Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREY, BIOSHOCK SERIES AND SYSTEM SHOCK SERIES.

It’s hard sometimes to go back and remember what it felt like when you were first playing a game you loved. The memories tend to grow on us and also subsequent playthroughs and press coverage change the way we view the game later. I can however, remember almost exactly what it felt like to experience the major plot twist in each Shock game. Whether it was revelations about Shodan in the original series, or the secret of “would you kindly?” in the Bioshock series inspired by System Shock, they always leave an impression.

So anyone going into the very Shock-like Prey would expect a major twister in there somewhere. The game does not disappoint, well actually it does. Prey completely drops the ball on timing, if not content of the major plot twist. I’ll get back to this later, but first I want to explain how important the timing has been for each past game. If you think back to the final act of each Shock game, then remove the story parts, you will probably realize something: on the surface they’re kind of weak. It’s really hard to come up with good challenges for the player once they have all the best upgrades. So the final acts of these games often just involve throwing lots of the toughest enemies at you, in difficult situations. Since you are just trying to chase the plot at this point, it totally works. Then at just about the point where you would get sick of it, some amazing revelation happens, followed by some mind-blowing cutscenes.

This is pretty much the final act of every game ever ending with Shock, as well as the similar Deus Ex series. We expect it at this point. I guess Prey does not end with Shock or Ex, so maybe it’s just me that feels it carries this heritage. Regardless, Prey totally botches its late-game reveals. The plot twists taking place at the end are really predictable and accompanied by some awful room-clearing segments that feel straight out of Aliens: Colonial Marines (no, that is not too harsh). The boring, kill waves of enemies gameplay is actually not that different from the end of the previously mentioned games. It’s just that what is happening to drive you forward is nowhere near as interesting.

And then, after you have spent 10 minutes watching the credits and debating with yourself if you just wasted your time, the post-credits scene has a totally awesome plot twist. Like, after many people probably pulled the disc out and returned it to the store. As cool as it was when it finally happened, that is almost tragically bad placement. Making me play through a nearly worthless 2 hours at the end that almost made me hate a game I was loving, then finally, if I watch the credits, blowing my mind. Makes no sense at all to me.

I often wonder what games looked like in the minds of their creators, at various stages of development. I wonder how many huge cuts and changes completely altered the final experience. Prey made me wonder this intensely. In the end, the alarming and exciting twist came too late to save my experience of the game. I would have almost preferred to have a shorter game that didn’t include the extra tedium.

Regardless of how it happened, the timing of the major plot twist made all the difference in my gaming experience. It took Prey from what I would have called the next Shock game, to something I will probably move on from quickly.

Hellpoint: there is life after Dark Souls

Posted: April 25, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features

hellpoint_teaser

For many of us, the conclusion of the Dark Souls series left us, for lack of a less punny term, feeling a bit hollow.  Personally I would search constantly for new games that would scratch that itch for a complex, difficult, dark and cryptic game.  Every time I would end up disappointed, finding nothing but games that took all the most basic aspects of From’s seminal series, but none of the genius.

Then, last Sunday afternoon, I discovered the answer to my muttered prayers to dark deities: Hellpoint.

The thing that sets Hellpoint apart from the many pretenders to the abandoned throne, is its dark and mysterious tone and lore.  I don’t want to imply it’s just a ripoff of the approach taken by From either.  CradleGames had developed their own dark mythology, with complementary gameplay systems to match.  Hellpoint has a new and unique approach to spooky NPCs, creepy locations and obscure lore.  What’s more, it doesn’t steal Dark Souls’ gimmicks, just its basic gameplay style.  The Quantic System used to determine timed game events and enemy behavior is similar to, but completely more interesting than Demon’s Souls’ soul attribute system.  It has the potential to suddenly unbalance gameplay, but not in a poorly designed way like Breath of the Wild’s blood moons that broke the game at launch.

dgcVPLS.gif

The most important thing that Hellpoint nails absolutely perfectly, is the give and take of Souls combat.  I think most of us can agree that other Souls pretenders, like Lords of the Fallen, fail at that absolutely essential thing.  Hellpoint pulls it off effortlessly, even in the current pre-alpha state.  Combat has that same frenzied, give and take feel that is not unlike real fencing.  Although the gameplay is not an exact copy (and features a dedicated jump button!), I felt immediately at home.

