Oddball Game of the Month – Dark Sun: Shattered Lands

It’s been a busy month of preparing for life-changing events and I unfortunately haven’t had time to dig into Steam’s less well known offerings.

 

…So this month, we’re breaking all of the (arbitrarily decided and never fully explained) rules and kicking it retro!

 

May’s oddball game is Dark Sun: Shattered Lands.

 

 

 

Released back in 1993 by the now extinct Strategic Simulations Inc., Shattered Lands was the first true RPG-style game I ever played and probably the one I’ve had the most fun with. I’ve beaten it many times over the years and recently kicked it back up again thanks to GOG.com.

 

Based on the Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun campaign setting (2nd Edition ruleset, for those that know what that means), Shattered Lands is a turn based game in which you play as a party of 4 slaves forced to become gladiators.

 

 

The world of Athas has been brought to the brink of destruction by the careless and excessive use of magic. The setting is one of desolation and desperation, where people struggle to find water and resources such as metal are scarce. Monsters are everywhere.

 

 

Your basic goal is to escape captivity and organize an army of freed slaves to fight off the forces of Draj and its evil sorcerer-king Tektuktitlay.

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One of the reasons I still enjoy Dark Sun is the fairly simplistic, fast paced combat. The graphics are definitely bad by modern standards; in fact, they weren’t great for the time. That said, they are still serviceable for the most part, but are prone to some pretty bad glitches. The entire game is plagued with bugs, which is a definite annoyance.

 

I personally found the weapon/armour statistics confusing for a long time as I have never really participated in Dungeons & Dragons, but they are true to form.

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If you’ve never played it and are in to classic CRPGs, give it a look on GOG.com. The hardcore CRPG players may find it too simplistic by today’s standards, but it’s some good fun.

 

As a side note, the sequel (Wake of the Ravager) is on GOG as well. It’s more of the same, but the bugs are magnified ten fold to the point of borderline unplayability. Unfortunate.

Oddball Game of the Month – Aragami

Welcome to the last day of April – the perfect day to discuss yet another oddball game.

 

April’s game is Aragami.

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Aragami (or as I like to call it, “Japanese Dishonored”) is a third person game developed and published by indie studio Lince Works.  You play as a vengeful spirit summoned from beyond the grave. In essence, you are a ninja assassin who can manipulate the shadows tasked with destroying an army of light wielders.

The strength of this game lies in the interesting use of light and shadows. You can teleport short distances, but only into a shadow. Spend too much time in the light, and your “shadow essence” (essentially your mana) will drain. Spend time in the shadows, and it will recover.

You also gain other shadow abilities that help you through your bloody journey, such as the ability to create shadows wherever you want or throw kunai. However, unlike many other stealth/assassination games, you cannot engage in hand-to-hand combat when detected, as a single swipe of a light-empowered blade spells the end of our shadowy protagonist.

Now let’s talk about the downside – the repetitiveness. You will basically be doing the same mission against the same enemies over and over without too much variation. It’s a fun game to play, but in its 5 or so hours of game time, it will grow a little old.

The story is also intriguing, but nothing to write home about. It’s somewhat predictable.

The final boss fight also introduced multiple crashes on my system mid-fight, which was frustrating. I don’t know if this is common or not.

 

In conclusion, there’s still 4-5 hours of fun to be found here for around $20. If you like stealth games or want an interesting variation on Dishonored, give this one a go…especially if you can get it on sale.

 

Oddball Game of the Month – Offworld Trading Company

Another month draws to a close, and with it comes another oddball game experience.

March’s Oddball Game of the Month is Offworld Trading Company.

Developed by Mohawk Games and published by Stardock Corporation (gurus in the world of strategy games on a grand scale), Offworld Trading Company is a bit of a different animal. While it’s using a hex-based system similar to games such as Civilization, it operates in real-time. The biggest change from normal RTS games is that it centers around  corporate strategy rather than military. You won’t be commanding battalions of tanks to destroy your enemies with reckless abandon, but rather carefully use corporate espionage and hostile takeovers.

