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Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

A video game about war is perhaps the least novel thing you could create in our medium today, which is one reason why

Whether you're a history buff or just want a good story, Valiant Hearts delivers in surprising ways.

Set against the backdrop of World War I's western front, Valiant Hearts tells the story of four people whose lives are gravely affected by the conflict. Karl is a young, German-born man living in France when the war begins, and despite his protestations, he's sent from his home back to Germany, forced to fight for a nation he no longer calls home. Emile, Karl's father-in-law, is forced to take up arms for his home nation of France. Elsewhere we also meet Freddie, a burly American motivated to fight largely by personal vengeance, and Anna, a Belgian medic who moves from battle to battle doing whatever she can to patch up the wounded.

These four protagonists (along with a trusty dog who helps out from time to time) find themselves floating in and out of each other's lives, reuniting during various battles, only to be torn away from one another by one horrible circumstance or another. At times the plot strains itself to find ways to bring these four people together, given that they're often spread across such a massive battleground. But those moments of plot convenience are forgivable by virtue of how endearing these characters are. Their stories are fleshed out primarily from collectible diary entries, but they also communicate a great deal wordlessly. Apart from a few bouts of narration and some language-specific grunting, there is little dialogue in Valiant Hearts. Instead, the game's visuals are tasked with doing the heavy lifting here. Every moment of pain, sacrifice, and (occasionally) joy is communicated using the game's comic book-inspired artwork, and it works surprisingly well.

It's not just that Valiant Hearts is a beautiful looking game (it is), but rather that its art is used so effectively to communicate to the player. It's in each character's facial expressions, and the small environmental details, that the game's emotional resonance lives. Valiant Hearts is expressive in a way that big studio games often aren't, relying on a subtlety of delivery that implies a trust in its players to empathize with its heroes, despite spelling out only the most basic details about each of them. It never yells to the player about what they're supposed to be feeling; it never shouts about much of anything, actually. There are certainly big, sweeping moments of action within the game, but they're dwarfed in number by the scenes focused on individual characters and the horrors continually befalling them.

You can press a button to pet the dog any time you like. I pressed that button a lot. Like, A LOT.

It's worth noting that Valiant Hearts isn't looking to be an especially "realistic" portrayal of World War I. The game pulls no punches when portraying the grotesqueries of the battlefield--moments where you'll find yourself running through hails of machine gun fire, climbing over the bodies of your fallen comrades, are frequent--but the overall tone of the game is a bit lighter than its subject matter lets on. Take, for instance, the near-total lack of combat in the game. In the rare instance that you do have to fight an enemy soldier, you're never handed a gun and asked to shoot anybody (outside of a lone tank sequence where you blast away enemy artillery and swooping fighter planes). Instead, Emile just conks enemies on the head with a wooden spoon, a nod to his role as a military cook during one period of the war, while other characters never attack at all. Another example is a pair of quickly paced chase sequences. Here you take control of a sputtering cab that mostly propels itself, while you simply dodge and weave between enemy fire and other obstacles while classical music accompanies the rhythms of the action. It's goofy stuff that would, on paper at least, seem wildly out of place in a game so seemingly dour in tone, but somehow Valiant Hearts pulls it off without coming across as jarring or distracting.

The only time Valiant Hearts really lost me was when it opted to drum up some artificial conflict. So much of the game is about the kind of faceless evil that makes up war, the constant charging into certain death against an enemy you know almost nothing about. That changes after a point, when an evil Baron from the German side starts appearing just to put a face to what you're fighting against. He's a pointless character, a twirling mustache there to sneer and drop bombs on you when the gameplay demands a more specific threat, and it's the only part of the game that feels out of place. How the game chooses to pay off the Baron's plotline is ultimately of little consequence to the bigger, more interesting stories at play, which makes his inclusion seem all the weirder.

Valiant Hearts also lost my attention during a few particular gameplay sequences. All of Valiant Hearts' campaign consists of lightweight puzzle solving, peppered with the aforementioned minor combat bits and even some light rhythm gaming. In each stage, you are presented with some maze of problems to solve--an injured civilian is trapped behind a pile of debris you must navigate your way to, a prison camp can only be escaped after you perform tasks for various people, a detonator must be found and recovered before you can blow up a German fortress, and the like. These simple navigation puzzles are rarely of the sort that will stump any experienced player, but there's mostly just enough challenge there to keep you from feeling like you're just mindlessly doing chores before getting to the next story beat. Mostly. A few stages are outright dull, while others seem like neat ideas that never feel fully fleshed out--the minigame that accompanies Anna's patching up of injured folk is particularly pointless. Even when the puzzles are better, Valiant Hearts is never particularly thrilling. Given its more contemplative tone, that's not surprising, but it does highlight the challenge of trying to turn something so decidedly graphic novel-like into a game. While Valiant Hearts has numerous poignant moments, few of those are during the most interactive portions of the game.

Its gameplay is fairly mundane, but it serves the story the game is trying to tell. And that story is very much worth seeing through to the end.

Fortunately, one of those few great interactive moments closes out Valiant Hearts, demonstrating definitively that there was value in turning this story into a game after all. It's a simple thing, something you won't even realize until the consequences are staring you right in the face, and it serves as a perfectly heartrending conclusion to a sad, but beautiful little story. Sometimes the most important thing a game can do is just stick the landing, and Valiant Hearts does exactly that.

Valiant Hearts isn't going to challenge many players' abilities, but it may challenge any preconceived notions about how video games are meant to tackle subjects like war. There are certainly faults to be found with its underlying game design, but in a game that cares this much for its own characters--arguably as much as it cares about the history of the war itself, which is quite a lot--I found it difficult to get hung up on the occasional uninteresting fetch quest or rhythmic minigame. Its rewards are far more emotional in nature, the kind you find in any good story, regardless of medium. Seek this one out, and see it through to its conclusion. It's worth it.

Shovel Knight Review

How I feel about today's shooters is probably how others feel about the deluge of nostalgia-influenced platformers. There are always exceptions to the rule, though.

Shovel Knight feels like a game that fell out of a worm hole. In a good way.

Shovel Knight has a story insofar as any of these games have a surface-level justification for what's happening. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight have long protected the realm, but the world is soon corrupted by The Order of No Quarter (which just might be the best name for a group of enemies since...well, forever), lead by The Enchantress. Shovel Knight is separated from Shield Knight, and it's up to Shovel Knight to start digging to victory. In practical terms, this means players are running around as Shovel Knight, and occasionally navigating an overworld map that gives limited agency over which major enemy you'll tackle next.

The problem with many of these kinds of games is they're often unsure which master to serve, and get caught up praying at the altar of the past. Shovel Knight could not exist without the 8-bit classics, sure, but it's not explicitly beholden to its conventions, either. It's a decidedly modern game leveraging gaming's history as a starting point. It's a means to an end, not the end itself. That's where so many of these games get it wrong.

DuckTales and Mega Man fans will feel right at home with Shovel Knight. The character's weapon--yes, a shovel--is used to attack enemies, destroy objects, and bounce on stuff. Most of Shovel Knight's attacks, even when he begins acquiring magical relics in each stage, require him to get very close to obstacles in his path. With rare exceptions, Shovel Knight is incapable of standing on the other side of the screen and slowly clearing a path forward. Being able to pogo stick on top of enemies gives players flexibility in their tactics, allowing them to play a cautious form of offense that provides room to breathe. Understanding the physics of one's shovel-assisted jumps is crucial to finding the game's myriad secrets, as well. Most are hidden behind both marked and unmarked walls that must be destroyed, and others require deviously timed jumps that let you cover great distances, both horizontally and vertically, that would be impossible otherwise.

The secrets are half the fun in Shovel Knight, too. They're everywhere, making every screen more than just a set of hazards to navigate. The secrets often contain plentiful treasure, the currency used to purchase upgrades for Shovel Knight. Both health and mana upgrades are available in limited quantities, in addition to armor with certain bonuses (i.e. dropping less treasure after dying) and new shovel attacks (i.e. shooting a ground-level fireball while at full health). Shovel Knight can acquire a host of magical abilities, as well, which can be purchased by finding a vendor within a level or completing the stage and finding that same vendor back in town. Unlike Mega Man, weapons aren't explicitly linked to bosses, even though stages are themed around the last encounter.

Part of what makes Shovel Knight stand out is what doesn't stand out. The controls feel right. While playing, the character always landed where I wanted him to. The controls are tight, responsive, and do exactly what you want. That may sound simple, but without this, Shovel Knight wouldn't work. We often focus on games that get this wrong, not games that get it right. When it feels right, you don't notice it. That means the developer nailed it. When it doesn't feel right, it's terribly obvious. Super Meat Boy is a fantastic game for many reasons, but Super Meat Boy works because the player feels in control. It's why I've never enjoyed LittleBigPlanet beyond the charming aesthetic and wonderfully curated soundtrack. A sequence of tricky jumps is an entirely worthy task to ask of a player when they can reliably know the coming deaths will be entirely their fault.

