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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.

Ubisoft Impresses again with Far Cry 4

When it comes to First Person Shooters, you typically expect a lot of competitive online multiplayer where you run around, alone or with a team, trying to blast your opponent into oblivion. That’s why Far Cry 4 is so different. Sure, the competitive multiplayer component is present, but the single player campaign is so well done, so expansive, and tells such a great story that players who don’t pour the required time in to see it to completion are truly doing themselves a disservice.

Naysayers may cling to the idea that “Far Cry 4 is just Far Cry 3 with a new coat of paint.” Well, yes and no. The gameplay has remained largely the same. The map is enormous, there are hundreds of collectibles, and in addition to the main story, there are dozens of side missions to complete that can have an effect on your overall game. That’s every Far Cry.

It has worked for Ubisoft thus far, and it works again.

If you remember Vass, the antagonist from Far Cry 3, you’ll recall what made him special: he was batshit insane. Pardon the language. But Vass was a ball of insanity in human form, and people loved it. This time around you’re dealing with Pagan Min, a dictator who is struggling to deal with a country full of rebels, each trying to oust him from power. Pagan Min is a far better antagonist and is made so because of the story narrative. Where Vass was clearly the bad guy, with Pagan Min you can’t quite get a read on him.

You’re told he’s evil; you’re lead to believe he’s evil; but you never quite feel like he’s evil. He treats you well and he wants nothing more than to help you achieve your goal: to scatter your mother’s ashes somewhere in the Himalayas. It’s more believable that you’re simply fulfilling your mother’s dying wish and mistakenly get caught up in a civil war.

From the start, Pagan Min is a flamboyant presence, first appearing to the player thanks to entrance via helicopter. After viciously murdering one of his soldiers with a pen, he complains only that he got blood on his beautiful shoes. After accepting the wardrobe faux pas, Pagan Min introduces himself and begins your VIP treatment, whisking you away to his mountain fortress to dine on crab rangoons.

After your “escape” from Min’s compound, the game opens up and you’re introduced to the two leaders of the rebels. Amita is a strong, focused woman who is participating in the rebellion in order to change the culture of Kyrat, while Sabal is fighting to restore the culture they had before Pagan Min’s rise to power. The two work together only in that they’re fighting Min and his army, aside from that they have different beliefs for how Kyrat should be after Min is removed.

This is where you come in.

Throughout the story, you’re presented with different mission objectives, favoring either Sabal or Amita’s views. How you decide to complete the missions will affect which person is viewed as the “Leader” of The Golden Path, the official name of the rebels. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Far Cry 4 is this particular element to the story. Regardless of whose ideals you choose to align yourself with, you’re left second-guessing your choices. Amita wants change because the culture treats women as objects, rather than as people. Sabal is yearning for the culture lost because it’s a lifestyle that existed for thousands of years. Both make great points on why you should support them, yet neither makes you feel like they’re “the right choice.”

It’s exactly the same for Pagan Min, the man you’re trying to dethrone. And surprisingly, your choices have consequences. As you wrap up the 30+ hour campaign, you’re constantly presented with more choices, each harder than the last. As you decide who to side with, who to sacrifice, and who to show mercy to, the game itself changes to show consequences, some intended, some not.

Aside from the struggle you deal with inside the rebellion, other characters exist that add a bit of flavor to the world. Each person seems a caricature of a real person, with pros and cons brilliant exaggerated for the sake of narrative. Each of them offers a number of quests that open up new areas, unlock new items, or present a new element to gameplay that hadn’t existed prior. Some you love, some you hate, but none of them are bland.

The online multiplayer exists in two categories as well, competitive and co-op. The competitive is the weaker of the two, which faces two factions against each other in your typical “kill or be killed” gameplay. Where one faction relies heavily on weapons and armor, the other implements the “magic” that you see described throughout the story’s collectibles (of which there are hundreds). It’s an interesting take, to have one team conjuring spirit beasts as weapons, but overall it doesn’t really offer anything remarkably impressive and you won’t miss much if you opt to skip it entirely.

The co-op gameplay is different though, as it removes most story elements and allows a couple of friends the ability to move around Kyrat intent on raiding enemy fortresses and outposts. Players can earn extra XP and money for moving quickly and quietly, but most experiences descend into madness, with explosions and fires breaking out recklessly. As fun as it is to blow up a vehicle full of Pagan Min’s forces, it’s exponentially better when you’re friend is there to see it happen.

After nearly 40 hours of gameplay, most game trackers won’t be at 100% completion. Include the fact that your choices matter, meaning you have replayability for a lot of the game, and you’re looking at hundreds of potential gameplay hours, though, admittedly, most of that is for collectibles and side missions that don’t offer choices. Still, Kyrat offers fans of the Far Cry series a chance to experience a lot of what you’ve loved all over again, with a story that goes beyond what you expect and delivers many moments of jaw-dropping, second-guessing fun.