The setting is a futuristic Mars where humanity has begun forging colonies. You, as a massive corporate entity, are charged with building resource gathering and manufacturing infrastructure on the new planet.

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The game’s matches revolve around quick expansion and earning enough money through various means to buy out your competitors. You are given a number of “claims” to use on individual tiles on the map to be able to build mines, greenhouses, or whatever you’d like there. You can stake these claims anywhere on the map, but be warned – the further your claim is from your base, the slower and more expensive it is to make use of.

Resources are listed on your heads up display, complete with incoming and spending numbers. Resources that you are using but not producing enough of will drain your economy pretty fast, so it’s important to become as self-sufficient as possible pretty early. If you create more of a resource than you spend, you can stockpile it and sell it for cash or ship it off world to create additional income.

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The main thing to keep an eye on is the stock price of all players. This increases and falls as one might expect, and will determine the cost to eliminate opponents via buyouts or how close your opponents are to doing the same to you.

One of the key components of the game is the black market, which gives you the ability to purchase devious items or abilities to be used to undermine your opponents – from inciting labour strikes all the way up to underground nukes to destroy resources.

Another feature is the patent system. Once you build a patent office, you can research helpful technologies that only you can use. For example, you can buy the patent for teleportation which allows you (and only you) to forego shipping costs from your mines and manufacturing plants and simply teleport goods to your base.

There is also an auction mechanic that occurs every once in a while which pauses the game as players bid on whatever is up for sale, be it a claim or a black market item. This mechanic can get tiresome if you have little interest in the item, but fortunately the game allows you to skip over it when playing against AI opponents.

The game has a skirmish mode and a campaign, but you cannot play the campaign until you’ve one at least one skirmish. The campaign mode is really more of a series of specially restricted skirmishes with the overall goal of becoming a financial superpower on red planet.

Overall, I really enjoyed Offworld Trading Company for its rather unique take on a hex-based strategy game, but I will say my interested waned more quickly than I expected. There isn’t a ton of variation in what you do from match to match. While I don’t really have a complaint there, I found the lack of an interesting storyline to follow in addition to the fairly repetitive nature of the matches meant I wasn’t as invested as I could have been.

Therefore, I must conclude that the normal price of this game at ~$40-$45 is too rich for my blood. However, on sale, I recommend picking this up if you’re into strategy games and want to try something totally different.

Quick Review – Acer Predator X34

If you recall last week’s discussion, we touched on the pros and cons of 21:9 gaming.

Now, as promised, let’s take a brief look at my test subject – the Acer Predator X34.

The X34 comes with all the fixings: a crisp 34” IPS panel at a respectable 4ms response time, 3440×1440 resolution,  a 100Hz refresh rate, NVIDIA G-Sync and (most importantly) LED underlighting so you get that nice glow in a few colour options. It also comes with that “enthusiast” level price tag at roughly $1,700 CDN.  While I got mine on sale for $1,500, that’s still a hefty blow to the wallet.

Acer went for a minimalistic metallic look that I personally find very attractive. It saves on desk space while looking impressive, although it lacks that traditional “gamer” look like ASUS’ ROG Swift lineup of competitors if you’re into that sort of thing. The only really flashy thing about the aesthetic is the red “Predator” branding and logo on the bottom bezel. The top and side bezels are pleasantly thin.

The back features an HDMI port, a DisplayPort, and a USB hub.

While the monitor itself is almost as impressive as the MSRP, there are a few flaws with the design. Most notable is the menu system. While my previous ASUS monitor used a very intuitive single control, Acer has decided to annoy customers by using the most convoluted and impractical 4 button system I’ve ever had the displeasure of using.

In terms of quality control, I haven’t had any issues over the year I’ve had it so far with one exception: one of my LEDs beneath the bottom bezel produces a lovely shade of blue while attempting to do its best impression of white. A fairly minor detail, overall.

Gaming on this monitor is a pleasure, but is it worth the astronomical financial impact?

In hindsight, while the experience is a fantastic one I think the asking price may be too large. If you’re looking for a entry into epic 21:9 gaming, I recommend scoping out a 2560×1080 monitor instead due to their more reasonable (albeit still very high) asking price.