Some enemies are small, some enemies are big, and some enemies will take up the whole screen.

It's the little things in this game, too. The delightful idle animations for the world's many characters, an elaborate dance sequence by a giant fish for no reason, the discovery of a hidden boss in a room full of hats, using a fishing rod to find off-screen treasure. These touches extend beyond the caretakers of the game's visuals, too. For example, you can jump higher than what the game is currently showing on the screen at any time. If you're at the top of the screen during a forced scrolling sequence, your head doesn't butt up against an invisible barrier. You can actually leap into the blackness of the UI. It's a small touch, but one that actually proves useful.

That said, there was cocktail of emotions when the credits rolled on Shovel Knight. I was upset the game had come to an end, since I'm now left waiting for the hopefully inevitable sequel. But I wondered if Shovel Knight played it too safe. One cannot speak of games gone by without acknowledging how brutally difficult they were. If you, like me, were a kid granted one, precious game every few months, you milked those games for all they were worth. One reason that worked was because the games were so god damned hard. (My mom actually called a customer support line to complain after my brother and I finished Turtles in Time in two hours.) The challenge wasn't always earned, and often it was cheap, but you had to legitimately crossing the finish line.

That's not the case in Shovel Knight, an especially easy game by classic standards. I died a handful of times, a few spots gave me some real trouble, but I wouldn't call Shovel Knight hard. It's a very accessible platformer for its type, which might come as a disappointment to some. Rather than embrace this facet of its influences, Shovel Knight asks players to accomplish other forms of herculean tasks, such as finishing the game without dying or health upgrades. For some, that will prove a worthy goal to chase, a reason to spend potentially hundreds of hours with Shovel Knight. But not for me. I wanted the game to ask more of me upfront, as I'm far less interested in masochistic challenges (the game's achievements are called "feats") layered on top of the game. Instead, I breezed right through Shovel Knight, and was left wishing the game had pushed me much, much harder.

My questions about the game's difficulty wouldn't matter if were talking about a lesser game, though. I simply wanted to love Shovel Knight even more than I already do. Shovel Knight is an exceptionally well-made action platformer, one worthy of being celebrated far beyond the nostalgic foundation it's built upon. Shovel Knight won't be the last old school game made in the modern age, but it's unlikely many others will be as much fun.

Watch Dogs Review

You can close doors on the cops, but they seem to open them really quickly.

For better or worse, Watch Dogs has been propped up by many as one of the new generation of consoles' first "big" games. But instead of feeling like the future, Watch Dogs reminds me of the past. I'm reminded of the time when developers were ardently chasing after that Grand Theft Auto gold, resulting in a menagerie of takes on the GTA formula, each with their own little hook. Some worked out really well, others floundered and vanished. Watch Dogs' spin on the genre gives you limited control over some of the city's features, letting you toggle the state of various objects both on foot or in a vehicle. For the most part, these interactions are there to eliminate or block your enemies so you have more time to escape. Even with that as one of its unique twists on the genre, Watch Dogs is little clunky in spots and it starts very slowly. Luckily, that bad first impression lets up as you get into more interested missions and become more comfortable with the game's abilities and options.

In a lot of ways, Watch Dogs falls into the same routine as most other mission-based open-world games. There's a main narrative of missions that progress in order, with side missions that back them up and give you a little something to do if you're looking for a change. The mission design is really standard for this sort of game--you'll hunt people down and shoot them, you'll get away from the cops, and the missions where you're asked to tail someone discreetly continue to suck. I don't necessarily view all this as a bad thing, but at this point in life you've probably already determined whether or not you like this sort of game. Not to get overly reflexive on you, but if you have the hunger for this type of open-world game, it's a solid entry. The things designed to set Watch Dogs apart, though, don't make that big of an impact.

The first differentiator is that you're a hacker set loose in a city that's been overrun by surveillance and connected "smart" technologies that are designed to make life easier (while simultaneously setting up the game's slightly hamfisted approach to the issues of government surveillance and the potential nightmares that come from relying on one big system with a single point of failure). For the most part, this boils down to use pushing the square button to incapacitate police cars. Sometimes that square button raises blockers out of the street, sometimes it causes steam pipes to explode, but generally, you're waiting for a "neutralize" prompt to appear on-screen while you're driving, indicating that you're a button press away from having one less hassle on your tail. You also use that square button (X on the Xbox, naturally) to hack the planet.

A few characters drop in to help or hurt your cause.

When pressed, that square button sends you into profiler mode, allowing you to view names and details of any of the game's NPCs. Some of them have bank accounts you can hack, letting you get access to funds that are useful for buying a few weapons, but generally useless unless you're into cosmetic stuff like costumes or unlocking additional cars. Others have songs you can hack out of their phones, adding them to the game's disjointed and disappointing playlist. You hit this button when you walk up to terminals or see junction boxes on the street, and you can also use it to tap into security camera feeds. It's a one-size-fits-all approach to hacking, which makes the way the game occasionally and arbitrarily sticks in a dull hacking minigame feel that much more puzzling. A big part of the game involves hacking into a camera, then using that to hack into another camera, and so on and so on until you get to an otherwise-unreachable hacking point. You can also tag enemies with the profiler or security cameras, letting you see silhouettes behind walls and setting up the game's various stealth takedowns.

Interestingly, the game has no "real" melee combat system. Rather than giving you a punch button, the game simply has a takedown button, and it works whether you're sneaking up from behind or running up in plain sight. You also have weapons, including a perfectly accurate and silenced pistol that, except in cases where you're severely outnumbered and forced into open combat, makes most of the combat and stealth situations feel completely trivial, assuming you're even slightly skilled at lining up headshots. When taking on scads of enemies, the assault rifles work just fine and, as long as you patiently use cover and don't expose yourself for too long, the combat is quite easy.

The other thing that sets Watch Dogs apart from the typical open-world game is the way its online action is structured. While it still has the same boring online race mode that every open-world game seems to have these days (does anyone actually still want to engage in an open-world race in a game that wasn't built for racing?), it also has a handful of cat-and-mouse-like modes where one player has to get close to another player to steal something from them. These online invasions pop up against your will, forcing you to deal with another player before you can proceed. The rewards for succeeding in this mode are minimal and they seem to always pop up when you're trying to start another mission, making them feel like a hassle that's preventing you from doing the thing you actually want to be doing. It seems like a bad implementation of a decent idea. If you like, you can disable the online invasion aspect of the game, but doing so prevents you from earning a handful of bonus perks, like making your bullets do more damage to vehicles. Disabling invasions mid-game actually resets any online points you've earned back to zero, too. This would be a little more outrageous if the perks you got for playing online were of any real value, but many of them pertain solely to the multiplayer mode that you're trying to avoid and the game is already quite easy, so it's not that big of a deal. There are a handful of different modes that you can engage from a separate menu, and the game will constantly remind you that various online opportunities exist via the same system it uses to notify you about nearby side missions.

One of the side missions has you profiling potential criminals and stopping altercations before they can get started.

The story puts you in the shoes of a thief-turned-vigilante who sees the light in the game's opening moments, after a cyber-caper goes cyber-sideways resulting in some decidedly non-cyber-retaliation that ends with your all-the-way-not-cyber niece dead. Watch Dogs is a revenge tale, as Aiden Pearce attempts to find out who ordered the hit on him that left his niece dead while also hooking up with some other shady hackers and fighting crime. With his gruff voice and serious demeanor, you almost half-expect a mid-game twist where Pearce just shouts "I'm cyber-Batman." Instead, he's out there using his real name--which, considering most of the game's other hackers appear with embarrassing monikers like Badboy17 or Defalt, might be the smartest thing Pearce does in the entire game. Or maybe "Aiden Pearce" is just as embarrassing of a name. Anyway, the story is all over the place and is full of characters that sort of cruise into and out of the story, which makes it hard to care about any of them. Also, the main missions have huge sidetracks that occasionally feel like they came from another game--a couple of times I completely forgot why I was even doing what I was doing and how my current mission tied into the overall picture of getting revenge for my dead niece.

I found myself avoiding the soundtrack in Watch Dogs, instead going for the sounds of Chicago's streets and the occasional forced, in-mission music. The licensed music appears in a playlist format that you can configure to your liking. This makes sense, as this is how people actually listen to music these days, but losing the radio format that many other open-world games use makes the city feel a little more lifeless. It attempts to inject some of your exploits into the audio by forcing the occasional news report on you, but this makes even less sense... is the news so important that it's breaking into whatever playlist I keep on my phone to tell me about it or something? Also, having playlist controls in a game only to occasionally force you into specific songs for missions and also not allowing custom soundtracks seems kind of lame. Are we supposed to believe that Aiden Pearce actually likes all of the music on his playlists? Sorry, this is actually a super minor point, but one I became sort of obsessed with every time I tried to change the music only to have it say "media player unavailable." What, does Aiden's phone detect when he's on an important mission and play appropriate music instead of whatever cheaply licensed pop-punk Ubisoft decided to cram onto the soundtrack? When used wisely, a licensed soundtrack can be an almost living part of your story. Here it feels like something thrown in as an obligation.