Ubisoft misses the mark with Assassin's Creed Unity

By this point you may have heard about Assassin’s Creed Unity and how it released with some “technical issues,” to phrase it gently. The truth is, putting aside the problems with how it runs, it’s a tale of two games. The first features the wall-running, customization, and combat that we’ve loved for so long. The second is a larger look, which takes the Assassin’s franchise itself and leaves players questioning just what on earth Ubisoft is doing.

Set in the France in the late 1700’s, tension is high between the lower class and the upper class, ironically reminiscent of today’s society. You play as Arno Dorian, an upper class aristocrat whose father was well connected into the French social world, but like all characters in the Assassin’s Creed series, you’ve a penchant for mischief.

Arno’s aptitude for doing things he shouldn’t is showcased during the game’s tutorial, when you’re introduced to Arno as a young boy. Asked to “stay put” while his father runs an errand at the mansion you’re visiting, Arno disobeys and heads off to explore. Here’s where you get the first taste of some of Unity’s stealth changes, which implement the “Last Known Position” system popular from Splinter Cell Blacklist.  You’re also introduced to Elise, the eventual love interest of Arno, and while walking players through the tutorial, Ubisoft does a great job of making you grow fond of Elise, despite the focus being on control rather than interaction.

Following the rhetoric of previous Assassin’s Creed games, tragedy befalls Arno on multiple instances, forcing him to discover that he’s been woven into a war of Templars and Assassins that he never knew existed. He’s then recruited and works toward climbing his way to the top of the Assassin’s hierarchy, with the idea of revenge fueling his ascent. If all of this is sounding familiar, there’s good reason why. The voyage of Assassin’s Creed overall seems to take the same road time and time again.

“Man has special talent for parkour and weird “powers” that help him see what others can’t (including targets). Man is recruited into the Order of Assassins. Man begins climbing the ranks, fighting Templars along the way, only to discover that the Order itself is in danger. Man saves the world.”

Sure, there’s sizzle added to each game to make it feel slightly different, and that’s true for Unity as well, but fans of the series are starting to question where it’s heading. After initially playing as Desmond Miles and venturing into the Animus to relive some of his ancestor’s experiences in order to find the magical “Pieces of Eden,” we’ve seen the games move away from that. Last year, during Black Flag, you played a new employee at Abstergo, the modern day Templar-run company which is still searching for the Pieces of Eden under the guise of a gaming company.

The Black Flag story arc taking place outside of the pirates was interesting and seemed to start putting us back on the path of understanding what, exactly, was driving the Templars and Assassins to search for these mysterious objects. In Assassin’s Creed Unity though, all interactions outside of the Animus are cut scenes. In fact, you only see one person, codenamed “Bishop,” though you hear another voice that helps Bishop give you some direction toward what you should be doing with Arno.

In Arno’s world you’re provided dozens of customizations for him. Your arsenal of weapons falls into multiple categories, each with their own expansive list of options that highlight your particular play style whether it’s stealth or direct combat. If you prefer to be a quiet, methodical killer, “your Arno” will look different than someone who likes to run in with a two-handed weapon and lay waste to enemies, while taking a few hits in the process.

Your outfits mimic your style as well, affording more armor for less stealth and vice versa. It’s important to note that because of the implementation of co-op, a surprisingly fun addition to this year’s release. Two to four players can embark on missions that reward the team for teamwork and for completing goals together. The player skill system, which lets you upgrade Arno throughout the game to learn new, dangerous abilities, also carries over to co-op and affords each team member a “shared ability”. You can heal your fellow assassins, or you can share your “eagle vision” with them, allowing them to see enemies and hiding spots having to use their own skill, which now triggers a cooldown.

Stealth seems to be the key in co-op though, and players that rely on the “run in, stab everyone” approach will be looking for new co-op partners rather quickly. Instead, if you can work together to approach your enemies and whittle them down, one by one, you’ll earn enormous rewards after completing your primary objectives.

It’d be unfair to talk about how immense the customization is, how fun the co-op is, and how beautifully Ubisoft has captured Paris without pointing out Unity’s flaws though. Technically speaking, the game is a mess. Frame rate drops dramatically even when you’re doing nothing but standing still. The crowds, featuring pissed off frenchmen, armed guards, and a third faction of troublemakers, will often times fall through the ground or get stuck on invisible objects, a fate that even befalls Arno from time to time. While not witnessed on Xbox One, the PC and PS4 releases have run into issues where character faces won’t load, leaving just phantom eyes and teeth to carry on conversations with.

Because of the technical issues and the questions that loom over the franchise as a whole, maybe fans should just throw up their hands and declare that Assassin’s Creed Unity never happened.

