I am not a fan of FPS games and you, my many listeners know this. Oh they are okay but the mindless shoot them, get the biggest gun and shoot them again wears thin for me really quick. I like a game with backstory and plot, one were you feel like there is really an accomplishment when you move forward. Lets face it most of the modern FPS games lack this.
Enter into the FPS fray Borderlands 2, a sequel to one of the few FPS games I enjoyed. Now let me define enjoyed with borderlands, the game was fun and a bit more fun than most FPS games but for me it still could not draw me in. I put in about 6 hours of game play before I moved on to other games.
Borderlands 2 starts off with a pretty similar opening to the original, you are a “Vault Hunter” and have come to Pandora to find riches. In
BL2 however there is a set enemy, Handsome Jack, that is out to stop all your efforts. The opening movie is an example of some excellent storytelling and just a fun way to introduce the 4 basic characters you get to play. The opening movie is so good I have linked it here for you to enjoy.
Your begin Borderlands 2 by choosing from one of 4 base characters. Each character comes with some special skill that sets them apart and a general skill tree that allows you to customize the character to some extent. You can also custom the looks of the character slightly to pick something closer to your style.
Axton is the Commando style character, what this means is he is the more military in his combat style. His special abilities center around throwing out a turret that brings extra firepower as well as distracts the enemy. If I had a big machine gun racking across me I would be distracted too. Skill advancements can eventually let this gun gain missiles, shields and even the ability to put down a second turret.
Salvador is called a Gunzerker, this mean he is all about his guns. The special power he has allows him to use any two equipped weapons at once. This can be two shot guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, pistols or sub machineguns as well as any combination there of. While in this Gunzerker mode he regenerates health making him even tougher. Taken forward the skills eventually let him have the ability to not use ammo when in this mode, as well as do more damage.
Zero is the Assassin, a creature of unknown origins that uses stealth to combat foes. His special ability is to throw up a false image of himself while he becomes invisible to move around the enemy and take hidden shots. This false image distracts the enemy and allows Zero to setup a killing blow that he gets a bonus for using. As he advances his skills he can make this distraction last longer and can choose to be a master of the up close and personal melee kill of the long range sniper shot.
The final character is Maya, the Siren. Maya is the ode to magic users in a game about guns. She possesses a power that allows her to phaselock an opponent, taking him out of the fight for a short period of time. Eventually this power can be trained up to be quite damaging and have some serious effect. She is also the only character to gain an ability to heal others within the group. While she is capable of good solo play she is the most group centric of the characters offered.
Yes I said group, Borderlands 2 is one of the games that are known for CO-OP play. CO-OP Play is a system that allows a small group to get together and play the game as a group without the traditional MMO system being in play.
The games backstory is pretty simple but very well done. This guy Handsome Jack is out to take control of a planet and needs to find this new Vault before anyone else. The Vault hunters have arrived to find the hoped for riches and now also want to get revenge on the guy that tried to kill them. While the basic plot might sound simple, the storytelling is outstanding. This game is full of memorable characters for you to meet and a ton of cliqued and risqué humor.
The game is also full of guns. Make no mistake this game has a ton of violence and actually glories within it. The game is about killing everything and grabbing your loot as you go. If you are worried about your kids seeing to much violence in gaming then this game is not for you.
However in all that senseless violence is a cathartic release, the ability to throw out all forms of nicety and social convention and mindlessly go around killing stuff can actually be fun and a great stress reliever for the end of the day. The simple mindless play by itself would be fun, at least for a little while but would grow stale quickly. However when you add a decent backstory that is very well told and engaging storytelling that draws you into the game, this game is far from boring, even after hours of play and with multiple replays. Add to this the ability to grab a friend or two and jump into a game together and you have a lot of fun for an evening after at hard day at work.
For our multiplayer testing I choose a Gunzerker and Doug chose the Assassin. You can see us as we drove around Pandora in our little dune buggy with big guns car. The CO_OP play system they have installed into this game is really simple to use and enjoy. Basically you are playing your game, a buddy comes on and sees you in game and if you want just joins in. The game ramps up to match the number of players in the game and even does a decent job of balancing the level differences, if any, between the players. This system is wide open so there is no need to call for a place to meet or take time to set this up, literally jump in and go.
