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BioShock Infinite's problem is not violence

Apr 17 // Daniel Starkey
In the grand scheme of things, what is the point of art? Or media at all? The trashiest songs on the radio, the most beautiful opera you’ve ever heard -- they are experiences; experiences that over time help build up who we are. The Autobiography of Malcolm X might very well be my favorite book. It came, for me at least, at the right time in my life. It helped teach me the importance of perspective, about how the lives we live shape us and define how we’re seen and remembered. After reading it, I was so amazed that a few hundreds sheets of paper could contain so much wisdom, so much potential for discussion. I turned to the internet, scouring forums for others that were eager to talk.  That tends to be what I do with anything I play, watch, read, hear, or taste. When I find something new, something special, I am driven to find others who might like it. I'll share it and dissect it with them. Inevitably, they will notice things that I don’t; they’ll have a different interpretation. That dissection, that step-by-step scrutiny of something that someone else made is the fuel for a huge portion of every interaction we regularly have as people. Everything from chatting with coworkers, seeing movies or concerts with friends, or a real connection with someone you’re dating comes from a reflection upon and discussion of mutual experience. It’s so fundamental it’s odd that I haven’t seen it come up before. One of the things that’s been bothering me about games recently, and also one of the reasons I’ve come to love Journey so much, is that games can’t be shared in the same way as other media. Games, especially the more “core” games, have this notion that they should be arbitrarily hard, that they shouldn’t hold your hand -- and that the ensuing exclusivity is a good thing. That’s bullshit. Over time, we’ve come to isolate ourselves. We put ourselves in the strange position of locking away the secrets of gaming knowledge from those who aren’t physically capable of playing them. While it is true that a blind man will never be able to see a film in quite the same way that most can, or that a deaf woman will not ever be able to hear a song, those experiences aren’t locked away by choice. I’ve never seen a book printed with obnoxiously small font just to keep people from being able to read it at all. This is something completely unique to videogames, and even there it’s far from universal. As games begin including better dialogue, better stories, and more complex themes, we are rapidly approaching an era where they will be culturally relevant, where they will be scrutinized and analyzed by academics. We’re already seeing the explosion of relatively simple, easy-to-play games via mobile phones and Facebook. People largely incapable or unwilling to take the time to learn more complicated games are finding plenty of fun with simplicity and accessibility. Traditional games, however, haven’t seen the value in adaptation. I have plenty of friends and family whose opinions I deeply respect and value, but because videogames are inaccessible to those who haven’t been playing for a good chunk of their lives, or those who have a disability, I can’t share all of the great stories or experiences games have to offer.  More and more core gamers decry the fact that the casuals are playing simple games instead of the big beefy manly ones that they happen to think are intrinsically superior. At the same time core gamers howl at the idea of “easier” modes or options that remove combat entirely. Instead of encouraging broader options for new players, we’ve collectively continued to wall ourselves off and push potential fans away. A while back, I wrote a little piece about how my mom’s rheumatoid arthritis kept her from being able to ever play Mass Effect. I called her last week to talk about some of the games I’ve been playing -- Antichamber, Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite. With each one I was as descriptive as possible because I knew she wouldn’t get the chance to experience these games for herself. No matter what, some narratives are locked away; forever lost to her. She’s not the only one either; especially when we start thinking about everyone in our lives that we care for. Friends, family, lovers -- they will never know the depth of our medium, unless we start opening it up. This isn’t about being taken seriously by the outsiders, this is about connecting with the other people in our lives. BioShock Infinite nags at me, tears at me because it’s one of the most fascinating games I’ve ever played -- despite its many faults. I feel compelled to share it with everyone I know, just so we can discuss it. For me, BioShock isn’t so much too violent as it is a game that falls into what the general public expects. Allistair’s mom, herself a gamer with a decent enough background, dismissed it as just another shooter. Even more than that, while violence is -- I would agree -- vital to the game, its combat is so often unnecessary and left without reasonable context. Throughout, there are powerful narrative arcs that are broken up by needless and excessive combat. For about week now, I’ve been itching to take another trip to Columbia, but it’s packed with so much filler that I’ve been avoiding the gratuitous time sink. I’m not so foolish or naïve to say that Infinite would be better as a movie. Quite the contrary, interactions with Elizabeth and the openness of the early stages as well as the claustrophobic design of some of the later ones, is absolutely essentially to mechanically communicating some of the game’s best messages. What I would have liked to see, however, is a mode that makes losing impossible and cuts back on gameplay that might be enjoyable for those of us more accustomed to the tropes of gaming. All of this does bring up a growing fear of mine, though. Sooner or later gaming will reach a point where we will need to begin giving greater consideration to how play interferes with narrative structure. If we want to take the next step, to move forward and mature as a medium, then we need to demand games that don’t sacrifice story for gameplay or gameplay for story. It's not a lot to ask.
More accessible BioShock photo
It's accessibilty
Last week, Jim and I were both on Destructoid’s new video series The Question. We took opposite positions of a question that seems to be tearing through a lot of the game world right now: “Is BioShock Infinite too...

Review: Age of Empires II HD Edition

Apr 17 // Daniel Starkey
Age of Empires II HD Edition Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment, Ensemble StudiosPublisher: Microsoft StudiosReleased: April 9, 2013 (PC)MSRP: $19.99 Those of you that haven’t played AoE II in a while will probably have some pretty fond memories of the aging strategy title. You’ll likely think of it as one of the greats; spectacularly innovative, well-balanced and displaying a level of detail that would make Renaissance painters blush. Then … you’ll start the game. As great as it might be, the number of changes that have been made here are the absolute bare minimum. There are no HD textures, all of the original sound effects and voice clips have been kept, and none of the mechanics have changed. Everything is exactly as we all left it -- for better or worse. [embed]251841:48174:0[/embed] Little in AoE II has aged as well as one might hope. Those used to more sophisticated strategy games might find this golden oldie a bit frustrating. There’s no auto-explore, no unit command queues, no building queues, selecting a group of units will often select stray workers, control groups are pretty limited both in terms of number of units you can select and number of control groups allowed, and worker AI leaves quite a bit to be desired. Even so, there’s a kind of purity to the whole thing. Micromanagement and care are a lot more important than they have been in years and the lack of affordances and hand-holding gives a rougher but sometimes more precise experience. I found myself setting rally points much more effectively, and I would often dedicate five of my control groups to villagers or workers specifically to help cycle through economic management. For example, in my main lumber-gathering camps, I’d keep one worker in a control group so I could easily reposition the camp, and jump to that group of workers for quick action. Additionally, I became much more careful with base construction patterns and the arrangement of my buildings and supply lines. Keeping everything organized with so little help from the computer is hard enough, and I figured working around my own foolish base design would make the whole thing intolerable. This bare-bones approach encourages a much more aggressive, and obsessive style of play. There’s no room for complacency; you can't afford to stop moving or quit paying attention. Quite unlike StarCraft, which is often the same for the first three minutes or so of every match -- build worker after worker, secure more food, then crank out some military. At the very least, AoE will have you manually scouting and switching between various starting food sources while also securing housing, wood supplies, and getting everything set-up for the tech advancement. It’s different enough each time that it’s never the same game twice. Each of the civilizations is also fairly balanced with a few small exceptions here and there. Generally speaking though, the game is a very appropriate gauge of an enormous number of tactical as well as bigger-strategy skills. The game moves fast enough with other competent players that you’ll need to be pretty aggressive to keep up, without being so inaccessible that newer or less well-practiced players will be doomed before they ever start. Similarly, the campaign will take you through some of the more interesting, albeit distressing, moments in the middle ages. It’s all more or less historically accurate, though handled with a fair amount of tact, such that it never veers into unnecessarily offensive territory. If you can teach your children how to play effectively, it’s honestly not a bad tool to teach them a few things about major historical conflicts. I remember learning about the Aztecs and the city of Tenochtitlan from this thing. Enough that I can still spell that city-name properly with one try. Whoever said games weren’t effective teachers? In all seriousness though, this game is fantastically well-made, even if it a little rough around the edges. Some of the bigger issues with trying to run the thing on modern computers (such as the color bug, and the mouse scroll bug) have been fixed. Plus AoE II now supports a huge range of monitor resolutions, which is nice, even if we’re still stuck with these old textures, but there is Steam Workshop support so things could change down the line by fans. Yeah, it actually took me longer than I’d like to admit to notice and fully grasp the importance of that inclusion. It’s only been a few days since the game dropped and there are already a pretty decent set of HD texture packs, gameplay tweaks, and tons and tons of other goodies. In the same way that Skyrim took my initial investment of 75 hours and magically extended that to something in the neighborhood of 500, the Workshop for AoE II is an amazing bonus. And, combined with access to multiplayer via Steam, it's really the only addition the game needs. All told, while a little frustrating if you’re not into tons of micro-management, Age of Empires II HD with the Workshop and updated multiplayer features is an excellent title. The brilliance of the game’s design is still there, you just might need to look past its age to see it.
Age of Empires II HD photo
I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks
Age of Empires is one of the older strategy game series. Before Supreme Commander, before Sins of a Solar Empire, before even StarCraft, there was Age of Empires. As a fan of planning and scheming, the series has been a stapl...

Sex & Privilege photo
Sex & Privilege

GDC: David Gaider talks about sex and privilege


And it's actually pretty great
Mar 29
// Daniel Starkey
Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and others in the BioWare pantheon have always had some romantic subplots, but more recent games' naughty bits have frustrated some players. BioWare writer David Gaider has gone o...
Valve and the Oculus Rift photo
Valve and the Oculus Rift

GDC: Valve, virtual reality, and the Oculus Rift


Our janky eyes make all of it really hard
Mar 29
// Daniel Starkey
Back in the day, everyone thought virtual reality was going to be the future of games. We made movies, TV shows, and even very bad early attempts to make head-mounted displays. All of those devices failed, and over time, VR d...

