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Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

A group of people have been locked in a building, and the only way out is to kill one another. To most people, that sounds like yet another predictable entry in the Saw movies. But it's also part of "escape the room," a surprisingly lively subgenre of games familiar to players of the visual novels

Besides you, every character in Danganronpa is one hell of an eccentric, but they're all reasonably fleshed out.

Danganronpa takes place in Hope's Peak Academy, an elite school for elite students. Only a select few are admitted every school year, and each must be the best of the best. In Danganronpa's world, these pupils are deemed ultimates. Sayaka Maizono, for example, is the "Ultimate Pop Sensation," Leon Kuwata is the "Ultimate Baseball Star," and Chihiro Fujisaki is the "Ultimate Programmer." Players are cast as Makoto Naegi, a humble but affable youngster who is, at first glance, unexceptional in every way. He's the "Ultimate Lucky Student," as he's been granted the opportunity to attend Hope's Peak Academy, despite his lack of special skills. As each student arrives at the school, they pass out. Upon awakening, the students introduce themselves to one another before meeting the master of ceremonies, Monokuma. He's a, uh, talking and murdering bear. (That's not really anymore ridiculous than the talking doll from Saw, to be fair.) The group has the option of living out the rest of their lives in the school, or "graduating" by killing one another. If you can get away with murder, you can leave.

From there, when you're not tapping through dialogue, the game transitions to a relationship simulator of sorts. Looking around unlocks tokens to buy presents from the school's store. These presents, if used appropriately, can advance your relationship with the other students. (But not in a sexual manner, from what I saw.) Sadly, with some rare exceptions, you don't learn much from these moments that wouldn't arrive via the main storyline. It's mostly a means to unlock new abilities for the courtroom portion of the game and gathering trophies. The lack of meaningful insight into the characters meant I'd often find myself picking which one to spend time with at random, simply hoping to advance the storyline to the next major beat. There is no real upside or downside to who you spend time with, as the story does not adjust based on your choices, and the abilities aren't necessary to complete the courtroom segments. It's a missed opportunity for a game that is, largely, all about its story.

The main storyline does spend plenty of time with the characters, though. And while Danganronpa has moments of shocking violence, unlike your typical horror, it's not entirely about the gore. In fact, Danganronpa even swaps the color of blood from red to pink. What makes Danganronpa different is context. The many quiet moments with each character give each death a sense of weight and loss, and while you should never grow attached, you will. Learning about Byakuya's ambitions for greatness as a means of living up to to his family lineage or Hina's secret desire for donuts in moments of weakness means each chapter and each death is not just a bodycount. Many of the characters are purposely unlikable, but their intentions are, often, logically justifiable and create a wild, unpredictable dynamic that unfolds over the game's 20ish hours.

As one might expect, it doesn't take long for things to go awry. Not everyone is content to stay inside for the rest of their lives, and murder(s) come quickly. When a body is discovered, the game transitions to an Ace Attorney-style investigation mode. Searching the world around you is easy enough, as tapping triangle brings up all the interactive parts of the environment. You can't really fail, as the game's story won't move forward until you have all the evidence that's available, which are stored in your inventory as "truth bullets." (As silly as this sounds--and it's definitely silly--the game's title is derived from the Japanese words for bullet and refutation.)

After you've clicked on everything, Monokuma will ask everyone to head to the school's basement, which happens to house a circular courtroom. (It has a bath house, so why not?) These hour-long unravelings of each murder(s) is where the meat of Danganronpa's gameplay takes place, and happen via a series of logic-based minigames. The most common one involves listening to a conversation between several different characters and pointing out a contradiction with either a piece of evidence from the crime scene or within the dialogue itself. These are the most fun, working as little riddles to tease out a new strand of truth. Every once and a while, there's a shooting gallery of letters used to play a game of Hangman, and when you're trying to completely break an argument, a quick rhythm game appears. Neither are very fun. However, every case closes with you arranging an elaborate comic outlining the murder from start to finish, which are easily the game's most enjoyable puzzles. A dozen more of these instead of a single game of Hangman would have been great.

The boring Hangman sections of Danganronpa are, thankfully, over almost as soon as they begin.

I found it hard not to scratch my head during the courtroom sequences, too. Danganronpa desperately wants to make its story interactive, and does so with a false sense of drama. The game trips over itself so your character is the one to solve everything, even if others have already figured it out and have zero motivation to keep it from you. Plus, for whatever reason, you have a health bar? Point out a contradiction that doesn't work or mess up the rhythm game too many times and, for whatever reason, you're dead. Logic be damned! Even if the whole case has been leading towards another killer, the game needs a game over screen, so it employs a contrived reason to generate one that doesn't have a ring of truth to the story. Besides setting up the game's trophies for solving cases without a single mistake and fulfilling a design desire for the player to somehow "lose," this does nothing but fuel a story twisting itself in knots to make sure the player has something to do.

But for a game that opens with a seemingly ridiculous premise, it finishes remarkably well. The ending is delightfully and daringly ambiguous, and most games wouldn't show this much restraint. Now, sure, if I were to tell you the game's ending, you might laugh. I wouldn't blame you. It sounds pretty goofy! But it works incredibly well within the world Danganopra sets up, and, hey, almost any game ending sounds goofy out of context.

Bears are dangerous. Who would put a bear in charge of a school? True horror.

For a game about subverting expectations, though, Danganropa is not one without its creepy moments. This is a game that has a character, Hifumi Yamada, meant to lampoon the unfair stereotype of an anime fan. He's fat, sweaty, and obsessed with 2D. It's really well written, and means Danganropa is acutely aware of its own genre tropes, both in and outside of the game. Despite this, it can't kick all of them. There is zero reason for one of the game's women to be shown in a provocative, seductive position on her bed, with her underwear fully on display...but it's there. Call it fanservice, call it whatever you want. It adds nothing to the game, and it's not part of a romantic relationship arc. Another scene involves the player being able to spy on the women in a bath house. It's only viewable if the player has a particular item from the school store, however, and is not presented as a "choice" for the player. It's unnecessary, the kind of thing where you have to hide your Vita in the middle of a bus ride, hoping you don't have to explain you're not looking at porn. Games are a medium that shouldn't shy away from sex and romance, but doing so requires a maturity not found here, and nothing in the story suggests these were needed.

(Another moment that should be mentioned is also a spoiler, so feel free to skip this paragraph, if you'd like. One character, whom I won't mention, has the discovery of their "true" gender used as a cheap plot device that's not handled with very much sensitivity.)

Though Danganronpa comes from a niche genre, I'm convinced it's only niche because more people haven't given it a chance. Visual novels have a bad reputation, albeit not entirely unearned. But don't let that stop you. As far as entry points go, Danganronpa is a great one, even if 999 and VLR are better games. If you like what you see here, more strangeness awaits you. Danganropa's tongue-twisting sci-fi (or is it?) narrative will have you constantly second guessing, and while the game-y parts aren't its strongest point, they work well enough.

Review: Xbox One

Introduction and design

The Xbox One is Microsoft's third games console and certainly its most ambitious to date.

Not just a powerful games machine, it's designed to sit at the centre of your digital home, offering a slick, unified interface for your choice of live TV service alongside music and movie streaming options, Skype chats, catch-up TV and more.

It's also received a £30 price cut in February 2014, and now costs £399.99. If you're quick you can get it with a free copy of Titanfall as well.

Coming with the new version of Kinect by default, voice and gesture controls sit at the heart of everything and offer a step up in reliability and performance from the previous generation.

If you're not going to play a game, you no longer need to use the gamepad to turn the console on or navigate to your entertainment of choice.

Still, does it have a chance at the runaway success of the Xbox 360? Or will it trip over its own £399.99 price tag (down from £429.99 of course).

Design

The Xbox One box is very similar to that of the Xbox 360 - big, fiddly and frustrating. While the PS4 comes with minimal packaging, the Xbox One comes bundled with far more cardboard and plastic. It's very American in this regard and does at least feel like a premium product.

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The first thing you'll notice about the console when you get it out of the enormous box is what an absolute beast it is in its own right. It measures 274 x 79 x 333 mm, making it longer and taller than a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 360. You don't need a tape measure to figure that out though, the thing just looks huge, and it's ugly too.

Xbox One review

Its size and girth harkens back to the original Xbox, an imposing black plastic beast covered in black plastic ridges. Microsoft seems to be throwing back to that design, bringing back the all black and the ridge-covered aesthetic.

Xbox One review

It's massive size and black rectangular construction evoke a stereo tuner from the nineties. Its imposing bulk begs to be hidden away, with just its slot loading disc drive exposed, little white Xbox logo glowing in lonely TV cabinet darkness.

Xbox One review

Flip the machine around and you'll see a plethora of ports. It has all your standard nodes: ethernet, HDMI out, power, S/PDIF (commonly used for optical audio), dual USB 3.0 ports and an IR out. Additionally, there are two proprietary ports, one for hooking in the Kinect, and an HDMI-in, which is how you feed the Xbox One your cable or satellite signal. There's also a third USB 3.0 port found on the system's right side.

Xbox One review

The HDMI-in can function as a passthrough and let any old HDMI signal in, but there's a slight delay that makes it no good for hooking in another console.

Kinect

You can't talk Xbox One without bringing up the new Kinect. While the system can operate without being hooked into Microsoft's magic eye, you'd be losing a lot of its most unique features and showroom wow factor.

Xbox One review

The new Kinect is a whole lot bigger than its predecessor. It's also designed to sit in front of your TV, rather than perched on top of the screen like the PlayStation Camera. It's too big and, presumably, delicate for that.

Just like the system itself, it has a white light up logo on its right side. Dull red lights from its IR blaster intermittently glow when it's active.

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M33sfLa3sp0

The underside of the Kinect has rubber feet that provide a firm grip. It's not going to fall off your entertainment center any time soon. It can also tilt up and down, with enough range of motion that there shouldn't be any trouble finding the right angle for your living room.

What's in the box?

Xbox One review

What a pile. An Xbox One purchase gets you the console and a Kinect, a power cable and adapter (aka the power brick), a decent headset, the headset adapter, an HDMI cable and controller with batteries. You'll also get a 14-day free trial of Xbox Live Gold.

Setup

Xbox One setup is more involved than on the PS4, but it's still not terribly complex. Along with power and HDMI, you'll also have to connect the Kinect through its proprietary cable.

If you plan to watch TV on the console, you'll do so with an HDMI cable, through the system's HDMI-in port. You'll then need to run the OneGuide's setup, which isn't too complex. We'll get into that in the media portion of this review.

When you first switch the system on you'll be met with a setup wizard which will get you connected to the internet for that day one patch. It's around 2GB, and absolutely required before you can even get to the Home screen.

After that's done don't go unplugging your router just yet, at least if you want to play Blu-rays. Almost nothing is on the system by default, and while internet access is not required for single player gaming, there's a ton of functionality that still needs come down from the cloud.