That’s a bit of hyperbole, yes, because there are indeed worse games available. Because of the polish and evolution of previous titles in the franchise though, I expected more from Unity. Ubisoft clearly has worked on implementing larger crowds, better character locomotion, enjoyable co-op play, and deeper customization than ever before. Unfortunately the execution of was lacking. I have no doubt that for the next Assassin’s Creed title (which may be in Egypt according to hints dropped in Unity) will be far better than the product that was put out this year.

But if not, I think the Assassins are in more danger than we realize.

Overall Score: 5.5 out of 10

Move over Saints Row, there's a new ridiculousness in video games

When the Xbox One was announced, Microsoft put a lot of weight into the marketing Sunset Overdrive, an over-the-top third person shooter where players are tasked with gunning down mutated humans during an apocalypse scenario, dubbed the “Awesomepocalypse”. Microsoft’s money was well-spent, because Sunset Overdrive is a non-stop ride of ridiculous gameplay, stupid jokes, insane weapons, and endless explosions.

In short, it’s amazing.

Fans of the Saints Row franchise will feel right at home in Sunset City, though I’m inclined to say that Sunset Overdrive is even more insane than recent Saints Row titles. Where Saints has a small degree of seriousness, Sunset Overdrive is batshit insane from the start. Character development even embodies hyperbole, with every single clothing option (there are more than 200, including collectibles) something that will make you smirk, giggle, scoff, or guffaw.

The “Awesomepocalypse” occurs thanks to FizzCo, the world’s most powerful company, releasing their new energy drink Overcharge, which accidentally turns the population into zombie-like mutants. Because of the PR-hit the company would take if the world found out about Sunset City’s plight, an “invisible wall” is erected to keep inhabitants in while FizzCo cleans up the mess. The “invisible wall” is a parody on other games that use it to prevent players from going out of bounds or exploring an area too early.

It’s that sort of humor that is rife within the rest of the game, where characters break the fourth wall or missions and conversations openly mock the world of video games as a whole. The reason it works so well is because of consistency. At no point during the campaign do you feel even a hint of seriousness start creeping in. From start to finish, Sunset Overdrive takes the ridiculousness and cranks it up to eleven.

The locomotion is even crazy, giving you the opportunity to grind on rails and telephone wires, run across walls, bounce on cars, trees, or other objects, or dash in mid-air to traverse the enormous cityscape. While doing so, you’ll be forced to battle mutants, called “OD,” evil humans (Scabs), and FizzCo’s own robot military. For the first half of the game it’s daunting, truth be told. Learning how to effectively move from area to area while trying to target and destroy dangerous enemies is almost too much to do at one time.

Thankfully it starts to come together the more you play. Soon you’ll find yourself stringing together insane parkour skills as you complete missions, all while changing weapons and laying waste to everything in your path en route to enormous combos and high scores.

The Amp and Overcharge systems are something you’re familiar with if you’ve had experience in even a short list of video games. Amps are added in two ways, as passive abilities or as active. Everything thing you do throughout Sunset City, from grinding and bouncing, to killing particular enemies with specific weapon classes will earn you XP that can be applied to passive abilities. These passives may increase certain weapon damage, damage against certain types of enemies, or how much ammo you can hold, among other bonuses.

For active skills, you have four tiers of Overcharge, which increases as you remain mobile and kill enemies. Each tier has a number of Amps that can be applied to add even more insanity to your experience. Bouncing on cars, here, now you shoot fireballs every time you land. Rocking a sweet grind?  Now you shoot fire on either side of you as you go. Hell, you can even put one on that gives you your own personal announcer to broadcast all your sweet moves.

Sunset City is setup a lot like Liberty City is in GTA IV, with three islands connected via bridges. Each island is progressively more difficult, with additional enemies, collectibles, and side quests to complete. Each area is just as ridiculous as the last, with characters, both helpful and dangerous, acting as caricatures of what you’d expect real people to be.

If you walk into Sunset Overdrive expecting a serious looking action game, you’ll be drastically disappointed. If you want a parody of what today’s video gaming landscape looks like though, with no hard-hitting plotline, just massive explosions, insane weapons, crazy character abilities, and an array of dick jokes, this game is for you.

Overall Score: 9 out of 10

Sneaking and Stabbing in Styx: Master of Shadows for Xbox One

There’s nothing more exciting than an indie game releasing on a console like the Xbox One. You cheer for the underdog, which is what indies are, so when Styx: Master of Shadows released through the ID@Xbox program, I was excited to see what it was all about. It looks beautiful and implements a heavy stealth aspect, which is difficult to deliver effectively. The reason stealth is so hard is because oftentimes stealth-focused games can get tedious, which is exactly what happens with Styx.

If Styx were laid out like a pie, with eight equal pieces, the game would be wonderful, with few negatives. That’s not how games work though and, using the same pie analogy, seven pieces of the total are well developed and presented to players in enjoyable, or at least passable, ways. Because the game leans so heavily on stealth, and does a great job with it, the combat is a secondary event, used only when you fail at sneaking.