IGDA controversy photo
IGDA controversy

GDC: Brenda Romero resigns from IGDA over exotic dancers


The industry's conflict with sexism continues
Mar 28
// Daniel Starkey
Brenda Romero, one of the most experienced people in the gaming industry, has officially resigned from her position as an IGDA board member after learning about exotic female dancers at an officially sponsored party last nigh...
Halo 4 enemies photo
Halo 4 enemies

GDC: Voltron, T1000 major inspirations for Halo 4 enemies


These guys know their nerd culture
Mar 27
// Daniel Starkey
If there's been on criticism of Halo over the years, it's the relative sameness of the experience. Earlier today during a discuss of the new enemy designs in Halo 4, Scott Warner of 343 industries mentioned that some of their main inspirations for the development of the Promethean units were highly advanced, amorphous foes.

We don't wait for games to not suck

Mar 21 // Daniel Starkey
On March 15, I tried to log in and work on some of my cities again, but none of them would load. I know that some people have had a fantastic experience since Maxis and EA have beefed up their server capacity, but clearly for some of us, this system still isn't functional, and at this point it's unclear when it ever will be. I realize that experience isn't necessarily reflective of those of most players at this stage, but that's just the point -- it's impossible to account for every possible scenario. As a reviewer I only have my own experiences when I play, and that's all. Even if I were to go back and re-review it now, I would have no choice but to give it a 1/10. It is still a broken product. There are some people that don't believe reviews should be a consumer guide, and that's actually a perspective to which I am sympathetic. As a general rule, I like to think of reviews as discussion topics. I wait until after I've bought, played, and formed my own opinion on a game before I look at any scores or read any reviews. As a general rule, I consider any information about a game to be a spoiler. This way I expect almost nothing and have a fresh mind going into every experience. I realize however, that that approach isn't at all common. Many people don't have the cash to blow on a $60 game at launch and either need to rent, wait for the price to drop, or check out their favorite critics' thoughts. I get that. I know what it's like to be a gamer on a budget, and I know how hard it can be to scrounge up the cash for a new release, and it's for that very reason that I approached the SimCity review in the way that I did. People who really wanted it, the classic SimCity fans, would buy it no matter what I did. The same is true for the people that want nothing to do with the series. My target audience was the few in the middle, those who weren't sure about whether the game was worth buying at launch. I did the best I could to dissuade people that might otherwise sit on their hands for what is at this point, weeks, for the game to be playable while they have nothing to play in the meantime. Did SimCity get better? I'm sure it did for most people, but as of today, I still can't play the cities I started, and the prospect of creating a whole new region is reason enough to keep me away. As Jim Sterling said a few days ago, buying games like this at launch is not a good idea. The more that don't, the clearer the message to EA that such behavior is unacceptable. In that sense, I think I was still able to fulfill my goal of using the review to spark discussion that took place in the comments, on Twitter, and on other sites like NeoGAF.  If an otherwise rational consumer decided after reading my review that they still wanted to buy the game, good for them. I hope they get lucky and I hope they have the best time possible, but at least they did so knowing what was and is still quite likely to happen. They made an informed decision with their money. Ultimately, so much of this conversation depends on what you personally think the role of a game critic should be. I can say that I expect an engagement with the actual content of the game, and that I want to know far more than whether or not it looks good or if it has decent controls. If those components are exceptional -- going either way -- then that warrants a mention, but otherwise I want to know about themes, I want to know what XYZ critic thought about the message, if there is one. I want to hear about how the mechanics reinforce or clash with the core purpose the game, and I want to know if it's something that's culturally relevant. If a critic goes into an in-depth description about how combat works or about the menu system, I'm immediately turned off. Everyone, when writing, should ask themselves "Why does this matter? What is the point of what I'm saying?" While I'm sure many people have grown rather attached to the current format and structure of reviews, I've always figured that one of the reasons that people like Yahtzee are so popular is that they offer something more. He has a very clear point and is remarkably consistent with his approach. I'm sure some portion of this piece sounds like I'm trying to describe why people should read what I write, and it's entirely possible that that's what I'm actually getting at, whether I realize it or not. Consciously, though, I only hope that people find this interesting. I plan on watching the discussion closely and seeing if I can get a better idea of what others prefer to see in their reviews. Maybe I really am in a very small minority. Maybe I'm operating on a lot of baseless assumptions. I'd like to think, though, that I'm not so far removed from the opinions of most people that I'm completely off here. So what do you think? Is the role of a critic to provide the seeds for a discussion, are we in the business of creating consumer guides, or is our job something else entirely?  [Header image from Suvodeb]
Thoughts on reviews photo
A Critic's Manifesto
A couple weeks ago, I posted my review of SimCity on ScrewAttack. I gave the game a 1/10, which is the lowest I've ever scored anything. That review sparked a surprising amount of controversy amongst one of my roommates who c...

Beer Jesus photo
Beer Jesus

Former BioWare CEO Greg Zeschuk is the Beer Jesus


He has a series documenting the liquid happiness that is beer
Mar 14
// Daniel Starkey
I don’t think there is anyone who really doubts the legacy of BioWare, easily one of the most influential studios in interactive media. It came as somewhat of a surprise then, when the company’s founders Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka left the company to pursue other interests -- beer and charity, respectively.

Review: Mass Effect 3 Citadel

Mar 06 // Daniel Starkey
Mass Effect 3: Citadel (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PlayStation 3, PC)Developer: BioWarePublisher: EAReleased: March 5, 2013MSRP: $15 I remember a few years back I read a blog post by one Cliff Bleszinski about he saw a new hope for the legacy of classic like Star Wars in the nascent stages of Mass Effect’s development. The vastness of the universe, the sympathy of the characters and the scale of the conflict were the foundations of that analogy. Recently, I’ve begun to think that each of the games was respectively built around one of those three things. Mass Effect 2, the best of the series, was given life by the interactions within the ragtag group of outcasts, and my biggest take-away from Citadel was the degree to which it matched the best that 2 had to offer. That said it also fits in with 3, even if it is a bit ham-handed at times. Thematically, Citadel is still trying to give some sense of closure to the whole journey, but it still doesn't quite get the job done. After what was for many a 150-hour epic, though, it's clear why letting go of the thing is so difficult. The DLC begins with Shepard being called back to the Citadel for repairs and maintenance on the Normandy and shore leave for the crew. Given that this is supposed to take place in the middle of one of the largest galactic wars in hundreds of thousands years, and that the continues existence of everyone in the galaxy is at stake, I really hope I’m not the only one that finds all of this a bit hard to swallow. [embed]247725:47383:0[/embed] Once Citadel is pretty confident that you’ve bought into the flimsy pretense for a vacation, it smacks you in the face, in a grand, sophomoric “HAHA JUST KIDDING” prank. What follows isn’t necessarily the best subplot in the series, but it’s comes wrapped with a delightful spark – bringing back nearly every squad mate that’s lived up to this point. There’s no apparent purpose behind the grand reunion, other than bringing back a bunch of fan favorites for one final goodbye. One that feels even more gratuitous when you know how this tale ends. Really, Citadel nails nearly everything it needs to. Much like Lair of the Shadow Broker, it has the perfect combination of comedy, combat and intrigue. It’s so well put together that I can’t help but fall in love with it, but it also comes with some really unfortunate baggage. Most of the people who will be playing Citadel have finished Mass Effect 3, and while the DLC doesn’t change the ending, it’s impossible to separate the two. Knowing the tragic conclusion to Shepard’s journey, knowing what happens to your squad and the absolute horror of their war for survival, places the carefree merrymaking squarely within one of two contexts. The pessimist will see this add-on as a commentary on the futility of it all; on the absolute pointlessness of our own pursuits of happiness. The optimist will see a light amongst the darkness, a small flicker of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds against a cold, uncaring evil. Even with the rather imposing context of the rest of the Mass Effect series placed squarely on the shoulders of this final narrative arc, it is never bad. Combat is passable, as always, with a few fun twists later on. There are a few light puzzle sections that are rather similar to Kasumi’s mission from 2. The pithy banter between Shepard and her squad is rarely quite as fun as is it here. Seth Green doesn’t quite get to stretch his wings as much as the comedic work horse of the cast, but everyone’s got some great lines – particularly Alix Regan as Specialist Traynor. For those of us who are heavily invested in the series, for whatever reason, it means putting away something special. This was a modern sci-fi epic that attempted, at least, to give the player a voice. I don’t think this trip quite took the path that anyone thought it would, but it’s been an interesting ride. If this is how BioWare wants to close Shepard’s chapter, I can live with this. It’s not a perfect finale, but it’s one that highlights the best we’ve seen from the series so far, and it’s not without its own set of endearing idiosyncrasies. 
ME3: Citadel review photo
The Final Farewell
It’s been a while—over seven years, in fact—since Mass Effect was first announced. At the time, it was being pitched as a classic 1970s sci-fi flick that you could play. Your decisions, they said, would have...

Social games photo
Social games

Social game with a conscience Half the Sky launches today


Trying to smack injustice in the face
Mar 04
// Daniel Starkey
Within the past year or so, there's been a new crop of social games that, one might say, have a conscience. Their goal isn't so much taking your money as it is encouraging you to be an organ donor or convincing you to give mo...

