Category Archives: PC

Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard Review

A few months ago we reviewed the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 Gaming Keyboard, a high-end programmable keyboard that offered the ultimate set of “bells and whistles” including a full-color, touch-screen interface.   Apparently the $300 price tag was a bit daunting, even for the most die-hard of macro users, so Mad Catz quickly followed up with the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard, coming in at only $199.  This toned-down version offers most of the same features while replacing the cool VENOM touch screen with a more utilitarian interface that offers the same functionality without the WOW factor.

Out of the box you get pretty much the same experience as the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7; 16 million color options for your keyboard lighting (both keys and backlighting), strong durable construction for all the components as well as the way they attach to each other and non-bundled intuitive configuration and setup software that you must download from their website prior to use.  Your first task will be to assemble the various components including the keyboard, number pad, and three wrists supports, one of which includes a roller wheel and button.  Splitting up the keyboard into all these parts may seem excessive but it does allow the ultimate in configuration for lefties and righties or those who prefer to have their keyboard and number pad in separate locations or at odd angles.   Regardless of your configuration, expect the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 to take up much more desk real-estate than your previous keyboard.

The big feature of the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is the E.Y.E. module that gets you access to all the advanced programmable features of the keyboard that are handled with an intuitive graphical interface that vastly simplifies the formerly tedious task of macro programming.  Each of the keyboard’s three different modes can store your programmed macros, tripling mid-game access to available commands, and once programmed, custom profiles can be published to share with your community.   The E.Y.E. module consists of a circular OLED screen with a rotatable selector ring and four primary function buttons to the right and nine more command buttons to the right of those.  There is even a headphone and mic jack for convenient plug and play if you are using a non-USB chat device.  My only concerns with the new E.Y.E. module is that you have to press significantly harder on the buttons than you did on the V.E.N.O.M touchscreen, which often had my keyboard slipping back on my desk.  Also, the selector ring around the OLED was also not 100% responsive every time I tried to use it, and this ring is critical in most all of the functions of the keyboard.

You might be expecting a mechanical keyboard considering the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is priced in the same range, and while the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 does feel and respond with nearly the same tactile feedback and accuracy as those fancy mechanical keyboards, it does so by using a specially engineered membrane to avoid all the excessive noise.  The speedy, double-tap friendly keys respond to an optimized 60g of actuation force and reset at the perfect level, all of which helps reduce muscle fatigue during marathon gaming sessions. Having used mechanical keyboard in the past, I saw very little difference in performance or feel, but I sure did enjoy my newfound silence, even as I type this review.  And for diehard gamers, you’ll enjoy a variety of textured key replacements for the WADS cluster.

Your programming options are extensive with 21 programmable macro buttons spread around the keyboard and E.Y.E. control module, each with three modes for a total of 63 user-definable commands that are easy to program and assign – the only hard thing will be remembering them all later.  Creating Macros and assigning icons is surprisingly easy using the configuration software. There are already several downloadable profiles out there for WOW, Diablo 3, Minecraft, League of Legends, and StarCraft 2 just to name a few, plus business apps like PhotoShop and Outlook.

I have to admit I was really impressed with just how good this keyboard feels and performs, plus it is quite the eye-catcher sitting on a desk. Normally, switching keyboards is like breaking in a new pair of shoes, but it only took an hour before I felt right at home with the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5, both in typing and in gaming. I’m even taking the plunge into macro programming since there are currently no profiles out there for the Sim City beta.

There are some other noteworthy changes between the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7, and S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 keyboards other than the obvious new control module.  The S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 no longer requires AC power but for some reason they switched the palm rests to a glossy plastic which increases the sweat factor and leaves behind ugly palm prints that weren’t an issue on the aluminum rests on the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7.  As far as programming and usability, the E.Y.E. does pretty much everything the V.E.N.O.M touchscreen does; just in a slightly different way, and some may actually prefer the tactile feedback of pressing a real button rather than an icon on a screen.  

I can see the logic in Mad Catz trying to offer two similar products in various price ranges, but the S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 is so close in features and functionality that the S.T.R.I.K.E. 7 almost ceases to become a viable option unless you simply must have a touchscreen interface.  When you can get nearly all of the functionality for two-thirds the price, the Mad Catz S.T.R.I.K.E. 5 Gaming Keyboard might just be the best solution for gamers looking for the most tech at an affordable price.

Guns of Icarus Online Review – PC

It wasn’t always so crowded up here. Used to be that the mists and clouds would pull apart like ginned cotton, the pure, dense white shredding in tendrils and snarls against the teeth of sunlight and sky. Beyond it the long arc of heaven and low line of earth met somewhere so far ahead it was a blur. The wind wild around you and the creak and roll of the boards beneath your feet was enough to make you walk to the edge, make you think about jumping out into that maddening air, smiling all the way down. It used to be that there was so much room.

Now though, now she hides as the air fills with more and more balloons. The roar and sputter of engines. The inevitable crackle of fire and the sharp report of cannon. We fight here now, over a space that seems so large despite the crowding. We fight over the pale broken things below, or towers, or ruins and no one stops just to breathe. No one looks up from the range finders or the rattle of malcontent engines. No one sees the skies we ply anymore. It’s fitting though. We are the Guns of Icarus, it suits that we die in fire and surprise.

