Author - Jerry Paxton

Men of War Review

The sequel to Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, Men of War is a tactical, real-time strategy game which takes place in North Africa. It allows you to control three different sides of the conflict in three separate campaigns consisting of 19 single-player missions total. You will take command of Russian, British, and American forces while able to access Japanese units in multi-player games only.

Visually, the actual game is pleasing enough. It won’t break any records in the looks department, but the presentation works for the type of game it is. Typically, hardcore strategy fans can overlook lackluster graphics if the gameplay is good enough. The environments in Men of War are some of the most destructible I have ever seen in an RTS. Pretty much anything can be blown to smithereens. This makes cover precarious as today’s sand bag barricade is tomorrow’s scattered pile of sand. Also, camera system is generally well-designed and fully 3d by way of the middle mouse button. Unfortunately, the cut scenes are sub-par at best.

Sound design is decent, giving you a good amount of queues as to what is happening in the battle at hand. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the voice over work and writing of the game’s dialogue. Perhaps it is because the developers, Digital Mind Soft and Best Way Games, are located in Germany and the Ukraine, respectively. Actors are wooden and obviously do not understand the nuances of North American English. Also, the writing they were provided also lacks the language’s natural flow a native speaker is accustomed to.

Controlling your units can be very tricky as well as confusing, especially if you are a long-time PC RTS gamer. Instead of freely being able to select units with the left mouse button, Men of War requires you to right-click in order to clear your selected units first. Clicking the left mouse button while having troops selected will issue a move order. This seemingly simple system is sure to give you more than a few headaches, especially when the action starts heating up. I found myself, on more than one occasion, left-clicking a tank in order to select it while already having infantry selected. Instead of switching over to the tank, this just made my infantry huddle around the vehicle, using it for cover.

Speaking of cover, something that Men of War does very well is implement a VITAL cover system. Utilizing this cover system effectively is the only sure way to win the game’s difficult missions. After selecting unit(s), hovering your mouse cursor over coverable-items will illuminate various positions your troops can take. If there is no cover available, left clicking will simply order your troops to move to the location. Double-clicking will order them to perform the action ‘on the run’.

Your units are capable of a number of actions not normally seen in RTS titles. You can select their stance (e.g. prone or standing), weapons, fire modes… The list goes on. You can even loot boxes and other items to better equip your units. Sometimes, all of these possibilities can be overwhelming, especially when controlling a ton of units on the field and having. Usually, the unit AI is forgiving enough to take cover, etc. Pathfinding, however, is a totally different story. I have seen tanks attempt to plow through whole buildings to reach a destination. This is one area where the game needs some serious work. If I have to micro-manage how exactly a unit reaches a location, I will never get anything else done!

Battles are frenetic and sometimes leave you in a wreck of adrenaline as to the number of actions you were required to pull off in order to achieve your goals. Mission difficulty is spotty regardless of difficulty level selected, and will require all of your experience, reflexes, and tactical planning to complete them. Many missions are multi-stage, scripted event-based and provide plenty of the aforementioned challenge and excitement.

Provided out of the box are both LAN and Internet-based multi-player gaming options with all manner of game types including co-operative missions. Something I would have liked to have seen is a random mission generator for the single-player gamer as it would seriously increase the replayability (look at Battlefront’s Combat Mission Shock Force as an example).

Overall, Men of War is worth you time only if you are looking for an in-depth, tactical game of combat on a large scale. At times it will be frustrating from a technical standpoint and, at others, it will provide you with exceptional joy at completing what looked to be an insurmountable mission. Men of War is a very in-depth RTS game that should definitely be given a look, especially at the Direct2Drive purchase price of $29.99

Direct2Drive Product Page

Razer Mako THX 2.1 Desktop Sound System Review

Razer was kind enough to let us take a look at their Mako 2.1 channel desktop audio system. Co-designed by THX using some very special methods of aural trickery to create the best sound possible.

First up Razer and THX’s creative sleeves is what they call the THX Ground Plane and Slot Speaker technology. THX explains that this delivery system is used to eliminate the ‘desk effect’, in which audio in standard speakers not only moves directly from the driver to the listen but also ricochets off the desk below and into the sound stream. This disrupts the sound waves, muddling them down slightly. With the Mako, the drivers are actually downward-facing inside the tweeters. This forces sound to move downward out of them, bouncing off of your desk or equivalent surface and directly into your eager ears.

The second patented technology THX is using inside the Mako is their ‘Class HD’ audio processing method which actively scans the audio output for the most optimal method of eliminating background noise. Most audio systems eliminate a static range of highs and lows to get rid of background noise. The problem with this method is that in some cases, it still allows ambient noise in and in others it cuts off important audio pieces. With Class HD, the Mako scans the output and constantly adjusts to maximize the elimination of background noise while minimizing the loss of important audio information.

The control pad included with the Mako is definitely one of those ‘whiz-bang’ devices, utilizing a touch-pad interface. One arc of the cylindrical pad is the volume indicator. Brilliant blue hash lines turn to red the higher you push the levels. Changing levels is as simple as rubbing your finger on the front of the pad in the direction you wish the level to go. It doesn’t take much to change and was surprisingly responsive. Also on the control are touch-pad buttons to change the volume indicator to a bass indicator and back. This will allow you to change the amount coming from the sub woofer. Another cool feature of the Mako is that it accepts a second input line from another audio source. Switching between the two inputs is accomplished through a touch-pad button on the controls as well. The final topping on the scrumptious cake which is the Mako’s control pad is the headphone jack. This makes going into stealth mode much easier as the Mako has a tendancy to get away from you in terms of volume. The sound is so crisp you just have to pump it up to the next volume hash mark to see if it distorts. Thankfully, getting the Mako to distort is VERY difficult to accomplish.

