Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick – Anniversary Edition

Purchased February 2019, £30.04 from Amazon UK

If you are of a certain age and played videogames in the late 1980s or early 1990s the Competition Pro was a very familiar sight in the UK. Particularly with the rise of the 16-bit home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. Along with other sticks like various Quickfire models, the Cheetah 125+ and Zipstick. You would always bump into these joysticks and the Competition Pro was just one of those popular and iconic controllers of the era.

And despite owning various arcade sticks and joypads over the years I’ve never got around to picking up any of the more modern re-releases of this classic from Speedlink. So I let out a squeal of delight this week when I accidently found on Amazon that Speedlink has released a new updated Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick. It is a perfect time and excuse to pick one up.

Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick in its box.

It has been 25 years or so since I last held and used one of the original Competition Pro joysticks. So my memory may be hazy, but essentially this feels like I’ve picked up the same joystick. The microswitched stick feels as tight and stiff as ever. And the clicky microswitched big buttons on the front of the base are still faithfully there. This is a genuine Competition Pro updated for modern USB devices.

The stick is advertised as working with Microsoft Windows and Google Android operating systems. However I’ve been using it exclusively with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and RetroPie and it works fine (I assume it also works on Linux but haven’t had a chance to check).

Essentially a digital joystick with 4 independent buttons and an auto-fire switch. The joystick has a 1.8m (just under 6ft) USB cable. This isn’t the longest length depending on how far away you are from the computer or box you are plugging the stick into but should be enough for most use cases. This new release has an increased polling rate over earlier USB versions and to be fair it shows. I didn’t feel any lag on inputs when playing with this joystick.

The Competition Pro Extra USB Joystick in all it's black and red colour scheme glory.

My only issue is the red ‘speedlink’ logo near the back of the base behind the stick. This feels like it is in the wrong place and does spoil the overall look of the controller a little bit in my opinion. All that said hopefully there is a chance of a clear transparent and red version in the future (which is obviously the best looking colour scheme for the Competition Pro).

The quality and feel of this stick is fantastic. It feels robust and well made like it was from the 1980s. And in many ways it makes the experience of playing older 8/16-bit games much more authentic than using a modern controller, like a Microsoft Xbox 360 joypad or similar. The price of around £30 is perfect for what you get. Which also includes 20 retro-style Windows compatible games.

So hats off to Speedlink and thank you for releasing this wonderful product.

More information can be found on the Speelink website here.

February 2019 Update

Weather getting warmer again another solid month of progress on videogames I own. Should be easier now the NFL American Football season is over and Sunday nights are free again.

New game pickups

  • Divinity Original Sin: Enhanced Edition (PS4)

I already have the original Divinity Original Sin on PC, but for less than £8 I’d prefer to play this on console. Otherwise I just purchased an Xbox One Controller Wireless Controller (Blue).

Not game related but purchased the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones. I’ve always wanted to try some Beyerdynamic headphones and whilst yet another pair of open, wide soundstage headphones I think these might be brighter and more lively than my existing AKG K702 and Sennheiser HD598 headphones. More thoughts here.

Been playing (Grouvee)

  • Abzu (Xbox One)
  • Wolfenstein: The New Order (PS4)
  • Anthem (Demo) (PS4)
  • The Division 2 Private Beta (Xbox One)
  • Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (Xbox One)
  • World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth
  • Rocket League (PS4)
  • Hammerwatch (PC)

I made some more progress with the Wolfenstein: The New Order – maybe about two thirds through the game. I tried Anthem (Demo) and The Division 2 Private Beta earlier in the month and wasn’t particularly taken with either, although for different reasons in each case.

Some games started on Xbox Game Pass; Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and Abzu. Other than that it’s been playing games I’d already started, such as World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth, Rocket League and Hammerwatch.

Completed, Abandoned & Shelved

Completed FTL, Unreal Tournament and Hammerwatch. Although in reality you never complete a game like FTL the fact is I’ve done a few runs through the game now and feel like I’ve seen enough of it. Unreal Tournament was something I played with for a few hours and was great fun but unless it somehow miraculously rises from the ashes I can’t see me playing this again in the near future. After completing one playthrough I published my thoughts on Hammerwatch recently.

