All posts by David Hillyer

Football Manager 2022 Review – PC

Football Manager is one of those rare games that caters to a specific type of mind. The people that study statistics and imagine classic teams matching up in their heads are a unique breed. These types are typically found playing stat-heavy baseball games such as Out of the Park Baseball, Franchise Hockey Manager and others. While it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, playing statistical games scratches the itch of wanting to know if Beckham’s 1998-99 treble winning Manchester United could beat Messi’s 2008-09 treble winning Barcelona. It’s the matchup dreams are made of, right there on your computer screen! Or is it?

As with most statistical based games, FM22 doesn’t really even try to compete with the standard games such as FIFA and PES.  FM appeals to a specific audience, because the reality is 90% of the FIFA players don’t care about the minor little decisions that go into running a club. FM22 appeals to the hardcore supporters who just want to tweak their favorite teams and see if they can do better than the real manager and get their own little slice of self-satisfying glory. Despite yearly efforts from EA Sports, Sega still owns the crown as the best football manager game in the world. Fortunately, I can say they still hold the crown.

To be clear, FM22 isn’t a huge upgrade over last year. But there really wasn’t much higher they could go. FM21 was great by most any standard, and though FM22 is a slight upgrade, it still brings the franchise closer to perfection. Improved AI and graphics bring the realism to another level. While it’s not up to FIFA 22’s standards of eye candy, FM22 certainly is best in the stats based game category.

In FM22 you get to take over one of over 2,500 football clubs. There are clubs that seem to have a bottomless pit of money to pull from; however the real challenge is taking over a once great team and rebuilding them into a powerhouse. You get to find players, set tactics and develop a squad that does your town proud. This is one simulation where the little decisions matter.

You get to pick your management style, with each having it’s own set of consequences. You can automate some tasks if you don’t want to get bogged down in the minutia of daily decisions, however some people really get invested in building up a 3rd string bench warmer to a starter. Deciding what John Doe’s training regimen will entail every single session builds your investment in the experience I suppose, but it sure does eat up time.

Have no fear though, there is a fairly extensive tutorial system that helps those who don’t want to spend hours looking at the myriad of charts and statistical data. Pretty much anything short of a player’s family tree is available to you so you can obsess over anything you like.

When you finally get into an actual match to see the results of your labors, it can be a slightly mixed bag. The graphics have improved over last year, but sometimes it seems that what you are watching in the player fitness charts don’t match up with what is being displayed on the pitch. The frustrating reality of poor player performance can be the result of any number of things. If they want to a new contract, any little interaction can set them off. Praising the team for a good game can even have mixed results. As it is in real life, the personalities, and how people interpret things, matters.  While I certainly love little details, FM22 is amazing in its complexity but can be way overboard for my tastes.

The initial interface for FM22 on a Macbook Pro is incredibly small. I mean almost illegibly small. I eventually figured out how to improve the system menus and other tweaks but the initial install really shouldn’t be like this.

The amount of players you have loaded can have a huge impact on your system requirements and loading times. If you just have the European teams loaded it’s much better than having the entire 22,000+ database loaded. Unfortunately, that means the data on players in La Liga, MLS etc. won’t be tracked with anywhere near the level of detail, but for those with limited resources, this is a godsend so you can still enjoy the game.

Now, as has been in the news lately, FIFA (the organization) has further enhanced their greed and are asking outrageous amounts of money for a license. Many clubs and FIFPro (the player licensing organization) are following their example. The result is the somewhat limited number of officially licensed leagues, teams, logos, players and kits. As with PES, Football Manager has done an excellent job providing the tools to fix and customize existing teams or create your own.  Enter: Football Manager 2022 In-Game Editor.

The FM22 In-Game Editor is a $7.99 (Steam) add-on that lets you edit existing teams or create your own.  I could spend days setting up all my favorite teams over the years, but even if you are not into all the data entry and research, other people are, and have made available hundreds of databases. Everything from the basic ‘corrected names/crests’ to a full out list of all-time great teams are available to download with a simple Google search.

FM22 is by far the most advanced football manager simulation available. While it may not be worth an upgrade from 2021, it does provide significant improvements over any ‘non-pandemic year’ version.  Both the Windows and MacOS versions require at least 7GB of free space to play, which on the surface seems a bit excessive, but once you get into the meat of FM22, you’ll quickly realize the level of detail Sports Interactive went to for you to realize your football management dreams. Football Manager 2022 will be your favorite statistical simulation game in no time and before long you’ll wonder where all your time went.

Ticket to Ride Review – iOS

I’ve played the board game Ticket to Ride for over 10 years. We had a game night at a friend’s house and they got me addicted. It’s easy to learn but takes quite a few games to master. When the publisher Days of Wonder brought out an online version, it didn’t take long for me to get pretty good. I could play people all over the world anytime I wanted. At my best I was ranked in the top 20 players in the world. Good enough so my ‘casual game’ friends didn’t want to play the board game against me.

The various digital versions of Ticket to Ride had over 3.5 million players. Once Ticket to Ride made its way to iPhone and Steam it was an immediate buy for me. The interfaces were a little different between platforms and they didn’t connect but it didn’t matter to me.  The iPhone “pocket edition” was just the USA map (a separate Europe map “pocket edition” app was also available).  There was a separate version for iPad which had slightly different UI and graphics. The Steam version had 4 DLC’s for Europe, Asia, Switzerland, and USA 1910. It was good but the lack of cross-platform play really limited high level competition. Also when I upgraded from an iPhone 4 to a 5s, the graphics didn’t scale. So the increased iPhone 5s screen size wasn’t used effectively.

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Any complaints I had about the iOS or Steam versions of Ticket to Ride were addressed on November 19 when Days of Wonder released Ticket to Ride 2.0.  The iOS version hadn’t been updated in well over a year so it was long overdue. Some of the new features include:

  • Adaptive user interface (scaling): the graphics adapt automatically to small or large screens.
  • Multi-session games: you can play several Ticket to Ride games in parallel, turn by turn. You’ll get notified when it’s your turn.
  • Cross-platform play: start a game on your iPhone and finish it on your iPad, Mac or PC.
  • India map (vertical) DLC: the UI has been updated to support vertical maps which strongly implies future expansion maps are in the works to match up with the board game maps.

