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ReviewKing05
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    • Asus X53E-SX399V / Laptop / 35 Readings / 32 Ratings
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      20.11.2011 20:51
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      An impressive laptop which is stylish, easy to use and performs well. Highly recommended.

      With so many different laptops available in stores today, it can often be hard to make an informed decision on what laptop is right for you. With talks of different processors, different sized hard-drives, dedicated or shared graphics and a plethora of different laptop brands to trawl through, you can get lost in the jargon associated with a PC purchase. Such was my trouble when looking for a larger laptop than my trusty little Toshiba net-book, but I settled on the 15.6" ASUS X53E-SX399V laptop with an Intel Sandy Bridge Core i5 processor housed within. Was it the right decision? *Design* In design terms, the laptop is incredibly slick. When closed, the glossy black screen exterior is visible, with a slick metallic ASUS logo embedded near the top. On the inside, a glossy black trim surrounds the entire screen and, once again, a metallic Asus logo sits in the centre just underneath the screen, making for a smart finish. Undoubtedly, the most impressive-looking part of the laptop is the keyboard area, where a number of astute design choices have made this laptop a joy to use. A brilliant chiclet-style keyboard (i.e. where each key has a space between it) means that touch-typers like me won't be making many errors when typing at speed while the response of the keys is very impressive indeed; bouncy but not too sensitive or spongy, the keys need a fair bit of pressure to register the keystrokes, which makes it very hard to make silly mistakes. The keyboard also looks very slick, with matt-black keys sitting atop a glossy black base which exudes class. A num-pad is also present to the right and all of the keys are where you'd expect them. As with most laptop keyboards these days, a selection of functions are highlighted in light blue on the F buttons at the top of the keyboard, triggered by holding the respective button and 'Fn' simultaneously. This is a good system, and offers the chance to increase/decrease brightness/volume and other functions at the touch of a button. A power button, illuminated in white light when the laptop is on, can be found to the top right of the laptop interior and rounds off the smart look. Sitting at the top of the keyboard is the inbuilt Altec Lansing speaker, which, if any faults are to be found with the laptop, is the key concern. Of course, I'm talking about laptop speakers, and, as anyone with any experience with them will agree, the inbuilt speakers they have are almost always inadequate. I found the volume to not rise high enough even on its highest setting and it had a tinny sound which was not good for extended music listening. That said, for watching videos online and for playing the occasional game, the speakers do deliver. Luckily, too, Asus has an in-built program which allows for a series of tweaks to be made to the speaker sound. Its Sonic Focus program is a welcome inclusion on the laptop and has helped me get the best from the inbuilt speakers. Nevertheless, those looking to maximise the sound they hear on the laptop are advised to hook it up to some external speakers as I have. Framing the keyboard and coating the entire face of the laptop base is a very slick 'Aluminium tough', scratch resistant aluminium casing. Not only does this brushed metal finish look very cool, but it's also literally very cool. Indeed, you won't ever feel your palms get warm typing on this keyboard, as even after hours of sustained use the metal layering will keep your hands nice and cool. What's more, it is indeed scratch resistant; after three months of regular use, it still looks as good as it did on day one. As for the track-pad, it sits in a perfect position on the laptop interior. Located off-centre and more to the left-hand side of the machine, and placed a sufficient distance from the keyboard, the track-pad is a joy to use. Finished in grey to match the aluminium coating, the pad is more than big enough and there are two separate glossy plastic (but metallic effect) mouse buttons at the bottom of the pad area. What's more, rather than simply being able to do regular mouse movements, this pad supports multi-touch movements; pinch in and you can zoom, rotate your fingers and you can rotate pictures on-screen, scroll up with your fingertips and you can move up and down documents with summary ease. It makes a difference to have such a good track-pad and it's excellent for use on the move, but, even still, I would still recommend getting a USB mouse to make it even easier. Just underneath the touch-pad, 6 LED process indicators can be found, for which the respective icons are engraved into the metal coating. Here, num-lock, caps-lock and Wi-Fi lights can be found, as well as those which show whether the computer is on or if the battery is low. They are well placed and round off the impressive look of the laptop. To conclude, the fan has been cleverly placed on the left side of the laptop, near to the back, meaning that after extended use your hands won't get warm and, simultaneously, your computer won't overheat as air can freely circulate into and out of the laptop. The build-quality is, in short, absolutely stunning, and it's easy to see why Asus have a reputation for making stylish, built-to-last machines which look as good as they perform. *Connectivity* As well as looking very stylish, Asus have done well to maximise the amount of inputs you expect from a mid-range laptop, with a few added extras to sweeten the deal. The only real negative to be found is a notable lack of sufficient USB ports. In fact, there are only three in total, all USB 2.0 (whereas now the faster USB 3.0 are becoming standard) one found to the left-hand side and two to the right. This can cause a few problems if you want multiple connections at once but for the most part they do the job. To the right of the laptop, a microphone and headphone port can be found to the bottom right, sat aside the two USB ports and, to the right of these a slim, tray-loading DVD multi recorder drive is found. To the left, the sole USB port is accompanied by a welcome HDMI port for simple and high quality video output to the latest monitors and televisions, a VGA port for connection to older external screens, a network port and the power input. To top it all off, hidden on the underside of the laptop's front is an unobtrusive multi-card reader, for simple connection to SD cards and other camera flash cards. Internally, there's a WiFi connection but no Bluetooth. Overall, then, connectivity isn't a problem on this Asus model, though a couple of extra USB ports would've been nice. *Screen* The 15.6" screen is very impressive indeed, giving a very crisp image. With a very high resolution of 1366 x 768 and 32-bit colour depth, this screen won't disappoint and makes Windows 7 look very slick indeed, handling the different transitions and graphics options well. The only real thing to be opposed to here is the glossy finish to the screen which means that viewing in the great outdoors can often be a pain. To use the laptop when bathed in sunlight, you'll need to raise brightness to its maximum and even then it can be a bit of a chore. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives. *Battery life* I was astounded by how quickly the battery charges up. A two-and-a-half hour charge will charge the battery up for up to 5 hours use, if the laptop is used simply and solely for word processing. If you hope to use WiFi, watch movies and play music and games on the battery simultaneously, it can last up to two. But, most regularly, the battery lasts me around three and a half hours, which is an impressive feat for a 15.6" laptop and one which makes it the ideal machine for students who, like me, like to type away in their lectures. *Start-up and shutdown* Shut-down is incredibly fast, taking just over a minute to complete, while starting up the computer, signing in and opening a Word Document takes a minute and a half. I found this to be very impressive, and also very useful if you have to leave a lecture/meeting in a rush. *Performance* I bought this laptop as it had a second generation 2.3 Ghz Sandy Bridge i5-2410m Core processor in it and, for the £399 I paid at the time, this was a huge bonus compared to similarly priced laptops. Put simply for those who don't understand the chip differences, the latest wave of computer chips are the Intel I series; i3 is the entry level chip, ideal for word-processing and light PC use, i5 is good for casual gaming and impressive but not ultra-demanding performance and the i7 is for serious gamers or those who use demanding applications like professional art software on their laptops. This laptop, with the i5 chip, is therefore a mid-range laptop in processing terms. Keen to be able to play the latest games on the move when away from my Xbox, I bought this laptop thinking I might be able to play the odd game but not expecting miracles. Yet, after buying FIFA 12 and installing it, I was astounded that the laptop could handle it at the highest settings, even if it wasn't as smooth as on the Xbox. On the lowest settings it worked seamlessly. The same can be said for NBA 2k12, though that works perfectly even on the highest settings. Given the fact that this laptop doesn't even have a dedicated graphics chip (it has an integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics chipset, with a maximum graphics memory of 1361MB) this was an amazing surprise and has given my laptop a performance way above the price I paid. With 3GB of RAM, the laptop is also speedy when handling multiple applications. Having numerous website windows up at once is no problem and switching between different programs is seamless. To give an idea of how smooth it can be, I can be playing FIFA while listening to music on iTunes only to minimize the game to check out some YouTube videos online and surf the web for a bit. The laptop has been truly impressive at handling various applications at once and I have been impressed with the performance. In storage terms, the 320GB hard drive which the X53E has is more than large enough for those with expansive music collections who want to install the odd game, but, for those who are avid downloaders of films and music this may not be the laptop for you. For around the same price mark, you can find laptops with 500GB+ of storage; yet, given that external hard-drives have plummeted in price recently, it may pay to do what I did and buy a higher performance PC with a view to by external storage if it ever becomes necessary. To offer a further indication of the laptop's impressive performance, below I have put the results of the Windows Experience Index test, which assesses key system components on a scale of 1.0 to 7.9 (7.9 being the best): Processor: 6.9 Memory (RAM): 5.5 Graphics: 5.5 Gaming graphics: 6.2 Primary hard disk: 5.9 Base score: 5.5 This is an impressive score for a relatively affordable mid-range laptop, and shows that it has a decent performance which will be more than adequate for those who, like me, want a laptop better than one which is entry-level but without the huge price-tags the very best laptops command. *Summary* In short, this Asus laptop not only looks slick, smart and pricier than its price-tag suggests but it has the performance to boot. The design is great, particularly the easy-to-use keyboard, and it handles everything from word processing to light gaming perfectly. If you're looking for a well-built and sturdy machine from a trusted computer manufacturer, then look no further than the ASUS X53E-SX399V. It won't disappoint. This model was purchased from Comet for £399 in September 2011.

