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Tech Review

Oculus Rift S Review – Upgrade, Or Downgrade?

he Oculus Rift S is not the next big Rift that we’ve all been waiting for, and Oculus themselves have been careful not to advertise it as one. No, the Oculus Rift S is…uh. Honestly, the problem is I don’t think anyone is sure what the S actually is. It isn’t an upgrade nor arguably even a refinement as many of the improvements have come at the expense of other features. So, let’s review the Oculus Rift S and try to figure who this VR headset is really for.

I’ll preface the review by saying I upgraded from the original Rift to the Oculus Rift S, so I’m familiar with the Oculus Rift and am writing this review from the perspective of someone who made the sacrifice.

Oculus Rift S Packaging, Comfort & Build

But before we delve deep into the headset itself let’s stop and quickly chat about the packaging. I know, I know, does the box it comes in make a difference? Not really, but in some ways the packaging for the Oculus Rift S is indicative of the system as a whole. Unboxing the original Oculus was a pleasure: a massive chunky box, clips holding the headset in place and lovely foam padding. By comparison the Oculus Rift S box feels cheaper with less padding or feeling of luxury. It isn’t a huge problem, but this is a prime example of how the Rift S can sometimes feel like a step down from the headset it’s replacing.

This new iteration of the Oculus Rift has been designed in partnership with Lenovo, as indicated by the Lenovo logo on the side. The fabric straps of the original Oculus Rift have been tossed into the design bin and instead it looks like the PS VR has been copied almost entirely. There’s now a halo band that encircles your head with a strap at the top and a large, easy to use dial at the rear which tightens the whole headset. At the front there’s another familiar PS VR feature; the whole front piece moves in and out which is very handy if you wear glasses.

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All in all I found the Oculus Rift S to be much more comfortable than its predecessor. The weight feels like its more evenly spread around your skull now, and so longer sessions are a doddle. Due to the new cameras the front of the headset is heavier than ever, but the halo manages to balance everything out nicely.

The cushioning is less impressive. Both front and back have very basic foam padding that doesn’t seem to be moisture resistant, so during intense games they tend to become a slightly soggy mess. The cushions running around the halo band have all been glued into place, so you can’t remove them which makes cleaning more awkward and also means you can’t just replace them. At least the entire front faceplate can be taken off so swapping it out with a superior after market cushion that offers better comfort and cleaning is possible. But for a £400 product the cheap foam padding that you get is disappointing.

Speaking of cheap, the whole unit lacks the polish and refinement that you hope to see in such an expensive product. The original Oculus Rift has a lovely fabric finish and a relatively sleek design, whereas the Oculus Rift S is made of a hard plastic and looks kind of cheap. Of course, when its strapped to your face what it looks like is everyone else’s problem.

Even the cable has gotten a redesign. It’s now 1m longer than the original Rift bringing the total length to 5m, and it’s a much thicker gauge. The whole thing still connects via USB but the HDMI connection has been thrown out of a window and in its place is a DisplayPort connector. Inside the box you get a DisplayPort-to-mini-Displayport adapter which lets it connect to some laptops.

Another big change is that the physical IPD (interpupillary distance) of the Original Oculus has vanished into the ether. What we get now is digital IPD but it has a smaller spectrum of adjustment, so if you happen to have quite a wide or narrow IPD then the Oculus Rift S isn’t for you. This change is sadly a direct result of the change from dual screens to a single screen system, but it’s still a potentially big problem for some users.

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The controllers have gotten a redesign, too. The sensor ring has been shifted to the top now, for example, and the slightly awkward mini-touchpad has vanished entirely. They’re comfy to use and while I still wish there was a proper place to rest my thumb I’m quite happy with them. They’re still powered by single AA batteries which are covered using magnetic covers, though the magnets seem a bit weaker this time round.

Inside-Out Tracing Is The Future?

Probably the biggest change with the new Rift S is that external sensors are gone. This has some obvious benefits: firstly, with no sensors needed you no longer have to worry about losing 2-3 of your USB ports. You also don’t need to route cables around your room, or awkwardly move your PC to find a good spot. Personally, this new freedom to position myself in the room was fantastic as previously the only places I could put the sensors meant I didn’t have as much space as possible and the wire was constantly getting in the way.

The new inside-out tracking system means there are now cameras embedded in the headset itself which track your controllers. You have instant access to room-scale VR with this, the only limitation being the cable tethering you to the PC. On paper, it’s a huge change. If you have a room free then now you can utilize the entire space without needing to buy extra sensors or route cables. That’s an exciting prospect, the only thing missing from the equation being a wireless headset.

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But there are some big tradeoffs when it comes to the tracking. The five cameras positioned around the front of the headset provide pretty good coverage, but when you bring your hands up in front of your face the tracking can go a little crazy. Likewise, raising your hands above your head or reaching for something behind your back can cause the tracking to struggle. There’s also issues when you place one controller in front of the other, like when using a two-handed gun in a game. These problems are being worked on through software updates but it’s fair to say that while convenient inside-out tracking isn’t as accurate as external sensors.

With that said, outside of those problems the tracking feels just as accurate as the original Rift.

Another benefit of the new cameras is that you can use pass through, which means you can swap to a grey-scale view of your real-world surroundings at the press of a button. It’s not a very detailed image, but it lets you check where your dog is, grab your drink, make sure you haven’t accidentally wandered close to something breakable and just provide one more excuse to never leave VR.

A New Screen, A Sharper Image

And finally, lets talk about the screen. Firstly the 90Hz refresh rate that Oculus adamantly declared to be the “sweet spot” for VR gaming has been abandoned in favour of a slightly lower 80Hz. It’s strange to see the company retreating from their previous stance, but after using the headset I have to admit that I didn’t notice the difference. That surprised me because I’ve always been quite sensitive when it comes to seeing the difference between lower and higher refresh rates on a normal PC screen. While it may not have had any effect on me, however, the drop in refresh unarguably risks VR sickness in other folk who might just find the 10Hz decrease to be too much.

As for the screen itself the original OLED is out and in its place is an LCD running at 2560 x 1440, which is a slight step up in terms of raw resolution from the previous 2160 x 1200. Without the OLED screen the contrast and color isn’t as good, but trade-off is a sharper image and a substantial decrease in God Rays, something which I always had a lot of problems with when using the original Oculus Rift. Overall the new screen, the resolution, the reduction in the God Rays and whatever other magic is being worked in the background were a huge improvement in terms of eye fatigue, at least for me personally. With the old Rift I would find myself awkwardly trying to focus on things in the distance or accidentally focusing on the screen door effect. With the Oculus Rift S this was much less of an issue and that meant I was a lot more comfortable overall. The resolution bump was probably most notable in racing titles like Project Cars 2 because distant corners, cars and markers were much easier to spot.

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There’s also a larger sweet spot on the Oculus Rift S, meaning it’s easier find that point where everything is in focus. This in turn means there’s a little less hassle when ramming the Oculus Rift S onto your head.

As for setup it was a breeze. Once connected you’ll need to lay some boundary lines and for that the Oculus Rift S swaps over to the pass through cameras so that you can quickly draw your plays pace using one of the controllers. Easy.

Terrible Audio

So far the story of the Oculus Rift S has been one of tradeoffs: better resolution but lower refresh rate; easy access to room-scale VR but some big tracking problems. But now we arrive at a pure loss with no tangible benefit. The Oculus Rift came equipped with basic but effective earphones that sat on your ears. For the Oculus Rift S these have been removed and in their place is a new ambient audio system, with sound now being pumped out of the headband itself via a few small holes. This means the audio is being put out above your ears, and the result is frankly pathetic. In-game action, music and movies all sound tinny, lacking any sort of depth or bass. It also means anyone in the room with you is subjected to whatever gross, horrific thing you’re doing. Ahem.

The only benefits I can think of behind ripping out the earphones is that you can hear the real world and thus may potentially evade sneaky ninja attacks, and that not having something sitting on your ears feels better than having something on them. Neither of these things are worth the loss, though. Even by sliced up by one of them sneaky ninjas would be worth risking for some decent audio.

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There is at least a standard 3.5mm output so that you can plug in your own audio solution. Finding anything to fit over the chunky headband can be a challenge, though. Personally, I’m using the PS VR Mantis which I previously had hooked up to my PS VR unit. These have a clamp that fits nicely over the headband, and by using a cable tie the wires can be kept out of the way. It’s a shame they only come in white and thus ruin the aesthetic a bit, but that’s worth it for half-decent sound.

Who The Hell Is The Oculus Rift S For?

The Oculus Rift S is a strange beast indeed. Oculus themselves were careful not to market this as a true sequel and that was smart, but it doesn’t seem to be a refinement of the existing hardware, either, which makes its existence…pointless? I’m just not sure who this is meant to be for. Certainly it isn’t for owners of the original Oculus Rift as the various trade-offs don’t make it worth upgrading to the Oculus Rift S. For VR newcomers the Oculus Rift S has replaced the original headset entirely on store shelves, but I can’t say they’re getting a better product overall.

