approach the zombies carefully, intent on attacking as few as possible to avoid being hit, which is far stronger than in other zombie games. As you gain experience in agility, strength, or survival, you’ll choose perks and abilities that complement your lone wolf gameplay.

Co-op, on the other hand, can simply be described as “all out hack and slash fun.” You and up to three friends don’t need to worry about evading small hordes of zombies, because there’s strength in numbers. In late stages of the game you’ll approach a pack of a dozen or more of the undead and slice your way through them with ease, and it’s a wonderful feeling.

There is one caveat though, and that’s the night. When it’s dark out, whether you’re alone or with friends, it’s terrifying. Zombies are faster and stronger, and new species will appear, turning your typical gorefest into something more stealthy. Or, you know, you’ll die.

All in all, Dying Light is massive. There are dozens of side missions, easter eggs, and weapons that can be modified to add fire, electricity, and other effects. You’ll become comfortable with the elevation, because it’s safer, and you’ll begin to understand when it’s safe to make noise versus using stealth to your advantage. Even when you’re powered up and wielding amazing weapons, there’s still always a possibility that you get caught unaware. The parkour is smooth and realistic, as is the combat, which is great because decapitating zombies will never get old. Dying Light is a game that’s less serious than advertised, but where the story lacks, the side missions and exploration make up for it.

Samsung's Galaxy Family is tested in New York City

I’ve spent time with Samsung hardware in the past, reviewing their smartphones, tablets, and other hardware, and some of the feedback I’ve received regarding the benchmark results I include indicate that most readers consider the numbers arbitrary, even with superficial explanation. Instead, through Twitter and email, some have asked for a more “consumer friendly” review, discussing real-life situations and how the hardware responded.

Your wish is granted.

Earlier this week I spent nearly 48 hours traveling between New York City and my home in Maine. My wife and three year old daughter accompanied me, so I took the opportunity to put the Samsung Gear S, Note 4, and Galaxy Tab S to the test. I’m happy to say, for the sake of my own sanity, that it was impressively successful.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S

On Monday, January 12th, we got up at 2:30am to load the car, get ready for travel, and prepare for the tantrum that my daughter would inevitably have being woken up so early. I don’t blame her, I do the same thing. We got to the airport around 4am with a full charge in each device. After getting through the TSA check, adjusting the display settings (auto brightness is a battery killer), and activating the Wi-Fi, I had to sit my daughter down with the tablet to prevent her from running up the walls while we waited to board.

It was a one-and-a-half-hour flight to Washington D.C., then another 30 minute flight to New York City before taking a 25-ish minute car ride to the hotel in Times Square. The tablet was in use, playing children’s games with the volume on a very low setting, any time we weren’t walking, and by the time we arrived at the hotel it was down to 61% battery. Approximately three hours of nonstop use and the Galaxy Tab S still had more than half of the battery life available.

Note 4

Using the smartphone was far different than the tablet, more intermittent. It was only used when checking emails, text messages, Twitter, and Facebook, though some may say I do that far too much. By the time we had reached the hotel, I was still at a solid 71% battery life, but heavy use was only just beginning. An hour charging at the hotel got the phone back to 100%, though it didn’t take the full hour to fully charge and unfortunately I didn’t check it to see how long it took to refill the 30%.

Unfamiliar with New York City, I was nearly 100% dependent on the Note 4 for directions, appointments, and other information. For instance, because we had so little time in the city, we had a few landmarks we wanted to investigate. With a toddler, there are a few key locations. We started at the Central Park Zoo and after touring that we a number of child-friendly shopping locations in and around Times Square.

By 4pm, when my daughter fell asleep on my shoulders, we ended up back at our hotel. With  more than five hours without a charge, with heavy use, the Note 4’s battery was rock solid, still above 50%, even with full audio (for directions), nearly a dozen phone calls, a pedometer in use, and a constant barrage of emails that required replies.

The one thing I noticed about the Note 4 was that, despite the inclusion of a stylus, complete with apps that make great use of it, I never found it necessary. Even before the trip, and since, I’ve not used it beyond forcing myself to see how it works and whether it’s useful. It’s not. And I live and die by my email, social media, and calendar appointments.

Gear S

I’ve had experience with smart watches in the past and was excited to see what would be offered in the Gear S because Samsung has a history of making impressive, reliable hardware. The Gear S isn’t any different, but I found myself wondering why some people think it’s necessary. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, which I admittedly only turned on for a small portion of the trip in order to preserve battery for the phone.

I tried to make the most of the device, syncing a number of apps that would give me important information. Weather, the number of steps I had taken, and the time was the most useful, and even then it was only slightly more efficient than just looking at my phone. Beyond downloading a new background for it, which would trigger onlookers to smile or say, “Neat!” when they saw it, it simply wasn’t useful.

It could have been due to my own busy schedule or the fact that I own an analog watch, but there’s only one thing that wearing the Gear S did: it caused constant concern of draining my phone battery. And at the end of the day I had another device I had to remember to charge.

