Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition Review

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition reminded me of playing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Given there are similarities between the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and Sony’s Uncharted series, this clearly isn’t an absurd comparison. However there are definitely a few things this Tomb Raider did much better than that original Uncharted. For example not filling your screen with inordinate amounts of enemies shooting at you. Indeed although the combat probably isn’t as strong overall, I much preferred this slightly more realistic approach.

I have a sporadic history with Tomb Raider. I played the first one in 1996 and marvelled at it, much like everyone else at the time. And after playing the sequel I then didn’t pay attention to the series until Tomb Raider: Legend on Xbox 360. I also played a bit of Anniversary at a friend’s. So whilst not the biggest fan of the series I do appreciate the impact the games have had.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition screenshot of Lara in action.

There is a lot to like about Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Which came out nearly a year after the original release, in early 2014, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition updated the 2013 release for the new (at the time) Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. It has some open-world components and there is some freedom to explore or revisit certain areas on the map. However this is largely a game pushing you on to the next part of the game.

On PlayStation 4 the game runs at 1080p and 60fps, although it does struggle to stay near the 60fps target with frame drops frequently occurring. And this can vary by level. Some of the more wider, open vistas can particularly cause the framerate to stutter. However I didn’t personally find this to be that irritating but this is subjective. It’s worth mentioning I don’t tend to run my PlayStation 4 Pro with boost mode enabled but my understanding is that that it can get the game much closer to the 60fps target.

The game got stuck on a loading screen once, although closing the game and reloaded resolved this. The graphics are muted and they definitely appear to be dated in places looking very much like a game that was designed with previous generation consoles in mind. Although with some great close ups and cinematography the game still has plenty of wow moments. The rendition of Lara Croft here is extremely impressive (particularly the facial features and hair).

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition screenshot of a cutscene moment from the game.

Overall I liked the story, although I thought the first third of the game was when things were at their best. As the story progresses enemies encounters ramp up, in difficulty and number. And the story advances into fantasy elements. It’s fine but earlier on there is more of a survival aspect. A sense of Lara working through every hurdle. Enemy encounters are more sporadic and shorter. The story takes a slow burn approach to build-up Lara which works very well. The realism is conveyed brilliantly, particularly when Lara gets injured. The weapons and combat are OK, but without crouch and cover button (you go into cover automatically where near some objects) it can get a bit frustrating and simplistic at times.

One thing the game does is encourage you to explore and rewards you for this. You need salvage for improving weapons and other items for XP to unlock skill points. And if you explore then you find more that will unlock things faster. It isn’t particularly in-depth but they have added puzzle elements to some of the things you can find. I think Crystal Dynamics nailed this balance of exploration and rewarding you for it. And indeed the pacing of unlocks was such that it was fun unlocking more moves or tools.

In terms of annoyances the game does rely on Quick Time Events (QTE) far too much for my liking. You often die if you relax as these play and it then becomes a Dragon’s Lair style game of trail and error to pass these segments. I wasn’t a fan of these which I found broke up the flow of the game if you didn’t pass first time. Although the frequent changing of the camera to scripted locked angles makes the game feel very cinematic. Which I’m sure was intended and again really helped to improve the presentation.

Although I knew the Tomb Raider reboot had been very well received back on release in 2013, I wasn’t necessarily sure I would like it. However I am glad to say I thought this reboot was brilliantly done and pretty much a perfect duration. It fits in well with a more modern and relevant Lara Croft. And I am looking forward to soon trying the probably equally as well received Rise of the Tomb Raider. Looking back on this game and it’s probably not an overstatement to regard it as one of the best Tomb Raider games I have ever played. Indeed it’s one of the best games I’ve probably played recently.

Played on PlayStation 4 Pro.

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game I’ve had on my ‘to play‘ list for a long time. I first received it as a present near release but didn’t make much progress. Indeed it was a game I mentioned on one of my earliest backlog updates on this very website. However at long last I’ve finally managed to complete the story of the game. Although if I’m honest towards the end I had to really force myself to play the game through to completion.