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The big question is “how does it play”?  Well, casual players will probably not notice much of a difference. The graphics are better and there are some additional links to exterior website locations (forums and map information) as well as social network sharing capability. However the biggest thing I noticed was in single player mode. The bot AI has been upgraded significantly. It’s much more difficult to rack up points by piling up the long route tickets and getting the AI to keep pulling tickets. It also uses much better strategy by blocking frequently used stops and deliberately ending games as soon as possible to avoid anyone getting long routes. It might not be as “fun” because it’s more difficult to get a lot of points, but it certainly is better preparation for playing against real people, and in the end, beating a more difficult AI is more satisfying.

For multiplayer modes users can play (or watch) online, local network, or on one device using ‘pass & play’.  The biggest change is the addition of cross-platform asynchronous multiplayer mode so you can use your iPhone to play against others on PC, Mac or iPad. This may not seem like such a big deal, but for turn based board games it is a major feature. Being “cross-platform” increases the player base giving you many more potential opponents and many more opportunities for you to play at home or on the road. Anyone who likes Ticket to Ride and likes to play online will love this feature. It also gives you a much better player pool to increase your skills.

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Ticket to Ride is one of the most popular board games in the past decade. The different maps have interesting gameplay variations that certainly increases the longevity of this great series. The $6.99 iOS universal app and $9.99 Steam versions are well worth the price. For a limited time the additional iOS maps are available in a bundle for $4.99 (maps normally cost $.99 to $4.99 each).

Sometimes game updates completely ruin a great game (see Mattel/Magmic’s “Phase 10” as a recent example). Days of Wonder has made Ticket to Ride even better and has set the table for even more great DLC’s in the future. Ticket to Ride is one of the few board games that translates well to digital.

MLB 15: The Show Review – PlayStation 3

Playing baseball takes me back a few years.  My family used to attend Cleveland Indians games – usually doubleheaders – but back then the Indians were just…. bad. But it was a day at the ballpark. In my youth I played text based simulation baseball, then Intellivision and Earl Weaver Baseball. Along the way there were some fun arcade style games like The Bigs, but mostly I wanted an authentic simulation.  Sony has consistently published one of the best baseball simulation games year after year.

It’s with great feelings of impending doom that I played MLB 15: The Show on PS3. I’m one of the few reviewers who has resisted the seemingly inevitable upgrade to a PS4.  I’ve always been happy with my PS3 and neither of the ‘next gen’ systems have given me a compelling reason to upgrade.  Besides which… I got married a couple years ago and I have to pick my real life battles very carefully. For the moment, a nice cheap Xbox 360 or PS3 game is just fine.

MLB 15 The Show for PS3 arrives at a reasonable $39.99 – a great price for a new game.  There is a 10th Anniversary Edition for the PS4 but not PS3. Nobody would really blame SCEA for phoning this year in and putting everyone on the PS4 development team. It would have been easy to follow EA Sports’ footsteps and just update the rosters, print a new year on the box and laugh all the way to the bank. But they didn’t. Granted, MLB 15 The Show isn’t groundbreaking but it does have significant tweaks and updates that make it worth upgrading.

Franchise and Road to the Show haven’t changed much from last year which isn’t a bad thing. Both modes of play are still great for any baseball fan. The great improvement is the ability to import your player from last year to continue your journey.

There have been numerous reports of online lag issues but I haven’t had a single problem yet. Even the quick fix of an online home run derby played just fine with up to 8 people.  The problem with playing a full 9 inning baseball game online is it just takes forever. You can’t control how much of the animations your opponent wants to watch. It can easily eat up 45 minutes or more for one game. It’s much more fun to play a Home Run Derby online with up to 8 people… but just be aware this is a simulation. If you want more of an arcade experience you’ll have to find The Bigs in a used game bin somewhere.

MLB 15 The Show as usual does a phenomenal job at capturing the visuals of a baseball game. All the MLB teams and NL/AL All-Stars are included as well as all the AAA and AA teams. It’s unfortunate there are no A teams – not only would it increase the fan base but I would like MLB 15 even more (I live in a city with an A team). Stadiums include all the MLB teams, 10 spring training locations, the All-Star game field at Great American Ball Park, 10 classic stadiums, and 26 minor league parks. I’ve been to quite a few of these parks and it’s amazing the detail level they have included.

The minor visual issues remain from previous years. Players still tend to occasionally walk through each other – particularly during cutscenes between batters. Also MLB 15 The Show like most other sports games has the obvious cloned fans issue where the same person is cloned in the crowd. There looks like around 30 unique people in the audience.

The audio commentary on MLB 15 The Show is probably the biggest disappointment… and it has been the past few years. Baseball has a bad enough image of being boring and this commentary does little to help. At least they tried to liven things up with the music. But they didn’t try hard enough. 11 songs in total featuring Bass Drum of Death, Conway, Death from Above 1979, Interpol, Lack of Afro, Porter Robinson, Spoon, Stillwater Giants, Harry Fraud, Until the Ribbon Breaks and Zodiac Death Valley.  I guess all of them are an “acquired taste” because I hate every song.

Thankfully you can import your own music and edit clips to use for specific players.  I tend to lean toward more of the classic baseball feel so it was great to import John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and other classics.  It’s fun to throw a little sarcasm in your game by assigning AC/DC’s “Money Talks” to your disloyal free-agent as well. You can also record your own chants and yells for use in 50 different game events.

MLB 15: The Show continues to have several sponsors including trading card manufacturers Topps and Bowman. In Diamond Dynasty mode we get to use the now familiar sports card theme to generate our own fantasy teams. I loved playing these kind of trading card games in FIFA and NHL so I look forward to spending a lot of time in this mode trying to improve my team for a playoff run.

