The Epic PC debate

The ongoing debate about Epic Games Store (EGS) is getting boring and tends to go around in circles. There I said it.

The latest game to announce being a timed exclusive to EGS is The Outer Wilds, from developer Mobius Digital. A small indie game that used crowdfunding but has really angered backers who regard it as having gone back on previous promises to deliver the game on Steam at release. As more and more games have been confirmed as exclusive to EGS we continue to see a similar uproar from many PC gamers.

If you go to any internet forum or reddit there are those who see Epic doing good, creating competition and perhaps making Valve up their game when it comes to their dominance over PC gaming. Often stating ‘it’s just another launcher‘ or it is like Amazon Prime or Netflix streaming services. On the other side of the debate Steam fans see rising prices due to reduced key resellers, loss of features and forced exclusives.

Stitched screenshot of the Steam and Epic Games Store main store pages.

I understand both sides of the debate but get bored at the often poorly made points of those defending Epic. You see EGS is far from another launcher. It’s a service, a platform which is in effect a walled garden. No one knows whether it’ll even exist in five or ten years (*cough* Desura). And when one of these services no longer exists then your whole library of games is gone. Forever.

Comparisons with the streaming services like Netflix are nonsensical. With subscription services you are never emotionally invested in them. You watch your content and then stop paying if you wish. You don’t lose anything. On platforms like Steam or EGS you are actually buying games. You build up a virtual library of games on virtual shelves. As your spend more and the library gets bigger the perceived sunk cost becomes even more. It makes it difficult to detach from the service. Media streaming services like Netflix are actually closer to game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or EA Access.

More often that not even when people explain the huge number of features that are available on Steam those on the Epic side don’t always acknowledge those points. Epic may well improve their offering but the list of features on Valve’s platform is immense. Even in the last year we’ve seen native DualShock 4 support, Proton (so Windows-only games on Linux) and a completely rebuilt Friends client (think Discord). The claim that Valve don’t work on Steam anymore seems to be based on personal opinions rather than actual fact.

For years Valve have been seen as the guardians of PC gaming, arguably even more than Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft was pushing the wholly underdeveloped Games for Windows-Live initiative, complete with plans to charge for PC multiplayer gaming. Valve were building a complete PC-based gaming ecosystem. Full lifecycle from store purchase to playing games. With new features like Big Picture Mode, Achievements, Community Market, In-Home Streaming, Proton Linux support, SteamOS, Cloud Saves, Broadcasting, Steam Works, Wishlist etc. If you use these features then the removal of them matters. Even though it’s a tiny audience some players may have been looking forward to The Outer Wilds on Linux. However as a game on a Windows-only client that leaves them in the dark for now.

Of course the 12% fees for developers on Epic versus the higher charges on Steam may help developers bring games to market but consumers don’t necessarily understand or directly see the benefit. Something Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has noted. And it isn’t the first time PC games have been exclusive, and paid to kept off competitors stores. Actually the Oculus Rift storefront for VR did this first. Furthermore it is arguably the only valid strategy Epic Games have to displace a mature and very established competitor. Consumers won’t buy games away from Steam unless you remove that choice. Exclusive content has been used for decades to entice gamers onto competitors products and services. And it is ironically competition, even if not as PC gamers might want.

Although I am a multiplatform gamer, even I’ve found myself sucked into this debate on EGS. Trying to explain why PC gamers are angry at Epic or the publishers being paid for EGS exclusivity and it gets really difficult not to have sympathy with those criticising Epic. Often the conversations descend into hostility and toxicity. I can’t fathom those defending anti-consumer practices when it comes to exclusive platform games. Certainly I understand the use of exclusivity deals however I’ll never defend the tactic.

Interestingly Epic yesterday announced a huge month-long sale on their storefront, which has generated some goodwill. The sale essentially sees Epic offering £10 off for games over £13.99 to bring some quite significant percentage discounts on lower priced games. But this sale is arguably a good tactic for consumers and a way to drive them towards EGS. Or at least might have been, but since the sale started many publishers have removed their games from the sale. Arguably the first good thing we had seen from this new storefront. At least for consumers. Although for now I’m just going to stay away from the Epic vs. Steam debates.