So completed 3 games this month.

Updates

A number of articles and posts written and published on the site, including a few long term hardware reviews.

Up next

To try and get further or complete Wolfenstein. There are the few Xbox Game Pass games I’ve recently started that I need to play further. I also want to check out Crackdown 3 as I loved the original game.

And finally I have a couple of new accessories arriving soon which I will likely draft my thoughts on over the next few weeks.

A few next generation hopes

Recently Digital Foundry released a wonderful video suggesting six relatively realistic upgrades they would like to see on any future Nintendo Switch hardware revision. Which got me thinking what is it I would love to see on the next generation Xbox and PlayStation. Particularly changes that are realistic and within the realms of possible.

Whilst I love gaming on PC, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m fed up with high-end PC pricing. Sure you don’t have to have the best components, and I often don’t, but even low and mid-range parts have increased in price. And if you’re buying less powerful parts then the advantages over consoles when gaming become less. Over the last 12-months I’ve spent more time on my Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro as I’ve moved away from gaming as much on my PC.

Whilst hardware is definitely going to be more powerful in the next Xbox and PlayStation I’ve realised that it isn’t just hardware that I would like to see improve when new machines arrive in the next 1 to 2 years. Actually software and services are just as important. Therefore I’m not going to list improvements like a faster CPU or more RAM as realistically these things improving are a given, particularly as we know AMD Zen CPU and Navi GPU components are extremely likely to be in these new machines. Anyway here is my small wishlist for each machine and manufacturer:

Microsoft Xbox

More exclusives. Microsoft announced at E3 a load of studios that it had acquired. And whilst some of these are likely to be working on their new cloud streaming services and content, there is hopefully a chance they are also working on new IP for Microsoft machines. Microsoft has fallen well short of the mark when it has come to new games this generation and is in the shadow of Sony’s incredible first party studios content since 2013.

Xbox Game Pass merged with Xbox Live Gold as a single premium subscription. Probably unlikely but I did see someone on ResetEra thinking along the same lines. The consumer charges for online multiplayer are ‘snake oil’. The cost that the consumer pays a platform holder in the 30% fees they charge are enough for server maintenance for first-party games. If Microsoft got rid of fees for multiplayer and built around their Game Pass initiative they would give Sony a real problem and offer something unique. It becomes less about charging something the consumer resents paying and making the consumer more positively see the service so they want to subscribe.

Support for USB DACs, AMPs and Microphones. One of the great things about the PlayStation 4 is being able to use USB audio devices like the Fiio E10K or Creative SoundBlaster X7. Microsoft’s proprietary audio chip and solution isn’t just a barrier to great audio on Xbox but a real pain for those of us with more than one format.

Completely redesign the dashboard operating system. Even though the Xbox dash has improved in recent years it still pales in comparison to Sony’s clear and simple OS design. Like Microsoft’s convoluted vision for the Xbox One, the operating system was clearly designed around Metro, Kinect and selling services. Metro and Kinect were failures and adverts on dashboards aren’t consumer friendly. Although Sony’s design is far from perfect you are never more than one click away from your games.

Sony PlayStation

Better acoustic profile. Even though my PlayStation 4 Pro is generally silent or quiet with PS4 games, once any enhanced game is loaded the whole thing becomes very loud. The original launch PS4 was too loud when compared with the original Xbox One as well.

Backwards compatibility with PS1 and PS2 games. Microsoft has been more innovative on the services and software front in many ways. Game Pass, Backwards Compatibility and Xbox One X enhanced 4K Xbox 360 and Xbox games are things Sony simply has little response to. However there should be no reason for why Sony can’t offer PS1 or PS2 emulation on its new hardware. Maybe even bundling up some of its old library as a PlayStation Plus freebies rather than trying to sell as ROMS. Either way Sony needs a way to allow its consumers to access old content that is more compelling than the expensive PS Now service. Talking of which…

Make PS Now cheaper. £12.99 feels too much per month for what the service is, but worse still compares very badly with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass which is nearly 40% cheaper per month and includes brand new releases. Whilst PS Now has around 750 games available (most streaming only) there are barely any PS2 games on the service and there are no new day and date releases as per Xbox Game Pass.