But let’s toss all of that to the side for a minute and just talk about the Oculus Rift S on its own. While the Valve Index is Ferrari of VR headsets with a colossal price tag and the PS VR is more like the slightly dented second-hand Ford Fiesta the Oculus Rift S is the mid-range family car. A little expensive but still affordable. While the Oculus Rift S does have some obvious drawbacks it’s still a fantastic VR experience and the best way to get into virtual reality. Yes, PS VR is cheaper and the Valve Index is better, but the Rift S strikes the best balance in my eyes provided you’ve got a machine capable of handling it.

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Tech Review

Mamut Touch Grips Review – How To Make Oculus Touch Controllers More Like Index Knuckles

With the rise of VR headsets, there’s been a whole new industry for accessories that appeared almost overnight, from prescription lenses to fancy gun stocks, both of which I’ll be reviewing shortly. Today I’m checking out the Mamut Touch Grips for the Touch Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, and Oculus Touch Quest. These little bits of plastic aim to bring the Oculus Touch Rift controllers more inline with Valve’s new Index Knuckle controllers. In other words, the Mamut Touch Grips allow you to let go of the controllers entirely.

The Mamuts are essentially two rubber grips that slide onto the Oculus Touch Rift Touch controllers. They extend and widen the handle and thus provide a bit more room for larger hands. On the outside of each Mamut, there’s a textured surface to help improve your grip and overall they feel quite comfortable, though they don’t make a huge difference. The Oculus Touch Rift S controllers were already quite comfy to hold, after all.

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But the big selling point is the straps that run across the back of your hand. These two shoe-laces get weaved through holes in the Mamut Touch Grip and also tied around the circular sensor on the Oculus  Touch controllers. On the bottom of the grips, an anchor of sorts lets you adjust the strap tightness for a nice, snug fit or in case you ever felt like cutting off the circulation to your hands entirely. I’d advise not trying that, though.

Aside from the obvious added sense of security, the Mamut’s provide when waving your hands about the key selling point is that they allow you to let go of the Touch controllers entirely. Now obviously there’s still a point of contact where the straps hold the Oculus Touch Controllers firmly against the palm of the hand, but other than that you can completely uncurl your fingers. In-game this lets you properly let go of objects and walk around without feeling like you’re holding onto something all the time.

I know that doesn’t sound like a massive deal, but with the current iteration of Oculus Touch Controllers, the weird way in which you use the grip button creates an unnatural feeling. This helps eliminate that, adding a little extra layer of immersion into your VR gaming. It feels good to walk up to a sword and wrap your hand around it rather than just flexing a finger. It also makes throwing in games much easier to judge. I don’t know about you, but when I throw things in VR I tend to struggle to remember that I only need to release a finger rather than all of them.

My one real complaint is that I would have preferred a single, thick strap. While the two shoelaces certainly aren’t uncomfortable it does mean you have two thinner points of contact running across the bank of your hand which is less comfortable than one single strap that distributes the force more evenly.

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All in all the Mamut grips are a nice addition to an Oculus Touch Rift, but for what they are they do feel overpriced. Currently, the asking price for a set is $37 plus shipping which can obviously add a fair bit to the total. Shipping here to the UK, though, was free so the total price amounted to £31. Considering the Mamuts are basically just shaped plastic and some shoelaces they don’t quite feel like a bargain.

Still, now that I’ve got the Mamut Touch Grips on my Oculus Touch Rift S controllers I don’t want to take them off. They’re a relatively small upgrade but one that’s worth making if you have the cash to spare.

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Tech Review

Cello W3203SH Monitor Review – 144hz Of Smoothness

When it comes to monitors if you have the cash then you can pretty much have it all, but at the lower end of the scale, it becomes a case of picking and choosing what you really want. Do you desire those extra pixels? Or do you favor a high refresh rate? A fast response time, or vibrant colors capable of searing your eyeballs? In this case, Cello, who has begun bringing their products to the UK, reckon you might like as many frames per second as you can handle and 32″ of the screen to go with it. Let’s check out the snappily named Cello W3203SH

Let’s kick off with the basics: the Cello W3203SH offers up its 32″ inches of the panel in a 16:9 widescreen format and housed within reasonably thin bezels. On the rear, there’s a bit of visual flair thanks to a large triangular chunk of plastic that houses two air vents keeping the whole unit cooled. These two vents, as well as a line atop the screen, are bright red which might cause headaches if you like your gear to match. No other colors seem to be available, a strange choice considering a lot of folks do like a sense of uniformity amongst their tech.

The stand is a chunky metal number that requires some minimal construction. At 724.5 x 208.6 x 510.5mm the whole thing is fairly deep, so if you have a smaller desk you might struggle to fit this beast on there. Make sure you measure before you buy it.

Disappointingly, there is absolutely no height adjustment or tilt. What you see is what you get. In 2019 lacking both of these features is a major problem in my eyes, even if the Cello is a budget monitor. There’s no option for Vesa mounting, either, so you’re stuck with what you get in the box.

In terms of connectivity, there’s exactly one HDMI and one Displayport located on the back. There’s also a DVI connection and a standard 3.5mm audio jack in case you want to route your audio through the monitor itself.

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On the back, you’ll also find that there’s a red, plastic half-hoop designed to help hold cables out of the way so that everything looks clean and tidy. It doesn’t do a great job, but it’s better than having nothing.

But let’s get onto the juicy stuff. The Cello W3203SH sports a VA LED panel, a type that usually features good colors and great contrast but that is typically slower when it comes to response times. Now, I’m far from an expert and I don’t have any professional gear to help me properly dissect the panel’s performance, response times, and image. In other words, the following is my opinion based purely on looking at the screen. I stared intently and at close range, sacrificing the health of my own precious eyeballs to deliver this review. While I can no longer see the faces of my loved ones, it was worth it.

At 1080p and with 32″ inches of the screen the Cello W3203SH is sitting at the limits of resolution versus size. Text isn’t as sharp as I’d like, for example. At this sort of size, I’d personally have preferred 1440p but the 1080p image does the trick. The 1080p resolution of the Cello W3203SH does at least have the benefit of meaning it will be a lot easier to get those high frame rates without needing a super-powered computer.

The overall image quality is what I’d describe as being okay. Being a VA panel the nice levels of contrast aren’t really a surprise, with some nice deep blacks to be found. But the colors don’t match that. They lack the punch and pop of an IPS panel, certainly, but they also just aren’t able to match some of the better VA panels on the market, either. Compared to my own AOC AG352UCG6, which is also a VA, the colors are noticeably less vibrant, though some tweaking in the settings can help. A quick check of the box reveals that Cello W3203SH claims the panel has a 72% color gamut which explains the issue. That rating puts it firmly in the average category and compared to my own screen the smaller range of colors is notable as it means there’s a little less depth to the image.

The edge lighting also wasn’t the best because there’s some inconsistency across the screen. The edges were nice and bright, but toward the middle, it was lacking. There was also a slightly washed-out quality to the overall image.

However, I’m comparing this £250 screen to a vastly more expensive model. Given the price range, the image quality is okay. It’s not going to blow you away, but it’s perfectly fine.

Okay, so far there’s nothing special about the Cello W3203SH. What are all these sacrifices for? Well, the big selling point of this monitor is that for your £249 you get a 144hz refresh rate, meaning providing that you have powerful enough hardware you can hit 144fps in-game and be able to see it. Over the years there have been huge debates about what can and cannot be seen by the human eye. Make no mistake, 60hz is not the limit of what you can see, and doubling the number of frames being pushed onto the screen has a huge effect. Everything is silky smooth. The power of the effect will change from person to person with some being more sensitive to it than others, but for me, the 144hz refresh rate is probably a bigger upgrade than going from 1080p to 4k. It’s hard to go back.

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When it comes to response time Cello W3203SH advertises 5ms, although it’s a little trickier than that. The actual default response time is 26ms as listed on the packaging, so to achieve the 5ms you need to use the Overdrive function. In general, this can result in some issues like ghosting. In the case of the Cello W3203SH monitor, I found the highest Overdrive setting did cause some notable ghosting, but the mid-range setting proved fine so I left it that. I had no way of knowing what the exact response time was, then, but I can say that it felt perfectly fine to play on, keeping in mind that I’m not at a professional level. Games like DOOM and CS: GO had no issues with response times.

There’ also support for AMD’s Freesync technology which means if you have an AMD graphics card you can use this to match the refresh rate of the screen to the in-game framerate. In theory, this reduces the amount of screen tearing and should make for a smoother experience.

You get a few little bonus features, too. For example, the screen boasts flicker-free technology which should in theory held reduce headaches. Now, this is a difficult thing to test as not everyone gets headaches from looking at screens. I am actually one of those unfortunate people who can suffer from headaches so I’ve favored flicker-free screens wherever possible as I discovered years ago that they did seem to genuinely help me.

There’s also low blue light which is helpful at night to reduce eye strain. It’s not something I personally use, but a lot of people don’t like having their retinas seared at nighttime so I’m sure it will prove useful to someone.