Some reviewers claim the Mako’s bass levels are not ‘thumping’ as much as they like. To this, we respond that true music lovers know that producers often load down a band’s audio tracks with bass to cover-up other ‘chinks’ in the band’s performance-armor. Also, speaker-developers will sometimes increase the bass response in their units as a cover-up to the higher-end shortcomings. The Mako reproduces music as faithfully to the original performance as possible. While not appropriate to rattle your neighbor’s windows the Mako could make them think there was a live band playing in your living room or office.

The Mako has been designed with Razer’s sense of style in mind. The sub woofer is a black dome-like structure with a flat top harboring the Razor logo while on the front is the THX name. The back of the sub woofer features all of the units inputs and outputs. There you will find the power input, satellite speaker outputs, control pad input, audio input and power switch. To make the Mako even more flexible, white and red stereo audio inputs are also available in this area of the sub. The two satellite speakers are attached using what appears to be Cat 5 network cable, although not quite as standard Cat 5 cable will not work, and look like the smaller offspring of the sub woofer in design and style.

The Mako’s greatest shortcoming is its price point. At an MSRP of $399 dollars, they are just too expensive for the average PC gamer these days. Once you can save up for them though, we can’t recommend them enough. It is the kind of thing like how standard-definition commercials were trying to demo high-definition signal – it is just not possible. The best way to get a feel for them is to hear them, either at a trade show or your friend which has them or perhaps even a commercial retailer if possible. Once you do hear them, you will begin the process of saving your pennies. They are really that good.

Gamestop Resident Evil 5 Launch Event – Irvine CA

Gamestop had been advertising its Resident Evil 5 pre-launch events at numerous locations around the country. Being local to the Irvine area, Gamestop was kind enough to let me in to the happening to take some photos and whatnot. I would like to thank Laura Mustard, Gamestop PR, as well as the staff of the Barranca street store for their cooperation and hospitality.

Arriving at 10pm sharp, I was amazed that more people had not begun lining up yet. With only a few people having shown up at that point, I figured it would be a good time to go on in and fully-pay for my copy of the game. Gamestop had a system setup in which everyone would have to go inside before midnight, finish their transaction, and obtain a voucher letting staff know you did in fact pay for the game. This would allow staff later on after midnight to not worry about exchanging cash. Their only concern would be checking the validity of a person’s voucher and handing them a copy of the game…

Check out the full story after the jump!

were generally high throughout the two hours with gamers geeking out
over topics such as the whether or not the upcoming Fallout 3 DLC pack,
‘The Pitt’, will be better or worse than their first offering and even
some breaking out into trading card games.

One gamer I spoke to
who referred to himself only as ‘Shinragod’  told me that he was their
to make sure he got ‘all the goodies that came with the game’. For
instance, Gamestop was giving out limited edition lithographs with
every collector’s edition sold. He did not want to take the chance they
would have run out by time he could get in the next day. There were
even some people at the event who did not plan on getting the game.
They just seemed content in hanging out with their friends that did. By
the time 11pm rolled around, there was much more of a crowd in place.
Also, at about this time Gamestop employees brought in three extremely
ginormous pizzas. Originally planned to be green and ‘fleshy’ these
were just normal as the pizza-artist tasked with this chore was not
available for some reason. Fleshy or not, many of the crowd partook of
the sacred pies and satiated their hunger.

a number of people in attendance had opinions on the new direction the
series has taken starting with Resident Evil 4, becoming more of an
action-shooter than its predecessors’ survival-horror gameplay.
‘Shinragod’ appreciated the ‘less puzzles, more gameplay’ style while
gamer ‘Sephiroth11’ hoped that the series would return to its roots at
some point in the future. Regardless of what type of Resident Evil game
they liked better, it was clear that everyone there had a lot of love
for the series and was looking forward to this latest offering.

before midnight, Gamestop staff solidified the ragged semblance of a
line into a much more organized single-file. At 12:01am, they began
letting groups of five at a time into the store, beginning with our
HUNK friend, who only referred to himself as ‘Rohan’.

The only
one in attendance donning costume, he entertained the crowd at one
point during the two-hour wait with various Resident Evil trivia
questions. Now, with everyone having games in-hand (including yours
truly), it was time to go. While many were rushing off to start their
journey into Kijuju, I would be writing this up and then getting as
much sleep as possible.

FEAR 2: Project Origin Review

I fondly remember playing the original FEAR in a darkened room on my PC several years ago. Gripping my gaming mouse tightly, shoulders firmly tensed, I would creep down hallways and jump consistently at every in-game scare. I was also taken with the game’s presentation which was considered to be, at the time, very well-done. Enter the sequel, which after skirting the harrowing shoals of developmental hell, has finally been released. Good news is, most sources seem to echo sentiments that the game is comparable no matter what platform you play it on (Windows PC, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3). So let’s take a deeper look at FEAR 2: Project Origin and see if the sequel is true to the original scare fest. Just to be clear, we are taking a look at the PC version.

In FEAR 2: Project Origin, you play as a member of a Delta Force team which gets caught up in a gigantic corporate conspiracy/supernatural hell-fest where you will encounter a good variety of enemies of all types, human and…other… Thankfully you are not the standard, mk1 human as you will obtain psychic powers such as the ‘reflex’ ability which allows you to slow down time (think bullet-time).