Hop into the Store and get those downloads queued up. After that though, setup is complete. Now before we dive deep into the Xbox One, allow us to walk you through some of its big new functions.

Xbox One review

Snap

The Xbox One's tiled Home screen is a dead giveaway that the interface shares some DNA with Windows 8. Its brought one of the unique features of the Metro UI to your TV screen in the form of app snapping.

Snapping lets you run two apps at once, giving a third of the screen to one app off to the right, and the rest to your primary engagement. It's a good way to do a little Internet Explorer browsing while you wait for a friend to join your game, but beyond that it can be straining on the eyes.

First off, on all but the biggest TVs, a third of the screen just isn't enough space to do much of anything. Having FIFA on one side and an actual live match on the other may sound intriguing, but in practice it's cramped and terribly distracting. Snapping is better left to simpler apps, like the browser or answering a Skype call.

It's also a headache in execution because it requires multiple trips to the home screen. First to load up the primary app, then to back out and choose snap, after which you pick your secondary app.

Kinect makes it easier, allowing to simply say "Xbox snap Skype" to get the side by side feature working. It's also much easier to just say "switch" for toggling between the two rather using the controller.

Also, once an app is unsnapped, you lose all its functionality. Skype calls hang up, Xbox Music stops playing, basically you're forced to give up precious visual real estate for this debatably useful function.

While it's impressive that the Xbox One's hardware is capable of juggling all this with a drop in gaming performance, it comes off as something you can do, but not something you'll actually want to do, at least very often.

Xbox One review

Game DVR

Game DVR could be the end of gaming tall tales and "you had to be there" stories. With help from Microsoft's SkyDrive service, it lets you easily record and share your personal epic wins.

It's much simpler than third-party recording devices since it's built directly into the system, and can grab your finest moments just after they happen. Simply say "Xbox record that" to Kinect and a 720p recording of your last thirty seconds in-game is saved to the hard drive. You can also get up to five minutes of footage but you have to plan ahead by snapping the Game DVR feature.

Like the recording on the PS4, game DVR cannot record on the Home screen, and developers do have the choice to disable it at certain moments, in case they don't wont spoilers to pop up online.

Unlike the PS4, which keeps a running archive of your last fifteen minutes of gameplay, the Xbox One is not constantly recording. However, games can be programmed to automatically engage the DVR. Battlefield 4, for example, records when you rank up or earn an achievement.

Xbox One review

The Xbox One does allow more complete access to your recordings than the PS4. Using upload studio you can send the recording to SkyDrive, Microsoft's answer to Dropbox, and download it your PC as an MP4. You can then edit it using any tools you like, and upload the clip anywhere you choose. That's a lot more freedom than the on PS4, which limits you to Facebook or PSN uploads.

You can also share clips on Xbox Live where they will appear on in your activity feed. Those feeds are rather buried though, so chances are your friends won't see it unless you give them a heads up.

Upload Studio also has a simple suite of editing tools, and allows you to record a voice over commentary. You can even use Kinect recording to place yourself in the video, picture-in-picture style.

Xbox One review

While the Xbox One currently has no built-in live streaming capabilities to match the PS4's Twitch and Ustream support, we think players will appreciate having direct access to their clips, which greatly extends the possibilities of editing and sharing.

Smartglass

Xbox One review

Smartglass is the Xbox's second screen experience. It was introduced on the Xbox 360 and lets you navigate menus and see system information on your tablet or smartphone.

The app is back for Xbox One, and does have improved functionality. You can now launch apps from the second screen, and several games now have companion apps. Dead Rising 3 lets you use your device in lieu of the in-game phone for ordering attacks and calling for back. You can even view the in-game map.

The best service Smartglass provides is a keyboard that's easier than the console's on-screen option. It's a great way to read and respond to messages. You can also type in URLs and operate Bing search this way, which is an excellent way to multitask. You can also use the OneGuide on Smartglass for TV control.

The Windows 8 Smartglass app has its own special features. You can throw a browser page from the console directly onto the screen of your W8 device.

Xbox One review

Also, its online requirement, which threatened to lock up the system without a daily server ping, has been dialed way, way down. Out of the box, your Xbox One will need to download a day one patch before you even arrive at the homescreen. After that, you can cut the ethernet cable or smash your router; there's no further online connectivity needed for single player gaming.

Xbox One review

Xbox OneGuide

Sadly, this functionality is not available to UK customers at launch, North Americans can use that HDMI-in to turn the Xbox One into a cable box. Using a built in guide, you can navigate channels and search for specific shows, using the controller or your voice via Kinect.

Xbox One also integrates streaming services that you're currently subscribed to, and helps you find what you're looking for across all options.

For example, if you want to watch The Matrix, search for the film, and the Xbox One Guide will tell you if you can watch on Netflix, if you own it on Amazon, show a link to buy it through the Xbox Marketplace, or give you a heads up that it will be on cable next week.

What does work in the UK

UK gamers can still use the Xbox One's passthrough features though, so you can still plug in your Sky, Freeview or Freesat box and watch it through the Xbox One using existing remote controls etc. You just can't do anything else with it... yet.

Controller + Kinect

Beloved the world over for its comfortable layout and dependable wireless connection, the Xbox 360 controller became a gaming gold standard. For the Xbox One, Microsoft has given it an overhaul, and it's mostly for the best.

Same goes for the Kinect. It never got the adoration of the 360's gamepad, and was often accused of being a gimmicky, "me too" by Microsoft after the Nintendo Wii kicked off a motion control craze (Sony had its own attempt - remember the PlayStation Move?).

This time around, Microsoft still hasn't built a lot of games around the Kinect. Instead, it's been integrated into the console's interface. While you can choose not to use it, you'd be missing out on some of the most surprisingly fun, but occasionally frustrating, features of the Xbox One.

Xbox One review

Controller

The Xbox 360's controller was widely regarded as the best all around console gamepad. Its natural contours, well placed triggers and asymmetrical stick layout made it comfortable and the right fit for games of all kinds.

Moving from the 360 to the One, Microsoft has altered little about its signature controller. The most noticeable change is the new position of the Xbox button, which is now at the top rather than in the middle, making it harder to hit by accident.

Xbox One review

Basically, Microsoft chose not to mess with a good thing and stuck to improving the existing design. It's now lighter, with a matte finish that feels sleek in the hand. The analog sticks are extra grippy thanks to textured rubber.

There's also force feedback in the triggers, letting you feel the kick of a gun or the rumble of off-road driving right in your fingers. Right now it's a bit of gimmick, but you never know what some clever developer might do with it.

Xbox One review

Comparing the two side-by-side, we prefer the Xbox One's controller to PS4's DualShock 4. However, Sony's controller has a few features we wish Microsoft would had adopted.

The Xbox One is still using AA batteries for power, while Sony has been building a rechargeable cell right into its controller since the DualShock 3. Microsoft sells that functionality separately in the form of the Play and Charge Kit. At £19, it's asking a lot, since extra controllers are already £44 a pop.

Xbox One review

The Xbox One's controller doesn't have any motion features, unlike the DualShock 4, which basically has Move built right in. It's forgivable since you have a Kinect, but we do think that the PS4's touchpad gives it an edge, both for casual gaming and manipulating big inventory screens.

Overall, the Xbox One controller is an improvement in every way except one: the shoulder buttons. The actions on the Xbox One's bumpers are less taught. It makes for a flimsier click, which is a real shame, since the One controller trumps the 360's build quality in every other way.

Xbox One review

With the exception of that annoying flaw, the Xbox One has a really excellent controller. It's a pleasure to hold, the batteries last just as long as the last-gen version and making black the standard color was a wise choice, since it won't discolor as readily as the 360's white model.

Xbox One review

Kinect

The Xbox One's Kinect is a combination camera and microphone. It lets the system see you, hear you, react to your commands or just your presence. It also has an IR blaster that can interact with your TV and other appliances.

While Microsoft has taken pains to assure the public that the Kinect is not required for using the Xbox One, ignore it and you'd be missing out. After all, it's going to be in the box no matter what; it's the reason Xbox One is £50 more than the PS4.

Physically, it's bigger than the Xbox 360's Kinect. It's wider, heavier, more rectangular and cannot be mounted to the top of your TV, at least not as-is out of the box. Also, unlike the 360's Kinect, it doesn't move on its own to keep you in frame. Microsoft has replaced that slightly unnerving feature with an optical zoom. The Kinect can be manually tilted, but you only need to do so during the initial setup.

Xbox One review

There's a wizard that makes calibration quite painless and only needs to be repeated if you make major changes to your living room setup. The first time you run it you'll introduce Kinect to your face. Once seems to be enough, the Kinect was shockingly good at picking people out beneath glasses and facial hair.

Some checks do need to be repeated if you move the Kinect: making sure it can see enough of the floor and that the mic is tuned to hear you. The system will ask you to crank up your speakers so it can blast a few notes for a sound check. This makes sure Kinect can hear you over the TV. This whole setup process takes less than five minutes.

The Kinect sees you and hears you, letting you navigate menus with your voice or gesture commands. Being able to go from the first Home screen to your pins with a wave is nice, but beyond that the onscreen hand cursor is more trouble than it's worth. It's twitchy and doesn't recognize a "press" very well.

Xbox One review

For voice commands, the Kinect's mic can reliably hear you over TV audio, but conversation and background noise gives it trouble. It's best used when there's little going on in the room besides playing Xbox. You also need to stick to rather rigid command syntax so it understands you.

Everything you say has to begin with "Xbox." "Xbox go to Forza Motorsport 5" will launch said racing game. It sounds simple enough but you'll find plenty of ways to trip over it. For example, saying play rather than go to, or Forza instead of the game's entire name. Kinect is no Siri when it comes to interpreting the way people actually talk.

A lot of the command phrasing isn't terribly intuitive either. For example, "Xbox on" turns on the system, but "Xbox turn off" switches it off. Forgetting to say "turn" or putting it where it doesn't belong usually results in no response from the Kinect.

Xbox One review

Hopefully Kinect's voice commands will improve and become less rigid over time. Siri and Google Now have certainly come a long way. As of now, Xbox One's interface jammed with tutorials and lists of phrases; Microsoft knows there's a lot to learn and it's doing its best to compensate. See a full list of Kinect commands here.

Kinect makes a lot of basic functions convenient and fun. Pausing a movie, returning to the home screen and switching between snapped apps worked quite well. However, anything beyond simple commands can quickly get frustrating.

The least reliable command is ironically the most basic. We frequently found ourselves saying "Xbox on" several times before the system would come to life. While it would sometimes snap to attention at first utterance, we never what we had done right, or wrong.

Also, while you can easily setup the Kinect's IR blaster to automatically power on your TV, it might be a good option to skip. If your TV is already on when you say "Xbox On," it'll turn it off. A lot of universal remotes have the same problem.