Greater cross-play support. Again this isn’t dependant on new hardware, but new Live Services need to think about the consumer over their potentially long lifetime. And almost in the same way Xbox One and PlayStation 4 heralded a new age of console free-to-play games, by the time new machines arrive we should be able to play with friends and access our accounts and purchases irrespective of format. Although given the confusion recently it’s clear the scale of the challenge facing developers and publishers working with Sony.

Summary

So there we go, eight things I would personally like to see these new Sony and Microsoft console incorporate. There is arguably a policy change that Sony should and could make sooner with regards to cross-play, although this is also on Publishers as well. However these all feel like solid suggestions that could improve the new consoles from each manufacturer.

What would you like to see implemented or change with new consoles?

Hammerwatch Review

Hammerwatch is one of a number of games I started playing this last Christmas. It has been unplayed in my Steam library for years (I purchased it New Year’s day in 2014 for just over £2). It’s an indie, pixel art, 2D overhead dungeon crawler with loads and loads of enemies to kill. And unlike many games of its ilk isn’t a rogue-like and isn’t quite a twin stick shooter, although it arguably comes close.

The game has six different classes that can be selected and do have a noticeable impact on the gameplay. Each class has a different main attack and skills. And having played the Wizard followed by the Ranger I can say that the class can have an impact on the difficulty too. I found the Ranger easier with a better range on the main attack.

Hammerwatch screenshot from the PC version.

The levels are fairly large, easy to get lost within and can take a while to progress through with big boss battles breaking up the action towards the end of each chapter. Although it’s worth mentioning that while the game has two campaigns included to play through it does also have survival and wave-based modes as well.

I think this is a game that comes alive with other people although unfortunately I only played it solo. Although it’s fun I found the core gameplay loop can get repetitive quickly as ultimately most of the enemies have either one or two attack patterns. There are upgrades and a combo mechanic that can introduce slightly new elements to the gameplay but ultimately this is a very simple kill hordes of enemies and seek keys to unlock new areas. Although there are also some cool secrets to find.

There is a lot of content here and I do think the game has plenty of fun moments. The controls could be better though. This might just be the PC version but I tried both the Steam Controller and a Wireless Xbox 360 Controller. Essentially you have to use Right Trigger or A button to fire your main weapon, whilst using the left stick for movement and right stick for aiming. When you combine this with the extra skills that are on the front facing buttons (by default) it can make it overly complex to get everything working quickly as the gameplay requires. This felt like a game which is crying out for twin stick support. So shooting with the right analogue stick as well as aiming direction. I do think this change would immeasurably improve the gameplay albeit make the game slightly easier.

As an aside I’ve said recently the Steam Controller works well in certain games. Although I didn’t feel this was one of them. With the dual haptic pads, instead of sticks, I was often struggling to aim the 8 directional fire as easily as on dual analogue sticks although there is an almost unlimited customisation for the Steam controller to improves things.

I don’t currently score games as I generally just write up my feelings on the game in question but this would be a hard one to score overall. It is a simple fun old school 2D shooter which has a neat visual style, nice audio, and great ending mechanic to ensure replayability and different modes to enjoy. However it does get samey, repetitive and feel overly simple. However the developer has continued to support the game years after release on PC which is to be commended. I would have personally enjoyed this game more with a better control scheme and I suspect this is more fun when played with someone else. However even just playing on my own I still played through to complete the campaign which is a sign that I had fun with this game.

Played the PC / Steam version.

The Division 2 Private Beta (Impressions)

I written before how I generally was a huge fan of the original game and how the The Division 2 was definitely on my radar for 2019 upcoming releases. Fortunately I was lucky enough to be included in the private beta after registering last year.