Review: V-Moda Crossfade M-100

Mar 03 // Daniel Starkey
Now, obviously that claim doesn’t go without qualification, and what I really mean to say is that this set is practical compared to what else is on the market at that price level, but these things are pretty incredible for their cost.  At $300, you’re mostly getting into reference-class headphones. That tier consists headphones that are very, very well made with a bunch of cool things like gold contacts, large, well-calibrated diaphragms for accurate sound reproduction, and all that other fancy goodness. V-Moda has all of those nifty features here too, but they've also brought a pragmatic mindset.  For example, most of those sets can often have a resistance of 300 or 600 ohms. The M-100, though, only have a resistance of 32 ohms. For the average consumer, all this really means is that you can use these guys on a portable media player or a laptop without having to go out and buy a separate (and often very expensive) headphone amplifier to boost the signal. That portable philosophy is really what is so impressive about these. They can be used almost anywhere, with almost any set of equipment. The Crossfade M-100 isn’t quite like anything else. Portable, light, and relatively small with interchangeable cords and a built-in microphone by default, it's very unusual but totally amazing. All of these features are the result of its crowd-sourced design. Headfi, a forum for headphone aficionados like myself was tapped by V-Moda to figure out what people really wanted in their next set. The result is something of a cyberpunk version of Frankenstein’s monster.  The cable for the M-100 is, thankfully, replaceable. This means that damage to the plug and the cord, which are typically the first parts to fail, doesn’t necessitate that you replace the whole set. Beyond that, the cords themselves are reinforced with Kevlar. The stuff they use to make bulletproof vests. And you get two of them. Taking it a step further, either ear cup -- the left or the right -- can be used to plug in the cable. So if one of those fails, you still have another option. V-Moda also includes a few caps to keep the unused plug from getting dirt or grime inside. Of the two cords that come with the headphones, one has a TRRS connector (which really just means that it has a built in microphone and pause button), perfect for a standard cellphone. The other is something that the company calls a “SharePlay” cable which really just means a super-awesome version of a splitter so that your friends can listen too. The entire frame is made of steel, which is a welcome change from most other headphones which tend to take the cheap route with plastic. This means that the headphones don’t creak at all with pressure. There was no give when I applied force, and I even dropped them on the ground a few times without noticing any scratches or damage. The steel does add a little weight overall, but this set is still quite a bit smaller than other $300 sets, so the difference isn’t too noticeable. Ear pads are another place where most companies tend to go pretty cheap, but again we see a dedication to quality throughout -- in this case, the cups are made of memory foam and well-designed for almost any sized ear. I can also say as someone with pierced ears, that the memory foam works splendidly -- it didn't place any additional, unnecessary pressure on my ring-ed lobes. I found that I could wear the set for 5-8 hours straight with no discernible discomfort whatsoever. Your mileage will vary of course, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to tear off their ears in horrific, unbearable pain. Speaking of which the M-100s also comes with a really, really tough carrying case that can definitely take a good hit. I took a few solid swings at it with a hammer and did no permanent damage to either the case or the headphones inside. It also has little harnesses for all of the cords and small accessories included. With any luck this set will last you a good long while. Now, the set that I reviewed also came with a dedicated add-on mic for gaming and eSports and Skype and stuff. This too comes reinforced with Kevlar, because why the fuck not, guys?! Other than that, though, it’s a pretty standard, flexible boom microphone. It’s not quite as cool as the one on the A50s that are muted automatically when you flip it away from your face, but it definitely holds to the same ridiculous level of quality seen everywhere else in this set. Its only notable downside is that the connectors provided pretty much make it impossible to use with a console. With only a TRRS connector and an adapter for PC users, you would be hard-pressed to jury-rig the thing to get it to work on the Xbox 360 or PS3. Thanks to that adapter it is theoretically possible, but it would be a huge pain in the ass. I do have a few tiny nitpicks that don't neatly fit into any category I’ve discuss thus far. On either ear cup, for example, a small cord runs up into the headband. While aesthetically that cord looks totally badass, I’ve managed to get it caught on a couple of things. It is Kevlar reinforced like the other cables, but these things aren’t user-replaceable, so I freaked out a bit. Obviously, this is a very expensive set and causing damage is no bueno. I can’t tell you just how much I love these things from a purely “Holy shit, why doesn’t everyone make life easy for like this” way. But they do sound damned awesome. Allegedly they have a dual-diaphragm design with 50mm drivers in each cup. What does this mean for the non-aurally fixated? Well, balancing high tones and low tones in a set of headphones or in any set of speakers that don’t have separate tweeters and woofers, is really hard. The kinds of stuff you need to produce good bass and good highs are very different. Most reference-class headphones go for the mid-tones instead. As a result, those of us that like heavy bass for ... I dunno rap, or techno, or gunshots in Half-Life 2 miss out on what we tend to prefer. Now, a lot of people don’t like the heavier bass of DJ-class headphones, but that sound profile can mostly be fixed with a decent equalizer. Having that deep, rich bass capability as well as the range to really make the highs sing is a rarity though. In all of my tests, I noticed no tinny sounds, nor any bottoming out on the low end. Everything performed perfectly. To cause failure I had to connect them to amp and run a dangerous amount of power through them. The M-100s will keep up with whatever crazy stuff you like to listen to at any volume that could ever be called “safe” or “reasonable.” If you want to go deaf, then they might start sounding like crap, but you won’t know anyway. Because you'll be deaf. Okay, I think I’m done raving. Wait ... steel construction. Gold connectors. Kevlar cords. Interchangeable parts. Great case. Incredible sound. Excellent comfort. Super-portable. Versatile. Now I’m done. I’m amazed by what crowd-sourcing people’s preferences in headphones can do, and now I’ve started thinking that every other headphone company just hates its customers or is too self-absorbed to consider what features customers actually want in a high-end set. Granted, they are by no means cheap. I get that, but if you can swing that amount of cash and don’t need to use them on an Xbox 360 or PS3, then you cannot go wrong with the M-100s.
Crossfade M-100 review photo
The first crowd-sourced headphones
I realize that the percentage of our readers that are legitimately in the market for a $300 set of headphones is fairly small, and honestly if you don’t think dropping that much cheddar is ever worth it, then I probably...

I know what a game is

Feb 27 // Daniel Starkey
Trying to define something -- especially something whose definition would appear at first to be completely clear and free from dissension -- is no easy task. Take time, for example. I don’t think I heard anything that I would consider an acceptable definition of time until I was well into a decent physics course. Even then it seems at least once a week that definition is tweaked and refined. That sort of constant, steady modification is one of the important elements of this conversation, as it seems patently absurd to me, that anyone would get themselves so wrapped up in one, immutable definition for something that is always in flux. Language, art, communication -- these things are always changing and evolving. What we consider classics, in many cases, were once considered pretentious tripe, or the works of the foolish, lecherous, and the uneducated. To say that you know, without a doubt, the absolute final, permanent and unchanging definition of anything is a species of arrogance I can’t even begin to fathom. And if you’re one of those people, you should probably stop reading because you won’t benefit from anything I have to say. Anti-game activists fall back on the two conditions I listed above: 1) a game must have rules and 2) it must have a “win state.” Both of these qualifications seem odd to me. The first one is basically worthless, in the sense that, anything that you can do would arguably have a set of rules. Life has rules; anything you ever do or interact with is limited by something. That point is so non-specific as to be completely meaningless and applicable to nothing. The second condition, that games must have some kind of “win state” is a little better, but still leaves many things that most would consider games out of the “real games” party. Is Simon a game? Minecraft? What about Tetris? Or Missile Command? Skyrim? None of these things that I would readily call games have a “win state” that is clear, with three of them being completely unbeatable. Jane McGonigal, one of the more interesting people working on the more pragmatic side of what I will call “videogame design theory,” has perhaps one of the best, though ultimately imperfect definitions of what a “game” is. She claims that every game, whether it is video, board, or playground, shares four fundamental traits: a goal, rules and limitations, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. Unlike the hopelessly unclear requirements of only a set of rules and a “win state,” Jane’s set of traits work together to increase their collective specificity. Her rules could also be interpreted as obstructions to the goal of a player. And the requirement for voluntary participation safeguards against simply calling anything anyone ever does a “game.” Indeed, my only real issue with her list is the “goal” part. I don’t like Proteus. I don’t like Dear Esther. I don’t like Twine games. Still, they are all games. Proteus is, to me at least, about exploration. I was underwhelmed by this exploration, primarily because I think plenty of games accomplish the same goal, the same sense of wonder and the same kind of otherworldly fascination, without needing to be so unnecessarily obtuse. There is also a very clear feedback mechanism -- different bits of the environment react and interact with you and the rest of the world based on your presence. Over time, they steadily guide you to see a few specific things. Whether or not you find those things interesting and whether or not you care about how they change is irrelevant. They do, along with a given rule set, exist. If, for example, you chose to ignore every clue or signal that the game gave you, and simply decided to wander aimlessly until your boredom grew sufficiently large to stop playing -- then you might not ever know what any of the core pieces of the game are. Ignorance of all of the disparate elements, however, doesn’t immediately disqualify its status as a game, though. It isn’t uncommon for me to approach a game with a different mindset than most of my friends. I, allegedly, am a professional game critic and I have a certain set of things that I look for and continuously slot away in a mental filing cabinet while playing. When that “critic hat” comes off, though, I’m often known to be one of the more ... unruly players. In Halo, I’ll often use sticky grenades on teammates that are about to ride off in a vehicle. Sometimes In Capture the Flag modes, I’ve been known to kill people on my team so they can’t score points. In these instances, my goal not only differs from those the designers intended, but they transcend them. I give up trying to win, and create new goals for myself. Surely, McGonigal and others would argue that I am creating my own sub-games within the established rule set. Instead of Capturing the Flag, my new goal would simply be to fuel my own amusement. Rules? Whatever I think is funny. Feedback? My own laughter. Each of these things would exist and be bound not only by the structure of Halo’s regular multiplayer modes, but my own set of conditions as well. I do the very same thing in single-player titles when I’m not reviewing them. If I start finding a game boring or frustrating, I co-opt its mechanics to allow me to do ... whatever it is I can. I look for things to break, new ways in which I can manipulate different elements of the game so that I can extract whatever entertainment value I can salvage. I’ve already established that these changes are, in themselves, creating new games within something larger. Why then, would my doing the same thing in other titles not count? If a player begins ignoring everything the developer is trying to tell them, what difference does it make in which digital world that act of creation takes place? If no goal is ever clearly given merely because you never progress far enough to see if you, the player, don’t know the goal, is it still a game?  Everyone has their set of reasons for playing games, and we could be forgiven for trying to project our own expectations onto others. It raises the question though, why anyone else genuinely cares what gets called what. I think that’s the real issue here. That some people feel that their way of life, or their hobby is being threatened. It’s a weird, relatable-yet-irrational sort of paranoia. That seems to be happening a lot lately.
I know what a game is photo
But I don't really think it matters in the first place
A lot of people have been running around attacking games like Proteus or The Walking Dead; claiming that they aren’t, in fact, games. Generally speaking these people spout off random things about requiring “win st...

