Playing by ear: A very non rigorous comparison of Media Players

Audio woes

Some time ago, I decided to make an investment in a reasonably good audio system. I tried to attack the subject as most of us do when we want  to buy a TV or a computer. As we don’t really understand it, we read some pages on the web with comparisons and opinions and follow those. Get in, read something, find the two or three good names and get out fast.

In the case of audio equipment, this technique proved useless. It is impossible to read about audio, the information is built like a black hole. You just dig in deeper, deeper and deeper with no chance of understanding what these crazy “experts” are talking about. It is probably the most esoteric and unapproachable technical subject on the Internet.

These things are scary…

Long story short, I was lucky enough to find a friend who helped me choose and I ended up with a fantastic sounding piece of kit that covered my needs and delivered an audio that I percieved as very good. I now have a good amp, a blue ray/DVD/CD player, a fantastic DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter), a very nice vinyl player and the jewel of the crown, two custom made speakers built for me by a music guru.

Feed the machine

So I was all set, the only thing remaining was to feed this system some audio recordings. But it’s not so easy, because digital audio is a bitch.

A very simplified scheme of a digital audio chain. There is math beyond this drawing, approach carefully.

First of all, you have the file formats. Streaming audio is normally crap, MP3 is also crap in most configurations but if the recording is good enough, the result can sometimes be also “good enough”. As a general rule, if you have good listening equipment, you need to use FLAC or AAC.

Second, good quality will be most noticeable with certain types of music. If your fancy is dubstep and electronica, then don’t bother. Most of dubstep is heavily distorted on purpose so having a discussion about audio quality is pointless. Audio quality is percieved well with jazz and with anything with guitars or drums.

Harlem shakers not caring about digital audio format

And third, a digital audio chain goes through lots and lots of pieces of software, filters, samplers and buffers that do nasty things to it before the pure audio equipment even gets to touch it.

The easiest, cheapest way to improve audio quality in your digital audio reproduction system is very simple and it applies to everyone. Just use good audio playing software! Media player software is not all the same. Many come with presets, others do more stuff to the audio, some use a famously crappy Windows audio engine and others use custom drivers.

And that is what this article is about (finally!). I have tried to decide what free audio/media player software performs best out of the box in a windows environment. And I have done it in a semirigorous way, that is… not rigorously at all.

Testing tastes… or is it tasting tests?

I have installed a list of audio sources and compared audio output using a good pair of good headphones. In order to spread the comparison, I have compared different music pieces with different characteristics to see if differences hold coherent between styles (they actually don’t).

This is exclusively a comparison of analog output. Comparing digital outputs is stupid because if you can get a bitperfect stream, then there will be nothing to compare. Getting bitperfect audio out of a Windows machine is more tricky than you think but I will let you figure that one out on your own.

The headphones are these, with the noise cancelling turned off. Volume is pushed far up and I used a series of three listenings of each song per player while writing down impressions on them. They are very middle of the road, a lot of people have better stuff so they should absolutely be using good software!

These are the programs I have compared, all under Windows 7 64 bits:

- Itunes for applelites and lazy iphone owners. It is beyond me why anyone would use this software now that you can get iOS updates without syncing. The scraper is bad, the interface is bad, it runs into problems when the library is too big and it is messy with folders and files. Also, “Genius” is a joke.

- Foobar2000 for snobbish audiophiles. A horrible interface with almost no options forces you to play music in this just as if you were playing vynil. It has no real library management features, it’s just a loooooonnnngggg playlist. No scraping, album covers or any fancies for this one.

Yes, it’s this ugly

- MediaMonkey is the all in one solution monster app for huge libraries. It plays video, lots of formats, scrapes reasonably well, allows lots of fancy tagging and networking tricks. For example, it includes a DLNA server to stream locally your content to other devices. Fancy and big. There is a deluxe paid for version that does even more fancy stuff with networks, but they both sound the same.

- MediaGo by Sony is a better version of Itunes in that is is simpler, reads FLAC and scrapes albums better. But it is still quite basic an much uglier than other Sony media related interfaces, like the ones found in phones or Playstation products. Clearly the PC version is an afterthought for Sony and yet, it’s still better than iTunes.

- XBMC is a shitty audio scrapper but a fantastic video player. Many media center solutions use either XBMC or it’s cousin, Plex. It is not good for a desktop or keyboard and mouse, but it is fantastic for a HTPC and a remote. If you want to browse through your media library from a couch, there is nothing better than XBMC or Plex. And there is a very strong case for connecting your HTPC and TV to your fancier audio system in order to have good audio when watching films too…

- VLC is the swiss knife of video and audio players, it plays every format in the planet. It is best used when associated with your file format tag, as it loads extremely fast and you are sure it will play whatever you throw at it.

- Google Music Play stores in the cloud 20000 songs for free and streams them to you. I don’t like the interface too much but it’s extremely robust. File upload is very slow but it works reasonably well.

- Spotify (local files) is the world’s biggest streaming solution and the client can play local files as well. The library is quite impressive but I find it very annoying to have to log in and as any modern “ecosystem”, it will shout at the world each and every time you listen to something, look at something and blink at something. Very socially advanced and extremely annoying.

I chose not to include Songbird, Winamp or the Linux bunch like Banshee or Clementine because these ones seemed to me like they covered the most obvious players for every type of person.

The songs I used for comparisons are the following:

- For Live Latin Jazz (MP3 HQ VBR), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Live Latin Jazz (FLAC), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Guitar rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Lonely Boy” – The Black Keys

- For Indie rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Teenage Icon” – The Vaccines

- For Indie (MP3 320 kbps), “Fake Empire” – The National

- For Classic Drums (MP3 320 kbps), “Young Americans” – David Bowie

- For Funk (FLAC), “The Healer” – Erykah Badu

- For Awesomeness (FLAC), “Crystalline” – Bjork

She f***ing rules

Some surprising results, others not so much

Ok, on to the results! I am not going to put a spreadsheet or graphs as I think that they’d be of very limited value. I am merely going to digest my impressions with some strong ideas.

Formats first, the difference between FLAC and MP3 is clear and noticeable, specially if the MP3 is variable bitrate. A live recording of very smooth jazz is all about lingering vibration in the air as the music blends into silence.You can hear the MP3 going down into white silence and a lot of nuance is lost.

A true audiophile would hear the smoke…

Second, music style, the less noisy and overlapped the music is, the biggest the difference. Hard metal and distorted electronica are harder to separate because many instruments cover each other.

Concerning MP3 playing, there seem to be two big groups of players, those that use their own audio rendering engine and those that use the generic Windows one. I will talk about these ones first.

- In all the cases where the player was using the Windows engine, the result was always worse and very similar between players. Itunes, MediaMonkey, Spotify and MediaGo all seem to use the same algorythms. They all give mushy, faded results. The bass is muffled, sharps are way less clear and the music is not at all vibrant. There was one song that broke this rule in one specific player. “Lonely Boy” played in iTunes is somehow pumped up by the player to extreme levels of trebble and bass. So much so that it gets to levels where the clarity is lost and distorsion appears. So yes, the Black Keys are not mushy when played in Itunes, but the actual audio is not better, just noisier and ugly.

She hates iTunes too…

Of the remaining four players, they are all interesting in their own ways.

- The biggest surprise for me was without a doubt Google Music Play. The audio was sharp, warm and very well tuned. It was absolutely up to par with non streaming solutions. I loved the bass and the sense of space that you could percieve in the jazz recording.

- VLC is fantastic in the MP3, I found it less defined than Foobar2000 or Google Music Play but it boiled down to very tiny and probably subjective differences. I am sure that a different set of MP3 songs would have put VLC up to Foobar or Google’s level. On the other hand, FLAC was rather muffled and it was hard to see a difference between MP3 and FLAC.

- XBMC was also very good with MP3, almost the same as VLC. In the case of FLAC, XBMC went too far into trebble and unbalanced levels.

- Foobar2000 was in my opinion, the overall best audio quality. FLAC and MP3 were both fantastic. It is now my reference player whenever I want to listen to good music with either a good set of speaker or headphones. Pity that the interface is so ugly and simplified.

The good news is that there is a very good way to get good quality of audio for every type of user. If you want to stream your audio, use Google Play. If you want a HTPC style player, use XBMC (or Plex). If you simply want to double click in a MP3 file and listen to it, you can happily live with VLC associated with your MP3 file format tag.

But if you want to listen to digital audio the “audiophile way”, that is sitting down to listen to music, get Foobar2000. It’s awesome.

So there you have it, some advice based on purely subjective evidence… but this time it’s not about a game!

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (October)

I made excuses about it the last time I wrote an article and Im going to do it again.  Yes I know the original plan was to do this monthly, but the hardware market has been pretty stagnant of late now that all the major releases are more or less out of the way.

That said I thought that now would be a good time as we now have Nvidia’s answer to the midrange graphics card question and also Christmas is fast approaching which is often a good time to be buying a PC.

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
Antec One Case

Cost – £43
Ive long been a fan of Antec cases as they are generally very well thought out and nice to build with.  The Antec One has been targeted at the lower end of the market but it still comes with Antec’s usual attention to detail.  Functional, with lots of space of cooling and expansion but with the addition of ‘nice to haves’ like front facing USB3 ports and even pre-drilled for water cooling.