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      • More +
        09.11.2011 22:04
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        A PC pad to avoid; this may have been great 5 years ago, but there are better pads for the price.

        Rarely do you come about a piece of hardware that you not only dislike but would willingly throw away a week after purchase - but this is the undeniable case with the Thrustmaster Firestorm Three Dual Analogue PC controller. Behind the bafflingly long-winded name is an even more bafflingly atrocious gamepad, one which lacks both style and substance. But is there anything good to be said about the controller? To be fair to Thrustmaster, they have managed to create a very affordable option for PC users looking to indulge in computer gaming for the first time. Complete with all the buttons necessary to work with today's games (with a USB connection and compatible out of the box with games as new as FIFA 12) compatibility is not an issue at all. What's more, at around ten pounds, you can't be expecting miracles. Insofar as it works out of the box, is plug-and-play and works with most games, this pad succeeds. It's a shame, then, that it fails in just about every other way. Take the design, for instance. The controller is far from aesthetically pleasing; it's a hulking mass of plastic which is both uncomfortable to hold and infuriating to use. With long arms reminiscent of the original Playstation controllers (and the awful prototype PS3 controller which made its rounds over the internet) and confusing 'grips' to the rear of the controller, the pad destroys the thought of 'ergonomic' hardware and is about as functional as a hammer made of jelly. This could be forgiven if the controller functioned on its other levels, but even this is sorely lacking. All of the buttons you know, love and indeed need make it onto the pad (including the LT, LB, RT, RB / L1, L2, R1, R2 buttons) though their placement is nothing short of baffling. Granted, the four face buttons are found in the normal place, but they are domed pieces of plastic, all of the same colour; this means NO markings of any sort. No 360-esque colours or PS-esque squares, triangles and such. This focus on 'functionality' over form continues with the D-pad and analogue sticks. The D-pad is simply awful; tapping left invariably triggers up and basically any movement you intend to make with it will not function as you wish. More disappointingly, the two analogue sticks are not concave (like a 360 controller) or good-quality, domed rubber ones like those on the PS2/3. Instead, they are two domed plastic nubbins offering no grip whatsoever. What's more, being placed together à la PS2 wouldn't be a problem if the pad wasn't so darn big. But it's massive, meaning that your hands are painfully outstretched throughout a whole gaming session. To add insult to injury, after mere weeks of use, the buttons stop working as they should. They not only stick under pressure, but become rock hard, meaning that a pass in FIFA gives your thumb a workout throughout an entire match. One of my friends would regularly stop mid-game, gaze it his pad's non-functional buttons then slam it across the ground in order to release the locked buttons for use. But I am yet to get to the most atrocious design choice on the controller - because it does indeed get worse. Intending to buck the trend of accessible, functional, and unobtrusive 'start' and 'select' buttons, Thrustmaster thought it would be a good idea to place them on the rear of the controller...right on the 'ergonomic' hand grips. Picture the scene: you're losing 1-0, but are through on goal against a friend in the last minute of a tense bout of FIFA; you're one on one with the keeper and, carried away by the emotion of the occasion, you grip your pad for dear life...but no! You've clicked pause! After you've stopped cursing the pad's ridiculous design and gaped at your friend in disbelief, you click start again, and the goalkeeper's regained possession and killed off your attack. You weep onto the inadequate pad lying in your hands. *Summary* It may sound like a stream of exaggerated hyperbole but this review sums up the fury this pad will instil in you. Yes, it is low cost and yes, it is easy to plug-and-play, but in this day and (gaming) age, pads like this should no longer exist. The pad just doesn't deliver on any level: boring to look at, annoying to use and prone to failure after a mere few weeks' usage, this controller is disappointing even for the small amount you pay for it. The baffling design choices would be acceptable if the pad itself worked. But it doesn't. Unreliable, far from ergonomic and of a beastly size, this controller is to be avoided.