Visually, Watch Dogs looks good on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with a usually stable frame rate, a good draw distance, and all that. No one part of it stands out as amazing or revolutionary (though the water looks pretty nice). Instead it's merely higher fidelity than the games and consoles that came before it. The visual implementation of hacking is pretty good at making the HUD and information you learn about nearby civilians seem like it's coming in via some kind of augmented reality setup--which actually makes the whole game feel weirdly dated, since Pearce spends much of the game staring down at his phone like a bored kid trying to ignore his parents. Given that we live in an era where people are out there paying way-too-much money for Google Glass and anticipating other head-mounted setups, going phone-only (and all the hilarious animations that come along with a man holding a pistol in one hand and a phone in the other) seems out of touch for a game that's trying to represent the dark future of technology. That dark future is already here, and Watch Dogs gets that wrong.

Even though I feel its story is often weak and its action isn't that different from other games in the genre, I still enjoyed my time with Watch Dogs. It turns out that the old stuff still works, and the strong-but-standard mission design kept me entertained, most of the time. It's rough around the edges, though, so if you don't settle for anything less than the best, you'll probably be disappointed.

But hey, Watch Dogs 2? That'll probably be pretty cool.

South Park: The Stick of Truth Review

You'd think that over the course of its 17-year history, at least one of the several video games based on South Park would have been good. You'd be wrong. Okay, sure, that

Welcome to South Park, New Kid.

The Stick of Truth places you in the role of The New Kid, a nameless, voiceless protagonist who moves to the sleepy mountain town of South Park from parts unknown. All you do know about yourself is that your lack of dialogue pertains to some terrible, forgotten secret your parents keep whispering about. But before you can spend much time worrying about that, you're sent out into the town to make some friends. This introduces you to Butters, who in turn introduces you to the main characters from the show. They're engaged in another of their violent fantasy battles. One faction is led by KKK (Kingdom of Kupa Keep) Grand Wizard Eric Cartman and Princess Kenny, while the other, elvish faction is made up of Kyle and Stan. Their conflict? Control over the titular Stick of Truth, an item that, under the constantly changing rules of their game, grants its wielder control over the entire universe.

This premise essentially allows show writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone to play around with a lot of old RPG and high fantasy tropes within the context of these kids' increasingly violent imaginations. Weapons are all cobbled from everyday junk, yet still wield deadly, often magical powers during turn-based battles. Small cardboard forts and junky weapons quickly give way to full-scale wars that take place across multiple key locations from the show. Sewers become dungeons, the school becomes a warzone, and the entire nation of Canada morphs into a 16-bit RPG overworld, complete with its own random creature encounters and convoluted quests.

This game of high fantasy war between foul-mouthed fourth graders might be enough to sustain a game on its own, but that's really only a portion of the story. Alien abductions, government cover-ups, and a mysterious goo that turns everyone into Nazi zombies all show up not even a few hours into the plot. Surprisingly, this doesn't result in a game that feels scattered or unfocused. If anything, The Stick of Truth is remarkably consistent, and well-edited. Few moments ever drag on longer than they should, with jokes and battles often lasting just long enough to leave an impression before the game moves on to the next bit. If you take the time to explore and do its many side quests, the game probably runs between 12-13 hours. That might sound short for an RPG, but it packs a great deal of material into those hours, and almost all of it is very funny.

If it isn't, then there's a good chance that it's at least super gross and potentially offensive to somebody. You've probably already heard about some of the more intense bits of The Stick of Truth, such as the abortion clinic section and the anal probing sequence that have both been edited in certain regions. It's probably enough to say that, yeah, some of that stuff is more outlandish than it is actually funny, and will probably be a little much for some people's tastes. But I'd hazard to guess that few of those people would call themselves big fans of South Park's general sense of humor, and that's really who The Stick of Truth is aimed toward, anyway.

If that's you, then you're going to find a lot to like about The Stick of Truth. The game is packed with major and minor characters from the TV series, loads of hidden references, and just an insane number of collectible objects, most of which just exist to remind you of an episode of the show. The town features dozens of businesses, homes, and other hidden areas to explore, and seemingly every room has at least one hidden joke or reference to find. The map itself isn't huge, but it's easily navigable, is quick to load, and has a fast-travel system that takes any needless traversal out of the equation. I was surprised how much time I dropped just wandering around the town, looking for whatever secret things I could find. It didn't matter if all that exploring led to a side quest featuring sentient poo creature Mr. Hanky, or just one of 30 collectible "Chinpokomon" toys. It all felt worth finding.

The Stick of Truth's battle system is surprisingly deep, yet easy to learn. I just wish the fart mechanics were a bit better. No, I never thought I'd ever have to write that sentence either.

In addition to jokes and random junk, you'll also collect a ton of different gear, weaponry, and costuming as you play. So much, in fact, that you may never even get around to using it all. Again, The Stick of Truth tries to pack a whole lot into a relatively short game. This isn't the sort of game where you'll want to get too attached to any one item, because odds are something better is almost always hiding right around the corner. If anything, it's just impressive how many different things the game offers you for character customization. The initial character creator has a decent amount of variety on its own, and as you progress through the game, you'll find tons of different armor sets, weapons, wigs, glasses, and facial features to play around with. Incidentally, it's worth noting that The Stick of Truth only lets you create a male character. I'd guess that has to do with the fact that on the show, the boys usually only play together, and the girls are treated more or less as their own, entirely separate faction within the context of the game. Maybe that narrative justification makes the exclusion of a creatable girl character less of an issue for you, or maybe it doesn't. I just thought it was worth pointing out.

The most impressive thing about all the character customization stuff is how crazy deep it goes. Some changes are just cosmetic, but every piece of armor and weaponry comes with its own set of ability bonuses and level restrictions. Every piece of equipment can be patched with additional abilities, which you'll acquire throughout the world or earn during battle. Plus, you have upgradable traits that are inherent to your character class. The available classes include a fighter, a mage, a thief, and a Jew. The Jew is essentially a traditional cleric class, but with far more references to Judaism attached to every attack. To preemptively answer your question, no, there's nothing particularly offensive about the Jew class. It doesn't go for cheap racial stereotypes, and mostly keeps its related gags lighthearted and fun.

Each class comes with its own set of attacks and abilities, but regardless as to which you choose, battles tend to play out with similar strategies. Though the battle system is essentially a traditional turn-based one, it's been streamlined to make it immediately accessible regardless as to your experience level with this genre. Experienced RPG players can experiment with several different attack buffs (which include fire, ice, electricity, and "gross out"), party members (which include the main four boys, as well as Butters and Jimmy), class abilities, and earnable perks throughout the game. Granted, it's debatable as to whether you really need all those systems, since battles are rarely drawn-out affairs, and the game's difficulty level is best described as "extremely manageable." Even if you've never played a game like this before, the basic attack mechanics are dirt-simple to learn, and usually only require a decent sense of timing to be successful. Still, even if it's not necessary to have all this stuff in battle, that doesn't make playing around with it any less fun.

The only part of The Stick of Truth I had any trouble getting the hang of was the game's assorted fart magics. Yes, your character is something of a savant when it comes to manipulating the gasses that emanate from your ass. Each spell has its own particular use: the "dragon shout" fart is a good all-purpose fart blast, while the "Nagasaki" fart comes in handy for demolishing highlighted pieces of the scenery. You perform spells by holding down on the right stick of your controller and using the left stick to find the right "frequency" for the spell. It works, but it's a bit unwieldy at first, especially for a mechanic that essentially boils down to an elaborate fart joke. Ultimately, unless a puzzle specifically called for it, I mostly just avoided using the fart spells altogether. Depending on how you feel about the inherent hilariousness of farting, you may have more fun with them than I did.

The difficulty might skew toward newer players, but battles remain engaging regardless of the challenge level. It helps that there's a ton of variety when it comes to enemy encounters. Some generic bad guys appear in the main world, but nearly every mission battle comes with its own array of enemies, each with their own unique attacks and related gags. Some of the best jokes in the game come during battle sequences, especially when you start trying out the unique summons you can earn through various side quests. These are battle-ending attacks featuring key side characters from the show, which include Jesus and Mr. Slave, among others. Essentially, whatever The Stick of Truth might lack in straight-up difficulty, it more than makes up for with variety and humor.

It probably didn't need to take 17 years, but at least now we have an actually great South Park game.

