The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition on Games With Gold [Xbox]

Quick post today (yes, I know I don’t post often enough) because I’d hate for you to miss this. One of my favourite games is out on Xbox Live’s “Games With Gold”. You can pick it up for free until the 15th of November. You get to keep it after that, but the chance to get it will be gone.

monkey-island-title

Oh yeah, what’s the game? The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition! It’s an Xbox 360 title, but backward compatible on the Xbox One as well.

You can see details, and details of what’s coming next on Games With Gold by clicking here, or check the Xbox store on your console.

Seriously, don’t miss this. I’m still convinced it’s one of the all-time greatest video games 26 years after its 1990 release!

Xbox One & PS4 Hardware Compared

This is a guest post by William Judd

Xbox One Console, Sensor and ControllerLast week Microsoft unveiled the next generation Xbox console: The Xbox One. Like the PlayStation 4, which was announced earlier this year but hasn’t yet been shown in the flesh, the new console will be released in time for Christmas this year. That will bring an end to almost eight years without a new console generation, a much longer period than generations past.

As you’d expect, both of these next-generation systems are much more powerful than their predecessors. What you might not expect is how similar the two systems are to one another! In this article, we’ll have a look at how these two next-generation consoles compare.

Processors
Both systems move from a custom PowerPC architecture to a 64-bit semi-custom system-on-chip, like a gaming PC. Both the PS4 and X1 use an AMD Jaguar APU, which should be clocked in the region of 1.6 GHz (as estimated by Anandtech). Both systems feature two four-core processors, making for eight cores (and eight threads) in total. So far, so similar.

Memory
Where things begin to diverge is in system memory. Both have 8 GB of RAM, but the PlayStation 4 has an edge here, as it’s using much faster GDDR5 RAM versus the DDR3 of the Xbox One. Datarates and peak memory bandwidth are considerably in Sony’s favour here as a result. Expect 5.5 GHz datarate delivery peak memory bandwidth of 176 GB/s for the PS4, and only 2.133 GHz good for 68.3 GB/s for the X1. The Microsoft console partially makes up for this with 32 MB of embedded memory on die, which should reduce the amount of peak memory bandwidth required. Overall, it looks pretty close – Sony have gone with a higher cost but simpler option, but Microsoft’s approach is by no means foolish.

Graphics
In graphics land, things are more simply in Sony’s favour. Both consoles use an AMD GCN-based GPU, but Sony included an 18 Compute Unit configuration (good for 1152 ALUs) where Microsoft went for 12 CUs (delivering 768 ALUs). Both GPUs are clocked at the same speed (800 MHz), so here the PS4 has a clear advantage over the X1 in terms of horsepower – about 50%.

Power / Heat
The downside of having more powerful hardware is that you’d expect to also see more power used and more heat created. By that measure, the PS4 should be hotter and use more power than the X1, but both should also be hotter and use more power than the previous generation of consoles.

In truth, only the first comparison is likely to be true. While the new components used in the PS4 and X1 are more powerful, they’re also much more power efficient. Even when running at full tilt, we should expect to see only marginally higher power consumption than the previous generation.

Both of the new consoles also support power gating, allowing unused CPU and GPU cores to be kept in a low-power state until they’re needed. The new systems can also vary their frequencies and voltages as needed, allowing for a much wider range of heat and power usage than the previous generation. This should make them more economical and cooler to run outside of games.

In terms of PlayStation 4 versus Xbox One, we’d expect the PS4 will run a bit hotter and use a bit more power, thanks to the PS4’s additional GPU performance. Both systems look like they’ll use larger grilles, so heat shouldn’t be an issue.

Conclusion
All in all, it looks like the PlayStation 4 holds the performance crown, but the Xbox 360 may be a bit cheaper than the Sony console. That strategy hasn’t worked well for Microsoft with its Surface tablets or Windows Phones, but may be a good initial strategy for the company.

Of course, Microsoft are also investing a lot of time and money into the Kinect and the X1’s media capbilities, so perhaps we’ll see the same price point. Either way, it’s shaping up into an interesting battle!