However, if you are looking for that tip top tier and can deal with a menu system that makes you want to hurl the monitor across the room on the rare occasion you need to fiddle with it, the Acer Predator X34 is a good choice.

It’s also one of only a few choices.

Memoires of a 21:9 Gamer

Greetings, PC gaming fans!

Has your curiosity ever been peeked by the legend of the 21:9 gaming monitor? Mine was, and that’s why I picked one of those beauties up a little while back: an Acer Predator X34. I will hopefully be doing a more in depth review for the X34 on Wednesday, so stay tuned if you’re interested in my thoughts on that specific monitor.

Like most PC gaming technology that is not widely adopted (looking at you CrossFire/SLI), 21:9 gaming comes with more than its fair share of technical glitches and compatibility problems. Many games (especially older ones) don’t support 21:9 resolutions, meaning you will get black bars on the sides of your screen. Some games or other applications are so adamantly against 21:9 that they will oddly distort or even crash, although these cases have be few and far between in my experience.

Sometimes, even when the game runs at 21:9, it does so in a distorted state that can cause difficulties with the in-game UI or (most annoyingly for me as someone who has some problems with motion sickness) frame of view. On several occasions, I’ve had an FOV that looks decent in 16:9 become nauseatingly restrictive in 21:9. Most recently, I’ve had some issues with Mass Effect: Andromeda, which supports my 3440×1440 resolution during most of the game, but awkwardly cuts to a 16:9 aspect ratio during some cutscenes and dialogue.

Now there are some applications that can help mitigate these negatives. I’ve personally taken to using a free (donation optional) app called Flawless Widescreen. Running this app in the background helps smooth out some of the above issues (in some cases including 21:9 support in its entirety), but can’t correct all glitches than might occur. Even if you leave it in its native resolution, it can increase the FOV or other hard-to-find options in some games.

There’s one more potential negative to 21:9 monitors, and it’s a big one: the price. 21:9 monitors tend to cost a pretty penny more than their 16:9 brethren.

So you may be asking yourself, why would I want to go through this hassle?

Well, you may not….but a 21:9 monitor comes with some great benefits as well. First off, you get a tremendous amount of desktop area. Second, a game that runs 21:9 well is the best gaming experience I’ve had. It feels more like being in the middle of the action, and less like simply watching the action from afar. In my mind, a widescreen monitor is preferable to a dual monitor setup thanks to the lack of a bezel.

The question becomes, are you willing to endure more and pay more for this experience, or would you rather stick to good ol’ 16:9?

For me personally, the hassle is more than worth the end results. To be clear, I don’t really mind the black bars on the side if the game doesn’t support 21:9. I also enjoy the ability to run a game at full 1080p in windowed mode while doing other things on my desktop at the same time. The only part that trips me up is the price….which for me personally ended up being substantial.

Let me know what your stance is or any questions you may have in the comments below.

Technewsday Tuesday – IBM Storage Goes Atomic

Welcome to a snowy Tuesday here in Canada, and what a perfect day it is to talk about some tech news!

In what I would professionally classify as “very cool, dude!” (the term’s a bit technical, I know), IBM has announced that they’ve discovered a way to store a 1 or a 0 in a single atom. Previously, “atomic storage” meant that the use of patterns of atoms to create readable data.

The science behind it is a bit beyond my expertise, but essentially IBM uses a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to hit a Holmium atom with electrons, causing it to change spinning state. The spinning state can then be read by the STM, letting it represent a 1 or 0.

This level of storage opens up possibilities for the future, such as smaller drives or very high capacity drives. However, this is still in a very early stage. They have reportedly had trouble with thermal energy causing spontaneous loss or flipping of the spin.

They are still investigating different atoms, clusters of atoms, or small molecules for more stability, but either way we’re talking early stages of what could be a digital storage revolution.

The key there, of course, is “early stages”. I wouldn’t expect anything to come out of it any time soon, but still….the potential is there.

Adaptive Sync – Will You Adapt?

If you’ve listened to our technobabble podcast, you’ve probably heard me defend the virtues of NVIDIA G-Sync with reckless abandon.