Day 2 was easier on the Galaxy S and Note 4 in the morning and afternoon (the Gear S had been packed away by that point), and we were back in the airport by 5pm, waiting our flight home. Again, my daughter was buried in the Galaxy S and I was back to the Note 4, scheduling the rest of my week. We landed back home a little after midnight, slogged our way back home, exhausted, and just went to bed. The Galaxy S and Note 4 still had a charge when we got up the next morning.

I couldn’t have been happier with the Samsung hardware. Even the Gear S isn’t a poor product and can be helpful to a degree, with a solid battery life and beautiful screen, but it seems there is a limit to it’s usefulness. The Note 4 battery life was surprising, given the screen size and the Galaxy S held up to a three year old and her obsession with Strawberry Shortcake apps. Through three states, six airports, four car rides, and Times Square, Samsung proved the Note 4, Galaxy Tab S, and Gear S can handle the task.

EA and Bioware should be proud of the 200 hour epic that is Dragon Age Inquisition

Following up the disappointing sequel in EA’s popular fantasy RPG franchise, Dragon Age Inquisition had a lot of pressure to be successful. The first game in the series, Origins, turned heads and impressed, while Dragon Age 2 seemed rushed and left fans with a bad taste in their mouths. Thankfully, with Inquisition, EA and developer Bioware have earned that trust back.

This time around, you’re thrown into the game with more questions than answers. Instead of a deep background and lead up to the problem that you work to resolve, the game starts with your character emerging from the fade with no memory as to what happened. Unfortunately as you come to, you’re face-to-face with Cassandra, a character you’ll remember from Dragon Age 2. In fact, you’ll see cameos from a number of characters throughout the entirety of Inquisition.

Cassandra isn’t happy to see you though. She wants to kill you because she thinks you’re somehow responsible for The Divine’s passing. This is where the story begins. Because of a strange power emanating from your hand, called The Anchor, the mages hypothesize that the portal you came from, which was closed upon your exit, is somehow linked to the other portals that have sprouted throughout the world.

To confirm this, Cassandra forces you to test your Anchor and, surprising nobody except her, it works. With the Divine dead, The Chantry in shambles, and an ongoing civil war between the Templars and the Mages, the governmental and spiritual pillars of Thedas are crumbling. Enter the Inquisition, a group of individuals determined to restore order to the world.

To complete the story alone will take you 50 to 60 hours. To experience everything available you’re looking at 150+ hours. Even then you may miss some things, like I did with my first playthrough.

The biggest issue with the game, and unfortunately one that makes itself apparent early on and never gets better, is the looting system. When you kill enemies or when you’re out in the world, you can find items from fallen enemies, inside chests, codex to read, and plants or minerals to collect for missions and crafting. In order to find these items, you’re forced to use a sonar-like system that gives an audible ‘ding’ when an item can be picked up. A recent patch made it so the items now appear on your minimap, but aside from that tiny improvement, you’ll spend dozens of hours haplessly clicking your thumbstick in order to determine if you’re walking by anything of importance.

For a game this polished and enjoyable, it’s atrocious.

You’ll gain party members as you progress through the story and, though you’re limited to four per mission (including yourself), you can speak to them about different issues, personal and involving the Inquisition, that may determine their mood with you or may open up additional side missions and rewards.

The most impressive part of your party makeup is the side conversations that appear between characters. Every character reacts to the others differently, making their personalities seem real and fluid, and providing for hundreds of lines of enjoyable dialogue. Iron Bull, a monstrous, horned Katari, is voiced by Freddy Prinze Jr. and does such a magnificent job that you won’t recognize him without someone pointing the fact out.

After forsaking your family and responsibility to finish the game, there’s even a multiplayer mode that can add hundreds of hours to your experience. Multiple pre-made characters group up to complete missions for the Inquisition, a wonderful extension from the single player campaign. Not all characters are available to start though. You’ll have to play with what’s available and either loot or craft additional armor to unlock more characters.

The gameplay is similar to the single player, without the ability to pause combat. As you level, you earn ability points that can be spent in one of two preset ability trees to unlock passive or active skills. Once you hit level 20, you can prestige your character and earn a bonus to all other characters, or continue your adventure on harder difficulties, earning more gold to purchase loot chests, one of the only ways to get upgraded items or items for crafting. You can also spend real money on “Platinum” and buy chests that way, but it’s not necessary.

Between single player and multiplayer, there’s endless enjoyment. Additional difficulties and other decisions made throughout the game add endless replayability and by making different characters at the start, you’ll see different conversations and reactions from NPCs. It’s hard to find a game that includes this much gameplay for just $60.

Fans of the Dragon Age franchise, rejoice. Your savior has returned.

Last Minute Holiday Tech Gift Guide

It’s almost Christmas and you haven’t finished your shopping yet! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO!? First of all, calm down. With modern-day advances like overnight delivery and last-minute gift guides, there’s no reason to panic. The hardest part of shopping at the last minute is deciding what to get for those people in your life that deserve to receive gifts.

We understand that you’ve waited longer than you should have, but fear not, College News has you covered. Whether you’re shopping for a parent, a sibling, a friend, or someone who’s “more” than a friend, our “Last-minute Tech Gift Guide” is sure to win you some smiles.