The skills from the various characters work well to compliment each other. In our little run my Gunzerker would pick a fight and then be in the middle of the fray shooting away. Meanwhile Doug would work around the fringe and kill off the enemy while I had them distracted. This happened really naturally and I do not think it is just from Doug and I having experience playing together. The skill sets support this.
From a purely technical point of view the game ran well on a solid mix of video cards and CPUs. The games graphical style might not look state of the art but do not let that fool you it is full of nice features and the game looks great. In fact one of the selling points of this game from a technical point of view is the use of PhysX in the games graphics. The addition allows for a richer particle environment during play. It is not needed to enjoy the game but the experience is improved with it in play. I have put in this entry the video nVidia put out showing PhysX in action, you need to see it in video to appreciate it. This video is not hype either, the looks change is very real. In fact I would go so far as to say if this is going to be one of your primary games then buying an nVidia based card makes a lot of sense. The game performed well at 1080 with PhysX on high using a GTX 660 and GTX 660ti. The GTX 650 needs to tone down to medium but even at that level the difference in the experience was noticeable.
In fact the support that nVidia is putting out for Borderlands 2 is nothing short of outstanding. If you visit their GeForce site you will find a guide they have posted for optimizing game play for Borderlands 2.
With solid game play and a great job of storytelling within the game Borderlands 2 is one of the few FPS games I have found that engage me and draw me into the game. The CO-OP play takes a game that I am enjoying and kicks it up a notch as I can jump in at any time with my friends and spend some time in mindless destruction around Pandora.
While I fully recommend this game to adult gamers, for kids I have reservations. The humor is full of language and innuendo that I do not feel is appropriate for younger kids. The graphics might be cartoony but the level of violence and the way it is portrayed I feel is just a little over the top for younger gamers.
Borderlands 2 could be the biggest release of this year, the game is a blast to play, has great visuals and does a wonderful and entertaining job of telling it’s story. It achieves a near perfect blend of RPG and FPS, plus easy to access co-op play means you can enjoy all this fun with your friends.
When I look at the mobile phone world and even so many of the enthusiast sites and the advice they offered I realize that old PT Barnum was on his game and dead on when he said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”. In the world of technology too many people are attracted to the latest shiny without ever taking into consideration if their experience will truly be enhanced. This can come from buying a cell phone that only really gives a slightly bigger screen, turns off features we enjoy and give us new features that are broke, or the person that rushes out each year to buy the latest $600 video card because they will get a few more frames per second. We, as a technological culture, are full of “suckers”.
Lets start with the giant elephant in the room, the new iPhone. The masses have rushed out like little bugs drawn to the bright and shiny new phone. Now I am not referring to people with a phone 3 to 4 years old that has worn out and they want to buy the newest. I am talking about the VAST number of people that will pay the full retail price just to say they have the new iPhone, despite their current iPhone still working perfectly for them.
What is interesting about this is that despite the phone only offering MINOR improvements over the previous model they will claim it is life changing. In fact it will be barely noticed in real world use, something we see every day. Take for example the craze for the two way cameras on phones. When the first phone with this feature released the lemming rush was on and people flocked to have this MUST have feature. Well this MUST have feature is now barely used despite people still listing it as a reason to buy a new phone. In fact of 26 different people I know (clients and friends) that have this feature not a single one of them have ever actually used it except for the first few days they had the phone. Take it a step further, only one of these people even know someone that uses the feature at all. It was a nice shiny and people want to buy shiny.
In the PC world one of the biggest lemming rushes I have seen were the extra features on a keyboard. I am talking about all those multimedia keys and web access keys, even the USB ports on the keyboards. I remember when the first keyboards with multimedia keys hit the market, people drooled over them. However within about a week of getting these new keyboards the people found they seldom, if ever, again used those keys. The truth was that while this was a neat feature it’s impact on the daily use of the computer was pretty much non-existent. The current boondoggle for the keyboard world is the addition of USB ports on the keyboard. Various reviewers claim they are so important because they make it easy to connect USB devices? Really, it is easier to try and blindly connect to the backside of the keyboard or to take the time to tilt up the keyboard so you can see what you are doing, INSTEAD of just plugging into the front port on your case which is easy to see? Neither of these features had any real impact on the computing experience and yet today when you see many reviewers look at keyboards they will ding the keyboard for NOT having these features.