At its best the Kinect compliments the Xbox One's interface by giving you options. You can go between speech, gestures and controller input without even bothering to tell the Kinect "stop listening." The bevy of options is impressive, and amusing.

Xbox One review

Don't think that the Kinect is ever not listening though. This thing can turn on the system, remember? It's basically in standby all the time. While we think that Microsoft has better things to do than monitor what people are up to in their living rooms, the idea of an always on microphone is a bit disconcerting in the era of the NSA.

You can opt of out of using the Kinect by simply leaving it in the box, but you can't opt out of paying for it. That's a shame for gamers that would rather put that $100 toward games or a spare controller, but at least it gives a developers a major incentive to design for it. The Kinect's install base will undoubtedly be larger than that of the sold separately, and comparatively underpowered, PlayStation 4 Camera.

Performance

Microsoft's bid for living room supremacy is powered by an AMD processor, backed by 8GB of DDR3 and 32MB of ultra fast ESRAM. For storage, there's a 500GB hard drive to keep your media, gameplay videos and game installs. Unlike the PlayStation 4, there's no swapping out that mechanical drive for solid state without considerable trouble, and letting your warranty fly right out the window.

Speaking of windows, if you've used Windows 8, the Xbox One's interface will look familiar. It's made up of tiles and divided into three sections: Pins, Home and Store. It's somewhat customizable, letting you pick the color of said tiles, but mostly works by automatically populating itself with your recently accessed apps and games.

Xbox One review

Interface

Home is the first thing you'll see when you turn on your Xbox, or hit the Xbox button on the controller. It devotes a large front and center rectangle to whatever you're currently doing. Whether it's a game, an app or TV, you'll see a live preview of it in the middle of the screen. If you just booted up, it'll show the last app you used.

The current app preview is flanked on the left by a strip for your Xbox Live profile. It provides fresh information about your Gamerscore and friends list.

Xbox One review

The rest of Home is covered in tiles for other recently accessed apps. Besides your Live profile and the current app preview, Snap and My games & apps are the other permanent residents. There's also a tile representing the disc drive, and three large Featured tiles.

Currently, the Featured section is filled with tutorials for the Xbox One. We're not sure what kind of content it will host in the future, be we wouldn't be surprised if advertisements started to hang out there.

Xbox One review

To the left of the Home screen you'll find your Pins, a favorites list you can customize with games, apps or TV shows. You may remember pins from the Xbox 360, but they're far more convenient and powerful on the Xbox One.

For one thing, they're practically living on the Home screen, just a scroll to the left away, while the 360 tucked them into their own folder. Being able to save a specific show or TV channel to Pins is the Xbox One's media integration at its most convenient.

Xbox One review

To the right of the Home screen is the Store. It's divided into Games, Movies & TV, Music and Apps. There's also a Bing search bar below it. The layout is attractive and the placement is unobtrusive. We're just glad that it's been relegated to its own screen, away from the more personal Home and Pins.

When you're in an app or game, returning to the Home screen is as simple as pressing the Xbox button on the controller. Games are automatically paused, while videos and live TV continue to play, creating a sort of picture in picture effect.

Of course, the whole interface can also be navigated by Kinect, using either gestures or voice commands. The Xbox One's interface does have its unintuitive moments, and the Kinect compensates for them nicely. We're not sure why Settings has been folded into My games & apps, but being able to shout "Xbox go to Settings" saves you from having to remember that.

Xbox One review

Currently, notifications aren't getting the sort of prominence they deserve. They're packed into a globe icon in the upper left of the screen. Same goes for your Xbox Live friends feed, which is stored in another small icon right next to it. It's easy to miss gameplay videos shared by your friends, or an invitation to join a game.

Cramming all this important and fun information into tiny little icons really makes the Featured section of Home feel like a waste of space. We'd much rather have game invitations pop up there, rather than tutorials or whatever else is on its way.

When it comes to booting up, the Xbox One is very fast because it doesn't really turn off unless you unplug it. Holding down the Xbox button and selecting console off really just puts it in standby mode.

Surely the Xbox One needs this hidden standby functionality both for better performance, and so the Kinect can listen for your "Xbox on" command. It does stand in contrast to the PS4, which lets you choose to either go into standby, or completely turn the system off. Fully shutting down your PS4 also locks you out of cool features, like PS Vita Remote Play, or starting a download from the mobile app.

Coming out of standby, the Xbox One takes only twenty seconds to reach the Home screen. Kinect will have you signed in by then as well, unless you're sitting too far back. We sometimes had to lean forward before it recognized us.

From a full, unplugged shut down, the Xbox One takes a less impressive minute and seven seconds. Honestly though, there's no reason why you should be frequently unplugging your Xbox One. We just think it's odd that console off really means standby.

Xbox One review

So while not every design choice is transparent, you can't accuse the Xbox One's interface of being sluggish. There's no pop in on the Home screen, and overall navigation is snappy. You can drill through menus and browse your library as quickly as you can manipulate the D-pad, or bark at the Kinect.

Multitasking is where the Xbox One really shines. The system keeps your last three apps suspended, letting you switch between them with nary a stutter.

What's surprising is how little is on the system when you first get it. When you first use your Xbox One you'll frequently click on a tile, only to discover you don't actually have the corresponding app yet. Out of the box, almost nothing is pre-installed. That makes sense for third-party services, but apps like Game DVR, Xbox Video, even the Blu-ray playing software need to be downloaded and installed.

It's not such a big deal, just a telling indication of how internet reliant this new generation of gaming will be. Be sure get all your pertinent apps downloaded before having friends over to show off the new system.

Games

Every game on the Xbox One requires at least a partial installation before it can be played. These installs are lengthier than on PlayStation 4, but not by much.

For example, a disc copy of Madden for Xbox One needed six minutes to reach 25% installation before letting us on the gridiron. The PS4 version needed two minutes, and an additional minute to download a patch before online features were enabled.

Xbox One review

Installing isn't a major roadblock on either system, but it is something to anticipate. It's a good idea to pop a new game in the drive the minute you get home. That way you can be sure it'll be ready when you are.

One advantage the Xbox One has over the PS4 is that discs are not required to play. Once a game has been installed, the system won't ask for it when it's selected from the menu. It's a convenient feature, if nothing else, and makes using the Xbox One feel pleasantly self-contained.

Xbox One review

Getting to graphics and gameplay, a lot has been made of the fact that many third-party games run in full 1080p on the PS4, while the Xbox One versions are 720p. There are indeed sharper visuals to be found on the PS4's versions of Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, but you need a keen eye to tell the difference.

Character models often have more detailed textures, and lighting effects can be slightly more impressive on the PS4. However, performance across the two systems is very similar, with equally smooth framerates and load times that are close in length.

The 720p vs 1080p situation is still troubling, Microsoft will need to close this visual gap in future releases. It's something we'll be keeping an eye on as we update this review down the line.

Xbox One review

The Xbox One has first-party games that show off just as much graphical gusto as the PS4. Ryse: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5 are just as gorgeous as anything currently available from Sony. Dead Rising 3 is a bit behind the beauty curve but the sheer number of zombies it can render while maintaining a solid framerate is impressive.

Media

The Xbox One wants to be the one system that handles all the entertainment in your living room. Movies, music and, of course, games, it's set up to do it all.

From streaming apps to cable integration to Microsoft's own services, the Xbox One certainly seems equipped to do it all. We're just glad Microsoft bit the bullet and put a Blu-ray drive in its system. The Xbox One also plays CDs, something the PlayStation 4 currently doesn't do. Still, can the Xbox One really handle the potentially backbreaking load of the living room?

Xbox One review

OneGuide and HDMI-in

If you're in North America, the Xbox One can integrate your cable or satellite feed thanks to an HDMI-in port. It's not available in the UK yet but it's worth going into because a future firmware update will unlock these features for Sky subscribers.

After connecting your cable box to the Xbox One via HDMI there's a setup wizard to take you through all the steps. All you need to know is your service provider and post code. Punch that in and the Xbox does the rest.

The result is the OneGuide, live TV on your game console organized a lot like Sky or Virgin's built-in menu. It can be navigated just like the One's general interface, with speech, gestures, the controller or SmartGlass.

Xbox One review

The OneGuide menu is accurate, but not fast. Scrolling quickly often gives you an empty menu that needs a few seconds before the listings pop in. W

Using Kinect commands with the OneGuide can also be a headache. While it easily understands page up or page down, telling it to go to specific channels can be rather inaccurate. It often tripped over all the different acronyms that make up station names, and sometimes struggled with something as simple as Comedy Central.

Our favorite part of the Xbox One's TV integration wasn't the OneGuide, is was being able to pin specific channels and movies for fast access. We also liked how TV listings were integrated in search results alongside streaming services. For example, if you used Bing to search for a movie, the results will include the next time it's showing on TV, as well as places to buy or rent it.

The Xbox One is also hit or miss with 5.1 sound integration. There's some extra configuration you have to work through, and while we were able to get it running, others have reported that it degrades sound quality, or just doesn't work at all. That part of the service is marked as in beta, so Microsoft is working on it.

Xbox One review

Lastly, while that HDMI-in is meant for TV, you can use it for anything with an HDMI port. Before you get too excited, we should tell you that it's slightly too laggy for gaming. Forget about playing Killzone: Shadow Fall or Super Mario 3D World via the Xbox One, it's a much better experience plugged directly into your TV.

Xbox One review

Streaming apps

When consoles aren't playing games they're often streaming movies, either through Netflix or YouTube. The likes of BBC iPlayer and 4OD are not currently supported but they're on the way.

Xbox One review

Xbox Music

Sony has Music Unlimited, Xbox has Xbox Music, and both services are doing their best to impersonate Spotify. Xbox Music has a library of comparable size, just like Spotify it charges £10 a month for unlimited streaming across your console, PC, phone and tablet.

When we reviewed the PS4, we noted how poor the Channel (radio) service was at finding music we liked. Xbox Music's Radio function is much better at song matching, but its Sony's Music Unlimited that has the better background interface.

To have music going while playing a game, Xbox Music relies on app snapping. That's a pretty nonsensical choice, since it forces you to give up precious screen space for an app you only need to hear, not see. Why on earth doesn't it just run in the background?

Xbox One review

Other than that it's a fine music service. While playing in full screen on your TV it cycles through sharp looking album art and band photos. You can listen to whole albums, or create a radio mix. If you're playing a mix, you can zoom out and see the songs that are coming next.

Still, the lack of proper background playback is a deal breaker. While it's a fine way to just play music if your Xbox One is hooked into your stereo, it's not a great way to hear tunes while playing some Killer Instinct, which seems like the whole point of putting music and games on the same system.

Hopefully Microsoft will patch in some background functionality. Until then you're better off with a separate music service.