MLB 15 The Show is much more than a roster update. There are subtle improvements everywhere, making The Show a must buy for any baseball fan still playing on a PS3.

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Million Dollar Arm Blu-ray Review

A few years ago there was a run of ‘feel-good’/underdog sports movies. They did well at the box office and especially on DVD. So several studios put out a call for inspirational sports stories and a wealth of fairly good movies followed. The latest on that lengthy list is Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” from the same studio that brought us Remember the Titans and Miracle.

Million Dollar Arm is the true story of sports agent JB Bernstein, who was in many ways ‘living the dream’ with nice house, flashy car and a parade of model girlfriends. But after a long stretch of bad or no clients, Bernstein and his employees were at the end of the road. Through a last ditch effort to drum up a winning client, Bernstein had the crazy idea of trying to turn cricket bowlers into Major League Baseball pitchers. Thus begins whirlwind tour of India trying to find the needle in a haystack while learning the customs of the country. They did this through a sort of reality talent show called Million Dollar Arm.

Eventually two athletes emerge – neither of which played cricket. Rinku (a track athlete) and Dinesh (a truck driver) end up coming to America to learn the game of baseball and hopefully make Bernstein a lot of money.

The casting in Million Dollar Arm is fairly average. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) plays the sports agent, Bill Paxton (Aliens, Apollo 13, Big Love) as pitching coach Tom House, Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) as Rinku Singh, Madhur Mittal as Dinesh Patel, Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) as JB’s assistant, and Alan Arkin as a baseball scout. There are no oscar winning performances here but they all serve the story well.

From a technical standpoint Million Dollar Arm isn’t nearly as impressive as other recent Disney titles, but it is satisfactory given the subject matter.   Textures and details are strong, colors are natural and contrast is fine, but black levels tend to wash out at times.  Likewise, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix is mostly functional with nicely prioritized dialogue and modest ambient effects for the surround channels.  Again, the source material doesn’t require a robust surround mix and Disney didn’t try to force the issue.

The bonus features on Million Dollar Arm include:

  • Training Camp (6:18) Actors Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal learn how to pitch.
  • Their Story (2:54) interviews with the real JB Bernstein, Rinku and Dinesh.
  • Million Dollar Music by A.R. Rahman (2:34) interview with A.R. Rahman about the music of the film.
  • Deleted Scenes (2:28): 3 deleted scenes (JB’s Problem, Sold, I’d Take Ten Dollars) that were rightfully removed from the film as they add nothing of value.
  • Alternate Ending (0:49) pretty lame alternate ending that really would have left too much unresolved if it had been used.
  • Outtakes (2:04) usual flubs and practical jokes from the cast

Million Dollar Arm is entertaining for the whole family and for the most part follows the real life story. It’s certainly not on the level of Rudy or Hoosiers, but is definitely worth a rental. Where the movie falls a little short is in the ending. In order for it to have a ‘feel good’ ending, things are wrapped up nicely and everyone is happy with the usual ‘we made it!’ moment. Viewers are left to assume that things turned out great for Rinku and Dinesh, however in reality they never really made it beyond the minor leagues. One continues to try and get to the Majors, while the other was cut and ended up going back to school in India.

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Ragamuffin Blu-ray Review

Note: this review contains spoilers about the life of Rich Mullins which will affect your movie experience.

I really loved it when you said “God loves us for who we are, not for who we should be. Because none of us are who we should be.”

Yep. That’s the heart of the Ragamuffin gospel right there.

What’s that?

The Ragamuffins are the unsung assembly of saved sinners who are little in their own sight and aware of their brokenness and powerlessness before God. A Ragamuffin knows he’s only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.

(conversation between Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning in Ragamuffin movie)

When I first heard someone was making a movie about Rich Mullins I rolled my eyes. Most people familiar with Rich probably had a similar reaction. Not that his story isn’t worth telling, but there is a long list of well-intentioned Christian filmmakers who seem obligated to sanitize a good story just so it could be shown in a church. There is, after all, a huge market for ‘family friendly’ movies. Rich Mullins’ life didn’t fit that mold. His life wasn’t all that family friendly. In fact, I suspect he would have hated the idea of a film about his life.

I didn’t become a fan of Rich Mullins until fairly late in his career. Most people even with a passing interest in church in the 1980’s and 90’s have heard his song “Awesome God”. It was (and continues to be) one of those songs that caught on and radio stations and worship leaders ran it into the ground. Again and again. I suppose that’s why I didn’t want to hear his other songs. It reminded me of everything I dislike about nice “Christian” culture. How can a song be “Christian” anyway?

But then I went to a concert. We were late. The parking lot was packed. We ended up having to park way out in back of the church. As we quickly walked up behind the church I noticed some guys on a picnic table having a smoke. They waved as we hurried by to get in line. Once the concert started I realized those guys smoking out back were Rich and his band.

Rich had this way of just being genuine. You’d hear him and he seems Iike a friend. Someone you’d love to sit with on the porch and talk all night. He was funny like that. He didn’t seem to fit anyone’s view of traditional Christianity but he communicated a love and grace for people we rarely see nowadays but we desperately need.

Rich was one of those artists who could put feelings to lyrics that others just couldn’t express. He was one of those rare musicians – along with Michael Card and Sara Groves – that I enjoy their speaking just as much as their songs. He was one of those broken people who didn’t have it all together… and was free to tell others about it.

I say all that to say this; I was extremely hesitant to even watch this film. I didn’t want to see some semi-fictional glossy view of that guy who wrote “Awesome God”. I didn’t want to watch some train wreck, wasted opportunity to preach the heavy handed truth about a flawed but impactful life. By his own admission, Rich Mullins’ hunger for God was only rivaled by his appetite for sin. Would these filmmakers have the courage to show Rich’s life, warts and all?