One of the key features which really pushed FEAR over the top were its scary moments, and there were plenty. Bizarre scenes and encounters which seemed to jump straight out of the gigantic, mutated minds of Clive Barker, Dario Argento, and Hideo Nakata. I am VERY happy to report that FEAR 2: Project Origin does not disappoint in this department. The supernatural encounters are genuinely scary and are sure to make even the most die-hard PC gamer jump at times. The best part about these sequences is that they fit within the framework of the story given. I never felt that they were added into the game ‘just because’. These scares are also very well-spaced out in the game so that they do not become routine.

Visually, the game is very pleasing when in most of the indoor environments. The game does dark and foreboding well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the outdoor levels which don’t come out looking nearly as nice. In fact, when compared to the original game, this one does not push the graphical envelope nearly as much. Again, not say it doesn’t look nice, it just doesn’t require a super high-end machine to run it. Perhaps this is the console influence, but I digress.

Monolith has done a bang-up job on the sound effects in this game. From the ambient noises to minor details like shell casings hitting the floor, you are barraged with realistic audio. These ambient effects are critical, as the audio is at least half of the scare during the supernatural sequences. The score also plays a big part in creating the proper mood and I can safely say that they succeed in spades. From eerie childlike ‘toy box’ melodies to military marches, it is all good in the FEAR 2 music department. The voice actors do wonderful jobs in their various roles and never sound wooden or unbelievable. It is really nice to see the amount of quality WB Games and Monolith have put into the title.

Combat is one area of the game we found to be lacking in contrast to the more supernatural sequences. Controlling the character feels very linear in that there is not a lot of animation or movement to the camera to give a sense of motion. The cover system works well enough, being able to interact with various objects such as tables and flip them over to crouch behind. You will not find a Gears of War style cover system here. The combat in FEAR 2: Project Origin hearkens back to earlier days in PC first-person shooters when, in order to take cover, you hit the ‘crouch’ key and did you best to pop up from and down behind whatever you could find. This is also trye for the health system, in which your character does not suddenly ‘recharge’ his health and armor after taking cover for a while. You actually have to acquire and use health kits and body armor which is scattered throught the game’s levels. Overall, the game’s combat could have been a bit more challenging. Once you obtain the ‘reflex ability’, most enemies don’t stand much of a chance against you. There are not many different types of weapons in the game, but enough to cover most categories of weapon types. You can pick them up and drop them at will over the course of a mission. Obviously, this is very convenient when you find yourself out of ammo in your assault rifle. Just grab the nearest dead guy’s weapon and get back into the fight.

Overall, we found FEAR 2: Project Origin to be a very fun playthrough which is definitely going to make you jump at least a few times. Games like this are like great scary movies: enjoy it in a darkened room with either good surround sound speakers or a headset. The more intimate you can make the playing experience, the better. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for the light switch after a while to break the tension. Also, the good people at WB Games and Monolith have not skimped and taken the easy, politically-correct road here. Enemies explode into giblets on numerous occasions and well, without spoiling anything (you really should play it through but YouTube can also show you what I am about to mention) the ending is one of the most messed-up (in a good way) endings in the entire history of PC gaming. Seriously…

If you are looking for a ride like this, you would be remiss to pass up FEAR 2: Project Origin.

Official Product Page

Microsoft SideWinder X8 Wireless Gaming Mouse Review

The pinnacle of Microsoft’s Sidewinder gaming mouse line is their new X8. Their first wireless gaming mouse, the X8 brings some new features into the fray not previously seen on Sidewinder mice while also bringing back some features not seen on some newer ones.

The design of the Sidewinder X8 was definitely inspired by the original Sidewinder model. The new X8 is a bit smaller though and features slightly more ‘stealthy’ angles to it. Like the new X5, the X8 is of all-black coloring, although the X8 has actually two different sheens depending on the area. The main primary and secondary button fuselage is a shiny black while the separated grip areas are a flat. The scroll and Vista Games’ Panel buttons are silver, which really pop out in contrast. While plugged-in (we will get to this feature later) a red LED shines out of the back of the mouse. Overall, it is a very visually-pleasing design and is sure to attract attention at tournaments.

Tournaments, you say? Yes, I would happily take the X8 into a tournament any day of the week. The issues that plagues wireless mice, making them unsuitable for tourny use are all taken care of. A 2.4 GHz signal connects the mouse to its base unit, making interference very difficult, especially given how close you can sit the base unit to the mouse. Battery life is excellent with up to about a day of real usage per charge. The polling rate, while not as good as other gaming mice out there it seems fairly adequate for most DPI settings. I did find that when at the X8’s full 4,000 DPI setting it did tend to feel a bit jerky in some shooters. When scaling the sensitivity down to sub 3,000 it leveled out and became smooth and playable.

The X8 runs off of one rechargeable AAA battery, and can be replaced at any time with a fresh one should the need arise. However, you will not really need to given the awesome charging method Microsoft has designed the X8 to utilize. Charging the battery is done via a magnetic charging cable which connects to the front of the mouse. This magnetically-connected cable allows the mouse to still be playable while charging. Charging the battery back to full usually takes a couple hours or so, but being connected did not hurt my gaming performance at all.

One thing that was disappointing with the original Sidewinder was that the DPI-switching buttons were set so far back from the primary and secondary buttons you would have to actually move your whole hand back slightly to depress them. This could cost you your in-game life and made for a not so smooth gaming experience. In the X8, these buttons have been moved closer to the buttons which allows you to hit them without having to slide your hand back on the unit.

