World of Apex

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"X" Because It's Extra, Baby

In case you're wondering, the title is from a They Might Be Giants song. Furthermore, it's a TMBG song that happens to be currently residing on my new, wonderful Cowon iAudio X5L music player. In FLAC format. Booyah.

I now present to you the first hardware review I've done since the Xbox 360 launched...

Cowon iAudio X5L

I've been using my Zodiac as a surrogate MP3 player for almost two years now, and it finally got to me last week. I'd been mulling over buying a new player for a couple months, and had recently fallen in love with the FLAC lossless format, so finding a new one that could meet my hefty demands was tough. Luckily it's extremely difficult for me to convince myself of buying anything, which means I always spend weeks researching and comparing every single aspect of a product to other, similar ones. My list included basically two brands, iRiver and Creative, but neither played the FLAC format I held so dearly. I knew for sure I wouldn't be buying the overpriced, cheaply made rubbish that Apple puts out and mistakenly labels an "mp3 player," nor would I settle for an old Rio Karma. I was running out of hope I would ever find a player to fit my needs...then I found Cowon. After a few days of studious comparing, reading user reviews and interrogating my friend Ender about his, I decided to make the purchase.

Only two days later I recieved my brand spanking new Cowon iAudio X5L via UPS. I'd gotten a killer deal on it from Newegg: the normally $329 30GB model was on sale for $289. I viciously murdered the annoying, sealed plastic packaging and snatched the player from its evil clutches. The sleek black and silver design caught my eye right away, as well as the well placed buttons and ports along the sides. I noticed that while the player isn't feather light, its weight was reassuring; it was sturdy and well built. The five-way navigator seemed strangely placed, to the bottom right of the screen. The power button was one of those little slide things that you hold to turn on, and it went two directions, one for power, the other for hold mode. I unpacked the rest of the kit, which included the essentials: power pack, USB cable, software CD, and a little black thing. The little black thing was the charger/USB sub-pack, which plugs into the bottom port and has the aforementioned cables plug into it, as well as a line-in and line-out for recording and playing, respectively. The sub-pack seemed a bit awkward at first, but turned out to be no big hassle as I plugged it all in, and then...

BLEEM! I was practically blinded by the screen's brightness and clarity. The screaming blue and white charging screen gave me my first objective: turn down the brightness! A friend of mine said his only real complaint was the menus are a bit difficult to get through, but I had no trouble with it myself. The only difficulty was finding the brightness option in the myriad of other ones, from programmable buttons to display options, playback options and effects. I cranked down the brightness from five to two, noticing you can increase it all the way to ten, which apparently is Holy Light and can destroy undead. I poked about the options some more, trying out the equalizer settings, BBE bass management and the like, until I decided it was time to try out the playback. Luckily, the guys at Cowon decided to use the player as a propaganda medium, with included info videos on each product line they make, as well as a song modestly titled "iAudio Theme Song." I tried a video or two out and was impressed by the quality, which was exceptional for such a small screen. The R&B theme song didn't give much of an impression of the sound, though, so I was off to install it on my PC. I plugged the USB connector into my PC, then the mini-USB side into the player, forgetting all about the software, and probably important drivers on the CD...

Found new hardware: iAudo X5L
Found new hardware: USB Mass Storage Device
Your new hardware is installed and ready to use.

It was that easy. No software to install. In fact, you don't even need to pop in the CD. The included software is decent; one is a media player and the other is a conversion and backup utility. The latter converts most any video to the MPEG-2 format the player uses at a good speed, but otherwise is a fancier looking VirtualDub. Anyway, Windows popped up with a window asking what do with the files on the disk, so I opened it up and looked around the file structure. A folder was there for each media type: pictures, music, movies, textfile. There was also a folder for firmware, so upgrading the firmware is only a matter of drag, drop, and reset. From there I proceeded to copy music from my drive like mad, piling in precisely 444 songs in about an hour's time. Along with the music, which is arranged like so: Genre-->Sub-Category-->Artist-->Album, I tossed my *.m3u playlists for each album into the, you guessed it, playlists folder. My 444 tracks were spread out across a few genres like classic rock, techno and orchestral, and ranged from high-bitrate MP3 to OGG and FLAC. Figuring that was a pretty good spread, I disconnected it from the USB, plugged in my headphones and queued up the Oblivion soundtrack...