I hope you found this comparison useful. For more in-depth information on the hardware differences between the PS4 and the X1, be sure to check out the Anandtech article linked above, which goes into much more detail for enthusiasts.

Microsoft reveals the Xbox One

Xbox OneAlmost 8 years ago, a new family member joined our household. Yes, we got a cat around that time, but I’m really thinking about the Xbox 360. 8 years is a long time in the tech world though and, although the 360 is no slouch, Microsoft have unveiled the next generation  in their Xbox story.

Enter the Xbox One. Microsoft say their new mission for the Xbox is to have a system that unifies games, television, music and movies. One console to rule them all, if you will. This won’t just be a gaming machine – Microsoft want to place themselves at the heart of the living room. That’s not to say we’ll all be huddled around a box, begging it for entertainment; apparently the technology will ‘step behind the curtain’, and allow you and your entertainment to take centre stage.

So, what can the Xbox One do? Well, quite a lot. It can show live TV for a start which, at the moment, requires you to change the input on your television. Voice control on the One was demonstrated, with a simple “Xbox, watch TV” bringing up a live TV feed. It wasn’t clear to me whether this was being streamed over the Internet, or whether you’ll need to plug a receiver into the back of the console (your Sky Box, for instance) but it was very impressive. Further voice commands allowed for instant switching to a game, movie, music, back to TV, Internet Explorer… it was all very snappy and seemed to live up to Microsoft’s vision of putting all your entertainment at your fingertips.

Snap Mode is an interesting addition to the Xbox One, where you can ‘snap’ an application to the side of the screen while doing something else. If, for example, you’re watching a movie and want to find out the name of a particular actor, you could snap Internet Explorer to the side of the screen and look up IMDB… all while the movie is still playing. At the minute, I look up that sort of thing on my phone, but the One will let you do it all on the one screen.

Skype, recently bought by Microsoft, is also integrated into the One, enabling you to have video chats with friends and families from your television. Great for getting in touch with the grandparents!

At this point my thought turned to the fact that it was pretty much a Smart TV… except that all the smart elements are held in the Xbox rather than the television set.

What’s under the skin?

If you’re anything like me you’ll be wondering what the technology under the Xbox One’s skin is, and we were given a rundown during the unveiling:

  • 8GB RAM – compared to 512 MB RAM in the 360
  • 5 billion transistors
  • A BluRay drive! (Yes, I’m excited about that one)
  • USB 3.0 connectivity
  • ‘Practically silent’ operation

The Operating system is a merger of three – bringing together the Xbox OS, Windows Kernel, and a sort of connector OS that allows instant program switching, multitasking and control.

The control systems have had an overhaul too, with a new Kinect controller. It is touted as being much faster at recognising voices than the current Kinect, and to have the ability to recognise different people. It is also more accurate at scanning the environment, and features a 1080p camera. It is capable of recognising more joints in a user’s body and, apparently, even able to read your heartbeat. I’m not sure if that last feature is cool or creepy!

The Xbox controller looks broadly similar to the current one (which is good, I’ve always found it comfortable) but actually has over 40 design updates.

Will there be any games?

Of course there will be games! Forza Motorsport 5, for example, will be exclusive to the One and will be available at launch. EA Sports are developing four games for the One and, Infinity Ward are producing a One version of Call of Duty: Ghosts that looks very, very impressive.

Let’s talk about that for a minute, actually, because I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by the graphics of the One. I think the 360 does pretty well for graphics (yes, I know some PC gamers will want to slap me for saying that) but a side-by-side comparison of graphics from Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty: Ghosts just blew me away. The texture detail and the environment complexity made possible by the One’s power was genuinely amazing. It remains to be seen how games move beyond fancier graphics to make use of the One’s social and connected features, but pretty pictures are a good start :)

What didn’t we hear about?

There are a couple of things I was interested in learning about, but didn’t make an appearance in the unveiling:

  • Price – there was no indication of where this will be pitched.
  • Backwards compatibility – I remember when the 360 came out and only certain Xbox titles worked on it. It would have been nice to know whether my current games catalogue is about to become obsolete.
  • Always-on DRM – rumours abounded about whether the One would require an Internet connection to play games. If it does, it sort of precludes any possibility of taking it away on holiday with you, or of playing when your Internet connection goes down. It would have been nice to hear some sort of official position on this.