Power Supply:
OCZ CoreXStream 500W

Cost – £35
Slightly less powerful than previously but you really dont need all that power.  In truth a 350W would manage but its always good to have a little headroom for any upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency, which at this price is excellent and should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 3570 3.4Ghz

Cost – £164
Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games as well as a number of revisions that Ivybridge brings over the previous series. Admittedly there isnt a great difference in performance between the Ivybridge and Sandybridge, but the price is largely the same too so you may as well get the new one.  The reason for the top end CPU rather than lower down the pecking order is again to do with negligible price difference but more about this being a good time to buy a PC so invest in quality.

Motherboard:
MSI H77MA-G43

Cost – £68
The board remains the same, I previously switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits.  The limitation of the board selected here is that it only has a single high speed PCI-E socket and therefore will be more suited to a single GPU setup.  An extra £10 will get you a Z77 board with this support but given the power of single card GPUs you really dont need to go to this length.

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £27
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding although I woundnt count on that forever. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort and at this price I would even be tempted to double that to 16GB if you can stretch the budget.

Graphics Card:
Gigabyte GTX 660 OC 2GB Windforce X2

Cost – £172
Nvidia have finally shown their hand after months of AMD owning the midrange GPU market with their 7850s and 7870s which have been my primary recommendation.  I think its fair to say that the 660 wasnt quite the card people were expecting especially after the success of the 560 but its still a very good performer.  Is it massively better than the 7850/7870?  Not really and ultimately your choice here should be governed by price.  At the time of writing this 660 was only a few pounds more expensive that the Gigabyte, giving me the slight advantage of PhysX through Nvidias drivers.  If AMD were to do another round of deals or special offers which they have of late then this recommendation could easily be a 7850 or 7870.  My advice?  Shop around and get the best deal.

Hard Disk:
Seagate 1TB Barracuda 7200RPM 64MB Cache

Cost – £60
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I have finally been able to recommend a 1TB storage as well as SATA III which will perform better than the budget drives I have been previously recommending although this has raised the price a little. We are finally back to being able to put in good performing platter based drives without remortgaging the house, but hopefully the prices will continue to drop.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid due to their tendency not to support all disk types, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:
LG IPS234V-PN 23″ Monitor

Cost – £113
LG, AOC and Asus may have started the trend of lost cost IPS screens, but there are now a number on the market.  As with the other panels these are getting favourable reviews consistently getting better with every model released.  On that basis its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more unless you are interested in 3D.  IPS options in this price bracket are becoming more and more common, with the AOC i2353Fh and the Ilyama Prolite X2377HDS, its worth shopping around although this is by far the cheapest Ive seen so far.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £16
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attractive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Microsoft SideWinder X4

Cost – £33
I previously removed this from my recommendation as it was rumoured that Microsoft were closing the brand however they have been consistently available and the price gets better and better.  Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price, what more do you need?

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 380

Cost – £21
Plantronics have recently updated their Gamecom range and this 380 replaces the outgoing 367. As before the 380 has high quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached as well as a much improved build quality around both its cabling and headband. Not something you typically see in headsets of this price.

Total cost of the above:

£765

A whopping £50 cheaper than my last recommendation!

Wouldnt it be great if there was a handy way of buying all this stuff together?  Ive got you covered here

As before, Ill be shortly following this article up with an update to the Overclocker’s system previously recommended.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

The first time I read The Hobbit, I was 11 and I was fascinated by it. The year after that I got my very own copy of The Lord of the Rings. It was Easter so I had a whole week of holidays on the countryside at my grandparent’s. I took the books with me, climbed a big olive tree and read the 3 volumes without stopping. I almost gave up eating or sleeping, I just went through the whole thing without the ability to raise my eyes from the page. After I finished I sat there for some minutes looking into the horizon. Then I took book 1 and started reading again.

XCOM is my Lord of the Rings of gaming. It is the game that made me be the gamer I am, bad at FPSs, horrible at RPGs and uninterested in real time, lootfests, MMOs or sports games. I think it is easy then to understand why for me this is a very difficult review to write. The problem is that no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot get perspective on the subject. I am an XCOM fan and I feel about it in a very emotional way.

I am still going to try. But I warn you, this could get ugly. And long.

A new hope

Let’s get through some basic facts first. For starters, it is important to remind you what we are talking about here. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is the 2012 remake by Firaxis of the 1994 game UFO: Enemy Unknown (or XCOM in the US). Firaxis got the original name rights from a long chain of sales since the demise of Microprose. Some years later, in 2010 they decided to launch a turn based strategy game that would “reboot” the franchise. They intended to also release on the consoles as a turn based game.

Best game ever

All this is well and good and has happened before to other franchises. The problem is that as it happens, UFO: Enemy Unknown is the best game of all time. So Firaxis was saying that they could pull off taking the Mona Lisa, painting over it and making it better.

The lead designer of Firaxis for the XCOM project spent a lot of energy trying to explain to all the old and grumpy XCOM fans (i.e. me) that he too was an old and grumpy XCOM fan. And that he intended to respect and cherish the heritage. There is a very dramatic video where he says he’s going to keep “Everything” from the original XCOM design. But we all know that they always say that and we all know that it’s never true.

Not the best game ever

However, as the marketing campaign for XCOM started releasing information, they showed that at the very least they had put money into the project. XCOM would have nice graphics, good music and decent production values. Someone was betting money on the theory that there was still a good game in the old design and furthermore, a game that could sell. That was a relief and made me hope for something realtimeish with maybe one or two of the old aliens. But then they said it’d be turn based. And with two layers. And it’d have a story. And I grew… curious.

I followed the news until I saw the first gameplay video. What I saw made me a believer. They really had done a 3d environment with a turn based squad tactics game. That was all I needed, so I closed the video, preordered the game and went into information blackout mode. I did not want to know anything more. XCOM has to be played in the dark, at least the first time. This was roughly 3 months ago, when I let myself start hoping.

Hopes versus reality

So how did I feel when I finally unlocked the predownloaded version of 2012 XCOM? It reminded me the feelings that I had when I was waiting in line to enter the cinema for the first Lord of the Rings movie: Total fear and terror. They were going to ruin it, I was totally sure. They were going to take my childhood memory and make a farce out of it. It’d be like the Phantom Menace or maybe even worse. I just did not see how they could do justice to the game.

After 22 hours of gameplay I can stop to write this review and say that I really like the new XCOM. It manages to pull off an incredible feat. It takes most of the good stuff from XCOM and it makes it cool, really cool. So cool in fact that I think in some small parts, this game is (gasp!) even better than the original.

XCOM (old and new) is a two layer game. On one side we have the strategic level. In this area we fight a real timeish strategy war against the alien invasion of the Earth. Your task is to develop an organization that is capable of protecting the countries in the XCOM organization. As the aliens attack using UFOs, this implies detecting the UFOs, shooting them down and hunting down the aliens whenever they touch the ground. When aliens land, they have a tendency to terrorize, abduct and destroy anything they find, so your war is not going to be fought just on the air but also on the battlefield.

XCOM cleverly hides it's main base under a kid's ant farm. They'll never find us there...

There is a very irrelevant mini game related to the air battles that is a direct carbon copy of the original. However, the real meat of the game is the land battles. This is the second side of XCOM and the main area of focus of the whole game. It is a turn based squad level combat game with 3D destructible environment.

Here comes the micromanager

The real genius of XCOM’s design is how tightly the tactical game is tied to the strategic. Because what you do in one game impacts on the other, you will start taking decisions according not only to the constraints of the situation you have in front of you, but also thinking about the other side of the game. For example, you will choose to risk stunning an alien instead of killing him during a tactical battle because it’ll help your strategic effort. Or you’ll prioritize development of a weapon that will help you on the field while you delay other strategic moves. There are many examples of these systems working in the XCOM design, but suffice it to say that they make the overall game much more tense and interesting.

In the original XCOM, this strong links came at the cost of micromanagement. You had to manage inventories of ammo, grenades, many types of weapons, arm every squaddie for every battle, manually pick up items from the field if you wanted them back… lots and lots of micromanaging.

The original tactical combat also did fall into bean counting sometimes. It was a time units based system with unit facing. It allowed lots of flexibility but it required a lot of numbers in your head.

While preparing the new game, Firaxis identified micromanaging as their enemy.

As a consequence, the new game has as little micromanaging as possible. And incredibly enough, it works. Research is straight forward. Manufacture is straight forward. There is no ammo in the game. You have an infinite number of basic weapons and ammo. The black market does not allow you to sell the stuff you build, so it is much simpler (and harder). When you fight, you instantly pick up all the stuff. The base inventory is straightforward and equipping your soldiers works most of the time.

Dumb and Dumber?

Hmmmm…. ok I know that so far it sounds like they are dumbing down a deep game for the console crowd. Well, yes and no. At it’s core, the strategic game is very similar to the old one. You have more limitations and more needs that you need to fulfill. It follows the overarching story arc’s script the same way as the old one but I’d say it is a little more difficult. I miss the geoscape’s total control of the first game, the multiple bases, the radar coverage woes and the night/day cycle impact on the battles. But on the other hand, the strategic game is now faster and more difficult. The big “money cheat” of the old game, the black market sales of manufactured weaponry is sadly now gone. So you’ll be in money trouble all the time. Overall, I’d say that the strategic level of the game is a resounding success.