Do some video games age badly?

There’s a moment in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpieces where one of the characters realises that some things change so much that you can’t go back to things as they were before. And sometimes when playing an old videogame I think you may experience something similar.

This past Easter weekend the news leaked that some fans had been running a private server of the long since closed down MMO City of Heroes for the last six years in secret from most of the community. This on top of recent bad news about another fellow NCSoft studio; ArenaNet had made me want to play Guild Wars again. Not the 2012 sequel that most now know but the original 2005 Co-Op RPG game that came first; Guild Wars.

You see Guild Wars is a game I’ve played before. Actually I’ve had a number of attempts to try and play it. I played the 10-hour trial more times than I care to remember when I kept debating whether to drop money on the game. Guild Wars is one of those games that I’ve never played for as long as I should have, much like it’s sequel. The laundry list of things I have to do is still large, but at the very least I still harboured a desire to play through the main campaigns.

Guild Wars 1 screenshot.

Guild Wars is still an exceptionally beautiful game

So this past weekend I downloaded the installer and started the process of logging onto a game I hadn’t played for years. Surprisingly a relatively painless process and it didn’t take that long to get up and running. However almost as quickly as I had managed to log into the game I was hit by a strong sense of disappointment. And not just because of the reorientation process, i.e. there’s a lot of learn again but because it just wasn’t the same. The movement, skills based combat and interface felt a step back. Everything felt old, not surprisingly given how long ago the game came out, but worse still the overwhelming feeling whilst playing the game again was of wanting to play something else instead.

In other words the game compared unfavourable to some more modern games in my current library. Now of course this is unfair to Guild Wars. If was and arguably still is a great game but however irrational of me, I can’t shake the feeling that playing the game again doesn’t feel ‘right’. Knowing somewhere deep inside that maybe the chance I had to play this game has come and gone. Perhaps I’ve simply left it too long and the game’s time has come and gone.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this. Far from it. Although here I am writing about a game I’ve played before, you can also play a game many years after its release and still go through a similar experience. One time I remember in the early millennium finally buying Perfect Dark and Excitebike 64 on the Nintendo 64 years after release. Excitebike 64 still felt fresh and fun, Perfect Dark however felt juddery, slow and archaic. No matter how much I tried I just couldn’t get to grips with Goldeneye’s successor and it was a game I should have loved. Probably not helped by the newer First Person Shooters, like Halo, that had arrived in the years following. I even remember posting about Perfect Dark on an internet forum at the time and being meet with similar feelings as my own. Many also felt that as a game it had aged badly, or as least not as well as some of it contemporaries.

One thing is for sure, videogames do age. Both technically and conceptually. Some naturally much worse than others as some genres really develop over time. But the fact is that we players who play video games do also grow and change. And that can affect our opinions and reactions to older games. And therefore this is perhaps as much a comment about me rather than any critique about Guild Wars.

However almost as quickly as it took me to load the game, my adventure with Guild Wars comes to an abrupt end. Again. Maybe for the last time given that some day ArenaNet and NCSoft will turn off the servers. Although who knows as maybe as I may try the game again some day.

Whatever Arenanet is considering working on next, maybe a game that is truer in nature to the original Guild Wars, than its sequel ever was, might not be a bad thing. Hell I might even get around to playing it properly in a more timely manner this time. Maybe.

Coincidentally this post is being published to the day of the release of the original game; 26th April 2005. This wasn’t planned, just a happy accident I realised as I looked up facts about the game. So Happy 14th Birthday Guild Wars.

This newb just got a bit more powerful

Sorry another The Elder Scrolls Online update. I’ve finally completed the main campaign from the original game and I just had to write about it! On top of the recent reaching Champion Points 160 (i.e. Endgame) it feels like another major milestone in the game has been checked off.