While the currently available demo is in a very early state, I honestly had more fun playing it than all of the From Software betas I have participated in.  One of the biggest reasons for that, I saved for halfway through the article to share.  This game has drop in couch co-op.  Yes, that thing that only Salt and Sanctuary has managed to bring to hungry fans.  You may have to steel yourself for the horrors of the singularity, but you don’t have to do it alone.  CradleGames even has all sorts of mischief in mind for PvE and PvP features that are inspired by, yet unique from what we are used to from Souls games.

The final main thing that Hellpoint does that others don’t, is creep you out with quality dark art design.  Everything in the game looks like something that crawled out of a Clive Barker movie or the equally evil black hole in Event Horizon.  It’s definitely reminiscent of what a mix between Dark Souls and Dead Space would look like, but still with a horror all its own.

Hellpoint is currently a little over halfway through their Kickstarter and a little more than halfway funded.  They already have a demo up, that has swallowed almost 20 hours of my life.  If you have a giant, black, Dark Souls sized hole in your heart, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Hellpoint Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hellpoint/hellpoint-a-dark-sci-fi-rpg/description

Hellpoint Steam Page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/628670/

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

Final Fantasy XV First Impressions

Posted: December 1, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Reviews

2917045-finalfantasy15_e32015_20150610_v1thumb

 

I don’t think I’ll do a full review, as I wasn’t able to get the game early.  I’m just going to try to hit the important points all in one place.

I won’t make you wait to find out if I like it or not.  I love this game so far.  I would say it lives up to my personal expectations and is more fun to play than any RPG since Xenoblade Chronicles.  The key points of a good FF game are all there, from fun battle system to stellar graphics and music.  I really like the more understated plot, but there’s a major issue with it I’ll go into a bit later.  I’m about 16 hours in and in Altissia, so I’m a good chunk in, but not nearly far enough to give any final impression.

 

Some Experience Required

This is the first Final Fantasy game where the additional media products are required, rather than not really necessary and enjoyable.  By comparison, several other FF games  (especially VII) have had movies or animated shorts associated with them.  These were sometimes decent, but in no way were required to enjoy the game.  If you do not watch Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, the first hours of FFXV will be marred by a feeling of confusion.  Most fans will have already watched Brotherhood online and forked out the extra cash for Kingsglaive either with a bundle or separately, but any “first timers” may find themselves a little in the dark.

It’s really debatable how much of a strategy vs blunder this is, as it may be the perfect level of story for mainstream gamers that just don’t care.  Many people may find that the unobtrusiveness of the plot was perfect.  For me personally, I found that by watching both before playing, I had a pretty good idea of who everyone was and what was happening.  So kind of a YMMV thing, but if you want to know some of the most important plot details, you are required to seek out additional products.

 

Pro in Perspective

Now that I finally have a game developed to take advantage of this new PS4 Pro, I can finally explore its benefits.  Final Fantasy XV has pretty good PS4 Pro support, though at the moment it’s marred by frame pacing issues on the high setting.  There are two modes, high and low.  The low appears to be the way the game runs on the regular PS4, while the high is rendered at 1800p with higher effects and up or downsampled to your monitor resolution.

I didn’t have an original PS4 on hand anymore to compare to or a means of benchmarking my consoles, but the low mode appears to run between 40-60 frames per second.  The high setting, regardless of your screen resolution, seems to sit at about 30 with really annoying stuttering.  It looks absolutely fantastic on high, with better lighting, textures and anti-aliasing, but the ugly stuttering makes it unplayable in my opinion at the moment.  Hopefully a patch will address this shortly.