The big shocker reveal is that 2012 XCOM’s tactical combat game is completely different from the old one. And it’s a shocker because Firaxis has tried to convince us of the contrary.

The combat turn is composed now of two actions. You can move twice, move and overwatch, move and shoot… it is easy to understand. The map has a grid overlay that did not exist in the old game and that shows you visually where the unit can go if it still wants to shoot or overwatch. It is pretty simple and makes the game much faster.

Pro tip: gasoline explodes

The new XCOM has discarded unit facing and that helps greatly with unit movement. The problem is that this has a big impact in flanking, the way fog of war works and has made stealthy tactics impossible. Additionally this time the aliens do not have a bigger range of vision than you. When you see them, they see you. That means that there are no more of the famous XCOM “shots from the fog that kill your commander without anything you can do about it”. In the old XCOM you could do many things apart from shooting. You could flank, you could use diversion tactics, noise was important and so was the day night cycle and it’s impact on visibility. You used to carry loads of flares to throw into the dark areas and then had to go pick them up from the ground and throw them again into the dark further ahead. All that is now gone. When you see them, they see you, they position themselves and off you go shooting and doing tactics under fire.

The flight of the bullet

Although I can nitpick about other some aspects of the new game’s tactical combat, there is only one thing that really nags me: The new game has no ballistics.

Let me explain: In old XCOM, a shot was traced from the muzzle of the gun until it touched its target. That meant that if you had some dispersion in your shot, the bullet might hit something before reaching it’s target. This had interesting consequences. For example, shooting at an alien standing behind your squad mate was very, very risky. Now it is no longer the case, the shot teleports into the square of the target and it may or may not hit, but it does not follow a realistic trajectory. As a side consequence, reconnaissance by fire is no longer possible, so you can no longer shoot at a wall to uncover the alien behind. Well, you actually can but only using the rocket launcher. Yet another nice tactic that is now gone.

See? No ballistics! See?

Why is this alien so angry?

So is the tactical game easier? Absolutely no. It is very hard, but more limited.

So how come that a game that has less tactical options than the original is so hard? If there are less possible strategies to choose from, then it’d seem easier to choose. Well, no. XCOM 2012 is hard as balls because 2012’s XCOM aliens are the stuff of nightmares.

The new game has taken all the original set of nice aliens for us to enjoy: The Sectoids and Ethereals that mind control your soldiers making them turn round and shoot their comrades, the Mutons that shoot perfect shots and have twice the hitpoints than you or the Cyberdisk that is basically a combat helicopter. They have also added some new ones like the Berserker and the one that I won’t talk about but that you’ll get to enjoy when you find the purple UFO (You are going to LOVE the purple UFO).

The bloom of the Chrysallid

And, most importantly, they have kept everybody’s favourite, the Chrysallid.

This beautiful piece of walking hell has a very funny power. When in melee range it grabs the soldier or civilian next to it and not only kills it in one attack, but it makes a zombie out of the victim’s body. Fail to kill that zombie on time and out of it a new freshly spawned Chrysallid appears. Now, think of the economics of one Chrysallid between 18 civilians on the other side of the map.

Chrysallid snacks come conveniently packaged

To make things funnier, this baby runs like a maniac (roughly double than you), it has more hit points than in the old game and the final, delicious touch: in 2012 XCOM Chrysallids appear in groups of 3.

I had a classic XCOM moment with my squad while I was assaulting an alien base. In the biggest room in the base I had a big firefight with three well protected Mutons. After killing two of them, the third retreated into the shadows. I advanced my men carefully, leaving time for the overwatch.

The perils of being point man

Lieutenant Pieman, my lead assault trooper, moved to crouch behind a pillar barely 3 squares ahead of his previous position. That is when he revealed 3 Chrysallids. They turned towards him and charged blindly towards him. The first one fell after taking fire from Pieman and from Dusk’s sniper laser rifle. The second one got nearer but fell under Sass’s and Tokette’s fire. The third one advanced, Tokey took a shot but failed and the thing ran next to Pie, lifted him up and cut him into pieces. It then segregated eggs that placed inside the body of Pie and let them grow there. And then it was the end of the Alien’s turn. Tokey (in a surprisingly realistic turn of events) panicked and started crying for his mom. Then he turned around and shot Tokette who went down cursing in Afrikaans (the late Tokette was Southafrican).

So there I was, with a full turn ahead of me, one woman down, other turned into a zombie and a third a useless pile of cowardice. And a Chrysallid. And in a few turns, another one.

Ok, let’s do this in style: Dusk cooly raised his awesome sniper rifle and in a single shot to the head killed the Chrysallid. Dimmy (who had been reloading in the previous turn) shot the zombie and put it’s hit points down to something manageable. It was all up to Sass, so pice of cake.

I have to stop and explain that Sass is a badass assault trooper with more than 37 kills under his belt. He is also responsible for all the risky stunts like running next to an alien to stun him or crossing under fire an open space to give first aid to a fallen soldier. Yes, in XCOM Sass kicks ass.

So Sass looked at his chances of getting a distance shot and he did not like them. So he simply run next to the wounded zombie of Pie, stopped right in front of it and shot it in the head. Yay, go XCOM!

In the next turn, I remade my formation, rewarded Tokey’s performance by giving him the point and advanced carefully.

3 squares further ahead, the fog of war revealed 3 Chrysallids more.

What flavour is your terror?

So yes, XCOM 2012’s combat tactics are simpler. But seeing these monsters charge down a corridor towards you and knowing that you might kill the first one with all your reaction shots but that behind there are TWO MORE is… pure XCOM terror.

They are angry for some reason.

When you get down to it, XCOM’s old combat was gripping not because of tactical depth (although it had it) but because of the permanent threat of a total party kill. It could happen in any moment and it made you count every single time unit. XCOM 2012 is an amazing game because it understands this perfectly well and puts you in exactly the same situation. There are special missions along the scripted parts of the campaign where you will simply hit a wall of resistance so strong that either you are incredibly lucky or you’ll have to retreat, regroup and probably still lose everyone. And that is awesome.

The veredict: 5 apples out of 10 grapes

The overall package comes out really well. The game is beautiful, fast, very spectacular, it has lots of tension and a lot of strategy in it. It is a properly long game with very uphill difficulty curves and a merciless Ironman mode that has forced me to restart 4 times the whole game.

Should you buy this game? Well… after all it is the second best of all time, so I’d say that the answer is yes.

XCOM 2012 is an awesome game, a triumph of style and focused game design. It has strong decisions in it’s design that may not have been mine, but they are not bad decisions. It is a different game but it still manages to capture the atmosphere, the tension and the beautiful sense of consequence of the old game. I think that after 18 years of wait it is much more that we could ask for.

Oh, and yes, I did really like the Lord of Rings movies, even if the books are still better.

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (July) cont.

Once again I know this hasnt been as regular as before however the reason this time is slightly different.  I had a bit of a think about what I wanted to offer from this system which has slightly changed the way I have gone about selecting the parts.  I have come to the conclusion that I want to present two systems with parts selected at different ends of the market.  That way for those that want an easy choice, you just select one of them, and for those that want to customise you have more options in each category to focus on.

This months machine has taken into account some of those changes so you will see a lot less cross-over between the two systems.  Peripherals for example will now be higher end than the entry level system and you can decide how much you want to spend.

The Enthusiast’s Overclocking System:

Case:
CoolerMaster Silencio 550

Cost – £64
Ive long been a fan of CoolerMasters cases who across their whole range typically create options nice to work with.  The Silencio is no exception, another sleek looking case with heavy duty sound proofing and all the connectivity options including USB3 that you would expect.  A close second is the Fractal Design R3, both often go on sale, pick the cheaper of the two.

Power Supply:

OCZ ZS Series 750W PSU

Cost – £74
Plenty of power headroom for upgrades and overclocking, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform, and a modular cabling system to manage airflow. Its pricey but when you are playing with voltages, a PSU you can trust is critical.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 3570K 3.4Ghz

Cost – £178
As before, I haven’t choosen the i7K due to the similarities in performance, if you are planning on doing lots of video encoding then get the i7 otherwise save your money, the i5 is rock solid. As with the other recommendations, Ive switched to the top end of the Ivybridge range with the K series for overclocking.

CPU Cooler
Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro rev2

Cost – £16
A bit of an oversight on my part that I have never recommended one of these before however they can make a significant difference in stabilising your CPU’s overclock.  The freezer pro may not be as fancy as some of the other options on the market but its capability is often comparable to options three times its cost.

Motherboard:
MSI Z77A-G43 Z77

Cost – £82
As with the entry level system, I have switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits. . MSI have long been an excellent choice for both price as well as the support they offer on their boards for overclocking.  Through the combination of build quality and strong OC software suites / BIOS support this board is difficult to beat.

RAM:
16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3 1600MHz

Cost – £70
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding, whether you are building a whole system or not a RAM upgrade should be on your radar. Lifetime warranty and good service from Corsair when you need it. Additionally on this set you have the benefit of decent heatspreaders to support overclocking and also quad channel support should you look to take this RAM with you into a future board that supports it (currently only the socket 2011 boards support quad channel).