If you think that a little flowery…well, it is, but this game inspires flights of fancy, or at least some fancy flying which is close enough. Guns of Icarus Online is a gorgeously meaty game that makes you long for a clear sky, a strong wind and the tang of gunpowder on the air. At base it is just like any other multiplayer PvP title. You pick your role — gunner, engineer or pilot in this case, queue up for a crew and have at your enemies. Simple, clean and to the point. What makes Guns special then, aside from skinning, is that instead of just making a floating platform with gun emplacements, the developers added just enough sailing mechanics to make things interesting and force everyone in a crew to work together for survival.

The result is one of the most compelling multiplayer games of recent memory with a gorgeous backdrop and atmosphere skinned and bleak and somehow beautiful. That being said, Guns does fall short where all such titles falter. The why. Oh, I know, it’s after the millennium and motives are incidental, but seriously, what possible value is there in blowing other ships out of the sky? Military superiority? Salvage rights? Victory over bad manners?

I know fans of the genre won’t care too much as it’s the struggle that matters with these games, not the setting, but it seems such a shame that a beautiful setting like this is so poorly fleshed out. There are ships sailing on the sky, men and women pushing metal and gas and wood by the strength of their arms and will and for what? What spurred this creation? Whence came the drive? This isn’t even to mention the tottering wreckage piled akimbo in the desert, or the arctic outposts and canyon spans that you fight over. What is this world you just brush the surface of with cannon fire? I’m dying to find out.

Cannon fire isn’t quite expansive enough though. These ships come armed with quite the assortment of wonderful toys, from machine guns to flak cannons to flame throwers and flare guns. There’s even a harpoon to spear a ship and drag it closer. Not only that, but gunners have about six different kinds of specialized ammunition to mod all those guns with (though most everyone just slaps the fire-proof rounds in to make the engineers lives easier). The guns also all have different ranges and rotations, which seems like a simple enough idea…until you spend time lining up the perfect shot…only to have it ruined when the pilot banks right and the target slips out of your firing arc.

Which is why you all have to work together. The gunners covering their limited firing arcs need to watch for enemies and shoot when they can, repair when they can’t. The pilot needs to steer, but not just maneuvering. Like all great naval conflicts, in Guns the successful engagement is all about positioning, so the pilot must watch the skies and give his gunners targeting angles. The engineer? He gets to put out fires. Literally as he usually is the only crew member with an extinguisher, but also figuratively as he hustles around slapping a hammer on anything that needs repairs. It all sounds easy enough until you get in the air. Then things rapidly turn into a shouting match as the pilot just ambles around aimlessly, the gunners can’t get anything in their sights and the engineer never stops moving. This being a multiplayer title, you can imagine how polite, helpful and actually co-operative people are.

This being an online-only game also means there are two big obstacles to enjoyment. The first is the inevitable problem of an awesome game without enough players, which is to say long queue times waiting for a crew. Yeah, you can chat while you wait, or Alt+Tab out to go check Reddit or something, but it’s still frustrating, especially after a match or two when you’ve got a good group. Suddenly the action will just dry up and there you are, all dressed up with no one to shoot. The second is lag. Looking at the size of the arenas and the detail of the ships, scenery and characters it’s no surprise that there’s going to be some slowdown, especially when you add about 16 players running about. Still having your ship suddenly disintegrate around you because of lagged fire, or just suddenly jumping to the side gets annoying.

Speaking of ships flying apart under a hail of lead and hatred, this is the only part of the game that looks terrible. It’s like watching Legos get stepped on. Large chunks break away and scatter, but always boxy and square. Considering the detail and beauty of the rest of the game, this always seems so out of place. Like someone put some kids toys in front of Starry Night for a diorama.

You may think I exaggerate, but Guns of Icarus Online absolutely nails the desire to fly. It’s like wind scraping through your hair at 100 miles an hour, and I’m just talking about the feel of standing still on the deck. The air seems to ripple as you pass through it, sand or mist floating suspended like the larger mass of keel and balloon. Mist and cloud envelop you so thick you want to shiver at the cold and hope the flare you just launched lights up enough sky to find the ship stalking you.

Clearly this game makes an impression on you, and for $20 can you ask for more? Sure there are micro transactions for different outfits and all sorts of insane achievement or leveling goals, but the long and the short of it is this: Do you want to fly?

Reviewed by Mat Houghton


Rift: Storm Legion DLC Review – PC

When I first reviewed Rift here at GCM, I was treated with an extraordinaire experience that brought about some much needed genre defining changes. I still stand by my words that Rift is still better than the long running MMO giant WOW. Those words have become even truer with the release of Rift’s first expansion, Storm Legion, which released just over a month ago. I’ve spent the last month exploring Telara’s largely expanded world and story in this still subscription based MMO.

The fact that Rift hasn’t gone the way of free-to-play is a testament to just how good this MMO really is. I will admit that I played Rift for a while after my review but finally moved on to try several other promising titles in the genre. What I found when I returned to the world of Telara is that it was still flourishing with plenty of people playing and with this new expansion I don’t see it faltering any time soon.

Storm Legion offers up plenty of new content and challenges for the level 50 players out there, but will do little for newcomers as you will get thoroughly trounced by Crucia’s forces if you do attempt any of the new content. If you are seeking to dive into Rift in general then picking up a retail copy or downloading the digital version of Rift: Storm Legion will grant you both the expansion AND a full copy of the core game and all the accompanying updates.