Meanwhile, as we all go rushing to buy the latest shiny, new device that will change our computing forever, the tech companies perpetuate this behavior with release schedules that are designed to make the geeks out there feel outdated within 6 months of their most recent purchased. Helping them to keep this steady stream of cash flowing is a majority of the so called reviewers out there that help perpetuate these buying sprees by posting material that is full of meaningless numbers and charts to ensure the people look at the material are lost. This is done, not for direct cash, okay sometimes it is, but also for the chance to get the shiny new toys to play with.
Do not despair however there is a way to counter this trend and even save a little money in the long run. Now the way to do this is kind of technical so I want you to read this carefully.
ONLY UPGRADE WHEN YOU NEED TOO!
Okay now I have gone and done it, I have given common sense advice. Well folks at the end of the day this is what it boils down to. If you can use the apps you want and you can make phone calls then WHY upgrade your phone? I mean if it is old and dying then there is a need. If there is an app you NEED for some reason that will only work on the new phone then there is a need. However if your old phone is doing the job and you were happy until some commercial showed you something shiny and the drool began, you can safely wait, save your money and not hurt your experience in using your device.
The same is true in the PC world, if you wait until it will make a real difference you will be amazed. Now I know this might seem to go against some advice I give to businesses about a 5 year upgrade cycle but that is not the case. For the business the 5 year cycle is a need to make sure they are running the newest versions of the software they need and to ensure little downtime. For those of us in the real world, in our homes waiting for the need is not that hard.
This works for the uber-geeks and the gamers as well. The latest video card might look cool but do you need it? I mean do you have a game that is not running right? If you were happy with your games before the new shiny hit then you will be happy still without it. It was a nice change of pace at the latest nVidia briefing to actually see them embrace this idea. They did not tell us why the new 600 series was better than their 500 series. Instead they compared to 3 and 4 generations of video card back. The reason was, the 500 series still gives awesome game play experience. The older cards are beginning to get a little slow and so the upgrade would impact the user experience, not just frame rates. (BTW bravo to the folks at nVidia for looking out for the consumers)
Look if you need a new phone or component because the old one is broke, then it is just common sense to buy the newest one. If your product is 3 or 4 years old and it does not do some of the new stuff you want to try then it makes sense to buy the latest and greatest. However for most people they are happy with what they have now, well were before a commercial changed their mind, or some benchmark claims they are not a true geek without the latest new hardware. It is too those people that old PT referred.
Do yourself a favor, sit down, have a cup of coffee and use your current device. Has anything really changed? Is it not making phone calls or are your games stuttering all the time? Think before you drop that money on the counter. Sure it might be shiny but does it really have enough too it to change the way your experience will feel? Being a “sucker” is not based on intelligence but rather a choice. Do we choose to be lemmings led by meaningless drivel or do we think the process through and then make choices based on what is best for our experience, not some corporate bottom line.
Well we might be a little late to the party with this review but it is better to be late than never, and definitely late and doing it right. When we were briefed on these two cards I can tell you the 660 is something that was exciting but I felt the 650 was going to get overlooked. Looking at the reviews around the net I can see I was right and am glad we pushed for a 650 for review.
With this in mind lets begin with the EVGA GTX 650. This is the baseline GTX 650 card, running at stock speeds with a single gig of memory. The 650 is designed to be a gateway gaming card. What that means is this is the base line card that someone new to computer gaming might look at. To fully understand this concept lets put together a scenario that is going to represent a pretty large portion of new gamers.
Your buddy has been telling you for the last 2 months about how much fun he is having playing Champions Online (or any other MMO or online style game you want to name). Sure he knows you play BF or MW on your Xbox but the games on the PC offer more choices and options, he sure wishes you would join him. So you load up the game of choice on your cookie cutter PC you got from Best Buy and the game runs like CRAP. Your buddy explains that you need a better video card to enjoy the game, now lets get real do you think this scenario will end with a $200+ video card? Of course not, you want a basic, low cost card that will let you see what all the craze is about in PC gaming.