The next issue I had was HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and in my experience at least, the game seems to almost require it.  Even with the HDR setting off, the game has a very harsh internal contrast that seems designed to show off HDR.  At times it gives a convincing illusion of HDR on a screen that doesn’t support it, but in low light areas it was annoying and required tweaking of TV settings.  I imagine it looks absolutely stellar though on an OLED screen that supports HDR.

 

The Boys and the Road

You can expect to hear this from any review of this game, but the road trip aspect is the best part of this game.  My favorite thing in gaming these days is emergent gameplay.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is when moments occur in a game engine that are just created by the player interacting with a complex system and the result being fun.  It isn’t scripted, it wasn’t planned by the creators, it just happened because you pushed the right buttons.  The road trip parts of this game nail emergent gameplay in a way that I hope will become more common.

It’s the little things that make it such a personal experience.  I once coasted into a gas station after running out of fuel.  The guys got out to push (complaining of course) right as the car rolled within range of the pump.  It was such a surreal moment, that it filled me with the same joy that such a feat with my real buddies would.  For both Mike’s and my bachelor parties, we went on very similar road trips, so it hit close to home.  Experiences like this will be the norm, and will be created from a combination of factors like what route you choose and what detours you choose to make.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Laguna years ago about Final Fantasy VIII.  Much like XV, VIII had a very serious plot that was only interrupted by interludes about these dudes on a trip.  Laguna isn’t a huge fan of dark, brooding RPGs, so for him the first Laguna and co. sequence was like this light from the heavens showing him he could like this game.  He identified so much with Laguna Loire, as well as resembling him, that we call him Laguna to this day.  This is finally another FF game where you can develop a connection like that.  Fortunately they also improved on the dark and brooding to bro trip ratio.

 

The Prince and the Pauper

Another thing everyone who plays this game can agree on is how effing expensive everything is.  Maybe the point is that life is hard outside your palace, but the economy in this game is ridiculous.  For example, the pay you receive for killing a rare monster is barely enough to buy salmon burgers at a roadside diner.  You would think the clothes off my royal back would be worth a fortune, but there appears to be no way for Noctis to access any of his royal funds or come up with a better financial plan than squandering his godlike power on killing varmints.  If this was Grand Theft Auto, I would just rob the gas station, because ya know, I could just flatten the whole town.

Money is pretty much the greatest issue you will face in this game.  I have so far been overpowered in  every other way, but way behind in gear, because just buying a few healing items breaks the bank.  It makes it kind of frustrating to do the plot, because none of the quests will give you money and they will often force you into a long string of events that deplete your very expensive resources.  The only solution I’ve found is to grind like crazy between plot missions to keep my stock of phoenix downs and elixers as full as possible.

This would be my other highest priority for future patches.  Such an otherwise polished game should not be dragged down by being too poor to buy basic items.

 

That’s all for now.  Gotta get back to playing.

 

Predictions for the next 5 years of gaming.

Posted: November 26, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features

Every so often I like to throw out sort of a “State of the Future Address” about where I think the market will go in the next 5 years.  My track record is pretty solid, so if you’re an investor, YMMV but give a read.  I want to state for the record that I have very little if any loyalty to any particular brand.  I get my hands on all the machines eventually, based mostly on when they get an exclusive title I can’t live without.  I don’t feel that any of the gaming or entertainment companies represent me or my ideals in some tribal way.  They want my money and I spend it after their thing passes my intense scrutiny.  So basically my picks here have nothing to do with being a fanboy in any sense.  Just what I’ve learned to be true by watching what works and doesn’t work in the industry over the past few decades.

 

Who wins VR?

I’m not the first to make this prediction, but I’m saying Sony hands down.  Before you nerd rage about how the HTC Vive is technically superior, accept a history lesson.  The more expensive and harder to obtain thing almost never wins.  While we are entering an age where people order everything online, we are not there yet.  Most of the world will go into a normal store, see the PSVR and the console required to run it and make their decision to buy.  People are tactile and objective-based.  The system that is mostly available online and requires a custom PC that needs to be researched, has a snowball’s chance in hell against a product that you can see and touch at Gamestop.  That is market reality, plain and simple and it will be for at least the remainder of the hardware cycle.