Microsoft has included a few different ‘feet’ designs inside the receiver dongle ‘box’ (it is actually a cylinder) allowing you to customize the level of traction your X8 gets on your prefered gaming surface. The receiver dongle is a a black, cylindrical box which contants the multiple feet as well as a track around the perimeter with which to wrap the magnetic charging cable. The unit is simply with a classy aesthetic that complements the X8 quite well.

Speaking of surfaces, thanks to Microsoft’s BlueTrack laser technology, the X8 is able to be used on a ton more surface-types than before. We were even able to get the mouse functioning, although admittedly-sloppily on the side of a ceramic, shiny mug.

The software needed to use the X8 was a breeze to install and integrates itself with the standard Windows Vista mouse properties screen where you can assign every one of the X8’s seven programmable buttons to whatever you like. Another addition to the X8’s programmability is its macro record button which allows you to set a macro while in-game on-the-fly.

The new scroll wheel, which hearkens back to the original SideWinder, is all metal and an attractive silver. The down-side is that we found the scroll wheel to be very difficult to roll. It feels clunky with very pronounced detentes and poor friction. A rubberized wheel might have been a better way to go, but would have clashed with the color scheme they were going for. A plus to this scroll wheel is that it now has tilt-clicking, something which no other SideWinder mouse has featured until now.

Microsoft has chosen to replace the original SideWinder’s two fore-mounted side buttons with ones actually located on the side of the mouse this time. This side-mounted design makes it very easy for your thumb to use, especially with their vertically-mounted layout. Tilt your thumb up slightly and tag the upper side button, tilt it down and, well, you get the idea.

SideWinder X8 also shows the return of the left-mounted LCD display on the thumb area which was not present in their more bare-bones SideWinder X5. This time, it shows not only what DPI mode the mouse is in but also the battery charge level.

Overall, we found the SideWinder X8 to be a very good gaming mouse made even better by its wireless capability. We would not have any problem taking the unit into a tournament situation or even using it for simple desktop applications. While it does have its flaws, the X8 is the best wireless gaming mouse on the market at the time of this writing, although at an original MSRP of $99.99 it could be a strain for those on a budget.

Microsoft SideWinder X8 Product Page

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II Review

When we saw Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II at this year’s CES, we learned from Relic’s Johnny Ebbert that the game would take the ‘best’ elements from the first game such as ‘brutal melee combat’ along with features from their Company of Heroes RTS such as unit cover. Well, this is true. However after starting on the game’s campaign mode, what we did not know is that base building is not just cut-back, but really gone altogether. Imagine our shock! Not to be denied our Dawn of War II fix we pressed on past this point of shock and found a much deeper experience within.

Dawn of War II’s campaign mode takes the player(s) by the hand for a short while, introducing characters as well as gameplay tactics and then let’s them loose on three different worlds where they have a ton of free reign over which missions they take and how far along the actual storyline they progress. This open-world campaign mode adds a ton to the game’s replayability, as does the campaign’s character development. Character development in an RTS? Well, yeah!

In the campaign, you will eventually have six squads to command, however you may only chose four to take on your per mission. As an aside, I think the number of troops in each of your squads feels a bit low, but I digress. As you play missions, your squad leaders (and hence their squads) will gain experience points that go towards increasing their levels. When a new level is reached, the player can reward these team leaders by placing an additional two attribute points in any of the following categories: Health, Ranged Combat, Melee Combat, and Energy. Every additional point into one of these categories will help give the squad’s attribute modifiers in the appropriate way, however when certain places along the attribute bars are reached the squad will gain additional ‘traits’ with which to use on the battlefield. For instance, the stealthy scout squad can gain the ability to use up no energy while standing still and cloaked. The attribute points you distribute really decide how your character fights and what its role should be. Don’t go buffing your tactical squad with full melee points if you are planning on equipping them with bolters and havig them plink at the enemy from range.

Also, sometimes when killing a mob, you will find that it dropped a special item, armor, or weapon. Click on this item to pick it up and you can find it in your squad’s joint inventory at the start of the next mission. These items can be mixed and matched between your squads to fully-customize how your units fight. From maces to plasma weapons, you will find it in the game. After all, a big part of Warhammer 40k’s combat is the mixing and matching of melee and ranged weapons. Seeing a force commander shoot at Orks with his pistol before going in for a giblet-filled kill with a chainsword.

This action-RPG style of character development is further enhanced by the bantering of your characters as well as other NPCs in-between missions while setting up the next one to come. Each squad leader’s personalities really emerge and since you only have a finite number of squads, there is a high-level of responsibility you feel for them. You end up really caring about keeping these guys alive and bringing everyone home.

Along the way, you will fight not only the Orks but also the advanced Eldar and insectoid Tyranids, which serve up some of the game’s most awesome and intense moments. Let’s just say Tyranids never fight alone….Actually, there always seems to be hundreds of them, so use that cover well. Getting a handle on the game’s cover system is key to being successful at the missions. A covered squad is worth the equivalent of three uncovered ones. Whats more, you will have to think quickly in order to stay covered and out-flank your enemies before they out-flank you.

Visuals in Dawn of War II are beautiful, with incredibly detailed particle effects. This is nowhere better seen than in the game’s explosions. The presentation of the visuals is also very important. Heavy ordinance shakes the ground and created massive fireballs and plumes of smoke. The camera is fairly versatile and makes zooming into watch your troops dismember the enemy a ton of fun.