Storm Legion follows the story of Crucia, the Dragon of Air and Queen of Storms, who is one of the two remaining elemental Dragon Gods still alive after the Ascended have taken all of the others down one by one. Crucia is no fool as she has been carefully been bidding her time building and hiding her Legion’s destructive power until just the right time. As the wards protecting the world of Telara and its bountiful sourcestones, Crucia has laid siege to the lands and two new continents have called upon the aid of the Ascended to free them of her wicked rule.

Dusken and Brevane are the two huge new continents that you explore and complete quests as you make your way to the newly raised level cap of 60. What’s really impressive is that both the death-torn landscape of Dusken and the once prosperous now lush ruined continent of Brevane are each the size of the original continent. These continents are richly detailed but I’m a huge fan of the dark, nightmarish terrain that seems Lovecraftian in nature. It’s a definite change of pace from the lush forests or ice covered peaks of the core game content.

The audio heard throughout Storm Legion are just as amazing as the visuals themselves. As I mentioned, I love the dark styling of Dusken and the audio accentuates the continent with broody atmospheric thunder and ominous yet seemingly kind vocals given by Crucia from nearly every area of the continent. While this area was the highlight of my experience, the other locales feature some amazing audio performances and world music as well and everything is blended together beautifully to fit with the core world.

No matter which of the two continents that I found myself on, the amount of content that I encountered was just as staggering as the core experience. I always felt like I was bumping into quests nearly as often as the rate in which enemies spawn. It’s almost like the developers want you to never set foot in a new area. They’ve even managed to give players 7 new dungeons, a Chronicle, 3 raids as well as a Colossus fight that made me want to go back and play Shadow of the Colossus shortly after.

While the two warring faction of Telara may not have agreed on the right means to stop Regulos in the core game, it seems that they have put some of their differences aside this time around. Nothing shows this more than the new heavily fantasy themed capital city of Tempest Bay. This new stronghold is where I found most of the higher level players that have moved on from the main portion of the game and started focusing on raids and dungeon runs. Players also have another reason to visit Tempest Bay in Storm Legion when they start working on their Grandmaster rank in their chosen professions.

One of my favorite things about Rift was the complete freedom of to create your own hero however you want with the Ascended Class System. In my previous run with Rift, I choose the Rogue path thanks to my penchant for archers and sticking to the shadows. This time around Trion gives us a new Soul to choose from each of the 4 paths. Rogues get the Tactician soul which adds elemental damage and group healing abilities much that of the D3 I always played on a once prominent MMO. Clerics gain the Defiler soul giving them long range attacks and more importantly the ability to heal and prevent damage through delivering damage to its foes. I’ve always been a ranged combat kind of guy and it’s apparent even the people at Trion are too as even the Warrior class gets the Tempest soul gaining some ranged versatility outside of the melee norm. On the opposite side of that fighting front is the newly added Harbinger soul for Mages. This once devastatingly ranged class now gains melee and survivability capabilities via summoned weaponry and special skills.

One of the things that I’ve found in my years of playing MMOs is that when you devote a substantial amount of time to a virtual world, you feel like that you move through the world without really living in it. Trion has changed all that with the additions of Dimensions to the world of Telara. With this new addition you can now own a small slice of some of Telara’s most popular locales. Here you can build your own homes and let others visit them to only their friends list or the gaming public. I have to say that I really enjoyed this addition and by some of the other player’s dimensions that I visited during my review others are too. Now I’ve played around with Skyrim’s Hearthfire, but there was a cookie-cutter design to that with only my decisions on what I wanted to use as my end design. Rift’s Dimension feature allows you to build your own designs with the materials that are provided at a cost to a much greater detail. It’s a truly amazing option for players in an MMO.

Rift: Storm Legion offers both current and new players a huge amount of content and a new story to experience. If you’re planning to join the world of Telara then it’ll be a while before you get to experience most of the new content but the wait is definitely worth it. I’ve played a few expansions over the years but Storm Legion is probably one of the best ones that I’ve played in years. I definitely recommend picking up Rift: Storm Legion today.


Drox Operative Review – PC

Drox Operative is an action role-playing game within a 4X strategy simulator. Now, if you’re like me, you’ll be relieved to know that you’re only in control of your own ship while the politics of galactic conquest wage around you. I’ve never been able to get the grasp of 4x games. I seem to get lost in all the choices and all the detail. In Drox Operative your only responsibility is yourself. You are an outlying member that has no default alliance with any of the existing races. Your sole purpose is to survive and prosper, aiming to achieve one of the several victory conditions. You can choose to ally yourself with one or more of the several races and help them become the dominant race, or you can wage war against them all and win through military victory. There are several victory conditions, but none of them are simple to attain.

In a Diablo-esque format, you can get quests from the races you encounter as you fly around the various interconnected star systems to try and increase your favor with them, with the end goal of helping them to victory. Along the way, you will gain experience points and a multitude of inventory items that you can add to your ship to make it more effective in combat. Your ship also has statistics that you can improve with your skill points you gain as you go which will make your ship faster, better, bigger, and capable of holding more inventory. You fit your ship with various items that you obtain through combat or purchase or are awarded through quest completion, but you have to be selective due to limited capacity and power. Each weapon or shield will drain from your total power, so even if you have room for it, you might not be able to use it.

Each time you start a new game, the systems are randomly generated, as well as the races and their locations, so no two games will be identical. This is great, except that sometimes the game seems to take off at an unexpected pace and you find yourself scrambling to keep up. In one of my games, I felt like I was doing very well and I had been helping the race that was really wiping the floor with the rest of the races they came in contact with. However, they were so good at taking over, I never formed an alliance with them before they were the only race left. So, even though they liked me, we weren’t allies, and so I lost the game because I wasn’t a military ally with the sole surviving race.