I played this on an Xbox One X despite having played the original on PC and these are my thoughts:

  • I’ve had a few bugs and glitches with enemies floating or zooming about once or twice. Also the game disconnected and crashed to the Xbox dashboard twice on the first hotel mission. And the ‘poor connection to host server’ message has appeared a lot suggesting the servers are struggling on Ubisoft’s side. When I’ve been disconnected both times I’ve had to start the whole mission again which was very annoying. At least Anthem would ask if I wanted to re-join the expedition to resume where I was when this happened.
  • Framerate seems fine (on Xbox One X) and as far as I could tell the didn’t fluctuate badly. I would guess the game is dynamic 2160p or 4K – scaling down the game’s resolution when required. On a personal note having played the original on PC I can’t say the drop from 60-100+ fps bothered me that much.
  • Like the original a very pretty game. It appears to recreate its location in stunning detail. Washington, D.C. might not be as iconic as New York City but the more open, green areas are welcome.
  • AR’s and SMG’s seem to have more recoil on them, almost like LMGs from the original game.
  • The map doesn’t seem any bigger than the original, although wider. I know Massive have said it is 20% bigger though.
  • The UI is very similar and very badly implemented. They feel like they are optimised for console/controller, over flashy, don’t use space well and are even more complex than the first game.
  • Although a new look the game seems to have the same enemies types in this, but again they try and flank and take cover etc. when they need to.
  • I also followed some friendly NPC’s around because it says they are scouting for water thinking it might be an organic side mission, but alas even with an enemy shootout there was no reward or anything.
  • I also could play everything so far solo (haven’t tried endgame stuff) but unsure if it scales up for groups.
  • It feels like there are more lootable objects hidden around which is good and encourages exploration.

Overall

Everything feels very similar to the first game; the way the story starts, the way you build the base, the gunplay, movement, skills, perks, echoes, audio recordings etc. It’s simply more of the first game as if the same template has just been lifted from the first one, and simply put into the new location with some minor changes. And whilst that’s great for fans of the game I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I personally wanted an Assassin’s Creed 2 or Mass Effect 2 style improvement.

This all feels so remarkably similar, that my hunch is that we are looking at more of the same. Meaning you are replaying the same mission content over, and over. Of course many will argue that is true of the genre but I very rarely have the same complaint of similar games like Warframe where it always feels like there is more actual content.

Of course as mentioned this is a demo/beta and the full game may unlock more new features. And I do think there is enough enjoyment here for hardcore fans of the original who will love this as it is more of the same. However whether irrationally or not I did burn-out on the original Division and I haven’t seen quite enough to buy at the initial asking price. Although I will likely purchase at some point in the future.

Which is good in some ways because there are other games that I am really looking forward to playing and my backlog is still as big as ever.

My Headphone Review Round-Up

Following a long-term recent review of my Creative Sound Blaster X7, I wanted to write about my thoughts on my current headphone line-up. Over the years I’ve used a number of good, bad, cheap and semi-expensive headphones along with various audio setups.

My current headphones include some of the more highly regarded stereo headphones in the entry to mid-price level that are often recommended for gaming. And seeing as I’ve just taken delivery of a new pair I though now was as good a time as any to go through them. Particularly as I have owned some of these for several years now.

The headphones reviewed here are:

  • Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro
  • AKG K702
  • Sennheiser HD 598

Methodology explained

I’m not an audiophile so will try to outline my detailed impressions as clearly and as simply as I can.

  • These are all open backed headphones and let air into the headphones so you can hear the outside world, but the outside world can hear what you are listening to, i.e. sound leakage.
  • All have a wide soundstage and there is some similarity in how they handle videogame audio.
  • They are highly rated where it comes to positioning sounds for competitive multiplayer gaming.
  • None of these are ‘gaming’ headsets.
  • None of these include a built-in microphone so is something that needs to be factored in, whether it might be USB desk mic for PC gaming, or a detachable microphone like the Antlion ModMic. I rarely use a mic but it is something I will add in the future.

Although I have used some of these headphones with different external DAC & AMPs and Soundcards these have recently been used with my aforementioned Creative Sound Blaster X7 which has no trouble powering any of these headphones.

Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro

Purchased January 2019, £101 from Amazon UK

My latest purchase and currently using quite heavily with all audio sources. First of all the headphones are deceptively light but appear very well built. A mixture of metal and plastic they have a lovely mostly black look to them. The distinctive grey ear cushions particularly standing out. The main headband that connects each ear cup is metal with a mostly plastic finish on the earcups.