Also, it’s not like the PSVR is a massive step down in quality from the HTC Vive.  When configured correctly, most people agree that the PSVR has solid tracking, held back only by the camera it uses.  It has a slightly lower resolution and narrower field of view than the Vive and Oculus Rift, but these are very slight.  The difference in quality is not nearly as large as say that between the Playstation and Nintendo 64 in the late 90s.  In that case also the affordability of the hardware and the volume of quality software swung the tide massively in Sony’s favor and I think the same will repeat for the 1st gen VR race.  Also it is very likely Sony will release an updated camera and sensor accessory that will greatly narrow the gap between the PSVR and the HTC Vive.

We may see Microsoft play the same role as Nintendo in that earlier console war, by coming in late to the party with a powerful contender that makes a splash, but is too late to catch up.

 

What happens with the Nintendo Switch?

I think the Switch is the continuation of a trend we’re already seeing in gaming; a split between hardcore, high-fidelity gaming and more casual gaming and living room entertainment.  Hardcore gamers have shown a strong preference for gaming-centric boxes like the PS4 that are becoming more and more like simplified gaming PCs.  That market is likely to remain focused around one person per powerful console, with a focus on performance and function.

But we all know there’s this funky, fun, casual gamer market that is just waiting in the woodwork to turn products like Rock Band or the Nintendo Wii into 100 million plus units smash hits.  The trick is just how to aim for this unpredictable target?  Apple, Amazon, nVidia and others have all tried and basically failed with attempts that bridge the already huge phone and tablet market with the living room.  Nintendo has a leg up with having their own stranglehold on the still separate handheld gaming market.  If they can somehow make a system that captures the Mario crowd, the Pokemon crowd AND the Pokemon GO! crowd, I think this market segment will finally become permanent.  Once Apple and Amazon have someone to copy, they should have no trouble putting out competing products to make this the next exciting frontier for casual and social games.

 

What about the PC gaming market?

I think it’s very likely the PC gaming market will never again grow to the highs of the late 90s and early 00s.  What we’ve seen in the last few years will likely become the normal trend.  The market will go up and down with cycles of hardware, with surges every few years as more people upgrade around jumps in CPUs and GPUs.  It seems to have reached a sustainable level once again, thanks in part to the hardware makers branching out into other fields like gaming consoles and tablets to supplement themselves.  We’ve finally reached a point where Intel, AMD and nVidia can sustain themselves by competing at different levels in different markets.

The biggest shift I’ve been waiting for will center around the Nintendo Switch in the above section.  If the Switch is a hit, nVidia will finally be able to move hardware in a market besides high end PCs.  AMD has already made this jump by manufacturing the majority of the guts of Microsoft and Sony’s game consoles.  If this happens, the two chipset manufacturers could find an excellent balance that caters to the strengths of their current products.  AMD has very competitive midrange hardware that is perfect for game consoles, while nVidia has the best high power and low power chips.  This would keep the balance in the PC gpu race, because nVidia would not be forced into a hardware war trying to move units out of desperation, when other markets failed for them.

 

Will handheld gaming continue?

This is probably the area I feel the least confident in predicting.  It really feels to me like the Switch is Nintendo deciding that the future of handheld is becoming one with mobile and living room streaming boxes.  That makes sense to me and I think it puts a lot of the puzzle pieces into place for the entertainment market of the next decade.  So if that’s the case, handheld is dead, long live handheld.  The release of Nintendo games on phones and the Switch appearing to bridge the gap between DS, Wii and tablet could be the harbinger of the future mobile/casual/handheld market.