Graphics Card:
Gigabyte GTX 670 Windforce 3X 2GB

Cost – £330
Normally here I would be recommending an SLI or Crossfire setup but with a lack of options in the mid range GPU market im favouring a single card solution in this system.  The GTX 670 is an incredibly capable card which makes it difficult to ignore in favour of say two 7850s in Crossfire.  Single card solutions are more reliable performers than dual card setups and leave more options open such us tri-monitor setups (which do not work with dual cards) or alternatively, adding another 670 further down the line.

Hard Disk:
BOOT: OCZ 120GB Agility 3 SSD

Cost – £73
SSD prices have been unaffected by the price hike on platter based harddisks and are currently going through quite a coup. I have switched from the Corsair Force 3 purely on the basis of price.  When asked about SSDs these are the two I recommend, buy whichever is the cheaper of the two as performance is like for like.

STORAGE: Seagate 2TB Barracuda Green

Cost – £77
Given the high prices of platter based harddisks at the moment this isnt actually a terrible price. Decent cache and SATA III connectively should see it meet your storage needs happily, and the slightly lower spin speed and power consumption should keep the noise down.  Prices however are still inflated and although falling its taking some time to get back to where they were.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:
Hazro HZ27WD 27″ IPS

Cost – £370
A real game changer in terms of recommendation.  24″ 1080p panels are getting cheaper and cheaper but getting the next level up is also becoming more available.  The Hazro is a 27″ monitor which is big indeed but the real difference is its 2560×1440 resolution which gives you significantly more desktop space and vastly improved definition over the now standard 1920×1080.  Additionally the Hazro is built from the same components that the £1000+ highend Apple and Dell screens are made from so at this price they are incredibly tempting.

Mouse:
Logitech G400

Cost – £30
The remake of the MX518 which is commonly regarded as one of the best gaming mice produced. The quality and the value of this mouse are second to none.  You can pay more for more buttons and weights and laser accuracy but these are usually just gimmicks.

Keyboard:
Corsair Vengeance K90 Mechanical Keyboard

Cost – £90
Looking at the price might make you wince a little but I did say this was going to aim at the higher end of the peripheral market.  In my mind there are two functions worth paying for in a keyboard.  Forget macro keys, usb hubs, volume sliders etc, mechanical actuations will significantly improve the typing experience and more importantly will last forever.  Additionally back lit keys are a god sent to anyone who ‘games’, like myself, predominantly in the evening hours.  If £90 really is too much then cheaper non backlit alternatives can be found around the £60 mark.

Headset:
Corsair Vengeance 1500 Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound Headset

Cost – £68
Corsair have launched their new Vengeance range and as has become typical of them, they are hitting a very high quality indeed.  Its obvious that every element of the design has been carefully thought through from the quality of the sound, the microphone and the comfort and build quality.  As this headset is connected via USB I have opted to remove the sound card and rather rely on the drivers included with the headset.  If you are also planning on having speakers connected then I would add the soundcard back in.

Total cost of the above:

£1535

 

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (July)

I know, I know, I missed a month, its been busy ok?  Anyway I’m back again and on the whole not a great deal has changed.  AMD have promised some price changes to their upper level 7870 and 7900 series cards but not enough to really dislodge the 7850 as the midrange of choice.  Thats unlikely to happen until later in August which is when Nvidia are rumoured to be releasing the GTX 660 Ti.

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
NZXT Tempest 210

Cost – £42
The Tempest is a revision of the NZXT Source I have previously recommended and is currently slightly cheaper.  That said cases seem to have a slight price hike at the moment.  As before you are getting rear and ceiling fans included, internal cable management, screwless design as well as a USB3 compatible front socket. From a personal perspective, I think its a nice looking case to boot.

Power Supply:
OCZ CoreXStream 500W

Cost – £35
Slightly less powerful than previously but you really dont need all that power.  In truth a 350W would manage but its always good to have a little headroom any most upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency, which at this price is excellent and should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 3570 3.4Ghz

Cost – £165
Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games as well as a number of revisions that Ivybridge brings over the previous series. Admittedly there isnt a great difference in performance between the Ivybridge and Sandybridge, but the price is largely the same too so you may as well get the new one.  The reason for the top end CPU rather than lower down the pecking order is again to do with negligible price difference but more about this being a good time to buy a PC so invest in quality.

Motherboard:
MSI H77MA-G43

Cost – £67
The board remains the same, I previously switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits.  The limitation of the board selected here is that it only has a single high speed PCI-E socket and therefore will be more suited to a single GPU setup.  An extra £10 will get you a Z77 board with this support but given the power of single card GPUs you really dont need to go to this length.

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £39
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding although I woundnt count on that forever. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort and at this price I would even be tempted to double that to 16GB if you can stretch the budget.

Graphics Card:
Gigabyte HD 7850 OC 2GB Windforce X2

Cost – £189
Since the release of the Nvidia 680 and 670 and the upcoming 660, AMD have been reviewing the prices of their current market cards which has seen price reductions across the board.  Right this second, the 7850 has no competition for the midrange bracket and this is an excellent price for a card that’s only a few of months old!  AMDs latest architecture and 2GB of memory put it clearly above the Nvidia 560Ti 448 core in my mind although the 660 is due in August I would expect initial prices to be around £250 on release.  We’ll have to wait for the benchmarks to see if they justify that tag.

Hard Disk:
Seagate 1TB Barracuda 7200RPM 32MB Cache

Cost – £65
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I have finally been able to recommend a 1TB storage as well as SATA III which will perform better than the budget drives I have been previously recommending although this has raised the price a little. We are finally back to being able to put in good performing platter based drives without remortgaging the house, but hopefully the prices will continue to drop.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid due to their tendency not to support all disk types, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:
LG IPS234V-PN 23″ Monitor

Cost – £119
LG, AOC and Asus may have started the trend of lost cost IPS screens, but there are now a number on the market including this offering from Ilyama.  As with the other panels these are getting favourable reviews consistantly getting better with every model released.  On that basis its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more unless you are interested in 3D.  IPS options in this price bracket are becoming more and more common, with the AOC i2353Fh and the Ilyama Prolite X2377HDS, its worth shopping around although this is by far the cheapest Ive seen so far.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £18
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attactive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Cyborg V5

Cost – £39
Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price, what more do you need?

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 380

Cost – £20
Plantronics have recently updated their Gamecom range and this 380 replaces the outgoing 367. As before the 380 has high quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached as well as a much improved build quality around both its cabling and headband. Not something you typically see in headsets of this price.

Total cost of the above:

£811

As before, Ill be shortly following this article up with an update to the Overclocker’s system previously recommended.

YWBL4DA @ Rezzed

Setting out early in the morning, the journey to the conference was exciting enough and thats before we even got into the Brighton Centre. I had traveled down with a couple of other members of YWBL4DA (Sassenach and Rifter) and on arriving successfully at the Brighton park & ride we went to take a look at the bus station to see when the next bus into town would be. On learning that it was over an hour away it was suggested we walk the two point something miles to the coast where the conference centre was.

What we thought was going to be a casual strole down to the coast took us over perilously high mountain climbs and steep crevasses that clearly no sane person would normally walk especially when a bus is provided. Too far now to turn back we had no option but to press on. The bad turned to worse when roughly half way through the walk, the heavens opened and a downpoor of biblical proportions lashed at us for the remainder of the way added torrential streams that we had to forde as we decended the cliffs to the sea.

Soaked to the bone and considerable blisters developing on my feet we finally made it to the front doors of the conference centre just as the sun came out from the clouds and the weather started to improve. Never mind that though we were heading in doors to get dried off.

I will break down by game / talk which is roughly in chronological order as well:

This was the first thing we went to see behind the secretive 18s only curtain, Borderlands 2 had quite a large setup with a good 10 or so machines set up to play. Sass, Rifter and I were all able to sit down and get a game together although GearBox in their wisdom had set up the demo units with only Xbox controllers to play which was a little disappointing at a conference aimed at PC gamers.

In terms of the experience, the level we got to play was the Hyperion Plaza level which has been shown in some of the released gameplay videos, the mission is to cut down handsome Jacks (The main bad guy) statues. This was later shown in a play through by Randy Pitchford which I will cover a little later on.

The game felt very slick, the graphics seemed slighly nicer although familiar and the change in colour pallette, something Randy joked about, was very welcome. On the whole it offered the experience I wanted as a fan of the previous game, dont expect radical change but lots and lots of little improvements and UI feedback which make the game more fun. Things like having better feedback on which elements are doing damage to the target or which elements they are able to ‘resist’. The guns themselves being wholly more interesting with lots more visual effects to differentiate them. The skill trees being more involved offering entirely new methods and attacks rather than just stat boosts (although these are still available too).  The enemies being more varied and demonstrating damage in different ways such as arms and legs being blown off robots or soldiers dropping heavy shields if you hit them in the right place.  These all added positive nuances however it was still familiar enough to settle back into the same general flow of the previous game.

On the whole a very positive demo, the game has lots more detail and feels more frantic than the previous. Nothing Ive seen has made me regret preodering, although concerns still remain regarding its PC optimisation despite Randys assurances on this front.