The Cello W3203SH isn’t going to blow any minds but if you really fancy joining the glorious 144hz master race then you can get a membership at a reasonable price backed up by decent picture quality and a sizable chunk of screen real estate to boot.

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Tech Review

Switch Lite Review – A Non-Switch Owner Reviews The Lite

he new Nintendo Switch Lite has been out for a few weeks now, it is the newest handheld console to hit the market. While it might have the Switch name the Lite is arguably more of a successor to the massively popular DS line-up of handhelds. Personally I don’t own a Nintendo Switch but I have been waiting for a new, modern handheld console that I can play on the train, in a plane or just when I’m curled up in a bean bag and can’t be bothered moving.

But just because I don’t own a regular Switch doesn’t mean we don’t need to chat about the differences between the two models. Retailing at around £200 the Switch Lite is £100 cheaper than its big brother so there have been some major cutbacks. The biggest and most important is that the Switch Lite can’t be docked, meaning it cannot be hooked up to a TV or monitor in order to play games on a big screen like its big brother can. In fact, it doesn’t have any form of external output capability, so you can’t even jerry-rig anything. In other words, the Switch Lite can’t actually switch. It’s the Static Lite.

The screen is also smaller. On the regular Switch, the handheld mode offers a 6.2-inch touch-screen display with a 720p resolution. The Switch Lite drops the display size down to 5.5-inches for a smaller form factor, but you do still get the same 720p resolution which means the Switch Lite actually has a slightly sharper screen. It’s not a huge difference but it helps combat the fact that on the smaller display text can sometimes be tricky to read in-games. Luckily just like the regular Switch, the Switch Lite has a zoom function built-in. Touch-screen functionality is also present.

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As for the controls they can’t be detached from the console itself. On the Lite they are firmly built into the device, which should offer a little more durability and far less chance of a Joy-Con getting accidentally lost. You can, however, still, buy Joy-Cons and connect them wirelessly to the Switch Lite in order to enjoy local multiplayer in certain games, although I’m not sure the 5.5-inch screen is very appealing in that regard. I’ve not yet felt the urge to huddle a few friends around the tiny screen in order to enjoy some Mario Kart 8.

All of this equates to an 8.2 x 3.6-inch package that is quite a bit smaller than the regular Switch’s 9.4 x 4-inch. When you pick it up it fits nicely into the hands and it feels sturdy. The plastic shell doesn’t exactly scream premium product but it feels and looks nice, so that’s not much of an issue. It doesn’t fit into pockets very easily, mind you, which is always a bit of a bummer with portable consoles. But at just 275g it does feel rather lite (sorry) in the hands which is great for those longer sessions and also makes it easier to hold in one hand while using the touch screen.

As for color choice you currently only get the Switch Lite in three basic hues: a grey model, turquoise, and pale yellow. I’m honestly not a fan of any of them but eventually opted for the yellow which looks decent enough in real life. I’d still like to see some more colors available, though.

Another minor difference is that you don’t get an inbuilt kickstand. It’s not exactly a huge problem but if you do feel like watching some Youtube videos or something then awkwardly propping the Lite up is a bit of pain in the buttocks. The Nintendo Switch Pro Controller can also be connected to the Lite, so again no kickstand is a real shame. I’m sure some of the third-party accessories will solve this, though.

Finally, the Lite has absolutely no rumble built-in. I assume this was ditched to help cut down cost and save on battery, and I can’t say it’s a feature I missed, though it could certainly have helped with immersion.

With the major differences out of the way let’s jump into the Lite in more detail. The obvious advantage of the Switch Lite is that nearly the entire Switch library of games is available to play on it. The only limitation is the game has to support handheld mode (indicated on the box) but since the vast majority of Switch games do that’s hardly a problem. This means you’ve got access to a wealth of amazing games right from the get-go, from the likes of Breath of the Wild and the new Link’s Awakening remake to Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2 and so much more. It’s an impressive library of titles to choose from that Nintendo has constructed over the past few years and the Lite gets instant access to them.

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The downside to all these awesome exclusive games is that they are pricey. Games on Nintendo platforms, especially first-party titles like Mario and Zelda, tend to hold their price and so stuff like Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild still retail for about £40-50 and even pre-owned versions still sit at about £30-40. For example, a quick scour on eBay revealed that Mario Kart 8, which is actually a port of the Wii U game, can be picked up for £32 provided you don’t mind getting the cartridge only.

Of course, the good news about these high prices is that you get a good resale value for your games. Provided you’re willing to sell games you’ve finished you can recoup a good chunk of what you paid for it to put toward the next purchase.

If you prefer going digital then be warned: the Switch Lite comes with a disappointingly low 32GB of in-built storage space. Obviously I’d recommend picking up an SD card to expand that if you tend to download games rather than buy the physical cartridges. A handheld like this really should have come with substantially more storage by default, especially with so many people now swapping to digital gaming over buying physical copies.

The in-built wi-fi on the Switch Lite isn’t great, either. Download speeds tend to be slow, something which users of the regular Switch have suffered from as well. Having slow wi-fi in 2019 is genuinely baffling and that Nintendo didn’t seek to remedy this for the Lite and the new iteration of the Switch is frustrating.

As for the Nintendo E-shop as a whole and the Switch Lite’s software, it’s all perfectly okay. There’s really not much more to say about it: it’s simple, functional stuff that runs quickly and lets you navigate easily. There’s a nice Nintendo News button, too, so that you can quickly get updated on sales or new demos and whatever else. You can also browse the web, watch Youtube, and do a few other things.

If you want to play some online games then that means paying for Nintendo Online which costs about £3.50 per month or £18.00 for an entire year. There’s also an option for a family membership which includes 8 separate accounts for £32. Your cash also nets you access to a growing library of NES and SNES games which is great if you’re a fan of retro gaming. Unlike Sony and Microsoft however, you don’t get gifted any games each month, although the Nintendo service is much cheaper than isn’t surprising.

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The main selling point of Nintendo Online is obviously being able to play against people or in co-op, so how does that side of things hold up? Well, not great. One of the hopes was that Nintendo Online would offer dedicated servers for the major first-party games like Mario Kart 8, but that’s not the case so instead, you have to rely on peer-to-peer connections which are notoriously iffy. Putting peer-to-peer aside, for now, the connection across the Nintendo service feels generally less reliable than on other platforms. I encountered quite a lot of problems with lag, players dropping out or even myself losing connection entirely.

Voice chat across multiplayer is handled awkwardly, too. While some third-party titles have native voice-chat functionality the first-party Nintendo games don’t. Instead of paying for Nintendo Online gives you access to a smartphone app that you can use to chat with other people. It’s a clumsy workaround.

Finally, Nintendo Online offers Cloud Save which is always handy if you’re running multiple Switch’s or in case one gets damaged. Considering the likes of Microsoft offer Cloud saving for free on the Xbox though, Nintendo asking for money for the feature feels cheap.

And that’s the general impression I get with the whole of Nintendo Online: it’s cheap, both in terms of price and in terms of what you actually get with it. Sony and Microsoft both ask for more money, but in turn, you get a much better overall service.

Now let’s chat about comfort and usability. I’ve got relatively small hands and found the Switch Lite to be easy to hold and quite comfy. With that said larger hands might find it a bit cramped at times. The face buttons feel superb with a nice softness to them whilst still having a satisfying feel when they bottom out, and the new d-pad on the left does a good job at handling intense platforming, although it did struggle to keep up during fighting games. With that said if you’re a big fighting game fan, I doubt the Switch Lite would be your console of choice anyway.

I thought the 5.5-inch screen might just be a little small for gaming on but to my surprise it wasn’t an issue. I had no problem getting absorbed into whatever I was playing. The little screen is reasonably bright which is handy when you’re out in the sun. Things looked sharp and detailed. I’ve really got no complaints in this area. Everything else though – color, contrast, black levels – all fall squarely into the, “yeah, it’s okay” category. There’s nothing truly wrong with the screen, it just doesn’t impress, either. In 2019 mid-range phones boast beautiful OLED displays, so I can’t help but wish the Lite could have gotten something a little more eye-catching. Still, it’s good and does the job.

The raw performance was always a question mark for me given the smaller size but the Lite seemed more than capable of keeping up with the games I threw at it with the only performance problems being ones that already exist on the regular Switch. For example, Link’s Awakening is a superb remake of a classic game but it suffers from framerate problems on the normal Switch and those are very much present on the Lite. But it seems that the pure performance of the Lite is on par with its bigger brother which is impressive, especially since the Lite manages to stay very cool and quiet.

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My only complaint about the comfort is that the right analog stick is positioned in such a way that it kept getting in the way of my thumb. I’d find my thumb resting on the stick or sliding across the top of it unless I consciously adjusted the position of my hand. If the stick could have been shifted to the left a little it would have been easier to use and wouldn’t have gotten in the way as much. But it wasn’t a huge issue and obviously keeping the Lite slim and portable is a higher priority. And of course, getting a third-party cover for the Lite that adds controller style grips to the side is always an option.