Having said that, the overall impression I got of the One is very positive. It looks like it’s going to be a clever piece of kit, and certainly something on my wish list. The next big unveiling will be at E3, where we can expect to hear more about the games coming to this new platform.

Thoughts?

Did you watch the Xbox Reveal event? What did you think of what you saw? Are you looking forward to the ‘next generation’ of consoles, or are you quite happy with the current one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Xbox 720 Rumour Roundup [link]

Xbox Announcement NoticeFollowing on from the news that Microsoft are gearing up to announce the new Xbox, our friends at IT Turning Point have rounded up some of the rumours as to what we can expect.

We won’t re-list them here (apart from anything else, Google hates that sort of thing!), so head on over to IT Tech Point, the IT Turning Point blog, and have a look for yourself. Don’t forget to leave a comment :)

Xbox 720 Rumours at IT Tech Point.

Microsoft rumoured to be working on Xbox Surface Tablet

According to a report posted on The Verge, Microsoft is building its own 7 inch tablet for gaming. Called the Xbox Surface, the tablet will run a stripped down version of Windows with a custom kernel. While basic tasks like messaging will be included, the focus will be on providing an ultimately portable Xbox gaming experience that can still be connected to TVs and sound systems for a more traditional console experience.

The hardware, which was originally leaked in June, is quite impressive. The spec calls for a 7″ display running at 1280 x 720p, two IBM Power7 SCMs (for a total of 12 CPU cores) running at 3.1 GHz, 5 GB of DDR3 memory, and a custom 28 nanometer GPU from AMD. There’s also slated to be a 250 GB 10,000 RPM mechanical hard drive, and support for a number of peripherals including USB storage via 4 USB 3.0 ports, wireless game controllers, headsets, component video / HDMI, and Optical Audio. The system should support up to 1440p output – something that makes me incredibly happy, considering I’ve just picked up a 27″ 2560 x 1440 display.

The Verge are reporting that the hardware for the device hasn’t yet been nailed down, but could include a custom ARM processor or an unannounced Intel system-on-chip. The hardware production process is said to be ‘secret’ and not with the partners that traditionally have made the Xbox console. The Xbox Surface should debut ahead of the company’s suspected future Xbox console.

I’ve got to admit – I’m massively excited about this. We’ve seen attempts at a gaming tablet before – with Razer’s Project Fiona and the Wikipad – but if there is anyone in the world who can do it well, it will be Microsoft.

This article was written by William Judd. William writes for Mobile Fun, who recently opened a US store that is stocking a wide range of Samsung Galaxy Note 2 cases.

Skyrim [review]

Skyrim screenshot

This article was written by William Judd. William writes for Mobile Fun, the UK’s leading online retailer of the Griffin SurvivorHTC accessories and the Panasonic Lumix case.

Skyrim is the latest entry in the venerable Elder Scrolls series and the follow-up to 2008’s Oblivion. As with its predecessor, Skyrim presents a sandbox-style fantasy world of laudable size and scope.You have an immense amount of choice in how you conduct yourself in Skyrim, with options for playing as a muscle-bound warrior, surreptitious assassin, sagely magician or anything in between.

Often the problem with these games is that the strength of any individual experience is diluted by the vast amount of ground that needs to be covered by the game designers; quests, locations, NPCs and items all need to be fun in and of themselves as well as meshing with the world as a whole.

Thankfully, the development team at Bethesda performed excellently in this regard; each microcosm is detailed and unique. Dungeons, which felt rather stale in Oblivion, seem rather more varied here. This is helped in part through more unique dungeon designs, but also through the upgraded graphics. Like Oblivion before it, the game features a range of styles corresponding to the race of the dungeon’s builders, with Dwemer dungons having a vastly different look and feel to creepy barrows or rocky caves inhabited by other races.

