All posts by Travis Young

I somehow managed to turn my doorman job at The Improv in Dallas TX into a writing career for CBS. When I'm not adding my geek culture to your favorite sitcoms I'm slowly adjusting to California life and enrolling in just about every racing driving school available. So far I've driven NASCAR, Indycar, F1, and Rally Off-road and like to compare the "real thing" with video games.

Altitude0: Lower & Faster Review – PC

This is an Early Access Review and as such opinions and scores are based solely on the state of the game at the time of review and subject to change as development progresses leading up to final release.

While we all sit around waiting for the Crimson Skies sequel that is never going to arrive at least we can enjoy some fantastic air racing from developer, Gugila who is putting their final touches on Altitude0: Lower & Faster; a game that is going into its third (and hopefully final) year of Early Access. I’ve been playing the game off and on for the past year; usually checking it out each time a new patch is released, but after the most recent patch I saw no reason to withhold my review any longer.

If you love the thrill of Red Bull Air Racing then prepare to experience something even more dangerous when you take to the skies in this competitive plane racing game set in a variety of gorgeous environments loaded with challenging ring race gates or the more deadly trap gates threating to crush, chop, or torch your plane. Altitude0 offer exciting modes for a solo career and some impressive online multiplayer modes, as well as unparalleled freedom to customize your plane or even build your own race circuits using the intuitive track editor.

As the subtitle hints, the game encourages low altitude flight at extreme speeds. You might be flying through a series of rings in one race and then through a series of pole gates the next, or sometimes a mix of both. Other gates have fiendish traps built into them like crushers that you have to perfectly time to get through or giant blades or mines not to mention natural obstacles like trees, rocks, and narrow caves and winding canyons to fly through.

The game is decisively arcade in nature but does offer some surprisingly advanced controls allowing you full rudder control for almost sim-like maneuverability. You can chose between chase and nose camera (no cockpit view) and each offers their own pros and cons for playing the game. But most of all, Altitude0 is just a fun game to play, reminding me of a more advanced version of Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed – at least the parts where you were flying. There is an option to simplify the controls but I encourage you to stick with the advanced controls if you want to win (or even complete) later races.

The game starts off easy enough but quickly gets very challenging, as you dive deeper into the solo career mode. The tracks get more treacherous as they wind through nature and pack in more deadly gate traps. There is no plane vs. plane combat, so the other racers, whether ghost or human are merely additional obstacles rather than real threats. The online community seems to be thriving and you should have no trouble finding or filling a race event. But even if you never go online and simply want to play around with the addictive solo races or tinker with the track creation toolbox you can still lose yourself in Altitude0 for countless hours.

Over the past year I’ve seen a very noticeable improvement in the visual fidelity of the game, both in textures and detail as well as draw distance and smooth framerate. I ran a couple of benchmarks at ultra-detail in 1080p and was averaging 224fps on a GTX980ti card. That’s just crazy.   Sound effects are mostly plane engines and the occasional steel thump of a crusher gate, but the soundtrack really rocks thanks to some music courtesy of LastDayHere that totally energizes each race.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Altitude0: Lower & Faster is that it’s being developed by only two people, which might explain a three-year stint in Early Access, but even so they have been active with the community and regularly rolling out patches and improvements to the point where the game that you can play today is as close to release material as you could expect from an indie title.   We’ll revisit the game when it officially launches but I can’t see it getting much better.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

Gas Guzzlers Extreme Review – Xbox One

It’s been about three years since I first played Gas Guzzlers Extreme on the PC. At the time it was a fun guilty pleasure of a car combat racing game that mixed the best parts of Mario Kart, Twisted Metal, FlatOut, and all the carnage of Mad Max and the Death Race movies.   Now the game has finally made its way to the Xbox One, and while the console port does strip out the multiplayer elements, the single player mode is fully loaded with content including; 12 game modes, 42 tracks, 12 arenas, 8 different environments, 21 customizable and upgradable cars with 12 unique weapon types and 22 types of zombies just waiting to become hood ornaments.

You’ll race on snow and ice and even in rain soaked conditions that will affect your visibility and handling. The game pulls the old bait and switch by throwing you into that first race with an awesome car fully decked out with weapons, then once you’ve had the taste of the “good life” they start your new career with a few thousand dollars and a measly selection of things to buy in the shop. It’s quite the reality check when your first real race takes place in something not much better than a golf cart armed with a slingshot.