Trends of this Generation: Digital distribution

Feb 20 // Daniel Starkey
This may not seem like that big of a deal at first. After all, where people buy their games has never really been that big of a deal, but if we really think about everything that’s changing now, almost all of it can be traced back to, in some way, the rise of digital distribution on the back of burgeoning broadband networks in almost every section of the globe. To truly understand just how important this is, you first need to understand a bit about the game industry itself. Generally speaking, most developers operate through a publisher that creates the physical discs, encodes them, creates the packaging and ships them out to the retailers. And that all takers place after the console manufacturer (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) approve the game for publication on their system. Everyone in that process gets a cut of the game’s final sales -- devs, pubs, console manufacturers, the shipping infrastructure, and the retailers. If the game is successful, then that translates into least money on the developer’s side for investment in future projects. Developers still risk almost everything while the potential rewards from that gamble are gobbled up by everyone else. Now, in many ways, this system helps subsidize the cost of consoles, and does provide extra capital to publishers who occasionally bankroll projects that might not otherwise ever see the light of day, but many developers would still prefer to see the largest percentage of sales come back to them as possible. While certainly not the first platform of its kind, Valve was able to get the ball rolling with the completion and distribution of Steam in 2003. Through it, players could search for, purchase, and download any games that were currently available. Valve, in some sense, acted as a publisher of sorts, by taking a small chunk of any sales -- after that though, the developers were allowed to keep whatever else was left. There was no retail store to deal with, and because Steam was only available on the PC, there was no one to approve of and license the game for distribution. That one change started a revolution, whose effects are becoming more and more apparent every day. After the release of the Xbox 360, Microsoft established their digital storefront called Xbox Live Marketplace. Nintendo and Sony followed suit with the Wii Shop Channel and PlayStation Store, respectively. While the console crowd was a few years behind, their entrance into the digital distribution market would be no less influential. In the years since, each of their stores has seen an exceptional list of exclusives, and in an era where multi-platforms are the norm, that is no small thing. Fez, Journey and the entire BIT.TRIP series, were for a time, at least, exclusive to a different platform. While none of these stores completely overthrew the traditional publication model, they outlets seemed to favor smaller, cheaper games that were a bit more successful than their full-priced, AAA brethren. A new set of price points became the norm -- $5, $10 and $15, certainly a far cry from the $60 gamers were accustomed to paying. At those prices, consumers would be a bit more likely to take a risk on an untested product- even one that they had never heard of. Indie games like the ones I mentioned earlier plus dozens of others have become more and more common. In many ways this matches the general trend we’ve seen in all forms of media over the past decade. Instead of buying whole albums, customers can pick and choose tracks they like. People can get Netflix and try out all kinds of movies and television shows with very little financial risk. Ebooks and the ability of authors to self-publish online has given many, many more people a variety of options for media consumption. The real game changer here, the bit that has already started changing how the vast majority of people plays games has really only gained traction in the past two or three years. Games like Temple Run have been downloaded tens of millions of times, with Angry Birds recently topping one-billion downloads. That reaches a level of cultural ubiquity of which most can only dream. The PS2, the single most successful game console ever, has been around for 12 years and moved 150 million units. Android alone has 500 million devices in hands, with 1.3 million more activations per day. These numbers are absolutely ludicrous, and while I know many “core” gamers aren’t too thrilled about it, Nintendo and Sony, with their relatively modern handhelds, are still light years behind the new face of the market. It’s difficult to say exactly where all of this will end up, but portable gaming is here to stay, and the old guard has never seemed more incompetent and more resistant to change. A few closing thoughts If there's one thing that we should really be taking away from all of this, it is that this past generation has been nothing if not superlative. Our medium is growing, and it is doing so at an incredible rate. Yes, retail sales and the like have been in decline and yes, more than a few studios have seen their doors close earlier than they deserve, but the mainstream adoption of gaming in all its forms is incredible.  These days, everyone's a gamer.
Gaming trends photo
This changes everything
Leading up the possible PlayStation 4 announcement on February 20, I've been looking into some paradigm shifts we've seen over the past generation. This is stuff that will likely be with us for a while; these are things that ...

Trends of this Generation: Gamification

Feb 19 // Daniel Starkey
The Xbox 360 got the ball rolling on gamification with Gamerscore. Sony and Valve added their own achievement tracking systems. Each of these companies, in one form or another began rewarding players for in-game accomplishments with a cute sound effect and a small bit of text. There’s a lot of commentary and discussion about whether or not achievements and systems to track them have been good or bad for the industry as a whole; there can be no doubt that Valve, Microsoft and Sony have some major precedents, creating, in essence extrinsic motivators for in-game tasks. “Gamification.” People devote quite a bit of time to explaining and trying to understand how achievements can be used to encourage certain kinds of actions for the player. Since the discussion began among academics and game designers, countless people have implemented these subtle psychological tricks into their systems and into their software, especially in the realm of social media. Websites like Klout and the prevalence of social games have only accelerated the spread of these techniques. Hell, Raptr even gamified games themselves.  Gamification is used to help add to traditional MMOs, free to play games, not to mention the potential real-world applications. It’s a big world out there. And, bit by bit, we’re turning it into one big game. I'll admit to falling into the gamification trap, to a degree. Earlier this generation I was steered way from Wii games because there was no way to track my progress and show it off to friends. I use services like Yelp to try to get some of the badges, and that encourages me to check-in everywhere and earn coupons.  These kinds of achievements are a sort-of sucker punch to our ancient monkey brains. They use little traits that we have picked up over the years to help us combat laziness. When we receive small rewards for things, we're more likely to keep doing them. It help keeps us engaged and active, and is a small safeguard against boredom.  The issue here is one that relates to a lot of free-to-play titles, in that players are drawn in, then kept there by manipulating the natural way their brains are wired. It is disingenuous and manipulative, but as I see more and more studios closing their doors or getting bought up by the juggernauts, I can't help but think that for many it's their only choice.  Achievements and such aren't universally bad, though. Valve, forever the innovator, has layered them into its games in ways that encourage exploration, unique ways of play or even using them to reinforce the events of a game.  For example, in Half-Life 2 there's quite a few achievements for finding random things. This is used to encourage more lateral thinking as well as exploration of the environment. In Portal 2 (minor spoilers ahead) there's a chapter called "This is the part where he kills you," a character that says "This is the part where he kills you," and right before "he" kills you, an achievement pops-up with the same message. Similarly, at the end of the game, there's an achievement called "Lunacy" with the text "That just happened." Anyone who has finished the game knows just how ridiculous that scene is, and having that little friendly sound effect accompanied by some hilarious text, only serves to reinforce the experience.  Achievements are something I guess I've learned to live with. I don't really like them, but at the same time, having some method of tracking progress on a website like Fitocracy has actually been pretty good for me overall. I've used gamification to my own advantage whenever possible and I feel like I'm steadily becoming a better person because of it. That said, I know now to avoid those products which I feel will try to manipulate me into investing more than I am ready or willing to.
Gamification photo
Achievement unlocked!
Leading up the possible PlayStation 4 announcement on February 20, I've been looking into some paradigm shifts we've seen over the past generation. This is stuff that will likely be with us for a while; these are things that ...