The answer is a surprisingly honest film that was completely unexpected. Rich Mullins (played by Michael Koch) was incredibly talented and incredibly lonely. He had some deep insecurities and tried many ways to medicate his pain. Rich seemed to live with the fear not being invited to the party… of being left alone with himself.

Ragamuffin is bookended with a radio interview used as a kind of monologue throughout the movie. We start with Rich’s childhood on a farm in east Indiana. He didn’t fit in with the mechanically inclined farm life – a point his father makes constantly. But he did know how to play music. He could play songs on piano very early in life and that eventually carried him to college in Cincinnati.

Eventually one if his songs ended up on an Amy Grant record and he was off to Nashville. But the Contemporary Christian Music industry at the time wasn’t a place he could fit in either. He wanted to sing honest songs about struggle and heartache and where Jesus could be found in the midst of it all. Definitely not what the radio stations wanted to play. So he had to fight to find an uncomfortable balance.

As his career took off he soon realized that money and the toys it brings was something he liked… too much. He had the wisdom to walk away from the thing that would destroy him. His accountant was instructed to only pay him an allowance equal to the pay of an average person in America (at the time less than $25,000 a year). All the rest was given away to charity. He never knew how much he really made.

It’s a little ironic that Rich was able to communicate the gospel so clearly while still learning what it means to live it out in the real world. In the midst of his own struggles he would sing songs and talk about the love of God, yet not even come close to understanding it in his own heart until very late in his life.

He found a friend in author Brennan Manning. He was someone with similar struggles. He spoke Rich’s language. He loved to drink almost as much as he loved God. He was also a very broken man, and someone who had years of wisdom that life brings and Rich needed. It proved to be the relationship that brought the most healing and best songwriting to Rich’s life.

As the movie draws to a close it inevitably comes to the point that nobody wants to see – the September 19, 1997 car accident that ended Rich’s life. It was particularly poignant for me because a week after his accident, I drove the exact same road to my grandmother’s funeral. It made me ask a lot of questions. Particularly about what it means to have an impactful life. What are the legacies we leave behind?

We suffered great loss when Rich Mullins died and again recently when Brennan Manning also passed. Both offered a simple picture of living a reckless, broken life of faith in a God who loved them both for who they were, not for who they should be. Through the Ragamuffin movie, their legacies live on.

Coming in at an unusually long 2 hours and 17 minutes, this movie is not for the casual moviegoer. But it could have easily been over 4 hours. Characters had to be combined and time is compressed to fit stories into the larger narrative. But this is a film based on the life of Rich Mullins, not a documentary about him. It’s primarily going to be seen by those who remember him. It’s not an evangelistic movie, but it is honest about Rich’s faith throughout.

Ragamuffin is an “indie” film so there is some questionable casting with friends and family members in front of the camera, but mixed with some recognizable faces like Wolfgang Bodison (A Few Good Men) and James Kyson (TV’s Justified and Heroes). As usual with a limited budget film you may notice some minor inaccuracies with clothing and other set dressing. But if you can put that aside, the story is compelling and well worth your time.

Shot with Red digital cinema cameras, Ragamuffin has beautiful cinematography. Scene composition from city streets to wheat fields are engaging and sharp. The Blu-ray picture quality is wonderfully detailed with no discernible compression artifacts. A couple dark scenes appear to have some grainy b-roll footage which is distractingly inserted with normal footage. It’s probably not as noticeable on DVD but on Blu-Ray it is briefly distracting.

On the audio side Ragamuffin comes with English 5.1 Digital and stereo 2.0 audio and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The music is very well done. I had expected them to have actor Michael Koch lip sync all of Rich’s songs but instead they purposely hired him because he is a musician and he can sing.

Extras on the Ragamuffin Blu-ray include:

Full length film audio commentary with director/producer/actor David Schultz and producer/actor Dave Mullins (Rich’s younger brother).  They mostly talk about the locations and filming process with occasional comments about Rich’s life and accuracy of scenes.

Deleted scenes:

  • Justin & Rich on the road (1:50) Justin plays a song about loneliness. Good cut – didn’t add anything not already covered.
  • Rich confronted by a pastor (2:09) Rich and Justin walk with a local fan after a concert when the pastor comes up with a paycheck and confronts Rich. Rich proceeded to unload on him. This is a tough scene to cut. This happened more than a few times in Rich’s career. The scene comes down pretty hard on hypocrites in the church wanting people to follow religion over Jesus. But Rich’s battles with religiosity is not what the movie is about. However it would have been an interesting plot thread in a directors cut.

There are quite a few other scenes cut for various reasons mentioned in the commentary but they don’t appear on this disc.

Message from Dave Mullins (5:25)

Rich’s younger brother Dave is the point man for the Mullins family whenever projects come up involving Rich’s estate. Dave brings a solid summary of the point in this movie and Rich’s life.

The Making of Ragamuffin (10:41)

During the research process the filmmakers interviewed a lot of Rich’s friends and family as well as musicians like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Brief clips are included in this short featurette along with some behind the scenes footage but for the full treatment you’ll have to buy the new documentary from The Kid Brothers of St Frank. www.kidbrothers.org  Funds raised go to teach music to kids on the Indian reservation in Arizona where Rich lived at the end of his life.

Also included are trailers for Ragamuffin, Khumba, When Calls the Heart, and Red Wing.  Numerous concerts and interviews of varying quality are available on YouTube as well.

I really wonder what Rich Mullins would have thought of this movie about his life. It wasn’t at all what I expected. It’s not at all what I would call a ‘standard’ family friendly church movie. But through all of Rich’s issues and struggles, this film is remarkably honest. It does have a Christian message but it doesn’t come across as preachy. Rich was struggling and asking questions that most everyone asks, and the filmmakers do a brilliant job showing how Rich was able to come to terms with his past and God. He was one of those people that created community wherever he went but was separate from it. He was the proverbial “loneliest guy in a room full of people”. He reflected Jesus to so many but few knew how broken he was inside. The movie communicates that dichotomy incredibly well.