So, what was the actual gaming like? The answer is that it was superb. I’ve now spent many happy hours on Link’s Awakening, Breath of the Wild, Diablo 3, Stardew Valley, and Splatoon 2 and have found the Switch Lite to be a brilliant handheld console, a true successor to the DS. It was light enough and comfortable enough that longer sessions weren’t an issue, and while being able to hook the machine up to a big screen would have been nice it was never something that bothered me. Although it’s a little bit to slide into pockets the Lite is still wonderfully portable. I especially loved how quickly you can go from taking it out to playing a game using the sleep function. It makes it so easy to whip the Switch Lite out when you’ve just got five minutes to fill.

There are a couple of smaller things that irked me about the Switch Lite, though. While you do get a 3.5mm audio jack so that you can hook up some headphones in order to ignore the screams of dying people around you, there’s no Bluetooth support for wireless headphones. On a portable console in 2019 like this, it feels like an incredibly stupid missed opportunity.

As for battery life, it’s…okay. Nintendo advertised 3.5-7 hours depending on exactly what you’re doing. 7-hours is unrealistic unless you literally just have it sitting on the main menu. In real conditions I was getting around 3.5-6 hours depending on the game, with the likes of Breath of the Wild obviously pushing the system much harder and thus draining the battery quicker. The new iteration of the regular Nintendo Switch boasts a slightly better battery life, although in fairness to the Lite the smaller design obviously means less space for a huge battery. All in all, I found the battery life to be acceptable and the included USB-C wall adapter can charge the Lite quite quickly.

The final issue we need to discuss is one I’ve not personally experienced yet: the dreaded drift. If you weren’t away Nintendo is currently facing substantial backlash and even a lawsuit over what has become called “Joy-Con Drift” which is when the analog sticks register movement even when they aren’t being used. The lawsuit claims that Nintendo is knowingly continuing to sell the Switch despite being aware of the problem which seems to be affected a lot of people. When the Lite launched there was concern that it might fall prey to drift as well and sadly that does seem to be the case. While I haven’t noticed anything yet many other people have already reported having problems, despite the console only having just launched. Of course, your warranty should cover this, but it’s an ongoing and worrying problem that Nintendo needs to acknowledge properly and remedy quickly.

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If you already own a standard Switch I really don’t see any reason to run out and buy a Lite unless you have a lot of spare cash and feel like that little extra portability is worth it. If you happen to have a family though, the Lite might be a good choice for the kids since you can share accounts and games and wouldn’t have to give them the more breakable regular Switch.

If you’re like me and have been looking for a new handheld system, however, then the Switch Lite is brilliant. Arguably it’s much more of a successor to the immensely popular DS line. The fact that it can run full-fledged console titles in your hands is damn impressive, and a great example of just how far technology has come. It’s just the looming shadow of drift that puts a dampener on the Lite. Without any proper acknowledgment from Nintendo and with users already having problems with the device buying one feels like a risk, much like purchasing an Xbox 360 during the dreaded Red Ring of Death escapade.

I’ve not experienced any drift personally though, and so all I can tell you is my own story with the Switch Lite. So far I’ve loved every minute of owning it and catching up on the amazing library of games that Nintendo offers. It fits nicely into the hands, has a solid screen, good controls, and good battery life. We finally have a modern handheld gaming device outside of mobile and it feels terrific. Now if you’ll excuse me, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is bloody massive and I’ve got a lot more exploring in it to do.

Categories
Tech Review

SCUF Impact Syndicate Controller Review – Fiddle With My Sticks, Baby

SCUF has earned itself quite a good reputation for building a custom Syndicate controller over the years. Venture onto their website and you can choose from a variety of pre-made designs that can then be further tweaked in a bunch of different ways. But the most appealing part of the SCUF Syndicate Controller is the extra features that come with them, from digital buttons to special hair triggers. So today I’m taking a look at one of their offerings, the SCUF Syndicate for PS4.

The Syndicate branding comes from the Youtuber of the same name, A.K.A., Tom Cassell, who at the time of writing is nearing a terrifying 10-million subscribers. His actual input in the Syndicate line-up of Syndicate controller appears to be mostly cosmetic, with the rightmost grip sporting Syndicate’s lion logo inside a playing card style Spade. A black, gold, and silver paint job finishes the whole thing off. It’s pretty sexy

On top of that distinctive look that the Impact has it also feels like a well-built, premium product. Of course, given the hefty price tag, it should. The plastic shell is solid with no ounce of giving to be found, and the buttons have a smoother feel than you find on the regular Dualshock.

Once you get the SCUF Impact Syndicate into your hands there are some major differences to how it feels versus the typical Dualshock Syndicate controller made by Sony. The first thing I noticed is that the sides are chunkier and more shallowly angled. While the Dualshock’s sides come down at nearly 90-degrees the Scuf likes to spread itself out, making the Syndicate controller feel more like an Xbox One pad. It’s perfect for bigger hands.

However, if you like the shape of the traditional PS4 Syndicate controller you can opt for the SCUF Infinity, although it only has two paddles versus the Impact’s four.

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Paddles? Yup. The second major thing that alters how the SCUF Impact sits in your hand is the four paddles located on the back. Ignoring their function, for now, the paddles sit exactly where your pinky and ring fingers naturally rest. This takes some getting used to and at first, I found it a little uncomfortable. On the Dualshock, my pinky and ring fingers curl around the grips, but on the SCUF the paddles stop me from doing because my ring fingers wound up sitting on the outmost paddle. This had a knock-on effect, causing me to stretch my pointer fingers a little more to use the triggers. Other times my ring fingers would wind up sitting awkwardly on the very edges of the outer paddles, which unsurprisingly isn’t very comfy.

The grips themselves are wrapped in a slightly soft rubber that has a random pattern of raised blobs so that you can get a firmer grasp on the Syndicate controller. It feels good in the hands and might be a good choice if you find yourself getting a little sweaty during those more heated sessions. Of gaming, I mean. Jesus, get your mind out of the gutter.

To sum up I still find the standard Dualshock 4 to be a comfier option. It fits more naturally in my hands, but that isn’t to say the Scuf feels particularly bad: it’s fine. And you can actually remove the paddles individually if you like by simply sliding them upwards. In my case removing the two outer paddles made the whole Syndicate controller nicer to hold whilst still giving me two extra buttons to play around with.

Ah yes, let’s chat about what the paddles actually do. By default, SCUF has mapped them so that they replicate the four face buttons. The idea is that by using the paddles you can keep your right thumb on the stick at all times, a very handy thing indeed in a shooter. This means saving a split-second by not having to move your thumb to do something like reload, while also retaining a total of the camera.

It takes a bit of time to retrain your brain to use the paddles but once you it feels quite normal. Objectively speaking the paddles do offer a competitive advantage over players who are using the regular Dualshock, but I have to say that in practice I never particularly noticed a huge difference. However, that’s probably because I don’t play at a competitive level, and while I’m pretty good at online shooters I don’t dedicate a lot of time to any specific one.

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If you want to be able to remap the paddles then you need to choose the EMR option when building the Syndicate Controller on SCUF’s site. This gives you an intriguing little magnetic disc, which SCUF calls an EMG Mag Key, which you place on the back of the Syndicate Controller. With that done you press and hold the paddle, you want to remap, press whichever button you want it to copy, and then release the paddle and remove the key. It’s a cool way around the fact that you can’t typically remap Syndicate Controller on the console, but the obvious downside is that you have to be careful to keep the key safe. Lose that and you lose the ability to remap paddles. Replacements are available at SCUF’s site, though.

As for the triggers, they’re a little different too because SCUF has added small plastic bumpers on the underside to stop you from pulling them all the way in. By using the included special key you can rotate these little ridges, either turning them “on” or “off.” Again, in a competitive situation where every second can count the time saved by stopping the triggers going past their activation point could be important.

There are a couple of other nifty features located in the triggers as well. Firstly, there are two different covers that you can put on the triggers that serve to make them longer, or you can just take the covers off entirely if you want something that matches the original Dualshock. The default covers that my Syndicate shipped with are just a tad longer than the typical triggers, while the second set of covers add yet another couple of millimeters. It honestly reminds me of those horrifying nail extension things women use…*shudders* but I actually quite liked the longer covers. They should also be useful for bigger with bigger hands and longer fingers.

Underneath the covers you’ll also find yet another little hole where the SCUF key can be inserted, in a completely non-sexual way, I assure you. Unless you want it to be, I guess. Anyway, by turning the key clockwise twice you can activate the hair-trigger system which will essentially tighten the trigger, moving it closer to the activation point. SCUF recommends doing this while in-game by turning the key until your gun fires, then loosening the trigger just a little. Again, this system is all about cutting down the time it takes you to react in-game, and when combined with the bumpers means you can have very short travel distance.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of an issue with the Syndicate Controller I was sent over. Being the inquisitive twat that I am I believe I overtightened the screw and then pulled the trigger, and before I knew it a small piece of plastic inside shattered, which also meant I couldn’t get to the screw properly. But on the bright side, it did give me the chance to try out SCUF’s customer support service. Their turnaround was prompt: I had the Syndicate Controller back in under a week. The only hiccup is that while they fixed the issue, they left one small piece of the broken plastic rattling around inside the Syndicate Controller. Luckily I was able to coax it out of the small gap that opens when you pull the trigger down.