Network

Microsoft introduced Xbox Live at the tail end of the original Xbox, but it was on the Xbox 360 that it became the fleshed out, full featured online service that we know today. Now that more and more console features are internet dependent, a strong web connection, as well as buying into the console's online service, is basically a requirement.

Xbox Live

Paying for an Xbox Live Gold account has always been necessary to take your Xbox games online. That was a major edge for the PS3, which gave away this functionality, but now Sony has taken the same approach and put the PS4's multiplayer behind a paywall. It does not, however, make you buy in to access Netflix and other streaming services.

The Xbox One still requires you to meet the £35 price tag before you can have access to video services, which is getting harder to justify since it's the pricier of the two consoles. And now that the Xbox One has more online features, there's even more that's walled off until you pay up. Uploading from Game DVR and cloud saves are not available without Gold.

Your account from the Xbox 360 will carry over to the Xbox One and for better or worse, Xbox Live is still basically the same service we knew from the 360. You can message friends, join groups for voice chat and jump right into a game. While you can still type up messages, Microsoft no longer lets you record and send audio messages.

At least you're paying for quality servers. Right out of the gate, connections to Live have been stable, not buckling under the pressure of the day one launch crowd. We were able to play online co-op in Dead Rising 3 as well as fight online in Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts without a snag. Mic chat through the included headset was sharp, even clearer than on the Xbox 360.

Downloading a digitally purchased game from Xbox Live is just as swift as on Sony's servers. Games can be played in mid-download, letting you dive into titles before the massive files finishes arriving.

Xbox One review

With Game DVR the Xbox One has introduced big element to Xbox Live, but hasn't given it its proper due. Your friend feed is rather buried, hidden a couple menus deep in the system's interface. It makes uploading the file to SkyDrive and sharing it on YouTube a much more attractive option. While we appreciate that notifications and shared content it cluttering up our home screen, Microsoft should really consider finding a new place for this content to live.

There are also no free games yet available for Gold subscribers on the Xbox One. There is Killer Instincts, but it's too riddled with microtransactions to really be called free. When you download the game you get only one character and one arena. Everything else is pay to play, up to the point where you can spend enough to buy a full boxed title.

Xbox really needs to step things up in this regard. PS Plus subscribers currently get two free games, Resogun and Contrast, and they're both solid titles. Gold subscribers on the 360 currently have similair benefits, so there's really no reason why Microsoft shouldn't have come out of the gate with something to reward its paying customers.

Hands on gallery

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Verdict

The Xbox One wants to be everything to everyone. Games, movies and music, its lofty ambition is to put all your entertainment in one box.

Does Xbox One truly make you master and commander of the living room, or is it all more trouble than it's worth? Allow us to break it down.

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We liked

The Xbox One has the stronger launch lineup. We had a blast mulching hordes of zombies in Dead Rising 3. Ryse is an excellent showcase for the system's graphical prowess, though the gameplay does get repetitive.

Forza Motorsport 5 is a visual feast with plenty of depth and pairs nicely with the Game DVR feature. Both systems have a similar crop of third-party offerings, but the One's exclusive games feel more distinct and original.

Kinect is great for simple commands. Saving gameplay footage, quickly pausing a movie, answering a Skype call, all these features work smoothly and make for a convenient and fun interface. Kinect is also surprisingly good at hearing you over the TV.

Xbox One's gameplay video sharing is less locked down than the PS4's. Xbox One doesn't keep a running video archive like PS4, but it does grant you a lot more freedom with your footage. You can upload right to Skydrive, then download the an MP4 of the clip and do whatever you like with it. The PS4's sharing is limited to the PSN or Facebook, with no actual access to the file.

It's the best place to see TV alongside streaming media. Being able to perform a Bing search for a show and see when it will be on next as well as the places to rent or buy it is fantastic. While the Xbox One's media integration isn't perfect, there's no other system that brings this kind of service to your TV.

The interface is fast and customizable. The system comes out of standby in less than thirty seconds, and menus move as fast as you can manipulate them. We also loved the convenience of Pins, which let you keep almost anything just a click away.

You're getting your £50 worth. The price difference between the PS4 and the Xbox One is significant. While a lot of gamers would rather put that money towards more games, another controller or Xbox Live, and we really can't blame them, we feel that there are £50 worth of additional features on the Xbox One.

We disliked

Snapping apps makes for poor presentation. Performance-wise, the system can handle two programs admirably, but there are very few apps you'd actually want running side by side. TV and a game seem like the most common request, but the result is a visually cramped experience, and a jumble of audio.

This is a feature better suited to Windows 8, where the mouse and keyboard make it easy to resize windows and alt-tab between the two.

The TV integration needs work in the UK and soon. The Xbox One doesn't always play nice with 5.1 sound from cable, but Microsoft is working on that. Still, home theater enthusiasts should be hesitant to put Xbox One at the centre of their setups.

The controller still uses replaceable batteries. We really wish Microsoft had copied Sony's DualShock and gone for a built-in rechargeable cell. No one likes searching for AAs when friends come over. Also, the shoulder buttons on the One's controller don't feel as nice as those on the 360.

Kinect commands are very rigid. We weren't expecting Siri, but you have to talk to it in very precise, often unintuitive ways to make it understand. It also failed to register the "Xbox on" command about half the time.

Xbox Live hasn't improved much, and too much is walled off. A Gold subscription is still more expensive than the PS Plus. Sony might catch some flack putting PS4 multiplayer behind a paywall, but it sweetened the deal with free games and discounts. Xbox Live is pretty much the same service it was on the 360, and access to apps like Netflix still requires you to pay up.

Some third-party titles run in 720p. That simply shouldn't be the case. You might need to pause the game and have a look to tell, but there are noticeable differences between Xbox One and PS4 versions, with the PS4 coming out on top. If there's one thing Microsoft needs to sort out in the next few months, it's this.

And the thing we dislike most about the Xbox One - the fact that apps like Skype and Netflix are locked unless you pay still more money for Xbox Live Gold. This is unforgivable.

Verdict

When the Xbox One was first unveiled to the public, there were worries that it would embody the Jack of all trades, master of none cliche. While the media integration features need polish and Kinect could use a grammar lesson, the most important things are there: good games, a solid interface and reliable servers for hours and hours of online gaming.

From yelling at Kinect to pinning channels and games to sharing uploads from the Game DVR, it's just plain fun to use the Xbox One.

Microsoft's gaming torch has been passed from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One. We're really looking forward to what comes next.








Infamous: Second Son Review

Seattle looks great.

Though it's set some time after the events of the previous game, Second Son isn't a traditional sequel. There are vague references to the past, but this game is about a new set of characters dealing with a new set of problems. As such, this third Infamous game is a solid entry point for new players, while existing fans will probably enjoy seeing the impact made by events of Infamous 2's "good" ending. Either way, players take on the role of Delsin Rowe, a small-town miscreant with a sheriff brother and a penchant for stenciled graffiti. Delsin's life is changed when a military transport hauling three conduits--the game's term for humans with various super powers--crashes right in front of him, allowing the mutants to escape. This is also when Delsin learns that he, too, is a conduit when he touches one of the escapees and gains his smoke-based powers. As this is a world where those conduits are more commonly referred to as "bio-terrorists" and are locked up in a special camp simply for having these abilities, this quickly turns Delsin's world upside-down. After a government agent on the hunt for the missing conduits tears through the small town, crippling many of its citizens with her own special powers, Delsin vows to make it right by going into nearby Seattle, where the agent--and the missing conduits--have set up shop. What he finds is a city under the watchful, prying eye of government surveillance, from checkpoints to mounted cameras to an army of troops with special powers, all trained to catch the remaining conduits. As Delsin, you'll smash it all to bits and take it back for the people... or yourself.

Karma once again plays a role in this third Infamous game, but it again lacks nuance. The choices you make are very binary and helpfully color-coded. Making blue choices slides your karma in the good direction, and red choices are evil. In-game, this means that you can do things like subdue enemies in a non-lethal way or obliterate them with animated takedowns, head shots, and so on. A small batch of choices also manifest during the story, letting you decide if specific characters live or die, giving other characters different motivations to either help society or help you wipe it out, and so on. The people in your life treat you differently as you proceed, and the citizens of Seattle will either laud you as a new super hero or cower in fear. Actually, even if you're a good guy, most of the citizens will cower or scurry away if you use a power in front of them, which seems sort of strange since they all seem to know who you are and what you're capable of after you've established yourself. As you push further and further in one direction, different abilities become available to you. Going evil opens up with lethal options while staying blue gives you options to better subdue your opponents. While it might sound a little boring, the blue track still gets plenty of entertaining abilities to use in combat, so opting to not murder everyone in sight doesn't make the combat feel weak. It mostly just means that you shouldn't shoot at civilians, if you can help it, and you'll be aiming for footshots instead of headshots. The game has enough little, repeatable karmic events to make up for any mishaps you might make along the way, and I didn't have any trouble getting to the top of the good side's power tree by the end of the 15-or-so hours it took to complete the story and 100 percent of the side content.

The powers at your disposal are pretty recognizable if you've played previous games in the series, even if the power sources are different. You'll still shoot bolts from your fists, you can briefly hover and glide, toss grenade-like attacks, and so on. The properties of your powers make those attacks a little different, though. You'll start out with smoke-based power and get the ability to toss grenades that cause nearby enemies to start coughing, leaving them open and letting you quickly deal with them. You'll also get a heavy projectile attack with each of the powers, and this is useful for taking out helicopters, APCs, and heavy troopers. While you'll start with smoke, you'll eventually encounter bosses and earn the ability to use additional power sources. You can suck energy out of the various power sources around the city, so hopping up to the rooftops and finding chimneys is a great way to replenish your smoke abilities, and so on. You can only have one power source active at a time, and you switch between them by siphoning off of the different power sources. It's an effective way to switch things around, but it makes the progression a little bland since you'll rarely want to switch back to an older power source once you get something new, especially once you've invested some blast shards--which are strewn about the world and easily marked on the map--to make your abilities a little easier to use. If you collect all the shards, you'll have exactly enough to purchase every upgrade, save for the ones that get locked out due to your alignment.

Most of the enemies use concrete powers to keep you at bay.

The game has main, story-progressing missions that you'll need to complete, but the whole city is open to you right away. Seattle is broken up into districts, and the map tells you precisely how many collectable shards, breakable cameras, graffiti spots, and other side content is available in each district. Clearing out a district triggers a "takeover" mission where you have to fight off a handful of troops. Doing this clears out random patrols of enemy soldiers and enables fast travel to that zone... but since you have to travel to a fast travel point to actually fast travel, I think I used that twice throughout the entire game. Overall, the game has a lot of great main missions, and though the side missions and collectables are very easy to handle, the side content isn't unique at all, and simply gets duplicated across every district in the game. It's a portion of the game that doesn't overstay its welcome, and I ended up completing 100% of the game right around the time I got tired of tracking down secret agents and engaging with the very simple graffiti stenciling mechanic.