Ragamuffin is probably one of the least “Christian” Christian movies I’ve seen. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of his life and certainly not of the “Christian” music industry. There are people who won’t like that they show Rich smoking and drinking, and others who will want to know more about his struggles than is portrayed here. They don’t cover up his brokenness but they don’t make an expose either. His life speaks for itself – a rare artist with something true to say. Though I didn’t know him personally, this movie reminded me of how much I miss him.

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2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Review – PlayStation 3

Every four years or so EA gets to really take advantage (i.e. hose gamers) with their FIFA license and release multiple $60 soccer games. Normally we see the annual FIFA release (clubs and select national teams), and the World Cup edition every 4 years (just national teams with World Cup graphics). Once in awhile we get fun titles like FIFA Street. It’s all well and good – they did pony up the dollars for the FIFA license after all, but $60 for what essentially amounts to updated teams is outrageous.

Don’t get me wrong, 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil does have some new lively graphics specific to the World Cup, but at its core, it isn’t much more than a rebrand of FIFA 14.  EA does have the underlying game assets in place already – player face scans and various skill game modes etc. So there really isn’t a need to do a completely new game. Certainly they have come to the point where a $20 DLC is in order instead of this $60 disc.  Yet here we are.

To be fair, EA did include a few token improvements/changes to the FIFA 14 engine and assets – probably more to act as a beta test than to actually innovate.  The speed of the game has slightly improved. Their are real managers included – the announcers even talk about Bob Bradley with Egypt and you can see many of them in cutscenes. Generally the goalkeepers seem to be better as well as player movement.

The only real plus for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil is the addition of a lot of national teams that barely have a country. Teams like St Lucia (population 173,000) is an island about the size of Charlotte, NC but with ¼ the population. But all these teams have a shot at qualifying for the World Cup. That’s what makes it great. Teams in the game are divided into their regional federations and this game includes: CONCACAF (35 teams), Europe (52 teams), Africa (48 teams), South America (10 teams), Asia (43 teams), Oceania (11 teams), and a bonus of 3 all-star teams.  In real life, 203 teams played to qualify for the final 32 spots. EA gives us almost every team.

The Women’s World Cup is just around the corner and still nothing in FIFA for the women soccer players. The Women’s World Cup is in Canada next year so I would certainly expect EA Canada to do at least a DLC to accurately gauge the market for women’s teams in FIFA 15 and beyond. But not this year.

Downloadable roster updates will be available as the World Cup gets closer – but those updates will only be available for those with active internet on their console.  The USA team is filled with 45 recognizable players you can pick for your final team and customize as needed. There are a few notable players missing such as Gooch (Oguchi Onyewu) currently with Sheffield Wednesday. It would have been fun to use them to second guess Jurgen Klinsmann’s choices but in reality Gooch’s chances of making the team this year are slim.

In 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil you can play simple ‘friendly’ games where you pick any of the 200 included teams. You can also chose ‘story of qualifying’ from different scenarios from any of the 6 confederations trying to qualify for the World Cup – this includes the infamous March 22, 2013 USA vs Costa Rica game in Denver with several inches of snow on the ground.

“Captain your Country” let you create up to 4 players or pick an existing pro to try and make the national team. Unfortunately you can’t import your FIFA 14 be-a-pro player, but you can import your EA GameFace from their website.  This mode also allows you and 3 friends to play at once in ‘try out’ games to see if you can make the team. You are ranked as being ‘not safe’ as you begin but once you prove yourself on the field you can move up the ranks quickly.

You can also do the standard “Road to the FIFA World Cup” mode which puts you directly into the qualifying process.  Or you can go directly to the World Cup groups and start playing for the trophy.  There are also the normal FIFA 14 skill games with a few variations, and a “Story of the Finals” which won’t be active until the World Cup begins in June.

Online play is a pretty standard (and welcome) set of playing in the Online World Cup as well as friendlies and a mode where you can play your way through the 12 host stadiums.  The stadiums look amazing – though currently very inaccurate since most of them are still in various stages of construction.  It would have been hilarious to see protesters outside the stadiums instead of fans cheering.

Hidden away in the customize menu you can find the usual settings and downloadable roster updates and the new miCoach from Adidas.  It’s basically an Adidas ad where real players give coaching tips on playing soccer.

As with FIFA 14, there is EA Sports Football Club where you can use coins earned during play to buy upgrades to certain items. Thankfully your level imports from FIFA 14 so a lot of items are available right away. Otherwise you’ll have to play quite awhile to level up. Items vary from historic kits to goal celebrations to game cheats.

FIFA 14 is a great game. Arguably the best sports game out there. So EA was starting with a huge arsenal of good material. But with all its fancy World Cup specific graphics and stadiums, there are only slight improvements to FIFA World Cup over FIFA 14.  That said, it is fun to play different scenarios and rosters dreaming of seeing your team win the World Cup. But this $60 game has an extremely limited shelf life and certainly would have been better positioned as a $20 DLC.

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AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 Review

I never really understood what the big fuss was about capturing video game footage.  I’ve never had a problem doing so, but then I have some higher-end equipment (which I paid a higher-end price to acquire). Then we started getting commercially available capture boxes in the Game Chronicles office and I quickly found out why it was such a big deal.

The brief history of video came capture devices hasn’t been a very good one. Some boxes required the user to jump through a bunch of configuration hoops, while others just didn’t work. There were frequent problems with dropped frames or the audio didn’t sync correctly.  Plus capturing and compressing full 1080p HD video to H.264 .MP4 files in real-time takes a pretty decent spec computer. Then there was the usually horrible lag introduced when putting a capture box between the console and the TV. It made it nearly impossible to play online for any shooter or sports games.  But thankfully things got better.

Capturing in-game video has been a pretty hot topic lately.  Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have basic capture and editing capability built in the systems. But it is very basic. Capturing anything longer than 1 minute or wanting to add some fancy titles requires a 3rd party capture box. Xbox 360 and PS3 don’t have that capability so that’s where these boxes come in.