It was still a lot of fun to see the whole thing come about, though, so I guess it just proves that this game is pretty good because it doesn’t really matter if you win or lose, you’ll still have a good time along the way. If you’re a fan of 4X games but feel overwhelmed trying to keep it all straight, this game is a nice alternative. You get to experience all the same types of instances, but rather from an observer’s perspective with the ability to sway the outcome with your singular input.

At the time I am writing this review, I hadn’t had a chance to play with the multiplayer co-op side of the game and I am extremely curious to see how that plays out. I can imagine that it would add a little extra tension and a lot of enjoyment.

The graphics and sound are fairly basic and uninspiring, which is probably the biggest downfall of the game, in my opinion. I think the concept is strong, and the execution is technically well-done, but the game lacks any real wow-factor.

Where the game shines is in its replayability and depth. You can rest assured that the AI races are all extremely motivated to be the last ones standing. You just have to figure out who to put your chips with and hope to come out on top. Because the end-game isn’t completely up to you, it does leave you feeling a little frustrated sometimes after you build a ship with some pretty good stats only to have to start over because the victory conditions were met.

In the end, I would recommend this game to anyone who is looking for an intriguing space-based action RPG within a living, breathing, warring galaxy, with a ton of replayability due to the randomness of each instance of the game. I think this would be very fun to play with a friend, especially. Drox Operative is definitely a unique game that focuses on content over presentation. I look forward to sinking several more hours into this game and look forward to seeing what happens with each new galaxy.


Thrustmaster Ferrari Challenge Wheel Review – PS3/PC

I’ve been a long-time fan of Thrustmaster products ever since I laid my hands on Bob Carter’s prototype HOTAS hardware back in the early 90’s when I was testing them for use in games like Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific. Since then, Thrustmaster has created everything from joysticks and steering wheels to virtual skateboards for use in Tony Hawk games, and while some products have obviously been more successful than others, there has always been a defining level of quality and durability you can expect from a Thrustmaster product.

I recent slipped on my leather racing gloves and wrapped my hands around the new Thrustmaster Ferrari Challenge Racing Wheel, their latest entry-level wheel priced at only $40. The wheel connects via USB so it is fully compatible with PC and PS3 (sorry Xbox owners), and comes with all the trimmings including two Ferrari-style paddle shifters, D-pad, 12 action buttons, and two progressive pedals for precision braking and acceleration, both mounted on a non-slip footrest. The only thing missing is some sort of curved lap attachment for couch gaming, which means you’ll need some sort of table to attach the wheel using the central clamping system.

Out of the box, the black and silver wheel with yellow Ferrari logo is as stylish as it is easy to setup. There is a nice resistance to the wheel that keeps it from spinning wildly and helps return it to its center position when released. And in case your chosen game doesn’t offer in-game options for calibration or sensitivity you can also adjust the sensitivity of the wheel at a hardware level using a combination of D-pad and paddle shifter inputs. As is typical with most wheel/pedal combos, the pedals connect via an RJ-45 cable. The pedal base is rather small but does a good job of digging into the carpet to prevent slippage during aggressive use. I’m not sure how they would work on a tile or hardwood floor. The springy pedals are only about an inch and a half apart, so for those who have not master the proper technique of one-foot driving, things might get cramped in the foot area.

I’ve acquired some fairly expensive racing wheels over the past several years as a reviewer, so I had to make some mental adjustments to my thinking as I temporarily replaced my Logitech Driving Force GT (four years old and still going strong) with Thrustmaster’s new wheel, keeping in mind this wheel is a fraction of the cost of my other wheels and being targeted to the more casual racing fan. There was definitely a bit of a learning (and calibration) curve as I loaded up Gran Turismo 5 and started doing some hot laps. The default (normal) sensitivity of the wheel was a bit too loose for my taste, especially on the tracks that required more precision turns, but once I toggled to the high sensitivity setting those issues were left behind in the proverbial dust. My only other minor complaint is a combination of my unnaturally wide feet and Thrustmasters’ compact pedal design, and even though I am a one-foot driver, I occasionally caught my foot sliding over and catching the brake pedal from time to time, but I was able to overcome this by merely driving in my socks.

The wheel hooks up just as easily to the PC, and there is a switch you’ll need to flip to put it in PC mode. The buttons can all be configured to serve any game-specific commands you wish, and it took me no time before I was screaming through the streets of NFS Most Wanted in some of the most powerful supercars available. Since this was more “arcade” in nature than GT5, there were new calibration and sensitivity issues to tweak, but it only took a few minutes before everything was all worked out.

While hardcore race fans will dismiss this wheel because of its low price, lack of feedback or rumble, and its smaller, more compact design, for those looking for an entry level wheel, and especially for those looking for a wheel for their younger children who will certainly appreciate the smaller design, the Thrustmaster Ferrari Challenge Wheel is a fantastic and affordable solution and a great alternative to racing with a gamepad. Its dual PC/PS3 compatibility just means you get more bang for your buck, making this a great holiday gift for that aspiring racecar driver in the family.

A New Beginning – Final Cut Review – PC

Adventure games are back on the rise. Just look at The Walking Dead, which has already been nominated and even won several Game of the Year awards for 2012 from multiple outlets. And if you own a tablet like the iPad you already know the abundance of adventure titles on that platform, even if they are more of the hidden-object variety. A New Beginning hearkens back to the classic adventures of an almost-forgotten era, and while Daedalic Entertainment has tried to desperately recreate that point-and-click vibe, the end results is a clustered mess of poor presentation, moronic puzzles, and an overbearing eco-friendly story that was probably co-authored by Al Gore.