Just as I was dazzled by the brightness and clarity of the screen, I was amazed by the quality of the audio. If I were to close my eyes and just listen, I could imagine myself sitting in Tamriel, the quality (and music) was just that good. Thanks in part to a great 3D surround effect built into the player, the BBE bass, MP enhancement, and a nice graphical equalizer, the audio practically came to life. At first I thought it might just be the lossless FLAC doing it, but I was pleased to find out even the mundane, lossy MP3 format sounded much better. Finally assured the quality was in fact as stellar as I first thought, I decided to check out some of the other features...

Getting better aquainted with the menu system took a small bit of thinking. The five way stick thinger wasn't a new experience, since I've used many PDA's before, however I never think of the most obvious way to do things. It makes perfect sense to click down the stick and hold it to bring up the menu, since the horizontal controls skipping and verticle controls volume. A single click will take you to the file browser and let you move about your folders, where you can select songs or folders to either play or add to the Winamp-esque Dynamic PlayList (DPL). Since the nav-stick takes care of moving and selecting, the Pause/Play button on the right side of the player does the actual, well, pausing and playing. Both this key, and the Record key directly above it, can be programmed to do one of a handful of handy functions when you hold it down. Mine are set to change play mode and bring up the equalizer. Speaking of play modes, the ability to change between bounded, which only plays tracks within the specified area in order, and shuffle, which randomizes the tracks in that bounded area, is extremely useful. When I say "bounded area," I'm referring to another option, which allows you to set the area which the player can pick songs from to the entire hard disk, main folders (like genre), or only sub-folder (artist or album). The amount of options you can toy with is huge. After I emerged from the settings menu, I decided to wander over to the picture display feature and check that out, too. Displaying pictures by themselves isn't very useful to me, but you can set your wallpaper that displays behind the track info on the main player screen here. I resized a few desktop backgrounds and made a couple myself for the hell of it, so I've got enough background images to last me awhile. Also listed on the main menu is FM radio, which doesn't interest me much. I've got a library of high or perfect quality music, why use FM? It's nice to know it's there though, and I can record straight from the radio to MP3 if I need to. Upon further inspection of the little sub-pack thing, I can record tracks through line-in, which could come in very handy. Speaking of recording, there's a nice voice recorder built in as well, which has surprisingly good quality.

During the course of the last day and a half, I've been using it almost constantly and haven't made a dent in the battery power whatsoever. The X5L is designated as such because of the larger battery, which adds a whole 1 ounce of weight and 4 milimeters of width to the unit, but raises the battery life to around thirty hours.

All in all, the X5L is an amazing piece of hardware. It's got twice the capacity of my old brick of a player, it's less than half the weight and thickness, has a full color screen that's incredibly clear and bright, and has awesome battery life. The onboard menus and browsing is easy, natural and pretty fast (especially if you use playlists often). Playback quality is stellar, and it even improves those lossy MP3's. The support of FLAC lossless and OGG along with the standard codecs is great, and the effects, equalizer and enhancements make the sound come to life.

Apex's Rating: 9/10

This is the best player out there if you want great audio quality and ease of use rather than a trendy fashion accessory.

ADDENDUM: I experimented with the USB a bit and connected it to my Xbox 360 without a hitch. It works perfectly and playing music off of it is a breeze.

Fight Night is Every Night

Fight Night Round 3

Lets face it, EA's Xbox 360 lineup as been less than enjoyable. Oh hell, why beat around the bush? Their lineup of consistently milked franchise sports games outright sucked. Luckily for all you boxing fans and non-fans alike, the publisher decided not to rush Fight Night the same way, and surprisingly, the game exceeds expectations. Proving that they really can improve on one of their franchises instead of sitting on it and reeling in the cash, Fight Night delivers a genuinely fun and spectacular looking boxing title.

Fight Night is the only game I've ever seen that can render such ugly fighters so beautifully. The visuals here can only be described as an experience, and really show what the console is capable of in only its second generation of games. Boxing is a perfect sport for visual overkill, and EA knows it. From the perfectly modeled meshes, highly detailed textures and animated cloth to dripping sweat and skin that ripples with the impact of punches, everything is here in excess. The environments make liberal use of the bloom lighting effect, while extremely high quality bump mapping gives everything in view realistic depth. All around, the graphics are just plain jaw dropping.