The one thing I really enjoyed about the career mode is the freedom to advance by playing the events you like. Your only objective is to rise through the leaderboards by placing in the top three positions to earn points, but rather than having a structured sequence of events the game simply offers you a selection of events, each on their own track. You can pick between a standard no-weapons Power Race, although you can still use defensive weapons like mines, smoke and oil slicks, or you can choose a Battle Race that makes use of any installed weapons you have on your car. There is also the Knockout Race which is a 7-lap battle race but the person in last place at the end of each lap explodes, leaving their fiery hull on the track as a new obstacle to avoid.

From time to time sponsored events will be offered. These are usually arena-style events and include deathmatch, CTF, and last man standing. I’m a huge capture the flag fan, and Gas Guzzlers Extreme does this mode so well in that there is no home base for the flag. Essentially you must be in possession of one flag and drive through the other flag wherever it was last dropped – essentially you need to capture BOTH flags to earn the point. This totally eliminates people camping on flag bases, and keeps the game very mobile since the flags are always on the move.

There is a great sense of progression as you make your way through the career. You’ll be earning cash for winning races and completing bonus challenges for each race such as keeping a certain driver from placing or finishing, or killing three cars with mines or using oil eight times, etc. You can then spend your money upgrading various elements of your car like engine, nitro, brakes, armor, and weapons. There are a dozen weapons that include shotguns, rocket launchers, and machine guns, some of which can be fired behind you as well as forward. The beauty of the system is that if you aren’t racing Battle Races you can put your money into the car, but if you’d rather fight it out in multi-lap combat then start upgrading those guns and armor plating. You’ll also have to pay to repair any car damage between races or risk going into the next race with a damaged car and hope for a repair icon early on.

While the graphics were (still are actually) stunning on the PC the Xbox sacrifices considerable sharpness in order to maintain a playable framerate.   There is loads of shimmering and aliasing issues and the whole game just looks fuzzy in comparison, not just to its PC cousin, but any other recent racing game like Forza, Need for Speed, or even The Crew. Thankfully, once the light turns green and you hit the gas most of these issues dissolve into some blinding racing action and motion blur to hide the deficits.   The only gameplay issue would be that it’s hard to identify upcoming power-ups when you need to choose among multiple drops.

Clarity issues aside, the various location themes are gorgeous and there is some good lighting and shadows, lens flares, fire, smoke, and real-time car damage. The tracks are massive with multiple paths; some not even obvious as there are no invisible walls or penalties for cutting corners or heading across the desert. You might even find a health or nitro pick-up hiding behind a cactus. The tracks are littered with collectibles including gold (cash) bonuses, repair kits, oil barrels, nitrous tanks, and smoke canisters as well as ammo and the 2x damage skull and crossbones. The AI is effectively brutal in not only darting ahead of you and stealing your pick-up, but then turning around and using them on you. I was surprised that the game defaulted to easy, so I of course kicked it up to normal difficulty and found it a major feat to come in second or third, let alone actually win a race. Things do get easier as you learn the tracks, find the shortcuts, and boost the various elements of your car, but the AI is surprisingly competent with no rubberbanding.

The sound effects are explosive, and I love the fact they got the announcer guy from Death Race to do all the in-game commentary. Even the 3-2-1 countdown gives me chills. There are lots of one-liners delivered by your driver that pay comical homage to Duke Nukem/Serious Sam. The menu music is this odd assortment of twangy country themes that you might have heard in a café on Route 66 back in the 50’s and 60’s yet somehow fits the theme of the game. There is also a lot of subtle humor thrown into the presentation, mostly visual, like the various names of the AI racers, some of the between-race text boxes, and some of the sponsors like Mighty Cock and Happy Smokes; the latter puts a giant pot leaf on the hood of your car. You’ll be offered various sponsorships throughout your career, and these not only change the appearance of your car but also increase your winnings.

Gas Guzzlers Extreme is $25, the same price as the PC version on Steam and that version includes the multiplayer, so I would have thought this slightly stripped down and visually inferior version would be a better bargain at $20.   Regardless, if you are tired of the more conventional racing games out there then this game is definitely for you. Gas Guzzlers Extreme is a total blast with a progressive difficulty that continually challenges you, and despite the lack of multiplayer, I’d still rank this right up there with my other favorite car combat game, Twisted Metal, when it comes to overall enjoyment and longevity. Definitely worth checking out now or even better, when it goes on sale.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

Syndrome Review – PC

It’s been a while since I’ve played a good horror game and even longer since that game was set in space.   I’m a big fan of the Dead Space series, and Syndrome manages to slip somewhere between that franchise and Alien Isolation in its design, pacing, and presentation while paying homage to numerous sci-fi cinematic staples. Alien fans will certain find countless familiar nods to their franchise from the opening presentation style that ends with you on a ship not unlike the one used by the Colonial Marines to the cryogenic sleep pods that surround you when you awaken to unspeakable terror.