If you still need more convincing that The Stick of Truth does the South Park license proud, maybe consider that it looks and sounds exactly like the show. And not just during cutscenes, either. Whether you're in battle or just wandering around the town, everything looks like it came straight from the TV series. The purposely crappy animation style of the show is perfectly captured in every sequence, and every significant character is fully voiced by Parker, Stone, and the other actors from the series. It feels like you're interacting with the world as you've seen it on TV, versus the kinds of tech-limited representations we've grown accustomed to enduring in most licensed games. And it runs great too, or at least does so on the PC. It's worth noting that I never got to try the console versions of The Stick of Truth, but the PC version ran nearly issue free during my time with it. One random crash bug and a single instance of the game's soundtrack cutting out during a battle were all I ever noticed. Beyond that, load times were quick, checkpoints were aplenty, and I managed to get through the campaign free of types of issues we (perhaps rightfully) tend to associate with Obsidian's games.

I don't know what else I can even say about The Stick of Truth without just spoiling the jokes for people, so let's just call it right here. The Stick of Truth is the best South Park game by a country mile, but even removed from the franchise's dismal history with video games, it's also just one of the funniest games I've ever played. It pays tribute to the series' long history of memorably offensive jokes while also delivering an original story hilarious enough to stand on its own. Even more importantly, its gameplay is in no way an encumbrance to your enjoyment. Obsidian has fashioned an honest-to-god RPG out of the South Park universe, one with enough depth and longevity to hold your interest even when the comedy takes a breather. If the fantastically foul world of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny still holds any appeal to you, The Stick of Truth is a game well worth your time.

Hands-on review: Soladapt TouchGenie touchscreen monitor overlay

If you want to convert your monitor into a touchscreen display, you can do it in less than 60 seconds thanks to a new product from Soladapt called TouchGenie.

We tried a 21.5-inch model, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, which currently retails on the vendor's website for £161 (around US$268/AUS$299); a 16:10 model is also available for the same price.

The overlay is merely a clear glass panel that is fitted on a black rectangular metal frame. It does make your screen slightly dimmer so you might have to fiddle with your settings to get that right.

A nice idea... in theory

Setting it up couldn't be simpler. Attach the supplied Velcro straps, then the sticky foam pads (essentially thick double-sided tape) to the monitor frame and plug in the USB connector (that's at the end of a 1.5m cable) to a free USB port and presto, you're off.

Its simplicity means that the whole solution looks a bit DIY-esque, something that you'd probably have purchased from Maplin's.

It doesn't need any drivers and is truly plug-and-play - plus you don't need to calibrate it. Soladapt claims that it's compatible with Mac, Linux and Windows; we tested it on Windows 8.1 and it worked flawlessly.

You can use your finger or the bundled stylus to control the cursor on the screen but don't expect miracles.

The TouchGenie does not use capacitive technology and instead relies on Infra-red which means that control is not as precise as it could be.

Is it really for you?

You can do pinch and zoom but not much more since it's a two-finger touch solution. In use, we found that it would only lock on your main display.

As a fan of multi-monitors, I use a three-display setup and mistakenly stuck the Soladapt overlay on my secondary one. Not a show-stopping issue but still a nagging one.

Ultimately, whether or not the Soladapt is right for you and your business will depend on what your intended use was for it in the first place. I am not convinced about the use of touchscreens in a business environment on the desktop.

Otherwise, there are monitors like the Hanns.G HT231HPB (£180/US$201/AUS$224 at Ebuyer) that do not cost more than the Soladapt and may warrant a full upgrade if you're using something similar.

So the only other reasonable reasons to use a screen overlay would be if you absolutely can't change your monitor because it is a specific model (e.g. a high value medical display) or if touchscreen capabilities are only temporary or if you want to reduce waste.








Strider Review

After years of rumors and little slices of information about games that were canceled before they were even announced,

There's no preamble to Strider. Launch the game and you'll quickly find yourself hang-gliding into Kazakh City and receiving one simple objective: "Assassinate Grandmaster Meio." As you make your way around the city and into a handful of different areas, you'll get other sub-objectives to help you proceed, but finding Meio and putting his lights out is your goal. Along the way you'll get occasional (and annoying unstoppable, even on retries) dialogue from bosses, but other than telling you that your journey is about to end in defeat, most of the bosses don't have anything meaningful to say. It's just as well, as most of the voice work is average, at best.

While the setting and many of the boss encounters are inspired directly by the arcade version of the game, the action is a bit more like the more-thoughtful NES release or, if you want to be modern about it, it's a Shadow Complex-like action-adventure where you earn abilities that help you enter previously inaccessible areas of the world. This gates access to later portions of the game and also gives you a reason to backtrack around the game to find doors that you weren't able to open the last time around. You'll get most of your major gear upgrades from boss encounters, and most of these are taken directly from the original game and given a few twists to bring them up a bit closer to modern standards. If nothing else, it's a pleasure to be able to fight a giant mechanical ape one more time, even if you can just run up next to it and mash the attack buttons to win.

Most of the gear is very straightforward, though a set of plasma types for your standard sword attack let you deal explosive, ice, magnetic, or standard damage. Your standard attacks can also reflect bullets back at turrets and other armed enemies, once you've found the appropriate upgrade. Traversal doesn't change too much over the course of the game, though gaining the ability to double jump is certainly nice. It gives you an extra bit of maneuverability that freshens up the combat a bit, giving you a better way to dodge bullets. Of course, on normal difficulty you needn't bother. Running right at most enemies and bosses and swinging your sword as quickly as possible is typically the only strategy you need, and the game doesn't start throwing trickier boss encounters at you until the final third. Even the final boss is felled by some fairly remedial tactics. Keeping that in mind, you might want to bump it up to hard... but this seems to just tweak the damage numbers a bit and doesn't really make the game any more exciting.

At times, Strider looks great, but it would benefit from some more environmental variety. Aside from some early bits on the rooftops and some airship shenanigans, most of the game is set in a series of fairly plain-looking facilities. Without many big landmarks to help you navigate, it's a good thing the game has an effective map, complete with color-coded doorways to help you figure out what it takes to open each door--handy when you're backtracking for additional items. The audio, other than the occasionally lame voice acting, is good, but on my 5.1 setup the PS4 version had a really rotten sound mix, with music primarily pumping out of the rear speakers and things like the "shing" of your sword slash, dialogue, and other combat-related audio quietly coming out of the center channel. For the record, this setup has been fine for plenty of other PS4 games, but I would have to make some major adjustments to individual channel volume to make this game sound anything close to correct. Unless maybe the audio team know how drab the dialogue was and tried to buried under a few layers of sound...

The game spits out a trophy for finishing the game in under three hours, but after doing a bit of hunting around to collect around 75 percent of the total items and running up against the game's tougher bosses, my time was a little closer to five hours. Some of the items you'll find along the way include concept art and some unlockable challenges. Beacon Run is a checkpoint race against the clock that gives you a preset loadout of items for each challenge, to keep things fair. Survival mode is a combat challenge that sends you up against waves of bad guys and, again, keeps time for you. Those times are posted to online leaderboards along with your completion time for the campaign. I didn't find either of the two extra modes to be all that exciting, but it's nice that there's something other than the main chunk of action to play.

I went in feeling really great about Strider. It opens abruptly and gets right down to business. The control feels good and the combat starts out in a pretty satisfying way. But, over time, those positives wear off. The game doesn't do enough with its additional items, areas, and action to make it feel like a steady challenge and the variety in the action is a little lacking. It's still a good time if you're the type of person who wants anything that resembles Metroid, modern-day Castlevania, or anything in-between. With more variety to its combat and some more time spent smoothing out its rough edges, Strider could have been a significantly better game.

The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

Can you think of a game less in need of more story than

Left Behind shows you who Riley was, and what she meant to Ellie.

Left Behind doesn't offer any profound revelations about cordyceps, the Fireflies, or other background elements of The Last of Us' grim reality. True to the spirit of the base game, it merely gives form and adds texture to characters and themes that were hinted at in the original story. As such, it's deeply intertwined with the events of The Last of Us, so if you don't know what happens in that game and want to keep it that way, stop reading now.

The DLC opens by revisiting that horrific moment when Joel is impaled on a metal rod, and then deftly shifts between the "present," in which Ellie desperately makes her way through a shopping mall in search of medical supplies to stitch him up, and flashbacks to the time before Ellie was bitten, before she realized she was immune, when she shared a teenager's tumultuous but abiding affection with her best friend Riley. The filmic sensibilities that so enhanced the original game's presentation again work to great effect here, with hard cuts from one time period to the other coming at just the right moments, when the drama is at its height, to keep you intensely engaged in moving the plot forward.

Ellie's present-day struggle through the Colorado mall is where all the fighting is. Left Behind wisely avoids laying on the combat too thick just to pad out its length; there are only a handful of enemy encounters spread evenly through the story, and what light puzzle-solving there is doesn't impede your progress for long (and you don't push any wooden pallets around in the water, thankfully). The game adds the neat twist of mixing human and infected enemies into the same scenarios, allowing you to pit them against each other with just a little creativity. This portion of the DLC is fairly straightforward, but even here Naughty Dog takes the opportunity to tell a short found story, similar to the Ish business in the original game, that resonates with Ellie and Joel's predicament.