Traditionally, sports games are known for great sound effects and incredibly bad musical selection; both of those are here. While the soundtrack leaves much to be desired for anyone with little taste for rap, the sounds in the ring are excellent. Scuffling feet, the breath of both fighters, and of course the impact of punches are clearly audible and sound like you're ringside at a real fight. Again, the quality and amount of sound effects does lead to some overkill during knockdown replays, but it's bearable enough. The commentary is fairly good, but you will often be unsure who the announcer is referring to, and his rambling can be difficult to follow. Between rounds your trainer will try to perk you up with one of a handful of generic pep-talk lines, but who listens to that guy anyway? The main focus is definitely in the ring, where the game delivers a perfect audio compliment to the incredible graphics.

The graphics do provide the jaw-drop factor, but for once EA shows that graphics aren't everything. The game itself is simply a great boxing game, which does justice to the sport to more than just fans. Amazingly smooth movement and animation, coupled with sensible, easy to learn controls come together to make a game that's simple enough to learn, yet hard to master. Using the left stick to shuffle around and the right to throw punches is fluid and comfortable to use. The two triggers provide secondary modes for the sticks: the left trigger lets you dodge and lean with the left stick, while the right stick is switched to throwing body blows; the right trigger changes the right stick to blocking and parrying, but does nothing to the left stick, allowing you to move and ward off shots. The parry feature is extremely useful in fights, and lets you get a quick shot in on your opponent when he screws up, but takes some practice and fast reflexes to get the right direction in time. The right bumper is the conveniently placed special punch button, so you can let loose your signature haymaker at precisely the right moment. That's right, there's an EA sports game out there with great controls...imagine that!

The single game is exactly what you would expect: a straightforward career mode. The standard "take your created fighter from amateur to champion" type mode is old news, but still enjoyable. Although you have fairly limited options for character creation, it's not that big of a deal. The facial deforming system would be understandably difficult to customize, and you wouldn't want your pretty face getting pummeled anyway, would you? If you get tired of the path to glory you can jump into an ESPN Classic fight, which lets you try your hand at defying historical matches like Ali vs. Frasier. You can also fire up a single match whenever you like for practice as well. All of the single modes are accompanied by pretty decent AI, which is a reasonable challenge even on the lower settings. The higher the difficulty goes, though, it seems your character gets dumber and weaker instead of the other guy getting better (which is trademark EA). The parrying system gives a distinct advantage to the AI's faster reflexes, and you will occasionally get beaten down by a fighter that does nothing but parry punches. The single game wasn't broken, so it didn't get fixed, but then again it didn't really get improved either.

One thing that's very noticeable about Fight Night is that the game has a pick up and play nature to it, which fits perfectly for multiplayer matches. Unlike a certain Ubisoft game, the multiplayer does happen to use the same game engine as the single player modes, so the graphics are just as good there. Since the game is one on one, lag is kept to a minimum and the fights tend to stay fast paced. One thing that would've been a nice addition is an online career mode, similar to the one PGR3 had. Fighting actual people for titles online would add a lot to the multiplayer replayability. Aside from that, what's there is solid none the less.

The replay value is pretty good with Fight Night. Having both an enjoyable multiplayer you can jump right into and a single player you can go through in different ways helps keep the game alive after your first character is king of the ring. If you don't want to just randomly battle people online, you can make a new character in one of the five other weight classes you didn't pick the first time and try there. The difference between heavyweight and lightweight fighters is distinct, and comes off as a whole new experience. A good bit of replayability, even for you single player junkies.

As the announcer in Fight Night would say, the game comes through with a convincing win. It's gorgeous, easy to pick up and play, and has enough depth and replay to keep you coming back.

Presentation: 9/10 - Shock and awe.

Gameplay: 8/10 - Fluid controls and movement are the key to any boxing game.

Replayability: 7/10 - It's there, maybe not in droves, but it's there.

Value: 8/10 - I never thought I would say "the best purchase I made this week was a boxing game."

Overall/Summary: 8/10 - The must have boxing game.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Crossing Genres

Hey! You got your roleplaying game in my mainstream action game! Hey! You got your mainstream action game in my roleplaying game! With more and more character customization, open ended gameplay and wide worlds to explore, people have been overlooking where all of that came from: the geeky, old school RPG.