 

Well today, on a grey, snowy Monday at the RBG Lair, I’d like to pull up a chair around the gas fireplace with a hot, watered down cup of whatever was left in the coffee maker and have an honest chat about adaptive sync technology.

 

For those of you that aren’t quite sure what that is, I’ll give you a quick synopsis to the (admittedly underwhelming) extent of my knowledge. Refresh rate is the rate at which your monitor refreshes its image, usually measured per second (Hz). Adaptive sync technology such as NVIDIA G-Sync or the Team Red alternative FreeSync allows your monitor to adjust its refresh rate to match the frame rate being put out by your video card. This prevents the common screen tearing that can happen when your monitor refresh rate and your frame rate are not synchronized, and a new frame is rendered mid refresh (or vice versa).

 

 

As far as Red vs Green goes, NVIDIA G-Sync uses a module inside the monitor itself to control the refresh rate

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Whereas AMD uses the Adaptive-Sync component originally developed for the DisplayPort 1.2a standard.

 

 

This means that NVIDIA’s solution is proprietary, and involves actual modifications to monitors as opposed to AMD’s use of a free to use solution, resulting in a rather high price premium for G-Sync enabled devices.

 

 

While some will argue NVIDIA’s use of a hardware controller should theoretically give them the advantage, actual comparisons have been inconclusive at best. In addition, AMD announced FreeSync 2 back in January, the next generation of the technology which reportedly improves the minimums (currently, adaptive sync has trouble below 30 FPS) while having support for HDR. At this point, I have a hard time not giving Team Red the victory here. Their only true disadvantage at this point is a lack of modern GPUs at the higher end of the spectrum, while NVIDIA is churning out monsters like the GTX 1080, 1080 Ti, and Titan X.

 

 

 

The real question is: who is this technology for?

 

 

In my opinion, everyone!

 

In addition to smooth, tearing-free games, adaptive sync can have other advantages such as improving battery life in laptops due to making the display work only as hard as it has to. It has also been cited as an advantage for stutter-free video playback.

 

Adaptive sync has another potential advantage for games in that it can theoretically increase the effective life of a graphics card. As modern games see a dip in frame rate, adaptive sync’s smoothing effect will make it more tolerable. Capping your frame rate around where you average is will prevent spikes, and adaptive sync will keep your refresh rate from causing more tearing.

 

 

So what’s holding us back? Well, at the moment, there aren’t that many G-Sync and FreeSync enabled monitors at reasonable prices. That number has been growing, so we have hope for the future.

 

Price is another big factor, especially on NVIDIA’s side of the fence. As it becomes more common, I’m hoping we see prices even out. Heck, I hope it becomes a standard for all displays.

 

 

All that said, I find it very hard to recommend G-Sync monitors at this time, even as someone who owns one and loves it. The price premiums are excessive in my mind, but if you want the best experience regardless, G-Sync is for you…just so long as you weren’t planning on switching teams any time soon. For my Radeon users out there, I wholeheartedly recommend picking up a FreeSync enabled monitor if you’ve got the cash for an upgrade.

 

 

What do you think about adaptive sync? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

The Tech War Roundup – Q1 2017

Our favourite technology teams have traded blows in the last couple weeks. Let’s look at where the war for our hearts, minds, and most importantly our money, sits.

 

Team Red (AMD)

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The Red Revolution has kicked it into high gear in the last few weeks. The great comeback into the high end CPU scene has arrived in the form of Ryzen, and it has been the talk of the town.

AMD’s new dreadnoughts of the CPU world, the Ryzen 7 series, have taken us all by storm with 8 cores, 16 threads and a very reasonable price point. The new flagship chip, the 1800X, has shown multi-tasking power competitive with Intel’s top of the line i7-6900K at roughly half the price.

AMD has positioned Ryzen 7 at a price point to make them the processor manufacturer of choice for content creators, streamers, and the like. The average gamer unfortunately must wait until AMD unveils the Ryzen 5 series.

 

Team Green (NVIDIA)

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The Green Team has made two major announcements in recent days regarding their top of the line GPUs.