A quick glance at the nearby terminal reveals more than 300 are dead and you are among less than a dozen survivors who have scattered to various parts of this enormous ship. Each faction will soon be in touch to engage you with a seemingly endless barrage of fetch quests that often require excessive backtracking throughout this massive ship – a ship so large you will constantly be referencing a poorly rendered map to figure out where to go and how to get there. In a game that looks so good I had to wonder why the map was so ugly; perhaps crudely drawn is more appropriate, with orange number blocks and no standardized font size and even line thickness that varied per map and level.

Syndrome is more of a psychological experiment than a horror game, or at least that was what I was telling myself near the sixty minute mark after I had jumped three times and let out at least one audible yelp…all for nothing. Syndrome is the king of jump scares and atmospheric terror. Every time a new door opens to unexplored territory expect a cacophony of synths and instruments will have your cat sticking to the ceiling. For the first hour your greatest enemy will be your imagination (and the sound designer). Flames, sparking wires, broken hissing steam pipes, and all sorts of creaking, skittering, groaning sound effects will assault you from up to seven discreet directions if you have a proper surround sound setup or good pair of head phones.

Much like Spielberg’s movie Jaws; your terror ramps exponentially at what you cannot see. There is almost a supernatural/demonic element to the sound design that works in tandem with dozens of dead and dismembered bodies lying around the ship, or even worse, strung up from the ceiling dangling like blood-dripping piñatas. Observant players will eventually start to notice other creepy changes. That giant deactivated security robot that you’ve passed by four times is now gone. That can’t be good.

About an hour into the game you’ll need to find a giant wrench to proceed through the story, and this becomes your first weapon. Later on you will get other weapons, but it won’t take more than a few encounters to realize you are better off running from most of the smaller enemies. Combat is disappointing at best, and I actually believe this game would have been even more terrifying if you had remained unarmed and simply ran and hid the entire time, or better yet, setup traps with electrical wires and steam pipes so they would inflict damage on someone (or something) other than you.

There are no checkpoints or auto-saves in the game. Instead there are save stations clearly marked on the map and I highly recommend you stick your arm in one every time you pass by. It’s probably worth going out of your way to hit these about every 10-15 minutes unless you like replaying lengthy portions of the game, and since this is fairly linear and scripted, it’s pretty boring replaying a game that relies on jump scares when you know what’s coming. And it is fairly easy to die. Before I even had my first real enemy encounter I had lost about 90% of my health from environmental hazards, so keep an eye on that health bar and be sure to heal with health kits and random bits of collectible food and drink.

Syndrome falls into its genre rut all too quickly. Locked keypad door? Find the tablet or computer screen with the email, log, or journal entry that has the code. Locked keycard door? Find the dead body of the card holder and claim it. Things get laughably preposterous when they start stacking these fetch quests. Early on you need to get into engineering but the guy with the access is in the brig so you need to get into the detention area on another deck by unlocking the door from an office on another deck. I appreciate trying to maximize your gameplay in the limited confines of a spaceship but at some point it just gets annoying, and doors off the beaten path are usually locked or “jammed” to crush your exploration cravings. They’ll open when the story demands it.

Syndrome has an authentic sci-fi look about it with narrow corridors, lots of crazy lighting and creepy shadows. I had to wonder who installed all the yellow fluorescent lighting inside the air vents. They must have known these were going to be used for alternate access when the ship was constructed. In addition to the insane audio effects Syndrome has plenty of haunting visuals. The screen will blur, ripple, and distort. You’ll have sudden horrifying visions then things will snap back to reality. Creature design is genuinely scary at times if you let them get close enough to appreciate. As mentioned previously, the map is functional but not easy on the eyes, but the rest of the interface and command pop-ups are fine. I appreciated the minimal approach to the HUD with only health and stamina as two thin bars in the bottom corner. The inventory screen looks nice but needs hot-commands to use/equip items rather than having to navigate to the appropriate button – especially in a game that is always in real time, so that monster is still stalking you while you are fumbling around trying to eat a sandwich.

Syndrome should take you roughly 10-12 hours to finish depending on if you take the time to find all the tablets and non-mission critical computers and read all the notes and backstory fluff. There is no reason to revisit and honestly, much of the scary stuff would be lost or at least less effective in a replay; although you can certainly have fun watching somebody else squirm during their first trip through the game.