One of the biggest draws of Second Son has to be its graphics. This is a fantastic-looking game, from the character models to the animation to the world itself. Delsin and the other main characters are extremely well-animated, allowing the models to convey proper, subtle emotion. The world and its lighting really goes a long way, too, especially in the opening sequences and the game's larger setpieces. Even outside of cutscenes, the characters have a level of detail to them that you don't see in a lot of other games, and the whole thing runs at a good, stable frame rate. The performances from the voice cast really come through in the visuals and the main characters are very well-performed, even if it occasionally feels like Sucker Punch went out and hired the most common and frequently used voice actors they could find.

Infamous: Second Son is brief, but engaging. The combat itself is interesting enough to cover for some of the repetition in the side objectives and it looks really great. If you're looking for a sprawling open-world with a billion little things to do, this isn't going to float your boat, but Second Son's tight, focused approach definitely still holds plenty of appeal.

Titanfall Review

The AI-controlled grunts are really good at standing around and being ineffectual.

This game is "multiplayer-only," meaning you can't even get into the game's brief training mode without first connecting to an online server. It has a campaign mode, but this is really just a set of standard multiplayer matches with some assorted story-focused dialogue layered over the action, like someone decided to put on a radio play while you shoot at people. It doesn't have very many modes to its competitive multiplayer either--there are five, to be exact, and two of them are identical in basic gameplay but slightly different in the way points are scored. By having equivalents to Call of Duty's Team Deathmatch and Domination modes, Titanfall checks the most popular boxes, but when you compare it to the three-games-in-one-for-the-same-price approach of Call of Duty, Titanfall feels small. This is probably the point where I should remind you that both games launched at full price.

That all sounds pretty damning, and if you're a value-minded consumer who wants tons of variety out of a game, Titanfall is a tough sell. But behind the short list of modes and no-stakes storytelling lies some extremely satisfying and fluid gameplay. Titanfall looks slim on paper, but in practice it's positively explosive for a couple of different reasons. First, you have more mobility as a player. The soldiers in Titanfall can double jump and run along walls, and you can combine those moves again and again to get up onto rooftops and climb high walls. The verticality of the action means that there could be an enemy pilot hiding just about anywhere, and you're forced to adapt and start looking around everywhere, instead of just keeping your eyes focused at ground level and the obvious perches that make up most shooter maps these days. Moving around in Titanfall is rewarding and fun, at times feeling like you're playing a light version of Mirror's Edge, but never so much that it forgets that your primary mission is to shoot people.

Wall-running and a big robot. This image sums up Titanfall's unique features pretty perfectly.

The movement creates amazing scenarios that you want to tell people about, like the time you ran along a wall to clamber up to a rooftop only to leap off of that roof into a window across the street, where you caught some unsuspecting fool slipping and kicked him in his stupid face... and then you just kept running, trying to do it all again. Or the time you hauled ass around the outer edge of the map, shot every single AI soldier you saw, snapped a couple of necks, captured a control point, and immediately made a giant robot drop out of the sky. Camping out on a roof or in a window is certainly possible in Titanfall, and the game has sniper rifles in an attempt to support this type of gameplay, but players move so quickly and erratically that snipers feel like they're at a real disadvantage... which further incites more players to run around like maniacs at all times. In 20 or so hours with the game I've had a sizable list of great-looking moments where the mobility and shooting collide in a way that makes you feel unstoppable. It's a game that feels like it was built for highlight reels.

The other big differentiators are the titans themselves. These big robot suits drop from the sky in impressive fashion when pilots call them in, and they let you stomp and dash around levels with some amount of authority. But they aren't invincible. The shields on a titan recharge, Halo-style, but the underlying armor does not. This, along with lengthy weapon reload animations, incentivize you to occasionally back off and recharge. The titans are actually somewhat fragile, so you don't necessarily need to fight titans with titans, as every player has a dedicated slot for anti-titan weapons that can do serious damage. The interplay between players on foot and players in their robots is great, with pilots attempting to poke out, paint a titan long enough to lock-on, and fire big missiles before getting noticed, gunned-down, stomped, or punched apart by a giant robot fist. That said, I found titan-on-titan conflicts to be somewhat monotonous and occasionally even sluggish, since it's the only time the game asks you to hang back and prepare instead of going full-bore at the competition. But hey, let the titans blow up... you can always get another one.

You can enter your titan from any angle, resulting in a handful of nice boarding animations.

Titan deployment is governed by a timer. That timer ticks down naturally, but you can also reduce the required time by shooting enemies. Killing players and shooting at titans take significant chunks off your clock, but the maps are also peppered with AI foes who aren't smart or strong enough to kill you unless you're extremely careless. They keep you on your toes and, yes, killing them also takes time off your titan clock, giving you a decent incentive to farm those AI enemies as you run from place to place. You might think of it as the Call of Duty killstreak system, but instead of only rewarding players who play well, it rewards everyone--but players who shoot well are rewarded much more frequently.

Like just about every other modern shooter, Titanfall has you earning experience points, gaining levels, and unlocking different customization options. You'll quickly gain the ability to create custom loadouts for both your pilot and your titan, and each has its own set of weapons and perks. As is my custom, I settled on fully automatic assault rifles as the main weapon for both my pilot and titan. The game has a short list of other weapons, but range-reduced sub-machine guns and shotguns feel too limited when faced with the larger-than-average map sizes. For players who especially like getting behind enemies or can't aim, the one unique option for primary pilot weapons is a smart pistol that behaves like lock-on targeting in a Panzer Dragoon game. AI-powered fodder goes down in one lock-on hit, but human pilots won't drop unless you lock onto them with three separate shots. Is it unbalanced? A baby gun for babies? I'm no balance designer, but the smart pistol doesn't feel all that powerful. Locking on three times takes longer than it would take to just aim at and shoot an enemy with any other weapon, and If you stand around long enough to get locked onto three times, you probably deserve to get gunned down.

The auto-eject perk lets you launch out of your titan before it blows up, taking you with it.

Titans have more options in addition to basic full-auto and semi-auto rifles, like a quad rocket launcher, a railgun, a charged energy bolt, and a grenade launcher that fires three grenades at once. The titan loadouts seem more interesting than the pilot weapons because they can help you play slightly different roles. The assault rifle and lighter weapons are fast-firing and handy against pesky pilots and still useful in titan-on-titan skirmishes. The heavier weapons, as you might expect, take a little longer to get going, but they're much more devastating to a titan's armor. Overall, most of the weapon options feel a little staid. You might expect a world that allows humans to warp to faraway planets and call in robots from space to offer up slightly edgier weapons than SMGs and sniper rifles.

The online-only nature of Titanfall means that it's only as good as its server infrastructure. In pre-release testing, I ran into a few cases where the latency would spike, causing AI opposition to seize up and enemy titans to halt, mid-dash. On launch day, the game ran into some bumps, occasionally dropping players from games or lobbies, making it difficult to get into a game at times. This seems like it was mostly smoothed over by the end of its first 24 hours on sale, and the network responsiveness has been solid, with none of the lag spikes or other issues I saw prior to the game's launch. It's a little disappointing that the game doesn't have an option for private matches or any sort of LAN support, but what's on display seems to work well.

The titans can dash out of the way of some missiles.

The frame rate in Titanfall is uneven on the Xbox One and though it's usually fine, it can get downright nasty in specific situations. In one Last Titan Standing match--where every player spawns in a robot suit--several players crammed their mechs into a tight area and began duking it out, and the frame rate dived down to what must have been single digits per second. Even out in wider areas, the game feels a little hitchy from time to time, and there's noticeable tearing throughout. The visuals in Titanfall look nice, but that's mostly due to some solid art and interesting design, not the performance. On the PC, the game scales to fit a lot of different configurations, so you can essentially buy your way out of the console version's performance issues. On a proper machine, the textures look great and the smooth frame rate really goes a long way.

I'll say it again, since we should probably wrap this up: Titanfall is a very specific game built for a specific type of person. When you add it all up, the list of available content and the various options for speccing out your pilot feel light, and that might make this game a little hard to swallow at $60. But getting into these wild situations and shooting your way out of them feels fresh and fun in a way that the other shooters on the market don't. If you like the basic form but need more of a twist on how you move and how you shoot, Titanfall's core action is extremely satisfying, which makes it a little easier to overlook the lack of available modes.

Editor's note 03/13/2014: Due to this game's online-only requirement, this review originally went up without a score on it. This was done to afford us the time to gauge how it performs in a real, retail environment. When converting this into a scored review, text discussing the online portion of the game was updated to reflect the game's post-launch performance. Text discussing the specifics of the PC version's visuals was also added.

Luftrausers Review

Luftrausers is a tremendously fun blend of intense shooting and deft aerial acrobatics.

I'm not naive enough to assume that everyone who plays it will turn Luftrausers into an obsession, but I'm betting that most who do will at least lose a few accidental hours to it. It helps that jumping into the game is exquisitely easy. The tutorial is brief, showing you only the basic controls--up boosts your ship, letting go of the up button causes it to stall and drift downward, X fires your gun--before turning you loose in an aerial battlefield full of enemy fighters, homing missiles, and sea-bound attack ships. At the outset, you're given a basic machine gun weapon, and entirely functional body/engine designs. Those simple-sounding controls are a bit more challenging in a full-on firefight, in that balancing boost and stalling, while rotating your plane to fire at nearby enemies, takes some getting used to. At the bottom of the screen is the sea, and at the very top is cloud cover. Both are danger zones that do damage to your plane if you linger there too long. In effect, your task in Luftrausers is to boost, drop, and pirouette around the skies while trying to stay somewhere in the middle of the screen, dodging enemy fire and kamikaze pilots all the while.

This results in what at times feels like an aerial acrobatic routine. Of course, it's an acrobatic routine that requires you to gun down enemies in the process. Doing so is how you score points. Each kill ticks up a combo counter until you reach a maximum of 20x the base score. Going too long without killing an enemy causes the combo counter to reset, but at the same time, just holding down the fire button gives you no chance to regain health. Only by flying around sans any gunfire will your ship recharge, making for an ingenious little risk/reward system. Do you keep firing at that elite pilot that keeps haranguing you in the hopes of keeping your score high, or do you let off for a few seconds to ensure your survival?