Without sounding like a broken record but I think I have come to conclusion that the progression system just might be one of the best I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. Certainly the best in an MMO in my opinion. The vertical and horizontal progression in this game is immense.

Although the game can be a slow grind what has finally started happening in the last month is a massive payoff after years of playing the game. And it’s something I’ve not seen in other games. These recent achievements have included; completed the faction quest line, maxed out my class and armour skill lines, hitting Champion Points 160, maxing 3 main crafting skill lines (Woodworking, Clothier & Blacksmithing), being able to straight away craft my Law of Julianos set (solid PVE endgame gear set) and completing the main storyline. And so on. All of the milestones falling in quick succession after what seems like forever working towards them. On top of all of this and I’ve finally been able to earn my first Indrik mount from event tickets only after starting to work on this recently.

Overall it feels like a wonderful time for me in The Elder Scrolls Online. And tonight I hit an EU Megaserver login queue (c.8 minutes) which is a good sign of health for the overall game. I think that this is simply my favourite MMO at the moment and my Live Service game of choice for now.

There is still loads for me to do. To start working through DLC and expansion content, try to find some proper Legendary Endgame Weapons and Gear and most of my current setup is a mix of greens, blues and purples (fine, superior and epic quality respectively). I’m also in desperate need of mats for upgrading gear, or in-game gold to buy them. And most importantly Skill Shards to keep improving my crafting attributes. And a few Alts to level. Simply loads although whatever happens I’ve certainly had value and massive enjoyment from this game.

The only negative is I just might be burned out on The Elder Scrolls Online as the third expansion (Chapter); Elsweyr lands next month (on PC). Oh well there are worse problems to have I guess.

Cooler Master MH751 Review

Purchased March 2019, £51.77 from Amazon UK

Just over three months into the year and already a third set of headphones or headset in as many months. That wasn’t necessarily intended and hopefully this doesn’t set a trend and this blog is dominated by headphone reviews. I recently wrote about the Plantronics RIG 400HX headset and my need for a cheap headset for use with my consoles, PC and other devices such my Android phone. Whilst the Plantronics headset was absolutely fine as a budget option my curiosity was peaked about the Cooler Master MH751 headset after a review on the Z Reviews YouTube channel (particularly after Amazon ran a £5 off promotion recently).

There are two versions of this Cooler Master headset; the MH751 which I purchased, and the MH752. The MH752 includes a USB DAC and sell for approximately £15 to £20 more in the United Kingdom. The MH751 doesn’t include the USB DAC but does have a mute button and volume wheel on the included 3.5mm cable. Otherwise the two models are exactly the same. Given I don’t really have a need for a USB DAC I plumped for the cheaper of the two versions.

The Cooler Master MH751 Headset in their packaging

The headphones are basically a rebranded Takstar Pro 82 but with some small changes. The Takstar Pro 82’s have a bass slider with 3 presets. Cooler Master has removed these and fixed the bass response. In addition they have added a removable boom omnidirectional microphone, and the ear cups are slightly wider. The Takstar Pro 82’s are highly regarded as a great set of budget closed-back headphones that punch above their price and are exceptionally comfortable. Indeed if you only wanted a set of headphones with no need for a microphone then the Takstar’s sell for a similar price and include a wonderful carry case as a bonus.

So from a comfort point of view the MH751 are probably the most comfortable headphones I have ever tried. Perfect clamping pressure, relatively lightweight, soft ear padding and a headband with no pressure. Exceptionally comfortable. The only observation is that my ears get warmer compared to my open backed headphones but this is fairly standard for a closed-back set.

The headphones have a metal headband covered with a soft pleather material. However the rest of the headphone is mostly a rubberised plastic that feels solid and is nice to the touch. The 1.5m braided audio cable is near perfect length although it could be shorter for when plugged into Xbox One or PlayStation 4 controllers. The 3.5mm connector is also made of the same rubberised plastic. Overall the headset have a wonderful plain black look with the very simple outline Coolmaster logo which makes these headphones perfect for using outside or at an office. The ear cups and pads do a fantastic job of isolating sound and suffer very little sound leakage. Albeit there is a small amount.