With all the stuff going on, it is a wonder you can discern any sound apart from another. The sound design in the game is exceptional and manages to capture all of the nuances of the game’s combat without getting muddled down. The voice actors a fine job of bringing their characters to life and never sound wooden or take you out of the experience.

The game’s skirmish modes seem like more of a nod to the RTS fans, but even then the actual base-building is really not there. Instead, you capture points a la Company of Heroes which adds to your power and renown, then spending these attributes to create or upgrade units.

I am one of those RTS fans that does not like ‘zerging’. I like a ‘good’ RTS match where players have a bit of time to build up their bases/defenses and get some real armies made with which to battle against each other. I would not normally like a game such as Dawn of War II because of its focus on keeping the action moving all the time. However, due to it not feeling much like an RTS, the lack of base-building and flow of combat did not phase me in the least.

That being said, Dawn of War II is not a real-time strategy game. It is a hybrid between an RTS, action-RPG, tactical shooter, and hack ‘n slash game. This combination is masterfully put together by Relic and they are to be commended for actually doing something original. Sure, a tried and true RTS sequel would have been great too, but this is not just great. Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II also pushes the bounds of multiple genres in a very clever way and that masterful originality can mean the difference between a game you play for a week and a game you find yourself wanting to play a year later.

Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB Hard Drive Review

Western Digital, one of the grand daddies of hard disk drives, has recently split its internal hard disk drive line into three ‘weight classes’. On the ‘lighter’ end of the spectrum, you will find the ‘Caviar Green’ class, which sports higher energy-savings as well as cooler operating temperatures. In the middle is the ‘Caviar Blue’ class, which is classified as being the ‘everyday computing’ drive. Then there is the ‘Caviar Black’ drive class, which is touted on Western Digital’s official site as having ‘Maximum performance for power computing.’ This last line of hard drives is the one that intrigues us the most, both as gamers as well as geeks. With Western Digital’s ‘VelociRaptor’ line costing upwards of $300 dollars, we are always looking for a better bang for our proverbial buck. So, let’s check out their 1TB Caviar Black drive (model WD1001FALS) and see how it holds up.

Visually, the drive looks like a fairly standard SATA 3Gb/s, 3.5” hard disk. As with the rest of the Caviar lines, you will not find the VelociRaptor’s heatsink/form factor here, allowing the Caviar Black to fit into any standard 3.5” drive bay with ease. Inside, however, you will find that Western Digital has added a few of the VelociRaptor’s features which help to make the Caviar Black a very reliable drive.

The ‘NoTouch’ ramp load feature prevents the recording head from directly touching the disk platters while the ‘StableTrac’ drive system provides a dually-mounted motor shaft. This helps increase tracking accuracy by decreasing unnecessary vibrations. The third feature taken from the VelociRaptor is the presence of dual processors on the drive which claim to maximize performance. All of these add up to make the Caviar Black one very solid drive. Western Digital seems very confident in this respect as well, given that they grant a five year warranty with the drive. In contrast, the other Caviar lines come with only a three year warranty.

But is it fast? That is the question that preoccupies us this day as what is reliability without speed, especially in a ‘performance’ hard drive? Our test programs consisted of three popular benchmarking choices: HD Tune, HD Tach, and File Copy Test.

Our test rig consisited of…
Intel i7 2.66GHz CPU
6GB DDR3 Memory
Nvidia GTX 280 Video Card
EVGA X58 Mainboard

Here are the results of the drive with HD Tune:

It scored an average read rate of 86.5 MB/sec with a burst rate of 134.4 MB/sec. Access time was rated at 12.0ms, which is in keeping with expectations. However, these results are fairly average for most drives in this class. Let’s take a look at how HD Tach scores the drive.

In this test, the Caviar Black scored a 224MB/sec burst rate and 90.5MB/sec average read rate. The drive did take an access hit of 0.5ms in the HD Tach benchmark. However, even with this slight access hit, the transfer rate scores are much more impressive.

Taking the drive into more real-world tests, we ran the popular File Copy Test benchmark application on the Caviar Black. In the program’s ‘Install Create’ test, it finished in 9.141 seconds. This is in contrast to the 18 seconds it took our Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 drive to do the same. In the ‘ISO Create’ test, the results were echoed with the Caviar Black performing in half the time of the 7K1000. Overall, it appears that in real-world situations, the Caviar Black is one hell of a performer. We believe the secret here is in the Native Command Queuing (NCQ) performance gain of having two processors within the drive. For those who do not know, Native Command Queuing is a way for the drive to access specific places on its platters in the most efficient route possible. If NCQ were not in place, a drive heads would take extra time back-tracking across the platters when they could have already grabed that data on the way to another destination. In short, be thankful NCQ exists!

For the green conscious, be aware that the Caviar Black does draw more power from the PSU than, say, the Caviar Green line (which is to be expected). The Caviar Black draws approximately 8.4 watts of power when performing read and write operations while pulling 7.8 watts while idling. In contrast, the Caviar Green line pulls 7.4 watts during read and write operations and only 4 watts while idling. In terms of standby and sleep modes, each drive is about 1 watt, with the Caviar Green taking a slight lead drawing 0.98 watts. This is still better than Segate’s Barracuda 7200.11, which requires 11.6 watts while performing reading and writing operations and a not so eco-friendly 8 watts while simply idling.