On the subject of Randy, as I mentioned earlier we also attended his presentation and Borderlands demo.  Ive already talked about the game experience and largely the same points were emphasised so im not going to cover that again. Randy, assisted by two colleagues did a live walkthrough of the same level that was available on the exhibition floor. He talked a lot about the areas that they had improved on as well as picking out a lot of the additions, mostly picked out above, throughout the demo. All in all it was a slick presentation although I would say more geared to the ‘whooping and shouting’ of an American fan base than the rather more reserved English audience he was confronted with.

Interestingly, based on a show of hands survey that Randy opened with, pretty much everyone who attended the presentation was previously a borderlands player and I would estimate that there were a good 70-100 people in the room.

In terms of the questions he answered, I highlighted the fact that one of the more fun experiences, namely the vault run in the Knoxx DLC required a hack and an exploit to be able to do repeatedly, and asked had they learnt from this?

He confirmed that they were aware of the exploit and specifically hadnt ‘fixed’ it. Borderlands 2 plans for considerably more end game activity so that it can become a ‘hobby’ his word not mine.  Essentially the delivery of rewarding, repeatable content is something that they are looking to provide.  Experiences such as Crawmerax which were added in the previous game.

Somebody else from the crowd threw a suckerpunch in the name of Duke Nukem which Randy deflected and then followed up with a question regarding the PC Love Letter (which details how Borderlands 2 is going to be optimised for PC). Randy was quite defensive at this, largely re-inforced what the letter said but didnt really offer any specifics. He said that they hadnt had time to put in all that stuff in Borderlands 1 but it will go in this time. Essentially they had previously prioritised the console release.

My take, turning up to a PC show with Xbox pads is poor show really. Also the multiplayer setup menus and connectivity were a little ropey too. Appreciate this was a demo but its looking worryingly consoley at the moment.  Hopefully this will improve prior to release.

No SDK is planned and no ‘active’ support for modding. They anticipate that the community will provide the tools as they did before. He alluded to the fact that Gearbox developers had helped steer the community in the right direction on these tools which would suggest they weren’t necessarily against the hacked weapons / upgrades etc that occurred in the previous game.

Someone also asked about whether any of the endgame material required multiplayer groups, specifically 4 players. Randy said it is something that they have considered but not for the initial release as they want the content to be balanced amongst both multiplayer and single player users. He said it was something they wanted to explore in future DLC where they could make it clear to the purchaser that it was aimed at multiplayer groups so as to avoid disappointment.

Finally someone asked about multi device integration ie PS Vita or Smartphone. Randy asked what the asker thought the usecase was and they highlighted the inventory and skill tree which would be suitable for a touchscreen device. Randy said it was something they were aware of but havent initiated yet as they do not believe in leveraging technology for the sake of it. Not discounted but essentially seems unlikely.

Overall I thought that Randy came across as a little defensive in his positioning and his question answering. An interesting stance for him to take and again gives me a niggly feeling about how well optimised this will be for PC. Time will tell I guess. As I said, on the whole the game looked and played very well.

Also in the over 18s section it was obvious that Sega had provided a healthy budget for the show with massive billboards, queues into the game and two marines and an Alien stomping around the place.

The game itself however was a little disappointing in truth. What they had on display was simply a TDM match on a single level between a group of 5 aliens and 5 marines. SEGA employees were playing as the aliens which meant that you could only play as the marines.

On the upside they provided keyboard and mouse as well as Xbox controller (razer products I noticed).  The YWBL4DA boys all gave a good account of themselves having positive K:D ratios (Sass achieved the highest) however our two other teammates being Xbox controller users were simply killed again and again and we ultimately lost to the SEGA Aliens.

As for the experience it was pretty meh. It felt very similar to the TDM mode in the recently released AvP game which I think was a bit of a mistake for SEGA. For me this game will win or lose on its 4 player coop campaign mode which is the only real differentiator between this and other Aliens franchise games but sadly this wasnt available to see.

I quizzed one of the SEGA guys to try and get a feel for whether it was going to be a scripted coridor shooter and he didnt do a great deal to dispel this view. I said I wanted Left 4 Dead with aliens but he tended more to the story and the scripted events and bosses.  Admittedly the story looks strong as do some of the events discussed and it was slick on the PC, looked pretty etc, but Im still not expecting great things in terms of originality and longevity.

An interesting one to attend as they didnt really have anything ‘new’ to show that you couldnt have played already. I think this was a case of broadening their userbase as well as giving Dean a platform for how he wants to take the project forward.

Sass got to fly around in a chopper which he ultimately crashed into a tree. We joked about the possibility of other people finding the crash site and thinking they were going to get epic loot and actually just finding out some muppet crashed it.

Im not going to go into impressions of the game, as most likely, you’ve played it, and if you havent, then you should.  What I am going to say is that we had an opportunity to talk with Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall  as well as another senior DayZ community member.

It becomes clear very quickly that the growth and popularity of this game has far exceeded their expectation with Dean claiming that they have now attracted just under half a million players.  I think its fair to say that the pressure of maintaining the momentum of the project as well as staying in touch with the community is taking its toll.

For my part, I think that Bohemia would do well to get their PR team onto this sooner rather than later.  They need to support Dean in focusing on expanding his idea and distributing this to the ever growing fanbase, but also provide him with the experienced support to manage the community and organised events.

Dean did a good job with the presentation and made lots of interesting points regarding the future directions he is looking to take, but this was slightly marred by a display area whos PCs were down during several parts of the day and limited promotional materials to hand out to interested attendees.  Problems like these are easily fixable but not without people to help you.

There is no doubt that DayZ is going to go on to be a success of some measure, but without this support, the question remains at what cost.

Had a really interesting chat with the lead developer of this about how he feels about Firaxis and whether they have stolen their thunder. Was also able to talk to him about the kickstarter experience and what its meant to him.

Essentially he thinks they are ultimately developing different games. Hes quite realistic about which is ultimately going to be more successful but thinks that the games will appeal to different or even both audiences.

His take is that Xenonauts is a faithful revisit of the old game. Its not looking to change anything fundamentally but simply fix a lot of the issues that remained in the original as well as give it a new coat of paint. They are about to go into BETA and expect to finish the game this year.

He believes that Firaxis are essentially taking the flavour of the old game but bringing in lots of modernisation to appeal to the current market. There will ultimately be similarities however its obvious that it is going to be quite a different experience to the original.

Having spent some time talking to Firaxis and seeing their latest promo I can confirm he’s probably right. The question however still remains whether people will be willing to buy both.

Regarding kickstarter of which he succcessfully recieved £150,000 in funding it was quite interesting to see how he coped with the change. He talked about the massive increase in communication that he had to manage and how as essentially a one man team it was quite hard keeping up with all the emails he received. He confirmed that the nature of kickstarter is that although this dies down a little you do have to maintain that level of communication which can be challenging when you are trying to work on development too.

I have to say it was a very positive chat and although the Firaxis game looks to provide more of the experience im interested in, the talk with him on friday made me far more interested in his product.

I had a very very brief play of it and its largely as you would expect. If you have played Xcom then you know what you see. The graphics were reminicent of the late 90s isometrics rather than the early 90s and the artwork was top quality. Game play felt intuitive although the alpha we were playing crashed due to a bug.

Had a dedicated presentation room to themselves and ran several sessions during the course of the day. This was overkill in my view, they had a new gameplay video to show but that was largely it as they didnt go into a great deal of detail on the game.

The video showed a staged setup of a terror mission that essentially enabled them to show off some of the entry level marine tech, some of the alien classes and the later stage technology you will research. I say staged as this was put together specifically for the purpose of the trailer and will not represent real gameplay.

That said some of the elements it brough out were nice, it was good to see how the graphical engine and the replays are coming along, the interaction with the environment such as taking cover and ‘hunkering down’.

They showed off the class system which basically enables you to start leveling up a character the longer they stay alive, rewarding them with stat increases but also perks along a class tree the more they get promoted.

There wasnt anything on either the global view or the base view. Although Sid Meier was modelled as a Psy enabled sargeant which raised a chuckle from me as I watched. The presenter seemed to appreciate that at least one of us knew who he was.

I asked the question about whether multiplayer was going to be included to which I was answered that ‘we are not allowed to talk about multiplayer’. I suspect that its on the cards but they are not sure how they are going to get it working yet.

Other questions were largely about the vehicles (tanks), weapons, research and materials to which the answer was its all more or less the same as the old game.

Outside of the demo I asked one of the guys about how base battles were going to work and hes said that they tried to get them functioning with the new view but its not going to happen. Ultimately the decision has been taken that in the old game when a base battle happened it was too OP in favour of the Aliens and ultimately too damaging. This has been removed for the initial release however they are not ruling it out for a future update.

Overall the presentation shouted a lot, but didnt really have a great deal to shout about. Heavily restricted by PR I imagine, although what I did see looked good. Made me feel even more sorry for the poor Xenonauts guy.

Im covering this off both as a game we played as well as a presentation.

Both Sass and Rifter had played before so were familiar with the game. I on the other hand was coming in pretty cold, I was aware of the concept but not really in any great detail.