The Cooler Master MH751 Headset

One minor negative is the lack of a port hole cover for when the removable microphone isn’t attached. Although the omnidirectional microphone sounds very good here and the build quality again is good. However a simple plastic cover for when the microphone isn’t in use would have been ideal. What I can say though is that the MH751 comes with a couple of really useful accessories. Firstly a splitter cable for using on a PC again made from that rubberised plastic. And small travel pouch. Overall as a package they are impressive to behold for their price. Even the packaging itself feels more premium than the price tag.

The MH751/752 have stealth looks, removable microphone, are closed-back backed and have a relatively low impedance of 26 ohms and can be used with any device. This all combines to create a pair of headphones that can be used in an office, or on the move as well as at home. For example they are the perfect partner for my laptop when I am on the move.

In terms of audio quality the MH751’s are vibrant and cope with detail well. Not bass heavy although there is some body to the bass and as a closed-back back set of headphones they do have more impact here. However the soundstage is impressive for closed-back back headphones and they work well for multiplayer games where identifying where other players are is important. Although the headphones are ideal for gaming, I found them fantastic for music as well. Although I didn’t like them as much as my open backed headphones for watching movies on although still very good. I think this is in part due to their lack of depth even if they have a relatively wide soundstage.

Overall I really like the Cooler Master MH751. I like them a lot. For me these fit the use case of a relatively budget closed-back headset which also has the added benefit of being a set of headphones I can use away from home. It feels like Cooler Master have taken a really well regarded set of closed-back headphones and added a microphone whilst making the bass balance nearly perfect for videogames.

A bargain at the price I paid, but even at £10 or £20 more, still a brilliant and very versatile gaming headset. Would absolutely recommend.

Borderworlds

Something must be in the air as recently I’ve started to think about the Borderlands videogames again. And no, this was before I found out about the long-rumoured next game being unveiled today. It was a videogame series I hadn’t really thought about after completing all the content of the second game nearly four years ago (aka True Vault Hunter Mode). In fact not only that but spoiler alert, I’ve purchased The Handsome Collection on PlayStation 4 a few days ago and have been playing it.

I still remember playing the first game upon release. It was a game I fell in love with instantly. The second game although largely more of the same did everything better and had a much more enjoyable and memorable story. Primarily due to the brilliant main villain and resurrecting notable characters from the first game. Simply put Borderlands 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. Indeed when I get around to compiling that list and publishing here as a post one day, you’ll likely see that game somewhere in my thoughts.

Borderlands 2 screenshot

Borderlands was far from perfect and the sequel very felt like a live service game before there really were live service games, i.e. mountains of DLC and add-ons sold for the sequel. However going back to play Borderlands 2 in 2019 still reveals a very solid, super fun, loot-o-rama of a first-person shooter with some wonderful set pieces. The bosses, story and humour all combine brilliantly. And no matter what level the rewards feel worthwhile with an abundance of uniquely crafted guns. Any item drop can be a potentially better weapon and upgrade your character. Borderlands even to this day has unique importance placed on its massive storylines. Unlike other loot based games where the story is more of a tutorial on the way to the endgame.

Yet that endgame is precisely one big area where a new Borderlands will need to improve upon. I don’t think replaying the whole story again is going to cut it anymore. It will need a more dynamic way of players engaging with the game after the story has ended.

Did you say Boom?

I thought about writing what I would like to see in a new instalment, but really I just want to be surprised. I would love to see the same level of innovation and execution that helped to launch the series back in 2009. 2K Games and Gearbox have released three Borderlands games that have all largely been exactly the same formula and not really changed anything from the original game. Whilst that might have worked on releases separated by a few years I do think Gearbox must do more on any future game particularly as times have moved on.