As tough as all this sounds, Luftrausers' tight controls mean it won't take you long to get the hang of the basic mechanics. Where the longer-term challenge comes from is finding the right combination of weapon, body, and engine for the way you prefer to play. There are many varieties of each, which unlock as you progress and complete in-game challenges (shoot a number of enemies, kill an ace pilot at max combo, etc). Guns include spread shots, continuous laser blasts, and homing missiles that aren't super great at the whole "homing" thing. Bodies can allow you take more damage, negate crash damage, or even just launch huge, screen-clearing nukes when you die. Engine varieties offer speed boosts, underwater flying sans damage, or the ability to literally propel yourself with bullets. Mixing and matching ship types becomes its own little metagame as you try to find the combo that best suits your abilities. Not every single unlock is a winner, and there are several that I found just about zero use for whatsoever. But there are enough different unlockables to keep you trying different combos for at least a few hours, and using the randomization option can sometimes lead to winning combinations you'd never expect.

The game even makes subtle aesthetic changes depending on what combination of parts you put together. Each combination gives the ship a distinct look, and each comes with its own unique name which appears at the bottom of the screen when you first launch into battle. The soundtrack changes as well, blending different instrument tracks into subtle variances of the same high-tension battle anthems. These little alterations go a long way toward negating any feelings of over-repetition, especially given that, again, there's only one battle environment you fight in. It's a cool-looking environment to be sure, propped up by a variety of unlockable color schemes (some of which are great, others of which make the game difficult to look at), and a mostly smooth framerate. The only time the game chugs is when you're taking huge chunks of damage, and that seems to be more by design than anything else.

No matter how many times you die, no matter how stupidly you die, you'll keep coming back for more.

The only downside to Luftrausers' single-minded design is that once you've unlocked everything and found your winning combination of plane parts, your interest level may wane. A harder difficulty level can be unlocked by defeating one of the super-hard dirigibles that show up after surviving in battle for a while, but it's excruciating. Shooter masochists may love it, but most will probably just find it harrowing in all the wrong ways. That means that for most players, the reward for continuous play will simply be to unlock all the available parts, and work toward getting the highest score you can.

For me at least, that was enough to get me to spend nearly the entirety of Luftrausers' launch day firmly planted in front of my PlayStation 3, diving into battle after battle in hopes of increasing my spot on the leaderboards. And once I tired of that, I immediately downloaded the Vita version (the game is a cross-buy title, so buying one nets you both versions) and jumped right back in. I expect one day I'll burn out on Luftrausers, but for right now, all I want to do is stop writing this review and launch right back into its beautiful, bullet-riddled skies.

Hands-on review: Updated: Olympus OM-D E-M10

Hands-on review: Updated: Olympus OM-D E-M10

Introduction and features

Olympus is hoping that the new OM-D E-M10 will find favour in the same way as the OM-10 did when it was launched way back in 1979. Whereas the OM-10 was the first consumer-level camera in Olympus's OM series of SLRs, and went on to be a big hit and a popular choice for family photography, the Olympus E-M10 is the first consumer-level model in the highly-respected OM-D series. It sits below the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Olympus OM-D EM-1 in the company's line-up of Micro Four Thirds compact system cameras.

Update: our full review of the Olympus E-M10 is underway and will be with you soon. In the meantime we've added some of our lab test results and sample images to this hands on review.

For those unsure of the difference, the Olympus OM-D series distinguishes itself from the Pen series (Olympus Pen E-PM2, Pen E-PL5 and Pen E-P5) by its more SLR-like styling and the presence of a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF).

Olympus OM-D E-M10

Features

Many of the features found in the E-M10 are the same as in the Olympus E-M5, the original OM-D. The Four Thirds type (17.3x13mm) 16.1-million-pixel LiveMOS sensor and 1,440,000-dot electronic viewfinder, for example.

This means that unlike the E-M1's sensor there is an optical low-pass filter present. However, rather than using the TruePic VI engine of the E-M5, Olympus has used the TruPic VII processor that is found in the top-end OM-D E-M1.

The TruPic VII processor incorporates Fine Detail II Technology that adapts processing to the characteristics of individual lenses and aperture settings. It is also claimed to allow better noise control. These two features may mean that the new E-M10 could produce better quality images than the E-M5.

This processor also allows sensitivity to be set in the range ISO 100-25,600 and a maximum continuous shooting rate of 8fps – although focus and exposure are locked at the start. In addition, shutter speed may be set in the range 1/4000-60sec (plus bulb) and exposure compensation can be adjusted to +/-5EV.

While it's the entry-level OM-D camera the E-M10 still has the enthusiast friendly exposure modes: program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual. There's also a healthy collection of automatic scene modes (24 in total), including a new Hand-Held Starlight mode. In this mode the camera captures eight images and combines them into a single composite automatically for better exposure and noise control.

In addition to Olympus's standard Live Bulb and Live Time modes which allow the photographer to see the image build-up on the screen during long exposures, there's a new option called Live Composite Lighten Mode. This allows a Live Bulb image to be combined with one 0.5-60sec exposure for better dynamic range control in some situations.

Being an Olympus camera, the E-M10 has a large collection of Art Filter modes, 19 in total, which may be used to apply an effect to images. Many of these effects are customisable. They can be applied to JPEG files (and video clips), but raw files can also be recorded at the same time so there's a 'clean' image for processing.

Like the other OM-D cameras, the E-M10 has a tilting LCD screen that is touch-sensitive for making settings adjustments and swiping through images in review mode. This is a 3-inch device with 1,370,000 dots, like the E-M1's so it trumps the E-M5 screen's 610,000 dot-count.

Olympus OMD E-M10

Key differences in comparison to the E-M5 include a simplification of the optical stabilisation system, which is 3-axis rather than 5, no battery-grip compatibility, the lack of an accessory port in the hotshoe and no weather-sealing.

The 3-axis stabilisation counteracts yaw, roll and pitch for both still shots and HD movies, irrespective of the lens attached to the camera. It is claimed to extend the safe hand-holdable shutter speed by up to 3.5EV.

A small pop-up flash, with Guide Number 5.8m at ISO 100, is a key addition to the E-M10. This will be useful for fill-in or shooting in low-light conditions. As mentioned earlier, there's also a hotshoe to accept an external flash. While the built-in flash sync speed is 1/250sec, it is 1/200sec with an external flashgun (1/180sec with the FL-50R).

The new camera also has Wi-Fi connectivity built-in, the same system as in the E-M1. Furthermore, it's compatible with the updated Olympus Image Share app which gives extensive control over camera settings, even allowing the exposure mode to be set to something other than the option indicated by the camera's mode dial. In addition, it's possible to use a smartphone like a standard wireless remote shutter and just trip the shutter keeping the camera settings as they are set on the body.

On the face of it the E-M10 looks like a very attractive alternative to the E-M5. It has many of the same features, makes only a few compromises and has a few aspects borrowed from the top-end E-M1.

Olympus has announced a new 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ lens to complement the E-M10 and it will be offered as the standard kit lens. This new lens is a powerzoom and it collapses down when the camera is turned off to maintain the slim lines of the camera. Olympus claims that it is the slimmest standard zoom lens in the world.

Build and handling

Olympus has used a very similar design for the E-M10 as it has for the Olympus E-M5, the original OM-D. However, at 119.1x82.3x45.9mm and 350g it's a little bit smaller and lighter than the older camera (121x89.6x41.9mm and 373g). Consequently it is also smaller than the OM-D E-M1 (130.4x93.5x63.1mm and 443g), which sits at the top of the Olympus compact system camera line-up.

It doesn't have the dust- and splash-proofing of the E-M5, nor the freeze-proof build of the E-M1, but it is constructed from metal so it feels nice and solid.

A small, but pronounced rubberised pad on the back of the E-M10 makes a good, comfortable thumbrest, while a ridge on the front provides grip for your fingers. The two combine to make the camera feel secure in your hand while shooting and when carrying it between shots.

The control layout of the E-M10 is almost identical to that of the E-M5, albeit on a very slightly smaller body.

As before, there are plenty of button and dial controls giving a direct route to camera settings. Everything is within easy reach and the controls feel responsive.

Following the layout of the E-M5 rather than the E-M1 means that the E-M10 has a mode dial on left side of the top-plate as you hold the camera for shooting. This provides a route to all the exposure modes. While there is the usual option for Art Filters, these can also be applied when shooting in the other exposure modes such as aperture priority, so it is possible to retain control over the camera's settings.

Olympus E-M10 review

The two control dials on the top of the E-M10, for adjusting shutter speed/aperture and exposure compensation, are a little deeper and chunkier than the ones on the E-M5, but the difference is subtle.

Like the E-M5, the E-M10 has two Function buttons which can be customised to perform different operations. By default, the 'Fn2' button at the top of the camera gives direct access to the Highlights and Shadows control for boosting or reducing contrast.

The E-M10's 3-inch 1,370,000-dot screen provides a nice, clear view with plenty of detail visible even in quite bright conditions, but when the sun is shining the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is a welcome alternative. It's helpful that there's a sensor to detect when the camera is held to the eye and activate the EVF so you can quickly switch between the two viewing devices.

Olympus OM-D E-M10

As usual, the touchscreen can also be used to alter the focus point, with a tap of a finger. It can also be used to trip the shutter, first focusing on the point you touch and then taking the shot. I found the touchscreen to be very responsive and quick to use, just as it is in the E-M5.

As it's mounted on a tilting mechanism the LCD screen is easier to see than a fixed screen when shooting landscape format images from low and high angles, but it's no help with portrait format images. Olympus is still resisting a move to a vari-angle screen that would prove even more helpful.

The 1,440,000-dot electronic viewfinder in the E-M10 isn't new as it's the same as the one in the E-M5, but it benefits from the Adaptive Brightness Technology found in the E-M1. This adjusts the brightness of the view according to the ambient light to give a more comfortable viewing experience that takes into account the size of the user's pupil.

I found that the EVF provides an excellent view with no obvious texture or flickering (it operates at 120fps). EVF naysayers really should give it a try.

The new 14-42mm kit lens extends promptly when the camera starts up and it feels well-balanced on the E-M10. However, it takes a few moments to get used to how close the zoom ring is to the camera body and anyone switching from an SLR may find that their fingers naturally land on the focus ring on the end of the barrel at first.

Performance

To date I have only been able to use a pre-production sample of the Olympus E-M10 and I'm not allowed to publish any images from it because they may not reflect the final image quality. Consequently, I can't pass final judgement on the quality of the images that it produces.

We also need the raw processing software to be made available so that we can inspect the raw files.

Olympus OM-D E-M10

However, as it has the same sensor as the E-M5 and the same processing engine as the E-M1 we can reasonably assume that its image quality will fall somewhere between the two. This bodes well as both cameras produce excellent images and are highly respected.

As it has an anti-aliasing (aka optical low-pass) filter, the E-M10 may not be able to resolve quite as much sharp detail as the E-M1, but it should be a good match for the E-M5. Noise should also be well controlled, probably on a par with the E-M1, which performs well even at the highest sensitivity setting, ISO 25,600.

Although we found some luminance noise visible in the E-M1's ISO 25,600 images when they were viewed at 100%, there's not much coloured speckling (chroma noise) and detail softening is fairly restrained. This is largely the result of the TruePic VII processing engine, so hopefully the E-M10 will perform as well in this regard.