One of the best moments in the whole DLC takes place right here.

It's the flashbacks to a relatively more innocent time that give Left Behind its spark. After disappearing without explanation weeks earlier, Riley returns to drop in on Ellie and takes her on a heartfelt day trip through another shopping mall. Cue a bounty of wonderful character-building scenes and exchanges between the two, as they briefly get the mall's power up and running and then get a wistful glimpse of what life might have been like before the world ended. Thankfuly there's no combat in the flashback portion, just a lot of great talking and exploring through a costume shop, a music store, and a merry-go-round, among others. On several occasions, Left Behind makes fantastic, offbeat use of the game's existing mechanics that put a big, goofy grin on my face (and those moments are better experienced for yourself than described in a review). The flashback scenes are mostly playful, but there's an undercurrent of sadness and finality to it all that continually reminds you where this reunion must inevitably end up.

Having finished The Last of Us, you'll be somewhat familiar with who Riley was, but Left Behind solidifies her importance to the game's greater storyline and makes it clear how much she meant to Ellie, and the effect she had on Ellie's formative years. Their relationship is developed well enough during their short jaunt through the mall that you'll dread the conclusion that you know is coming. And telling Riley's story is what allows Left Behind to justify its other half, set in the present. It's not a mystery that Ellie had to strike out on her own to fix Joel up, but seeing firsthand what she's been through and lost makes you appreciate why she fights so hard to hang on to what she has left.

Left Behind packs a lot of great moments into its short running time.

Some may knock Left Behind for its relative brevity, at two to three hours, but this is one of those clear cases of quality over quantity, and I for one appreciate an add-on that imparts a lot of narrative value to a game like this without overstaying its welcome. It's delightfully ironic that the one game which really didn't need any DLC has received one of the best pieces of DLC in recent memory. Left Behind is a fine blueprint that details the right way to thoughtfully and meaningfully expand on the arc of a story-driven game.

Review: Updated: Android 4.4 KitKat

Introduction

Everyone was expecting Key Lime Pie to serve as the delicious moniker for the next version of Android. Google surprised us all by bucking tradition and releasing Android 4.4 under the name KitKat.

Version 4.0 started life as Ice Cream Sandwich, but the last three decimal additions came under the Jelly Bean banner. This new version was obviously deemed different enough to snag a new nickname, but not different enough to merit a jump to version 5.0.

That 0.1 bump hardly does it justice. Don't be fooled: this is an important step up for Android. KitKat is super-smooth, the UI is refined and elegant, there are improvements to the long-neglected calling and messaging side of the platform, a new focus on productivity, and your fortune-telling digital assistant is brought front and centre as Google Now reaches maturity.

Android 4.4 KitKat

General surprise in the tech world wasn't just based on the erroneous supposition that Key Lime Pie had to be next; there were also some raised eyebrows at the idea of Google entering into a tawdry cross-licensing deal with Nestle which would see a flood of Android-shaped KitKats hitting the shops offering buyers the chance to win Nexus 7 tablets or Google Play credit.

According to Google the promotion was its idea, and no money changed hands. With Nestle producing 50 million Android KitKat bars it certainly looks like a sweet deal for them.

Naming conventions aside, the 4.4 update is about addressing some of the Android criticisms that simply won't go away, and it does so very well indeed.

There's a real focus on the consumer here, with a smattering of useful new features, a noticeable bump in performance, and some optimization to ensure that budget hardware is not left behind.

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Android 4.4 is easily the best version of the platform to date, and Google has left the ball firmly in the OEMs' court when it comes to rolling out the upgrades.

Leading the field by extending the update beyond its Nexus line to the Moto G also neatly illustrates the move to improve the Android experience on low-end, affordable hardware.

Android 4.4 KitKat

First impressions

KitKat really makes a mockery of the idea that iOS 7 is more refined than Android. This version of the platform is impressively fast, with stylish transitions and an intuitive feel that masks the potential complexity.

There's a paring back of the notification bar that introduces translucency and context awareness, enabling you to reclaim every pixel of your display for whatever you're doing.

There are a few new features here, and not all of them are perfect, but for the most part Google has cherry-picked improvements and refined them.

The contrast between the bloated OEM launchers and stock Android could hardly be starker, but there are still a few things that manufacturers like Samsung and LG could teach Google (split-screen apps is an obvious one).

Android 4.4 KitKat

The familiar white Google logo, followed by four pulsing colourful circles, still greets you on booting up, but the process has sped up dramatically as the platform has matured. When I checked version 4.1 on a Galaxy Nexus it took 34 seconds. The Nexus 4 running Android 4.2 Jelly Bean clocked in at 19 seconds.

Android 4.4 took 21 seconds to boot up on the Nexus 5 we used for testing. Not quite as fast as the Nexus 4, but when you consider that my Galaxy S3 running version 4.3 of Android took just shy of 40 seconds to boot up, you get a feel for how speedy that is.

As the home screen comes into view, you can immediately detect the lighter feel that Google was shooting for. The status bar icons at the top are now white.

The custom Roboto font looks like it has been on a diet, which makes it feel that little bit more crisp and elegant. Looking at menu highlights and icons, what once was blue is now generally grey.

Google Now Launcher

The changes go further on the Nexus 5 because it has the Google Now Launcher. Those black bars top and bottom are gone. A subtle gradient is retained to ensure white icons are clear, even on light backgrounds.

Android 4.4 KitKat

Head into your app drawer and you'll find white dots at the bottom of the screen to illustrate which page you are on. The icons are now much bigger and clearer, at the cost of displaying just four across instead of five.

The widget tab has been dumped, and you won't miss it because a long press anywhere on the home screen gives you access to the widget menu, as well as wallpapers and relevant settings.

Swipe from right to left and you can access additional home screens. There doesn't seem to be any limit, you simply drag an icon to the right to create a new screen. Any home screen you empty will automatically disappear.

The only real surprise is that you have to scroll deliberately through each one; you can't take a shortcut by tapping on the page marker dots at the bottom.

Swiping from left to right on the home screen will bring Google Now into view, but I'll go into that in more detail later.

Initially none of these changes made it beyond the Nexus 5 by default, but the Google Now Launcher has since been made available for other Nexus devices in the Play Store.

You can also install it on other Android devices by tracking down the right files, although unfortunately there's a risk that it won't work perfectly. The earlier your version of Android, the less likely it is that the Google Now Launcher will work as intended.

I was disappointed and surprised that Google decided to keep this as a Nexus 5 exclusive, so it's pleasing to see it getting a wider release.

If it doesn't work for you, the good news is that popular launchers, such as the free Nova Launcher, can be used, and the status bar transparency is supported along with a number of other customization options, to help you get the look you want.

Calls, messaging and productivity

Jelly Bean saw a major overhaul of the notification shade, but dragging it down from the top of the screen won't reveal any major changes in KitKat. Google has moved on to the next challenge, and refreshingly there has been some overdue attention lavished on the calls and messaging apps.

Calls

The Phone app sits bottom left in the dock on your home screen (although the dock can be customized to your liking). Fire it up and you'll find that frequently contacted people are prominently displayed.

Android 4.4 KitKat

There's a search bar at the very top for contacts or nearby places, and it auto-suggests as you type, so you'll rarely need to input more than a couple of letters.

Your last call is highlighted at the top, with three favourites below that, and then the rest of your contact list. It only fills this in as and when you call people.

Three icons sit at the bottom: on the left you have a call log, in the middle there's the dial pad, and on the right is where you can add, import or export contacts, and access call settings.

The caller ID system has also been improved, so that it can automatically search for businesses with a matching number in listings on Google Maps, if the phone number calling you is not listed in your contacts.

There's nothing Earth-shattering going on here, but Google's bet that most of us only frequently contact a small group of people is a safe one, and it makes the Phone app faster to use.

Messaging

The changes to the messaging system are much bigger. Google has decided to consolidate MMS and SMS messages into its Hangouts app. How much of an impact this has on you will depend on how much you and your contacts use Google services for messaging.

Android 4.4 KitKat

If the person you want to contact is online and signed into Hangouts (via Google+, Google Talk or Gmail), then you can use that service. If they aren't, and you have their number, then you can use SMS.

You can choose between available options by tapping the contact name at the top of the chat window (it doesn't seem to prompt you about this). It actually keeps Hangouts message threads and SMS conversation threads separate, even if they're with the same person.

Generally speaking this consolidation should be a good thing, but it can cause a bit of confusion. It's certainly worth ensuring that your Google+ profile is in order, to avoid unintended revelations.

The Hangouts app allows you to share your location, which is great for meeting friends, and you can send files like animated gifs, or make video calls. Google has also integrated Emoji into the keyboard, so you have a huge list of comical Japanese squiggles to make your messages more interesting.

Just remember that they won't display properly at the other end if the person you're talking to doesn't have Emoji characters installed.