The enhanced reliability of Western Digital’s Caviar Black hard drive coupled with its dual-processors for bleeding fast Native Command Queing makes the WDS1001FALS one heck of a performer. Not only will it beat out most non-10k RPM drives in sheer speed, but it will also outlast them thanks to the features borrowed from its big brother, the VelociRaptor. The only potential issue we could find is in the drive’s cost, which at the time of this writing is $149 at the official Western Digital online store. This is $20 to $30 dollars more than most of its 1TB competitors. Still, in this case you are definitely getting what you pay for: Reliability and real-world performance. Think of it as an investment.

Caviar Black Official Product Page

GamingShogun Reviews Halo Wars

To start, I must admit that I have been a Halo enthusiast for a while now. Some gamers especially love the multiplayer components of the FPS games, while I really like the story Bungie has crafted and continues to evolve through books and, hopefully, a movie at some point. It was with great geeky excitement that I started up Halo Wars. Also weighing on my mind was that this was to be Ensemble Studios’ last official production. They have been a big part of my PC-gaming enjoyment over the last twelve years with their Age of Empires series and I thank them for their efforts, talent, as well as the many hours of entertainment they have provided me.

Marty O’Donnell’s Halo Wars theme begins with the loading of the menu system, setting the perfect mood for the game to come. After taking a couple minutes to admire his musical mastery and how his themes have become so synonymous with the Halo series, I started a new campaign.

This brings me to the game’s CGI cutscenes. They are simply breathtaking. These cutscenes are so good at telling the game’s story in between most missions that if a Halo movie could not be made in ‘real life’ a CGI version from Blur Studios would suffice just as well, if not more so, given the capabilities of what is physically possible on regular film. Halo Wars’ voice actors all do great jobs in bringing their characters to life and never seem wooden or half-hearted. Believable acting is key in these kinds of story-driven cutscenes and a failure here in casting could have ruined the fourth wall entirely.

Playing the game is a very enjoyable experience and combat is fairly well-balanced to the Halo universe. Unlike most RTS titles, Halo Wars is not really ‘balanced’ with both sides being equal in capability. In the Halo universe, especially twenty years before the events of the Halo video game when Halo Wars takes place, humanity’s technology is simply not as good as the Covenant’s. While playing UNSC forces, you will have to make good use of cover and the unit-balancing trifecta: Infantry has bonuses over Air Units, Air Units have bonuses over Vehicles, and Vehicles have bonuses over Infantry. Even though your units, overall, are not as advanced as Covenant forces, by remembering those three rules you will maximize your combat effectiveness. It is said that one marine squad in a covered position is as effective as three uncovered marine squads, so plan accordingly. Covered positions are usually scattered throughout most maps and provide the player the ability to create choke points and defensive sectors.

Units often times have a special attack which, after recharging, can be activated by pressing the ‘Y’ button on a target. Be warned though that if you have a whole group of multiple unit types under your control when pressing ‘Y’, they will all attempt to use their special abilities even if they are designed for opposite purposes, e.g. one unit in the group tries to hijack an enemy target while another attempts to barrage it with missiles.

Thankfully, SPARTAN units are not the entire focus of the game. These legendary warriors are brought into the campaign in epic fashion and are used like a fine spice in a very complex meal. Too much and they would lose their potency as the gamer would get desensitized to them while not having SPARTANs  enough would just displease too many fans entirely. Ensemble has balanced this nicely and you will find yourself always welcoming Group Omega, even yelling at them by their individual names, sometimes… When no one else nearby is in range to hear you.

Resources do not have to be gathered in the traditional sense, and are instead generated by Supply Pads that you build at your bases. Once built, the Spirit of Fire will happily begin sending down supply drops for your constructing enjoyment. Bases in Halo Wars are similar in usage to those found in the Battle for Middle Earth games. Once created, there are a set number of places for you to build things on. Some spaces are only good for turrets while others are only used for buildings. These structures run the gamut from unit-production to some that exist solely to upgrade your armies and bases.

Since the max population points of your side begins at 30 (upgradeable slightly later on in the game), and some units take up multiple population points, you may find that you do not have enough forces in reserve to act as base defense. For the most part, this is not too much of an issue as, once upgraded to the ‘heavy’ variety, your base’s four turrets will handle just about anything that reaches them. You can even specialize the turrets, giving them bonuses in attacking vehicles, air units, or infantry.

When we saw the controls demonstrated at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, I was impressed at how user-friendly they seemed. After having more in-depth play sessions with them, I can say they are the best RTS controls we have ever seen on a console. However, they are still sluggish when compared to a good ol’ keyboard and mouse. On a PC real-time strategy games you can usually assign groups of units into hot-keyed squads for easier selection while the fine-motor skills involved in using a mouse allow for much more precise targeting. Selecting individual units within Halo Wars, especially when the action starts intensifying can be a real challenge. Halo Wars will allow you to cycle through the types of units you have within a selected army by pressing the right trigger. This will definitely help you in your tactics but does not take the place of dedicated squad-creation. I digress…

Ensemble has added a great feature to the controls in the way of reticular tracking. By moving your reticule over a unit for a split second, it will ‘grab’ onto it, dragging the camera around with it. This is a very clever way to track your armies en route to a target without having to constantly maneuver your camera view.

Graphically, Halo Wars is a treat for the eyes and combat comes to life with vibrant weapons effects, detailed unit models, and passionate battle cries. There are some sound effects which seem to be recycled quite a bit in gameplay, especially when selecting multiple units with the right and left bumper keys (which select local and all units, respectively). The previously talked about CGI cutscenes often use unit models from the game, albeit their higher polygon count progenitors. The unit models in the game, while still nicely-detailed, obviously have level of detail settings applied to them at various distances to maximize game performance.