NuGreen Flexible Neck LED Lamp – If you live the “dorm life,” you know how precious saving space can be. NuGreen’s LED Lamp has a flexible neck and, because it’s LED powered, blasts an enormous amount of light despite it’s small stature. The capacitive touch power button is easily accessible, and you won’t need to change bulbs every month because it lasts up to 45,000 hours.

KMI K-board (USB Keyboard) – Music makers carry some type of instrument everywhere they go. We all have the friend who has an entire garage band in his trunk at every given time, so why not make their life easier? The K-Board plugs into any tablet (iOS or Android), PC, or Mac via USB. Plug it in, load up your apps, and let the music flow.

Samsung makes the holidays easier year after year. If you’re an Android user, odds are you’ve had your hands on something made by Samsung because they put out quality products at reasonable prices. For holiday 2014, Samsung has done it again:

Galaxy Tab S (10.5”, 16GB, Wi-Fi) – The Galaxy Tab S is powerful, beautiful, and the 10.5” screen is big enough that even your parents can read on it. It’s thin and durable, the battery lasts a reasonable amount of time, and it comes in Dazzling White or Titanium Bronze. The AMOLED screen is bright enough to be viewed during even the brightest day, it’s not heavy, and has rear and forward-facing cameras. Even for beginners, Samsung’s newest tablet will impress.

Galaxy Note 4 (32GB) – This is a big phone. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it won’t fit everybody’s hands. Grandma, for instance, may be better off with the Galaxy S4 or S5, but for those who use their phone for multiple tasks, business and pleasure, the Note 4 will fit right in. With its S Pen, the note becomes a notepad, easily used to jot down reminders, shopping lists, or to scrawl special messages to your family and friends. Finding one unlocked will be pricey (the one Samsung sent over was through T-Mobile), but they’re available on most major carriers. With 32GB of internal storage (expandable to 128GB), two cameras, Super AMOLED screen, and a number of apps that work wonderfully with the S Pen, someone’s holiday would be made complete with the Note 4.

Gear S (R750) – In my family I’ve heard, “I have a hard time remembering to charge my phone, why would I want a watch that needs the same thing?” Because it makes life easier, Mom. That’s why. For the person who is pulling their phone out every five minutes to check a message, the time, or because it’s become an unbreakable habit, the Gear S is the prescription. Instead of constantly waking your phone up because “you thought you heard a message,” instead a quick glance at your watch will confirm it for you. You can even read it right on your wrist. Check weather, the time, and a number of other apps and widgets without having to dig into your pocket. Plus, you can stay in contact with your friends without hearing, “Will you get OFF of your phone for five minutes?!”  Sorry moms and dads, this is the loophole.

Tesoro Excalibur Keyboard – Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on a keyboard that has dozens of inputs, LED screens, and hundreds of additional buttons, Tesoro is keeping it simple with their Excalibur model keyboard. At first glance it’s “just a keyboard,” but at $89.99, you should expect much more. And you get it. The backlit keys are gorgeous to look at and make the user feel like they’re using an advanced model gaming keyboard. Mechanical switches can be changed out depending on your activities, the lighting can be modified, and there’s actually on-board memory to complement the profiles and UI. It’s entry-level that doesn’t feel like it’s for beginners.

Logitech C920 Pro Webcam – Whether you’re chatting on Skype, streaming your games on Twitch, or recording videos for Youtube, it’s nice to have an HD webcam that can broadcast you and your reactions. Logitech’s C920 is impressively small, but the software and quality of the video makes it a no-brainer for anybody looking for a webcam. Easy to setup, easy to use, your little brother or sister could be the next Youtube sensation thanks to the C920.

Case Logic Reflexion DSLR+iPad Cross-body Bag – With all the hardware on this list, you’ll need something to carry it with. Everybody has a camera nowadays, even beyond their smartphone, and typically they have a tablet as well. To keep it all safe, Case Logic has you covered. With multiple pockets and cushioned protection, you can look good while you carry your assortment of gadgets. It fits a tablet or ultrabook up to 13”, DSLR camera and two lenses, or remove the interior walls and have a messenger bag for everyday use. If this isn’t to your taste — or the person you’re buying for — Case Logic has dozens of other sizes, models, and colors for you to choose from.

GoPro Hero4 Silver – It’s pricey, but GoPro has made a name for themselves with durable video capturing hardware. Know somebody who is constantly on the go, bike riding, skydiving, snowmobiling, or any one of a dozen hobbies and sports that makes it impossible to hold a camera? GoPro was made specifically for them. Soon they’ll be recording HD video (1080p or 720p) with a piece of hardware that has built in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other options that make sharing their experiences easier.

HP Pavilion 11 x360 – An affordable Notebook that converts into a tablet, has a touchscreen, camera, Beats Audio, and dozens of other features. We reviewed the x360 earlier this summer and, despite lacking power to do hardcore gaming or video editing, for basic multimedia use and web browsing it was ideal. If you’re looking for something simple and mobile, whether for a long trip or just to carry around with you, the x360 fits the bill.

AND THERE YOU HAVE IT! Simple and effective. You’re running out of time, but if you’re in a pinch, something here will fit the needs of whoever you have left to shop for. Have a happy holiday season!