I’m a big fan of the horror genre in both movies and games. Scary movies suck these days and scary games just don’t seem as abundant as they were back in the days of Dead Space and FEAR. Syndrome has some rough edges, especially in pacing and the sheer amount of mundane tasking and backtracking you will be forced to endure, but as long as you save often the presentation and sound design are enough to allow me to give this a recommendation for horror fans at full price, but more casual (or less patient) outer space survival horror gamers should probably wait for a sale.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

DiRT Rally Review – PlayStation 4

I’m back! I can’t believe it’s been three years since my last racing game review, but then again, there haven’t been a lot of proper racing games released during that time, so I was understandably excited to check out DiRT Rally.  I’ve been a fan of Codemasters’ DiRT franchise since it debuted in 2007, but nothing could have prepared me for the level of sim-tastic realism I was about to experience on a PlayStation 4 of all places.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I have been playing DiRT Rally on the PC for the past year; eight months of that in Early Access and then the final version that released in December.

I’m partial to the PC when it comes to racing games, because they can consistently provide the 60fps required for realistic driving, plus I have a Logitech G27 racing wheel that seals the deal on realism. When I agreed to review the PS4 version I was skeptical the console was going to hold the proverbial candle to my PC experience, but after 20+ hours and the purchase of a new PS4 version of Logitech’s infamous racing wheel I stand corrected and a wee bit surprised.

Ironically, rally racing remains the only type of racing that I have not tried in real-life, and while a game like DiRT Rally would normally send me to the Internet to look for a rally driving school, in many ways this game is such perfection I almost don’t feel the need to do so. Just kidding – I’ve already booked a weekend session for this summer.  But it’s hard to imagine that real-life could be any more challenging than this game – just more expensive when you roll your car.

Out of the box, you are presented with all sorts of racing modes; both online and off, including a meaty career mode that can easily consume future months of your game time. The default difficulty and various car options are easily tweaked to create the perfect match of your skills and how you plan on controlling your car.  While I’m not saying you absolutely must have a $400 Logitech racing wheel to play this game I will say that you do need some sort of wheel, and Logitech’s baby is pretty sweet – that’s my personal opinion. I did not get a free wheel.  Rally racing practically demands a manual transmission with a clutch and trying to emulate that on a DualShock 4 is problematic at best.

DiRT Rally is loaded with content. More than 40 cars – including two fully loaded bonus cars in the Legend Edition of the game – along with six huge rally locations from across the globe that offer up more than 70 stages or sections as well as a robust garage system for tuning, upgrades, and repairs along with team management functions all combine to create a truly authentic and comprehensive racing sim.  This is not for casual race fans, although you can tweak enough of the settings so weekend racers can find a suitable amount of enjoyment.

The first thing you need to learn in rally racing is the lingo. If you have ever played a DiRT game, or any other rally game for that matter, you probably already know just how important your co-pilot is to your overall success.  This is the guy who has his detailed notebook of the course and is calling out upcoming turns and other road hazards.  Learning the difference between a Right 5 and Right 2 call may keep you out of a ditch or from tumbling off a cliff.  The verbal instructions for this game are insanely accurate to the point where he was telling me there was a rock in the road up ahead on the right after a blind jump.  The instructions are perfectly timed out of the box, but you still have the freedom to adjust the timing if you would like more warning.

You start your career with a meager 50,000 credits, which pretty much limits your choice of cars to one of three vintage 1960’s models, but as you win races and more money you can add to your garage with a variety of models in each decade leading up to the most modern of current rally cars. You can choose between micro-managing your race team and the various setup options for your car, or let the game handle those mundane chores with auto-recommendations.   The game offers a staggering amount of layered depth to its various race systems right down to the point where you will be making critical choices based on the percentage of gravel vs. tarmac and even checking the weather forecast.

Managing your money plays heavily into the game. If you tear up your car you have to pay to fix it, which not only diverts potential cash for new cars and upgrades, but can also rob you of valuable time if you are forced to repair between the stages of an event.  Pounding out a dented fender can easily take you from second to sixth place and is totally unnecessary whereas repairing key engine components can mean the difference between crossing the finish line and a DNF.

There are numerous ways to earn in-game currency. The easiest is to win or place high enough in the standings, but you can also boost your earning potential by tweaking the various driving assists.  The more realistic and sim-like you make the game the more money you earn.  If turning off traction control and braking assist or driving from the cockpit camera proves too difficult you can also turn to the daily, weekly, and monthly challenges to earn extra credits.  The Racenet community has never been stronger, and DiRT Rally’s online experience is second to none.  It is so easy to find matched race opponents for casual online racing or even create or join your own league team for serious competition.