Enter the GTX 650 from nVidia, these cards are priced at around the $110 price point, a cost that would be reasonable to the gaming novice. To help that gaming novice along nVidia made this card with the goal of giving a solid gaming experience at 1080 resolutions with middle of the road detail settings in most games. The choice of 1080 for the target is obvious as it is one of the most used resolutions in gaming and monitor design. The idea of hitting the middle detail levels with this resolution means trying to create realistic performance within the price point.
For our testing I wanted to play out the scenario I listed above so to test the 650 I got a cookie cutter PC using an Intel Core 2 G630 processor with 6 Gigs of RAM. The system was an Asus built computer and can be purchased at Best Buy, or a similar system for around $450. This makes it the type power level of PCs found in most homes of people not yet into gaming.
As you can see in the picture the 650 card is small, very compact, this fits well with it’s target. A lot of the cookie cutter designs that will allow an add-on card are smaller case and this small design fits nicely. The specs on the box claim this card needs a 400 watt PSU, well hit snag one. The cookie cutter PC we used had a 250 watt PSU. I went along with the scenario I had laid out however and presumed to not have the knowledge to foresee this issue. Good news, the card was functional on the 250 watt PSU, I was even able to play Champions Online, World of Tanks and a few other games on it. The bad news was that while gaming the system was pushing it’s PSU right to it’s limit the entire time. The PSU held up for testing but this is NOT a scenario I would recommend. This does however show that picking up a good 350 or 400 watt PSU will give you the juice you will need for this card.
What about the actual game play? The GTX 650 lived up to expectations and delivered a solid gaming experience at 1080 resolutions when the settings were middle of the road. I was able to push the settings up on a few games but the majority would begin to bog down. This is not a bad thing however since this card squarely delivers as promised on the target nVidia set for it.
The GTX 660 is the next up the food chain of the nVidia 600 series. Priced at around $220 this card is aimed again squarely at the 1080 resolution market and this time with the goal of allowing for high detail levels. The GPU on this card is quite a bit more powerful than the 650 and a step down from the 600ti, it might share it’s name but not it’s chip. It does however share the feature set of the 660ti and higher end cards in the lineup, including the ability to boost it’s clock speed automatically and use SLI, both of which are lacking in the GTX 650. The model we got from EVGA is their Superclocked model with 2 Gigs of RAM.
While the 650 is the gateway gaming card the 660 is the mainstream work horse. The price point keeps it within reach of most people and the performance gives a nice boost when that new PC gamer wants to take things to the next level. For our testing purposed we used an Intel i5 3450 with 8 gigs of RAM. Again our goal was to represent a machine that is likely in a scenario were this card would come into play.
We again threw our normal mix of online games at this card but then added such games as Civilization V, Elder Scrolls, Mafia II and a few others. The reason for the increased game selection is the change of target for this card. Someone getting this card is likely not a person new to PC gaming and not being mentored into it by a buddy. This is a gamer that has a more open selection of gaming experiences for the PC and wants to enjoy them. Every game we tested we ran at 1080 with detail level set to high within all the games we ran. Like our testing of the 660ti and 670 we did our tests with Adaptive VSync enabled.
From a pure gaming experience point of view this card delivered in spades, every game had a smooth playback and looked great. In fact only the more hard core gamers I had look at the results could really see any difference between the gaming experience with the 660 and the 660ti. Once we hit the benchmarks however the difference became a little clearer. With the 660ti I could pretty much peg the frame rates at 60 FPS with our testing. (remember vsync is on). With the 660 the rates dropped to an average of around 47 FPS. Now is a drop for sure but member you are saving around $100 on this card over a 660ti and the lower rates were still high enough that the game play was smooth.
These two cards together offer a serious one two punch for the PC gamer. The 650 is a great entry level card, priced at the perfect point for it’s target and offers a performance edge over the competition within it’s price point. The 600 allows a nice step up and still gives a solid budget value and again has a performance edge within it’s price point.
This entire lineup of 600 cards has been really interesting to watch as they have been released. Each step of the way nVidia set clear targets for the cards in terms of the type of gamer and the price range they were shooting for and each time they hit the bull’s-eye dead center. This has been arguably the most impressive card line release I have seen. Each card delivers the best performance in it’s price point and has solid, easily defined lines between each step. The cards are aimed squarely at various ranges of the gamer market and the ranges are clearly defined. Each of the cards are very efficient in their design and the gaming experience is outstanding across the board.