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If you exclusively play games that don’t make use of the trigger’s range of motion then SCUF does what they call digital triggers that turn them into something that feels more like a mouse click. The upside is that it’s vastly quicker than the normal trigger, but it also renders the Syndicate Controller useless when it comes to things like racing games where the full range of motion is needed to control gas and braking force.

Both of the bumpers can also be swapped over to digital, too. I wouldn’t imagine this would offer a massive advantage since the bumpers don’t have a lot of excess movement anyway, but unlike the triggers, you don’t lose anything by opting for the digital versions.

Both of the thumbsticks can be removed using the special SCUF tool in case you fancy swapping them out for something else. During customization, you can opt for concave or domed sticks, whatever matches your preferences. Plus you can choose between low or high sticks, a potentially handy option too, again especially for people with bigger hands.

As for how the thumbsticks feel, they both seem just a touch smoother than the regular Dualshock and require a little bit less force to move around. The result feels very nice indeed. It did take some getting used to as less resistant sticks of the Impact meant I often found myself struggling to get quite as much precise control. After a few solid hours of play however, I had adjusted to the differences.

A potential audio problem exists in the form of a 3.5mm port. Like a normal Syndicate Controller you can plug in any pair of headphones or buds that sport a 3.5mm connection, but the Scuf’s port is nestled a centimeter or so inside the Syndicate Controller shell with a notch cut out of the plastic body. That means if your headphones of choice have a chunky plastic piece around the connection it might not fit. Just something to keep in mind. Personally, though, all my headsets and headphones fit without an issue.

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Likewise, the charging port on the rear lives in a little square cave which could be problematic for some cables to fit into correctly. Given the already high asking price for SCUF Syndicate Controller, it’s frustrating that the Impact doesn’t ship with a charging cable by default. If you want that you need to buy it separately or as part of the Pro Player Pack. Don’t worry, it’s just a standard micro-USB port. Y’know, like one of the dozens we all have lying around our home. Still, including a cable wouldn’t have killed you, SCUF.

All in all my variation of the Scuf Impact Syndicate Controller came in at around £170, which is hardly cheap for a Syndicate Controller. It’s certainly a lovely Syndicate Controller to look at and it does feel good in the hands, but I’m not sure the extra features are worth such a massive asking price. With that said the Xbox’s Elite 2 controller retails for £160, so by comparison the prices are similar if you’re looking for something a bit more…special.

Putting the price aside in a dark cupboard for a minute, the Syndicate Controller itself packs some sweet tricks and looks terrific. I’m a tad concerned by how easily I wound up annihilating the trigger system, but that seems to be a demonstration of my own stupidity more than anything else. Personally, it’s the paddles that make the Impact special, adding a lot more flexibility to the regular Dualshock’s layout.

Ultimately, though, would I buy a SCUF Impact personally? No. But then, I’m not really the kind of person who can take advantage of its benefits to their fullest. If fast-paced shooters are your bread and butter then the Impact could give you the edge you’re looking for.

Categories
Board Game Review

Wisdom of Solomon Kickstarter Quick Review – Is It Wise To Back

Due to the review copy of Wisdom of Solomon arriving just before the Kickstarter began and the campaign having just six days left as I write this, this is going to be a short review so that you can at least get an idea of how it plays. So let’s just leap head-first into this, shall we? And please, forgive me if my writing is a lot rougher than it usually is, which is certainly saying something.

You’ll be acting as a Governor for King Wisdom of Solomon, the very king known for building the famous temple of Wisdom of Solomon during the golden age of Isreal. It’s your job to expand the King’s influence by constructing new buildings, grabbing resources, and helping out with the temple. Whoever manages to curry the most favor with the King by the end of the game will be crowned the winner. In other words, it’s about victory points, baby.

Wisdom of Solomon is a worker-placement game where players will take it in turns to plop down one of their workers and do the associated action over the course of several in-game years. It’s worth saying right now before we get further into this quick review that Wisdom of Solomon is a fairly bog-standard worker-placement game that does little different or new, so if you were seeking a fresh experience this isn’t going to be it.

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So let’s break down exactly where you can go and do in your pursuit of those glorious points and the favor of the king Wisdom of Solomon.

By visiting the Market you can sacrifice some influence to purchase a max of three available resources, paying the amount shown underneath the resource cube, or you can opt to sell a few of your spare cubes, this time earning the amount of influence shown under the space that you select to sell to.

The key here is that the leftmost spaces are the cheapest and the further right are the priciest, and you’re free to buy and sell from any space you wish, thus the first player at the market each round can get the best possible bargains. It’s even possible to buy low and then sell high in the same turn, if you like, perhaps picking up some copper for two points of Favor before then selling it back for four.

Each round the market gets refreshed with new resources from the limited stockpile so that there are always two of each kind available to buy. The existing resources and the new ones also get pushed to the leftmost spaces so that they are at their cheapest sale values wisdom of Solomon.

These resources can be used to purchase new buildings at the Foreman’s Office where you can pick from the three currently available building cards, with new ones replacing any bought ones at the end of the round. Each building offers a reputation bonus, plus an extra reputation based on which slot it was next to on the board. Finally, buildings also net you special abilities once bought, like earning extra resources when you visit a region of Isreal or even giving you extra action spaces that do handy things like turn brick and into points.

But you can also spend resources to help build the mighty temple by going to the Levite and buying one of the tiles that were randomly distributed on the temple at the start of the game. It’s important to note that for every other worker already on the Levite space you have to cough up an extra resource, so it pays to visit this space early if you can.

Each tile is going to be worth a random amount of Favor, making them a riskier prospect than just buying a new building, but there’s the potential to score some big points. More importantly, once the last tile on the temple has been removed the end of the game is triggered, so you always need to be thinking about when you want to start bringing things to a close or whether somebody else is attempting to finish the game early.

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Visiting the Levite also grants you a Fortune card which you can then play by going to either the Market or the Trader. These special cards do a variety of things, including doubling the resources you gather from your network (more on that later) and letting you select one of your placed workers to take the corresponding action again Wisdom of Solomon.

Another way to grab resources is by visiting the various regions of Isreal, plopping down one of your workers to claim the resources shown there. This is where one of the game’s more interesting mechanics comes into play, because after you take the build action at the Foreman’s you can then take one of your customs houses and place it in any region that has an open customs house slot.

You also then get to take a road piece and lay it down so that one end starts in the region you just placed a customs house in, and the other sits in a new region. The reason for this is that you can’t claim any resources from an area where an opponent has a customs house unless you also have a customs house there.

As for the roads, they form a network that lets you claim resources from connected areas of Isreal, thus if you build your network smartly you could net numerous copper, wood, and other goodies from a single move.

While the rest of the game is quite standard stuff, this little battle for control of Isreal’s various regions is pretty interesting and produces a lot of good decisions, though having to visit the Foreman’s space before being able to play a customs house does help stop one player managing to build up an early network Wisdom of Solomon.

If you still don’t have the resources you want or need the trader is the place for you as it lets you trade a single resource for any two resources available in the resource piles. These piles are quite limited based upon the number of players so that does stop the trader from being abused, but he does feel a tad overpowered Wisdom of Solomon.

The final location resides just outside of the temple and is actually made up of four different spots collectively known as the Holy Places where you can send your workers. Each of these imparts powerful bonuses, like being able to draw three Fortune cards or getting one of every resource. However, there’s a bit of a catch because to use a Holy Place you need to send ALL of your remaining workers there, ending your year until the next round begins.

But as an extra reward for being the first player to claim a Holy Place, you get the first player token, enabling you to get the pick of the board next round. But I have to say that being first didn’t feel as valuable as it does in other worker-placement games. Sure, there are limits to how many workers can be placed on a spot, but you don’t normally find yourself locked out of a location until later in the round. Still, the first pick of the buildings or the Levite can be useful Wisdom of Solomon.

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As for the components they’re…okay. There’s some nice artwork courtesy on the Fortune cards and building cards. nut everything else speaks to the game’s smaller budget, which is of course entirely understandable but bears mentioning regardless.

The board is perhaps the biggest example as it’s brown with buildings that don’t really look like buildings and a temple that doesn’t look like a temple. I’m also not a fan of the temple tiles having plain backs, or the tiles you put on regions at the start to denote that the region can’t produce anything.

The simple truth of the matter is that the Wisdom of Solomon didn’t connect with me. This doesn’t mean it’s somehow a bad game, indeed it’s competently designed from start to finish. But I couldn’t find any reason to get excited about, no reason to play it over the small pile of other worker-placement games I’ve got sitting on my shelves.