The headphones are comfortable (second only to the Sennheiser HD 598) although this is subjective. However despite the DT 990’s supposedly having more clamping pressure than other Beyerdynamic DT headphones, these don’t feel too tight to me. Indeed the fit is OK even after a few hours. The earcups are round and smaller than the other headphones mentioned here and this can mean the edge of the earcups sit on the ears. However like all of these headphones they are very comfortable overall.

The sound produced by these headphones has more bass than the other two. And the Low frequency sounds also have more presence and impact. This makes them more fun for gaming although they still have a wide soundstage. The separation of sounds isn’t quite as easy with these though. Although I am still getting used to the sound signature there is a vibrancy and brightness to the output that I like. I found these headphones more of a mixed bag when listening to music than the Sennheiser or AKG’s although there isn’t a lot in it and I might like these more over time.

The DT 990 Pro are 250 ohm headphones which means they need to be amplified and the Creative Sound Blaster X7 copes very well with them. The included cable isn’t detachable from the headset and is coiled. This can make the cable seem heavy and be irritating in certain scenarios.

AKG K702

Purchased July 2015, £137 from Amazon UK

At the time of writing this, these headphones are now only £105 on Amazon UK. So right in that competitive price bracket and can be directly compared to the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones. I’ve had this set for over three and half years and they are my favourite headphones. Mainly due to the neutral output and reference sound. But with a super wide soundstage it feels like you can hear everything going on around you with extreme clarity.

In terms of comfort they apply very little to no clamping pressure which means they can feel looser than other headphones particularly as they are so lightweight. The round ear cups are massive and the foam used is super plush on your ears. This is all good. However the K702 had a leather headband that adjusts when placed on your head. During prolonged wearing I find this feels like it’s pushing down on the top of my head. As long as I take a break or adjust the headphones I can get around this. Again they are very comfortable in the main and at least the K702’s lacks the bumps on the underside of the leather strap that the older models used to have.

The sound is very detailed and I find this makes them perfect for gaming and they are great for music too. They seem to thrive with Dolby Digital and SBX. There is no heavy bass and whilst this might make them less ‘fun’, I still really enjoy the sound. They seem to output the sound as the creator intended. They are renowned for being like a ‘god mode’ for competitive multiplayer games due to how easily you can make out where other players are.

The headphones include a detachable mini-XLR cable that can be replaced. One observation is that the small strings that support the leather band adjustment appear to be very thin in places on mine and therefore I imagine might break at some point. Therefore I think even though I treat all these things with kid gloves these headphones, whilst of high build quality, are more delicate than the other two models mentioned here. These have a 62 ohm impedance but I have use them with an Astro MixAmp or Laptop and whilst usable they can be improved with an amplifier to give that extra power. But either way my go to headphones for gaming for a while now.

Sennheiser HD 598

Purchased April 2012, £167.99 from Amazon UK

I’ve had these for nearly seven years. Although now discontinued there are similar models in Sennheiser’s current line-up. I used them for a long-time and are really very capable all-rounders. They excel at gaming, movies and music.

These are probably the most comfortable headphones I ever tried. The ear cups are Sennheiser’s instinctive oval shape and the headband has a soft material which you never feel. Again very light weight so they can be worn for hours. My only minor niggle is the ear cups aren’t as thick as other headphones and the inside of the earcups has no padding, not that your ear should touch this. The cable has a 2.5mm phone jack with a proprietary connector but can be disconnected. The beige and brown walnut look is distinctive but I can imagine not to everyone’s taste.

Again a very wide soundstage so making out where sounds are coming from isn’t an issue, which is ideal for gaming. They are fairly flat sound with little bass. Although the sound is not as neutral as the AKG K702 and warmer. As they have a 50 ohm impedance these are less fussy and don’t necessary need an amp but will be improved by one.

They aren’t as fun as the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro’s or as clinical as the AKG K702’s so as I don’t want to build a headphone collection I might sell these on. But again highly recommended and I do love their sound.

