Month: July 2015

Alienware 13 and Graphics Amplifier (Hardware) Review 4

Alienware 13 and Graphics Amplifier (Hardware) Review

I must admit that the Alienware 13 is a brilliant little mobile gaming platform. But for every bit of brilliant, it’s equally expensive. The version I had on test, with the 2.4GHz i7, the GeForce 960M, a meagre 8gigs of DDR3 1600 memory, and nothing but a 250GB SSD for storage tipped the scales at $1900CAD, albeit with a 1440p touch LCD included. With the added external Graphics Amplifier and the PNY GTX 980 in it, that price soars up to a stratospheric $2700CAD. That’s before taxes, for a 13 inch laptop. That part is certainly in keeping with Alienware tradition, then; so what about the rest?

Well, it certainly looks excellent, like a more grown-up version of the Alienwares of the past. The lineage is still very much evident, but it’s refined enough to not look out of place at your local coffee shop. The customizable lighting will certainly turn heads if you want it to, and this is especially true if you use Alienware’s software to set up the four different colour zones on the keyboard with differing mixes of strobing and non-strobing colours. Not too grown up, then.
alienware13insert1So, what about the performance? Well, here’s where I’m conflicted. First, I have to say that that 1440p display is stunning. It’s brilliantly crisp. And the built-in 960M is definitely no slouch. With that out the way, I need to be critical of a few things. The first is regarding that display, and seeing no immediate reason for it to not offer nVidia’s G-SYNC. For the eye-watering price Alienware asks for this package, frame-tearing was something I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with. After some thought, though, I remembered that the external Graphics Amplifier supports PCI-E video cards from both nVidia and AMD, so it seems like a good excuse to save some money, even though the dedicated graphics in all the laptops in their line are nVidia at the moment. Therein, I feel, rests the problem.

I understand that the Graphics Enhancer is offered as a means of potential upgrade for your Alienware laptop as it ages, but after giving it a bit more thought, it has a few issues. Relatively short lifespan for laptops has long been the bane of the mobile consumer, let alone the mobile gamer, so it seems like a reasonable enough idea to offer a means to connect a high-end PCI-E video card to boost performance as things start lacking, no? My issue with this is that the 960M in the laptop already handles what I could throw at it in 1440p just fine. And to be honest, I could even afford to dial back some settings and not really notice it thanks to the incredible pixel density on such a small display. This means that your bottleneck probably won’t be GPU, but rather CPU, as it often tends to be for mobile gamers.

In GPU intensive games like War Thunder, the PNY GTX 980 in the Graphics Amplifier allowed me to crank the visual settings to max cinematic at 1440p without issue, but on even moderately CPU intensive titles like Diablo3, I was already noticing some CPU related stuttering. It’s all fine and well that I can upgrade the graphics card in a couple of years, but that’s not going to do me much good if the top CPU on-offer is already reaching its limits of performance.

Alienware 13 and Graphics Amplifier (Hardware) Review
Alienware 13 and Graphics Amplifier (Hardware) Review 1

Look, I love the Alienware 13. At just a hair over 4.5lbs (2.05 kilos), it’s very manageable for a mobile gaming platform. It’s sexy as hell, it performs very well for a portable indulgence, and the sound it produces is staggeringly good for a laptop. The problem isn’t the 13, nor is it so much the price. I don’t even care that much that in two years it’s going to be woefully obsolete. The issue I take is with the package as a whole when combined with the Graphics Amplifier. Hell, just the case for that thing, without a graphics card in it is $350CAD. That’s painfully expensive for what’s basically a USB hub with its own power supply.

I adore the notion of having a moderately powerful gaming laptop with a box on my desk that can boost its performance when I’m not mobile, but Alienware seems to have missed the point. They’ve paired a monstrously powerful external GPU with a laptop that doesn’t have any issues with graphical processing power. I think they’re dreaming in the right direction, but if I’m brutally honest, at the moment, it feels like something to market at the money > brains demographic.

I’m hopeful for the technology; hopeful that someone will run with the idea and put an absurdly powerful APU into something similar that would allow me to boost not just the graphical, but also the processing power of my favourite laptop to breathe another couple years of life into it at a reasonable cost, but we’re just not there yet. Hell, Alienware has a proprietary data transfer cable for the unit, why not offer a couple of HDD bays inside the Amplifier? There’s no shortage of empty space in the case.
alienware13insert4Any computer is only as powerful as its weakest link, and while Alienware claims their Graphics Amplifier “futureproofs” their laptops, in order for it to do any such thing, the rest of the internal hardware in the laptop has to be up to the task. Sadly, the only laptop in their line with a processor built to last long enough to warrant a graphics upgrade is their top-spec Alienware 17 which starts at $3300CAD. But with the GTX 980M in that, you won’t be needing a graphical upgrade any time soon, so we’re back to square one.