Not many people look at Grand Theft Auto and say, "Hey, check out that roleplaying game!" GTA is an action game, right? Right? Maybe not as much as people would like to admit (especially Jack Thompson). Think about it, have a customizable character who can use various weapons and modes of transportation, with which you can improve your skill level by using them. Sounds alot like a certain big-name RPG we're waiting nine more days to get, doesn't it? The comparison doesn't stop there though, because even the worlds they're set in closely coincide. Most RPG's have large, open worlds to explore and a quest system to progress the storyline, as well as a bunch of neat side-quests to provide a break from the main plot. All of those are in GTA, a game where you have a city (whether it be three islands, a coast and an island, or a large three district metropolis) to explore in which you can pick up missions to progress the story, or go wandering about during or between said missions doing side-quests. The parts all add up, and the only missing piece would be experience points and skill points...or is it?

The newest movement in roleplaying games is the true action RPG, a game with the base roleplaying elements mixed with a fine blend of the kind of action you would expect from shooters. The hack and slash days are coming to a close, and the modern fantasy combat is moving in, with games such as Mount&Blade, Oblivion, and Project Offset leading the push. The lines between action games like GTA and roleplayers like Oblivion is being blurred to the point that the only distinction is stereotypical setting. The only thing that separates killing pedestrians in GTA and murdering villiage folk in Oblivion is...well...the villiage.

Are games that cross genres going to take over gaming? Are we ever going to see any more one-track games like the sidescrollers of old? Is the concept-turned-reality of massive, open worlds going to invade the industry the way MMO games have? Drop a comment with your thoughts.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Advanced What?

It seems the dry spell in my blog posts has been about the same length as the dry spell for Xbox 360 releases. Luckily for both, today that ends and I shall bring to you a full review of the recently released Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.

Love it or hate it, Ghost Recon has built itself up as a powerful console game. Although the series has always been present on the PC it's undoubtedly a console franchise (mainly because PC gamers have better games to worry about, like Half Life 2 and FEAR). I've not been a fan of the games myself for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the fact I'm chiefly a PC gamer. I decided yesterday to give in to the hype and hopes that this iteration would really be great and worthy of the Xbox 360.

If there's anything people have been buzzing about it's the snazzy graphics. They're impressive to say the least, but not without their share of problems. The levels are large and detailed, including destructable objects and lots of explosive things like parked cars. While flying about in the chopper waiting to be deposited into the drop zone you'll get many aerial views of the whole city which are nothing short of amazing. The visuals really sell the "South American Blackhawk Down" look the game sports. While the textures and models are all top notch, the sheer amount of effects on the screen at a time is jaw dropping (and maybe stomach-dropping too if you're the motion sick kind). In addition to the now standard bloom effect for lighting, heat distortion and depth of field are layered atop your view at all times, while amazing looking explosions will rock you out of your seat, spreading dust and grit around liberally. For the most part, the hefty graphics card of the console holds up extremely well, with very few hitches or sputters. The only noticable speed difference is between standard view and night/thermal vision which runs significantly faster for some reason. Your actual view is fairly organized and includes the standard ammo and health displays as well as a live video feed from your squad. All in all, the visuals exceed expectation and run smooth as silk on the 360.

What's a warzone without seat-rocking explosions and gunfire? All of the sounds in GR:AW are excellent, and aid significantly in pulling the player into the world around him. Ambient sounds are not just there, but are critical to your survival on the field; footsteps, conversations, running engines and rolling treads tip you off to enemy positions. Your squad is reasonably vocal, and you'll notice differences in each character's voice extend out to more than just sex and ethnicity. Weapon firing sounds are good, but the chances of identifying enemy weaponry by the sound alone is rather slim. Aside from the effects, the soundtrack is a mixed bag. While the orchestral pieces are incredible, they're separated by mediocre modern rock, though the latter are reserved for intermissions and cutscenes. The sound effects are stellar, and the music is mostly good as well.