Although from a consumer point of view, that brings about probably the major worry. Will the next Borderlands be a microtransaction-riddled nightmare? As we’ve seen time and time again recently the balance between developers and publishers desire to make profits and not ruining a game’s design is very difficult to get right. Also ‘supporting’ a new game with actual new regular content and not just new events and microtransactions will be important in my view.

Either way, I look forward to seeing what Gearbox has been working on. If they can build on the uniqueness of Borderlands then it might be time to return. Vault Hunter.

Six months with a gaming laptop

Last year I decided that it was time to relook at PC gaming. With steadily rising component prices and new pricing tiers being introduced I realised that I wanted to get off the high-end PC gravy train. And use it as an opportunity to downsize my big desktop gaming PC. So last August I purchased a ASUS Strix GL703GS Scar Edition laptop. Ideally more than I wanted to spend but I wasn’t quite ready to give up on PC gaming, even if this was a downgrade on what I had before.

Since getting my first PC in 1996, I’ve always owned desktop PCs for gaming. And therefore I thought it might be interesting to note my thoughts on the transition from desktop to laptop after using this gaming laptop for just over six months.

Well the negatives first. It’s mostly the NOISE! A ‘gaming’ laptop like this is packing a high end Intel i7 CPU with a full size desktop GPU. And unfortunately that creates heat. Lots of it and in a small space. This means the ASUS laptop relies on 3 fans to cool the machine (2 connected via heat pipes). For normal desktop use it is bearable, however play a game and the thing will ramp up the fans immediately. It’s here the ASUS Strix can give a PS4 Pro or original Xbox 360 a run for its money in the ‘hairdryer’ noise stakes. This thing becomes very loud. Although I suspect there are quieter gaming laptops out there most will generate noise given the heat and small form factors involved.

That said the laptop hasn’t seen many hot days. With my old PC sometimes in the summer heat waves I’d take the side panel off the case to help it run cooler. Hopefully that isn’t something I need to worry about here, but we will see.

The ASUS Strix has a poor battery life. I can get over 2 hours from it but if you attempt gaming then even that will reduce. The battery is also an additional cost that has to be factored in one day as it will likely need replacing. The trackpad is OK but nothing as nice a MacBook or more business oriented laptops.

However you are no longer the main support for the machine. If something goes wrong you can’t fix it and have to send back under warranty. You also can’t upgrade anything bar the memory or storage. Although in some ways these last two points can be seen as benefits.

So what have been the positives from owning the ASUS Strix? The main one is obviously portability. Even tied to plug socket the machine is able to be used away from home. I recently spend a weekend with family and it was a boon being able to play The Elder Scrolls Online whilst away from home. Furthermore I can easily decamp to elsewhere around the house.

It is also easy to use as a desktop. I’ve kept my old ASUS monitor and Corsair keyboard to use with the laptop. A cheap laptop cooling pad and a 10-port Anker USB 3.0 hub act as my cheap docking bay solution. This even gives me a second screen if required.

Elsewhere my observations are a pretty ‘bloat free’ Windows 10 installation and a nice IPS 1080p display. 1080p is a lot easier to drive than 4K and opens up much cheaper PC options. Indeed a laptop with an Nvidia GTX 1060 is probably perfect for this resolution. Anything more powerful just gives you a bit more frame rates or headroom when playing games. The onboard audio is actually surprisingly good quality, even able to comfortably drive my Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones.

So the obvious question; would I buy a laptop PC again in the future for gaming? The answer is currently a clear ‘YES’.

Ideally a non-gaming PC laptop paired with a desktop PC for gaming is probably preferable. Although this gaming laptop fits the bill for a scenario where I only want one PC and want it to do a bit of everything, including gaming. And therefore I can definitely state that I am now a fan of gaming laptops.