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      • Speedlink 360 / Game Controller / 25 Readings / 24 Ratings
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        09.11.2011 18:33
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        Four stars for design, two stars for reliability and value.

        Choosing the right controller for a console is one thing, but choosing the right one for PC gaming is a whole different kettle of fish. As PC games have advanced and adapted to more complex gameplay, a controller is now no longer simply a PC accessory but a must for anyone wanting to play on their home computer. But which controller should you go for? With the 360 imitation and the fairly reasonable price-tag of £16.99 on Amazon.co.uk, the Speedlink 360 is an attractive prospect - but does it perform when it matters most? In design terms, the controller is an instant winner. Taking the best parts of the official 360 controller and adapting parts of it to be unique, Speedlink have made one good-looking pad. Finished in matt-black plastic with a smooth rubber coating, finger-marks don't show up on the surface while all the buttons you know and love from an official Xbox 360 controller for Windows controller make it in. To the top-left and top-right there are the Left Trigger and Button and Right Trigger and Button respectively, essential for playing the latest games titles. On the controller's face there is an analogue stick to the left and another to the bottom right, as on the official 360 controller. Likewise, a directional pad sits on the bottom left, while the face buttons have the same multicoloured layout as on a 360 controller, though rather than playing with ABXY buttons you'll have to settle for 1234 labelling. To the centre, start and select buttons (numbers 7 and 8 respectively) frame a Speedlink button emulating the 360 dashboard button, though it serves a merely stylistic purpose, lighting up in red to acknowledge connection to a PC. Finally, a little Turbo button sits between the D-pad and right analogue stick. Style-wise, then, the Speedlink sticks to the design essentials of the official controller and succeeds as a result. Nevertheless, looks would mean nothing on a pad which doesn't perform well - so does it match the competition? Well...yes and no. Connection to a PC is a seamless 'plug-and-play' affair. I connected it via USB to my Windows 7 laptop and the drivers were automatically found and made the controller instantly ready to use. What's more, it even automatically mapped my pad to the FIFA 12 controls. Using it on NBA 2k12 was more of a chore, and required manual input, but this is what happens for the majority of third-party controllers and was to be expected. The cable length is also reasonable, though it is half the length of the official pad's cabling. But, before you ask, it cannot be used on an Xbox 360 even though it is a USB pad; this was disappointing but a long shot so can't be levelled against the controller. The first few times you use the controller, you will be amazed by the build quality. The face buttons respond well and, being finished flat rather than rounded, I found it easier to use this pad than the official one. I was also impressed by the trigger buttons, which have a good response and may even be considered better than those on the official option. Likewise, unlike the smooth rear of the official pad, the Speedlink has grooves for your fingers to rest on and, rather than being a tacky gimmick, actually gives you extra grip on the controller which is aided by the rubbery coating on the outside of the entire controller. Unfortunately, the pad simply doesn't last. Indeed, arguably the most important part of any controller - the analogue sticks - fall way behind the competition, and fail miserably when compared with the official pad. The analogue sticks of the official controller sport concave nubbins with grips, ensuring your fingers don't slide off, and though the Speedlink incorporates them, they last half as long. After a short while, your hands, sweating at the prospect of a Cup final win in FIFA will be sliding left, right and centre off the analogue sticks and infuriating you to no end. Even more importantly, after weeks of sustained use, my controller face buttons have begun to do what every gamer fears: they stick down when pressed. In practice, when sports or shooting games are all about precision, timing and response, the pad infuriates and shows itself as a third-party peripheral once and for all. The lack of grip on the sticks and exceedingly poor response of the face buttons will both anger and disappoint avid gamers. To top it off, the pad turns itself off at random moments, requiring you to unplud the USB connection and plug in again. Try doing that while playing online... *Summary* For the price, this simply isn't a long-term purchase you'll be looking to make. I was lucky, finding one second hand for a fraction of the price, but the price-tag of £16.99, which seems rather cheap on the surface, is ludicrous considering you could get the official one for merely a pound more. Design wise, I even prefer it to the official controller, but performance-wise, you'll be howling at the sticking buttons and poor analogue sticks within weeks. For those looking for a sleek controller they'll use very rarely, this may be a good choice. For those dedicated to PC gaming though, just go with the official controller for Windows, which offers you much more value for money than this option. The Speedlink 360 can be nabbed for the average price of £16.99 on Amazon.co.uk

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      • Logitech X 120 / PC Speaker / 39 Readings / 35 Ratings
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        25.08.2011 20:34
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        The perfect choice for the consumer looking for cheap, reliable and good quality speakers.