Despite AMD only teasing us with their new Vega architecture, NVIDIA appears to be getting ahead of the game with the announcement of their new flagship gaming card, the GTX 1080 Ti.

Coming in at a hefty MSRP of $700 USD, the 1080 Ti features an identical CUDA core count to the Pascal Titan X at 3584. It also features a 1.6GHz boost clock and a memory capacity of 11GB of GDDR5X VRAM. Early benchmarks show ~30% improvement over the GTX 1080, which is a massive leap.

Thankfully, NVIDIA also announced a price drop on the 1080, so look for cheaper 1080s in the immediate future.

 

Team Blue (Intel)

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Seemingly in a preemptive strike against future AMD Ryzen gaming centric chips, Team Blue announced a “refresh” of their Kaby Lake lineup: the i7-7740K and i5-7640K. These two new chips feature a 112W TDP and improved clock speeds over the 7700K and 7600K.

 

While this improvement is only a minor one, it does set the bar slightly higher for AMD to match if they wish to tackle Intel in the high end single core performance market as they have in the professional market.

 

Intel also announced that their new 10nm architecture “Cannon Lake” will be shipping before the end of 2017, so we’ll stay tuned for that.

 

 

 

All in all, we’ve seen some exciting new PC tech so far in 2017. If you’re interested in further discussion and/or rambling on some of these topics, tune in to our technobabble podcast.

An NVMeaningful Upgrade? Samsung 960 Evo Review

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the latest in Samsung’s SSD technology (and the latest in Dan’s questionable purchasing decisions): the Samsung 960 Evo.

 

Haunted by my dwindling storage reserves on my 256GB drive and a desire to test the latest NVMe speeds, I decided to pick up a 500GB variant of everyone’s favourite Korean company’s new shining star.

 

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Using Samsung’s 48-layer TLC V-NAND technology, this particular version of the 960 Evo comes rated at a 3200 MB/s sequential read and a 1900 MB/s sequential write, with a 380k IOPS read and 360K IOPS write on the 4KB random QD32 side.

 

Coming in on the M.2-2280 form factor, this thing is tiny – coming in at 80.15mm x 22.15mm x 2.38mm according to Samsung. I must say one of the benefits to using an M.2 SSD is the ease of deployment. Gone are the days of mounting a 2.5” drive to a drive cage and running cables to it. Now, you can simply screw the little bugger directly into your motherboard with the single, solitary, tiny M.2 screw included with your motherbo-and oh crap I dropped it into my case fan.

 

 

After a couple minutes of fishing with a magnetic-tipped screwdriver, I was back on track and ready to slam face first into the next obstacle – making my M.2 drive bootable. Some motherboards are a bit finicky about booting from an NVMe SSD (if they support it at all – be sure to check before purchasing). You can set your BIOS to CSM (Compatibility Support Mode) and set your PCI-E configuration to EFI if you run into any trouble. For me, I merely had to tweak the configuration setting to “Solid State Drive” and away she went.

 

 

After the hurdles were cleared, though, reinstalling Windows 10 was a breeze…followed by an angry gale-force wind of uninstalling all the bloatware and disabling every.single.option for “helpful” spyware that Microsoft so lovingly includes with Windows 10. Thanks, Microsoft!

 

 

I immediately noticed incredibly fast boot times, even coming from a slightly older SSD. The PC now boots after POST in ~5 seconds, which translates to about 22 seconds from button press. Everything is snappy and up to snuff. Fantastic.

 

 

Now on to the real-world applications; this of course means gaming. Do you notice any real improvements in game performance or load times? Well, no, not really. This one is a subjective eye test of course, but I have not noticed any real change from an older SSD despite costing around $150 CAD more than Samsung’s consumer champion, the 850 Evo.

 

So in conclusion, is this worth the extra price tag? I’d have to say probably not. Unless you’re absolutely dead set on having the fastest tech, I’d stick with the cheaper 850. I would, however, recommend M.2 regardless (which retails for the same price on the 850), as I do like the convienience over the standard 2.5’’ drive.  I’ve heard they have had overheating problems in the past, but I have yet experience that.

 

With that said, do I love it? Yes, yes I do.