Plantronics RIG 400HX (with Dolby Atmos) Review

Purchased February 2019, £37.99 from Amazon UK

I recently wrote about my headphones and thoughts on some new Beyerdynamic headphones that I purchased. However whilst I tend not to play multiplayer games that often, I very occasionally do need a microphone. Something that will work with console as well as PC. And so I recently purchased a pair of Plantronics RIG 400HX with Dolby Atmos. It is worth noting that these are the Xbox One branded variant of the RIG 400 although they will work with numerous devices with a 3.5mm audio jack. Although you may need to purchase a splitter for a separate microphone and headphone connection if you want to use on a PC.

Plantronics RIG 400HX box.

The RIG 400 is available in many different versions, including with and without Dolby Atmos. There is a slightly different looking version for PC which includes an audio splinter or a PlayStation branded version (RIG 400HS). They are all the same headphones though. However they can be purchased for under £33 at the time of writing if you don’t need Dolby Atmos.

Dolby Atmos is a code which can be redeemed on Xbox One or Windows 10 to unlock Dolby Atmos on any supported games on Xbox One or Windows App Store. The code isn’t needed for games on Steam or through other PC Storefronts (i.e. Overwatch from Blizzard supports Dolby Atmos). Dolby Atmos costs £14.24 as a one-off fee to unlock on Windows App Store and Xbox One so was another reason for considering this headset given I have previously considered buying the Dolby Atmos licence by itself.

The headset is very plasticky and light. The RIG 400 series is meant to be modular and the ear cups and headband can clip on and off, as well as being replaceable. However this means the headphones lack size adjustment beyond the three holes the ear cups can clip into and have no ear cup swivel. The extremely light weight of the headphones helps to make them very comfortable for prolonged use. The ear cups are a tad too small for my ears although the headband never once applied pressure to the top of my head. Overall they are quite comfortable and I am able to wear for long periods of time. The fact they are so lightweight being their main strength. The do have a cable coming out of each ear cup that is slightly irritating, but includes a useful mic mute switch and a very small volume slider.

Plantronics RIG 400HX

Sound quality is very flat and have quite a neutral sound with a little bit of bass. Nothing overpowering though. Sound separation and clarity is surprisingly good. This makes them suitable for gaming. Although overall I found they lacked depth and soundstage. But I was impressed with these being a budget headset. For music they are less impressive although when amped they do improve a little bit. Although they are fine watching films and TV. The RIG 400 are closed back although they do leak a lot of sound making them unsuitable for quiet environments. As a very low impedance headset they can be used with anything and I tested on my Xbox One X, PS4 Pro, PC (via the onboard and Creative SoundBlaster X7), tablet and Android mobile phone. However the over the top ‘gamer’ headset styling makes them unsuitable for using away from home, on looks alone.

I only used the detachable microphone a small amount so far but found it to be serviceable, certainly relaying my voice clearly for the recipient to hear me. That said I have read reports that the RIG 400 microphone can cause echo and feedback for other players hearing their own voice. However I wasn’t able to replicate this, but will return and update the review with further observations on the microphone, if required.

There is often a recommendation to stay away from ‘gaming’ headsets and get a set of headphones instead. And whilst I tend to agree this ignores that a headset can be more convenient in certain situations. It’s much like saying that quality is better with a Blu-ray film or music on CD. All true but ultimately makes light of the reason why these methods of consuming media are dying in comparison to streaming. And that’s what does appeal about these budget headphones. I rarely need to use them, they aren’t my main headphones, but they are more convenient. Sure you can buy a separate mic and adapter but it’s inevitably more wires and not as quick and easy to set-up. For me this budget option caters for the few times I need a microphone.

Dolby Atmos though is something which does elevate these headphones. As a software solution it really can help to improve videogame audio giving a really impressive virtual surround sound. I had no problem with being able to position or tell the height of where a sound is coming from. Dolby Atmos works with any headphones and is a bonus being included with these RIG 400HX’s. It would be great if more games on Xbox One made use of this software technology.

Competition wise the main competitor is probably the HyperX Cloud Stinger from Kingston. Which look more sturdy but lack Dolby Atmos in the box. Better quality closed back headset options exist like the HyperX Cloud II Gaming Headset and the Cooler Master MH751 but these are both above £60, even at their lowest prices. However if I was after something to be used more often it would probably be the latter that I would consider.