Overall the game felt greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t excel in any areas in my opinion although it was fairly enjoyable. The biggest strength felt like the alternative universe set in a 1960’s where the German Nazis not only won World War 2 but went on to dominate the world. Certainly a far cry from the series earlier 3D games (the last I played was 2001’s return to Castle Wolfenstein). The setting feels original and unique. As if a lot of effort and thought went into this part. The story is fine, with lots of NPCs in the story, although I found them flat and didn’t really much care for them to much as the story played out.

The game has some very nice level design and environments. It really goes to town with its storyline and set pieces. The game uses health and armour packs to provide a ‘retro’ feel given most modern first person shooters have recharging health or shields. I kind of thought this worked well.

Technically the game on consoles runs nicely at 60fps and dynamic 1080p. The graphics have a nice amount of detail even for a game that came earlier in this generation of consoles. It also use has gritty visual style that suits perfectly. I can’t be certain of how long it took me to play through but I would guess somewhere between 20 to 25 hours. It certainly isn’t the shortest game. Oh and yes, the Easter egg is fantastic.

However there are things the game didn’t do well in my opinion. Most notably its use of stealth. It feels like the game was forcing it as a playstyle far too often with few tools to actually play it that way. If you can sneak through a set piece by remaining undetected it will make that part easier. However later on the levels and placements of enemies made this harder or more tiresome and I ended up just going in guns blazing as I couldn’t be bothered with the stealth anymore. The perk unlock system is also just a set of challenges to unlock something, rather than anything more in-depth.

The game includes five difficulty levels which is great, although the main difference seems to be the amount of damage you and enemies take rather than improved AI or anything. Until the final few levels I played the game on the default difficulty but for the last few levels turned the difficulty down and found myself preferring the game that way. Unlike other games such as Halo: Combat Evolved on Legendary, the game just becomes mostly irritating rather than changing the experience massively. At harder difficulty the ‘retro’ health packs and armour pickups obviously become more important.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is nothing I would regard as stunning but equally far from the worst single player, story-based first person shooter than I have played either. Never as downright sterile or flat as something like Halo 5, but equally doesn’t reaches the unique heights or set pieces of something like Titanfall 2’s campaign. If you enjoy the ride and accept the game for what it is, then it is a fun and strong modern update on an old game. A solid reboot.

Played (mostly) on PlayStation 4 Pro. Previously played the opening level on PlayStation 4.

Borderlands: The Handsome Collection Review

My publisher says I can’t call them ‘Bonerfarts’ after all.

Sir Hammerlock, Borderlands 2.

The above quote early on in Borderlands 2 sums up the juvenile and internet meme-ridden humour that litters that game. Indeed the first Borderlands had its fair share of humour but the sequel cranked it up to new levels. To be fair it wasn’t the only thing it changed up from the original game. Larger maps, more quests, more characters, more varied environments, better story and more guns. Borderlands 2 was more fun, loot filled first person shooter gameplay but dialled up to 11.

After completing the original and (most) of it’s DLC I purchased Borderlands 2 at release and over the years spent nearly 130 hours on the PC version. So why am I writing a review of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection years later? Well because I recently purchased it from the PlayStation Network due to being on heavy discount. And it was very timely as only a few days later the developer, Gearbox Software, would announce the follow-up. Along with a new re-release of the original and some 4K DLC for 2015’s Handsome Collection. So a fairly timely review.

Borderlands: The Handsome Collection on PS4 Pro screenshot.