Outside, there is even more variation, with the Scandinavian-inspired countryside containing beautiful mountain meadows, treacherous snow-covered peaks and roaring rivers. The joy that you gain from these encounters is doubled when you realise that you could climb that mountain you see in the distance, if you wanted to. Where first person shooters revel in the immediacy of their action, Skyrim appeals because of the consistent believability of its world and the smorgasbord of opportunities that lie in a great tableau before you.

Of course, Skyrim suffers the same kind of inevitable flaws that its predecessors in the series do, but these only add to the game’s charm. From Yahtzee’s famous encounter with an old lady who floated twenty feet in the air before sinking sadly through the floor to my own exploration of outer space courtesy of a troll’s club, the game’s glitches are amusing conversation pieces rather than game-breaking nightmares.

Perhaps the only genuine flaw I found with Skyrim was with its dungeon-based enemies. In each dungeon or area you encounter, there are a host of easy-to-kill monsters that can be dispatched with no effort or strategy, and a single boss monster which is vastly harder to kill. These boss battles can be enjoyable, but the vast chasm in difficulty interrupts the game’s flow; instead of a gradual ramp up in difficulty as you progress into a dungeon, you instead race to the very end, then start thinking about the boss.

Often, the winning strategy is to take advantage of a peculiarity in the enemy’s AI, such as attacking with ranged weapons from a point they cannot reach. This cheapens the whole encounter, but can be necessary to advance as otherwise the bosses are needlessly difficult to defeat. A redressing of the game’s balance, by making bosses slightly easier and normal enemies increasingly harder, would do a lot to make dungeon crawling more enjoyable.

Otherwise, there is little to complain about in Skyrim. It’s easy to see why it has been given universally excellent reviews; it is certainly one of the greatest sandbox worlds ever presented. Like the best open world games before it, there is a such a multitude of choice that there’ll be something to suit any palette — if you are a fan of finely made video games, Skyrim is worth your time.

Skyrim is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

F1 2010 Review [Xbox360]

I’ll admit it, I’m a huge Formula 1 fan. When I first got an Xbox I searched high and low for a Formula 1 game for it, only to discover that the F1 franchise was only available for Playstation.

Last year the Codemasters took the F1 game reins and I was excited by the prospect of finally getting to enjoy my favourite sport on my, now, Xbox360. Sadly F1 2009 still wasn’t available for the Xbox360, but I did play it on Wii and iPhone.

This year, however, the moment has arrived. F1 2010 is out on a variety of formats, PC, PS3 and, yes, Xbox360! So what’s it like?

Is that computer generated?

I’m a very visual person – I like things to look good – so the first thing I notice about a game is the graphics. F1 2010 has that hyper-realism look that always tips me off that it’s computer generated, but it does look awesome. In fact, some people I’ve shown the game to have commented that it’s almost like watching the real thing. The weather effects, puddles on the track during rain, water streaming over your visor, spray from the wheels, all look amazing and make me wonder how the real drivers cope in the wet. But even during a normal race the track and other cars look wonderful.

One thing I really like doing is having a few laps of whatever track the real F1 is visiting next. So far that’s been Singapore and Suzuka, and the Korean track is looking like it’ll be fun. The level of detail in-game is so good that having those laps gives me a much better idea of what’s happening in the live race. I understand better how the track fits together and why the drivers are taking a particular line through a corner. Codemasters have done a great job at making the tracks as accurate as possible.

Have a look at the trailer to get an idea of how F1 2010 looks.

What’s it like to drive?

There are a load of driver aids you can switch on and off to customise the difficulty level, such as automatic braking, a visual racing line, ABS, traction control, and even how clever your opponents are. By tweaking those settings you should be able to find a level at which you can enjoy the game no matter what your skill. Driving with the controller is simple enough – I managed to stay on the track most of the time – but F1 2010 really comes to life when you use a steering wheel controller. The fine control available and the illusion of actually driving helps improve the gameplay immensely. Having said that, I occasionally play online against a friend who swears by his Xbox360 controller and usually beats me too. I wouldn’t rush out and buy a steering wheel just to play F1 2010 – try it with your current controller first and see if that suits you.

Am I living the life?