Summary

I feel like the AKG, Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser headphones I’ve mentioned cover some of the more popular models. The AKG K702 and Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro particularly represent some of the better value choices for headphones on the market although any of these headphones are a great purchase. I’m not personally convinced that spending two, three or many times more on expensive headphones would be worth it just for gaming.

Thoughts on other headphones

  • I did purchase Philips Fidelio X1 headphones in January 2014. The ear cup material was a harsh feeling velour but they were comfortable. I found the sound output a bit muddier, lacking some separation and heavier bass in comparison to my other headphones. I think they were better for music and movies than gaming. I sold them on 18-months later. It sounds like the newer Fidelio X2 headphones may have been improved but at much higher prices it puts them up against some tough competition in my view. Particularly models like the AKG K712 and Sennheiser HD 600 headphones.
  • I also had the Astro A40 headphones which I purchased with an Astro MixAmp 5.8 and whilst they were a step up from what I had at the time, they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the headphones I have mentioned here.
  • I think the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X are very intriguing. Although closed back headphones, they are generally well regarded and have a certain degree of portability. And for me they would be usable in scenarios where I didn’t want sound leakage and therefore an interesting option. Also they have an RRP of under £90.

Anthem Demo Impressions

I recently put Anthem in my most anticipated games for 2019, and so having finally played the open demo (1st Feb to 3rd Feb) I thought I would write up my initial thoughts. In summary there are a few good things but I also have some major concerns at this stage.

Played on a PlayStation 4 Pro.

The Good

  • The ‘verticality’ of the world. Rushing down the huge cliffs and waterfalls, or climbing high to get to a top of a mountain feels great. Also opens up some really interesting tactics in firefights, like being able to take refuge on a high vantage point. Makes games like The Division feel really flat in comparison.
  • Flight works well. Controls take some getting used to, but being able to quickly fly around or get to another side of a firefight is fun and different.
  • Combat feels good. The weapons feel impactful and some of the special abilities are great (R1 ability in particular).
  • Freeplay mode with world events and organic grouping works well. Obviously very similar to Destiny.

The bad

  • The game isn’t ready. Sure it might be an older fork of development but there are too many things wrong to suggest this will be ready at release. Even a demo should be fit for purpose. Particularly if it’s part of a paid package (pre-order bonus). I’ve had disconnects, crash to dashboard, sound cut out (had to close application) and graphics glitch so textures displayed incorrectly. Destiny in it’s alpha and beta demos, and The Division open demo were very stable by comparison.
  • Performance isn’t looking great. Drops below 30fps on the enhanced consoles and the framerate fluctuates. Digital Foundry did a great summary of PS4 Pro and Xbox One X performance. DF’s similar analysis of the PC version sounds like the game has very high system requirements too.
  • Not solo friendly. This might just be true of the demo. But as a solo player I could not get past the final part of the second main mission and struggled in certain sections. The demo doesn’t appear to scale in anyway. Hopefully this isn’t a thing in the full game, otherwise this is going to be a group co-op shooter only with limted endgame content for solo players (although this is often true of games of this ilk).
  • Microtransactions. The recent reddit discovery did highlight that even if prices are £10, £20 or £30, that a lot of customisation options will likely be locked behind long grinds or real world money.
  • Menus are a bit messy. UI feels slightly over flashy and clunky in places. Having to frequently back out of screens.
  • Loading times slightly long and screens too frequent.
  • Variety, or lack of. Will there be enough in the game? It felt like the core gameplay loop might get old quickly from the demo.

What the demo has succeeded at, even after a few hours, is making me lose interest in this game. Maybe one to check out later on. This has not been a good advert for the game.

After release it should become clear how the microtransactions work, how large the game world is, how much solo friendly content their is, whether the servers hold and if the game’s stability is improved. As ever we won’t really see any of this detail until after launch and reviews as players have the game in their hands.

Rage Review

The great thing about Xbox Game Pass is that it has a mix of new, recent and old games on its service. And for whatever reason I never got around to playing Rage (id Software & Bethesda) that released in 2011. Even though I always was tempted and it is often cheap on any format, I just never got around to buying it. And that is where Game Pass excels. You start playing games you might not have otherwise played. And whilst the Xbox 360 version is weaker graphically than the PC version it was a trade-off I was happy to make.