The free Ultra HD Texture Pack weighs in at 15.79GB on PSN and includes a new 4K resolution on the PlayStation 4 Pro, Xbox One X and PC. Well dynamic 4K on consoles at least. The Handsome Collection runs at full 1080p and 60 frames a second on the base Xbox One and PlayStation 4 so this free update ups the resolution and improves some of the textures in the game. It’s not a night and day difference but the free update has sharpened up the visuals for both included Borderlands games. I don’t think it’s perfect as there are small drops from 60fps. However for the most part both games run smoothly. It’s worth mentioning that The Handsome Collection introduced an adjustable Field Of View (FOV) slider. Anything above halfway (70-110) can cause frame drops in certain busier moments however.

The whole package is a massive performance boost over the original console versions on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Although I only played the original Borderlands on the Xbox 360 the limited FOV made you feel like you were running around wearing binoculars. The PC is still the best platform with the potential for over 60fps and Nvidia PhysX but the gap is now much more miniscule. The Handsome Collection includes both Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! Unfortunately the first game wasn’t included which is a shame as it would have rounded off the whole package perfectly.

Borderlands 2 is widely regarded as the high point of the series to date and this is something I would definitely agree with. As a refinement on the original game its story and characters were a big step up from the original games providing countless hours of entertainment. And whether you max level a character or simply play the main storylines on normal it is always immense fun. Although one of the great things Borderlands always did well was understand it isn’t about the destination, but the journey. The best loot being able to drop at any point is a great choice in making levelling seem like part of the game.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! was something I never had much time for despite owning it in my PC backlog for years. Whether slightly irrational its presence irritated me. I regarded it as a cheap and quick cash-in that 2K Australia (who no longer exists) designed whilst Gearbox worked on their new project: Battleborn. What I really wanted was a true sequel to Borderlands 2. Unfortunately it would take Battleborn being a critical and financial failure for Gearbox to return to develop the recently announced sequel.

Playing The Pre-Sequel! For the first time now and I have very quickly realised it is basically more of the same. There are a few unique gameplay additions such as new laser weapons, the need to refill o2 air tanks for most classes and limited gravity. The games feels like more Borderlands 2 DLC doing very little to differentiate itself or anything drastically new. Still for fans it is fantastic and compliments the epic second games really well. The way the new weapons are introduced is fantastic and the game clearly has a lot of Australian references and in-jokes.

Overall Borderlands: The Handsome Collection is a nice re-release and certainly one improved by the recent free Ultra HD update (even with the new pre-order Borderlands 3 ‘nag’ screens and menu adverts). Borderlands 2 is a bonafide classic and this collection was always a great way to experience the two latest Borderlands games. In conclusion in 2019 it is still immense fun being a Vault Hunter. Badass!

Played on PlayStation 4 Pro. Borderlands 2 previously played on PC.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

2018 Review: In numbers (not that many!)

As we are coming up for the end of year I wanted to have a look at my progress against my backlog since I set this website up around five months ago. Originally my intention was to setup up a WordPress site from scratch, learn new skills, as well as being able to track how many games I own, or have access to. Sites like Grouvee are very good at logging games but generally very bad at a timeline view.

2018 in numbers

  • Backlog: Increased by 12 (264 to 278)
  • Played: Increased by 3 (192 to 195)
  • Completed = 2
  • Abandoned = 1
  • Played = 6

So overall not that many games played, or completed although as a whole I think I managed to play a total of 17 games this year. However I only set-up tracking along with this site in July, so there may be a chance that I’ve missed a game or two. However this number excludes retro games like Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy.

There is a discrepancy in my figures on Grouvee because I’ve realised I have played 6 new games for the first time since setting up the website: Rage, Fortnite: Save the World, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, Forza Motorsport 7, Dying Light and Starlink. Everything else was either played earlier in the year or I had started playing before. I believe the discrepancy is simply that I am not regarding a game as played on Grouvee until I am done with it (i.e. Rage).

However what is clear is that I have been playing GaaS/Live Services games and when I’m not playing these sort of games I do speed-up considerably at progressing in other games. I’ve written about this before. In addition other projects such as buying a new PC, upgrading my Unraid server, house DIY and work etc. have also played their part in limiting my time playing games.