That being said, I have to play devil’s advocate.  Nintendo is a handheld juggernaut and Sony does not seem inclined to quit.  It is totally conceivable that Nintendo could release the Switch and a new DS, two products that would appear to just confuse the market and have both succeed.  It is also possible that Sony would release another PSP, whether it sells or not, just because they are obviously dedicated to JRPG fans.  I think that would just be straight market stupidity and a pointless continuation of old trends that are ultimately doomed, but I wouldn’t be too surprised.

A sensible Sony would just make their mobile app capable of playing PSN games and classics and Nintendo would split from the traditional gaming market to pioneer the future of family living room fun.  That’s what makes the most sense, but the world doesn’t always make sense.

 

So who wins this console generation ultimately?

I think once again it’s going to be Sony.  Sony has a good track record over the last 3 generations of success with their conservative strategy.  They are seldom first with technologies, but they time their releases and pick their prices very well.  The PSVR is showing early signs of being the first truly successful VR product.  The PS4 already had a lead in units sold over the XB1, so the success of the VR market could be an added boost.  Even if markets like VR and 4k are slow to build, Sony won’t likely lose much by releasing the PS4 Pro and PSVR.  Being seen as innovative while still having the leading product at a competitive price point is hedging their bet fairly well.

There has been a lot of talk about Sony and Microsoft just muddying the waters with this tiered hardware approach, but I think Sony and Microsoft are just feeling out how much of the PC gaming market they can slice off with a middle ground product.

I have to admit that I was personally swayed from investing in a PC upgrade and HTC Vive when the PSVR released.  It wasn’t just the cheaper price point, it was that Sony’s product targeted my desires better than competitors.  They had the definitive version of a game I must have (Final Fantasy XV), timed to match up with my desire to upgrade to 4k and VR.  I was already on the fence about upgrading my console or PC and how I wanted to experience VR.  Sony’s answer was for less than $1000 I could play FFXV and RE7 in 4K or VR right now.  That sounded way better to me than spend twice as much or wait a year.  I imagine quite a few people will feel the same.  Every generation, there is one holiday shopping season, usually the 3rd or 4th year, that defines the console cycle.  This is the year where you pretty much have to upgrade to play any new games and it’s also probably the year everyone went 4k on Black Friday.  I believe this is the one and Sony is the only company with the right products available now.

 

That’s all folks.  If nothing else, it will be fun to look back in 5 years and see how right or wrong I was.

 

Why HiFi Sound for Gaming

Posted: September 5, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

6676707_f520

Yer doin’ it wrong.

 

When I started working as an A/V installer over a year ago, my home theater setup was probably much like most of yours.  I had one of those TVs you wait in line for on black friday, that’s really cheap for how big it is.  When I realized the sound was completely unacceptable, I bought one of those inexpensive under-tv sound boxes with 2 speakers and a sub-woofer built in.  I could now hear the noises and see the things, I felt that anything more was completely superfluous and not worth the effort.

Now my living room is a little different.  I still have the TV, but it’s next on the list.  The sound however is completely upgraded.  I’m not going to brag about my system, it’s mostly stuff I got free from work that isn’t the newest or had to be repaired first.  The point is that it’s a fully tuned 7.1 system with the best connections and running in the newest processing modes.  The difference it makes when gaming is huge.  It’s more than just surround sound being more immersive, a decent receiver has numerous benefits to a gamer which you may not even be aware existed.

 

True Surround Sound

One thing a lot of people don’t fully grasp, is what is actually surround sound and what is fake surround sound.  If it comes out of less than 4 speakers or is sent through 2 or less conductors, it is not surround sound.  So if your TV or sound bar has a “surround mode”, that is nothing like true surround.  By the same token, if your connection is through a headphone plug or the two red and white RCA cables, it is not true surround.  So most PC headsets that say surround are not surround.  The only way to get real surround sound (where the individual noises are sent to different speakers) is with a digital connection like an optical TOSlink, HDMI cable or the big orange RCA digital coaxial.