        With the X120s, Logitech promise 'style, quality and value' with sound quality you won't believe. But do they honour their word? *Style* The form factor of the X120s is the one real negative to be found with the speakers. Finished in grey plastic, each speaker towers at an enormous 20cm tall and is over 1kg in weight. Consequently, those looking for a flush pair of speakers to suit their home entertainment setup may as well look elsewhere, as in the looks department there are definitely better speakers to be found elsewhere. I have these hooked up to my LCD Samsung TV to combat the ghastly internal speakers, and let's just say it isn't half a struggle finding space to store them behind the TV set. *Product quality* Looks aside, though, the speakers have clearly been built to last. Though large, they are much more resilient and well-made than other speakers: I bought mine second hand over two months ago and all of the casing and toggles are still in pristine condition. The cabling is also more than long enough to allow for arrangement around PCs, while the 3.55mm jack connection means they can be plugged into any gadget with a headphone socket, making them not only ideal for PCs and TVs but also for mp3 players. Unfortunately, though, they have to be hooked up to the mains, reducing their portability. *Sound quality* Importantly, the sound quality of the X120s is incredibly rich, and I have found them to be a brilliant solution to combating the tinny speakers of both my TV and my little Toshiba netbook. I play a lot of games, and I have found the handy bass/treble toggle (which is found to the left of a responsive power button and a separate volume toggle) perfect for tweaking to the best settings. On FIFA 11, the crowd roars pleasingly due to the enriched bass, offering an almost surround-sound feel to the action, while on the first-person-shooter Medal of Honor the speakers did a great job of immersing me in the action by differentiating between ambient sounds and the powerful booms of the weaponry. The X120s also deliver when listening to music. 'Fade to Black' by Metallica was conveyed well, with a clear distinction between the rich, deep drumming and the softer sounds of the guitars. Undoubtedly, though the speakers perform best on songs loaded with bass. They dealt with the layering of Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message' wonderfully, conveying the deep and thumping bass-line without drowning out the smooth rap. Overall then, for lovers of bass-heavy tunes, these speakers are ideal, though they do deal well with other genres such as metal and rock too. *Value* Coming in at under £20 on websites such as Microdirect.co.uk, these speakers deliver a greater depth of sound than their price-tag suggests. *Summary* Overall, the Logitech X120 speakers are the perfect choice for the consumer looking for cheap, reliable and good quality speakers - as long as they are not too fussed about looks.

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        • More +
          25.08.2011 16:27
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          A thrash-metal album of epic proportions which is both musically and lyrically stunning.

          Completed in 1988, '...And Justice for All' continues the trend of themed Metallica albums, and, following on from the theme of control in 'Master of Puppets', Metallica's fourth album deals with the ideas of 'truth' and 'justice. It is also one of the band's angriest and most thrash-centric efforts, being clearly influenced by the death of bassist Cliff Burton in 1986. But after the masterpiece that was 'Master of Puppets', would Metallica be able to offer up yet another titanic effort? The first signs are good, with the album building to a crescendo for the opener 'Blackened'. With a rolled drumbeat inviting the album's first guitar hook, the drums enter once again to build to a head-banging tune which grips you in its unrelenting fury. A breakdown a third of the way through is a highlight, with Ulrich's pronounced double bass drumming substituted for a slower, more rigid drumbeat which brilliantly complements Hetfield's rasping, apocalyptic vocals. As with every great Metallica song, 'Blackened' is full of tempo shifts, and slick solos from Hammett offer some variation from the purely thrash elements which define the song's overall composition. Starting as it finishes, in a burst of unremitting rage, 'Blackened' is a fury-filled attack on the senses and sets the mood of the album perfectly. It's fitting, then, that '...And Justice for All' should start in the complete opposite manner. A delicate guitar tune slowly introduces drums until the tone abruptly changes. Drums replace the melody, interrupting them to thump alongside Hetfield's rhythm guitar and set a rather slow tempo alongside Hammett's guitar licks. The tempo picks up in the song's main body, with Hetfield's furious vocals travelling on the dark sounds of the twin guitars and double bass drumming. This song, too, is marked by numerous tempo shifts, but with the album now taking shape, Hetfield is raging against the irony of a 'justice' system which is ruled by money and not morals. Not only do the thoughtful lyrics make for a great song backbone, but once again the balance of the band's songs is wonderfully clear - Hetfield and Ulrich work in tandem to set the thumping rhythm while Hammett offers the slick solos which made Metallica such a unique force. Undoubtedly, the song's ending is the highlight, with a wonderful crescendo to a wall of noise blending into a pronounced riff to round the song off. The ominous and drawn out tune which introduces 'Eye of the Beholder' suggests a slower effort on the album but it soon becomes clear that this song follows the brooding tone established in the first two tracks. The chorus is a highlight, with Ulrich's superb drumming taking centre stage and wrapping around Hetfield's distorted vocals brilliantly. Slamming the absence of free speech and thought in modern society brilliantly, Hetfield offers such observations as "freedom of choice is made for you my friend". This song is all about momentum; the tempo only drops for the brief chorus before once again unleashing it's fury on the listener. The song is charged with anger, but as the song nears its end, a lack of vocals allows Hammett to showcase yet another great solo which works well with the baseline to round off yet another complete song. In a song which has become one of Metallica's breakthrough hits, the walls of sound are substituted for more delicate guitar riffs and drumming in 'One'. Presenting the story of a soldier who has lost all of his sensory awareness in the theatre of war, Hetfield's vocals are also more harmonic, making for a more hypnotic and depressing mood which suits the subject matter well. The undoubted highlight is the song's now famed machine gun solo. In an epic song transition, Hetfield and Ulrich work in tandem to blend harsh guitar strumming with double bass drumming to create the effect of machine guns being fired. Weaving into the song's purely thrash finale (and featuring yet another sublime solo from Hammett) the song erupts until the finale, where rolled drumbeats offer an abrupt end to the astonishing sound offensive. 'Shortest Straw', a song which seemingly condemns the anti-Communist US witch-hunts during the Cold War, starts as it means to go on, offering striking drumbeats which weave into an unadulterated thrash-fest. The tune is defined by its relentless speed and fury, building up steadily until the brief respite of the chorus, where Hetfield's lyrics and guitar-work complement the furious drumming Ulrich offers up. This is one of Metallica's fastest tunes, and is yet another example of the almost suffocating anger that the band unleashes on the album. The following tune 'Harvester of Sorrow' has an almost apocalyptic tone, with rhythm guitar and drums again defining the song's backbone alongside an impressive vocal performance from Hetfield. Though the tune notably lacks the depth of earlier songs on the album, the measured tempo and thumping drumbeats - as well as another master-class from Hammett - keep the song feeling impressive. 'The Frayed Ends of Sanity', dealing unsurprisingly with the themes of crushing paranoia and impending insanity, is the album's weakest effort, with both the tune and the vocals not delivering as much as earlier tunes. Nevertheless, there are segments of the song which impress, most notably the chorus which captures the album mood perfectly by blending angry lyrics with brilliant drumming; likewise, the layering is brilliant in an instrumental section halfway through the song, where the wailing guitars play alongside speedy drums. Regardless, the song as a whole fails to reach the heights of earlier efforts. 'To Live is to Die' is an almost entirely instrumental effort, and is one of the album's highlights. Apparently, the brief lyrics near the end dealing with the horror of the modern world were written by the late Cliff Burton, and, if this is to be believed, the softer and more pensive tone could be seen as one of reflection on the loss of one of the band's dearest friends. With a wonderfully delicate acoustic guitar tune strummed in its introduction, the listener is coaxed into thinking this song is a softer effort - until the drums kick in and the heavy tone is once again restored. As an instrumental, the onus is on the song layering, and the stages the song moves through over its nine-minute length are truly impressive. The riffs maintain the brooding tone of the entire album while remaining fresh enough to distinguish the song from earlier efforts. The tempo is much slower than earlier on in the album, allowing for a more pensive tune which is paced and measured rather than ruled by the speedy fury of the opening tracks. Hammett again impresses, with a plethora of impressive guitar licks making the song a joy to listen to. The composition really is impressive, and 'To Live is To Die' perfectly exemplifies Metallica's ability to merge numerous styles in one song to great effect. There are heavier moments, and then there are the slower more delicate ones but the song still functions as a satisfying whole, with the song fading into the tune it began with in a wonderful ending to the song. Nevertheless, a master-class in thrash is the order of the day in the final song 'Dyer's Eve', with Hetfield's most personal lyrics of the album setting the furious tone once again. The song roars into the listener's ears from start to finish, with the thumping drums and opening riff promising an assault on the senses. Raging against the suffocating parental control he felt throughout his childhood, Hetfield is at his angriest, while Ulrich offers up some of the most complex drumming he has ever showcased in Metallica. Hammett's solos are once again epic and the vocals capture the unrelenting fury of the album brilliantly, rounding off the album with the thrash fury it began with. *Summary* Not only is this album one of the loudest, fastest and angriest you're ever likely to hear, it also sports some of the most thoughtful lyrics and complex composition you can find in Metallica's back-catalogue. For whatever reason, this effort is not seen as one of Metallica's titanic efforts, but in only eight songs the band manages to convey the sadness they felt after the untimely death of bassist Cliff Burton while questioning the true meanings of 'truth' and 'justice' in modern society. '...And Justice for All' is a both a musically and lyrically stunning effort which deserves to be considered one of Metallica's best. Highly recommended.