In Rage you are an non-descript survivor that has to very quickly learn to stay alive and get use to shooting lots of bad guys. There is a story which I thought was reasonably well setup and told although nothing particularly original or standout. The game is mostly an FPS but has driving sections which are used as a means of getting across the world although there is vehicle combat and racing. The game has what looks like an open world(ish) map although in reality the game is fairly linear with the expansive maps are really used for the vehicle sections. There are also some mini-games such as card games although these didn’t have huge depth to hold my attention for long.

Rage screenshot

Where Rage really stands out, is its 60fps gameplay, which is very smooth, fast and responsive. More of an arcadey FPS that resembles the other ‘arcadey’ Bethesda shooters in a way. 60fps was much rarer in the seventh generation of consoles so it is a pleasant surprise. Of course the trade-off is that the graphics can be fairly bland, lacking in texture detail and flat in comparison to some of its peers. Indeed Rage set in a futuristic wasteland is often a mostly brown, bland looking game with a few variations but nothing that stand-outs as much as the high frame rate. The game doesn’t have much colour and the locations can blend into each other as well. Although it is far from a bad looking game.

The gunplay is solid and there is a nice variety of weapons including variation of ammo types for each weapon which can change their behaviour. There is some variety in the enemies and a few boss fights in the game. The vehicle sections work well and compare to something like the Warthog in the Halo games. And the game does a good job of limited your ammo to begin with to make it feel like you have to scavenge for things. Although by the end of the game In was probably ‘over tooled’ with too much ammo.

One complaint that is often raised is how the game ends. I didn’t even realise I was in the very final moment of the game before the end sequence and achievements popped. So there is some truth to this.

Rage screenshot of a driving section from the game.

Although I can’t be precise it took somewhere around 25-30 hours to complete Rage on normal difficulty and it was a pretty fun experience. Although it is easily a game I could have abandoned with little regret. And I think that’s a fair way to summarise my time with Rage. It feels greater than the sum of its parts. Neither a bad game, but also not a classic. Merely a ‘good’ game. It is worth a playthrough it you like FPS games or would like to see the first game before its sequel arrives later this year. I just wouldn’t say it is essential.

One noteworthy fact is that this game was the first outing for the id Tech Engine 5 which would also go on to power Wolfenstein: The New Order and Dishonored 2 amongst other games. Newer versions of the engine have powered Doom (2016) and its upcoming sequel. You can definitely feel the similarities in some of the newer games, like Wolfenstein.

And finally the game is another great advert for Microsoft’s backward compatibility. Whilst unfortunately not Xbox One X enhanced, it is still great to be able to play Xbox 360 (and original Xbox) games on your Xbox One. The game only crashed once when I tried capturing a screenshot. Bravo Microsoft.

Played on Xbox One X via Xbox Game Pass.

Creative Sound Blaster X7 Review

Not that long before setting up this website I purchased a Creative Sound Blaster X7 (June 2018). I always meant to draft a few words on it but in a very short space of time it has quickly blended into my setup and become a fairly inconspicuous piece of hardware that gets used all the time. So my thoughts are based on seven months of heavy usage.

For a long time audio to me was TV speakers, mainstream PC sound cards and basic headphones. Over the years I purchased a few cheap headsets and never really got the best from my audio setup. Buying cheap Creative 5.1 Surround speakers was something I did a couple of times with my earlier PC builds. And I remember one time many, many years ago buying a Speedlink Medusa 5.1 headset which was really horrid because it was prone to interference through its breakout box and seemed to always provide a hissy sound. So I suppose like a lot of people audio was an afterthought.

Fast forward to 2012 and I suddenly decided to start investigating much better sound solutions. I ended up buying high-end PC sound cards (an Asus ROG Phoebus that quickly became a Creative Sound Blaster ZxR sound card), Sennheiser HD 598 headphones, A FIIO E3/E7 external DAC and AMP combination and a Astro A40 and MixAmp 5.8 set. I also went through some Philips Fidelio X1 headphones as well. What all of these did was give me a serious appreciation for better sound particularly where games were concerned. I had heard good AV/HiFi setups but not many great videogame audio solutions. Over the course of a few months I now had access to reasonably good sound quality and headphones. Indeed even though not an audiophile it even inspired me to completely re-encode all of my music CDs that were once an iTunes library into lossless FLAC file format.