We have found that Olympus's general purpose ESP metering system performs very well in a range of situations and we expect this to continue with the E-M10. Doubtless, there will be some scenes that require a little exposure compensation, but if Olympus's past record and the performance of the test sample we had is anything to go by, it will be in the type of conditions that test most exposure systems.

Olympus OMD E-M10

The E-M10's autofocus system seems fast and able to cope with quite low light conditions, only faltering when it becomes dark. I want to use a full-production sample of the camera with a collection of lenses to test the system fully.

Olympus's OM-D and Pen cameras generally produce natural looking colours in the default modes and I anticipate this will be the same for the E-M10. The images that I took on a pre-production sample certainly look good and reflect the shooting conditions.

The automatic white balance systems in the E-M1 and E-M5 generally perform well in a range of conditions, producing images that capture the atmosphere of the scene. Like many systems, they tend to produce rather warm images in artificial light, but this is easily corrected with a custom white balance settings or by adjusting a raw file. We will test the E-M10 in a range of lighting conditions when we get a full production sample in.

Olympus's Art Filters have proved very popular because they're a convenient way of applying effects to JPEGs. It's particularly useful that you can set the bracketing control to produce an image using every Art Filter with just one press of the shutter release. You can select which Art Filter you want to use, so you don't have to use them all if you don't want. The TruePic VII processor makes using this bracketing option a much better experience than it was in the past as processing and write times are much faster. The fact that you can shoot unaffected raw files at the same time is a major bonus not offered by any other camera manufacturer.

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

These charts compare the results of the Olympus OM-D E-M10 with the Panasonic G6, Olympus OM-D E-M1, Fuji X-E2, Canon 70D and Nikon D7100.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Although the Panasonic G6 performs best at ISO 400, the Fuji X-E2 has the best results at every other sensitivity setting. This indicates that there's plenty of detail and low levels of noise in the X-E2's JPEG images in its default settings. However, the Olympus E-M10 puts in a very good performance and compares very well with the two SLRs (the Canon 70D and Nikon D7100), especially at the higher sensitivity settings.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) signal to noise ratio

Raw signal to noise ratio

The Olympus E-M10 is a clear winner here, indicating that it produces the cleanest images across the sensitivity range. However, our resolution chart results show that this comes at the expense of some detail at the highest sensitivity values.

JPEG dynamic range

JPEG dynamic range

The Olympus E-M10 and E-M1 in their default (Natural) Picture Mode have very similar dynamic range in their JPEGs. This means that there's a wide range of tones and detail isn't lost quickly in the highlights or shadows. However, it's worth noting that the Fuji X-E2, which has a lower dynamic range, produces punchier-looking images straight from the camera in its default configuration.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) dynamic range

Raw dynamic range

These results confirm our real world findings that the Olympus E-M10's raw files have lots of tonal data and its images have an impressive dynamic range. It beats all the competing cameras here.

Sample images

Signal box

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JPEG images have a high level of detail direct from the camera, but as usual there's a bit more visible in the raw files (see below).

Signal box (raw)

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Raw files bring increased scope to fine-tune contrast and sharpening to help bring out detail.

Catkins

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These catkins were bobbing about violently in the wind, but in the bright light the E-M10's AF system was able to lock onto them quickly. It even managed to keep up with them as they moved around the frame in AF Tracking mode.

Train

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In low light, AF performance drops off and although it wasn't fast enough to produce sharp images of erratically moving dodgems, it managed to deliver a few sharp images of this junior roller-coaster ride.

White Flower

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The E-M10 general purpose ESP metering system wasn't thrown off by the brightness of the main subject in this shot and has delivered an excellent exposure.

Crocus

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The tilting screen is useful when shooting very low subjects, like this crocus.

Fungi JPEG

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Although the white in the fungi in this JPEG file is a bit too burned out to pull back, it could be retrieved in the simultaneously captured raw file below.

Fungi Raw

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It only took a couple of seconds to adjust the raw file in Adobe Camera Raw to restore the highlights in this raw file.

Fair

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Using Live Time mode enabled us to see the image build up on the screen on the back of the camera (or our iPhone) and then close the shutter when the exposure looked correct. This image took 5.5 seconds at ISO 100 and f/18.

Coolers

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Olympus's Grainy Film Art Filter suits this cooling tower image well, but if you're not sure you can shoot a raw file simultaneously so that you have a 'clean' file to work with. It's also possible to bracket the Art Filters and produce a sequence of images with each one (or just your favourites) applied with just one press of the shutter release. Alternatively, the supplied Olympus Viewer 3 software allows you to apply the filter effects to raw files as they are processed.

Landscape no drama

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Another example of where a tilting LCD screen can come in handy.

Landscape drama

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This JPEG file was shot at the same time as the raw file above, but the Dramatic Tone Art Filter has given it a bit more impact.

Early verdict

Olympus OM-D E-M10

The E-M10 has a recommended retail price of £529.99 in the UK, or £699.99/AU$999 with the new 14-42mm EZ (powerzoom) lens which makes it considerably more affordable than the E-M1 and E-M5. These cameras can be found for around £1,299/US$1,399/AU$1,199 and £749/US$1,099/AU$1,599 (body only) respectively.

Olympus has give the E-M10 many of the features of the excellent OM-D E-M5, and some from the E-M1 at the top of Olympus's OM-D range. The only compromises appear to be the lack of weatherproofing, the loss of the ability to attach a battery grip (although there is an accessory grip to make the camera larger if you prefer), the loss of the hotshoe accessory port and a reduction in the level of correction offered by the stabilisation system.

However, you get a pop-up flash, a more advanced Wi-Fi system and a better LCD screen. Plus the camera is a little more compact and lightweight – but still robust with a metal construction.

As it has the same sensor as the first OM-D, the widely respected E-M5, and the same processing engine as the top-end E-M1, the E-M10 should be capable of producing high quality images. The OM-D E-M1 particularly impressed us with its noise control right up to ISO 25,600 and we have every reason to expect that the E-M10 will be just as capable. Because it has an optical low-pass filter over the sensor, it may not be able to resolve quite as much detail, but the difference is only likely to be visible when images are viewed at 100%.

I enjoyed using the pre-production sample E-M10 for a few days and I'm really looking forward to testing a full-production model. Olympus appears to be offering consumers quite a lot for their money in comparison with the other two OM-D cameras.








Thief Review

A good stealth game makes you feel like a silent badass. A bad one makes you feel like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. It is with much regret that I inform you that

Before Garrett becomes wrapped up in all this world-ending nonsense, he is The City's number one thief. Whether rich or poor, Garrett steals from anyone who happens to have something he might want, and he's managed to avoid jail and death primarily through his deeply rooted sense of self-interest. One fateful night, Garrett and his protege--a young woman named Erin--stumble upon The City's generically vile Baron conjuring up an ancient power. Garrett, sensing this is a situation he can't properly handle, tries to escape, but Erin plunges ahead and ends up crashing through the ceiling into the middle of this bizarre ritual. A lot of blue lights and smoke effects consume the screen, and suddenly... nothing. Garrett awakes on a cart full of dead bodies, only to discover he's been asleep for the better part of a year. With no idea what's happened, Garrett sets about uncovering the mystery of the ritual, Erin's fate, and the terrible disease that's gripped the whole of the city in his absence.

Where that plot goes is extraordinary only in its mundanity. It sounds like an unfair dismissal to just say nothing interesting happens in Thief, but as I sit here, racking my brains to try and come up with one element of the story that stood out in the slightest, I just can't. Thief plods along at a pace that ranges from slow to excruciatingly sluggish, and at no point does it ever deliver a new character or situation worth caring about. The characters are acted well enough in most cases, but Garrett often sounds barely interested in what they have to say, and the script never fleshes out any of them sufficiently enough to grab your attention. This makes moments of presumed satisfaction--such as the culmination of Garrett's barely formed rivalry with the city's top corrupt cop, or the sudden reveal of a bad guy's true motives toward the end of the game--fall completely flat.

It doesn't help that Thief's story missions often seem only mildly interested in Garrett's role as a thief. Sure, the entire game is built with stealthy environmental traversal in mind, but few story missions require you to do much actual thieving. There's certainly loot to be found in each chapter, and collecting it allows you more funds to use to purchase upgrades for Garrett. But all that stuff is optional. In most missions, you're tasked with hunting for clues that tie in to the game's overarching mystery, one that becomes less and less interesting as it goes along.

This is Thief's greatest folly. It gives you this character with all these nifty abilities that should make him a great thief, then spends the entirety of its storyline making him investigate a supernatural mystery of no particular interest. Instead, it relegates much of the thievery to scattered loot and side missions. In these side missions, you'll have the opportunity to earn quite a bit of coin doing jobs for various unscrupulous types, stealing all sorts of different goods. These missions aren't often terribly involved, but they make the best use of Garrett's abilities, and there are quite a lot of them. Whether you're sneaking into an apartment to grab a valuable painting, or tailing a drunk through the streets to find where he's hiding stolen goods, these are the moments that best line up with what a game called Thief ought to be. It's just a shame that these missions are so far out of the way from the main story, where the act of thievery feels mostly incidental to the larger, less interesting mystery.

But that's Thief in a nutshell, a game that spends an inordinate amount of time making the player do uninteresting things while shoving the more fun stuff so far in the corner you'd be forgiven for missing most of it. Its mechanics feel best suited for gameplay scenarios the main story doesn't often care much about. Sure, whether it's in the story or on a side venture, you'll have to play a similar kind of stealth in order to avoid spooking guards and progress through the stage. But the sense of reward for that careful sneaking feels loads more satisfying when you're just nicking trinkets and valuables, versus the slog of trudging through the awful plot.

In a best-case scenario, you'll spend much of Thief cloaked in the shadows, avoiding bad guys rather than directly engaging them. In some cases this works well, especially if you take the time to learn the environments and discover their many available hiding places. (I say "if" as if there's much choice in the matter, but in truth you'll have no choice but to learn the environments through repeated trial-and-error.) In a worst-case scenario, you'll find yourself often surrounded by four or five bad guys because you somehow alerted a guard without realizing it. This is not a game in which combat is recommended whatsoever. If you can sneak up behind a guy and take him down unawares, then great. But head-on fights involve you swinging your trusty cudgel over and over again while trying to time dodges against enemy swipes and shots. Every fight is essentially the same dodge-and-swipe situation, and if you've got more than a few guys surrounding you, you're usually screwed. Unless they suddenly get stuck running up against a piece of the environment, or inexplicably just stop and stare at you from a few feet away, that is.