Even many people who have 5 or more speakers and have all their devices connected through HDMI, often are not using surround sound because they are not in the right mode.  To fully utilize the surround sound capability of your game system or PC, you need to be in a digital sound mode like DTS.  There are so many different digital sound modes at this point that it is almost impossible for me to tell you which is the best for your setup and game device.  On the front of your receiver or amplifier, it should say digital somewhere and the sound mode should be DTS, Dolby Digital or something similar.  Modes like Atmos and DTS:X are for more than 7 speakers and if supported, will only work with the right speakers.  If your receiver has an “auto” setting, this will usually select the best setting for your current speakers and input signal.

Once you are playing in true surround, the benefits to gaming will be easy to hear.  I’m a big fan of the Dark Souls series and this leads to a perfect example.  When playing in stereo and being invaded, you generally spend a moment spinning your camera around looking for the invader.  When playing in digital surround, the noise made when a player spawns is clearly audible from a distance in the direction it came from.  This shaves a couple of seconds off your battle preparation and gives an immediate gameplay advantage.  Insert situation from your favorite game here.  This is only the first and most obvious benefit of HiFi gaming.

 

Make Bad Look and Sound Good

Another huge benefit to running your games through a receiver is the many sound and picture processing features built into a modern stereo.  Besides just surround sound modes, a home theater receiver will have features to clean up and expand different stereo signals.  Some stereo devices, like the Wii or other older game systems, are capable of Dolby Pro Logic.  Pro Logic is a kind of stereo signal that is designed to be friendly to simulated surround sound.  Your receiver can process this into something that is somewhere in the middle between stereo and surround sound.  You can also use multi-channel stereo, which just takes any old 2 channel sound and wraps it around all the speakers.  While it won’t do anything to send sounds in different direction to simulate depth, it does immerse you more in an old game than just playing out the front left and right speakers would.

This also applies to processing picture.  If you are an old-school gamer, I would highly recommend a receiver with analog to digital upconversion over HDMI.  In layman’s terms, this means you plug in your Super NES to the receiver with its old crappy RCA cables and the receiver outputs it through HDMI to your TV.  This is pretty much essential if you want to play those systems on a newer TV.  Many newer TVs don’t even include analog inputs or are not even capable of resolutions below 480p like you would get out of a 16 or 32-bit console.  Many higher end receivers can even upconvert lower resolution signals to 1080p or 4k, which will not make the original image look better, but will eliminate a lot of the fuzziness caused by using the TV’s built in upconversion.  Even newer games that run at higher resolutions will benefit if you are using a TV or monitor that is still higher res.  A receiver will almost always have better and faster upconversion than a TV, so a PS4 or XB1 running through a receiver will look cleaner on a 4k TV.

 

Better Speakers Aren’t Just Louder

When I recommend upgrading sound, a lot of people comment about how they don’t really want something really loud.  This is a misconception brought on by using crappy sound.  In the days of old TV, when you couldn’t hear something, you just had to turn it up.  Most of us still think of sound in these terms.  When our new TV has crappy sound, we buy a sound bar that is the same thing, just louder.  Now the sound can go louder than the pathetic tiny speakers in the thin TV, so we can hear the dialogue again.  The problem with bad speakers isn’t their volume though.  You can’t hear everything clearly because all of the sounds are being forced out of two tiny speakers with limited sound range.  A speaker can only be designed to make a certain range of high and low frequency sounds, further limited by the size of the speaker.  To keep this simple, a big tower speaker can be heard much clearer at low volume than a small TV speaker, because it has several speakers inside playing the high and low sounds separately.  So although both are just playing the left and right sound channels, the larger speaker is separating it out more so you can pick out the voices from the car engines.