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Enter the new AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3. It is capable of capturing uncompressed 1080p 60fps video as well as a bunch of lower resolutions. Once you have it hooked up and latest software downloaded from the AverMedia website it’s a straightforward installation and you are ready to create.  Maybe.  Unfortunately to get the most of this product you must have a specific USB 3.0 chipset: Intel Native, Renesas, or Fresco.  While it does capture and compress to H.264 .MP4 video, if you are wanting uncompressed video it will require a pretty hefty i7 with and SSD capable of 300MB/sec. You’ll also need a very large capture drive because uncompressed video takes up a lot of space very quickly. I tend to use H.264 compression since it usually offers the best video quality/compression ratio.

The AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 works great on the Xbox 360. I was able to record games and even movies to my laptop. The unique Adobe Premiere Pro plug-in worked flawlessly providing a smooth workflow for any video editor. It also supports any DirectShow compliant software.

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As is with other capture devices, trying to capture from the PlayStation 3 doesn’t work so well. Sony has a vested interest in protecting games, music and movies – particularly their own – so HDCP is fully enabled through HDMI thereby disabling capture devices or any non-compliant devices. The only way to capture is by analog component or composite cables. It’s not the best of course – it’s analog instead of digital – but it is possible with the right cables and they are included with the ExtremeCap U3.

The major drawback to the AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 is the lack of HDMI pass-through.  The capture goes from console to ExtremeCap to the computer. There is no additional HDMI output on the box to pass through to a TV/Monitor. That’s not necessarily a showstopper for everyone but there are other devices out there which do have pass-through capability.

That said, the AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 is a very good media capture device – if you have the specific chipset and drivers to support capturing at 1080p/60fps. For many it will require some configuring to get it to work at full capability – which can be tricky. The lack of HDMI pass-through and usual HDCP PS3 issues are drawbacks. If you have the right configuration, the ExtremeCap U3 is an affordable and capable capture device.

Gran Turismo 6 Review – PlayStation 3

 

Racing games are my guilty pleasure. I can easily kill a whole day racing around Burnout’s Paradise City, or Forza, or any recent incarnation of Need for Speed. Sometimes I even throw in some old school Flatout for demolition derby goodness.  I suppose it’s because ever since I was a little boy, I always wanted to be a race car driver.  Owning Gran Turismo and a Logitech racing wheel is the closest I ever got to living the dream. But it sure is fun to dream on the PS3.

But just to be clear – Gran Turismo 6 is a driving simulation, not a crashing simulation. If you are looking for crashing games go get Burnout Paradise from the discount bin. Gran Turismo 6 is great at what it does, and that is simulating the driving experience of a bunch of different styles of cars – both street and racing cars.

Gran Turismo 6 especially excels while using a force feedback steering wheel. Gran Turismo 6 supports the major wheels from Logitech and Thrustmaster which only enhances the driving simulation. Actually, driving with a DualShock 3 controller is not that fun an experience at all. It’s nearly impossible to keep a line and really makes instant replays look like the driver has a serious neurological disorder. So get a wheel. Trust me.

A couple years ago, Gran Turismo 5 took over as my favorite driving simulation of all time. The addition of NASCAR and realistic kart racing really monopolized a lot of time. The somewhat limited NASCAR inclusion was even better than the actual fully licensed NASCAR: Inside Line game. But that’s what happens when you have a quality development studio like Polyphony.

I was a little surprised to see Gran Turismo 6 on the release schedule. Polyphony is legendary for taking their time to get things right before releasing a game. In interviews they now speak with confidence in their ability to push the PS3 to its limits. Also with the PlayStation 4 coming out it was a little surprising to see them release Gran Turismo 6 on “last gen” PS3.  But I couldn’t wait.  I had high hopes for improvements in all my favorite areas – especially the track construction module. For some reason, making my local indoor kart track in Gran Turismo is important to me; probably because I’d like to practice before going to the real track to try and break their records.

Gran Turismo 6 has a lot of small detail improvements that are a pleasant surprise. The little details yielded much better load times, clean menus, and a wealth of new cars and tracks to play with. Polyphony collaborated with several new technical partners (Yokohama, KW Automotive and others) to rewrite the physics model at the heart of the driving experience. The results are noticeable from the start with improved tire and suspension simulations and even the aerodynamics are more realistic.

Graphically Gran Turismo 6 really has stepped up to push the PS3 to its limits. Little details in the road and building textures are easily seen as a step up from Gran Turismo5. Trees and other landmarks look amazing, to the point of wondering how they could improve this for the PS4. Yet there are still some frustrating oversights – particularly little detail items like track logos. The logo for London and some other tracks have some horrible bitmap stairstep artifacts while the text is crystal clear. It would have taken someone in the graphics department five minutes to fix this particular issue. While it doesn’t affect gameplay and is certainly a minor issue, it was so bad that I did notice it.

But the good news is there are over 120 new cars added to the already impressive lineup, pushing the total to over 1,200. The inclusion of cars from Jay Leno’s garage to a couple of Tesla electric cars really make Gran Turismo 6 a car lover’s dream.  The impressive 1,200 car lineup is a huge mix of novelty to NASCAR and take Gran Turismo 6 to a new level of driving simulations. In a move to keep Gran Turismo 6 fresh, over 28 car manufacturers created special cars for Gran Turismo 6. The cars will be made available at various times in 2014 as the manufacturers debut them in major auto shows.

Again this year, Gran Turismo 6 sets the bar high will 37 track locations and over 100 layouts. For example, Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t just an oval track; it also has several configurations for a very curvy road course and things in-between. Many tracks have day and night settings available too.