The PS4 version of DiRT Rally easily competes with the PC when it comes to content, and while I can speak firsthand about the Racenet community on the PC only time will tell if the PS4 will match that same level of saturation and enthusiasm.   Also of particular note is the new inclusion of the FIA World Rallycross, which is presented as its own mode and allows gamers to play solo or challenge your friends to some insane racing action using modern-day rally cars long before you will ever have access to them in a normal career.

While no PS4 can hope to compete with a high-end PC I was impressed at just how amazing DiRT Rally looks on the PS4. The draw distance and level of detail was out to the horizon with minimal pop-up.  Speeding through dense forests on curved gravel roads lined with pine trees was real enough to induce moments of claustrophobic panic, and navigating roads no wider than a mountain bike trail with no guardrail on the outside put lumps in my stomach.  Damage modeling is impressive, although sadly you don’t see more than a cracked windshield when driving from the cockpit view, but numerous other cameras are easily cycled including bumper, hood, dash, wheel, and two levels of chase views.  The right stick allows you to look around both inside and outside the car, and I can only imagine the realism factor if Codemasters decides to offer VR support as either a patch or in next year’s version of the game.

The audio is also exceptionally well done with surround support for Dolby and DTS. Crunching gravel can be heard in the rear speakers while your engine revs in the front channels and your co-pilot’s instructions are clearly and concisely delivered from the front-center channel.  It’s the perfect mix of balance in both content and volume that mirrors real-life, right down to the muffling of all exterior sounds when you choose an in-car camera.

Codemasters has delivered a scalable rally racer that will appeal to casual and hardcore fans with enough content to keep you racing long into this summer.  While the PC is still the preferred version of DiRT Rally assuming you have a super gaming rig, the PS4 does an impressive job of offering up a near-identical rally racing experience on the PS4, and assuming the Racenet community flourishes on console like it has on PC, I can easily recommend either format.   I would also encourage you look into some sort of racing wheel.  It not only helps with the immersion – it just makes DiRT Rally a better game.

Screenshot Gallery

[carousel arrows=”display”]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[panel][/panel]
[/carousel]

NBA 2K14 Review – Xbox 360

Let me start this review by saying I played NBA 2K13 a lot…a LOT. I broke it out when friends came over for game night, and I spent countless hours immersed in the career simulation. It was truly a landmark achievement in basketball video gaming, and I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation as I fired up NBA 2K14 to see what they could have possibly added to the mix. Sadly…not much.

With the exception of a few minor additions, NBA 2K14 is last year’s game in a new box, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you don’t already own NBA 2K13. Everything from the player setup to the various game modes are meticulously reproduced, and as I began the process of creating my sneaker-squeaking avatar, playing the showcase game, going through the lengthy unskippable draft, and playing the first few months of my new career everything seemed identical to last year from gameplay to Sprint sponsorship, to the post-game interviews.

Like last year, you’ll want to improve your character between games by taking part in various skill drills and training. Skill challenges earn you cash while training will actually boost various stats based on the lessons you learn. You also need to maintain a positive image with both your fans and your own team, which can improve chemistry and boost performance on the court. There are stats for these and also a virtual twitter feed with amusing comments you can follow or ignore.

Coins are back and they are just as slow to earn as ever, especially if your team chemistry sinks to a D or lower. You can actually come out of a game with no new cash. Your overall coins for each game vary based on performance, team chemistry, dynamic challenges, and your ability to make the highlight reel or earn the MVP award and are added to your normal salary. You’ll need to watch your money for the first year or so, avoiding luxuries in favor of new skills that will improve your game and future earning potential. Later on when endorsement deals get made or you renegotiate your contract money becomes less of an issue.

NBA 2K14 features the same great presentation found in last year’s game complete with multiple camera angles of the gorgeous stadiums and detailed player models as well as some of the best non-stop commentary you’ll find in a sports game. The play-by-play is spot on and they even make these uncanny references to your past games and post-game interview comments. NBA 2K14 doesn’t miss a single detail when it comes to immersing you in the NBA lifestyle. Stadium graphics are loaded with details like official mascots, cheerleaders, sponsor banners, and hundreds of individually animated fans in the stands. There are dynamic replays and cutaways for special shots, and they even have TV-style commercials for upcoming games on the schedule. From the moment you start a game to the moment you return to the locker room you are never once taken out of the experience of being a real NBA baller at a real NBA game.