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          • Koss Porta Pro / Headphones / 33 Readings / 29 Ratings
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            19.08.2011 18:42
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            A truly impressive set of earphones for under £20, with style, substance and portbaility.

            It is unlikely you have ever seen any headphone quite like the Porta Pro. With a design that you'll either love or hate and fitting comfortably in the sub-£20 price-range, you'd be forgiven for overlooking these headphones when searching for an upgrade to your failing iPod 'buds - but give them half a chance and you my just nab some of the best budget 'phones money can buy. *Design* Legend has it that Koss's original 1980s PortaPros have remained so popular over the last twenty years that the company has maintained the 80s style to this day. The result is a headphone looking like no other. A sturdy, half-inch wide metal headband stretches down to two supra-aural headphones (i.e. headphones which sit on top of your ear.) The rounded 'phones - formed of strong plastic - mould into an upside-down L which acts as Koss's 'Comfort Zone', a foam-pad which can be adjusted to give the headphones a looser or firmer grip on your head. On the 'phones themselves, a brushed metal circle displaying the Koss logo is rounded by another metal circle, with a slight gap showing off the stylish blue hue which lies behind the foam pads sitting atop your ears. Despite the 80s billing, I was surprised by how well-made the headphones looked upon opening the box and was even more surprised by how stylish they look when you put them on. They may be retro, but they also ooze unrivalled charm in their price-range and will satisfy the needs of even the most fashion conscious listeners. The generic 3.55mm jack will fit most popular mp3 players, while the 4 foot cord is a perfect length for use when out and about (something sorely lacking from other over-ear headphones in their price-range, like the Sony MDR-V150s I looked at before these). *Comfort* Design aside, these Koss headphones excel in their lightness and comfort. The fact that the 'phones are made of plastic and linked by a thin metal headband makes for featherweight headphones which are very unobtrusive. A neat feature sees the foam pads rotate flexibly on a sturdy hinge, allowing you to position them exactly as you want on your ears and therefore allowing for maximum comfort. Moreover, the size of the headphones is simply adjusted via two sliders upon the metal headband, meaning that re-adjustment is a simple task. Though other reviewers have noted a tendency for this band to get tangled in hair while being adjusted, I have not had any bad experiences with the band and see it as a stylishly simple way to adjust the 'phones. Overall, the soft foam lining of the headphones keeps the PortaPros comfortable on your ears while the lightweight composition of the 'phones as a whole mean you may even forget you're wearing them. *Portability* Importantly, with a name like PortaPro, you'd hope they'd live up to their portable billing - and they deliver in every way. Despite being sturdy when opened up, each headphone can be folded in on itself to reduce the size of the headphones. After doing this, a handy (yet unobtrusive) metal clip on the Right side clips onto an opening on the Left to link the two sections sturdily together. Once clipped together, just slide the black sliders on the metal bar downwards and the headphones reduce to a neat bundle which is under 10cm in length and barely 5cm in depth. As if this quick and easy folding wasn't enough, Koss supply a sleek carry case to protect the folded PortaPros from surface damage. For those looking for a pair of headphones they can wear on the move then pack away quickly and securely when out of use, these headphones are an impressive choice. *Sound test* For those used to premium headphones from the likes of Shure, Bose and even the upper-end Sennheiser ranges, the sound of the PortaPros may well disappoint, but for the average listener and for just £17.99, the sound quality will blow you away. The depth and range of sound these earphones offer is very impressive indeed; the sound is balanced and very rich, with a very full sound which pumps out atop your ears. Even at high volumes, the headphones deliver and don't distort the sound, maintaining a rich and balanced sound at all times. The following part of this review is a genre-specific sound test, to give you an idea of how the 'phones deal with different tunes: --Metal-- As part of my sound test, I played 'Master of Puppets' by Metallica, a song which moves between heavier and more melodic sequences. In the louder parts, the bass was rich but didn't drown out the guitars like some headphones do, while the lyrics were still balanced well alongside the instruments. The melodic sequences fared just as well, with a great depth of sound which worked very well with the metal genre. --Dance-- Play-testing the electronic/dance track 'Battle Royale' by Does it Offend You Yeah? the big beats and electronic tunes all sounded very rich, with the PortaPros offering a very rounded sound experience which differentiated deep bass from the striking electronic sounds the song offers up. --Hip-Hop-- In my hip-hop sound test, the big beats on 'Rebel Without a Pause' by Public Enemy wrapped wonderfully around the pronounced vocals and the whirring sound samples, with the thumping bass the highlight, giving the song a deep, full sound. --Reggae-- The Koss 'phones dealt with Bob Marley's 'Roots, Rock, Reggae' wonderfully, with the song's layering conveyed brilliantly; the 'phones maintain the rich bass-line which sets the tempo but don't drown out the pianos and trumpets, while the vocals are well balanced between Marley's lyrics and the backing singers' harmonic sound. Over diverse sound genres, I have found these headphones to be a phenomenal replacement for low-end ear-buds which have had me finding more depth in the music I own. The feature of note is undoubtedly the Porta Pros' ability to convey the complex layering of songs by maintaining the integrity of individual musical elements whilst simultaneously bringing them together as a satisfying whole. *Summary* In all honesty, I didn't know what to expect when I ordered these 'phones. I wasn't sold on the design and didn't know much about them aside from what I'd read in reviews. But I have been blown away by the sound quality for only £17.99 off Amazon. Not only are they light, stylish and cheap but they have performance to match, offering a deep, balanced sound and thumping bass. Finally, their portability and ultra-lightness is a big plus for the price range and makes the jump from ear-buds to over-ear headphones a smooth one. For under £20, this set is an absolute steal and an absolute must for anyone still using stock iPod ear-buds like I was until a week ago. Highly recommended.

