We Happy Few (Impressions)

I first remember seeing We Happy Few at Microsoft’s E3 presentation in 2016 and immediately it stood out with the fairly unique setting and aesthetics. Although I haven’t played the game that much, just over six hours, these are my initial impressions. I may return and spend some more time with the game although I currently have a large number of games on my backlog that I would rather be playing.

We Happy Few is a first person, action adventure, survival game crossed with some open world elements. Originally it was released as an Early Access game on PC which was then developed into a full retail release. Set in an alternative 1960’s UK where the outcome of World War 2 was different.

What it does well:

  • The setting and visuals are fairly unique.
  • Strong narrative. There’s a sense of a good story here.
  • Custom difficulty settings. As well as different difficulties levels, you can choose a custom setting which allows you to adjust individual elements such as combat, survival etc. For example, combat can be at the hardest difficulty setting, whilst stealth is switched to easy mode. Everything is explained very clearly to the player.

Things I didn’t like:

  • I encountered a few small graphical glitches and some FPS does drop in places.
  • Controls can be fiddly, you need to precisely hover over the item in question to select which can be tough when it’s bobby pins on top of a searchable cabinet or something. Many open world games have this issue but it feels like the controls work better with a keyboard and mouse.
  • Combat is overly simplistic. If fighting a mob it is far too easy for enemies to hit you off screen, where you never saw the hit coming.
  • Loading times as the game generates a level can be very slow.

Probably my biggest issue is that I didn’t like the survival elements which is at the game’s core and can often feel at odds with the more linear campaign. It feels like two separate games with a sandbox world to play in, which was reigned into a more concise story mode. You can adjust the difficulty on the survival elements so they can be ignored although you are still continually picking up food and drink items no matter what the difficulty setting.

As mentioned We Happy Few is a game that has some intriguing parts, although no doubt the game has some issues too. So it is one I might return to in the future but wanted to note my thoughts for now.

Played on Xbox One X, via Xbox Game Pass.

Crackdown 3 (Campaign) Review

For a moment Crackdown 3 had me. Even after a very short time running around the city, I was quickly addicted to collecting orbs and taking out locations on the map. However what quickly set-in was the realisation I was playing the same game again and despite 12-years passing nothing had really changed. Still immense fun though.

I have fond memories of the original 2007 Crackdown videogame. It’s one of the first times I remember watching friends virtually jump from new release to new release every Friday. Something that was quite new with the Xbox 360 as you could seeing what your friends were playing via the dashboard. Although I never played Crackdown in multiplayer I did progress the campaign through to the end and enjoyed the nice twist as part of the story. And hunting down agility orbs never got old.

That said a lot of open world games have come and been in the last 12-years. And Crackdown 3 has left a quick impression on me no matter how long I’ll play this game for. I don’t personally believe a reviewer or critic needs to complete a game or have played it for hours on end. Whilst games can often change mid-way of fall off a cliff after the first few missions I generally feel that you get a good feeling for a game early on, depending on the game type of course. That said I haven’t played this game for long at all barely totalling three hours but I feel that’s enough.

Crackdown 3 is, well…Crackdown. Again. Essentially the same game as the 2007 original but with a new lick of paint. Nothing has really changed. As you jump around you slowly level-up various aspects of your character unlocking new abilities and moves. So you can jump higher, move in mid-air, fire with more precision etc. Just like the original game. You still fight enemies with weapons or melee combat and feel like a superhero jumping around in a comic book town. The sense of progression is both addictive and memorising as you watch, literally in front of your eyes, your foot soldier transform into a superhuman law enforcer.

‘Time to collect those orbs agent!’

The game does look quite nice in 4K on Xbox One X (Crackdowngrade 3 aside) although very bland and sparse with a lack of detail about its futuristic city setting. Much in the same style as the original. Cutscenes are relatively short and the game has the feel of a limited budget production rather than triple AAA videogame with lots of comic book style, 2D style cutscenes. What ever they had though was certainly spent on the intro and the rendition of Terry Crews. As it is superbly accurate.