Productivity

Android 4.4 KitKat

It's commonplace to use your smartphone for work nowadays, and there's a greater level of expectation that it will be able to handle documents. The days of the BlackBerry device for the office and something else for home are long gone.

Google has included QuickOffice as a standard app with Android 4.4. It enables you to create and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files on your phone or tablet.

You can save those files to the cloud using the 15GB of free storage you get with Google Drive. It's also capable of opening PDF files. You can share any of your creations directly via email, Bluetooth, Google Drive, and other cloud services.

Wireless printing

There's a new Cloud Print feature to simplify the process of printing a photo, document or web page wirelessly from your Android smartphone or tablet.

It's a pretty barebones option, and you'll need to use a printer that's connected to Google Cloud Print or an HP ePrint printer. Other printers will add support via apps in the Google Play Store.

It draws the list of devices from Chrome, so any device or printer you've used while signed in on Chrome gets listed. This might be a headache for some, so you're best off going to the Google Cloud Print website, when signed into your Google account on your desktop, so you can set it up exactly the way you want.

Email

Android 4.4 KitKat

There's no denying that Google tries to push you towards using the services it wants you to use, and Gmail is a good example. The improvements to the Email app in Android 4.4 offer a welcome break from this pressure.

Some of the better features of Gmail have been integrated. Emails are organized into nested folders, contact photos are displayed, and they double up as checkboxes to select messages.

The bottom navigation bar is gone and there's a new slide-out menu that comes in from the left, offering access to all your folders.

You can also just slide an email left or right to delete it, which enables you to get through that inbox faster. The only obvious thing that's lacking is threaded email conversations.

Downloads

One final boost to productivity is offered by the revamped Downloads app. If you download a lot of files this will really help you find what you want without a lengthy search. You can choose between list or grid view, and you can filter by name, date, or size.

You'll also find that the menu that slides in to enable you to open files in specific apps and attach them provides you with a clear choice of recent files, cloud services, and downloads.

Cloud integration

The allocation of 15GB of free cloud storage is fairly generous, provided you don't mind using Google services. There are various routes into that space. The most useful feature is the auto-backup for photos and videos. You can set it up via Google+, the Photos app, or Google Drive.

Android 4.4 review

You'll also find that you can open your Google Drive files directly from the cloud in relevant apps. Use Quick Office and you can open Word documents.

Fire up the Photos app and you can see photos and videos taken with the camera on the device you're holding, or tap the Highlights tab and you'll see all of your photos and videos from any device that you've backed up, as well as photos you've posted in Google+ and photos you've been tagged in on Google+.

Photos vs Gallery

When it comes to viewing your photos and videos, Google is clearly transitioning from the old Gallery app to a new Photos app. That means there's a slightly confusing mixture of the two.

Android 4.4 review

The Photos app looks fresher, with a white background and a nicer layout.

It lists your content chronologically by default. It pulls in all of your backed up content from Google+, and supports Auto Awesome photos and movies.

The photo effects allow you to merge photos, create wee animations, and more.

There's also an editor to create movies from a mix of photos and videos with various themes, styles, and background music options. The real attraction is the "auto" part of the equation, but you'll have to tweak to get really good results.

Android 4.4 review

The Gallery app has a more in-depth photo editor, but none of the Auto Awesome features. It has a traditional album set up by default, but you can choose to filter by time, location, people, or tags.

Both of the apps duplicate sharing functionality, although it's an option that looks more stylish in the Photos app and you can see the extra integration with existing Google services.

It's another area where Google is trying to tempt you into using its services with some interesting and exclusive features, but the Gallery app is perfectly functional and you can afford to ignore the Photos app if you prefer not to use it.

On devices from other manufacturers there's a good chance that the stock Gallery app will be replaced by their own app for photos, and that's part of the reason it has to be there. It remains to be seen how, when, or if Google will integrate the two in future.

Google Now and performance

Google Now

The pre-emptive powers and general usability of Google Now are improving with every passing Android release. On the Nexus 5, or any other device running the Google Now Launcher, you only have to swipe from left to right on the home screen to open Google Now.

On other Android 4.4 devices you can swipe up from the Home button, wherever you happen to be, and whatever you happen to be doing, and it will launch.

As long as you have your language set to US English (you'll find the option to change it in Settings > Google > Search > Voice) you can simply say "Ok Google" to launch a voice search. The Nexus 5 launcher allows you to utter the same phrase on the home screen and bring Google Now to life.

Android 4.4 KitKat

You can use Google Now for all sorts of thing, including web searches, sending messages, making calls, launching apps, and even playing songs.

The one impediment to that is the speech recognition, but it's showing real signs of improvement in Android 4.4. Even with my Scottish brogue the success rate for queries was pretty high. You can also tap on any wrongly interpreted words and pick a replacement from the dropdown list.

Google is apparently working on integrating Google Now with partner apps next, so it will be able to access their content, and that could advance it another step.

The customization options are still very limited right now, and if you aren't interested in weather results, commute updates, specific sports teams or stocks, then it's just about the voice commands.

Performance and multitasking

Android has been criticized for lag and stutter since it first appeared on the mobile scene. This is somewhat inevitable when you allow low-end hardware to run the platform and manufacturers to create their own user interfaces. Project Butter was the concerted effort to eradicate lag in Jelly Bean and it definitely worked, but KitKat takes it to a whole new level with Project Svelte.

Navigating around on the Nexus 5 or Nexus 7 is lightning fast and silky smooth, nary a touch of lag to spoil your day. The Nexus 5 has had special treatment to ensure that the touchscreen is responsive and accurate, and you can really feel the difference.

Android 4.4 KitKat

Any device with Android 4.4 will benefit from the memory optimization, and it's a breeze to skip in and out of apps and games. This speedy performance is no surprise on a powerhouse like the Nexus 5 or Nexus 7 with their 2GB of RAM, but it really stands out on a device like the Moto G with 1GB of RAM.

That's what makes KitKat so important for the budget end of the Android market.

Google's Project Svelte enables the platform to run reliably on devices with just 512MB of RAM. It could be a viable update for devices stuck on Gingerbread.

A 'low memory' mode can automatically scale back animations and ensure that the hardware can cope. The real barrier to this is persuading manufacturers and carriers to update old devices when they'd prefer you to buy a new one.

Everything else

We've covered the highlights already, but there are a few other enhancements worth mentioning. For a start, KitKat finally brings lost device security to the platform as a default. The Android Device Manager, for finding and remotely wiping a lost device, is now built in to the platform.

When you are listening to music on your device, or projecting movies to Chromecast (now fully supported), you can enjoy full screen art and controls on the lock screen.

Android 4.4 KitKat

The immersive mode which melts the status bar away when you're playing a game or watching a movie is available for all apps now, although it will require developers to update them to support it. A simple swipe up from the bottom of the screen conjures up the Back, Home, and Multitasking keys.

It's also truly gratifying to be able to check your notifications by swiping down from the top of the screen without having to exit whatever you are doing.

Bluetooth MAP support promises better integration with Bluetooth-enabled cars, closed captioning and subtitles can now be turned on via the Accessibility menu, and you can manage Home screen replacements or launchers from the menu via Settings > Home.

Android 4.4 KitKat

Perhaps the biggest new feature we haven't mentioned yet is support for tap to pay via NFC. Google has found a way to allow apps to manage your payment information in the cloud or on your device, so you can use Google Wallet, even if carriers are trying to push their own alternatives.

Throw in support for IR blasters, a more power-friendly way to act as a pedometer, and a new location option in quick settings to give more control over what apps are tracking your location and how they do it.

All in all there are a lot of little tweaks and additions that improve the whole experience, though it's a shame that things like low-power audio playback and HDR+ photography have been limited to the Nexus 5.

The emergence of that Google launcher makes you wonder how much further Google's Android might deviate from the stock experience on other devices in the future.

Verdict

Android 4.4 KitKat doesn't dramatically change the Android experience, it adds a handful of specific features to enable people to get more from their Android devices, and it represents a subtle refinement that's both aesthetic and performance-related.

It remains to be seen whether older devices will benefit from Google's commitment to optimizing the platform for low-end hardware, but new budget devices certainly will.

We liked

The Google Now Launcher looks and feels better, which is great if you have a Nexus device or you're willing to go to the trouble of sideloading it.

Smooth performance and support for lower-end hardware via Project Svelte is a very smart move. It might not solve the fragmentation problem in the short term because updates are down to manufacturers and carriers, but it will certainly ensure that the budget Android experience is vastly improved in the future.

The productivity tweaks are a real boost for anyone using their Android device for work, especially the long overdue update to the Email app. Immersive mode is a subtle thing, but it's a truly welcome tweak.

We disliked

While consolidating messaging in the Hangouts app is not a bad idea, the implementation is not quite right. The separation of SMS and Hangout messaging threads, and the lack of auto-detect to choose how to message a contact, feels awkward.

It's also odd to have a Photos app and a Gallery app with a lot of duplicated options and a handful of exclusives. The user experience would undoubtedly be better if there was just one app to handle your photos and videos.