Controls are pretty much the same as last year with the exception of the right analog shot/pass stick that no longer requires a trigger. You either flick the stick to pass or hold to shoot. The trigger modifier now invokes a slick new freestyle passing where you squeeze and push the right stick toward the receiving player. The seamless animation looks cool when it works, but your success isn’t as guaranteed as the old method, so start pumping up those passing stats.

NBA 2K14 also offers limited Kinect support for voice commands, and these add a lot to the immersion and the fluidity of gameplay, allowing you to call plays and sub players without fumbling through menus; that’s assuming the Kinect can hear you over the regular sounds of the game. The audio detection icon was continuously appearing in the top corner whenever the commentators were talking.

If you ever get tired or need a break from your NBA career there is a fantastic multiplayer experience waiting for you whether you want to play local 4-player co-op, online 5-player co-op, or go all out in 10-player online where every player is a real person. Just like last year, the online play is surprisingly smooth and lag-free, even in 10-player games.

So just what is new about NBA 2K14? Well, if you are a fan of LeBron James then a lot, otherwise you might be better off just going out and picking up a copy of 2K13 for a much reduced priced – you know they are all getting traded in right now. Whether you love, hate, or care less about the man, James is the signature player in 2K14 and you can explore him further in the LeBron: Path to Greatness mode. Personally, I have no opinion or prejudice one way or the other, but I did enjoy this virtual “what if” scenario that follows LeBron into the future as he tries to beat Jordan’s record of six NBA championships. You get to choose whether he attempts this in Miami or embark on a new career path that will lead him back home to Cleveland. I was impressed with the amount of work and exclusive content that went into this mode with special stories and specific commentary. The content actually surpasses the Jordan Challenge from NBA 2K11, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was being subliminally brainwashed to love the man.

Other than the aforementioned control tweaks and the addition of the LeBron James mode not much has changed. I did notice the defensive game was slightly tweaked, or maybe I’m just finally getting better, but it seemed a lot easier to block and rebound the ball this year. Other than that, expect the same flashy splash screens, horrible menu system, the same post-game interview questions and canned responses, and pretty much the same exact experience you had with NBA 2K13. And yes, you had better love hip-hop or the music in this game will drive you nuts. Even without Jay-Z’s name splashed on the cover you can still feel his influence.

For LeBron James fans, picking up this game is a no-brainer. It’s just a shame that Visual Concepts didn’t put as much work into the rest of the game; not that it need much improvement, but at least mix it up a bit and make us think we are getting something new and improved. 2K Sports has had the luxury of being the only NBA game out there, but EA Sports might force them to up their game in 2015. For now, NBA 2K14 is a competent basketball game, career simulation, and a great PR piece for LeBron James and still the best game in town.


NASCAR The Game: 2013 Review – PC/Steam

It’s been more than ten years since I’ve reviewed a NASCAR game on the PC. I sort of got whisked away into the whole console scene for gaming since I mostly play sports and racing games and that is where the community was heading. My PC was eventually replaced with a MacBook for work, so I have been completely removed from the PC gaming scene for quite some time, but earlier this year I decided to buy a dedicated gaming PC and see what I had been missing.

I’ve had some incredible PC gaming experiences over the past few months, mostly replaying many of my console favorites on the PC and enjoying their improved graphics and framerate, but NASCAR: The Game 2013 is one of the first new racing games I’ve played on the PC and somehow, in the back of my mind, the memories of playing NASCAR 2003 are better than this new game.

I enjoy racing real cars in real life, so when it comes to video games I tend to slant to the simulation side of the racing genre. The more realistic the better, which I know can scare off casual racers, but it’s the job of the designer to add in whatever modes and assists are necessary to cater to that crowd. NASCAR: The Game 2013 is officially licensed, which translates to 43 drivers, 22 teams, and 22 tracks; many of which can be raced at night for a whole new experience. You can jump into a quick race, compete in a season, or check out the career mode where you create your own driver and team and try to compete with the big boys.

NASCAR: The Game 2013 supports Steam Big Picture mode, which means you can use a gamepad, but purists will want to use a wheel for the racing – save the controller for navigating the interface. There is a competent Virtual Shop with a Paint Booth that allows editing of existing car designs or you can create your own or even import other designs from assets created outside the game in Windows. Visit the Race Shop to add new Pin Packs and Decals to your collection or tweak your settings in the Pro Driver Setups. My NASCAR is your main hub where you can view online race results, screen caps, and adjust any game settings.