All of the nice, pretty stuff aside, here's where it gets hairy: gameplay. The gameplay in general seems very solid and involved while not being overly complex. The standard first and third person shooting parts are there, but the emphasis is on the CrossCom orders system. This is basically a fancy way of saying you select a unit, be it a tank or your squad, with left and right on the d-pad and tell them to move forward or rally with up and down. Luckily, it's more useful than it is complicated, and your units follow their orders well enough. Your squaddies move fluidly and take up positions effectively, and can find you when you issue a rally order. Tanks can only move forward or stop, you can't direct them in any way. Aircraft and drones work about the same as your men on foot. The basics are solidly implimented, but from there the problems start arising. You can heal others, and you can order them to heal each other, but no one can heal you. Apparently commanders have a completely different physiology or something, because while your guys become incapacitated and you can revive them, you just plain die and have to start over. Ubisoft still hasn't figured out how to draw a gun on the screen in first person view, so you're still stuck with just a crosshair, which to me renders this view completely useless. The game's lack of damage scaling is irritating, seeing that three hits from any weapon will kill you no matter where it hits you (excluding the head, which is instant death) and your high-tech "Advanced Warfighter" getup does absolutely nothing to stop flying lead. The biggest problem in the game is your squad mates' IQ, which collectively is about that of a rock. As I mentioned, they move well, but they never crouch and rarely take cover effectively. They will blindly fire in the general direction of an enemy until you kill it or the enemy runs into their bullets. This problem has gotten so bad that once when ordering my squad to take cover behind a parked car, they fired dumbly at the car (which was between them and the enemy, who was behind a wall and out of sight) until it exploded, killing them all. I know squad games generally have bad AI, but the AI was highly touted by Ubisoft and most publications. Irritating bits and stupid AI aside, the base shooter gameplay is good and the commander part is mostly there, leaving you with a pretty decent game.

I've heard tons of people preach that Ghost Recon is one of those games that makes Xbox Live a great service. While I can't vouch for that, I can tell you whatever it was that made the first two such successful multiplayer games isn't there in this one. On top of Ubisoft taking the easy way out and putting absolutely no effort at all into the multiplayer game by directly porting Ghost Recon 2's engine, the character "customization" involves choosing a face texture and a piece of headgear, the graphics match those of GR2 (actually, they're worse, but in higher resolution), and the custom gametypes are just variants of standard ones with slightly altered rules. The gameplay vaguely resembles that of the single player mode, with some important changes. First of all, your CrossCom and squad mates have been replaced with a headset and handful of screaming twelve year olds, and the entire cover system is eliminated completely as well. In other words, the multiplayer is simply a team deathmatch, since all of the tactical elements have been either watered down or removed altogether. On the plus side, the screaming twelve year olds are smarter than your squad AI.

As for replay value, once you slog through the campaign there's little else to do. Though the single game has quite a few missions, the faults of the game will likely keep you from completing it anyway, and the story certainly won't hold your interest. Once you've gone there and blown that up once, it's just the same thing in different settings; repetition at its finest. The hideous multiplayer will likely scare off all but the most diehard Ghost Recon fanboys, and the co-op mode uses the same multiplayer engine that so boldly offends your eyes. There's very little play value, never the less replay value.

I really wish there was a reason to keep playing this game. The single player game mode, generic Tom Clancy storyline aside, is rather enjoyable if it weren't for all of the glaring flaws in it. The graphics are the best you'll see until exactly nine days from now when Oblivion is released. Despite that, however, Ubisoft just plain dropped the ball and delivered a complete letdown of a next-gen game.

Presentation: 9/10 - Certainly the game's strongest point, the presentation is excellent in both sound and graphics departments. For the single player, that is.

Gameplay: 7/10 - Despite a myriad of shortcomings and idiotic balance problems, the shooting is still...well...shooting. That's always fun, right?

Replayability: 4/10 - Thanks to Ubisoft, the key component of this game's replayability has been destroyed. If you can bear to look at the unsightly multiplayer engine, you could get something out of it though.

Value: 4/10 - Not worth the $59.99 I paid for it. I'm returning this one and waiting for Oblivion.

Overall/Summary: 6/10 - Do not believe any hype from the media, do not give in to peer pressure, and whatever you do, do not buy this game without at least playing a demo or renting it. If you can ignore all of the screaming, agonizing problems in the single game you can give it a rental and beat the story mode at the most, but otherwise there's really no reason to waste your money. Buy Oblivion instead.

//Fight Night Round 3 review coming!

//Boxing isn't the most sensible sport, but damn is it fun! Oh and EA didn't ruin this franchise yet.