There were a few occasions when we found ourselves getting very frustrated with Halo Wars’ missions. There are a scattering of them that feature a countdown timer or some repetitive gimmick that takes quite a while to accomplish with no end in sight. Even worse is that sometimes a countdown timer or gimmick will appear X number minutes into the mission when you have already built up your forces in a certain configuration that proves to be ineffective given the time remaining or task assigned. Due to our review agreement with Microsoft we can’t say specifically what these missions are, suffice it to say that you will know it when you get to them. Stay the course, gamers, and you will not be disappointed in the end.

A feature we are having a blast with is the ‘Halo Timeline’. In this area of the game menu, you can browse the entire recent history of the Halo universe chronicled in the various games and books. These events are laid out in linear fashion, with many being concealed until you unlock them by finding ‘black box’ and ‘skull’ resources during missions. You will have to play the game through all the difficulty settings as well as complete all optional objectives to get all of them though.

Being that Ensemble Studios were masters at online features thanks to their years of PC-development, Halo Wars is privy to all the online modes you could ask for. Along with these online modes, the player can even choose to create offline skirmish games against AI opponents/allies to hone their skills. I had to laugh when I saw that one of the multiplayer/skirmish maps available was named ‘Blood Gulch’! It looks so much different from on high. In non-single player modes, you can chose to have a specific leader from each side lead your side. Depending on the leader you chose, you will be granted different sets of ‘leader abilities’. For instance, choosing Capt. Cutter will allow you to fire MAC rounds at targets while Sgt. Forge will enable you to drop special ‘Grizzly’ main battle tanks on the field.

Overall, Halo Wars is everything a real-time strategy game should be: Fun, easy to pickup, and hard to put down. It is not only a great time for RTS fans, but also hardcore Halo fans as well. With the relatively few issues I encountered while playing, Halo Wars is really the best console RTS to date. I only wish there was a PC version available so I could really crank up the graphical effects and resolution to see what it would look like.

Halo Wars is set to ship to North American stores on March 3rd.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage Review

After delving into the large open-world of Fallout 3 playing in a smaller, simulated encounter seems bit claustrophobic. You see, while the player gets to take an integral role in the Battle for Anchorage, it is done in a computer simulation with some strict barriers. We downloaded the expansion pack via the new Games for Windows client. The process went very smoothly and we hope this is just the start of a true PC analog to the Xbox LIVE Marketplace. After the download was complete it detected the base game and automatically installed it. We started Fallout 3 up, signed into our Games for Windows LIVE account and began playing.

Getting to the new content of Operation Anchorage is fairly simple. Upon entering the D.C. Wastes you will receive a new radio station to listen to. This radio signal is basically an emergency transmission from a group of Brotherhood of Steel Outcasts calling for reinforcements. A new location will appear on your world map (although you will not be able to fast-travel there until after your first visit. Stumbling upon a group of Outcast members on the way to the location, you accompany them as they fight through a band of Super Mutants blocking the way. Once to the Outcast’s base, you find that they have stumbled upon a cache of advance technology that can only be unlocked by completing a computer simulation of the Battle of Anchorage. This historic battle is where the US Army forced back Chinese invaders prior to the nuclear exchange which effectively ends life as we know it. Due to your Pip-Boy 3000’s capabilities, you seem to be the Outcasts best chance at finishing it. In return, they promise you all the advanced tech you can carry.

Which brings us to the sim itself. The landscape of Anchorage, Alaska is sufficiently bleak with snow and high-winds racing through the land. Once you complete the opening bits of combat and setup, you will make it to the US base in the region. Your mission is to lead a strike team to three different locations before you clear the way for a big T-51b power armor-equipped push towards the Chinese base. Health and ammo will be given via stations scattered throughout your path, while enemy corpses and items just vanish into thin air with a transporter-like blue energy. As this is a simulation, you are not able to loot anything in the normal manner. Also among the war-torn tundra, you will find ten scattered pieces of intelligence in the form of briefcases which, when collected, give you the new Covert Ops trait.

The Chinese soldiers come in two main flavors: stealth suited and not. The Chinese regulars carry assault rifles and sniper rifles while the stealth-suited ‘Crimson Dragoon’ troops can become invisible ala the Predator and carry a variety of weapons. These stealth troops are a neat new foe to fight and present the player with a challenge not seen in the base game, namely: fighting nearly-invisible bad guys.

My biggest complaint with this DLC pack is that when you finally reach the Chinese base, the story is abruptly stopped after a small, final bit of fighting. It feels extremely jarring and anti-climactic as you are yanked out of the simulation and back into the present. Perhaps this was Bethsoft’s design, I do not know. Thankfully, not all of the story feels so jarring. During the course of the missions, you recover several holodisks featuring some personal stories from the battle which helps set the tone of what you are re-enacting. Also, I would have like to have seen a larger number of enemies throughout the operation. For one of the largest battles in US history, it feels a bit too empty and, frankly, easy. I was able to get through the entire thing at level ten without too much trouble.

After the sim is completed, you are able to open the locked door to the advanced tech room and you will be able to loot pretty much everything in it. You will be able to pick up the new Gauss Rifle, stealth suit, and electrified sword to name a few items.