The theme feels dry, the components are nothing special, and the gameplay is well enough done, but these days that isn’t quite enough. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was the custom houses and roads because that led to some fun decisions Wisdom of Solomon.

So, should you back it? No. At least, I don’t think so, but at the time of writing the project has been successfully funded, so clearly I’m the odd one out.

Wisdom of Solomon called for £7,500 in Kickstarter funds and has thus far earned twice that. To get the game you need to pledge about £33 with an expected delivery of December. If you wish to back the game or see more about it you can visit the Kickstarter page.

Categories
Board Game Review

Peak Oil Review – Black Gold

Peak Oil places you into the shiny, pointed shoes of someone running an oil empire where you must deal with investing in new technology, drilling for oil and then selling that oil before the world has run out of its favorite fossil fuel and will presumably be turning into a post-apocalyptic scenario quite soon, possibly with some guy called Max blasting around. This all takes the form of a worker-placement game where you have to fight for control of a few different locations across the board while fending off the other players.

To kick off everyone gets given their very own cardboard HQ sheet as well as a private portfolio which represents the companies that you’ve already quietly invested in. These will count toward scoring at the end of the game and are kept secret from everyone else, which is why it’s so delightful to watch as your opponent’s sink cash into companies that will give you some extra points later. You also get two starting workers, a few barrels of oil which represent a tremendous amount of cash and, of course, a burning desire to make even more money at the cost of the environment.

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The world’s oil supply gets represented by a bunch of black barrels, along with red and yellow ones which we’ll come back to later, being put into a bag. The exact amounts are determined by how many players are sitting at the table.

On your turn the first thing you have to decide is whether to move a worker from one action spot to another, or take an action.  However, here’s the catch; if you have the majority of workers at a location then you can do both of the things associated with that space but if you’re in the minority then you can only take one. The areas at the top of the board represent various locations across the world such as Russia only have a single action each, though, so only someone who has more workers than anyone else at that location can send out oil to the refineries. Once you’ve decided whether to take an action or shift a worker across the board you then get to move a second worker, and even a third if you’re willing to pay a barrel of oil for the privilege.

This forms the real strategic meat of the game as you’re constantly weighing up what you want to do against stopping other players enacting their own plans. At the start you’ll just have two workers to play with, but you can get up to two more by recruiting them in order to spread your influence wider and open up more options. However, since you can only take an action before moving anyone around you always need to be thinking ahead while also watching what everyone else is doing so that you can take the actions you need to. Do you risk sending a worker or two away from the space you really want in order to spoil someone else’s plan? How many workers should you shift somewhere to maintain a majority for the next turn? If there’s a country that has a lot of oil sitting in it, should you try to shift your whole workforce there in order to ship it out before anyone else can?

Let’s delve properly into the various actions you can take on a turn. The first spot in the bottom row of actions is Expand, and by visiting here you can increase your available workers by one, recruiting a new pawn and placing in at your HQ for future use. The secondary action available here is to Dispatch all your workers currently on the action spot to another location and immediately activating it. This means that provided you are in the majority you can recruit a new agent and then potentially take another two actions all in the same turn.

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Investing in new technology is your ultimate goal in the game since it provides the big points, and you can do this by heading to the Invest space and putting a barrel of oil on any of the technology spaces on the right of the board, simultaneously increasing the price of that technology when purchasing Start-Up cards and bumping up the amount of points those cards will be worth at the end of the game. Speaking of cards, this spot also lets you take the Start-Up action which you do by selecting one of three face-up Start-Up cards which represent the various technologies and paying an amount of barrels of oil equal to the barrels sitting on the corresponding technology slot. At the end of the game each card will be worth points equal to the amount of barrels on these technology spaces, so it pays to buy Start-Up cards early and then invest in the appropriate technology as the game goes on, but of course you also have to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing or risk handing other players a bunch of free points.

Drilling for oil is how you discover the liquid black resource you so desperately want, so to do this you visit the Develop spot. When you drill for oil you select one of the three region cards sitting on the table and then place the amount of oil barrels shown on the appropriate location at the top of the board. But then you also get the chance to push your luck a little because almost every card has bonus barrels shown on the bottom right, meaning you can draw up to that many barrels randomly from the bag. That’s potentially dangerous, though, because this might result in you drawing a yellow barrel which means having to take a PR Crisis card that will be worth negative points at the end of the game and that also has other nasty effects. If you already have a level 1 crisis you need to take the next level, and if you’ve already got that you’ll need to go up to the horrible level 3 crisis’. Drawing a red barrel works exactly the same, except that unlike yellow barrels red ones are placed back in the bag.

Luckily the  Develop action spot also lets you take the Whitewash action where you can pay a few barrels of oil to have any awkward PR Crisis cards quietly swept under the rug. Personally I imagine this as basically bribing the major media outlets to stop covering the issue.

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Once a region has some oil you need to head there with a few workers in order to ship it to refineries and make yourself a splash of black cash. These refineries are connected to the locations via travel routes, and these travel routes will have randomly selected chips displaying a few different things that can force you to draw barrels from the bag, thus potentially running into some horrible PR crises, or you might just have a few barrels nicked by pesky pirates who will send them to the Black Market. You get to keep all the barrels that make it to the refinery, though, adding them to your HQ in order to be spent down the line. You can, however, pick up Security Tokens from certain Region cards that let you flip over chips to the other side, thus potentially making things easier, or even swap chips in order to help yourself out and hinder someone else.

When you draw barrels from the bag, excluding when you pull out ones in order to supply a location with oil, the first black barrel you draw gets sent to the Black Market, which are spaces beside the various technologies on the right-hand side of the board. Only a single barrel can be put next to each technology, and when those spaces are filled all the barrels get shifted over to the technology.

When you visit the Grey Ops action space you can also place a barrel from your HQ on an empty Black Market space, and then move all the barrels from the Black Market to their corresponding technologies. This Grey Ops space also lets you hire a consultant from the available ones, and these can give you a few extra abilities as well as earning a couple of extra victory points.

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As you come to the closing stages of the game the titular Peak Oil phase is triggered once all of the black barrels have been taken from the bag, representing how the world has finally run out of liqid dinosaur remains. Once this final phase has been activated everyone gets a chance to move one worker, and then going through all the action spots in order each player with the majority gets to take one of the available actions first before removing their workers. Thereafter everyone else gets to take one action on a space provided they have at least a single worker there. Then its game over and time to tally up the points.

It’s actually the closing stages of the game that found to be the most troublesome. As players judged the oil to be running out they became increasingly unwilling to do anything that would force them to take barrels from the bag as it would most likely result in PR crises instead. This slowed the pace down a bit as everyone stopped trying to ship as much oil and instead would just drill, that way they could guarantee removing some more black barrels from the bag, plus drilling cards often have icons which help with end-game scoring. Maybe it was just me and my friends playing the final rounds of the game wrong, but it felt like a problem. The only time it was less of an issue is when one player had a clear advantage and could therefore afford to take more risks.

Everything else, though, is really rather excellent. I’ve got a soft-spot for worker-placement games, anyway, but this one does exceptionally well by having a relatively simple and easy to learn set of mechanics that deliver a lot of strategic depth. I love how you have to really plan ahead to ensure you have workers on the action spots that you need. It creates a lot more interaction between players, too, who all have to be aware of what everyone else is doing or else risk being unable to maximize their turns.

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I’ve also got to commend the production values and general look of the game. The little wooden barrels are a nice touch, the cards are made of good stock, the workers are nice and chunky. It just feels nice to play with, and the blue, stylized art style gives it a distinct look all of its own.

Thus far Peak Oil seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the gaming world and that’s a shame because there’s a really great board game here that strikes a nice balance between depth and ease of learning. I really enjoyed planning out my moves, judging when to drill for more oil, shipping it, and investing in technology, all while keeping an eye on everyone else. Worker placement games can often feel like you’re playing by yourself, only occasionally interacting with the other players, but Peak Oil really keeps everyone engaged with each other, though admittedly with only two players that effect is considerably decreased. Still, I’m giving this one a solid recommendation.

Categories
Board Game Review

Mission: Red Planet Review – Steampunk Mars

Who knows what wonders the Mission: Red planets hold? I mean, obviously, ours has Coke, cakes and video games, so it’s clearly the best, but those other planets out there might hold the resources key to improving those things! Better video games, more types of cake, NEW FLAVORS OF COKE! The possibilities are truly endless.

The idea is you’re sending astronauts to the Mission: Red Planet (which is never actually directly referred to as Mars) in order to mine the valuable resources that can be found there. But the game is set in the year 1888,

so instead of using modern technology to escape the clutches of our beloved planet’s atmosphere, you need to use the mighty powers of steam, top hats, and monocles. Yup, Mission: Red Planet has a steampunk theme that ultimately looks rather pretty but isn’t integral to anything.

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So, here’s how it all goes down; Everybody gets the same set of nine numbered character cards, and at the start of each round everybody will select one of them and place it face-down. With that done, the cards are simultaneously revealed and resolved in order of their number from highest to lowest, which naturally should be done by somebody loudly counting down from 10 to 1.