To be blunt, the combat is terrible.

But let’s return to that, because there’s a lot to enjoy within Styx: Master of Shadows. First, Styx is a goblin; a vicious conniving sunnavabitch. He’s a thief, an assassin, and an ugly character to boot, which makes the game interesting. How often do you play the bad guy? And although Styx is a well-designed creature, boney and ugly in just the right places, his voice doesn’t quite fit. It’s more reminiscent of “just some guy,” than it is of a deadly, twisted goblin.

The stealth works wonderful too, using sounds contextually, with players treading softer on carpets, while slapping their feet on stone in exactly the way you’d expect. Shadows are present, even during the day, for Styx to slip into so he can avoid detection, but the sense of darkness is off. Day or night, inside or out, as you move into the shadows the only indication, beyond a very easy-to-miss change of lighting, is that Styx’s tattoo will begin to glow. While you’re in shadows, enemies have almost no chance to detect you, unless you’re in sprint mode, which is rarely necessary. The creeping from corner to corner and shadow to shadow is very well done and you’ll hardly feel like the game is being “cheap” when you’re detected.

The level design is best described as surprisingly impressive. Each area includes a map that makes it seem far smaller than it is, partly due to the immense verticality that they all contain. When you’re staring at a swath of soldiers or any of the other enemies, bugs or other “creatures” I’d rather not name for fear of spoiling the plot, odds are there’s a way to sneak past them on the ground by using debris or ledges to hide your path, or above them via chandeliers, scalable candlesticks, rafters, and other terrain. There’s always multiple ways to approach any particular problem, and that’s a testament to the level design.

Character development is also included, giving you a chance to increase Styx’s skills. Stealth, combat, mobility, and other options are available, depending on your style of play. You can increase the number of potions and vials you carry, throwing knives, or add skills to your already deadly repertoire. Styx uses XP gained throughout each level to increase his skills, but unfortunately you can only increase your skills back at your hideout, which you visit in between missions. Each mission consists of three or four areas and you only end up visiting the hideout a handful of times. It seems a poor design choice to limit players in this way and could be an artificial roadblock to prevent players from getting too powerful too fast.

Your objectives are straight forward during each mission, though the side objectives and collectibles do add some variance to what you’ll be doing. You can speed through each level, and you’ll be rewarded if you do, but for replayability you’ll have the option to take control of Styx and go back for items you’ve missed. The monologue that Styx has also plays into the overall story as well, making it seem like he’s addicted to the nectar that leaks from the World Tree, which actually works as the source of his skills, invisibility and “special sight” that allows you to see enemies, pathways, and collectibles throughout each level.

The biggest issue with Styx’s chatter is that he includes curse words seemingly for the sake of it. He, and guards for that matter, will throw out random swearing in what seems like a poor way to prove how “adult” the game is, when in reality it makes it seem far more juvenile than it should be. Occasional cursing would have worked, even making particular moments seem more powerful, but the gratuitous use of certain words will make you shake your head in disgust.

Finally, the combat is what ruined Styx: Master of Shadows for me. Because the game is often a mixture of trial and error, you’ll find yourself often being spotted or grabbed by patrolling guards or other enemies. When this happens, you’re thrown into a mano-a-mano combat with your assailant, essentially a minigame. The objective is to time the enemy’s attacks, parrying them a number of times before you can deliver a killing blow. There are multiple problems with this approach. First, the timing seems “off” for Styx parrying attacks, though that could be a deficiency in player ability, i.e. I sucked at it.

The other issue, and perhaps the biggest problem, is that when you’re facing off against an enemy, he shouts in alarm and other enemies will come to his aid. When this happens, you’re still stuck in the one-versus-one combat, with enemies raining down blows from all directions. Because the combat feels so cheap and is so unenjoyable, you’re better off simply reloading your game each and every time you get caught. I mentioned that the game is very “trial and error,” so that means you may end up loading one particular area dozens of times.

I know I did.

If you’re a big fan of stealth-heavy games, Styx: Master of Shadows is for you. There are seven levels, each with three or four sprawling areas to complete, collectibles, a ton of character skills, and different challenges to complete throughout the game, making the $30 pricetag seemingly justified. However, if you’re looking for variation in gameplay you will not find it here. The combat is frustrating and seems like it was shoehorned in due to time or budget limitations. It’s poor enough that it, despite playing for hours and hours, I still hadn’t finished the game because of the hundreds of reloads I had to endure.

With a new cast of voice actors and a new combat system, even one that mimics Arkham’s or Shadow of Mordor ‘s, the team behind Styx has a real winner. Until then, you should only dedicate time to this if you’re a hardcore fan of stealth, otherwise you can pass.