Now we have talked about the cards but we have not mentioned much about the partner that made these cards, EVGA. Each of these cards are very high quality in their build. They tend to be closer to the baseline design produced by nVidia than other partners but EVGA manages to to take those designs and tweak even more out of them. The cards come with a 3 year warranty and this can be extended if you desire for a reasonable fee. I can tell you from a quality point of view I have not had a single EVGA product ever fail on me, something that few other companies can brag about around our labs.
If you are looking for that gateway gaming card for you or a friend I cannot strongly enough recommend the EVGA GTX 650. You can get the 1 Gig card in a Superclocked model for $10 and I would definitely recommend it. A 2 Gig model is also available and while it might give a boost I personally would not go that route with this type of card. The extra memory is nice but the feature set you need to push to make it noticeable is really outside the target of this card. If you want to go the 2 gig route I suggest spending the extra and getting the EVGA GTX 660. The extra cost raises the performance and feature set to a whole new level and still remains a reasonable price point.
As aired live 15 September 2012
Back in the day we did not have the internet to get together easily and play games. instead we all meet on a set day or weekend at a rented conference hall and link all of our PCs together and game for a day or two. This was called a LAN Party. Today LAN parties are now less common than back in the day, but the ones that are still out there draw a pretty good crowd. This was computer socialization in it’s original form.
In those days we saw all sorts of ways to lug around your PC. Probably the most common was a milk crate on a dolly held on my tie-downs. I mean you had to take the computer, keyboard, mouse, monitor, headset and so on. Also remember that back then we did not have a lot of cases with handles or thin monitors. We had monster computer cases and even bigger CRT monitors to move.
Today we have compact monitors and easy to move cases but attending a LAN event, while easier, can still be a chore. Thermaltake however wants to ease the process and so has introduced the Battle Dragon Bag.
The Battle Dragon is a large, padded back that can be used to carry pretty much everything except your actual tower. To say this bag is huge is an understatement, The top zippers open to reveal the massive amount of space inside. The compartments are all very well padded and the area is broken up to make it easy to keep your computer stuff sorted and protected.
The larger compartment is big enough to easily fit up to a 22” monitor in it, I am serious it will fit a 22” monitor. The other compartments are great for things like your keyboard, mouse, headset and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Outside the main compartment are a number of smaller compartments that can be used for things such as an e-reader, tablet, software, you can pretty much name it.
The bag is not just versatile in what it can hold but how you carry it. The bag comes with an amazing sturdy carry handle as well as a strap so you can sling this over a shoulder. This alone would be enough options for most, however Thermaltake is aiming to cover all it’s bases so it has a surprise. The back side of the bag can unzipped to reveal a full backpack harness system, already in place.
This means that this bag can take everything but the tower and still allow you to be hands free to carry the tower as well when you go out to a LAN Party. All of the carrying surfaces are padded for comfort, carrying stuff with this bag is a breeze.
This bag however does not need to be limited to LAN use. The bags padding makes it great for a Laptop bag, especially if you need a weekend bag as well. The size will fit the laptop with ease and still leave room for clothes and other essentials.
Priced at $60 this bag is a LAN party goers dream come true. It has all the space you could need, is very well made, has great padding, is water resistant for rainy days and offers versatile choices for how you carry it. LAN parties might be a less common occurrence today than in the old days but if you are going to LAN parties then this is a MUST HAVE item.
You will have to excuse me now, I need to go break up a fight with the kids about who gets to keep the bag. The choice is simple, I DO!!!
Segment as heard live 8 September 2012
You know we spend a lot of time talking about headsets on the show but actually very little time discussing headphones. A headset is usually a headphone and microphone combination and is used for listening but also for voice communication. These are more commonly used with computers since they are useful for games as well as some business apps and family usage for programs like Skype. Headphones on the other hand are purely for listening, this makes them useful in games when you are solo or listening to music and movies.
Thermaltake has decided to enter the headphone world with the Chao Dracco series. These come in two models, the standard model and then up scaling a bit we have the Signature model. Our friends at Thermaltake sent us one of each to examine you our listeners. If the basic Dracco model we received looks familiar, it should, this is the same headset we saw at CES and I was photographed wearing.