Getting your little astronauts to surface of Totally-Not-Mars or its orbiting chum Phobos is pretty important, which is why most of the cards you play let you stick one or more of your little plastic astronauts into the three docked rocket cards, each of which has a location written on it matching a spot on the board.

Whenever the rocket reaches its listed capacity it takes off, as represented by moving the card up and away from the little cardboard docking pieces. Toward the end of the round, you shift all the astronauts on launched ships to their destinations and then replace launched ships with new ones.

Some of the cards you play even let you place a new destination on a rocket, an awesome way of hijacking a lift or even to send an opponent to the wrong side of Mars, while other rockets simply have a question mark meaning the first player to stick an astronaut inside gets to pick where it’s heading. I can only imagine it’s the equivalent of realizing that you need THIS TURN on the highway at the last second and veering like a lunatic to get there.

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Aside from just letting you send your little plastic astronauts to the Mission: Red Planet the nine character cards come with a bunch of extra abilities. The Saboteur, for example, let’s you blow up a docked space shuttle, sending all the occupants to the Lost in Space zone that essentially acts as a giant floating graveyard for all the poor astronauts who got a bit unlucky in the battle for resources.

Then you have the Travel Agent who lets you pack three astronauts into a single ship, but if there isn’t enough room for all three then you don’t get to send any at all, and since her number is quite low playing her can be risky if you don’t choose the right time.

Meanwhile, the Femme Fatale lets you put an astronaut on a ship, and then replace an opponent’s astronaut on the planet with one of your own. Or you could play the Soldier who not only lets you put two astronauts into ships but also lets you kill one astronaut on Mars or Phobos. One of my personal favorites was a card that lets you use Phobos as a staging area by taking all of your astronauts there and shifting them to any zone you want.

It’s a fantastic system that’s simple to use, creates endless tension, and leads to interesting decisions that must be made. Maybe you play the Saboteur, but since he’s a number 5 you have to watch in horror as two of the three docked ships are filled and begin to fly away, leaving the only one to destroy is the one you have several astronauts on.

Maybe you spot someone looking to gain dominance in the Phobos zone so you use the Femme Fatale to seduce one of their astronauts, or you use the Secret Spy so the ship launches early. You could even use the Tour Guide to move your own astronauts around on Mars, suddenly shifting the game’s dynamic and leaving everyone else scowling at you like you just stole the last slice of pizza.

Ultimately you’re doing all of this to control territory on the surface of the Mission: Red planet because there are key moments during the game where each zone on the Mission: Red Planet will produce resources based upon the random tile that was put there during setup. Each of the three resource types is worth points, and each production phase will spew out more tokens than the last.

If there’s a tie for control then the tiles are split evenly, and any that cannot be split are simply left for a later round, just waiting to be claimed. The resource tiles themselves are revealed as soon as an astronaut is placed in the same zone as them, so you find out early where the biggest points are going to be appearing, and after that, it’s just a fight to see who gets them all.

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It’s all very tactical rather than strategic. You can’t have a grand plan going into Mission: Red Planet because it will get tossed out the window on the very first round as the fast-paced action unfolds. No, you need to deal with each and every round as it comes instead, focusing on what’s happening now and what you think other people might do.

Every played character is put face up in front of the person who played it until they pop down the Recruiter card which lets them pick up all the discarded characters again, and thus you always know what other players have used and what they have left. You can make educated guesses, but until the cards are flipped over you can rarely ever be sure about what’s going to happen, and so much of the game’s fun stems from watching how a round plays out.

Spicing things up are the various mission cards that give you bonus points for achieving certain goals such as having at least one astronaut in the indicated zones or even having the most dead astronauts floating around in the Memorial, a fun mission that leads to players blowing up ships full of their own guys.

You can draw new mission cards using a certain character, but the deck also contains a few other card types of the card such as discoveries that get placed face-down along the outer edge of the board.  Toward the end of the game, these cards get revealed and heavily affect things in their zone, which can in turn radically alter how points get scored, making for some last-minute see-saw changes.

I know, it’s really easy to see why Mission: Red Planet has been given a second edition and why it’s highly regarded among the gaming community. The ruleset is not overly tricky to grasp but from its rockets brilliance, a clever mix of tactical thinking and chaos that creates lots and lots and lots and lots of fun.

And some yelling, too, because flipping over character cards can be a lot like watching your plans being hung from the rafters and then beaten like a pinata, except instead of delicious candy pouring out its just angry wasps.

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There are a few problems that hold it back from being a truly brilliant game, though. While the fairly heft dose of luck can work in the game’s favor by injecting a load of chaos into the mixture it can also be annoying to have plans ruined through no real fault of your own.

And most important after a few games with my friends, that I thoroughly enjoyed, we all suddenly found ourselves burned out on the action. It’s not a particularly deep game so it for us it didn’t support multiple playthroughs without a good break between them.

Still, that’s not really a massive complaint; not all games need to be absurdly deep and think, and there’s really nothing wrong with something that just wants to be fun. It just so happens that in the case of Mission: Red Planet I have a lot of fun, and then didn’t want to play it again for quite a long time.

It has to be said that this new edition is rather lovely to look at. FFG usually put out good quality products and they’ve kept that reputation up for Mission: Red Planet. The little plastic astronauts look nice and colorful as they are progressively scattered across the Mission: Red Planet and Phobos, the artwork is beautiful and I really appreciated the dial for keeping track of the rounds.

If I was to criticise anything in the production department, other than FFG’s horrible box inserts, it would be that the steampunk art is fairly generic.

All in all, I really like Mission: Red Planet. It’s one of those games that I could use to introduce my friends to slightly more complex things without overwhelming them, the general concept of how to win being easy to grasp. In fact, my little niece of 9-years was able to understand most of it.

There’s still enough going on for the more experienced gamer, too. And while the elements of “take that!” where your ship full of astronauts gets blown up or something can be annoying they never overpower the game. It’s just good, wholesome fun. That also involves killing random astronauts. Good family fun, then.

Categories
Board Game Review

Barker Row Review – Dud Attraction

Who doesn’t love a good circus? Over the years, though, the humble sideshow has faded away because it typically featured oddities and things designed to be “freaks”. This might have included bearded ladies, giant rats, or seemingly possessed items. Barker Row reckons these things are good enough to bring back, though. The idea is to put on the best side-show of freaks, oddities, strange monsters, and mysterious artifacts that you can, with the first player who fills their cardboard grandstand with paying customers being the winner.

It’s an intriguing little theme supported by a deck of tarot-sized attraction cards, each featuring a unique animal, object, or other attraction that will hopefully bring in those paying punters. There are alien artifacts, dinosaurs, three-headed sharks, and all manner of baffling and exciting things to put into your show.  All of these individual cards feature a superb-looking art-style awash in garish colors that differentiate the four suits; beasts, freak, horror, and oddity.

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The production quality continues to be great in the form of the 3D cardboard grandstands. Each player gets one to sit in front of them, complete with a handy reference sheet on the back, and on each of the three levels of the grandstand, you’ll get to place beautiful little wooden meeples that have characters painted onto them. This will be your growing audience, a collection of odd-looking folk that will filter in as you successfully display new attractions. It’s amazing how much presence these grandstands lend the game, and the physical way they are used to score the game really appealed to my young niece, as well as myself.

There is a slip-up in the presentation of Barker Row, though. To keep track of how many cards are needed to successfully play an attraction onto your stage there’s a Strongman’s tower onto which players will clip their own personal little marker. It’s a wonderful idea and like the 3D grandstands it helps give the game a tremendous stage presence, but it’s a case of theme over practicality. Firstly, to make the tower work the designers opted for a plastic clip underneath the base that holds the tower up, but it means the whole thing doesn’t sit flat. It’s also a bit of a pain to awkwardly hold the tower so that you can unclip your marker and then clip it back on slightly higher up. By all means, it isn’t terrible or anything, but in its current form the strongman tower

But let’s start getting into details of how you play the game itself, starting with Barker Row. This spot on the table is where you place the deck of Barker Cards, and in front of that, you put three cards from the top of the deck, forming Barker Row. Each of these Barker Cards corresponds to one of the four suits, plus there are Wild cards which can act as whatever the players desire. Importantly these cards are also placed into Barker Row face-down, the back of each card showing which suit it is but not the cards numerical value.

On your turn, you simply take once card from Barker Row and play it into the Midway, the name given to the spot roughly in the middle of your playing area. When you place it down you’ll also flip it over, revealing its value to the world. Wild cards are only ever worth one, but they do sometimes have a special symbol that means you get to add another card to the Midway.

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The next thing you can do is play one of the three Attraction cards from your hand. Now, to do this you first need to check where you currently are on the Strongman Tower, because that number will tell you the total numerical value of Barker Cards you need to take from the Midway in order to play an attraction. For example, if you’re on the very first level of the tower and want to put down your Oddity attraction, which is the orange suit, then you need orange Barker cards (or wild cards) totaling at least four. If there are enough cards to do something you simply grab the cards from the Midway and toss them into the discard pile like great steaming chunks of garbage. You can then proudly plop your attraction in front of your grandstand, and here the rules nicely encourage you to do so in your best circus voice. “Roll up, roll up! Come one, come all to see the amazing Three-Headed Shark!”