Talking to the guys it was clear that the concept was interesting, essentially an asymetrical forces lineup of aliens vs marines FPS combat with a commander fulfilling an RTS role over the top of that, building base components and providing orders and direction to the FPS players.

The game engine is lovely and all their own work, something ill come onto later. The concept is sound too and for the most part the implementation is slick.

The parts where I think they have missed a trick are that the game relies heavily on the capability of the commander. They admit themselves that if your commander doesnt know what hes doing for the first 30-60 seconds of the game, its likely you will go on to lose that round.

For me this is essentially going to limit the appeal as it seems that has a very steep learning curve.

Coupled with that the commander is expected to manage the other players predominantly through voice comms. There are some on screen indications that he can provide but essentially he is looking to pursuade people to follow him by talking to them. For me this is the critical gap. Games like Bad Company and Left 4 Dead provide indication of what is required from the player by on screen prompts. Heal this, remair that, go here, defend this etc etc. My view is the commander should be able to do 80% of his work through this method, communicate with his players by giving them on screen indications to follow rather than through voice communication. If the remaining 20% makes him an excellent commander then great but a reasonable commander should be able to ‘do the job’ simply through the interface.

Without this I think they are going to be putting a lot of burden on a single player who is going to be subject to a great deal of vitriol should the team lose. Not a great way to get people to play your game.

Presentationwise it has to be said that in my opinion this was one of the best. The guy presenting did come across as a little too PR’y at times but on the whole, knew his subject, was able to dip in and out of his presentation and a live game at will, and was generally able to enthuse the audience on the product which only a few seemed familiar with.

Some key points that I took away:

The engine is entirely open source and they are fully commited to supporting modding. Infact they are actively relying on the community to improve certain components as they dont have the bredth to do it themselves. A sensible although brave approach in my view. Realistic considering their resources.

The game is going to be deployed via steam and uses all their technologies including VAC. Expect to see it released there soon.

They are actively targetting being an E-Sport and are looking to do all they can to make this happen. Based on what I saw it could be a very fun game to watch in this fashion, something that they are keen to highlight. They seem to get both that E-Sports need to offer the level of competition required but also the visual spectacle to support viewers. They are promoting their own events internally and are hoping to grow that. The dynamic of the RTS view and the FPS view could be very visually appealing but the speed of the game could make it difficult to commentate on. Worth checking out though in my mind.

I came away knowing it wasnt really my type of game but I would be quite interested to watch some co-ordinated matches.

Literally got minutes with this before we were kicked out of the Conference Hall. It was still pre-alpha but looked very very slick. Chris Delay of Introversion had been around but we missed him so did get a chance for a chat.

Essentially this is ‘Theme Prison’ with the same build mechanic and darker sense of humour. Even in the few minutes we played of this its potential was clear. Definately something to keep an eye on

And The Rest…

There was a bunch of other games we checked out including Shootmania which looked slick and clearly targetting the e-sports arena. Basically an alternative to Unreal Tournament in the brief view I had of it. Didnt spend any time with Secret World or TERA although they were both there. There was another space shooting game in the mould of Freespace and Freelancer both of which the developer cited as heavy influences. I cant remember its name.

We came away with a bunchload of free stuff including codes for Ghost Recon Online, discounts on Borderlands and Serious Sam 3, various T-Shirts and other bits and pieces.

I also played Battlefield 3 again and still dont think Im missing anything.  Sorry EA no Origin for me.

DayZ Review: The triumph of the zombie

Ok, first of all, please take into account that this is just a hasty review on an alpha of a mod.

I am going to write it after only 18 hours of gameplay and beleive me, that is nowhere near enough. I have decided to write this down because this mod is currently overshadowing the almighty Diablo 3 in the PC gaming space.  It is a huge sensation and a lot of people are asking themselves whether they should invest in ARMA2:CO or not just to play an unfinished mod.

ARMA2: Shooting at tiny, tiny pixels

ARMA 2 is a relatively unknown game, specially if you compare it to other big modern military FPS. It is a hardcore simulation tool, with heavy emphasis on infantry combat. As most east european simulatons do, it is basically a level designing tool where the programmers give you a very deep physics engine, a very well designed map and lots and lots of cool toys to play with. In this case you can use tanks, helicopters and all sorts of infantry to create any and all types of combat situations.

Once you get in the game it becomes the slowest, most open first person shooter you’ll ever play but also the most complete. It uses advanced damage models and ballistics, a very interesting voice comms engine and it can be used to play massive multiplayer battles. You can hop on any vehicle, go anywhere and do anything you want. It is absolutely fascinating.

As most east european games, the menus are really old fashioned but functional and the interface is counterintuitive and complicated. ARMA2 is also hugely resource demanding and quite buggy. But, also as many good east european games, ARMA2 looks fantastic. It is more ambitious than any other FPS, feels incredibly realistic and once you get into it, is a wonderful story making tool. I really like ARMA2.

However, ARMA 2 has a flaw that has kept me from playing it more: the theme is really dry. The more realistic it gets, the more obvious it is that real modern military is really boring subject matter. Even when you play it in ideal conditions, there is nothing interesting happening in this game. Modern real soldiers act more like doctors than like heroes. Also, because it is realistic, the distance of the engagements is such that you’ll basically shoot at single pixels and announce their deaths with no hint of emotion. Cold and calculating with no hint of emotion, ARMA2 is a game in desperate need of epicness.

DayZ, an alpha of a mod for a buggy game

Of course, over the last years, ARMA2 has developed your typical small core of rabid hardcore fans, who mod for it, play it in huge 200 multiplayer battles and generally bother no one while they have fun testing 40 different models of fragmentation grenades.

However, it is out of this slow trickle of mods and this small community that came DayZ. A New Zealand programmer from the company that designed ARMA2 (Bohemia Interactive) used his holidays to program the mod. He did it with a clear goal: player freedom to create stories and take decisions. He told no one about his project and when he thought it was more or less ready for a little bit of stress testing, he asked some friends to hop in on the server to see how it would handle the load. He had a single server for 50 people. That was 2 weeks ago. As of today, there are 74000 unique players, ARMA2: CO has become the number one bestseller on Steam and this guy keeps adding servers trying to catch up with demand. And it is not working, demand has not reached it’s peak yet.

Why?

Simple, DayZ takes the huge accomplishment that is ARMA2 and makes a game out of it. It is a hard, brutally difficult, slow paced realistic game, but it is a game.

The setting is classic, there has been a zombie apocalypse and you are a survivor. You are stranded on the beach somewhere with some basic equipment, but you’ll need to scavenge heavily to survive. You’ll need an steady income of food and water, you’ll probably need new medical supplies and even if you do not want to, you are going to need more bullets.

The area where you’ll survive is called Chernarus and it has everything in it: Cities, villages, forests, castles, hospitals, airfields and lots, lots and more lots of infinitely respawning zombies. Oh and 50 other players, I somehow forgot about that.

In order to get supplies, you need to explore abandoned structures, where you’ll find that random loot keeps respawning. This seems trivial, except that zombies spawn from those same structures. In other words, if you stay in the forest you’ll starve. And if you go in the cities, you’ll die horribly.

If it sounds easy, believe me, it is not. Zombies run, see and hear. They hurt a lot and will mob on you at the sound of your (very few and very precious) bullets. They zigzag and will pursue you relentlessly for hours until they get you somehow. Getting into a town is a nerve wrecking stealth game, where patience is key. It is extremely difficult to avoid those zombies and still keep on getting enough supplies in order to survive. But it gets worse, much, much worse.

There are survivors that have guns with sniper rifles. And even worse, they have friends with more sniper rifles.

Bandits (survivors who have killed other survivors) tend to populate the hills around the biggest coastal cities, where poor survivors enter at their own risk in order to get some food. When they manage to get out with some supplies, they are actively hunted by those bandits who have spent their time getting better weapons and are ready to use them. Sometimes they’ll even act as survivors to lure the trusting loner into a deserted area where they can shoot and kill the survivor without alerting the zombies around them.

If you add all these factors, you understand why as of this writing, average life expectancy in DayZ is 28 minutes. It had gone up to over an hour, but the programmer updated the mod and more than doubled the number of zombies in the game.

Good people is being killed, robbed and betrayed all over Chernarus, all for a can of beans.

Sandbox simulators as storymaking tools

So there you have it, a huge chunk of beautiful terrain, lots of zombies, some ammo and bean cans and nothing else. This game has literally nothing else.

And yet, I would argue that that is plenty and more than enough for a game. It allows you to decide and out of those decisions, create your story.

The first meaningful decision is whether or not you are going to play as a killer. If you do, you’ll become a bandit. Your skin will change to reflect that and your humanity score will go down. Everybody will see you and know that you are a killer so it’ll be difficult to trick other into trusting you, whether or not they themselves are bandits. However, it can be done.

Death of a bandit by a well equipped survivor

If you do want to become a bandit, then you can simply start hunting players and taking their stuff. You’ll die often but your career path is simple.

If you do not want to become a bandit and will only kill in self defense, the question is simple: How are you going to survive? What will you eat? Will you stay near the coast, where there are more supplies but more bandits and zombies? Or will you go inland to the small villages where it is hard to scrape by but there are less enemies?