Like all Alienware products, the 13 is pricey and a bit of a novelty, but it also performs incredibly well for a mid to high-end 13 inch gaming machine, and is easily one of my favourite mobile options to date. If the package is to your liking, and you can stomach the price, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t count on that silly Graphics Amplifier to be of much use when it comes time to upgrade.

Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (Movie) Review 8

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) Review

I can’t imagine even Tom Cruise imagined he’d still be cranking out Mission: Impossible movies 19 years after he created the franchise for himself back in 1996. Yet here we are, and it now seems the go-to means for Cruise to attempt to bounce back whenever his profile dips a bit at the box office. Following the genuinely horrible Jack Reacher and Oblivion, as well as the sadly underwatched Edge Of Tomorrow, Cruise has stepped back into his spy shades for yet another round of impossible missions. This one was a bit rushed compared to past instalments, with production apparently starting before anyone had even decided on an ending. Sadly, that’s all too obvious in the final film, which is admittedly fun at times for stale retread of past hits.
MI5insert1The movie kicks off with that big “Tom Cruise dangling off of a plane” stunt that you’ve seen in internet docs, posters, and trailers about a bazillion times already. There’s no denying that it’s a striking stunt for the 50something actor to deliver, but the sequence also comes completely out of nowhere with little set-up and no connection to anything that follows. It’s clearly a sequence that everyone involved in the production agreed was cool and had to be shot, without any real concern for how it would fit into the movie as a whole. Sadly, that’s pretty much the approach that the filmmakers took to every aspect of the generically titled Rogue Nation. The big set pieces are always great, but the connective tissue between them is a real drag.

The plot is a bunch of nonsense about a secret organization that Cruise must flee from the IMF in order to hunt down. There’s an evil arms dealer type at the centre of it all (Sean Harris), which is essentially the plot of all of the Mission: Impossible movies thus far. Only this one is even less interesting than usual. Eventually Cruise meets sexy ex-MI6 officer Rebecca Ferguson, who is working as a double agent within the evil organization. The actress is fantastically charming in her performance, and spectacular in her ass-kickery. She’s fantastic, just don’t expect there to be any chemistry between her and Cruise beyond a friendly hug. This is—inexplicably—a sex-free spy movie.

Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (Movie) Review
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (Movie) Review 1

But, whatever. Cruise also rounds up his buddies from previous outings, which means that Simon Pegg gets to unleash his comically befuddled nerdy charms, Jeremy Renner does whatever the hell it is that made him a star (I’m not sure how that happened, but he seems like a nice enough guy so I’ll let it go), and Ving Rhames sits behind a series of laptops with a tilted hat, because why not? Alec Baldwin also pops up as an angry head of the CIA, but don’t expect anything beyond whispered exposition from him. Baldwin never gets to unleash any of his deadpan comedy, which is a shame because a) this overly sombre movie could have used some laughs and b) he has to deliver one of the most ludicrous lines of dialogue in blockbuster history, which really could have benefited from some irony.

It doesn’t really matter what any of the supporting players do; like all Mission: Impossible movies, this is the Tom Cruise show, and that movie star is always front and centre. Ethan Hunt just might be the franchise hero with the least discernible personality in movie history. Despite five movies existing, all we really know about Hunt is that he looks and acts like Tom Cruise, which I suppose is enough. Cruise definitely dives into the action set pieces fearlessly, following up that plane dangling with a delightfully Hitchcock influenced assassination sequence at an opera, a wild motorcycle mountain chase, and an underwater heist that are all—admittedly—pretty damn exciting. Cruise visibly performs most of his own stunts, which is a nice change of pace in the CGI blockbuster era, but between those big set pieces, all the actor really does is furrow his brow either comedically or dramatically. There’s not much else in the way of acting going on from Cruise. He’s pretty much there as the world’s most expensive action figure prop, though I suppose the franchise has always been as such.
MI5insert4Although Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation serves up some popcorn fun, there’s no denying that this is one of the lesser entries in the series. A big reason for that was Cruise’s choice of director. In the past, Tom always plucked out big-name directors with distinct personalities to lend their voice to the series—and it worked. Brian DePalma kicked things off with a delightful suspense melodrama, John Woo turned it into a ludicrous guns n’ doves festival, JJ Abrams tossed in lens flares and backstories, and Brad Bird turned it all into a big glorious cartoon. This time, Cruise brought in his buddy Christopher McQuarrie, and while that guy is a wonderful writer (he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects and helped whip Edge of Tomorrow into shape), he’s not much of a director. He’s perfectly adequate at the job, but has no distinct voice to add. Instead, he just piles plot twists on top of plot twists in the script and apes the greatest hits of previous M: I directors in the action scenes. The result is a perfectly watchable bit of popcorn fluff, yet also quite possibly the least memorable entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise. The fact that everyone pulled off a M: I fivequel this enjoyable at all is impressive, but hopefully if Cruise cranks out another one of these, he’ll find another eccentric director to make it sing. Without a fresh voice to jumpstart the series again, Cruise’s spy games are starting to feel a bit weary and repetitive. It could be enough to kill the franchise if he’s not careful