Trends of this Generation: The Rise of eSports

Feb 14 // Daniel Starkey
Competitive, head-to-head gaming has been around for quite some time. Since the invention of arcade culture and games like Wolfenstein in the early '90s, it has seen a steady increase in popularity among core gamers. In the past couple of years though, especially since the introduction of massive online battle arena, or MOBA games, the sheer number of players taking part has increased dramatically. According to some statistics that are only a few months old, League of Legends, a free-to-play MOBA, is now the most popular online game. Each day there are over 12 million people logging in to play LoL, and with nearly 30 million monthly active players, the game eclipses other industry juggernauts like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Each month, there are over one billion hours of play put into LoL -- that's roughly equivalent to half the hours logged in the entire history of the Halo franchise. It is entirely possible that at any given point, LoL is the most played game in the world. These numbers alone are certainly impressive, but when viewed within the trend among the rest of the gaming industry, it becomes pretty clear that competitive gaming in general, and eSports specifically, is definitely on the rise.  The real power of sports is in the dynamic narrative, the creation of new stories, conflicts between countries or cities that inspire audiences and give them a stake in the outcome. eSports has traditionally had a hard time garnering the same following, and the same sense of intrinsic drama. Twitch.TV and the proliferation of easy-to-use streaming software and platforms have been a boon for accessibility, however. Personalities like Day9 have given eSports that sense of dramatic tension, and helped bring an understanding and a fluency to the games these people play that we simply haven't seen before. By making the games easier to understand, more and more players and audiences have been able to learn about the history of different teams, their rivalries, their conflicts, and what they've had to do to succeed; though that doesn't even tap the sheer ease of learning the rules of these games, or the intricacies of higher-level play. Competitive games still have a long way to go before they see the kind of mainstream adoption as something like American football, tennis, or soccer, but their rapid expansion has led to something of a revolution in gaming. These days, unless your game's on a console, there's an excellent chance that it's free-to-play and built from the ground up to fit into the growing niche of eSports players. At the very least, this new system directly challenges the current understanding of what makes a top-selling game. When grizzled heavyweights like Call of Duty and Halo don't see the same audience that a comparatively cheaply produced and freely accessible game does, then we can safely assume that something has changed, and chances are good that many of the things we've taken as given in the past can and should be re-examined. I can't say I've ever been too big of a fan of eSports. Competitive gaming generally fills me with an unholy rage and the absolute necessity to begin questioning the matrilineality of those around me. I like playing games, I even like playing games competitively, but as my roommates will tell you, when we get into it in Halo 4, it gets BAD. I learned long ago that spewing hate-filled diatribes at my best friends wasn't too conducive to actually keeping those people as friends. All that said, there is something special about eSports which I've neglected until relatively recently. It's the pageantry, the narrative that really draws people in. I, for example, have been a pretty dedicated Super Smash Bros. Melee player for the past few years. One of my friends is the best in my state, and we used to play quite often, especially when we were still in the dorms at university.  My favorite character for the 12-year-old fighting game/Nintendo circlejerk is Young Link, protagonist of my favorite game, Majora's Mask. But he's a low-tier. Generally considered to pretty damned awful. Then, I saw a match between two of the players in the world -- Armada and Hungrybox -- at a tournament.  Armada is generally a Peach player and Hungrybox exclusively plays Jigglypuff. Both of those characters are in the top tiers for Melee. In quarter-finals, the two squared off and Armada switched from his tried-and-true character to... Young Link. That little kid sitting 11 spots down on the tier list from Peach. It was huge. Stunning. And it gave me an odd sense of connection to the player.  That kind of connection, that narrative is vital for sports to carry any kind of weight with its audience. The struggle of people in some tenuous way connected to you through, typically, geography, is what helps pull audiences in. When two teams square off at the Super Bowl or the World Series, there is so much more there than a few dozen people running around and passing a ball. It's the collective effort of a city and its fans to produce the best team they can and show them off for all the country to see.  Last year, shortly after E3, I was invited by Blizzard to go check out StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm at the MLG Spring Championship. Besides getting to check out HotS, I was expecting a day of annoying eSports fans getting way too excited about things that don't matter. I'm glad to admit that I was wrong. Geography doesn't really lend itself as the primary driver of the all-important narrative of eSports. Instead, who you play matters. Like I mentioned before, seeing Armada win tournaments with Young Link was really inspiring to me. It felt like a validation of my choice, of my character. Similarly with games like StarCraft and LoL, race or champion selection is something that connects players. In time, you'll learn the intricacies and idiosyncratic of your character or faction. It's not something that can be explained to someone who doesn't play, and it's something that outsiders will never really understand. I think, ultimately, that's what separates the modern era of eSports from those that came before. If you play Halo, who can you really get behind? If you watch a competitive match, how are you connecting to the players at the tournament?  With StarCraft, I will always have the back of any Terran player out there. I may not be that great a player, but I can at least understand those who are competing, in a sense, on my behalf because of it. 
Rise of eSports photo
These games are serious business
Leading up the possible PlayStation 4 announcement on February 20, I've been looking into some paradigm shifts we've seen over the past generation. This is stuff that will likely be with us for a while; these are things that ...

Trends of this Generation: Consoles as media centers

Feb 12 // Daniel Starkey
Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and a half-dozen other services now populate the dashboards and home screens of all the modern consoles. These electronics have become the centerpiece of the family living room. This is another paradigm shift which, in itself doesn’t seem too important, but when viewed within the larger context of consumer electronics makes an enormous amount of sense. Previous generations, particular the PlayStation line, have always had some limited playback options, but only with the Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 especially did we truly begin to see where technological integration was taking us. And even since then, we’ve seen so many more additions to functionality and capacity for each machine, that they can hardly be called the same beast. The PC as we know it is dying, and has been for some time. Many people have switched their browsing to their mobile devices and use their televisions and home-theater setups to watch movies, play music, and organize their entertainment consumption. This trend gets a bit more interesting when the idea of the “second screen” is taken into account. Many people no longer simply sit and watch TV -- they will look up facts about the show on their phones or tablets, use Facebook, text their friends, and generally divide their attention. Microsoft’s Smartglass is the first of what will surely be many applications to begin taking full advantage of the fact that the current crop of media consumers doesn’t passively observe. This is one of the few changes that I welcome with open arms. Integration of media playback has simplified my life. I can switch from playing a game for review when my roommates are out, to queuing up some episodes of Archer or Downtown Abbey. My house hasn't rolled music playback into this new multimedia paradigm like Microsoft probably hoped we would, but everything is still nice and smooth. I don't need to drag a computer into the living room to play Netflix, or Amazon video, for example; everything we need is available on one system, all the time. I realize there's a lot of folks around who think that gaming consoles should be for games and games only, but honestly, I see no downside to these types of features on consoles. Anything that makes our lives easier should be a good thing, yeah? I can't help but wonder if all the people that think that consoles should only play games would really be okay with buying a Blu-ray player, setting up a second set-top box, getting another HDMI cable, and adjusting all of the appropriate settings. You'd also be saying goodbye to video streaming services.  These are all things that increase the financial viability of consoles as all-in-one devices, and in an era where the invulnerability of the game market is now a vestige of an age long past, consoles need all the mainstream appeal they can get. I, for one, can't wait for the day when I can do absolutely everything I need with one device, and that day may be coming soon.
Console media centers photo
One Machine to Rule Them All
Yesterday, I looked at one of the most recognizable shifts we've seen in the past few years: motion controls. In the next segment for this editorial miniseries, I want to address integrating a number of disparate services int...

Trends of this Generation: Waggling with motion controls

Feb 11 // Daniel Starkey
I started thinking about all of this a few weeks ago, wondering what trends and innovations would be influential for gaming. What will forever change the face of this industry as we know it? After some discussions with the rest of the staff here, we’ve got it down to a list of a few things whose impact will probably be with us for some time to come.   Motion Controls The Wii, Kinect and Move. If there’s one development that could really sum-up this generation, motion controls might be it. It started back in ’06 with the release of Nintendo’s Wii. Instead of trying to keep up with the graphical race between Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo chose to use an innovative control mechanism, banking on the idea that developers would use it to create games that were compelling enough to draw in casual gamers and the core crowd alike. It worked, more or less. At just under 100 million units, the Wii is still *technically* the most successful console from this generation. I say technically, because Wii sales have been largely stagnant for a couple of years, giving both the PS3 and 360 quite some time to catch up. Early on, however, no one knew how the whole thing would play out. Initially, the Wii was selling so fast that it looked like it was a real contender to surpass the PlayStation 2. The other two companies, realizing the mass appeal of motion controls, Microsoft and Sony moved to produce peripherals that would give their respective consoles functionality that rivaled that of the Wii. At E3 2009, Kinect and Move were shown for the first time. While each unit was met with different levels of success, they were indicative of something more -- a desire to simplify, to cut back on the growing complexity of traditional console controls. For all of its imperfections, motion controls allowed easy translation of subtle, nuanced movement between player and the screen. Games like Wii Sports and Dance Central rode the wave of popularity and saw pretty substantial success. Kinect showed, for the first time, that a peripheral not initially bundled with a console could not only be financially viable, but see incredible mainstream acceptance, selling over 8 million units in the first 60 days and setting a world record for the fastest selling consumer electronics device ever released. While it’s not certain whether the "Nextbox" or the PS4 will keep up with the motion control standard, but the Wii U, the first console of the 8th generation, has already taken the legacy of its predecessor and built upon it. Microsoft has also been unusually dedicated to Kinect, and I honestly don’t see them dropping that support anytime soon. This is perhaps one of the most pernicious and frustrating new bits of tech I’ve seen in some time. I’ve written before about the need for games that are open and accessible to people who may be differently abled, and that sentiment hasn’t changed. Motion controls, indeed, can be very helpful for some individuals, but it seems that more often than not it is a restriction. Playing the Wii for example can be tiring, even if it just means holding your arm in one specific place for extended periods of time. Motion controls, more often than not place an additional barrier between the player and the game.  Standard console controls have been fine-tuned for years and it’s pretty rare to see even the worst games completely screw them up. Anytime a new Kinect or Move game comes out, however, the first and most important discussion that’s had is whether or not the controls are even competently implemented. The simple act of not screwing something up is now seen as an exceptional accomplishment because just being okay is the new bar. Maybe I’m wrong, but within the past few years I haven’t seen anything pull off new control schemes quite as well as games like Wii Sports or Dance Central, and they are meant for very general audiences and are very liberal with what kinds of movements they will accept as being correct. This tech isn't really ready for prime time and probably won’t be for a while- not to the degree required to justify the cost. When I was young, my mom told me that eventually all games would be controlled with the whole body. Even back then, I knew that was a bad idea. I’m not necessarily against change in the abstract, but at no point have I seen anything that justifies two expensive add-ons and an entire console that’s a generation behind. Creativity on the part of the developers brings innovation. Messing with the most fundamental aspect of a machine (its interface) undoes everything people have learned since gaming has… been. People can say what they like, but this is one shift that gives me a lot more stress, physical pain, and hours of frustration than it should have. At the end of the day, ask yourself- do you want Red Steel or do you want Portal? [image courtesy of SlamDunk! Studios , I'm a Gamer Too, and Kotaku Australia]
Motion Controls photo
Many embarassing Facebook images later
If current estimations are to be believed, the current console generation will be the longest we’ve seen in the history of gaming. As of right now, just a little less than one-third of my life fits between November 16, ...

Sins of a Dark Age photo
Sins of a Dark Age

First video of Ironclad's new game Sins of a Dark Age


It's good, not great
Jan 28
// Daniel Starkey
Ironclad, the folks behind critical darling Sins of a Solar Empire, have been hard at work on what they claim will be a reinvention of the MOBA as we know it. Last year I got a chance to take a look at a few early builds...
ME3 DLC tease? photo
ME3 DLC tease?

Mass Effect 3 downloadable content teased, I think


Let's hope it's better than Omega
Jan 28
// Daniel Starkey
The fact that BioWare isn't quite done with Mass Effect 3 has been known for some time. Today however, we have our first set of screenshots which include a casino, apparently on the Citadel, and a krogan with what looks to be...
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Majora's Mask Remix album set to launch as the world ends


You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?
Dec 20
// Daniel Starkey
If you've been even tangentially connected with anything resembling internet culture within the past... I dunno several years, then you're probably aware of the fact that there's a decent chunk of society that thinks that the...