Overall Score: 5 out of 10

Microsoft really wants you to own an Xbox One, drops the price for the holidays!

Microsoft announced that starting on November 2nd, if you purchase an Xbox One, you’ll be spending just $349. It’s not just limited to the basic bundle, either. Special Edition Xbox One Bundles, like the upcoming Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed Bundles are eligible for the promotion, too.

“Fans don’t have to wait for Black Friday this year to enjoy great savings on Xbox One. We’re offering our best price yet, with unprecedented choices and value, so more people can play on Xbox One this holiday,” said Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate vice president. “We’re gearing up for one of our biggest holidays ever and we are thrilled to offer fans up to $150 in savings on Xbox One and some of the biggest blockbuster games of the season.”

The savings apply only to the U.S., but will be available at most major retailers like Amazon, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Toys R Us, Gamestop, and others. The sale lasts from November 2, 2014 through January 3, 2015.

With upcoming holiday releases and bundles that include Sunet OverdriveCall of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed, the biggest savings seems to be with the Call of Duty bundle. At $449, buyers will get a custom console and controller, a Kinect, a copty of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and a 1TB harddrive, doubling the 500GB pack-in buyers have seen thus far.

Middle-earth Shadow of Mordor makes a strong case for Game of the Year

We’ve had an infatuation with Tolkien’s universe for the last 13 years, and if Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is any indication of what we can expect going forward, we won’t be moving on any time soon. Releasing on PC, last-gen, and current-gen gaming consoles (Nintendo Wii U the exception), the game sets the bar for combat in an action adventure game. And while the narrative is wonderful, always a tricky venture into a licensed series, there are still stretches where you may find yourself getting bored or falling into tedious “rinse, repeat” combat settings.

Mordor is a section of Middle-earth that’s cordoned off by tall mountains and is overrun with orcs, goblins, and uruks and takes place slightly prior to Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring embarking on their journey. Sauron is still gathering his strength for his assumed-return and the dark army is lead by The Black Hand, a vicious bastard who will stop at nothing to see his Master returned.

The Black Hand, while referenced throughout the game, is only seen during the prologue and the extremely anti-climactic final scenes, though when you’re in his presence the aura of evilness he exudes is unmistakable. It’s that darkness that causes you, Talion, a Ranger of Gondor, to eventually lose everything and end up “attached” to a long-dead Elf-turned-Wraith. With an urge for revenge and to find out why you’ve been paired with the Wraith, Talion sets off to find The Black Hand.

The journey isn’t easy though, in order to track down Sauron’s dark General you’ll be forced to experience Shadow of Mordor’s new Nemesis System. The Nemesis System takes random enemies and, as they accomplish important tasks in the game — initially as simple as killing Talion — will promote them within the ranks of the uruk hierarchy. There are three tiers of Captains within this hierarchy, each with five captains, and of those fifteen NPCs, they all report to one of five Warchiefs.

Littered throughout Mordor are different events that these Captains take part in and Talion has the ability to witness the event and intervene (or not). If the Captain is successful during the event, which can be a hunt, an ambush of another Captain, or even an execution, they will gain Power which gives them new abilities and potentially earns them the right for a promotion. If Talion decides to kill a Captain or a Warchief, there’s a vacancy that can then be filled by another enemy with a unique name, strengths, weaknesses, and fears. The Nemesis System, not available in its full glory on Xbox 360 or PS3, so beware, is takes your gaming experience and adds in indefinite amount of replayability to the game.

Because of your tie to the Wraith, you gain superhuman-like abilities that work fluidly with the skills you develop as a Ranger. Dispatching enemies and completing tasks earns XP, which is then used to upgrade skills toward either skillset. While you’ll eventually earn each skill available, the first part of the game will allow players to customize exactly how they expect to play through, allowing for combat bonuses or stealth abilities to aid you on your journey.

While playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, you’ll note that the game feels incredible, a strange hybrid of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman Arkham series. You’ll find that while the action is breathtaking and tense during every combat, the game essentially falls into two parts. Part one is during the first half, where you approach everything stealthily and take less risks in combat because you can be easily overpowered.

Part two is the second half of the game where you’ve leveled your character to the point where you’re unstoppable. It can grow repetitive if you simply use your best maneuvers time and time again. Players who change up their combat style and implement an array of abilities will have far more fun with the action than those who do the same thing over and over again, but unfortunately the game does little to force that change.

For fans of the Tolkien universe, you may suffer some disappointment in the geography and character selection for the game. While each of the two areas is indeed beautiful, varies in  looks, and spans a large distance, you may find yourself wanting for familiar areas. The writing lends a nod to some areas that we know, Gondor for instance, but with no real “safe haven” for players to stop at and pick up additional tasks, it’s no wonder some are frustrated crossing the same terrain for the umpteenth time.