The official Formula 1 website talks about being the driver, living the life. If F1 2010 is designed to give you the whole experience of being an F1 driver, well, it just can’t. The press interviews after the race are necessarily scripted with you choosing from a few available responses. The other teams are very formulaic in how they respond to you, reacting to your press comments more than anything else while, in the real world, if you started winning races in a Lotus car you’d soon be approached by one of the other teams. But then, that’s not why I bought the game really: I bought it to race and the on-track action is just brilliant.

Any dislikes?

Sure, there are things that could be improved. I’ve picked up on discussions that the qualifying times for the other drivers are all generated rather than taken from actual lap times. It would be nice to see that, if I (accidentally) blocked a driver on the track his lap time suffered. There are times that my team tells me a driver is five seconds ahead of me when I’m actually right on his tail, and I’ve read (but never experienced to my knowledge) that if there’s a chance of rain some of the other drivers might not pit at all. These are all niggles, though, and haven’t really affected my enjoyment of the game.

What has affected my enjoyment of the game is the over-enthusiastic penalties handed out by the stewards. Fair enough, if I charge into another car I get a penalty for causing an avoidable collision. The weird thing is that if I’m in front and brake for a corner, and a car hits me, I still get the penalty! Fortunately there’s an action replay system that lets you go back in time a few seconds and have another go, but I’m starting to think this must have been what it felt like to be a McLaren driver a few years ago.

Conclusion

Overall I have to say F1 2010 is a fantastic game. I’ve been playing it every day since I got it and while there are issues and annoyances, the joy of driving round familiar tracks in-game, pretending to do what I’ve seen on the TV so many times, is intoxicating. I’m loving it, and I can see F1 2010 being played in my house for a long time to come.

Pick up your copy of F1 2010 today – available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Halo Reach – Campaign Review

Bungie‘s Halo franchise is, arguably, the series that made the Xbox and it’s back again with the latest game: Halo Reach. Covering the events that started the whole Halo story off,  Reach casts you in the role of Noble 6, the newest member of the Noble Team of Spartan warriors. You investigate what is believed to be an incursion by human rebels, but soon discover it’s actually mankind’s alien nemesis: The Covenant are on Reach.

From that initial discovery to final setpiece, you’ll be taken on a rollercoaster journey that sees you and the rest of Noble Team taking down Covenant bases, commandeering top secret UNSC spacecraft and blasting Phantoms from the sky. I don’t think there’s a single dull moment in the game.

If you’ve played the Halo franchise much you’ll know pretty much what to expect – Reach looks at home in the Halo universe and plays much like the other games. This is by no means a criticism; why change what already works? There have been some tweaks to the campaign to bring in new features, like recruiting marines to your fire team, but Bungie have sensibly left most of the mechanics well alone.

One addition I really like is the new armour abilities. These allow you to use special abilities for short periods of time, some of which are recognisable as reworked versions of the pickups (like active camouflage) or the equipment from Halo 3 (like the drop shield). They aren’t revolutionary, but I like how they now stick with you until you swap your current ability for another one, and how they recharge for multiple uses. My favourite? Got to be  the jet pack… I just like dropping a grenade on a group of Covenant before landing on them to mop up.

Having talked about how the mechanics of gameplay are much the same, Halo Reach does feel quite different from what’s come before. Why? Teamwork. When playing as the Master Chief there’s a definite feeling that you’re a lone wolf. You’re the last active Spartan and your fellow combatants are really just there to be cannon fodder. In Reach, though, you’re part of a team. You can’t give orders to your team like you can in, say, Ghost Recon, but they do play an important role in the game. In this respect Reach is more like ODST as you work closely with your squadmates.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the storyline, but it cracks along at a fast pace and there are some great moments that have the capacity to pull you up short. The ending is particularly poignant and you can definitely tell that Bungie intends this to be the last Halo FPS. Don’t switch your Xbox 360 off at the credits, though, as there’s still something to come afterwards.

Pimp my armour

As you play through the campaign you’ll pick up commendations for completing certain tasks. These commendations contribute to your overall rank and credit count, which allows you to buy items from the armoury.