I haven’t tried or played any of the multiplayer as this doesn’t interest me, although I love the fact you can choose whether to download the campaign or multiplayer parts of the game separately. Bravo Microsoft on this Xbox One feature.

If I’m honest I probably wouldn’t have tried this game if it wasn’t on Xbox Game Pass and again is a great example of the strength of the subscription service. Although still a fun game it might actually be better for those that missed the original. This is a simple update of the first game but without adding anything to really improve or change it. And it that sense as more of the same, it can feel like a disappointment. Which is a massive shame.

Played on Xbox One X via Xbox Game Pass.

Abzû Review

I’m not sure if I really wanted to write about Abzû from Giant Squid Studios. A 2016 game that I knew nothing about and tried following a recommendation. It is one of those games that it is best to know little about beforehand. I said something similar in my recent review of Dear Esther and it definitely applies with this videogame too.

However after playing through this game over a few hours I realised that Abzû had me wanted to acknowledge it. It felt like something I enjoyed and really think it is worth playing. Although it is a difficult game to put into words, so bare with me if I flounder at this. Like the aforementioned review of Dear Esther, I don’t want to go into too much detail but essentially an underwater adventure game. Although I would be inclined to describe it as more of an ‘experience’ or a ‘ride’.

It is beautiful, stylised and vibrant as it is simple. Abzû reminded me of certain Legend of Zelda games, which is a massive compliment. And it definitely had further parts that made me recall other popular games and films. I think that it does very well at providing some unique atmosphere and moments that are noteworthy or memorable.

The audio is standout and as good as the visuals. Whether it be the powerful and epic soundtrack, or the simple sound effects, which are matched to the game brilliantly. Either at individual level or as a package the whole game is executed very well.

Yes, it could be criticised for being shallow or way too short, but I think it’s best to just accept Abzû for what it is. Whilst the game might be very short it can be breathtaking, endearing and unique. And that makes it worth trying out if you like this style of game. It is very well made and rarely puts a foot wrong. I enjoyed this one.

Played on Xbox One X via Xbox Game Pass.

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?

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.

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.

Don’t Pass on Game Pass

A while ago I wrote a piece stating that I was thinking about not renewing Xbox Game Pass. Apart from being annoyed at not having received a free month as part of an offer (something that Microsoft’s Customer Services never resolved), I was also not fully convinced of the benefits of the £7.99 a month service given I had played only a few games in my time with the service.

Since I got my second Xbox One earlier this year I had managed to use the free months included with the console along with offers and renewal offers to stack six months of Game Pass for less than £15. It had made the decision a no-brainer to try out the service and I enjoyed playing and complete a few games. However I was never 100% convinced the service was for me.

That said I often change my thoughts on things and this Christmas I think Microsoft have hit it out of the park with their subscription service. Ashen, Mutant Year Zero and Below are brand new releases that have debuted on Game Pass at the same time as being release on Xbox One and other formats. Indeed Ashen is exclusive to the new Epic PC Store. This is on top of other games like Life is Strange 1 & 2 and Ori and the Blind Forest all recently being added to the service. Whilst Game Pass has had day one first party titles on there, seeing independent games like Ashen and Mutant Year Zero launching day one is a very encouraging precedent.

Either way as noted in my December update the above along with some cheap prices on 12 and 6-month subscriptions was enough to convince me to stock up on my Game Pass subscription. As mentioned before there are still issues with the service, such as games leaving too soon (i.e. Fallout 4) and the lack of DLC. And whilst Game Pass is still likely to be the bane of my backlog having the opportunity to play a game like Ashen far earlier than I might have otherwise is enough to convince me that Game Pass might just become as mandatory as other services like Netflix or Spotify in the future.

Indeed Game Pass reminds me of the good vibe PlayStation Plus first launched to on the PlayStation 3 with it’s ‘Instant Game Collection’ in 2010. PlayStation Plus arguably changed the game when it came to adding value to mandatory online subscriptions which meant Microsoft had to adapt and offer free games as well. And whilst I don’t necessarily want individual publisher subscriptions (i.e. EA Access) Game Pass is a massive advantage for Microsoft right now.