Is this DLC pack worth picking up? For 800 Microsoft points, or roughly $10 dollars, sure. While the pack does not feature any one thing that you will not be able to live without, it does offer a few nifty technologies as well as a relatively fun diversion during its short duration. Plus, it gives gamers a chance to continue supporting the developer, hopefully paving the way to their development of a full-fledged sequel. Let’s just hope that Bethsoft learns from our criticism about Operation Anchorage and gives us a bit more to chew on with ‘The Pitt’ and ‘Broken Steel’, which are due out sometime in February or March.

Fallout 3 Official Site

Creative Vado HD Review

With the decreasing cost of parts, pocket camcorders have been all the rage in the last couple years. Creative has been a late entry to the market and did so with their well-received Vado, which featured 640×480 resolution as well as 2GB of internal memory. However their newest camera, the Vado HD, completely surpasses their previous offering with 720p resolution, 8GB of internal memory, and a huge helping of sweetness.

When talking about the Vado HD’s design, it is important to get a sense of scale for the device, which lists its official measurements as 3.9” x 2.2” x 0.6”. Seems fairly small, but I like pictures so take a look at the following pic which helps give a better sense than those numbers.

As you can see, the camera is very small, well-enough so that it can easily fit in your pocket staying true to the ‘pocket camera’ moniker. The layout of the camera’s controls is fairly standard and should not confuse anyone who has used a pocket camera. The 2” LCD screen is vibrant, capable of displaying up to 16 million colors and below this you will find the five-way control pad as well as play/pause and delete buttons. The five-way control pad allows you to turn volume up and down when reviewing a movie with the up and down directions (or controlling the digital zoom while in recording mode) and the left and right directions control video selection in playback mode. Speaking of playback: You can easily navigate and review the videos you have shot on the Vado HD thanks to its onboard screen and controls. Deleting videos is done by clicking the delete button once to initiate the deletion and a second time to confirm it. The center button starts and stops video recording. Along the sides of the Vado HD, you will find an HDMI output, audio output, power button, and lanyard loop.

Along the bottom of the Vado HD you will find one of its best features: a nested, flexible USB dongle. Some pocket cameras out there use a rigid pylon of a USB connector, but this is unstable and feels awkward when connecting to a PC. With the flexible dongle, it is very easy to attach and remove to your nearest hub or PC. And because it nests itself within the camera when not extended, it won’t get in your way while handling the camera.

The software is a snap to install, and goes with the Vado HD wherever you take it as it lies in the internal memory of the camera. Plug the Vado HD in, hit the ‘okay’ button to run the Vado Central software and off you go. All of your videos stored on the camera will appear in a nifty UI for your perusal and uploading (it even allows a bit of video editing). Notice that on the upper-right corner of the UI you will see buttons labeled with popular video sites like YouTube. By clicking on one of them it will ask you for your account info and allow you to upload any of the videos from your camera in a couple easy steps. You can take a look at the UI in this next image, but know we have shrunken it down to fit the article window – it will be bigger on your desktop.

Creative even saw fit to include a silicon skin protective case, HDMI cable, and USB extension cable to help you connect to those hard-to-reach ports. The aforementioned HDMI output will allow you to send up to 1080i out to your television screen should it accept the cable type, of course.

Using the Vado HD in real-life situations is a breeze as well, as it features a tripod mount on the bottom of the camera to make it easy to use by yourself. Also, beginning to record a video is as easy as hitting the power button, waiting through the short boot up sequence, and then pressing the center button. This lack of complexity makes it a great choice for those moments when you need to record something right away. You get into a fender bender and need to record automobile damages? Whip that sucker out and start recording!

The 3x digital zoom, while not as good as an optical zoom, does a nice enough job thanks to the camera’s overall 720p resolution. There is really no pixelation worth mentioning in the process. Creative was smart in limiting the digital zoom to 3x, as many times when you start getting past that in cameras you notice all sorts of artifacting as the camera’s internal logic tries to compensate for the lack of image information.

Unfortunately, the Creative Vado HD does have a couple things I would like to see improved upon. The first thing is that there is no 3.5mm audio input jack. While the onboard microphone works for general usage, if I wanted to take the unit to a convention or some other noisy place, it would be nice to couple the great video quality with a more directed audio source such as an external microphone. If an audio input existed on the camera, the Vado HD could easily replace our standard HG-10 for use at such events. The second point of contention I have with the Vado HD is that there is no flash memory slot to expand the storage capacity past its internal 8GB. While you get about two hours of recording time with the internal memory, that can fill up fast if you don’t off-load it over the course of a day or two.

Aside from these issues, Creative’s Vado HD is the only pocket camera I would recommend at the time of this writing. The Flip Mino HD still has their clumsy, rigid USB pylon while also only allowing an hour of recording time. Meanwhile, the Kodak Zi6 has a larger form factor and is, IMHO, not as ‘sexy’ of a camera. For $229 dollars at Creative’s website, you can’t go wrong with their new Vado HD. Whether it be to record video podcasts, quick on-the-spot segments, or even industry happenings, the Vado HD is an excellent choice that gives you most of the full-fledged HD camcorder benefits in a much more economical package.

Vado HD Product Page

*Note to the reader:
We actually prepared a test video of the Vado HD for your viewing enjoyment, but realized that in the bright, Sunny Southern California scenery you probably would not be that impressed. We found a video in HD on YouTube, however, which showed some night driving around Japan that we thought was cool for you to take a look at. Check it out here, but we warn you that the filmmaker has added a strange soundtrack. So, click ‘Watch in HD’ on the page and turn down that audio to fully-enjoy the video quality of the Vado HD in night time conditions.