Furthermore, adding more speakers is not just adding more noise.  If you have trouble hearing dialogue clearly, you will be amazed at the difference a center channel speaker will make.  The center speaker plays mostly dialogue and sounds made by the things the screen is focused on.  The same is true for each level of extra speakers you add to your system.  Surround speakers go without much further description.  A subwoofer has much more utility than just making big booms.  Almost all receivers will allow you to select the individual crossover frequencies for each speaker.  In laymen’s terms, this means you can tell the smaller speakers to send most of their bass to the subwoofer so that noises in the background have convincing depth.  Although the subwoofer doesn’t move, the low frequency sound travels better and tricks your ear into hearing it with the sound from the source speaker.  You can go all out and add front height speakers, far rear speakers or ceiling mounted ambient noise speakers for the aforementioned Dolby Atmos.  The more you separate the sounds, the more realistic and immersive it becomes.

 

More Input, More Control

Personally, I have more than one gaming device.  I actually have more than 10 gaming devices.  If having a retro collection was not currently chic in gaming culture, I would probably be on Hoarders.  If you are even 1/10th as bad as I am, you have probably long ago run out of inputs on your TV.  You may be using splitters, one of those remote controlled switch boxes or even getting up and switching cables.  Although newer receivers are starting to have fewer and fewer old analog inputs (my 2014 Denon has 2 RCA, 2 component and the rest are HDMI), with a few adapters you should be able to connect at least 3 classic systems in addition to several new systems, a cable box and a BluRay player.  If your entertainment center can hold more than that, you may need splitters, but that should do it for most people.

Since the receiver has only one output to the TV, you don’t need to change any inputs or volume on the TV.  If you can configure your remote to turn the TV on, you should be able to reduce your setup to a couple button presses on the stereo remote and turning on your classic system, before you see your classic game on the screen in the best possible picture and sound quality.  This applies to new systems too, as the receiver will usually keep the settings for each input separately.  So you just push the Xbox input button and turn on the Xbox and the sound and picture will automatically be right, even if you were last watching an old VHS tape in analog stereo.  Even if you somehow mess up the inputs or settings, most receivers are smart about detecting what is plugged in and turned on.  As long as you leave most of the settings on auto, it should right itself unless that cable just isn’t supposed to go there.

Finally you can control most receivers that are wifi capable with an app on your phone or tablet.  You are also generally able to stream music from your phone or tablet to your stereo.  This allows you to control the volume, settings or just turn on your tunes at any time without hunting for the remote.  Since this is over WiFi, not using bluetooth or infared, you can do this anywhere in the range of your home WiFi.  Much better than pointing the remote or having to stay within 25-30 feet.  This is especially useful if you have a multi-zone stereo with speakers outside or throughout the house.  You can change what is playing in different areas, or adjust the volume for other rooms, without going back to where the stereo is.

 

That pretty much wraps this one up.  Hopefully this explanation helps you when deciding how much to put into sound for your gaming setup.

e6b7e8bc-9898-469d-90be-46372466a513

Companion Video on YouTube

We’re going to try something new.  I am slowly moving towards my dream of turning the blog into a gaming variety show on YouTube.  The first baby step is this article which will be like the director’s commentary to the video above.  I grudgingly accept that the internet masses like reading huge blocks of text a lot less than I like writing them.  So now you can watch it and pursue further content if intrigued.

 

Way back when the original Kindle Fire released, I did an article on the feasibility of using a (at the time) dirt cheap $200 tablet for gaming and media.  This was in the ancient days, when the only cheap tablet options went without things like bluetooth and cameras to hit that “gift-able” $200 price point.  It turned out that the Fire’s (at the time) decent screen and competent chipset made it a clear winner in the bargain category.

Here we are in 2016 and the market has definitely changed.  There are now many tablets under $100, from such questionable manufacturers as DigiLand and Trio (they even have cameras!).  While the quality of these tablets is often laughable, they are tablets and they are less than 100 US dollars.  So Amazon doesn’t have to even do something that wasn’t possible before, they just have to make it slightly less horrible than the competition.  I can gladly say that the Fire 7 is more than slightly less horrible.  It’s actually pretty decent.