Again, taking enemies head-on is very much not the point of the game, but it's rare that Thief allows you enough leeway to truly avoid all confrontations. Every environment feels cramped and tight, which means you frequently have to walk within inches of bad guys just to get to the next area. Sometimes it's easy enough to predict what will alert an enemy to your presence, but other times it just comes out of nowhere. This means it's often best just to wait until you can get a guy alone, sneak up, and whack them from behind. You do this again and again and again until you get to the next checkpoint, which makes the game sometimes feel a bit like an especially sneaky rendition of whack-a-mole. You can cause distractions by tossing objects, or by using one of the many different arrows Garrett comes equipped with. Sometimes these are effective in sending guards off in the opposite direction, and sometimes it just causes them to all freak out and start running around every which way. Most often, your best bet is just using water arrows to snuff out fires while skulking around in the dark, hoping you don't happen upon anyone you won't be able to avoid fighting.

This combat stuff would mean less if the environments were better-designed, but navigating Thief's world is rarely very exciting. Using Garrett's "swoop" ability to dash from one dark corner to another is a delight, but many of his other movements are saddled to an all-purpose action button. Garrett can't even jump freely, which forces you to find ledges and corners that will trigger his various leaping animations. Finding those isn't terribly difficult, mind you. Garrett's brush with mystical forces gives him a "focus" ability that highlights all the different traps, climb points, and other areas of interest within his field of view. In general, the only real challenge to traversing the world is how easy it is to get turned around and suddenly find yourself at a dead-end. With this added ability, it becomes super easy to just figure out where to go in most situations. On the one hand, this relieves frustration you may feel with the game's map, which borders on useless. On the other, the only real challenge then comes from finding ways to avoid fights. Those looking for a tougher challenge will find it if they skip out on using the focus ability and ramp up the difficulty level. Playing on the higher levels imposes some tough restrictions on attacking foes, which in turn makes careful play all the more vital. Plotting an ideal path through a bunch of clueless enemies can certainly be satisfying, but even in more challenging situations, the path to success is rarely that hard to uncover.

More disappointing is how bland and cramped every environment feels. Thief flirts with the idea of an open world outside of its story chapters, but in reality, The City is just a series of small open sections bookended by load times. When you first exit Garrett's hideout and enter The City, only minutes go by before you come upon your first door or window that leads to another load time. It's surprising just how often these pop up, and it sucks nearly all the fun out of exploring The City. That's unfortunate, since exploring The City is exactly what you'll have to do in order to take part in those side missions. If there's any positive here, it's that you can often use these load times to your advantage when being chased by enemies. Once you hit one of those new area access points, all you have to do is press a button and suddenly you're out of the fire.

Thief's small environments might be more forgivable if the game were some kind of visual powerhouse, which it most certainly is not. Character and environment art are caked in a steampunk-lite industrial vibe, but without any unique flavor or style to call its own. It's all very drab, which perhaps fits with the game's gloomy atmosphere, but doesn't lend itself toward being especially memorable. In fact, all I really remember about Thief's visuals is how bad nearly all the animation looks, especially in any combat situation. Arms flail about until either you reach a quicktime event pops up to let you K.O. them, or they run out of health and fall over in an animation that looks like a bad placeholder. The game does at least run reasonably well on PC, though I kept running into a bizarre array of audio glitches throughout my playtime. Key dialogue would somehow get mixed down to the point of being inaudible against background sounds, or sound effects would sometimes drop out altogether. And then there were the random crashes, which popped up at least a half-dozen times over the course of my playthrough.

Above all else, Thief's greatest crime is one of boredom. Too much of its gameplay is bereft of excitement or satisfaction. Instead of feeling like a master thief, you mostly spend the game feeling like a generic first-person action hero who just happens to be especially bad at fighting people. Sneaking around Thief's world is intermittently interesting, especially when the game puts its focus squarely on the act of stealing, but even those moments are frequently brought down by the game's various rough edges. You have to work very hard to find the fun bits of Thief, and more often than not, the payoff just isn't worth the effort.

Hands-on review: Soladapt TouchGenie touchscreen monitor overlay

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.








Review: Updated: Android 4.4 KitKat

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.








Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc Review

A group of people have been locked in a building, and the only way out is to kill one another. To most people, that sounds like yet another predictable entry in the Saw movies. But it's also part of "escape the room," a surprisingly lively subgenre of games familiar to players of the visual novels

Besides you, every character in Danganronpa is one hell of an eccentric, but they're all reasonably fleshed out.

Danganronpa takes place in Hope's Peak Academy, an elite school for elite students. Only a select few are admitted every school year, and each must be the best of the best. In Danganronpa's world, these pupils are deemed ultimates. Sayaka Maizono, for example, is the "Ultimate Pop Sensation," Leon Kuwata is the "Ultimate Baseball Star," and Chihiro Fujisaki is the "Ultimate Programmer." Players are cast as Makoto Naegi, a humble but affable youngster who is, at first glance, unexceptional in every way. He's the "Ultimate Lucky Student," as he's been granted the opportunity to attend Hope's Peak Academy, despite his lack of special skills. As each student arrives at the school, they pass out. Upon awakening, the students introduce themselves to one another before meeting the master of ceremonies, Monokuma. He's a, uh, talking and murdering bear. (That's not really anymore ridiculous than the talking doll from Saw, to be fair.) The group has the option of living out the rest of their lives in the school, or "graduating" by killing one another. If you can get away with murder, you can leave.

From there, when you're not tapping through dialogue, the game transitions to a relationship simulator of sorts. Looking around unlocks tokens to buy presents from the school's store. These presents, if used appropriately, can advance your relationship with the other students. (But not in a sexual manner, from what I saw.) Sadly, with some rare exceptions, you don't learn much from these moments that wouldn't arrive via the main storyline. It's mostly a means to unlock new abilities for the courtroom portion of the game and gathering trophies. The lack of meaningful insight into the characters meant I'd often find myself picking which one to spend time with at random, simply hoping to advance the storyline to the next major beat. There is no real upside or downside to who you spend time with, as the story does not adjust based on your choices, and the abilities aren't necessary to complete the courtroom segments. It's a missed opportunity for a game that is, largely, all about its story.

The main storyline does spend plenty of time with the characters, though. And while Danganronpa has moments of shocking violence, unlike your typical horror, it's not entirely about the gore. In fact, Danganronpa even swaps the color of blood from red to pink. What makes Danganronpa different is context. The many quiet moments with each character give each death a sense of weight and loss, and while you should never grow attached, you will. Learning about Byakuya's ambitions for greatness as a means of living up to to his family lineage or Hina's secret desire for donuts in moments of weakness means each chapter and each death is not just a bodycount. Many of the characters are purposely unlikable, but their intentions are, often, logically justifiable and create a wild, unpredictable dynamic that unfolds over the game's 20ish hours.

As one might expect, it doesn't take long for things to go awry. Not everyone is content to stay inside for the rest of their lives, and murder(s) come quickly. When a body is discovered, the game transitions to an Ace Attorney-style investigation mode. Searching the world around you is easy enough, as tapping triangle brings up all the interactive parts of the environment. You can't really fail, as the game's story won't move forward until you have all the evidence that's available, which are stored in your inventory as "truth bullets." (As silly as this sounds--and it's definitely silly--the game's title is derived from the Japanese words for bullet and refutation.)

After you've clicked on everything, Monokuma will ask everyone to head to the school's basement, which happens to house a circular courtroom. (It has a bath house, so why not?) These hour-long unravelings of each murder(s) is where the meat of Danganronpa's gameplay takes place, and happen via a series of logic-based minigames. The most common one involves listening to a conversation between several different characters and pointing out a contradiction with either a piece of evidence from the crime scene or within the dialogue itself. These are the most fun, working as little riddles to tease out a new strand of truth. Every once and a while, there's a shooting gallery of letters used to play a game of Hangman, and when you're trying to completely break an argument, a quick rhythm game appears. Neither are very fun. However, every case closes with you arranging an elaborate comic outlining the murder from start to finish, which are easily the game's most enjoyable puzzles. A dozen more of these instead of a single game of Hangman would have been great.

The boring Hangman sections of Danganronpa are, thankfully, over almost as soon as they begin.

I found it hard not to scratch my head during the courtroom sequences, too. Danganronpa desperately wants to make its story interactive, and does so with a false sense of drama. The game trips over itself so your character is the one to solve everything, even if others have already figured it out and have zero motivation to keep it from you. Plus, for whatever reason, you have a health bar? Point out a contradiction that doesn't work or mess up the rhythm game too many times and, for whatever reason, you're dead. Logic be damned! Even if the whole case has been leading towards another killer, the game needs a game over screen, so it employs a contrived reason to generate one that doesn't have a ring of truth to the story. Besides setting up the game's trophies for solving cases without a single mistake and fulfilling a design desire for the player to somehow "lose," this does nothing but fuel a story twisting itself in knots to make sure the player has something to do.

But for a game that opens with a seemingly ridiculous premise, it finishes remarkably well. The ending is delightfully and daringly ambiguous, and most games wouldn't show this much restraint. Now, sure, if I were to tell you the game's ending, you might laugh. I wouldn't blame you. It sounds pretty goofy! But it works incredibly well within the world Danganopra sets up, and, hey, almost any game ending sounds goofy out of context.

Bears are dangerous. Who would put a bear in charge of a school? True horror.

For a game about subverting expectations, though, Danganropa is not one without its creepy moments. This is a game that has a character, Hifumi Yamada, meant to lampoon the unfair stereotype of an anime fan. He's fat, sweaty, and obsessed with 2D. It's really well written, and means Danganropa is acutely aware of its own genre tropes, both in and outside of the game. Despite this, it can't kick all of them. There is zero reason for one of the game's women to be shown in a provocative, seductive position on her bed, with her underwear fully on display...but it's there. Call it fanservice, call it whatever you want. It adds nothing to the game, and it's not part of a romantic relationship arc. Another scene involves the player being able to spy on the women in a bath house. It's only viewable if the player has a particular item from the school store, however, and is not presented as a "choice" for the player. It's unnecessary, the kind of thing where you have to hide your Vita in the middle of a bus ride, hoping you don't have to explain you're not looking at porn. Games are a medium that shouldn't shy away from sex and romance, but doing so requires a maturity not found here, and nothing in the story suggests these were needed.

(Another moment that should be mentioned is also a spoiler, so feel free to skip this paragraph, if you'd like. One character, whom I won't mention, has the discovery of their "true" gender used as a cheap plot device that's not handled with very much sensitivity.)

Though Danganronpa comes from a niche genre, I'm convinced it's only niche because more people haven't given it a chance. Visual novels have a bad reputation, albeit not entirely unearned. But don't let that stop you. As far as entry points go, Danganronpa is a great one, even if 999 and VLR are better games. If you like what you see here, more strangeness awaits you. Danganropa's tongue-twisting sci-fi (or is it?) narrative will have you constantly second guessing, and while the game-y parts aren't its strongest point, they work well enough.