Life Is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room (PS4) Review 4

Life Is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room (PS4) Review

Dark Room, Life Is Strange’s penultimate episode, opens to the sun setting over a long row of beached whales. It’s an image meant to evoke the increasingly negative, unpredictable effects of Max’s time manipulation. Suitably, this image is matched with the protagonist wallowing in her sense of guilt over a friend suddenly being paralyzed—something she believes she caused by meddling with the past. When this plot point arrived at the end of the previous episode, it was an uneasy cliff-hanger. It set up a possible new direction for the story that, if followed, could lead to a fairly profound change in the game’s dramatic aim. This turns out to indeed be the case. Unfortunately, like the symbolic weight of the beached whales, Dontnod Entertainment handles the drastically raised stakes of its high school drama with a far heavier touch than it deserves.
lifeisstrangeep4insert3The melodrama and mystery that served Life Is Strange so well in its first three episodes has taken a turn in Dark Room, swelling to become its entire purpose rather than underlying elements. After a prolonged introduction whose plot thread, strangely, ends up feeling almost ancillary to the rest of the chapter, Max and Chloe pick up where they left off: sleuthing around in an attempt to figure out who’s responsible for a student’s abduction. In the past, the seriousness of their work was tempered by lighter moments. Now, the developer has turned its attention entirely to the seriousness of its story.

This isn’t a good thing. Life Is Strange’s charm up to this point had lain in its ability to lace its dark, supernatural mystery with an endearingly clumsy, almost Degrassi-style take on the mundanities of high school life. Because the player spent a great deal of time getting to know Max as she navigated everyday issues like romance and friendship, the game’s pivot toward more serious topics like murder and suicide felt earned. The balance of these elements kept the drama in check, ensuring that it didn’t veer too far into either frivolity or exploitative melodrama.

Life Is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room (PS4) Review 3
Life Is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room (PS4) Review 2

The latest episode, though, has almost no time for anything but life-and-death problems. When Dark Room moves beyond its initial twist in order to return to the mystery at the centre of the game’s overarching plot, it succeeds at offering exciting gameplay in lieu of maintaining its thematic focus. Sequences devoted to piecing together the clues gathered during Max and Chloe’s investigation—text message print-outs, photos, and scraps of paper tacked to a suburban bedroom’s bulletin board—are engaging while still portraying its mystery in an appropriately amateurish light. This is soon replaced wholesale with crime novel tropes, like hidden, high-tech murder dungeons and sinister killers.

This shift in tone from drama to thriller is jarring enough that it feels, in certain scenes, like a different game’s plot has momentarily intruded. There were always darker (and crime-focused) elements to Life Is Strange—and their increased presence during the story’s climax is understandable—but the sudden change in emphasis is too drastic.
lifeisstrangeep4insert5Hopefully Dark Room’s tonal unevenness is only a slight aberration. If the conclusion manages to make good on its new plot threads without sacrificing what came before, the fourth episode will represent only a clumsy transition. Life Is Strange still offers plenty of incentive to see the story through to the end, but, for the first time, Dark Room shows that the game’s strength at exploring characters in quieter, more human moments can be drowned out by its far less interesting tendency for dramatic bombast.