Review: Designears

Dec 14 // Daniel Starkey
There’s a rabid individualism that sort-of pervades modern western culture. I can’t be said to be against it, because I totally get it. I’m an egotistical ass sometimes. I love my stuff and I’m prone to being more than a little obnoxious about it. I wear a lot of clothing with logos, I have a Dtoid sticker on nearly everything I possess, etc. So I definitely understand why people might want to loudly declare dedication to one thing or another and as an avid lover of all things audio, I have a dozen sets of circumaural beasts that I use almost constantly. That in mind, Designears seem almost tailored to me. The selling point here is the ability to slap whatever image or logo you want on a pair of headphones, so when you’re strolling around, going about your day, everyone can see that you’re into cupcakes and green robots. The “design” part of Designears is totally fine. The image they print is covered with a rubbery plastic which feels higher-quality than I expected and is resistant to scuffs and scratches. Mr. Destructoid’s face wasn’t pixelated or washed out at all, and presumably that same attention to detail will be pretty consistent.  Unfortunately, my praise ends there. Wait… no… the carrying case is actually really nice. Yeah, now I’m done. When you pick up the set, Designears’ biggest problem is immediately apparent -- they are cheaply made. It’s something I would expect from a tweaking pack of five-year-olds given a year’s supply of paste and Popsicle sticks. It’s bad. Made entirely of plastic, the phones creak and strain when any significant force is applied. The set has no weight, either.  When holding them with one finger, they still feel so completely insubstantial that I’m honestly left wondering how they work at all. Putting them on is an even bigger disappointment. Designears are halfway between being supra aural and circum, and they come off as a poorly constructed unholy hybrid of the two. They isolate no outside noise and they leak worse than any set I’ve ever heard. On the inside of the earcup there’s this foam-like… thing that hits the top arch and ridges of my ears. Its scratchy and horribly uncomfortable for any length of time. The leatherette cups aren’t much better, and they rotate freely, not at all properly connected to the base. The frame and connecting pieces aren’t up to snuff, either. Most adjustable headphones have a kind of light locking mechanism that keeps the piece from sliding around too much. Again, Designears fails as the cheap plastic pieces are incredibly stiff and a pain in the ass to move or adjust at all. Similarly, the frame doesn’t have much give in the coronal plane, meaning that wider-headed folks like me are almost squeezed by the plastic trying to return to their natural shape. But as stiff as they are, I’m afraid to apply any real force to them for fear that they’d shatter in my hands. The foam underside of the headband is also held on with a very cheap, very weak double-sided tape. As I checked to see if the cord was user-replaceable, I discovered what the most offensive fault in these headphones is, to me. The cable runs out of a small hole on the left ear cup -- pretty standard for these things. On the right cup, though, the exact same hole is in the same spot. The manufacturers were so lazy that they simply didn’t make more than one kind of cup. Build quality matters. It does. Especially when consumers start dropping some real money. If you’re going to put cash down, then the product should be able to last for a while. When people make shoddy hardware and charge above what they are clearly worth, it shows a profound lack of respect from the customer. If the piece sounded incredible (I mean ridiculously awesome) then most of these things could be forgiven. But, as you’ve probably already guessed -- they simply don’t. Somehow, they are bass-heavy without any of the crisp definition that I’ve come to expect. Everything is muddled and quiet, without any of the pop or life media deserves. And it should be more than a little indicative that this is all I can think to say about it. Here’s the bottom line -- if you’re vain enough that all you need from these things is a pretty picture of your choosing and you happen to have $70 lying around, then you’re good. Go buy them and be on your merry way. Otherwise, just find a place to print out your own stickers and plaster them on whatever it is you’re using to listen to Taylor Swift, the Ting Tings, or whatever.
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Customization can only get you so far
It’s not very often that I get a chance to review something bad. It’s even rarer for me to come across headphones that I just hate. Truth is, most things that you spend $50 or more on are pretty good. Mediocrity c...

Review: Mass Effect 3: Omega

Dec 07 // Daniel Starkey
Mass Effect 3: Omega (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)Developer: BioWarePublisher: Electronic ArtsReleased: November 27, 2012MSRP: $15.00 / 1200 Microsoft Points Regardless of how you feel about the Mass Effect 3 ending or anything that’s happened since, it’s hard not to acknowledge the incredibly vocal fan base that the series has picked up over the past few years and the apparently very dedicated development team that does its best to keep active lines of communication going between the two. It really is a fascinating dynamic that doesn’t have a parallel. As a member of that rabid fan base, Omega puts me in an uncomfortable position. It would be easy of me to say “If you liked ME3, then you’ll like this because it’s more of the same” and just walk away. But, I don’t really think that’s fair. Omega is like bacon -- its biggest weakness is trying to enjoy it by itself. It needs to be a part of larger whole that helps highlight the delicious smoky flavor and reduce that feeling of fatty grossness. See, Mass Effect is a series that distinguishes itself through narrative and character development. Its combat, while competent, was never spectacular. The meat and potatoes is the subtle ways in which all of the characters interact, being able to take squad mates with you to interesting locales, hear their input, and watch how they interacted with other members of your crew and the people around you. These small touches give the characters believability and relatability that they otherwise wouldn’t have. [embed]239330:45899[/embed] Everything within the Mass Effect universe is iterative. To fully appreciate Mass Effect 3, you need to have played Mass Effect 2 and the same could be said for ME2 and ME1. Those of you who played Mass Effect and then completed ME2 and its expansion, Lair of the Shadow Broker, will understand exactly what I mean. Without the previous experience with the Shadow Broker as a mysterious entity, and without the experience of having Liara T’soni with you, the entire plot of LotSB would lose some of its meaning. The other two bits of DLC with Kasumi and Zaeed fall short specifically because they haven’t been established. That’s Omega’s failing. The DLC opens with Aria T’loak, something of a president of the lawless, asking Commander Shepard to help retake the city-asteroid Omega from a rogue militant faction called Cerberus. If any of this is more than a refresher bit for you, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this and might want to consider turning back. Aria is a somewhat established character (more so if you’ve read the books), but she never accompanied Shepard, never got the steady development that your other squad mates have. Add to that the fact Aria’s completely unlikable and this leads to a relatively bland narrative arc. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself can’t be said to be too much better. To be fair, I’m coming into Omega after spending entirely too much time sipping the metaphorical kool-aid of the annual, autumnal wave of vapid-though-polished modern shooters. I feel that has colored my expectations a bit more than I’d otherwise like to admit.  Back in March, when ME3 was the only shooter-esque thing vying for my attention, I didn’t really have any recent action-heavy titles to compare it to. It was an improvement upon its predecessor and that was, at the time, all I needed. Now, I worry that the controls aren’t as precise and tight as they could be, and that maybe, the only really innovative part of Mass Effect 3’s action sequences are the various powers available to Shepard and her squad mates. For those that aren’t at all bothered by the slightly mediocre gunplay, there are a few new enemies that are fun twists on creatures with which we are already familiar. It’s enough to keep the feeling that we’ve seen it all before at bay, but not much more. Coming away from Omega, I see so much missed potential. For me, the city was easily one of the most interesting locales explored in the series. It represented a loose, but functional collection of the galaxy’s lost and lawless -- y’know, the kind of people that make life fun. There’s also brief, half-baked drama between Aria and an old friend of hers that will be almost completely lost on anyone who hasn’t kept up with the Mass Effect books. Given that it’s the single best reason to grab the expansion, I can’t honestly recommend Omega to anyone but the most hardcore of the Mass Effect fan base. 
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Maybe we shouldn't take this back
Omega is the second of the “post-Extended Cut” bits of single-player DLC for Mass Effect 3. The series and the community that has been built up around it have been taken on a wild ride over the past several months. There’s been a lot of exciting bits and a few disappointments. Unfortunately, Omega can take its place among the latter.