The armoury, oddly enough, is where you can buy new pieces of armour, as well as customising your colour scheme and insignia. That’s great for creating a unique look in multiplayer, but the choices you make here are carried over into the campaign this time too. What that tells you is that the cutscenes, which are nothing short of cinematic, by the way, must be rendered on the fly as Noble 6 appears wearing the armour you’ve chosen. It also helps to create more of a bond between you and your character.

So far the armoury only customises your look… buying a new helmet, for instance, won’t make you more able to survive a headshot, but it’s still a cool feature to see included.

Conclusion

Halo Reach is a fitting end to the story. Well, beginning to the story, I guess, but a fitting end to Bungie’s contribution to the franchise. It plays brilliantly, being familiar and new at the same time. I’m left with that slightly lost feeling I get when I’ve just finished a really good book, but I have every intention of going back and trying the campaign again on a harder setting. And, of course there’s multiplayer, but that’s for another day, and another review.

Halo Reach is out on Xbox 360 and is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Get your copy today!

Xbox 360 fans to decide Clayton Carmine’s fate

If you’re a fan of the Gears of War franchise on Xbox 360, you’ll probably know about the Carmine brothers. We’ve met one in each of the games so far and, well, they don’t last long. If this were the original Star Trek they’d have red shirts on and wouldn’t even be listed in the episode credits. Poor Anthony and Ben.

Well, we’re going to meet Clayton Carmine in Gears of War 3 and things might be a bit different this time. For a start, you get to decide whether he meets a similar fate to his brothers or survives.

How can I make a difference?

You can help decide what happens to the last Carmine brother by casting your vote as to whether he should die or be saved. The way to do it is to buy a t-shirt for your Xbox LIVE avatar… either “Carmine must die” or “Save Carmine”. Depending on which t-shirt sells more, the game will follow the relevant storyline.

Now, I’m a cynic, and I would look at this and think, “Yeh right – that’s just a way to make money dressed up as a vote”. You’d be right; getting the t-shirts will cost you Microsoft Points which, in turn, cost you money. But Microsoft are donating the proceeds of this vote to the charity Child’s Play, a community-based games industry charity dedicated to improving the lives of children around the world. Child’s Play currently work with over sixty hospitals worldwide and raise millions of dollars each year to donate games, consoles and toys to sick children.

So you can have a say in how the last Carmine brother fares, influence the outcome of an epic trilogy of games, and donate to charity all at the same time. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? So what are you waiting for? Fire up your Xbox LIVE account and make your choice!

Gears of War 3 will release on April 5, 2011, only on Xbox 360. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Halo: Reach beta now available

Morning all – I hope you had a good Bank Holiday yesterday (if you’re in the UK). As well as a day off, yesterday saw the release of the multiplayer beta for the last Halo game on Xbox 360 – Halo: Reach. If you have a copy of Halo 3: ODST and an Xbox LIVE Gold membership you’ll be able to download the beta and get a preview of what’s coming this autumn.

What I’ve seen of Halo: Reach so far is pretty impressive. The graphics look gorgeous and the new game modes are plenty of fun. I say, “what I’ve seen so far” because it looks like the servers were a bit overloaded with everyone trying the game out. I wasn’t able to get a connection for a couple of hours, but I guess that’s to be expected since this the beta test.

The in-game additions I’m most keen on are much more customisable armour, and the jet-pack Spartans! It’s immense fun to swoop down on your enemies from above, although you do seem to be quite easy to shoot down. The SWAT game mode is also fantastic fun, where you team up against an opposing group armed with combat rifles. I have no idea how some of the guys I’m up against get headshots so often!

What’s really handy, though, is the new matchmaking system. You can tell it whether you want to prioritise playing with people who have a fast connection, who speak the same language as you, or who have a similar skill level to you. You can also tell it whether you want to play against people who use the communicator a lot, or who hardly speak at all, team players or lone wolves, and “polite” or “rowdy” players. Oh it’s all so civilised until you start blowing each other to smithereens.

Halo: Reach is a free download, so long as you have Halo 3: ODST and Xbox LIVE Gold. You’ll need around 1.5Gb of space on your Xbox 360. If you meet the requirements, download it, and we might just meet in battle.