Verdict

There's absolutely no question that anyone in a position to install Android 4.4 should go ahead and do it. Even without the Google Now Launcher there are enough improvements, refinements, and new features to make it well worth your while. It builds on what is already a very solid platform with a huge range of apps and games.

Android 4.4 KitKat is every bit as stylish and refined as iOS 7, and it still beats the pants off Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10.

We suspect the real strength of KitKat will show itself at the budget end of the Android market. Anyone with limited funds to snag a smartphone will benefit from Project Svelte. The popularity of the Moto G shows there's a real appetite out there for a solid phone that doesn't tie you into a costly monthly contract for two years.

If you're in the market for a new smartphone, whether you want something cutting edge, or you have a tight budget, Android is a seriously strong contender for your business.

When will you get it?

Android 4.4 KitKat has already rolled out to the Nexus 4 smartphone, and the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets.

The new platform has also gone out to the Moto X and Moto G, and the Google Play Editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One.

For the full run down of when your device check out our regularly-updated Android 4.4 release date article discussing all the recent news and rumours about which phones will be updated.

Whether any older devices will get Android 4.4, in an official capacity, is debatable. We'll keep you posted.








Wolfenstein: The New Order Review

Nazis need killin'? Time to call BJ Blazkowicz.

The New Order once again puts you in the blood-soaked boots of William "BJ" Blazkowicz, the lump of gun-holding meat that has starred in pretty much every version of Wolfenstein ever made. At the start, Blazkowicz finds himself in the middle of a D-Day-flavored raid on a massive Nazi compound...in 1946. In this game's timeline, World War II is still raging, and the Nazis have suddenly started surging across Europe thanks to a wealth of terrifying new technology. Blazkowicz and his band of brothers are sent to destroy the base occupied by the Nazi war machine's current leader, General Deathshead. That mission goes terribly awry, and in the fallout, Blazkowicz is gravely injured by a piece of shrapnel that lodges itself in his skull. His living, but mostly comatose body is found and dropped off at a Polish insane asylum, where he spends the next 14 years in a vegetative state.

Flash forward to 1960, and Blazkowicz suddenly finds himself called into action after the Nazis decide to close the asylum by killing all the patients (and the kindly family that runs the place, for good measure). Alive, but still at least partially broken, Blazkowicz quickly disposes of the assault team sent to the asylum, only to realize just how far down the world has fallen. The Nazis won the war, and their tendrils extend to nearly every corner of the globe. Every major city has been nuked and replaced with grotesque concrete monuments to the Nazis' many successes, and what little resistance still exists has mostly been cornered or captured. This places Blazkowicz, a character primarily defined by his ability to kill anything with a swastika emblazoned upon it with swift aplomb, into an unfamiliar, deeply uncomfortable situation. As written in The New Order, Blazkowicz is essentially an antiquated weapon that's been left out to rust for too long, suddenly thrust into a theater of war that initially appears beyond his capabilities.

It's an interesting idea that, like too many ideas in The New Order, never feels fully explored. Blazkowicz comes with no shortage of gruff, brooding narration, in which he espouses half-formed ideas about this new world around him, how he fits into it, and what a life outside of war would even look like for someone like him. Most of this dialogue is actually kind of terrible, but the ideas they're built around are interesting, if rarely allowed much room to breathe. When Blazkowicz first awakes from his 14 years on the shelf, he's wobbly, out of sorts, and occasionally passes out for random bursts of time. Then, suddenly, he's mostly fine. What few instances we do get of him showing these sorts of symptoms are merely used as stylized segues for cutscenes. When it comes time for Nazi killin', Blazkowicz only ever falters when the player does. Instead of portraying him as the broken down war machine he's initially presented as, he mostly just operates as yet another all-too-capable first-person shooter protagonist. That's fine, I guess. It just feels like it betrays the more interesting concept of what the game apparently sees Blazkowicz as, versus what he actually is in practice.

Blazkowicz's fellow freedom fighters are a far more interesting lot, which is why it's a bit of a shame that you don't get a great deal of time with those personalities during the main game. Standouts include the crippled Caroline Becker (who players of 2009's Wolfenstein will most likely remember), the reformed Nazi Klaus, his ultra-strong, Hodor-like companion, Max, as well as one of two soldiers you fight with in the game's opening battle. You'll actually have to make a choice as to which of the two die during the end of that first level, a choice that has ramifications on how the timeline plays out. Those ramifications essentially boil down to some different allies appearing during the course of the game, as well as a few minor mechanical changes, but just in concept, it's interesting notion that I wish MachineGames had gone a little further with.

There are a number of memorable characters in The New Order, but few of them are given ample time to shine.

All of these characters have key roles to play in the main storyline, and some of those roles are pretty great. Unfortunately, the build-up to some of the best character moments is often lacking. Instead, most of your interactions during missions boil down to people telling you where to go and how to get there. The more interesting character stuff tends to fall into hurried cutscenes, quick bits of conversation while you walk around the rebel base between missions, and biographical information buried in the game's menus. At times, the script finds unexpected ways to make these characters seem like actual, genuine people, and at others, it seems to forget about them in favor of pushing you back into the action as quickly as possible. The actors who voice them do terrific work with the sometimes clumsy, overly expository dialogue they've been handed. In the few moments you are allowed to engage with these characters, you can see shades of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, and The Darkness, two games that the former Starbreeze developers that founded MachineGames previously worked on. Those are games revered as much for their strong character work as they are for their richly detailed worlds and tight, brutal gameplay. The New Order feels like an earnest attempt to fashion Wolfenstein into something much like them.

You especially get those Riddick/Darkness vibes when exploring The New Order's world. Though levels are generally more claustrophobic than in the Wolfensteins of old, there's ample reason to poke around where you can. Every environment is chock full of historical newspaper clippings, propaganda posters, hidden records (which feature Nazi Germany's take on pop hits of the era), and the like. Even just standing around and listening to conversations between other characters reveals more than you'd typically expect. The stuff you'll discover while exploring makes up for a lot of the details you'll miss if you only pay attention to the main story, and even if you don't feel like collecting, it's worth looking around just to take in the scenery. Granted, a lot of that scenery leans on the monochromatic and/or deeply depressing side. This is a harsh, fascist world built almost entirely out of concrete, after all, which doesn't leave a lot of room for variance in color schemes, nor visual splendor. Still, there are some memorable setpieces in The New Order and the overall look of the game is pretty great. It's not a visual powerhouse, but every environment feels distinctive, every character is nicely expressive, and the action runs at a mostly smooth clip on both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

As good as its characters and levels are, there's a nagging issue that pops up all throughout The New Order, and it's one of tone. No, nothing about the game is especially offensive, unless you just don't like copious amounts of gore, harsh war imagery, or looking at anything related to Nazis in general. The issue is consistency, or a total lack thereof. The New Order is a game that simultaneously wants to be a dark, introspective look at the depths of human cruelty, and a crazy, over-the-top alternate historical sci-fi caper. In one mission, you will find yourself working undercover in a concentration camp, watching people get tortured, hiding under a pile of emaciated bodies headed for the incinerator, and witnessing other similarly disturbing things. Not long after, you're chuckling as you find yourself rocketing off to a Nazi base on the goddamn moon. When the game does decide to go dark, it usually handles the subject matter with decent enough care, and it's not as if the crazier sci-fi elements negatively impact the game. If anything, The New Order is at its best when it decides to get really ridiculous, as in the aforementioned moon base level, which is one of the best missions in the game. It's just that The New Order never quite finds a good balance between its sillier side and its darker aspirations, which leads to some jarring tonal shifts when it lurches from one side to the other. You're never quite sure if you're supposed to be affected by the direness of the situation or just grinning at the insanity of it all.

It's forgivable if you opt for the latter. As much as The New Order strives toward emotional connection with the player, it's often at its best when it just decides to be a frenetic shooter. The New Order offers up no shortage of opportunities to kill lots and lots of bad guys, though how you choose to do so is surprisingly open-ended. If you're of an old school mentality, simply double-fisting two giant guns and blowing everything in your path into a cloud of blood and viscera is a completely sensible and satisfying way to go about things. Sometimes that's also a very difficult way of going about things, as alerting every nearby enemy to your presence often leads to a quick, brutal death. In combat mode, enemy AI is pretty sharp, meaning enemies will actually work together to try and flush you out if you're hiding behind cover. Sometimes, it's better to take a stealthy route. I know, I know, what is stealth even doing in a game like Wolfenstein? You'll be forgiven for assuming stealth mechanics in a game like this would be terrible, but they actually aren't. Whether you're using a silenced pistol or just a trusty knife, there's ample opportunity to sneak around and kill enemies without ever being spotted, and the game is surprisingly well designed for this kind of tactic. This is especially useful when dealing with commanders, who have the ability to summon reinforcements as soon as you're spotted. Enemy AI is a bit more, shall we say, generous, when they're not aware you're around, so it's completely viable to sneak your way through multiple sections of The New Order, and it's surprisingly fun to do so.