I’m guessing the first setting you’ll want to change is screen mode as the game defaults to windowed mode. After that you can start tweaking the settings to match your hardware. With my new system I was able to max all the settings like draw distance, motion blur, textures, mirrors, and FXAA, and the resulting game graphics were borderline photorealistic in some instances. Even running at the same 1080p resolution as the consoles, the extra level of detail and sharpness on the PC far surpasses console capabilities.

Before you get behind the wheel you’ll want to tweak the non-technical settings; stuff like transmission, steering and brake assists, and several others to create the perfect balance of sim vs casual. You can test your choices in Single Player modes like Race Now, Track Testing, or Single Season. Once you are comfortable with the game you can then jump into the Career mode for the ultimate NASCAR simulation.

Interestingly enough, one of my favorite diversions in NASCAR: The Game 2013 were the Inside Line Highlights Challenges. Highlights will definitely appeal to hardcore NASCAR fans as it picks noteworthy moments from the past several seasons and has you reliving them; or even better, rewriting them by changing the outcome. This has always been a cool feature in other sports games and I’m glad to see it come to racing.

NASCAR: The Game 2013 also has an online racing mode, but even three months after release it seems unusually hard to find a good race despite a somewhat active online community. I think back to 2003 and a game that supported 42 online racers, and we were able to fill a full grid with no problem. This game only supports 16 players and I’ve only managed two full grids in the past few weeks. I’m guessing the console versions are probably doing better in this regard, so if you are looking for a quality online experience you may want to pass on the PC.

Apparently, the designers are assuming their audience are experience racers and mechanics, as the game has no tutorials for the game, the sport, or even how or why to tune your car, and these are all fairly important things to know; especially the tuning elements that are required if you hope to win or even finish a race. The online community has come to the rescue with several user-created guides that will assist newcomers and casual racers.

Once you are out on the track you can expect a fairly competent physics engine and some randomly incompetent AI drivers that will swerve and wreck for no apparent reason triggering an annoying amount of yellow flags. In some races I spent more time under caution than actually racing and it does get annoying when it is out of your control. Driving controls are smooth and realistic with a racing wheel while using a gamepad will yield a console-like experience with a bit of imprecise seesaw steering. Gas and brake functions with a pedal are much more accurate with a better analog range of motion than you can get with gamepad triggers that you tend to either mash or release.

When it comes to NASCAR games, especially license ones, you don’t have much of a choice, but that’s still no reason to rush out and buy NASCAR: The Game 2013. As long as you know in advance that there is no tutorial and that you will need to already have a working knowledge of car tuning and setups, and that despite a functional online community it is disappointingly hard to find any online competition, then go ahead and give this game a shot. This is a game that was targeted for experienced NASCAR fans and hardcore racing sims; the same fans that will ultimately spend more time in the Challenges than any other mode of the game, which probably explains why I can’t find anyone online.


Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 Review – Xbox 360

I’ve been playing the Tiger Woods franchise for far too long now; well past the relevancy of the man on the cover and well past any hopes of true innovation on the part of EA Sports. While I cannot prove it without decompiling the game’s code I am fairly confident that the core engine in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 is the same core code as the last three or four games if for no other reason than the game shares all the same annoying glitches and bugs as its predecessors; garbled speech, periodic lock-ups that require a system reset, and of course, painful load times even after installing the game to the Xbox hard drive. EA continues to refine their premier golf franchise each year but in none of the ways we want or need.

Each year brings a new gimmick; a hook that is supposed to entice you into another $60 core purchase, and since all those DLC courses you bought last year won’t transfer over, another $30-40 in course bundles. Recent installments have allowed us to play in the Masters at Augusta or grow up with Tiger throughout various lifetime signature moments, but this year provides us with perhaps the best possible feature to date; Legends of the Majors, an entertaining and insightful look into the historic timeline of professional golf from its inception to present day. You’ll step into the shoes of golf’s greatest legends and try to match or even best their historic performances. Ironically, this mode has captivated me far longer than the traditional core career mode which, pardon the pun, has run its course.

But is one mode enough to snatch another $60-100 from our pockets? In past years I’ve always justified the purchase of $40 worth of DLC with the fact my review copy from EA was free and I was still coming out ahead, but after last year’s course bundle purchase that drained the majority of a 4000 point card I swore I was done buying extra courses. But EA is clever in that devil-on-your-shoulder kind of way, and as you progress through the career you will inevitably come to events that take place on courses that don’t come on the core disc, and the game will taunt you with a potential DLC purchase to play the event as it was intended or substitute one of the 20 courses they do provide to stand in for the missing real estate.