The setup and premise is brilliant. We start the game in the future just days before the end of world as an impending solar flare is about to render the planet uninhabitable. It seems a similar event forced everyone underground years before, but this one is going to decimate the planet. The only solution is to send a group of scientists back in time and try to stop mankind’s careless indifference toward out planet and our natural resources. It might just be the most socially and eco-friendly message in a game since Eco the Dolphin, but numerous gameplay and technical issues provide for way too many distractions to ever get immersed in the story.

First up is the 4:3 aspect ratio. Seriously? I haven’t played a game with black bars on the side since…well…I can’t remember. I expect such things on my iPad but not on my PC. The graphics themselves can be quite attractive at times, but the animation is stilted and awkward. There are a few interesting effects like multiple panels that slowly form a full page of graphic novel-style story, or black and white scenes with colored window overlays to highlight important elements, and some of the background art is exceptional.

The real distraction is the audio, which features the absolute worst voice acting I have ever heard in a video game including the “master of lock picking” line from the original Resident Evil. All the dialogue is recorded in very short sentences and phrases then stitched together in a way that feels like everyone is an emotionless android. I can’t express how painful it was to wander the cabin in the prologue clicking on various hot spots and listening to Bent drone on in his robotic ramblings. I was half-expecting the MST3000 robot silhouettes to appear in the lower corner.

But even if you were able to overlook the visual and audio shortcomings and focus on the gameplay, the puzzles in A New Beginning are so linear and so forced into the situations, and you will be backtracking all over the place to solve the most mundane of puzzles. I ultimately played the game in a window with an FAQ open right next to it just to get through this game for review purposes. There is nothing compelling about the story or the ridiculous puzzles to remotely make me want to play this game on my own, especially when the game can last upwards of 8-10 hours depending on your puzzle-solving skills. I finished the game in just under six hours using a walkthrough from start to finish.

A New Beginning is a dismal attempt at adventure gaming that might have found a home on the iPad, but with its horrible dialogue and poorly implemented puzzles, I doubt mobile gamers would be any less forgiving. You can get this game for $10 on Steam and see how adventure games should not be made, or you can drop $25 for The Walking Dead and see the future of the genre. Daedalic Entertainment has made some pretty good games in the past, but A New Beginning is not one of them and should be avoided at all costs.


Hitman: Absolution Review – PC

After six long years Agent 47 makes his triumphant return in Hitman: Absolution. Ask any fan of the series and they’ll tell you, Blood Money is a tough act to follow, but a lot has been happening with the stealth-action genre lately; just look at the recently released Dishonored, and of course Assassin’s Creed has taken covert killing to all new heights.

Absolution continues the tradition of “freedom of choice” by providing you with these elaborate scenarios set in highly detailed levels, often populated with dozens of brilliantly designed AI bystanders. Your mission objective is clearly laid out but the way you execute that mission is entirely up to you. It’s no wonder I played through the opening prologue tutorial level five times before moving on to the first missions – there were just so many ways to approach not just the final target, but every encounter leading up to her.

The story involves 47 going after a rogue agency handler who has wiped the organization’s hard drive and gone into hiding in a luxurious safe house in Chicago. It is there we meet up with 47 as he pulls up in an ice-cream truck and begins his expertly guided tutorial that teaches you the new stealth mechanics as well as 47’s new powers of observation, body concealment, distraction, and multi-shot takedowns. By the time the tutorial is over 47 will have rescued a young girl who has secrets of her own, but rather than turn her over to his boss he stashes her in a monastery, making 47 the target of his own agency’s manhunt.

Hitman has always been about experimentation and even a bit of trial and error. Sometime the solution is obvious and other times it may take painstaking exploration of the entire level to unlock all the possibilities. One of the earlier missions in Chinatown you are tasked with killing a target who is heavily guarded by police. The obvious tactic would be to take down a lone cop, use his disguise to get close and strangle him, but there are so many other more interesting ways to get the job done; many of which I didn’t even realize until the final mission tally screen where these methods are revealed. Somewhere in the level is a sniper rifle. You could also find some poison and dose a plate of food, or in my ultimate solution, I planted a car bomb, hit the car to trigger the car alarm and when the target came to investigate, detonated the device remotely and casually walked to the exit. Ironically, this method ended the level after only five minutes of play, but it also netted me the highest score.

Scores and checklists give Hitman: Absolution incredible replay value, especially since many of these levels can be finished in less than 30 minutes once you know the “secrets”. The entire time you are playing an ongoing tally of your progress will be shown in the corner in the form of a score that is compared with your friends, your region, and the entire world. There are goals that are checked off for completing your mission in each of the various methods as well as unlocking guns and disguises for all the possible NPCs in each level. Perhaps the most difficult achievement is completing the Suit Only goal, as this requires you to finish the level without using any disguise. Obviously, this method requires more action and gunplay than others, and that is where the new point-shoot gimmick comes into play. If you played the last Splinter Cell you know exactly how this works. You freeze time and mark your targets then watch them all go down in a hail of glorious scripted gunfire.