Sony/Polyphony have, of course, adopted the EA Sports method of riding the cash cow of micro transactions.  Gran Turismo 6 isn’t as creative about it though. They basically use real money to buy in-game currency credits via micro transactions. You can use those points to buy cars and upgrades. I get it; they need to do what they can to make more money to support development of these games – especially ones that have to license real world cars. But if you can’t afford or don’t want to drop even more money on a game, you will spend a lot of hours racing just to get enough coins to buy anything. $5 will get you 500,000 credits, $10 = 1,000,000, $20 = 2,500,000, and $50 = 7,000,000.

Despite the recent release of Sony’s next-gen console, the PS3 is far from dead, and Polyphony will continue to support Gran Turismo 6 with future DLC updates including the Course Maker. Also coming is a GPS track regenerator which in theory will use your smartphone’s GPS to map your drive to work and put it in Gran Turismo 6. If the Course Maker is good enough to edit your GPS route and place lights in appropriate intersections, this could be an amazingly fun addition. Both features have the potential to really change the way racing games/simulators are used.

It’s great that they continue to develop and add new features after the game is released. It potentially could lengthen the product life cycle. The problem is people tend to play games for a month or two and move on to the next big thing. If Polyphony doesn’t release the DLC soon, people probably won’t know or care much about it.

Online play has some significant improvements in Gran Turismo 6. Well, it will have…. but not so much yet. What is there you won’t get to see until you pass your National A License test. People pay good money for this game and can’t access some basic functions right out of the box. I applaud the attempt to weed out the race wreckers, but the training wheels could come off a little sooner. The gist of online play is you can race friends from all over the world in your own communities and online events.  That, in and of itself, isn’t too innovative. The really great innovation is the use of a GT mobile app to add more community features. But that is also coming in a future DLC update.

Let’s face it; Gran Turismo is not an arcade racer, demolition derby or battle racer…. it’s a driving simulation and that is a very specific segment of the console game market. Many consider accurate simulations to be boring – and driving simulations doubly so.  Console gamers tend to favor fun over realism so finding that balance is pretty tricky. Most hardcore driving sim fans are on a PC using iRacing. But for those who love their console and like to take all kinds of cars from many different eras out for a test drive, Gran Turismo 6 is the best you can get on the PS3.  The car models are almost freakishly accurate right down to the headlight reflections in the textured car paint. While the new physics engine, over 120 new cars and 7 new tracks is a big plus over Gran Turismo5, it feels like I’m missing a big chunk of the improvements in Gran Turismo 6 until the Course Maker DLC finally arrives for download on the PlayStation Network.

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FIFA 14 Review – Xbox One

I just love soccer. I played for a good part of my life and have watched it religiously. I still have a large library of games on VHS and DVD including USA’s only win over Brazil. I have MLS, National Team, Futsal, beach soccer, and old Major Indoor Soccer League games. It’s a beautiful game in all its forms. Now in mid-life, I have been relegated from being a player to the sidelines either photographing or coaching whenever I can. So when I get the itch, soccer games on PC or console have been a great distraction.

Over the years, EA’s FIFA series has been my favorite. At first simply because it was the only game available at the local game store, yet even despite some minor competition from Konami, EA has evolved to the point where FIFA is one of its highest selling games every year, and tech developed for FIFA is being used in other franchises like NHL, Madden and other games. They have learned how to make the money flow.

Not much has changed in this next-gen port of FIFA 14.  EA’s micro-transaction cash cow is still trying to pick your wallet clean and the menu system is still that same tile system similar to Windows 8. I hate Windows 8 with the heat of a supernova, so I wasn’t happy with the new UI at first, but it actually works better than previous years.  The quirky Kinect touch interface has been abandoned in favor of voice commands that are much more reliable and can actually enhance and immerse you in the gameplay.  You won’t believe how fast and intuitive it is to call out substitutions using players’ names, change formations, or choosing various tactics, mentalities, or even camera angles.

The gameplay engine on the Xbox One (and PS4) is entirely new, built from the ground up for this new generation of console, yet only the most studious of FIFA fans will spot the superficial improvements to the game engine.   The visual enhancements are more instantly apparent with much better stadium detail, a more lively and diverse set of spectators in the stands and cameramen on the sidelines.  Even the grass texture has been improved, which might be responsible for some quirky shadows that seem to float off the surface of the field.

Of course the biggest improvement that Ignite brings to the game is the increased number of dynamic animations.   Last-gen versions of FIFA had a fairly limited library of moves that were recycle for a variety of situations, which means things started looking repetitive even when you were doing different plays.  This new engine offers unprecedented variety when it comes to having the players come into contact with the ball and each other.  It doesn’t really affect the gameplay as much as simply providing a much more realistic visual experience.  Some of the subtle movements like a foot roll during a steal can only be appreciated when viewed in slow-motion.  Sadly, the actual character models still look a bit like their last-gen counterparts with dead-eyes and flat, simple textures.

The biggest change for actual gameplay would be in the area of player AI and actual self-awareness; something you’ll quickly realize after your third or fourth failed attempt to slide tackle.   Slide tackles have been the default way to regain possession of the ball, but now that the opposing team is actually aware of not only themselves but you and your crude tactics, they will easily hurdle your incoming charge.  Admittedly, this makes the game a bit more challenging, but in a more realistic way, so you can’t really fault the game for evolving.  FIFA 14 delivers hundreds of new skills and behaviors, including side volleys, first-time screamers, off-balance shots, touch passes, and panic turns when defenders are beaten and for the first time ever, multiple players can contest a ball in the air simultaneously. Ignite is going to eventually make you a better player.

It was also refreshing to see that the ball physics got a serious upgrade to the point where it now seems to exist outside of a player animation sequence.  Before, the ball always seemed to have that invisible tether to the player in control, but now it seems that you are always fighting for possession of the ball rather than having it merely switch sides.

FIFA has 33 leagues, 600 clubs, 47 national teams and over 16,000 players and their stats (many with facial maps and mo-cap). PES has 81 national teams and around 150 clubs – sort of. Most of the teams are pseudonyms like “Man Blue” for Manchester City. That is just staggering.   EA has groups of ‘scouts’ who pour over the FIFA data sets before being published. Those data sets are updated frequently as players are transferred or other changed occur and are available as free downloads in-game.