And of course the Coin system is back, always nagging you to purchase EA currency with Microsoft currency that you’ve already purchased with real money – anyone else smell a money laundering scheme here? Just kidding. Coins can purchase all sorts of goodies to speed you through the game much faster than earning them legitimately through gameplay; the most important of which are pins and pin refills. Prior to each round you can equip a variety of pins to your golf bag that will enhance your game in various ways in a “pay to cheat” system that I exploited last year and have entirely avoided this year.

So beyond the obvious new game mode, what other new features does PGA Tour 14 bring to the clubhouse? Well, for the first time ever you now get to play in all four golf majors; the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship. Country Clubs get a major overhaul upping the size limit from 25 to 100 golfers while adding new Club Chat, stats tracking, and loyalty bonuses. You can even play with up to 23 other golfers at the same time in the new Connected Tournaments where you get to see the shot arcs of all the live tournament players. And if you can’t be bothered with creating your own country club or joining another, the game will place you in one automatically after your first game.

While the broadcast presentation style has been enhanced and a few more comments have been added to Jim and David’s repertoire, I am still hearing the same comments I heard 4-5 years ago. I think it’s time to either scrap this broadcasting duo or at least start fresh with a new batch of commentary. And why am I getting that same garbled overlap of multiple sound clips every fifth or sixth hole just like the ones that annoyed me in the past four game installments? Did my from-the-fringe eagle suddenly cause Jim to speak in tongues? At least the crowd noises, course environments, and soothing music all help to enhance the experience.

Total Swing Control is back and now enhanced with fade and draw attributes that you can assign to your golfer at creation time then exploit by angling your follow-through swing to shape the ball’s trajectory to overcome course or wind hazards. After all of these years trying to master the perfect straight swing they are now asking you to master the angled swing as well. Something else to watch for is the ball lie and the strike contact point of the club, especially when you are hitting from the second cut or the beach. You’ll need to manually position the crosshair using the right stick to adjust the contact point between club and ball for a quality stroke.

You also get to choose between playing a Power or Control golfer, each with their own pros and cons, and swing tempo now plays a major part of your overall swing effectiveness. It all leads up to the new Simulation mode that takes your golf game to a whole new level of seriousness. Gone are all the gimmicks that allow you to game the system, leaving you with only real striking physics and real word results.

Kinect is back and if you read my review last year you already know my feelings on what was rather a poor implementation of motion-tracking control. It remains a fun way for kids to get physical and have casual fun with the game, but there is no way you can take the imprecise nature of this system seriously when it comes to playing this game competitively online or even in a normal career mode. The various gesture for changing the views is clever and I do enjoy the voice commands, but ultimately even having the Kinect “connected” to your Xbox will slow down the game. At first I just covered the camera to avoid random detection issues, but I ultimately just disconnected the device anytime I play the game now.

Graphically, Tiger Woods PGA Tour has always looked amazing and this latest version is no exception with stunning visuals that are further enhanced with new lighting effects to replicate sunset, sunrise, and even the ability to play night golf. You can even toggle live time and weather to sync your game with the real conditions and time of the course venue at the time you are playing. One particularly cool aspect when playing through the early portions of the timeline of Legends games is the use of sepia filters and aging effects that give the illusion you are watching your game play out on archival footage. It’s a nice monochromatic break from the traditional green grass and blue skies.

PGA Tour 14 ups the course roster from last year’s 16 to 20 courses; the most offered in a Tiger Woods game to date, adding in Mission Hills, Muirfield Village, Oak Hill Country Club, Royal Troon, and TPC Lousiana. If you go for the Masters Historic Edition you get six more courses and that still leaves you with 22 additional DLC courses including the new Colonial Country Club and four fantasy courses. The game also comes with 32 licensed golfers including historically accurate multiple versions of legendary players like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus. There are 20 current pros including 15 men and five women and even some celebrity golfers.

While Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 does appear to offer the most comprehensive golf game in the franchise’s history, it’s ultimately up to you if those changes are worth another $60-100 to enjoy them. I’ve fallen prey to the yearly trap of getting all excited about the game and impulsively buying all the DLC course then three months later I realize I’m not even playing the core game anymore and find myself deleting the courses to free up hard drive space. If your interest in this franchise goes beyond the casual golf game. ..if you desire to setup your own country club and manage your own tournaments and have lots of friends willing to do the same then look no further than Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14. Everyone else can probably have just as much fun playing the game (and the DLC) they purchased last year, and I’ll continue to wait for some truly significant game changing update in next year’s edition.