With regards to purchasing new games it doesn’t appear too bad. However some of this is rebuying games on Xbox Live or Playstation Network which I already owned on PC and therefore hasn’t increased the numbers. Also free games from Games With Gold, PlayStation Plus or Game Pass reduced my new purchasing a little bit. Although I don’t add these onto my backlog figures, overall I nearly acquired 100 new games in the time of setting up the website. Most of these will be free games.

2019: the year ahead

I suspect it going to be hard to ignore The Division 2 in late February although I would like to avoid the launch and see what the game is like first. Partly because of how other similar games like Destiny 2 went, but also to allow time for microtransactions and the overall business model to settle. There are a few games like Anthem and Days Gone that are also intriguing to me.

Beyond that I missed out on a number of big hitters from the second half of this year that are on my Wishlist. Namely Forza Horizon 4, Marvel’s Spiderman and Red Dead Redemption 2. Depending on sales these might be games I pick up sooner than later. I do have access to Forza Horizon 4 via Game Pass but am put off by not having the VIP pack (earn in-game credits 2 times faster).

I would also like to buy a Nintendo Switch but with a hardware revision rumoured in the second half of 2019 this will be put on-hold for now.

And other than that probably continuing to move away from PC gaming. I am still playing many PC games but the fact is with the sharp increase in the cost of PC components (particularly in the UK) I have therefore stopped buying as many games on PC. And this is something I intend to continue with as we see new Sony and Microsoft consoles in the near future. Dying Light, Rage and Inside are all good examples of games I purchased or played on console that previously I would have picked up on PC.

Realistic targets

It would be nice to complete or shelve somewhere in the region of 15 to 25 videogames in 2019. I think that might be hard but achievable. Certainly I would like to have played at least double the number from this year. As the first full calendar year of monitoring this will be interesting to see if I can meet this target.

Anyway an early ‘Happy New Year!’ for everyone who read this far. Thank you.

Cross-play coming Fortnite (at last)

So the news broke yesterday that Sony has at last caved in and will be allowing cross-play between Fortnite players on PlayStation 4 and the ‘blocked off’ Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. However even better Sony is enabling everything that cross-play means, so matchmaking, progression and purchases.

Quite why this took 4 months to announce this U-turn is anyone’s guess. Although it is likely that the bad PR was simply too overwhelming for Sony to ignore. And like last year’s Star Wars: Battlefront 2 fiasco another great example of the consumer’s power to pressurise big businesses to back down. The communication up until yesterday had been incompetent. Epic and Sony simply choose to ignore this problem which is not a good strategy when their customers have spent money on their game and platforms. What was missing from yesterday’s announcement was an apology. Either from Sony or Epic. Locking of Epic accounts was simply disgusting.

Either way for all Fortnite players light is the end of the tunnel and coming. And it is good news for all. Even those who don’t venture off the PS4 version. Hopefully more games can be made cross-play between all consoles now, and Sony doesn’t just stop with Fortnite.

So in light of this significant change, and now all platforms holders are not hopefully blocking cross-play the focus perhaps unsurprisingly shifts to publishers. And already people like Pete Hines at Bethesda Game Studios, are finding that out. It seems ironic that Bethesda was vocal in the criticism of Sony’s previous stance on cross-play given that we have now learnt that Fallout 76 doesn’t even support cross-play. I’ve said this is my earlier blog post, but ultimately I think people’s expectations have changed. People don’t want artificial barriers in their games. And publishers can expect much more criticism to come their way.

Is there any valid reason why more games shouldn’t support cross-matchmaking, progression and purchase. Games like The Elder Scrolls Online, Warframe, GTA Online, Madden, FIFA, Rocket League etc. No, of course not. To borrow this brilliant .gif from those geniuses over at ResetEra. The correct answer to which games need cross-play next is…

via GIPHY