Hitman is all about stealth and despite your trademark silverballer pistols that can be dual wielded or used alone and silenced, you have your other trademark weapon, the piano-wire garrote that you can keep readied yet undetected. Your new instinct mode allows you to scan the area for enemies as well as key objects you can interact with. You no longer have an endless supply of coins to toss to distract the AI, but you can find other objects that serve the same function. Then it’s up to you whether you slip past or strangle them while their back is turned. You’ll want to stash dead or unconscious bodies so they aren’t detected by patrolling guards, and there are usually ample boxes, lockers, crates, or other human-size hiding spots that can hold one or two bodies including yourself if you need a quick place to hide.

Disguises play a huge part in Hitman by allowing you to access new areas of the level without drawing undue attention, but even disguises have their own rules. Disguises only get you into certain areas and anyone wearing the same outfit has a greater chance to see through your deception, so if you are dressed as a landscape worker you need to be careful when approaching other landscape workers. Of course, you can also enhance your disguise with a momentary use of Instinct.

Using your instinct, either to analyze the levels or blend into the crowd, will slowly drain your instinct meter, but this can be refilled by simply doing your job. On the higher difficulty settings the instinct feature will no longer show useful items in the level and manual checkpoints will be disabled, adding a bit of pressure to the mission. While the game auto-saves at key moments, you will occasionally find optional glowing checkpoints to save your progress – usually right before a particularly challenging situation.

At times, Hitman: Absolution is more of a puzzle game than an action game. Unlike any other game in the genre, your situational awareness of not only your surroundings but the people in those areas and all the tools at your disposal are paramount in completing the levels and earning top scores. While it is entirely possibly to trigger an alarm and still finish the level, the gamer in me had me clicking on the Restart Checkpoint countless times in the game, or better yet, once you “blow the mission” you can race around the level gathering valuable intel for your next attempt or trying to locate the hidden evidence in each level.

Absolution is a 10-hour game that will take you 20-30 hours to complete out of the sheer joy of experimentation and original replay value, but that doesn’t even include the Contracts mode; perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Absolution. Contracts allows gamers to create their own missions, not with some fancy level editor, but by merely using the existing missions and letting you create a custom rule (or restriction) set; anything from limiting the weapons used to the disguises worn to imposing an impossible time limit for completion. You can then share these contracts with the online community and compete for the highest scores. For something so simple, Contracts is deceptively addicting, not only in creating your own diabolical rules, but attempting the ones created by others.

Released on console and PC, our review was done with the PC version and I have to confess, this is one of the most gorgeous games I have played in 2012. Even my 2-year old PC manages to run this game flawlessly at the highest of settings and the lighting, textures, animation, and sheer spectacle of complexity blew me away level after level. There is one scene early in the game where you open these doors and enter Chinatown, and the way the designers framed the event then pushed the camera into this congested area with at least a hundred people milling about – you just know they were sitting back smugly saying, “yeah…we can do that.” The designers go even further with their crowd designs in a later level as you make your way through a congested train station.

To complement the outstanding visuals is a masterful soundtrack, flawless sound effects, and impressive voice acting by some major Hollywood talent. The open credit sequence reads like a major motion picture. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time either eavesdropping or blending in using a disguise, there are numerous chances to overhear some amusing conversations, some of which may even provide a valuable clue.

When it comes to Agent 47, Blood Money will always have a special place in my heart, but given the six years of evolution for stealth-action gameplay, Hitman: Absolution is definitely the crowning achievement for this franchise. The game is more cinematic and more story driven than ever before, the Instinct is a much better alternative to the old map view, and you have never been given this much freedom when it comes to killing in a video game. Absolution is a brilliantly designed game, perfectly executed, and looks and sounds amazing on the PC.


Far Cry 3 Review – PC

I’ve played a lot of first-person shooters over the years including 2004’s Far Cry which sets you on a series of islands fighting for your life against mercenaries and science experiments. The open-world nature of the game was what really drew me in to the point that I even dove into its console ports without a second thought. The series has changed hands since the first release and a sequel set in Africa was released in 2008 though I found it lacking despite being able to dynamically set things on fire. It’s been 8 years since my first adventure in the Far Cry franchise and I can happily say that Ubisoft’s newest addition, Far Cry 3, is single-handedly the best in the series so far.

It isn’t insanity that makes me say this but Far Cry 3 has completely regained my attention like the series did back then but not just for the same reasons. The game starts off like a movie featuring a rich kid’s paradise filled trip to another country to party and get wasted with friends. Actually that’s exactly what happens right up until Jason Brody, the main character, ends up in a bamboo cell with his army trained brother Grant. It’s here we meet the crazy mercenary named Vaas who seemingly lets you escape after he unmercifully kills your brother. After you flee for your life, and are forced to kill for the first time, you wake up in a village after a nasty fall from a collapsed rope bridge.

There you are greeted by an ex-army man named Dennis who sets you on your path to save your friends… oh and liberate a country while you’re at it. As I started playing I quickly fell into the role of Jason Brody, and not just because I share his name. It’s more to do with the fact that the basic controls are seemingly consistent with previous installments especially when using the traditional keyboard and mouse setup. The only time where I found a controller useful is when driving a vehicle throughout parts of the campaign if your so inclined to using them. The thing about Far Cry 3 is that while using vehicles is handy to get around the island, you’ll miss the beauty of the island itself that you’ll experience up close on foot. Just don’t expect the beauty to always love you back.