For every attraction, you play you get to snaffle two meeples (known as Rubes) and place them onto your grandstand where they’ll eagerly do absolutely nothing. I mean, they’re made of wood so it’s not like they can cheer or anything, but personally I like to imagine them heckling my attractions while bitterly complaining about the cold and the price of the tickets.

Your attractions aren’t just pretty pictures, though. No, each one has a special power that you can activate at practically any point during your turn. One might let you treat a Barker card with a value of three as having a value of six, for example, while another might let you grab an extra Rube for your grandstand if you don’t use any Wild cards when playing another attraction. Whenever you do opt to use an attraction it gets retired, meaning you have to stick it behind your grandstand.

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Each attraction you successfully play also means you have to move up to the next level of the Strongman tower, thus increasing the amount of Barker cards you’ll need to play your next attraction. This essentially acts as a way of keeping one player from ever running away with the victory, but I did note that it doesn’t always work because typically the most successful player will also however the most amount of special attraction abilities at their disposal.

With that, all done you just draw yourself a new attraction from the deck, and play carries on to the next person.

And that’s it! Barker Row is a wonderfully simple game, one that you can teach in less than five minutes. But as you might have already guessed that simplicity is the game’s big weakness, at least in my beady little eyes.

You see, you’ll rarely ever feel in control while playing Barker Row, instead, you have to simply roll with the whims of chance. You just pick a card from the three available, hope it doesn’t help another person just as much as it helps you and that’s really it. Sure, you could attempt to get in someone else’s way by deliberately not selecting a card they need, but most of the time it’s pointless to do that since it wastes your time and they’ll just play the card to the Midway on their own turn anyway.

The only hint of genuine thought comes in the form of the Attraction powers. Using them at the right time can feel pretty satisfying. However, luck plays a big part here too because some attractions just feel so much more useful than others.

But I think the biggest problem is that the game is prone to prolonged chunks of time where everyone is just waiting around, flipping over cards. The first few turns of the game are spent doing just this, and then later on once the requirements for an attraction have gotten quite high there can be a lot of time where player after player flips over a card, sighs, and concedes their turn. Even more annoying is that after one of these lengthy sequences you might finally be in sight of getting enough Barker cards to play an attraction, only for someone else to use the cards you needed.

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I’ve never been against luck in games, and don’t even mind ones that are based almost entirely on Lady Luck herself, but for me games like that need to use their luck so that they can be crazy or fun or both. Barker Row, though, doesn’t do either of those things. It’s enjoyable, but it never has any really funny moments or daft stuff to take the sting out of the luck, nor does it offer any way for you to mitigate luck or have any genuine say in how things play out.

I like Barker Row. That might surprise you, but I do. Its a lovely presentation is a large part of why. There’s some joy to be taken from checking out the various attractions and playing with their abilities.

Categories
Board Game Review

Azul Review – An Abstract Beauty

Many, many board games involve the concept of laying down tiles to do a variety of things, such as building the board. Azul, though, actually have you laying down tiles to create a beautiful mural. The reason behind this is that you’re a tile-layer who is to decorate the palace of King Manuel I of Portugal after the King became enamored with azulejos (blue and white tiles, originally) of the Alhambra in Spain.

Azul’s beauty is a little more understated compared to some of the other board games out there. It doesn’t seek to entrance and entice with piles of sexy miniatures and oodles of cards dripping in pretty pictures. Nope, Azul is classier than that. It doesn’t feel the need to rip its clothes off and assault your senses, rather it understands the benefits of some sexy lingerie and…bloody hell, what is wrong with me this month?

The point is this is really a rather lovely game to look at. The stars of the show are the chunky, shiny tiles that come in a small array of vibrant colors. They look like juicy sweets and fancy chocolates, which is why I constantly had to keep them away from the prying hands of my littles niece who became utterly convinced that I was hoarding sweets.

I mean, I was, but the tiles needed to be kept away from her regardless. These weighty tiles feel fantastic in your hands, and when they all got chucked in the included cloth bag so that they can be randomly drawn you get this wonderfully gratifying sound as they all move around. And then you get to put them on your own personal little player board and create a lovely picture. It’s like zen but in plastic form.

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At the start of your turn, you must take one or more new tiles from either the various circular factory discs or the central discard pile. The catch is that you have to take ALL of the tiles of your chosen color from that location, so that could mean taking a single blue tile or four orange ones. If there are any remaining tiles on a factory you shove them into the center of the table, or if you took your tile/s from the middle then the very first person to do so gets to grab the first player marker.

Now that you have some shiny new tiles and have hopefully resisted the urge to eat them because they totally look like Starburst sweets you have some decisions to be made. All of your new acquisitions get placed in the left-hand display on your character sheet, ready to be moved over to the pattern on the right at the end of the round.

There are a few catches here, though; firstly each of the five rows contains a varying amount of spaces. If you have three red tiles and want to put them into the second row that has just two spaces you can, but that extra third tile will fall on the ground and smash, as represented by it being put on the special row on your player board where it will be worth negative points at the end of the round. Because you’re a clumsy bastard.

The next thing that you need to know is that if the row you want to use already contains tiles then you can only add new ones that match the color of the existing ones. You can’t mix and match, in other words.

Finally, to actually be able to move a tile from the left-hand rows to the pattern on the right then the row must be completely filled. If it isn’t then at the end of the round all the tiles on unfilled rows just get chucked into the box. What a waste.

The round only comes to a close when all the tiles have been claimed, so it’s pretty likely that no matter what you do you’ll wind up with uncompleted rows and a small mountain of useless tiles.

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Okay, so you’ve managed to hopefully fill a few lines and that brings us to the points-scoring feast where all your hard work will hopefully pay off. On each completed row you take the rightmost tile and slid it across to its matching location in the pattern, while the remainder of the tiles from that row get tossed into the box for later. A single tile scores just one point, but if it gets placed somewhere that makes it part of a horizontal or vertical row of other tiles you get one point for each and every tile in the row.

In other words, it’s a good idea to build up your mosaic of tiles in rows rather than placing a tile here or there, but be careful because if a player completes a horizontal row then that triggers the end of the game. At this point, some bonus points get handed out with completed horizontal rows granting another two points, and every vertical row netting you seven points. Finally, filling in all five spaces of a specific tile type gives you a whopping ten points.

It’s a pleasingly fun puzzle to solve, one that at first glance doesn’t seem all that tricky to work out but is actually reasonably taxing on the brain without ever being frustrating. It’s a tricky balance to get just right yet Azul manages it. The puzzle it offers doesn’t take a super-genius to figure it out, but you’ll still walk away feeling like your brain has been lightly exercised.

If you fancy a bigger workout for the ol’ grey matter you can flip the player boards over to their alternate side where instead of a color pattern for you to follow there’s just a gloomy grey square waiting to be filled up with pretty tiles. The rules here state that no column or row may not contain more than a single tile of each color, thus a seemingly simple puzzle becomes just that little bit trickier.

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What I really found myself loving about Azul was that despite it being an abstract puzzle game it always made sure you were interacting with everyone else at the table. While you certainly don’t have to and it isn’t encouraged anywhere in the rules, there’s a lot of potential conflicts to be found within claiming tiles. Sometimes you’ll just pick up a bunch of tiles someone else wanted without even realizing it, eliciting a heartfelt groan, but you can also keep an eye on what all the other players are doing and deliberately grab things they need, especially if you’ve looked at the table and already figured out that there is nothing else you can do for yourself. In other words, Azul leaves space for you to be an arsehole, and I’m okay with that.

And it’s all just so damned streamlined, too! It’s sleek and shapely and so finely balanced, not a single ounce of excess flabbiness to be found anywhere. Just a few player boards, some factories that look oddly like coasters, a pile of tiles and that’s it. A few pages of rules is all it needs to get you going, and once you’re playing there’s a sense of elegance about it all, a series of simple mechanics that result in difficult choices.

If there’s one thing I’d say is a problem in Azul is that it’s actually trickier to teach than you might think. The mechanics are all quite straightforward and simple, but a lot of people I tried to teach it to struggle a little, largely, I think, because the ideas aren’t the most intuitive. It’s the leftmost rows that seem to catch people off the most, especially since all the other tiles except for the rightmost ones get tossed back into the box to be used later when the bag needs to be refilled.

That’s a small and pretty insignificant problem, though, and does nothing to stop Azul is a lovely little puzzle game that’s good for a wide range of ages and types of gamer. What starts off feeling a bit like a solo game that just so happens to need a few people sitting at the table winds up becoming a tense affair as you eye up everyone else, plan out your moves multiple turns ahead, and even steal tiles that the other players might need. For a game of this style, it may perhaps be a tad too cutthroat for some, but to me, that just adds to the brilliance of this stunning game.