Last year as I started to think about needing to simplify my audio setup. Whilst having all these individual components was great spending money on one device made more sense. I wanted something that I could use with my PC and videogame consoles. I deliberated on whether to buy an external DAC and AMP like a Schiit stack. In the end I settled for the Creative Sound Blaster X7 because I realised that as a gamer first, virtual surround is still incredibly important to me. And therefore for the same money whilst better quality audio solutions might exist for music, I could trade off some of that quality to give me a great setup for gaming.

Creative Sound Blaster X7 in its box sitting on top of my old desktop PC.

The Creative Sound Blaster X7 has been out for a while now, being released in 2015. However it remains relatively unique in terms of its feature set. It’s main strength is it is a multi-platform, multiple input DAC/AMP that can work with almost any device and supports both Dolby Digital and Creative’s own SBX surround enhancements. There are much more detailed write-ups, particularly around specifications and audio quality, within one of the many Head-Fi reviews from when the device was released.

Here is a list summarising the things the Creative Sound Blaster X7 is really GOOD at:

  • High quality sound output.
  • Allows multiple inputs at the same time including Optical, USB, Bluetooth etc. So you can listen to a podcast or YouTube video on your PC or Android mobile, whilst playing a console game.
  • Capable enough amp to drive ‘up to 600 ohm’ headphones. That may not be the case but fine driving the full range on my AKG K702 (62 ohm) or Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (250 ohm) headphones.
  • Brilliant and powerful set of options laid out on the PC Control Panel to adjust surround, calibrate speakers and so on. Will work without drivers though.
  • iOS and Android mobile app with access to the same control panel to access settings over Bluetooth, particularly useful when you don’t want to boot up your PC.
  • Dolby Digital decoder for PS4 and Xbox One via optical input (TOSLINK) but with a solid amp and SBX enhancements that give a very high quality sound. Particularly in comparison to something like the Astro MixAmp.
  • Automatically powers down after 20-minutes to save power.
  • Can work with the Creative BT-02 Bluetooth Adaptor to support wireless voice chat. So less cables! (PC and PS4 only though, not applicable for Xbox).
  • Can output to the powered 2.0 Edifier Speakers I have and automatically changes to headphones output when an audio jack is plugged in.

However like anything it isn’t without NEGATIVES. Such as:

  • Lack of physical controls. Need to use the control panel software to switch between speakers and headphones which can be annoying if you leave your headphones plugged in.
  • Cannot adjust auto standby, so the timing is always set to 20-minutes. And auto standby if Bluetooth device is connected.
  • Voice chat on Xbox can be a mess with wires required to be split in order to plug into a newer Xbox One controller.
  • No indicator on the volume dial.
  • Very minor point, but no theming on the PC or mobile control panel apps. Specifically a dark mode option.

Summary

I love the Creative Sound Blaster X7. It often gets compared unfavourably to the Schiit Modi/Magni stack however that is based on US pricing ($400 RRP). In the UK the X7 now sells for around £240 (I paid under £260) which is the same price as the Schiit Modi/Magni stack. Whilst that is likely a better choice for quality stereo sound the X7 is undoubtedly a more complete package for videogames. Particularly when it is so able at dealing with multiple platforms. And it isn’t like the x7 is bad at dealing with high quality music either. It is very capable external DAC and AMP for music and movies that happens to be great for gaming.

Since I purchased the X7, Creative have released the Sound BlasterX G6 external DAC/AMP which supports Dolby Digital as well as SBX. However because this doesn’t have outputs for speakers it would have to be paired with an headphone amp like the Schiit Magni for a similar price, or both the Schiit Magni and Modi but would cost £130 to £150 more.

The key question is would I buy this product again? ‘Yes’ is probably the answer. Whilst Creative probably have a successor on the horizon due out sooner rather than later, the Creative Sound Blaster X7 is still one of my better audio purchases. A brilliantly versatile device which has blended into my small gaming setup.