A trip through the beautiful Rook Islands will wield many surprises along the way including caves, hidden tombs, and water holes hidden amidst lush terrain and sandy beaches. There are also plenty of reasons to explore the world and they heavily have to do with you becoming strong enough to save the ones Jason cares about most. From the moment you first reset a radio tower to the first kill of a little boar; your actions define you and prepare you for the battles ahead. You see Far Cry 3 is a lot like a lot of the big RPGs out there where every kill, mission completion and hidden collectible gains you experience until you level up and gain skill points.

Unlike most RPGs this shooter has a unique way of showing that you’re getting stronger via the Tatau (tattoo) on your arm. Players will start out being able to gaining abilities like basic takedowns and the slide ability and then graduate to better archery skills, advanced foraging and better takedowns as the story progresses. For each skill you purchase another part of the Tatau is inked on your arm until the design is complete. I have to say that while that part is really cool and immerses you into the culture and feel of the experience, I really enjoyed the crafting and survival aspect of the adventure more.

Initially you are given enough money to buy a pistol to defend yourself, but you’ll soon find that you need more serious firepower down the road to survive. However you can only carry one gun and limited ammo; that is where crafting comes into play. Normally I’m not a big fan of crafting items, even in RPGs, but unlike them it’s a necessity in Far Cry 3. You have to craft everything from holsters, ammo pouches, quivers and even wallets and loot sacks to get very far in the game. Luckily your crafting materials are found all over the place in the form of plants and animal hides.

While plants won’t put up much a fight don’t expect the wildlife to stand there and get shot at willingly. The world of Far Cry 3 is a living and breathing entity where animals will go into fight or flight mode at the slightest provocation and humans will actually mourn death instead of walking by as if nothing happened. There are so many AI routines running under the world’s shining exterior that it boggles the mind. You could fire one round of any gun around certain animals and get pecked or stampeded to death. You can often use the wildlife to your favor in sticky situations or as acts of subterfuge like shooting the door open of cage containing a tiger and letting it do the dirty work for you when taking over an outpost.

Outposts are one of many things to do in Jason’s story as you explore the Rook Islands. For starters, you can do supply drops via a quad, races on jet ski or boat, and even trials indicated by red rocks in designated locales across the islands. There are also a lot of collectibles to be found scattered everywhere including SD cards that reveal seedy dealings across the island, as well as the missing letters of WWII Japanese soldiers. There are also a lot of hidden relics to find as well. For the not so avid treasure seeker there are maps for sale in any shop to show you the general location of each one. It’s up to you to do the rest of the leg work.

As I said before walking through Far Cry 3’s world is a great way to take in the beauty of the islands. The folks at Ubisoft Montreal have created a world that absolutely stunning and one that lives up to the tradition that this series is known for. You can stand on a rock off the shore of pearly white beaches and look through crystal clear waters to see a giant manta ray swimming by. If beaches and the sound of wind and water as it flows upon the sand don’t suit you can retreat to the beautifully created lush forests full of wildlife or the high mountain terrain where you get a grand few of the area around you via camera or sniper scope. If your PC and graphics card can handle it I absolutely recommend cranking the settings up to Ultra with DirectX 11 enabled to see the developer’s vision the way it’s meant to be seen right down to the realistic textures of people’s skin and clothing.

Far Cry 3 features amazing graphics but it also contains and equally impressive audio package that really puts you in the world. If you want you can stand on the shore after the sounds of a gunfight end, close your eyes and listen to the soothing sounds of water and birds. I had a feeling the audio was going to be good after hearing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” during the opening video amongst the voices of the main character and his family and friends. But the audio is more than a way to put you in the mood to play as it also can be utilized to keep yourself in one piece. By listening to the world around you can determine what animals are around you in the wild or enemies so that you can prevent detection if possible. If you have a 5.1 Audio setup you can practically detect where animals are long before you see them if you’re the cautious hunter.

Far Cry also has a lot to offer to the more ambitious player. For starters there is multiplayer that features all your favorite modes including team Deathmatch or territories based matches. What makes Far Cry’s multiplayer modes different is that there is team economy system in play. Every time a player helps take a location or aids a fallen teammate they earn points to call in Pysch Gas to turn the tides of battle in unexpected ways. Players can also design their own maps for added insanity via the Map Editor.

While the multiplayer mode wasn’t for me I really enjoyed the Co-Op mode featuring a separate story based around the same island. This story follows four down-on-their-luck individuals looking for a way to escape their own private hells. The story seems to take place before the events of the main story though you’ll find out that key players from the main story are involved like Vaas across this six chapter story arc. I actually enjoyed the faster paced nature of this story especially when I experienced it with a full crew online. There are already a strong number of people in the world playing the co-op mode and I have to say that there were some real team players out there that I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with.

Far Cry 3’s story depicts one man’s survival, sacrifice, and dive into the depths of insanity as he risks more than he bargained for to save the ones he cares about most. Ubisoft did a masterful job of bringing back the essence of the original predecessor while crafting a much darker story. Far Cry 3 features a fantastic emotional story with solid controls, breathtaking visuals and a co-op mode just as energetic as the main event. This is by far one of the best shooters that I experienced all year and I absolutely recommend picking up Far Cry 3 for PC today.


FIFA Manager 13 Review – PC

Since 2002 EA has pretty much kept a little secret from US soccer fans. The FIFA Soccer series has always been one of the top selling games for EA. But few people have ever heard about its little brother for stat-heads, FIFA Manager 13. You’ll likely never find it a store shelf, but thanks to easy downloads from Origin, every statistic loving soccer fan can live out their dream of managing their own club.