The action in The New Order is often exciting, even if the weapon variety isn't.

And if you don't, again, you can just shoot everything to death all the time. Sometimes I very much did, especially in The New Order's bigger, crazier levels. When you're in an intense firefight with a dozen or so enemies all bearing down on you, the chaos that results is both harrowing and highly entertaining. The only real letdown of the gunplay pertains to the weapons you're given. I never really fell in love with any of the guns in the game. Some, like the automatic shotgun, or the multipurpose laser cutter, can lead to some pretty spectacular deaths, and the shooting in general has a good, solid feel to it. I just kind of wish the weapons had been a little more out-there, I suppose. Considering how insane this retro-futuristic world is, with its speculative technologies and horrible death robots and whatnot, it's surprising to me that the guns you're given feel so utterly familiar. It's another case where the game tries to strike a balance between the realistic and the insane, and as a result, most of the guns just seem like slightly more futuristic versions of the same sorts of guns you'd find in any first-person shooter. The destruction that results from their use is certainly fun to watch unfold, though.

Giving credit where credit's due, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great deal more ambitious than you would ever expect yet another Wolfenstein reboot to be. This is a game that could have easily just slapped another quick-and-dirty Nazi invasion plot together and leaned entirely on the shooting of things to get by. Instead, MachineGames has obviously gone to great lengths to turn The New Order into something more than that. It tries to create stakes that go beyond the basic scope of "kill those bad guys because they're bad," and even when it fails to completely take advantage of those stakes, there's still enough excitement, enough intrigue, enough humanity in its story to keep you interested. Even if its ideas only scratch the surface of something deeper, Wolfenstein: The New Order still delivers an experience well worth your time.

Child of Light Review

It's a shame the game doesn't do a better job endearing its characters to the player. That constant rhyming dialogue certainly does them no favors.

Maybe "mere" is the wrong word, given how tremendously good Child of Light looks. Using Ubisoft's trademark UbiArt engine (which has most recently been used to bring Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends to life), Child of Light paints its magical world with tremendous care. Every character looks like it could have come from an old hand-painted book, every environment is full of amazing detail, and it all animates with a fluidity that makes every on-screen action--up to a point--enrapturing. Those visuals are complimented by a terrific soundtrack by Cœur de Pirate, one that's as good at emphasizing the (supposed) intensity of the game's battles as it is underscoring the tranquil beauty of the game's many low-key moments.

It's a shame, then, that Child of Light's best qualities are only skin-deep. As a fairy tale, it's fairly bland. You play as Aurora, a princess from the magical fantasy kingdom of...Austria. No, this isn't a game about a girl trekking up the Grossglockner Alpine Road. Early on, Aurora finds herself transported against her will to the land of Lemuria, a place where wizard gnomes, depressed circus performers, mercantile mice, and a variety of other people find themselves oppressed by a dark queen of...darkness? Evil? I don't know, to be perfectly frank. I read every line of dialogue in Child of Light, and I still found myself frequently wondering just what the heck was going on. Some of the details of the world and its various issues are filled in by collectible "confessions," which you'll find floating around, but that's hardly an ideal way to keep a player fixated on a story. The key thing to understand is that Aurora desperately wants to go home to her father, who has become gravely ill in her absence. Everything else around that core plot detail isn't particularly necessary.

This means that it's okay if you find yourself itching to skip through the game's aggressively twee dialogue. Everything in Child of Light rhymes. Everything. Nobody can say anything to anyone without a cutesy rhyme coming somewhere near the end of it. I understand why this is the case. Fairy tales are often told in rhyme, and that's what Child of Light is trying to be. Unfortunately, those rhymes are often more confusing than clever. Dialogue that should just be explaining what's happening often feels needlessly convoluted. When the game starts making jokes about characters that can't make rhymes, it proceeds to run those jokes into the ground almost immediately. There are at least a few instances where it tries to rhyme words that absolutely do not. It's a messy script made worse by the distinct lack of voice work. I don't mind reading in-game dialogue, but with a script so clearly meant to be lyrical in its delivery, at a certain point the words all just started to blend together in a bunch of sing-songy nonsense in my head.

So the story may be a wash, but there is still the whole game portion of the equation to consider. In this regard, Child of Light fares better, but still finds itself stumbling over its own aspirations.

Child of Light is undeniably beautiful to look at.

Child of Light is a turn-based role-playing game. You navigate Aurora through the world of Lemuria either by running or by flying (an ability she gains soon after arriving). Every time you encounter an enemy on screen, you have two options. You can try to avoid the fight by zooming right past, or you can try to take them head-on. Assuming you do find yourself in battle, two characters from your party will appear on the battle screen alongside up to three enemies. The flow of battle is dictated entirely by a bar that sits at the bottom of the screen. On it, icons depicting each character will race toward a section of the bar that allows you to perform an action. This can be an attack, assuming a defensive position, using a potion, or any number of other things. The key is timing your actions against those of your enemies. Everything you do (outside of the defensive stance, which is instant) takes time to enact. If an enemy attacks you while you're in the middle of casting a spell, it will interrupt you, thus negating the spell and sending you back to the beginning of the bar.

Initially, this system creates a thrilling little risk/reward mechanic for how you approach battles. The only real advantage you have comes in the form of a little elemental spirit, which you control with the right stick (or a second player can control with another controller). Hovering this glowing ball over a specific enemy slows their progress on the bar, while hovering it over one of your party members slowly increases their health. That spirit can't do either of those things forever, mind you. You can collect energy for it using various plants that are scattered throughout the world and in battle screens, but they're limited.

Unfortunately, that initial thrill is negated pretty quickly by Child of Light's dearth of challenge. Most battles for the first seven or so hours of the game are a breeze. It doesn't really matter which party members you use in what situation, because few enemies are strong enough to put up a hard fight. While the easy response to this might be to just skip most battles, that means you won't be leveling up your characters, which is problematic when you first start facing tougher bosses. This turns Child of Light into a bit of an unfortunate grind, where you'll find yourself in battle after battle against mostly dull-witted foes for hours on end.

At least there is some room for variance in who you choose to bring into battle. Each character has their own set of abilities. One, for instance, is a wizard whose magical attacks play into the various elemental weaknesses of your enemies. Another, a sad jester you meet early on, mostly provides healing and spell boosts to your other party members, while occasionally making use of a quick "tumble" attack that outpaces most other enemy attacks. Each character is nicely varied, and a big part of the strategy comes from figuring out which pairing of party members best suits the enemies you're presented with. The problem is, you don't really have to start developing those strategies until considerably later in the game. I don't think I even bothered to swap a party member mid-battle until over halfway through Child of Light's 12-hour story. And by that point I'd gotten so used to everyone's attack rhythms that I was still trouncing most every enemy encounter.

Part of that probably stems from the insane frequency with which your characters level up. Every character comes with an almost ludicrously lengthy skill tree, full of minor and major upgrades for every statistical category and ability. The way things are paced, you level up after every few fights, which means you're constantly going into the game menu to fiddle around with which upgrade to assign. A lot of these are pretty inconsequential, and exist mostly as a way to space out larger upgrades that come after every four or five small ones, but there are still so many of them that it feels like you're constantly staring at that skill tree, which does break up the pacing of the game a bit. Far worse and much more useless is the game's "occuli" system, which lets you combine collected gems into buffs you can assign each character. The buffs themselves aren't without value, but having to sit and combine gem after gem while trying to chase down the ideal boosts for each character is the opposite of fun. It's just tedious busywork.

There's a lot of leveling up to be done in Child of Light, as this beast of a skill tree demonstrates.

The good news is that Child of Light does get better as it goes along. Once you start fighting bosses and delving into some of the game's more elaborate dungeons, the game finally starts finding ways to trip you up. And with that added challenge, fights become more strategic, more intense, and generally more fun. That fun comes only about four or so hours from the game's conclusion, but those four hours are far more enjoyable than the preceding seven or eight. It's worth noting that Child of Light only comes with two difficulty settings, and at the time of release, those were titled "normal" and "hard." Apparently those designations are going to be patched to say "casual" and "expert," which feel more accurate to what the game actually presents. I restarted the game on "hard" after finishing it on "normal," and while the difficulty increase does make enemy encounters tougher, it doesn't entirely negate the sluggish, grindy feel of the early parts of the game. You just have to work a little harder to dispatch a lot of enemies that still don't require a ton of strategy to best.

Even with all these issues, I felt like Child of Light was a game worth seeing through to the end. Up until those last few hours, I was ready to write it off entirely. It's a shame that it takes so long to find its groove, and even when it does, it's not as if the story becomes markedly better, the dialogue any less obnoxiously opaque, nor the gameplay any less rote. But in those few hours, you catch a glimpse of a stronger, more thoughtful, more engaging experience than the gorgeous, but disappointingly empty one that makes up too much of Child of Light.