Overall I like the Plantronics RIG 400HX. Apart from allowing me to experience and unlock Dolby Atmos on Xbox One they are a good budget option, particularly on Microsoft’s platform. For the £38 I paid they feel like a bargain and I would happily recommend at this price as a budget headset for gaming. Particularly on console, if you need something convenient, cheap and with a microphone.

The Elder Scrolls foretold of this newb

I’ve written about The Elder Scrolls Online before. However recently I’ve been playing the game again and have passed two milestones. Firstly I’ve hit Champion Points (CP) level 160 on my main character. And secondly it dawned on me that it was just a little over 2 years ago since I purchased the game in February 2017 (PC version).

I stumbled across The Elder Scrolls Online at a time when I wasn’t really looking for a new game. However a big discount in a sale felt like a good excuse to check it out. And part of me wished I had found it sooner because this has been of one of the most enjoyable MMO experiences to date.

Getting to CP160 is a big deal. Whilst the game has a maximum character level of 50, the reality is the whole of the game is scaled to this CP160 level. Champion Points are a bit like the paragon system in Diablo 3 and serve as an account wide horizontal levelling system where you can attribute points earned from experience levelling into new abilities that improve an aspect of your character. At certain points they can also unlock other passives. All your characters can contribute to earning more Champions Point experience once they are level 50. However all gear and weapons are locked to CP160 meaning at this point only rarity or set bonuses can improve your gear and weapon stats.

The Elder Scrolls Online PC Version. Screenshot of a dungeon in Tamriel. With lots of add-ons.

There is still a lot for me to do in the game. Indeed I’ve still yet to complete the final area and main storyline. And whilst I’ve completed everything from my faction’s questline I’ve still got the other two faction quests and zone to do. Or guilds, or the DLC. And 2 expansions I’ve barely touched. But the truth is that I can keep playing the game as a solo PVE player enjoying quests, and exploring the world, whilst still progressing my character. There are hundreds of hours worth of quests.

And that is the other thing that has struck me about The Elder Scrolls Online. Its progression system is simply marvellous. Even at endgame there is rarely ever a time when your aren’t progressing something. For example I may have levelled all my class skill lines and two staff weapon skill lines. However I have barely put any skill points into crafting. So I’ll need to earn more skill points in order to get to endgame crafting. But compared to other MMOs like Guild Wars 2 or World or Warcraft progression feels frequent and fast. In those games it can feel like ages between progressing something and even then there are no points to customise your character or obvious reward. Whilst these great games do their own thing well, even something as basic as gear can flow in The Elder Scrolls Online. Even if it isn’t useful the materials it’ll break down into or gold it will sell for are.

The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t without its issues. And chief amongst my criticisms are the lootboxes with insanely unfair and extremely poor odds. However Zenimax Online Studios seem to be in a good place with The Elder Scrolls Online right now. The yearly expansion format since 2017’s Morrowind seems to be working well. And whilst last year’s Summerset or 2019’s upcoming Elsweyr don’t have the nostalgic pull of the first expansion, sorry Chapter, the game seems to be healthy with active players. I even had to join a queue upon logon a few days ago.

Whilst many MMO’s prioritise group PVE content, I think The Elder Scrolls Online knows a significant chunk of its player base are solo players wanting to experience the lore and world. And whilst it offers lots of group PVE content (Dungeons, World Bosses & Events, Trials/Raids) and large scale faction vs faction PVP. It also tries to cater for solo PVE players at all stage of the game with solo dungeons, fully voice acted quests/storylines and dynamic zones that scale to solo players as well. And in this sense it’s great even for the more casual player.

As a reward for my recent achievements I’ve gone ahead and pre-ordered Elsweyr. I am looking forward to lots more questing and seeing more of what The Elder Scrolls Online has to offer.

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.

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.