This is kind of a niche market after all. You’ll never find a statistics soccer game on a Wal-Mart shelf, or any other retailer’s shelf in the USA. But these games have been out for quite a while. There are all kinds of sports simulators to appeal to those who love numbers and order. EA’s only real soccer competition comes from very popular Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2013 (distributed by Sega). But they are a big competitor.

EA of course has the money to buy licenses. Lots of them. FIFA Manager 13 has even more than FIFA 13. For USA soccer fans that’s a big deal. FIFA 13 only includes Major League Soccer. But FIFA Manager 13 also has the NASL (the resurrected North American Soccer League) and USL Pro (the United Soccer League’s top division). Well sort of. While MLS is a full license with team logos, the NASL and USL Pro are there in name only. The teams are just various city names and generic logos.

FIFA Manager 13 has quite a few improvements over last year. The team analysis feature “Team Matrix” as well as a player hierarchy pyramid allows you to see which players are having issues in the team pecking order. In the team dynamics section you see an overview of team hierarchy, rivalry, personality clashes, personal goals, family relationships and much more.

Your assistant manager helps you to analyze the team, and requesting a psychological profile of a player before signing him might help avoid future problems. The assistant manager is also vital to those of you who don’t want to get too deeply involved in the minutia of player problems and other team issues.

New individual player objectives have a special role, and your team will be successful only with enough team leaders and everyone pulling in the same direction. Balancing player rivalries and spending enough time understanding and setting player expectations, are critical to your team success.

Also every player of the team has his own personal objectives. Some players want to become a first team regular, others want to play for their country, some simply want to improve their skills, whilst others want to be captain or take the penalties etc. The status of these objectives has big influence on the player’s morale and as manager you must try to keep your players happy or you’ll start to lose games and maybe even your job.

You can head problems off at the pass though because now you can talk to a player to change his expectations or help give him new objectives. Also there are specific new talks for many situations, so when you want a player gone for whatever reason, you can convince him to accept a loan deal, go to the reserve team or even sell him to another team.

The positional level has been removed from the game. The general quality of a player is now calculated with a formula that includes the skill levels and the player type. This makes sure only the relevant skills determine the general level of a player. I found the player ratings to be slightly more accurate than ratings than the console version of FIFA 13 for English Premier League teams, but MLS ratings are less so. That’s fairly understandable since FIFA Manager 13 really isn’t marketed to the USA fans.

The support of different screen resolutions has improved. There is a minimum of 1024×768 for those playing on laptop computers. The maximum is now up to 1920 x 1200 so you can fit a ton of information on screen. The increased resolution is great, but there still is no support for multiple monitors. When you play FIFA Manager 13 in full screen mode on one monitor is seizes ownership of your mouse so you can’t move it to the other screen. It really puts a damper on things if you like to take notes while you play. In my case it made it more difficult to write this review!

The new quick access menu bar allows you to select as many menu items as you like. You can then directly reach the relevant menu item with one click. Every item also shows and also flags potential problems.

The new half-time feature gives you more control with detailed player speeches and new team speeches. You also have options to boost the energy of a player by a massage or to offer players with minor injuries medical treatment. You’ll get direct feedback on your decisions and the new Assistant option to delegate your work.

The tactical settings now have more precise definition. You used to get up to 6 settings, but now you can basically select probabilities for short versus long passing, the playing direction, the position of the defensive line, or the height of crosses. Crosses into the penalty area have been greatly improved and the headers are now more realistic. There a also a bunch of new fan banners in the stadiums to create a more authentic atmosphere, and the fans now show their colors with shirts, scarves and jackets.

There are also quite a few improvements that were suggested by the fans of the game last season. Improvements include:

  • Option to control the penalty taker
  • Option to select the penalty takers before a shoot-out
  • Option to send all players to warm-up at once
  • Special commentaries on fan behavior
  • Weather changes
  • Live ticker to allow for manager to shout directions
  • New injury time calculation and comments
  • Step-by-step text mode

Additionally, you get set up a plan for your club for next season. You can select current squad players, players in negotiations with your club and players who are just on your scouting short list. Then you can try out various combinations to explore the impact they could have on your team and to directly start negotiations in case you want to really sign a player.

Upcoming events is another tool is a new screen that lists all upcoming events and improvements such as important matches; important transfer market dates; completion dates of stadium elements, club facilities, and youth camps; required points for a personal promotion; changes in the all-time tables; experience gains of players and many more. This allows you to take immediate action or to set reminders for when further steps are needed.

The player development tool allows predicting the career path of players depending on parameters like injuries, matches played, other positions, natural talent etc. It’s a very helpful tool to make sure a player can really help the team long-term.

But is FIFA Manager 13 fun to play? With this and all other simulation genre games, it is an acquired taste. It takes a significant investment of time to build a quality team that will have a successful legacy. This is certainly not the game for those who want to win after a few minor tweaks. You have to be willing to stick with it and build a team. With FIFA Manager 13 there are a huge number of items that contribute to the health of the club – from picking souvenirs and selling prices to which type of player to bring up from the youth academy. It can be tedious; very tedious, but finally getting a team to work well together and win… that has a certain feeling that is more satisfying than a quick Call of Duty game. Well kind of. It’s different.

FIFA Manager 13 isn’t a huge leap from last season. Die hard players from last year might even be a little disappointed at first glance, but the subtle improvements are there if you look. EA has listened to the users and tweaked enough items to peak my interest. If you love manipulating statistics, there is nothing better than a good sim game and FIFA Manager 13 fills that role quite well.