This game is about deciding about all the details that can make you succesful and failing catastrophically or succeeding epically. If you want to compare it to anything, you can compare it to Dwarf Fortress, EVE and the upcoming Project Zomboid. Losing is fun because it will end the unique story that you have created. These games are all about consequences and about enjoying the dilemmas you face. DayZ adopts this design philosophy to the extreme.

The triumph of the zombie

DayZ would simply make no sense without the zombies. They are the great equalizer,  their presence means that no one can stay put and build a strong defense. Everybody has to be on the move constantly as there is no way that you can hold a building against the zombies. No matter how good your equipment is, you never can forget the zombies in this game. They will kill even very strong players if they stop being careful. In my case, I have fallen prey to the zombies specially when I was very well armed, because I got reckless and paid for it. I will tell a typical DayZ story that happened to me yesterday.

I joined a server where it was nighttime and decided to cross the whole map in order to get to a famous weapons depot. It would not be easy, there were many dangerous zones in the way and the zombies could jump you at any time if you approached a village carelessly. I narrowly escaped many times the wandering zombies, but I was actually more worried about bandits. This particular weapons depot is famous all over Chernarus, there are many bandits who choose to stay around it and get easy prey. So I approached the zone really carefully and in the middle of the dark. If they found me, they’d probably shoot me on sight.

Sure enough, I saw a team of survivors get out of the depot, just as I was approaching a hole in the fence to enter from the back. They were using good infantry tactics and would have killed me easily, but they passed at less than 15 metres from me and I moved inside undetected. It had taken me around 3 hours of gameplay to get to this point, navigating in the dark and avoiding enemies.

I entered the depot and quickly found my price: a bolt action Remington shotgun with a flashlight attached. It is an awesome weapon for this game and pretty rare. The flashlight is a very welcome bonus as flares and glowsticks are completely useless. In the depot I got loads of good gear, like ammo, a bigger backpack, smoke grenades… I was loaded.

My mission had been a resounding success, I just needed to get back to my meeting point with Tokey and we’d go on looking for a weapon for him. In one hour, I’d be there.

And then it happened. Just as I was crawling in the dark to get from the weapons depot and into the line of trees, out of nowhere a zombie stepped on me. Zombies usually will not see you in the dark if you crawl and don’t make noise. I have had zombies pass at less than a meter from me, no problem.

However, this one stepped on me.

I rose up to run away and ten meters later, it was not one zombie but five, I was bleeding  profusely and it was then when I realised that I had no ammo for my shotgun, I had put it in the backpack instead of in the gun. I tried to change weapons to get my pistol, but that slowed me down and I fell under the hits of five angry zombies, not 50 meters away from the weapons depot.

I died horribly, shouting curses in the night and respawned on the beach, very far away. Probably my body was looted by another survivor.

I loved it.

Reccomend?

I think this is a very difficult game to reccomend, simply because I do not know if you are going to see cool stuff or not. It impossible to predict. For example, I once watched from within the trees as a survivor lit some flares in the ruins of a medieval castle and tried to kill off the zombies within it. The flare projected against the wall of the catle the shadow of the survivor falling under the zombies, it was really atmospheric and cinematic. And it also was unscripted, it happened like that because that guy had decided to go there and I had decided to be there and to not help him.

Those moments are awesome and more powerful than any other game I can think off right now. No one strives to create those stories in a package that is so elegant as DayZ. It is a FPS with very, very complex technology and very deep decision making. But mechanically, it is simple to understand how it works and it has a ton of atmosphere. It is amazingly well designed to et out of the way, to just let you take pure decisions and cope with the consequences.

I think any gamer would enjoy that part of the game, but I think there needs to be a big warning. This game is very, very rough. It is an alpha. It is still going to change a lot and maybe it’ll never be finished or polished. Right now, it is difficult to install, difficult to update, difficult to join a server and even more difficult to find a daylight server. There are 70000 people trying to play a game that should be testing with 50. If we are lucky and Bohemia Interactive are clever, they’ll give this guy resources to prepare a serious DayZ module for the upcoming ARMA3. Then we’ll be cooking with gas.

I realise that I have been frustrated with DayZ’s lack of polish and I feel that some gamers will feel even more frustrated than me. Personally I think that the game is way worth the price of ARMA2:CO, but be prepared to be patient. You can lose your equipment to bugs, be reset in a server crash… many bad things can happen, but that is also part of the fascination and remember that we are talking about a free mod.

All in all, I think DayZ is the best PC game this year and much better than anything I can think of from last year (yes, including Portal 2, Saints Row 3 AND Crusader Kings). I absolutely reccomend it to you. If you are ready to cope, that is. Cope with the bugs, cope with the servers, cope with zombies and most of all, cope with bandits. Be ready to suffer, as this game is about overcoming the huge odds against you. If you do, the moments you live will be yours and only yours. Nobody will discuss with you what did you do with the prisioners in the airport, it’ll be just you there and nobody else will ever be in that same situation, ever.

If you are ready to cope, I will tell you only one more thing. As of rigth now, only 64000 of the 74000 players are alive. The other 10000 are victims to the bandits or to the zombies. It is unfair and I want to do as much as I can to stop it. I am slowly trying to build a YWBL4DA police force that will protect the innocent in the sandy beaches of Chernarus and I am looking for volunteers. It’ll take a load of time and effort, we’ll have to be ready to store extra weapons and ammo, find the right tools for the job, find out how to avoid losing our own men and try to find ways to help survivors.

So what do you say? Can you cope?

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (May)

Ill admit that I have once again pushed the budget to its max for this months PC however the reasoning behind this is that this is genuinely an excellent time to buy a gaming PC.  Intel, Nvidia and AMD have now largely released all of their major releases and a sensible purchase now will last you a good long time without becoming obsolete.  The system below will stand you well for years to come.

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
NZXT Tempest 210

Cost – £43
The Tempest is a revision of the NZXT Source I have previously recommended and is currently slightly cheaper.  That said cases seem to have a slight price hike at the moment.  As before you are getting rear and ceiling fans included, internal cable management, screwless design as well as a USB3 compatible front socket. From a personal perspective, I think its a nice looking case to boot.

Power Supply:
OCZ CoreXStream 500W

Cost – £35
Slightly less powerful than previously but you really dont need all that power.  In truth a 350W would manage but its always good to have a little headroom any most upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency, which at this price is excellent and should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 3550 3.3Ghz

Cost – £166
My first expensive change in that I have both upgraded to one of Intels new Ivybridge CPUs and I have also gone for their top end i5.  Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games as well as a number of revisions that Ivybridge brings over the previous series. Admittedly there isnt a great difference in performance between the Ivybridge and Sandybridge, but the price is largely the same too so you may as well get the new one.  The reason for the top end CPU rather than lower down the pecking order is again to do with negligible price difference but more about this being a good time to buy a PC so invest in quality.

Motherboard:
MSI H77MA-G43

Cost – £67
Last weeks big change remains the same, I have switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits.  The limitation of the board selected here is that it only has a single high speed PCI-E socket and therefore will be more suited to a single GPU setup.  An extra £10 will get you a Z77 board with this support but given the power of single card GPUs you really dont need to go to this length.

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £31
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding although I woundnt count on that forever. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort and at this price I would even be tempted to double that to 16GB if you can stretch the budget.

Graphics Card:
Sapphire HD 7850 2GB

Cost – £186
Since the release of the Nvidia 680 and 670, AMD have been reviewing the prices of their current market cards which has seen price reductions across the board.  Its true the 6870 I have recommended is now even cheaper, but this is an excellent price for a card that’s only a couple of months old!  AMDs latest architecture and 2GB of memory put it clearly above the Nvidia 560Ti 448 core in my mind and the 660 is likely delayed till the tail end of this year.

Hard Disk:
WD 1TB Caviar Blue 7200RPM 32MB Cache

Cost – £70
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I have finally been able to recommend a 1TB storage as well as SATA III which will perform better than the budget drives I have been previously recommending although this has raised the price a little. We are finally back to being able to put in good performing platter based drives without remortgaging the house, but hopefully the prices will continue to drop.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid due to their tendency not to support all disk types, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:
Ilyama Prolite 23″ X2377HDS

Cost – £134
LG, AOC and Asus may have started the trend of lost cost IPS screens, but there are now a number on the market including this offering from Ilyama.  As with the other panels these are getting favourable reviews consistantly getting better with every model released.  On that basis its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more unless you are interested in 3D.  IPS options in this price bracket are becoming more and more common, with the AOC i2353Fh and the LG IPS235V, its worth shopping around.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £17
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attactive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Cyborg V5

Cost – £35
Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price, what more do you need?

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 380

Cost – £19
Plantronics have recently updated their Gamecom range and this 380 replaces the outgoing 367. As before the 380 has high quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached as well as a much improved build quality around both its cabling and headband. Not something you typically see in headsets of this price.

Total cost of the above:

£816

As before, Ill be shortly following this article up with an update to the Overclocker’s system previously recommended.

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (April) cont.

Following on from April’s update to the entry level system, I have also made some big changes to the Overclocking system along similar lines with the motherboard and graphics card and Im really pleased with the results!  There are a few other changes too, this is a really decent system, possibly one of the best that Ive put together to date.