Review: Derrick the Deathfin

Dec 03 // Daniel Starkey
Derrick the Deathfin (PS3)Developer: Different TunaPublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentRelease: October 10, 2012MSRP: $7.99D the D opens with a short cutscene showing the death of Derrick’s parents. That’s right up there with a kidnapped lover among the most common motivations for a hero. The culprits in the case are the non-too-subtle “M.E.A.N. Corporation” that gives rise to a huge pile of tongue-in-cheek political and social satire. As the eponymous cardboard shark you’ll be blowing up oil rigs and ships carrying toxic waste in a blind rampage against the corporation, though it always seems like you’re doing more harm than good, regardless of intention. In Derrick’s quest to avenge the meat-ification of his parents, he traverses the oceans surround several continents. In each area there’s also one or two “bosses” which consist of a unique, albeit very easy puzzle that typically results in the destruction of some kind of heavy industrial equipment.[embed]239681:45961[/embed] Each area of the world has a theme that subtly and roughly represents the aquatic life of its respective continent. For example, there are tons of crocodiles in the oceans surrounding Africa as well as squid near Asia. It’s a light-hearted and vaguely logical mechanism to introduce different enemies and foodstuffs for the young shark to eat. Friendly and inviting, nearly everything in the environments is personified with awkward or hilarious faces that clearly indicate someone’s been smokin’ da ganja. Its charm is remarkably saccharine, despite the subversive message behind it all. Initially I thought that Derrick was just graphically impressive, but while looking for screenshots and artwork to include in this piece, I learned that the game is papercraft. Not just inspired by one of the more popular nerd hobbies these days -- the characters environments, and effects are all made by people taking actual pictures of folded-paper analogues. It's pretty awesome stuff and definitely impressive to see that kind of care and effort put into the title. With that, Derrick’s visual style feels very much inspired by a fusion of earlier cel-shaded titles like Viewtiful Joe and Yoshi’s Story. The world is bright and colorful with a smattering of “BLAM!”, “CRUNCH!” and “SNAP!” for effect. Speaking of which, Derrick, being a shark, eats fish, lobsters, crabs, and the like for health – which quickly depletes automatically as you move through a course. In many cases, there will be a very clear trail of fish to follow through the course, but some levels amount to little more than a giant, confusing maze. You’re left to wander aimlessly, and because health is directly tied to the food available, I died a few dozen times simply because I took some wrong forks in a path. Progress is almost never based on the skills you’ve acquired and applied so much as it is simple knowledge of the map. None of my deaths ever felt fair. I came away from each with a mild annoyance at some of the more misleading paths.  Thankfully, these moments, while frustrating, weren't too common. That said, they are compounded by a very loose control scheme. Super Meat Boy this ain't. To a degree, I can understand the design choice. Derrick drifts slightly around corners and always slides just a bit past where you intend to stop. It definitely gives the feeling that you’re piloting a super-fast shark through tight quarters, but it can lead to a few really annoying mistakes that cost valuable time – especially when you’re already running low and frantically looking for something to eat. In hindsight, I don’t feel like I was any better at Derrick when I finished than I was when I started. I feel like that can be forgiven, though. I enjoyed the music, the aesthetic and the ability to munch on wandering divers. I could also see fans of the 2D Sonic games really getting into this as it definitely has a lot in common with the Sega Genesis titles. It’s pretty short overall, but will take players quite a while to figure out the perfect path to take to guarantee a gold medal in each world. I milked about 4 hours from the thing – pretty middle-of-the-road for a downloadable title, but I could see it lasting someone else much longer. Ultimately, Derrick’s lifespan as an entry on your “currently playing” list will depend directly upon how much of a completionist you are. Derrick the Deathfin is an easy recommendation for anyone who likes their platformers with a unique flare. Its self-referential humor and topical environmental humor are more than enough to give it a personality that you won’t find outside Banjo-Kazooie.  
Shark Attack! photo
I didnít know eating people could be so satisfying
So… have you ever wanted to be a cardboard shark hellbent on taking down “the man” and all his dirty, environment-destroying machines? Yeah it’s not something I ever really thought about eit...

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The Daily Hotness: WOOP WOOP


Check out everything Destructoid did today
Nov 16
// Daniel Starkey
So... I did a feature that I thought was pretty fantastic, and our staff played against SOE in Planetside 2... sooo yeah we're basically the most awesome people ever. Destructoid Original: Podtoid 227: Dr. Mario with a B...

Four things I'd like to see in Halo 5

Nov 16 // Daniel Starkey
That seems so long ago now. After finishing Halo 4, I must admit -- I was very impressed. The art direction is beyond stunning, the characters are stronger and better written, and the tone has shifted from that of glorified destruction to something more poignant and personal. While still far from perfect, its improvements are substantive enough to give me hope for the next installment. As such, I've come up with four things that I think 343 might want to try for Halo 5. HUGE SPOILER WARNING, PROCEED WITH CAUTION 1. Keep asking relevant questions For over a decade, we’ve guided Master Chief through untold legions of enemies. Throughout all of that, he’s barely shown anything resembling an emotional response. Halo 4’s opening offers some brief insight into the apparent sociopathy of our iconic hero. Halsey, architect of the Spartan super soldier program which spawned the Chief, is seen discussing the near total lack of humanity in her subjects. The audience learns that the UNSC seeks to expand the program, creating more “soulless” Spartans. This scene begs a very interesting question: will genetic engineering, the modification of ourselves, inexorably lead to a loss of our own humanity? It is by no means a novel concept, but within the context of the Halo series, it gives players additional background for the character of Master Chief. It also allows the audience to question whether or not the actions of Halsey are justified, whether there are circumstances under which the horrendously violent ends justify the means. When faced with the potential eradication of every person ever, I can’t say what I would do. It’s a tough question, and while it might feed into the right-wing pro-military narrative, it isn’t necessarily without value, especially if the rest of the story directs the audience to question its own moral stance on the issue. 2. Darker, more psychological story After seeing the trailer for Halo 4 and witnessing some of Cortana’s “episodes,” I began expecting a psychologically driven science-fiction narrative reminiscent of 1960s- and '70s-era film. Admittedly, that might be a bit of a leap on my part, but I thought it would be an incredible new direction for the series. Unfortunately, her mental breakdown was somewhat exaggerated in the trailer. I never got the sense of extreme isolation or the genuine fear that I had hoped would be the core of the new game. Instead, we are only ever given a few outbursts and some forced, if heartfelt dialogue about the consequences of her gradual breakdown. At the end of the campaign, Cortana inadvertently sacrifices herself to help Master Chief survive. In so doing, any hopes of seeing the psychological horror story which I gleefully anticipated were dashed. Briefly. As I began reflecting upon the epilogue, I started wondering if Cortana’s death might begin to weigh on Master Chief. After all that has happened -- after all the destruction and death the Chief has caused -- it would be fascinating for the future of the series if, for once, he didn’t emerge from a challenge totally unaffected. 3. Narrative balance Critics have often accused Halo and pals of promoting the military industrial complex, of fomenting subconscious support for the expansion of the United States’ already robust military program. I’m not here to debate the legitimacy of that claim, but I do think that many modern shooters have neglected to accurately portray the horrors of violence. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was an incredible departure from this trend. Many players will never forget the haunting post-nuke scene about halfway through the game. In it, the player is suddenly given control of a dying soldier and presumed protagonist, as he (i.e. the player) crawls around a burning, irradiated city. This scene is not only emotionally affecting, but it also gives context to the rest of the piece. The post-nuke chapter of the narrative frames the actions of all of the other characters in relation to the restoration of the geopolitical landscape. Halo 4 takes a few steps towards a proper theme, but stops short of delivering on its own promises. Unlike its predecessors, 343 attempts to capitalize on its established characters instead of forcing a melodramatic story about the defense of humanity. Master Chief’s primary goal -- at least for most of the game -- is restoration of Cortana, his partner. Their experiences together follow a theme of mutual trust and cooperation. For those who have played the previous games, the connection between Master Chief and Cortana is already understood, through both the mechanics and the narrative of each title. As such, when the player learns that she is danger, the writers are drawing upon an established relationship. This gives the conflict genuine weight for the player. Regrettably, around two thirds of the way through, the focus shifts from helping Cortana after all of the assistance she’s provided, to stopping a nigh omnipotent being from attacking Earth. The theme returns to incessant, high-stakes action, moving away from the more affecting story of Master Chief helping his partner. For Halo 5, I’d love to see a strong, character-driven story. I, as the Chief, have already saved humanity more times than I’d care to count, and that kind of grandiose adventure has lost its impact. 4. An emotionally vulnerable Chief As I mentioned earlier, Halo 4 has started asking bigger questions. “Is it moral to create people just for the sake of warfare?” “What does it mean to be human?” These questions, while important and valuable are, at times, incongruous with the gameplay itself. If we, the audience, begin reflecting upon the content, upon the narrative, and conclude that the actions the developers want us to take are not in line with our choices, we have no recourse. Halo’s gameplay in its current state can only be one thing -- reckless and violent. The argument could be made that up until this point -- Master Chief has never had any reason to question who he is, or why he acts in the manner that he does. Going forward, however, we know that simply isn’t the case. In the epilogue, Thomas Lasky directly asks Master Chief how he is handling the whole situation. If he remains unaffected, if he doesn’t change over time, then he either remains an inhuman, violent monster, or 343 will be passing up an excellent opportunity to use the universe they’ve inherited to accomplish something truly memorable. Ultimately, I’m glad to admit that I was wrong about the series. Halo 4 doesn’t fulfill every expectation, but if 343 uses it as a starting point, and continues to ask tough questions of its audience, I don’t doubt that the series will take several bold steps into truly subversive territory.
What I want from Halo 5 photo
And other reflections on the relationship of Chief and Cortana
I haven’t been a fan of Halo for years. By the time we were asked to “finish the fight,” I had grown sick of the monotony. Reach barely managed to hold my interest past the first half-hour. Everywhere I look...

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The Daily Hotness: Skyfall!


Check out everything Destructoid did today
Nov 08
// Daniel Starkey
So Skyfall comes out tonight... by the time you guys see this, I'll be watching that... so yeah... In other news y'all should totally check out the feature Chad put out earlier today. It's absolutely fantastic and really hear...