This model is the bare minimum coming literally with just the headset. There is no need for drivers or fancy manuals these just plug in and work like any other headsets. The Dracco line comes in three color options with this one, we call it Playschool styling, for the first option. It also comes in White with Green and Silver trim as well as Pink with Black.
Over the years we have comment that one of the things we like about Thermaltake is their styling in cases is very aggressive and loud. You either like them or you don’t, there is no in between. They have taken this same approach with the Dracco headphones. The style is in your face and loud with a lot of bright colors. From a distance the Dracco might look like a toy and cheaply made but once you wear them you realize that a lot of work went into this design.
The headband has a stitch padding on the top and is actually very comfortable. While these use a clamp style system for holding on your head. The clamp pressure is really nice and there not is feeling of your head being in a vice. The ear cuffs do swivel for that popular DJ style listening and the headset will fold up in itself for easy portability. Additionally the headphones come with a felt bag to carry the headset in.
When it comes to sound these headphones take their toyish appearance and throw it in the trash. I can tell you these are the BEST headphones I have listened to in a long time. The Dracco comes with a nice 50mm driver that has been tuned toward a slightly bass rich sound envelope. The music I played came through clear and strong as did gaming and movie watching. They may look wild on your head but they sound awesome in your ears.
The Dracco Signature line takes the main line and steps things up a notch. The construction is very similar and in fact uses the same base design. For the styling they have changed the color palette to something a bit more classic. Each of the three color choices of the Signature series is trimmed in Gold with the choices being the Red and Black, Black and Gold and finally White and Yellow. All of them have this classic design that looks a lot more serious than the base model.
It is not just the looks that Thermaltake changed, they also added more to the package. The Signature comes with a removable cord. The package gives you two cords as an option. The first is a professional grade coiled cord that also comes with a 1/8” to 1/4” jack adapter. The second cord is a straight and they also provide an adapter for us in private planes.
The detachable cord is nice for portability and these like the base line fold and come with a nice felt bag for carrying them around. The method of detachment however is very nice, this not a simple plug it in system, that can work loose easily. Instead the plug is put in and then twisted slightly to lock it into place. This means when the plug is in it is not coming out unless you purposely take it out. This feature is further enhanced with the 1/4” adapter which is not the normal plug model, this one actually screws onto the cord, meaning it will not get lost easily by falling off when traveling.
The comfort and sound of the Signature series matches the base Dracco line. This is because, as I stated earlier, the base design is the same. The extra cost of the Signature line is from the cable options and nicer styling.
Now when Doug and started looking at these we both had the same thought, how do these compare to Dr. Dre’s. I mean these have a styling that stands out like the Dre headphone do so we decided to find out. We compared the Dr. Dre and chose three models to look at, the Studio On Ear, Solo HD and the Pro on Ear. Now for our test we decided to go with the base model, the sound dynamic of both headphones is identical so the results should be the same. This means we are comparing the Dracco, at $80 to Beats headphones ranging from $150 to $400.
The first thing we noticed was the Dracco was softer than the Beats. It seems this is the nature of this kind of headphone. The Beats are able to produce higher volumes of sound than the Dracco. However in turn the Dracco was able to produce better volume that other headsets and headphones we listened to. When it came to the actual sound quality however the Dracco was equal to the task of taking on the Dr Dre’s. The sound quality was so close it was really hard to tell the difference, not bad for about half the price. In fact we can go a littler further by mention the Studio On Ear actually had some sound issues when compared to the Dracco, the base on the Beats headphones would distort at high volume while the Dracco was clean.
When we asked Thermaltake about this lineup we were told this is a life style headphone. Now I will be fair and admit to not truly getting what that means. What I do know is that the Dracco really impresses me with the sound quality and when you realize the two models sell for $80 and $100 respectfully and they equal or beat out much more expensive headsets, to me this is a no brainer.
The base Dracco has amazing sound and is well made. The style is not going to be for everyone but personally I think they are kind of fun. At 80$ considering the level you have to reach to get comparable sound these seem a solid value. The Signature series takes that great sound and comfort and then adds a more traditional styling along with a lot of connection options. If the colors of the Dracco are too much for you the Signature is a great choice.
Want to know how much we like these headphones? Watch our live stream video of the show this week and from now on. We will be sporting these fine headphones.
Show segment as aired live 1 September 2012