The gameplay is wonderful and the Nemesis System will certainly be something that changes the face of gaming (yes, it’s that good), but if you’re looking for something deeper beyond amazing combat, eye-popping visuals, sandbox-like gameplay, and brutal executions, you might be a little disappointed. The game is more Action than it is RPG, but it does a great job of adding lore to a universe full of it, without altering the course of the history that you may already know.

Regardless of the Tolkien-esque setting, if this gameplay and system were in place for any other franchise, it’d immediately make it a classic. And that’s just what Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is, an instant classic.

Overall score: 9.5 out of 10

Forza Horizon 2 is the Xbox One's best racing title

The sequel to the smash hit of 2012, Forza Horizon 2 builds on the open world, arcade racing that made the first so popular on Xbox 360. Releasing for Xbox 360 and Xbox One, the superior version is clearly on Xbox One. I was a bit reserved going into the Horizon 2 world because I haven’t played the first installment. Seeing the reaction it got though, including some “Game of the Year” awards, I wanted to see what the big deal was. I’m glad I did because the game is great.

I’m a fan of racing games, but I’m not good at them. That means when I find a game I’m semi-decent at, games like Blur, the Burnout Series, or Split Second, I tend to stick to them for a long time. Clearly, you can see that I prefer the arcade racing circuit over the simulation one, mostly because I’m not a precision driver. With Forza Horizon 2, you don’t have to be.

For newcomers, there are difficulty setting that will allow you to get a handle on how the game reacts to your turning, braking, and drifting. It’s an arcade racer, but not to extremity of games like Burnout, which works well because of the landscape. This year the Horizon Event has players gallivanting across southern Europe’s beautiful countryside and weaving through busy streets.

The transition between areas is quite brilliant, too. First, the map is monstrous and takes a considerable amount of time to simply drive from one end to the other. Even if you opt to go off-roading, blazing through open fields and slaloming trees, you’re still going to find that a cross-country drive is time consuming. The brilliance of the map design is how it gradually transitions from country to city, roads transforming from long, winding speed-friendly paths to twisting city areas, perfect for drifting and requiring more precision to navigate.

Out in the world are events to take place in, as well. Bucket list challenges require you to complete tasks of varying difficulty, Barn Finds set you off to discover and restore old classic automobiles, but perhaps the best implement is the Drivatars. Drivatars are digital representations of your friends and other people who have played the game. They exist in your world, taking cues from the actual player and transferring their style to your game. Drivatars can be raced, and some have bounties on them, meaning you can race them to a certain point in order to earn an increased reward.

The rewards are simply “credits” that you can use to purchase new vehicles, paint schemes, and upgrades for cars you already own. There are hundreds of cars to choose from, all settling in a particular class, with each class opening up a specific championship for you to finish. Winning 15 championships earns you the right to the finale, but there are more than 150 championships overall.

There’s some serious content in Forza Horizon 2.

With Car Clubs (effectively “Clans”), you’ll earn extra cash towards purchasing upper-tier vehicles to race and you can create a roster of racers that will work towards upgrading the club’s rank. Each racer also earns XP towards leveling up, with each level earning a “Bonus Spin” that can earn a random denomination of credits or even a car.

With so much to do in such a gorgeous environment, there’s no wonder why the Forza Horizon series is at the top of racing fan’s lists. Even for beginners like myself, there are modifications to make the game feel easier and, as you get better, you’ll begin to earn bonuses towards the credits you earn when you start turning the difficulty up. There are areas where you can drive as fast as you want, flying over hills and jumps, burning down straightaways, and there are gorgeous castles and ruins to explore with winding, twisting corners. It satisfies all racer’s needs.

While the Xbox One is still less than a year old, for anybody who’s looking for a racing game, you won’t find one better than Forza Horizon 2.

Overall Score: 9 out of 10

SCUF Gaming is at it again with their Xbox One controllers

During the last generation of gaming console, SCUF Gaming made a splash with their custom controllers, modified for use with Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Thankfully, I paid attention to them early on, mostly because of the quality of their work, but also because I expected they’d eventually be a big player in custom gaming controllers.

I was right.

Now, four years later, SCUF Gaming is a recognizable name in the industry and their quality continues into this generation with Playstation 4 and Xbox One controllers. Over the last two months, I’ve had my hands on the SCUF One, their Xbox One controller. It outperformed my expectations, though initial impressions were a little shaky.

When pulling the SCUF One from the padded box, it felt cheap. Like a poorly made import from China. I want to be explicit when I say it’s not cheap, it just felt “different” because of the modifications made to the controller, changes in the weight and texture that most players will be used to with the official Microsoft controllers.

First, it’s light due to the rumble packs being removed. The “rumblers” are taken out because the SCUF One I was using is designed explicitly as a controller for shooters. With vibrations in your hands, specifically in competitive multiplayer, it can throw off your aim. By removing them it’s lighter, too. I’ve never experienced fatigue in my hands, but for those who have, I imagine a lighter controller would help combat that.