Also FIFA 14 has their online Creation Centre web app to allow users to fill in the gaps. You can create players, teams or tournaments for anyone to download. Users have created an incredible wealth of teams over the past several years so any of the few teams or leagues that are not licensed in FIFA are available for download. Anything from the Canadian national team to fantasy teams like the Cleveland Force Best XI are available. Historical teams are my favorite to put up against more recent teams just to see how it may have happened – especially old EPL teams featuring Beckham or Cantona.

The Career mode lets you manage or lace up the boots and play out a long career. This year instead of working my way up in England’s FA, I decided to try out playing in Major League Soccer. It’s a different animal – though this season EA decided to make the divisions accurate instead of using a single table like previous years. It was almost as if to say ‘hey, MLS, having a single table like everyone else in the world would be a good thing.’ But they’d probably expect a promotion/relegation system next.

Both management and player career modes are a real joy to play and add even more value to FIFA 14. Simple improvements like having the ability to request to be subbed out of a game are now in FIFA 14 and those little things are what make it special. Previous years I seemed to write more about the limits in sports games, but this year FIFA 14 really rises above most complaints. The great thing about career player or be-a-pro mode is the unique opportunity to teach kids the game. In a tangible way kids (and parents) can learn about offside and the benefits of playing your position. All of these skills translate to online play and even on the real pitch in local leagues.

As with NHL 14, EA has chosen to stick with their commentary teams from the past few years of FIFA and it has given them a large library of recorded names and situations to utilize. The commentary is impressive – even while playing with MLS teams. Martin Tyler and Alan Smith with an alternate duo of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend are some of the best in the sport and add a new level of realism that Pro Evo just can’t touch. The EA audio team has really captured the game beyond anything we’ve heard before on any console. Tyler even commented that goalies Marcus Hahnemann (Seattle) and Jon Busch (San Jose) may be retiring after this season which has been rumored all year.

Skill games have been completely updated to have even more fun and challenging skill development. Some new variations on last year’s games are included with quite a few more to help develop passing, shooting and goalkeeping skills. It’s surprising how much these games actually do help your normal gameplay especially online against real opponents.

Online modes are continuing to be more engrained in all EA Sports games. FIFA is no exception. It is surprisingly fun to compete online in Ultimate Team or other online activities. But just be aware that at any point you don’t have an internet connection, a significant number of modes will be crippled or completely unusable such as Ultimate Team.

FIFA Ultimate Team is again the big addiction (and money drain) for most players. It uses a trading card interface to let you build a club with multiple teams. All 16,000 licensed players are ranked in bronze, silver or gold monikers and you can buy (with real money) packs of digital cards with various players and skill enhancements.

FIFA 14 Ultimate Team (FUT) has been revamped a little bit this season. Most notably are the chemistry connections between players have been altered. The team formation isn’t such a huge factor anymore and now it’s more about the roles of the player. So now you can get cards with chemistry styles for attackers such as “sniper”, “finisher”, “deadeye”, “marksman”, or “hawk” which upgrades specific offensive attributes like shooting, dribbling, heading or passing. In the end this is probably a better system than last year but getting the right combination of players to make a good team isn’t as easy as it once was. But it is incredibly addictive. Especially when you go up against others online and see how their team chemistry makes their weaker team beat your higher rated team. Thus the money begins to flow.

EA really pulls at all the strings by also having a robust auction system (similar to eBay) in-game that allows you to bid on specific players, consumables (contracts, healing cards etc.), coaches, and club items (logos, uniforms, stadiums, and balls). You earn coins by playing games and improving your skills. You can also sell items. The easiest way to build a team with good chemistry is to target players of the same nationality, league and/or team. While the Wayne Rooney’s of the world are incredibly expensive, you can find the rare deal on Van Persie or other highly rated players occasionally poaching a bid at the last second. EA hits all the major internet addition points with FIFA 14 and will do so again next year because they made it fun and we keep coming back for more.

EA has also updated the EA Football Club iOS companion app for iPhone and iPad. It allows you to manage your club while you are on the road. Everything from buying packs of cards to transfers (auctions) and squad lineups are at your fingertips in this free app. It’s a great little bonus to keep you occupied during lunch breaks at work. Unfortunately the FIFA 14 iOS game is completely separate from consoles so you can’t transfer games or FUT teams between devices. Though it also has Ultimate Team and many of the console features, it’s still a completely separate experience.

FIFA 14 is nearly a perfect sports game experience on Xbox One. The only clear failing in FIFA 14 is the complete lack of women’s teams. Given the Women’s World Cup will be in Canada in 2015 one would expect EA Sports Canada to be working on this long overdue feature for FIFA 15. Even if it’s just a few women’s national teams, it is just time. The addition of women players in Creation Centre would open the gates for a wealth of user created teams from past college, club and national teams. After all, there really isn’t much more EA can do to make FIFA better. They might as well give the users the tools to make something even more special.

While small and mostly superficial, there is no denying that the improvements to FIFA 14 on the Xbox One help make an already great game even better.  Improved stadiums, crowds, and presentation elements help immerse you in this multi-cultural sport while a larger library of dynamic animations help keeps things looking fresh and much more realistic.  Improved AI will deliver more challenging gameplay and force even the most seasoned of players to up their game, and for those who already invested in FIFA 14 on their Xbox 360, EA is providing an easy and affordable upgrade path for not only the main game, but all of your season and Ultimate Team data.

FIFA 14 is one of those rare sports games that has something for every soccer fan, from quick skill games to full league simulations; and all of them with fully licensed leagues and teams.  FIFA 14 is still one of the only franchise games where I actually felt like I got my money’s worth and didn’t really mind putting down a few more bucks for additional Ultimate Team items. It doesn’t get better than this for any soccer fan. FIFA 14 on the Xbox One is the best, most complete sports game you can currently play on this new generation of consoles.

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