J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 10

J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review

What I used to say about anime and manga fans in North America 10 years ago can now be said about videogame fans today: the kids just don’t know how good they have it. Simply put, there has never been a time in history where gamers have had more access to so many games inspired by and featuring characters from so many popular Japanese franchises. In that regard, Bandai Namco’s recent release of J-Stars Victory VS+ for PS3, PS4 and PS Vita in the West serves as both an enthusiastic, celebratory acknowledgement of anime and manga’s popularity in the West as well as an almost shameless capitalization on their brand recognition in the public consciousness, as the game itself is essentially a $70 CAD re-release of an arena-fighting game that has already been out in Japan for well over a year. So is this manga mashup really worth the high entry price?
jstarsinsert7While crossovers in fighting games have been common since the mid-90’s, J-Stars has been coined the “Ultimate Jump Game”, as it is the first to bring together over 50 characters from 32 comic book series that have been featured in the popular Japanese magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump (both past and present). As the magazine itself has been around for over 45 years, J-Stars boasts one of the most diversely bizarre rosters ever seen in a fighting game. It boasts many characters that North American gamers have likely never heard of, such as Dr. Slump’s naïve girl robot Arale Norimaki and scheming neighbourhood cop Kankichi Ryotsu against modern anime icons like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z’s Son Goku, Luffy from One Piece, Fist of the North Star’s Kenshiro and Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach – and those are just the characters players are most likely to recognize. Many of these protagonists’ friends, enemies and frenemies have also tagged along for the ride as playable characters, and even more are accessible during fights in asupport role, bringing even more variety to the proceedings. J-Stars dares to throw all logic and plausibility to the wind in order to fulfil every manga and anime fan’s dream by asking truly essential questions like “who would win if Himura Kenshin and Ichigo crossed swords?”, or “if Kenshiro, the Joestars and Toriko all met on the battlefield, would they notice how eerily similar they all looked to one another before Ken rips the others to bloody bits with his superior Hokuto Shinken arts?” (SPOILER: They don’t notice at all and this is a Rated-T game, so sadly, nobody explodes into satisfying giblets). Regardless, players will be entertained by the ridiculous matchups that they can create in J-Star’s five gameplay modes, J-Adventure, Victory Road, Free Battle, Online Battle and the Western-exclusive Arcade Mode.

J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 1
J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 2

The meat of J-Star’s content resides in J-Adventure mode, where players can embark on one of four chapters featuring a trio of pre-determined characters aiming to fight their way as a team to the top of the heap in the aptly-named Jump Tournament. The dialogue during the obligatory talking-head scenes between fights as well as during Jump World’s lengthy exploration sequences may vary, but regardless of which team you choose (I went with Naruto, Yusuke of Yu-Yu Hakusho and Gon of Hunter x Hunter) players will ultimately find themselves going up against every other character in the game, with many of them ultimately joining their team as playable and/or supporting teammates. The RPG-style overworld’s mode of travel (you eventually get a flying ship) and repetitive fetch quests guarantee that players will be facing opponents multiple times through both staged and random encounters, and while they soon begin to border on tedious, they provide the player ample opportunities to learn the intricacies of each character, special move, matchup, and arena stage, as well as gain fight money and collectible cards for their J-Customize card deck which can give their team additional buffs and advantages in battle. In short, playing through one or more campaign chapters is good prep for the game’s other modes where players will have to lean much more heavily on their customized rosters and decks.
jstarsinsert2Regrettably, games that promise as much variety as J-Stars generally fall short in other areas, and while there is a surprising amount of moves and strategies that players can employ (the load screens are filled with helpful tips and often reveal moves and combos specific to characters currently in the player’s active trio), the basic gameplay mechanics themselves are a bit weak and simplistic overall. For example, switching targets in the battle arena requires the player to tap L1 (rather than allowing the player hold the button and flick the analog stick to switch to the other target) and the targeting is almost always at odds with the terrible game camera, resulting in many a game-changing special move wasted on the wrong target or being whiffed entirely. Similarly, the act of dodging attacks (R1+L3 in a direction) feels too stiff to be reliable, so players will find blocking (R1) preferable, but blocking combos also drains precious stamina needed for special moves and will fail if the player does not have enough stamina to withstand the entire combo string. It would have been nice if players could sacrifice a chunk of their stamina to break the combo à-la Killer Instinct and punish combo spammers, instead of having to solely rely on support characters—who often show up late and out of range when they are needed most—as enemy attacks can push characters a good distance across the screen. The overall result is arena combat that frequently feels more akin to a game of rock-paper-scissors than a well-designed fighting game. That being said, the Team Victory/Triumph/Effort power-up sequences and the ensuing Ultimate Attacks where characters unleash their most powerful moves are amusingly spectacular and satisfying when they connect with and decimate their targets, and the key to defeating a tough opponent can often be as simple as switching up your team. It’s just a shame that developer Spike Chunsoft didn’t put in the same effort into translating what each character says as he/she performs his/her screen-filling special move, given that just about all other dialogue and text in the game was.

J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 7
J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 6

In the end, J-Stars is another case of a Japanese game that preaches convincingly to its chosen choir. Mainstream consumers will likely be turned off by the game’s paper-thin storyline, its limited number of stages, and game mechanics that pale in comparison to purer fighting game experiences, but enthusiasts with sufficient time on their hands will easily sink countless hours into the campaign as they unlock and master all their favorite characters, and thanks to the game’s generous support for local 2-player split screen and 4-player online play, they’ll have the option doing so among equally enthusiastic and dedicated peers. Is it truly the “ultimate” game for Jump fans?  Perhaps not, but it’s a decent start, and it definitely won’t be the last.

J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 4
J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 5
J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review
J-Stars Victory VS+ (PS4) Review 9

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