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            • Homefront (Xbox 360) / Xbox 360 Game / 37 Readings / 35 Ratings
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              27.06.2011 11:34
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              Great story in a game which is over way too quickly. Multiplayer just hauls it to four stars.

              With the video game market now utterly saturated by first-person shooters it is easy to overlook every new FPS release as just another COD imitator. Indeed, this is exactly what I did with Homefront on its release, which, although not marketed as a COD-esque shooter, appeared to share every other aspect with its Infinity Ward/Treyarch brethren. So was I wrong to overlook Homefront? Homefront's main selling point is its alternate reality setting. Set in 2027, a myriad of economic and social problems has led to the USA's remarkable decline on the world stage and the boom of the North Korean state. Unifying into a Greater Korea, North and South Korea overlook their differences to fortify and perform an expansionist campaign into the rest of the world. Forcing Japan's surrender, Korean troops then invade the United States - your task is to lead the resistance against the Koreans and bring freedom to your home front. This rich back-story really does capture your imagination at the start of the game, and was a fresh move I had never seen in an FPS before. As the game begins, a very well edited sequence depicts the stream of events which has led to the US crisis, interestingly splicing real-life footage and images from past US crises. The result is a believable arena of warfare, and this is surely the biggest achievement of Homefront, establishing the atmosphere of a nation on the defensive rather than reflecting an attacking mentality. This story is by and large very well implemented into the main game-play. The beauty of the alternate reality setting is that with the nation on the defensive, the developers could really hit home the brutality of war. In an early scene, you have been raided by state officials and arrested, and as you sit in the police van, you gaze out at both the destruction and heavy-handedness of the invaders. Without wanting to ruin any of the scenes you'll observe, I'll say that there are some truly heart-wrenching sequences in the game. THQ are to be commended on implementing this in their game design as this is something sorely lacking from the increasingly 'the bigger the explosion the better' ethos of the COD franchise. Within the story, you are also always part of a closely knit group of mercenaries. The benefit of this is that plot progression is mapped against character progression. Unlike other games, your colleagues don't just mechanically point and fire to support you but they converse with your character to give alternative views on the chaotic situation. The dynamic between the female soldier Rianna and the male trooper Connor (as well as Hopper, a mercenary of Korean origin defending the US) creates a good idea of the tension and despair felt during war. They frequently argue about the ethics of their and their aggressors' actions, establishing a plot which you want to see the conclusion of. One particular scene on a baseball field was particularly moving and summed up the fury and despair of the small group perfectly. The group dynamic and impressive voice-work therefore complements the plot well and keeps you eager for more. Nevertheless, there are sadly no innovations in terms of game-play. Indeed, Homefront looks and plays just like a COD game and although this means that shooting mechanics are refined and easy to pick up, in between the emotive scenes or voice-work shooting scenes can feel much like any other FPS. Granted, you do get to man the controls of a helicopter in one sequence but the clumsy controls really let it down and although there are times when you can use future tech to ground-strike enemies, this game element was quite clearly plucked from the Gears of War 'Hammer of Dawn' but packaged differently. Homefront does diverge from other shooters with its blood visuals, though, as downing enemies appeared much more graphic to me than in other FPSs. The AI was disappointing for me, as enemy soldiers rarely changed their movement patterns and frequently stayed out in the open to be shot at, a disappointing factor in a game whose core rests on shootouts. Graphically, the game delivers well. Explosions are delivered frequently and impressively and there are a number of set pieces in the game which play out well due to the visuals. The character models aren't too impressive but then again they aren't poorly rendered. Don't expect graphics like those in the COD games though, as environments and character models simply aren't that smooth or detailed. Personally, I found that the visuals improved as the game progressed, with certain environments like those of the final mission looking absolutely wonderful in HD. The sound is impressive, especially the chatter of enemies which is actually in Korean, though weapons again sound very similar to every other shooter out there. However, despite the impressive depth of the back-story, the main campaign is woefully - and unforgivably - short. No game today should be over in one night's play-through, but one evening is all I needed to finish the game. Unfortunately, the game sets you up for a lengthy, drawn-out experience and then concludes unbelievably abruptly, after a meagre seven missions of game-play. Even compared with the ridiculously small single-player campaign of COD: Modern Warfare 2 Homefront comes short. Put simply, COD could get away with a short story as (a) it always favoured multiplayer to single player and (b) it relied on huge scripted set pieces rather than a deep, interesting story. So much more could have been done with the Homefront setting, and after the opening sequence seemingly offered a lengthy campaign and a resolution of some key themes, the game abruptly ends like any other. Nevertheless, though my foray into multiplayer was a brief one, I was suitably impressed. The 32-man warfare leads to an actual tactical battle rather than an agglomeration of camped up snipers waiting to kill you every time you drift into the open. The online experience seemed well implemented and I experienced no lag whatsoever which was a bonus. By focusing on tactical game-play, gamers tend to group together as if in unified squadrons, giving the impression of a calculated battle for territory rather than a haphazard push to reach the top of the kill charts. The maps were also significantly extensive, feeling like a sprawling theatre of war rather than a restrictive game map. Progression seemed good too, with ranking up a much harder task than in COD, and hence ideal for those looking for the ideal online challenge. However, buy the game second hand like I did and you can go no higher than rank 5 before having to pay for the privilege of online play. A single use code is found in sealed copies but without one, you'll have to shell out more cash. This, for me, was an insult considering the small offline campaign, but it seems all developers are now trying to crack down on the second-hand market at consumers' expense. *Summary* It seems as if the developers spent so long devising a memorable story that they forget to actually implement it in its entirety, and it's a shame given the quality of the small end product which is there to be seen in Homefront. With a great character dynamic which furthers the plot and some genuinely heart-wrenching moments, the game gives you a feel for the anger and despair of a country on the defensive against a powerful aggressor. And then it ends. Abruptly. Luckily, there is a strong multiplayer following which should extend the lifespan of the game and which does seem sufficiently fresh compared to other FPSs. Ultimately, then, Homefront is a solid game which is definitely worth playing, but expect your experience to be over quickly. Very, very quickly indeed.