The Enthusiast’s Overclocking System:

Case:
CoolerMaster Silencio 550

Cost – £64
Yet another case to debut in my monthly recommendations.  Ive long been a fan of CoolerMasters cases who across their whole range typically create options nice to work with.  The Silencio is no exception, another sleek looking case with heavy duty sound proofing and all the connectivity options including USB3 that you would expect.  Couple that with the fact that CoolerMaster have reduced the price it just pipped the Fractal Design R3 in this months recommendation.

Power Supply:

OCZ MXSP Series 700W Modular PSU

Cost – £70
Plenty of power headroom for upgrades and overclocking, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform, and a modular cabling system to manage airflow. Its pricey but when you are playing with voltages, a PSU you can trust is critical.  Once again a change this month to the OCZ purely based on price.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2550K 3.4Ghz

Cost – £171
As before, I haven’t choosen the i7K due to the similarities in performance, if you are planning on doing lots of video encoding then get the i7 otherwise save your money, the i5 is rock solid. More interestingly, despite Ivybridge coming out in the next few months, the current highend Sandybridge chips arent losing out on much in comparison to whats in the pipline. You could invest now and not regret it later. The price is now almost aligned with the older 2500K, you get the extra speed and headroom for just £1!

Motherboard:
Asus P8Z77-V

Cost – £133
As with the entry level system, I have switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits. . This board is the direct successor of the Asus Z68 board I have previously been recommending however we are still waiting for the PRO edition to be released which will have a marginal impact on the OC options available to you.  That said I still think the upgrade is worthwhile, Intels changes are very broad and Asus have gone out of their way to include almost everything possible onto this board for you.  It should last a good long time.

RAM:
16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR3 1600MHz

Cost – £73
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding, whether you are building a whole system or not a RAM upgrade should be on your radar. Lifetime warranty and good service from Corsair when you need it. Additionally on this set you have the benefit of decent heatspreaders to support overclocking and also quad channel support should you look to take this RAM with you into a future board that supports it (currently only the socket 2011 boards support quad channel).

Graphics Card:
2 x HIS HD 7850 2GB

Cost – £378
Last month we were making the most of Nvidias price changes and this month its AMDs turn almost certainly with a view to setting the benchmark before Nvidia expand their 600 series range.  There are some cracking deals out there on AMD cards however Ive simply gone with doubling up the 7850 I recommended in the entry level PC.  The price and performance of this card coupled with the size of the memory make this an exceptional deal.  There are a few nuances to crossfire with AMDs latest however they arent unconquerable and are likely to be soon smoothed over with new driver releases.

Hard Disk:
BOOT: Corsair 120GB Force 3 SSD

Cost – £96
SSD prices have been unaffected by the price hike on platter based harddisks and are currently going through quite a coup. I have switched from the Corsair Force 3 purely on the basis of price.  When asked about SSDs these are the two I recommend, buy whichever is the cheaper of the two as performance is like for like.

STORAGE: Seagate 2TB Barracuda Green

Cost – £81
Given the high prices of platter based harddisks at the moment this isnt actually a terrible price. Decent cache and SATA III connectively should see it meet your storage needs happily, and the slightly lower spin speed and power consumption should keep the noise down.  Prices however are still inflated and although falling its taking some time to get back to where they were.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:
Asus PA238Q LED 23″ IPS

Cost – £230
Consistently reviewed as the best IPS monitor in its class for both image replication and gaming response time. The picture quality is excellent, the panel and the stand are well designed the only real complaint is the 16:9 ratio rather than the preferable 16:10 but that really is nit-picking.

Mouse:
Logitech G400

Cost – £28
The remake of the MX518 which is commonly regarded as one of the best gaming mice produced. The quality and the value of this mouse are second to none.

Keyboard:
Logitech G110 Gaming Keyboard

Cost – £62
Seeing as I have been saving money left, right and centre on the other components, I thought I would splash out on the keyboard a little and switch it to the one I personally use at home.  Yes its twice the price of both the X4 and the Cyborg previously recommended but the G110 is first and foremost a reliable, nice to use keyboard with a decent key action and then provides all the additional features you would expect on a gaming keyboard such as programmable keys, anti ghosting, powered USB and audio hub and various media and shortcut keys and switches.  Most useful of all is the ability to disable the windows key with a switch which helps avoid nasty situations where you find yourself dumped out of a game by accident with your start menu open.

Headset:
Corsair Vengeance 1500 Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound Headset

Cost – £65
Another big change.  Regular readers of these recommendations may have noticed the absence of a sound card in this build which is largely to do with this change right here.  Corsair have launched their new Vengeance range and as has become typical of them, they are hitting a very high quality indeed.  Its obvious that every element of the design has been carefully thought through from the quality of the sound, the microphone and the comfort and build quality.  As this headset is connected via USB I have opted to remove the sound card and rather rely on the drivers included with the headset.  If you are also planning on having speakers connected then I would add the soundcard back in.

Total cost of the above:

£1464

 

PC Gaming Hardware – What PC to Buy Guide (April)

Although not a lot of change in the market I have actually made some fairly significant changes to this months system.  Admittedly this has pushed the price up a little and I’ve had to sacrifice the sound card but being able to sport one of the latest and greatest graphics cards is worth it in my opinion.

The Entry to Mid Level System:

Case:
NZXT Source 210

Cost – £35
Slightly more expensive than the Coolermaster case I have been recommending of late however for the extra £1 you are getting rear and ceiling fans included, internal cable management, screwless design, a bottom mounted PSU as well as a USB3 compatible front socket. From a personal perspective, I think its a nice looking case to boot. Also available in white if you are a tart!

Power Supply:
Corsair CX V2 600W

Cost – £53
A trusted brand, plenty of power headroom for most upgrades you might consider later, 80% efficiency which should give you a nice stable platform. Spending less on a PSU is usually false economy especially in a machine you plan on using for games.

CPU:
Intel Core i5 2400 3.1Ghz

Cost – £146
Unless you are planning on overclocking there really is no point in spending money on the higher spec K series chips and on the whole for gaming its best to put the money into graphics power. This i5 sports intels turbo boost and has more than enough power for games. Given the specs released on the Ivybridge CPUs there isnt a great deal to get too excited about. Sandybridge will do you for a good while.

Motherboard:
MSI H77MA-G43

Cost – £67
One of the first big changes, I have switched from the older 6 series intel boards to one of their new 7 series boards which support native Ivybridge, USB3 and PCI-E3 support as well as the various enhancements that Intel have made to caching, SSD support and other benefits.  The limitation of the board selected here is that it only has a single high speed PCI-E socket and therefore will be more suited to a single GPU setup.  An extra £10 will get you a Z77 board with this support however I needed to save the money for my GPU upgrade.

RAM:
8GB Crucial DDR3 1600MHz Ballistix Sport

Cost – £31
RAM is very cheap at the moment and prices seem to be holding although I woundnt count on that forever. Lifetime warranty and good service from Crucial when you need it. I would also say that we are now getting to the point that its worth having a minimum of 8GB RAM for gaming comfort.

Graphics Card:
HIS HD 7850 2GB

Cost – £189
Since the release of the Nvidia 680GTX, AMD have been reviewing the prices of their current market cards which has seen price reductions across the board.  Its true the 6870 I normally recommend is now even cheaper, but this is an excellent price for a card that’s only a couple of months old!  AMDs latest architecture and 2GB of memory put it clearly above the Nvidia 560Ti 448 core in my mind.

Hard Disk:
Seagate Barracuda 500GB 7200RPM 16MB Cache

Cost – £61
Hard disks are still pretty expensive but prices are falling quickly from their peak. I have switched to the Seagate as this is a SATA III drive which will perform better than the budget drives I have been previously recommending although this has raised the price a little. The prices still need to drop considerably to start looking at the drives you would typically want to use.

Optical Drive:
Samsung 22x DVD/RW

Cost – £13
With the exception of Sony which I would tend to avoid, all optical drives are the same so buy the cheapest. No real point getting Blu-Ray yet unless you are planning on using the PC as a media centre.

Monitor:

LG 23″ IPS235V

Cost – £133
LG are leading the charge for low cost E-IPS screens and at this price and with the favourable reviews they are generally receiving its hard to argue in favour of the older TN panels any more. No change here however IPS options in this price bracket are becoming more and more common, with the AOC i2353Fh hot on LG’s tails, its worth shopping around.

Mouse:
Gigabyte M6900

Cost – £17
Clearly modelled after other successful gaming mice, Gigabyte have pulled together a very attactive combination of functionality, performance and price. Its very hard to justify more expensive options with this on the table.

Keyboard:
Cyborg V5

Cost – £36
I have switched from the Microsoft X4 on the basis that as MS are closing the brand, its arguably better to buy something thats going to recieve ongoing support. Back lit, anti ghosting and macro keys make it hard to beat at the price which is more or less like for like with the X4.

Headset:
Plantronics Gamecom 380

Cost – £19
Plantronics have recently updated their Gamecom range and this 380 replaces the outgoing 367. As before the 380 has high quality sound, comfortable for long play sessions with a reasonable mic attached as well as a much improved build quality around both its cabling and headband. Not something you typically see in headsets of this price.

Total cost of the above:

£800

As before, Ill be shortly following this article up with an update to the Overclocker’s system previously recommended.