There are plenty of reviews for this tablet, as it came out last fall and isn’t remotely new at this point.  The only reason I’m writing about it is that it now goes on sale regularly for $35-40 and the XDA community have worked out all the bugs involved in fixing the things that suck most about this tablet.

 

Why the Fire 7 is worthy, when the others are not:

The Fire 7 has a lot in common with other cheap tablets; it has a low-res screen, it has a MediaTek chipset and it feels like a huge slab of plastic compared to more expensive tablets.  What sets it apart is that it somehow wears these features like a feather boa.  The screen is low resolution enough to save Amazon a lot of money, but tuned and optimized to easily outclass generic offerings.

I’ve tested quite a few generic tablets with MediaTek and Rockchip chipsets and they aren’t usually very pleasant.  Even ones that have decent raw performance are held back by terrible power and heat management, as well as a poorly optimized kernel.  Amazon has clearly thrown at least an afternoon of engineering into this thing, as it bears little resemblance in performance to generics running the same or similar SoCs.  In layman’s terms, that means it doesn’t crash, hang or freeze nearly as often as other cheapo tablets.  The performance is also generally smoother (while still being fairly weak), because it isn’t constantly throttled for power and heat.

Finally the rough plastic exterior is literally rough in every sense.  It feels like holding one of those plastic bobbers at the end of a lifeguard’s rope, but this thing is also one tough SOB.  What I really want out of a beater tablet is something I’m not afraid to take places I wouldn’t take my iPad.  The Fire 7 delivers.  It’s the perfect kick around tablet, even if you drop it in the bathtub, who cares?  It’s a $50 tablet.

 

The warty side and what you need to do to fix it:

The reason this tablet is better than others in the price range is pretty obvious if you’re at all familiar with Amazon.  The Fire 7 is of course loaded with adds and is primarily a way to sell Amazon content to even poorer people.  So Amazon doesn’t mind losing a few bucks on every unit sold.  These ads are annoying and even go so far as putting animated ones on your lock screen.  I’m the sort that likes to have my cake and eat it too, so I ain’t standing for that.  Fortunately everyone else at XDA feels the same way, so development for this tablet has been going strong since day 1.  I’ll provide a link to the index of topics for modifying the Fire 7 at the bottom of this section.  Be aware that you do this at your own risk and you do not have to do all of these things.  I went all out and replaced literally every part of my tablet’s software, besides the kernel.  The only Amazon logo remaining is on the back and at the first splash screen when booting.

  1. Remove ads and install Google Play store
  2. Root your tablet, so that you have full access and can do the rest of these things.
  3. Stop future updates, so you don’t lose your root access and workarounds.
  4. Install custom recovery
  5. Replace the Fire OS entirely with a custom ROM like Cyanogen Mod or similar.
  6. Install Xposed Framework or similar, to give you full control of your hardware and especially storage.

There is a small risk of rendering your tablet inoperable, but even that is fixable with instructions at the following link.

Fire 7 (2015) index of topics at XDA forums

 

How good is it when fully optimized?

As I mentioned earlier, I went all out and rooted, installed custom recovery, Xposed framework, CM12.1 ROM and finally Nova Launcher when I couldn’t get perfect performance out of the stock launcher.  So YMMV goes without saying.  In the end, I got a very reasonable 7″ tablet that was able to play every single game I threw at it, albeit not nearly as well as an expensive tablet.  What makes this product truly worthy as the ultimate budget tablet, was that it did all of this consistently and reliably.  My interface is smooth, without lagging or freezing.  My apps work correctly when I tombstone and reopen them.  It just plain works better than any other cheap tablet and once the Amazon induced drawbacks are removed, it does so without any glaring flaws.

This one is a winner, just like the first one.  I highly recommend this for children or the very poor.  If this is all you can afford, this is what you should buy.  On the other hand, if you are a developer and are looking for the lowest cost of entry on something that can be easily modified and used for testing, this is also your tablet.  Once running custom software, the Fire 7 is more capable in every way than a generic, or a used older tablet you could get at similar price.