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            • More +
              10.06.2011 16:53
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              Definitely worth a play-through for a mere £5 online, but it's problems stop it from being a classic

              When I first saw the trailers of Mirror's Edge back in 2008, I was suitably gobsmacked. Never had I seen visuals so pristine or such an audacious game concept. Sure, we'd had platforming games for years, but translating this to a first-person perspective and making running - rather than gunning - the key element of a game? This was ambitious stuff from DICE and, not yet possessing a next-gen console, it made the power of the then-new consoles starkly clear to me. So, 3 years on and I find the game for 50p at a boot sale (though it's only £2 in-store at HMV at the moment of writing) and I don't hesitate. But how does it fare? The plot is fairly simple. You are Faith, a runner whose job description includes using parkour (the French art of free-running) to courier illicit goods to various clients via the rooftops of a sprawling dystopian metropolis. Her job is essential in the totalitarian state she lives in, where tranquillity is secured in exchange for personal freedoms like the right to privacy and the right to protest. These runners are dedicated to bringing some element of liberty to a state whose citizens have succumbed to a passive life of conformity. However, while the runners once evaded the authorities, they now find themselves directly hunted by state security. Your task is to find out why ... The first thing that strikes you in the game is the unique visual style. For once, the environments you frequent are not the usual computer game fare. Gone are the drab colours and worn environments and in their place comes a city which is beautifully sleek and pristine. This weaves perfectly into the premise of the game: this is a dystopia unknown to its own citizens. Blinded by the gloss and material perfection of their surroundings, the state's citizens remain unaware of the shady dealings which maintain their tranquility. Buildings are a faceless and uniform white, with the occasional flourish of red guiding your way - see a red pipe, box or whatever other object and you know that it's illuminated to guide you the way. Red doors can be burst through to enter the buildings themselves, and each interior feels different due to the abundance of sharp colours - some will be bursting with greens, others with blues but in HD they all look glorious and are a joy to run around in. Crucially, there is no HUD at all, an intuitive element which allows you to really immerse yourself in the action. Given that the core game mechanic centres on running and not fighting, the controls really needed to be nailed - and luckily they were pulled off well. Your controller has simply assigned functions - LB to jump, LT to duck, RT to punch, Y to disarm opponents and A to open lifts etc, while simply holding forward on the left stick will have you sprinting away in no time. The simplicity of the controls works well, allowing you to get to grips with the basics easily. Moreover, every aspect of the first-person experience is pulled off: as you sprint, your arms pump away to the sides; jump and see Faith's hands flail; roll to break your fall and the camera tracks the movement. What's more, there are few breaks to the action making chase sequences a real treat where you really feel the sense of urgency with the heat on your back. The sense of speed as you accelerate is fascinating and you feel the adrenaline as you slam through a door anxiously panting and looking for the next exit. All of this is heightened by pulsating music which makes your adrenaline-fuelled pursuits all the more believable. For the most part, the game-play is like a first-person Prince of Persia, with a constant need to look at your environment differently to negotiate routes where at first there aren't any to be seen. You'll have to run up walls to reach higher levels, wall run to move between platforms and jump across buildings to evade your pursuers. The ideas here are solid but the execution is average at best and frustratingly poor at worst. Indeed, although the control commands are simple to grasp, jumping onto ledges or crossing gaps can have you pulling out your hair in frustration. For example, sometimes you'll have to jump onto a pipe - misjudge the jump by an inch and you'll plummet to the ground. In certain instances, this unforgiving need to jump at exactly the right time or perform a faultless leap left me having to repeat the same section of a level 20-30 times. And that's no exaggeration; sometimes, the game will simply not accept a small margin of error in jumps, and given the first-person camera, it is often very hard to nail certain actions first time. Compounding this frustration is the utter inadequacy of combat. Quite refreshingly, gun battles have been shunned by DICE here, with the emphasis on evasion over fights. Nevertheless, at times you'll have to confront enemies, especially near the end where the foes are armed to the teeth and reinforcements arrive with great speed. Unfortunately, for the pacifists out there who want to complete the game as intended - i.e. using fisticuffs and not weapons to defeat foes - the game can be very unforgiving. To have any chance in later levels, you need to perform a disarming move with Y rather than using punch and kick combos to down them. Though completing them gives you a great thrill (especially given the great visuals when you knock out foes) they are simply too hard to perform. You have to disarm at EXACTLY the right time, and when you don't you invariably end up dying. When there's only one foe to defeat this isn't too big a problem, but when there are four or so in a row and you die on the last one, the lack of frequent checkpoints means you have to start right from the beginning. This means a whole load of repeated sequences and a whole load of fury with it. Put simply, Mirror's Edge was much more frustrating than enjoyable over the whole game. So, although the game-play is simple and the ideas are theoretically intuitive, too often the gamer is left repeating the same segment over and over again as the AI is so unforgiving. Though for the most part the evasion of enemies is well-executed, the later levels which literally make you fight face-to-face show up the frustrating inadequacy of combat in Mirror's Edge, and added to the often clumsy gap-jumps and ledge-grabs it becomes clear that the game mechanics are merely in the early stages and need refinement if the rumours of a sequel are well- founded. Of course, the niggling problems could be overshadowed by a cohesive, impressive plot but sadly the story is all too simple and not really too original. I couldn't help but feel more could have been done with the idea of a dystopian society (à la BioShock) and the twists near the end are all too predictable and not that satisfying. The 9 different stages all felt sufficiently different to maintain my attention but the thing that kept me playing to the end was the immense thrill of a smooth passage through a level, when everything just clicked and you managed to outrun foes with your quick speed and wit rather than the need to fight. The free-running, and not the story, is therefore the main attraction of the game, but when the AI is this unforgiving, it is very hard to maintain perfect fluidity in an entire level and as such, the game can feel like a bit of a frustrating one-trick-pony near the end. *Summary* DICE's creation of a first-person game which is not an FPS is to be commended, especially given their roots in the Battlefield franchise, and when everything clicks, Mirror's Edge can be an incredibly satisfying rollercoaster ride. The controls are easy to get to grips with and the lack of a HUD and pulsating music mirror the smooth running sequences wonderfully in the game's best moments, leading to a satisfying and refreshing experience in unique game surroundings. It's a shame then, that the need to expertly perform every action (be it in the Prince of Persia-esque platforming or the woeful combat) leads to immense anger and frustration which relegates the good times to mere fleeting moments over the course of the game. With a poor narrative and short length (it took me barely two nights to complete), Mirror's Edge can't help but feel like an ambitious project which delivers at times but frustrates so much more than it impresses.