The texture also confused me initially, as I wasn’t expecting the rubberized grip that replaced the outer portion of the controller’s shell. If your hands sweat this won’t change that, but the grips will allow you to wipe them off less often. They’re stylish too, emblazoned with the SCUF “S” symbol to add a little more flare to an already beautiful piece of hardware.

The thumbsticks also bear the SCUF “S” logo, and thankfully they’re bigger than the official thumbsticks that Microsoft is using now. If you weren’t aware, the thumbsticks got smaller in diameter from Xbox 360 to One. The SCUF One brings back the size we’re familiar with. The D-pad is customized, too. A simple SCUF-branded plate is laid over the D-pad to add some extra leverage and makes it easier to select a direction.

The most impressive features are two that return from the Xbox 360 SCUF controllers, and two most important: trigger stops and rear paddles. The function of the trigger stops is to remove the dead zone that comes with pulling the trigger in shooters, shaving milliseconds off of what’s necessary to fire at your enemies. Sometimes those milliseconds are what’s necessary to stay alive or to continue that kill stream you’re on.

The back paddles are essentially shortcuts to the face buttons, A,B, X, & Y in this case. In my model there were two paddles, linked to the A and B buttons, respectively, but you can get four paddles, though it may take longer to get accustomed to. The benefit of the back paddles is to help keep your right thumb on the right thumbstick, typically used for aiming your weapon. Again, it saves you milliseconds, but overall you’ll find yourself more comfortable and eventually all these minor time savers add up to an ergonomically efficient way to dominate your enemies.

At $149.99, the SCUF One OpTic is a bit pricey, more than double that of a retail Xbox One controller, but for those who spend a majority of their time in their favorite shooter, the price is justified. On top of the benefit the controller gives to your gameplay, each and every one is stylish. The OpTic is a very “Xbox Green” color and the texture is more matte than that of retail controllers, which makes it an eye-catcher.

Function and style combines with a very low learning curve to make one of the best custom controller experiences available.

Elgato's new HD60 Game Capture Card is sexy, but is it necessary?

If you’ve been in the gaming scene over the last decade, you’ve seen the meteoric rise of gaming videos. Youtube and streaming services like Twitch have turned your average Joe Schmoe gamers into celebrities, some of them making six figure salaries. Reaping the benefits of that popularity is companies like Elgato, who this summer released their HD60 Game Capture card.

We’ve got the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 each providing on-board streaming capabilities, complete with options for voiceovers and webcam streaming, so why is the Elgato still relevant?

Frankly, I’m not sure it is.

Before we get into that discussion though, let’s talk about the HD60 itself, because it really is a beautiful piece of hardware. They’ve ditched the angular design from their first Elgato card and instead have adopted a more rounded, pill-shaped design this time around. It looks more advanced just at a glance.

The port setup has changed too, with the HDMI in and the mini-USB port, used to power the device, now appearing on the same side, with the HDMI out opposite those. It was a minor inconvenience with the last model, but an inconvenience nonetheless and Elgato should be commended for making the change, as minor as it was. The issue now is that there is only HDMI ports. Gone are your S-video/composite and component options, meaning if you’re still streaming last-gen consoles without the use of HDMI, you can’t use this.

The biggest change is the introduction of 1080p video streaming and recording at 60fps. The results are noticeable for those with a keen eye or if you’re seeing the image on a screen larger than 42”, but rarely will you see a PC monitor that large. And most viewers that I know will watch Youtube videos and Twitch streams on their PCs, despite the PS4 and Xbox One’s implementation of the option on consoles.

It needs to be noted that I had to turn the 60fps option off when using Xbox One, otherwise the quality was absolute garbage. With it turned off though, it was far better.

Another update is to the Elgato software, which has also seen a major upgrade. Like the hardware itself, it’s gone from good looking to great looking. With that update comes new functions, most notable being Stream Command. Instead of having to use a third party program to livestream with your webcam, now everything is handled right within the software. You can also add your own live commentary to videos you’re recording, something that also required additional software in the last iteration.

For those who have the last generation of Elgato, you can use the new updated software as well, but it does come with some drawbacks. Using Stream Command for instance, will require that you have a PC that can handle some hefty specs. You need at least a 2nd generation Intel Core i7 processor and 4GB of RAM. It seems that you’ll need a decent PC overall with the new software, anyway. It’s certainly better and has more options, but it also requires more processing power to run, a hinderance for those who haven’t updated in a few years.

Now that you know what the new Elgato HD60 has to offer, we return to the question that we had at the beginning: Is the Elgato HD60 relevant? The answer is mixed.