Check out these gaming blogs and discover happiness

Nov 05 // Daniel Starkey
Our Special Selections These are the sites that we think are particularly excellent for one reason or another. Critical Distance and Dire CriticKris Ligman contributes to both of these sites on a regular basis. The first, Critical Distance, is a blog dedicated to highlighting other independent blogs. The latter is Kris' personal site and it is fantastic all-around. Nightmare ModeThose of you disillusioned with the growing bond between many game journos and PR folks might be interested in Nightmare Mode. Run by former Dtoider Patricia Hernandez, the site is personal and honest, which is a lot more than can be said for many other sites these days. Awesome Out of 10Several former Dtoiders and their pals contribute to this blog regularly. It seeks to turn the whole notion of numbered scores for games on its head by boiling each game down to a word or phrase... out of ten. Geekdom Venus PatrolVenus Patrol focuses on the visual and aesthetic beauty produced by the games industry. Concept art, screens, and side projects all get a fantastic showcase here. Die Gute FabrikThese guys represent a game studio in Copenhagen. Their team attempts to translate the mechanics of physical games into something new with 21st-century technology. UnwinnableWow... just... wow... The scope of Unwinnable is somewhat ridiculous. There's so much content covering so many different aspects of geek culture you are guaranteed to find something you like here. DorkismsDeeply personal and heavy on the swears, Dorkisms is just as the name implies -- a dorky place with dorky things. General Gaming Brainy GamerAre you a scholarly gamer? Do you enjoy your frag fests with a piping hot cup of the finest herbal tea? Brainy gamer might be your place. They try to look past the superficial and get into the meat of games, criticism, and the culture that surrounds them. Attract ModeA "videogame collective" of artists, designers, journalists, and the like, Attract Mode is best described as a mini Gamasutra with a much more attractive website. TwinfiniteWhen I see the Twinfinite people at conferences, I think of a very young Destructoid. These folks are dedicated and they deserve your clicks. Action ButtonTim Rogers is a person. And this is his blog. Operating without a standard review format, Tim and friends post some of the more engaging pieces of legitimate criticism I've ever read. Great stuff. Rock Solid AudioRun by a former game journo, Rock Solid Audio is a fantastic blog from one Nick Suttner. Beeps and BloopsNot updated very often, Beeps and Bloops is focused on "informed criticism," something that our industry is definitely lacking. GrantlandI'm going to preface this by saying that if you haven't read Tom Bissell's Extra Lives, you should probably go take care of that. This man is a brilliant journalist who happens to be a gamer. His content is fantastic and you need it in your life. Electron DanceIf you like well-thought, intelligent discussions about videojuegos, then this another site you can add to your list of daily bits. Good Games WritingThis isn't so much a news or reviews blog in the traditional sense as it is a place to highlight the best in games journalism. It gave me a smidge of hope amidst the recent Geoff Keighly insanity. It's good to know there are people being awesome all the time, everywhere. Quarter to ThreeQtT is rather close to my heart a website that acknowledges the apparently chronic insomnia of the people who game. Among the sites listed here, this is among the most active and has a relatively high post/day count, so you'll get quite a bit to keep your eyes busy. Themed websites Indie GamesIt follows that some indie game blogs would be about indie games, right? Well this is one of the best. Give it some lovin'. Free Indie GamesThe title says it all. Tiny CartridgeAre you passionately in love with all things DS? Are you sick and tired of not getting all the DS coverage you feel you deserve? Tiny Cartridge has you covered. HookShot Inc.HookShot Inc. is all about cheap, small downloadable games that run $15 or less. If you're a gamer on a budget, or just love PSN and XBLA, this might be your jam. Dead End ThrillsDuncan Harris uses heavily modded games and a pretty solid gaming rig to squeeze all the visually beauty he can from games... then he takes pics. Seriously, if you ever want to see just how pretty some games can get, you should check this guy out. Rockman Corner & The Mega Man NetworkThese blogs are all about Mega Man. I mean EVERYTHING Mega Man. From fan art to music to modern film, these people have an obsession. Our very own Mr. Tony Ponce swears by both, and Destructoid editors are never wrong. We sincerely hope that you'll take a look at some of these sites and give them the traffic and recognition they deserve. If you don't like one, don't worry there's plenty here to keep you occupied for a long time to come.
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Earning our karma
I came across Destructoid back in 2006. At the time, it was barely a blip on the industry's radar. It was just a pack of dedicated bloggers with a rebellious streak. Now, this site has seen at least a dozen of its own graduat...

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The Daily Hotness: Halo seems legit


Check out everything Destructoid did today
Nov 01
// Daniel Starkey
So yeah... Halo 4 is probably pretty good. If you disagree, you're probably wrong because you haven't played. When you have, you are totally entitled to say whatever you want. I'll admit I was incredibly skeptical. I've hated...
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The Daily Hotness: Insert Coin(s)


Check out everything Destructoid did today
Oct 25
// Daniel Starkey
Earlier this week I got a chance to check out the new video game barcade /nightclub here in Minneapolis -- Insert Coins.  This place has pretty much every system, a ton of arcade cabinets and some pretty fantastic specia...

Destructoid's 2012 budget desktop guide

Oct 23 // Daniel Starkey
I'd like to start off by saying that the approach taken with this build is just one of potentially many you could take depending on your individual preferences and budget. I've included some options for components that people might want to switch out for something else to give the list some added flexibility. These builds presume that you already have a monitor, but not a case or a valid copy of Windows. If you do, then you can either put that money toward upgrades here and there, or you can just save a few bucks.  If you've never built a new system before, there are plenty of resources you can use to help guide you through the process. Depending upon your specific needs, however, gaming builds will run much better for longer than the stuff you can get from Dell, HP, and pals. Plus, you have the advantage of knowing more about your system than pretty much anyone else. With that in mind, let's dig in. CPU - Intel Core i5-3550 Quad-Core Processor 3.3 GHz We'll start with the CPU, the brain of your new machine. As the description implies, it is one of the most important parts of the system, and it will dictate a lot of the other decisions you have to make about which parts you will be using. Namely, it can affect the motherboard and RAM, which, in turn, can dictate your selection of video card, hard drives, case, etc. Because of its importance, for this build, we went with the latest generation of quad-core Intel Core i5 processors. Running at 3.3GHz, it's kind of a beast. It'll chew through anything on the market and leaves plenty of wiggle room for upcoming titles. After Market CPU Cooler - Rosewill RCX-Z90-CP As any system builder will tell you, heat is the biggest enemy of computers. Modern PCs throw out positively stupid amounts of heat, and while the heatsink and fan provided by the manufacturer is pretty good, after-market solutions are usually your best bet. Thankfully, aftermarket coolers can be very inexpensive. As long as you pick out a decent brand and it fits within your budget, the exact product doesn't matter too much.  Here we went with a cheap, but reliable option. Motherboard - MSI LGA1155 B75MA-E33 Okay, so now that we have the brain sorted, let's move on to the skeleton, the core of your system: the motherboard.  Everything else from the CPU to your graphics card communicates with every other piece of the system through the motherboard. A bad choice here can bottleneck the rest of your system. More expensive boards have a lot of extra features that can save you some headaches in the long run. Unfortunately, for this setup, we don't have that option. Instead, we'll be balancing price and performance. Like I said before, the motherboard determines what other parts you can use in your system. Now, for this budget build, we selected an MSI Micro ATX.  Memory - Corsair 16GB (CMV16GX3M2A1333C9) Memory is what your computer uses to store programs and documents that it's actively using so it doesn't have to keep pulling all of that information from the much slower hard drive. The more RAM you have, the less your system has to waste time looking for the data you need.  Unlike last year's build, which only had 4GB, we chose to step it up to 16GB. The downside here is that the sticks we selected run a tad bit slower than last year's build.  I've included a faster option with a bit less space if you prefer that route instead.  Storage - OCZ Vertex Series OCZSSD2 / Seagate Barracuda Green 1TB  The cost of solid state drives has come down quite a bit. Enough that we can reasonably include it in a budget system. We'll be using an OCZ Vertex 30GB. It's a 2.5" drive, so you might need to be a bit careful when installing it in the case, but for our purposes, it will work just fine.  The addition of the SSD is completely optional, but will give you a pretty significant speed boost for booting up your PC and loading whatever programs you choose to install on it. Next, we went with a Seagate Barracuda 1TB HDD. At only 5900RPM, it's definitely on the slow side, and if you swap anything out, I would recommend ditching the SSD for a higher RPM HDD. Video Card - MSI Radeon HD 7770 In terms of gaming, your video card will be doing almost all of the heavy lifting. There are two primary companies that make the graphics processors that are built into video cards: AMD and NVIDIA.  The former is generally better on a dollar-for-dollar comparison, while the latter typically heads up the absolute top-of-the-line products. For our purposes, AMD's current-generation 7000 series will be perfectly acceptable. It's one of the faster cards currently available -- especially at that price level. Case - Rosewill Dual Fans MicroATX For a budget build, the only thing we really need to be concerned with for the case is that the size of the motherboard matches. If you wanted to spend a bit more, you could get larger cases that have better airflow, tool-less entry, and a smattering of other handy features that will help you keep your PC in good operating condition.  Power Supply - OCZ ZT Series 550W Fully-Modular 80PLUS Our power supply is going to take the alternating current from your wall outlet and convert it into a smooth direct current. Because the components in a computer are so sensitive, cheaping out here is one of the worst ideas you can have. Not for performance reasons, but for your-PC-will-die reasons (I know from experience). Keeping that in mind, we went with a known brand, OCZ, and opted for one with 80 PLUS certification. That reduces the likelihood that the power supply will wig out and kill your machine, and the 80+ certification means you won't be wasting too much money on inefficiency. Optical Drive - LiteOn IHAS124-04 While this piece is really important, it's not terribly critical which brand you get. If you want, this could be upgraded to a Blu-ray drive, but most people won't need it. As long as you can install all your OS and get on Steam or GoG, you should be good to go.  Operating System - Windows 7 Home Premium Last but not least we have the operating system. As of right now, you're cheapest gaming-focused option is Windows 7. There are other choices, like Windows 8 (which launches on the 26th of this month) and Linux (which has the advantage of being free), but the former will run you a little bit more and the latter almost certainly won't have the same kind of software support you'll want and/or need on your new system.  Full part list and price breakdown: Intel Core i5-3550 Quad-Core Processor 3.3 GHz - $209.99Rosewill RCX-Z90-CP - $9.99MSI LGA1155 B75MA-E33 - $59.98Corsair 16GB (CMV16GX3M2A1333C9) - $65.99OCZ Vertex Series OCZSSD2 - $49.99Seagate Barracuda Green 1TB  - $69.99MSI Radeon HD 7770 - $124.99Rosewill Dual Fans MicroATX - $29.99OCZ ZT Series 550W Fully-Modular 80PLUS - $84.98LiteOn IHAS124-04  - $19.00Windows 7 Home Premium - $91.99 Sub-total: $816.88Rebates:  $-40.00Grand total (w/ options): $776.88Grand total (w/o options): $610.90 (excludes SSD, 8 GB of RAM, and Windows) 
Build a budget gaming PC photo
Build a respectable gaming PC for under $650
Last year, in preparation for Battlefield 3, Alex Bout created a basic part list that could run the game with moderate settings and a solid frame rate. This year, I wanted to see how much further we could push the specs on more or less the same budget. I was pretty surprised by what I found.


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