If you’re looking to be livestreaming your gameplay from consoles, the $179.99 price of the Elgato HD60 isn’t worth your purchase. Everything that can be offered to you from the Elgato is available within the Xbox and Playstation consoles. If your plan is to record videos for Youtube, doing voiceovers and edits, then maybe the HD60 is what you need. The problem is that while arguments can be made for the hardware, there are arguments that can be made against it as well.

The Elgato HD60 is easy to use, it’s sleek, and if you’ve got the PC power for it, will provide you with a whole load of options that improve on Elgato’s previous hardware. If you’re looking to simply livestream, or you’re not someone who’s going to dedicate some major time to your Youtube channel, you can pass.

Tesoro turns heads with its PC gaming hardware

For the last few years, Tesoro has been quietly creeping into the world of PC hardware. Established in 2011, they’ve focused their time on providing gamers with mouse options, keyboard upgrades, and headsets made to rival some of their more expensive rivals. For the last month I’ve had my hands on two of their products, running them through the gamut of gaming to find out just how legit Tesoro is.

PC audio is most easily described as a “crapshoot”. You can get quality sound from a cheap headset, but if you’re looking to maximize quality, comfort, and customization, Tesoro offers the Kuven. Priced at only $79.99, the Kuven is a 5.1 surround sound headset that has surprising quality at high frequency, and noticeable rumbles from bass. It’s comfortable too, and allows easily management during your gaming activities.

Most headsets, when you hold them in the middle of the headband, have ear cups that pinch together. That’s often a sign that the tension is too high and, for those of us with big heads, will lead to discomfort after long periods of use. The Tesoro Kuven has a noticeable gap when held aloft, and the comfort when you put them on is apparent.

They’ve got an over-ear design, so the tension on the sides of your head isn’t terrible, but it’s snug enough not to slide down your face as you move your head around. It uses soft leather, which can be troubling if you sweat a lot, resulting in some disgusting “sticking” to your face. It also advertises memory foam in the ear cups for cushioning, but it wasn’t noticeable enough that it actually molds to your ears. Still, it’s comfortable and that’s what is most important.

One of the my favorite options is the control station. Too often volume controls are placed on the headset itself, resulting in players frantically searching for them during games, or having to remove the headset to find them altogether. With the Kuven control station you can adjust each specific channel, including the voice audio that’s filtering to you. You can also mute your mic or turn the sound off completely, all within arms reach.

The sound itself was glorious, clear and booming exactly how you’d want it to be. I tested it on a number of games, music (including bass tests), and movies to determine where it excelled. Because the audio was so clean, it’s hard to say how you should use this, so just use it for everything. The bass testing was so impressive that it felt like the headset had installed “rumblers” of some sort. And the 5.1 surround sound worked perfectly, both in testing and when watching movies or playing games.

To really see what type of hardware I was dealing with, I cranked the audio to max and then set off to find out exactly how loud these can get. They get loud. A basic decibel meter set inside the headset — not up against the speakers mind you, where your ear would be, but directly in the middle — found that it maxed out at 108.4db, just shy of what most say a “loud rock concert” would do to your hearing.

Moving from audio, I also had the opportunity to “play” with the Tesoro Lobera Supreme, a mechanical keyboard with some notable features. At first glance you’ll notice the beautiful blue backlit keys and a lit border that runs along the sides of the keyboard. Perhaps most important is that Tesoro has found a way to pack in options, but the keyboard itself doesn’t feel bulky. There are no additional buttons along the sides or jammed into gaps.

In the upper-right of the keyboard are multiple hub options, including audio (headphones and mic) and two USB ports. Unless you’re attaching the DC-in plug (a USB cable is included), the USB ports are limited to just 100w of power, meaning you’ll only be plugging in your iPod or a USB mic, nothing with a heavy load.  It’s not that big an issue, considering the options are provided for you in the box, but it can still be a nuisance if you’re trying to conserve USB ports on your PC and you’re forced to give one up and only get two in return.

There are macro options, accessible via downloadable software, but also provided via the keyboard, meaning you can record them on the fly. Without having to specify in the software how you want them set up you can change your tactics easily if you find your enemies doing the same. It’s easy to do too, using only a couple of button presses to accomplish what is normally a more-difficult-than-it-should-be setting with other keyboards. The macros are launched from one of three keys that rest below your spacebar for easy access.

The Tesoro Lobera Supreme seems like a basic keyboard at first glance, albeit with some catchy eye-candy with the lighting and the unique design, but I was really impressed with how much more it really offered. Somehow, with most keyboards getting bigger and bulkier, Tesoro has found a way to pack all the features you’d want in a keyboard into a typically sized option. It’s really impressive.

I’m happy to say that my first experience with Tesoro has been such a positive one. They’ve only been around for three years, so you’d expect either overpriced hardware, or extremely cheap manufacturing. Thankfully, you get neither of them. If you’re looking for a bargain and to get some quality, the Lobera and Kuven embody both.