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            • More +
              01.06.2011 12:26
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              An expensive piece of kit, yes, but one which offers all the features you expect and then more.

              After nearly five years clinging to the hope that my investment in a PSP would eventually come good, I cut my losses last October and sold it. Though the internet worked well on it, the games hadn't delivered and I needed an mp3 player which wouldn't weigh me down on the move. So, after scouring the web for a device which would match my needs, I found the iPod Touch. But was it worth the change? *Why the iPod?* What attracted me to the iPod touch was the sheer amount of features in one place. Not only did it offer the games aspect of the PSP but it also offered a sizeable 32GB of solid state memory, the ability to use apps and the simplicity and (relative) reliability of Apple products. Add to this the incredibly sleek unit and you have a very attractive prospect indeed. At barely a third of the PSP's width and with a huge responsive touch screen it eclipsed the PSP in just about every way. What's more, with just four physical buttons (hold, volume up/down and home button) the problems which plagued the ageing, overused PSP control buttons are avoided altogether. *First Impressions* The unit itself is very sleek indeed, finished in smart black on the front and with Apple's trademark mirror-like rear. At merely two inches wide and with a high-resolution (960 x 640 pixels) 3.5 inch multi-touch display, the unit is compact but elegant. It fits perfectly in your pocket and is light too, art barely a hundred grams. Given its slight build, to protect your investment I strongly advise doing what I did if you purchase it: buy a rear cover and screen-protector before you fire it up, allowing you to keep it in tip-top condition from day one. The first thing that hits you about the iPod when you switch it on is the sheer simplicity and elegant design of the iOS 4.0 interface. On the Retina screen on the 4G Touch, the home screen offers eye popping icons which form a simple but visually impressive grid which simply extends horizontally onto other 'screens' which are accessed by a simple swipe left or right from the home screen. Tap the physical hold button sitting atop the device to lock it and to unlock, tap it again and swipe the screen to open up the device. The home screen itself is infinitely customisable; tap and hold an icon and it wiggles, allowing you to move it to a more easy-to-reach position or relegate it to a later screen. You can arrange every app and tool so that the ones you use most are easily accessible and to facilitate this navigation, four icons sit permanently at the bottom of the home screen - the Internet browser Safari, Music, Mail and Videos (which can also be changed). The simple locate and tap functions have you up and away in no time and after you become used to the device you can speed up your navigation to no end. *The iPod part of the Touch* Of course, the primary reason to buy an iPod is for the music and, as an mp3 player alone, the device is nothing short of stunning. It incorporates the extensive iTunes PC software but condenses it into a user-friendly interface which is as easy to use at it is intuitive. Start up a song and the album art rests slap bang in the middle of the details sitting atop it and the play/pause/skip 'buttons' nestled below. You can fast forward with a simple swipe or set to shuffle or repeat with a simple tap. Tap the album art and the lyrics to your favourite tunes are revealed (added to songs via PC iTunes). Tap the top-right corner and you can view the track-listing and tap any song you like to bring it up on-screen. Outside of the now playing screen, four shortcut buttons sit along the bottom of the menus allowing you to navigate your library via artists, albums or whatever you choose from the available shortcuts. The lists have an A-Z to their right allowing for quicker navigation and the quality touch-screen means you can scroll up and down with summary ease. And, as for the sound quality, the inbuilt speakers are surprisingly good for sharing music with others though you won't receive the rich sound you do from headphones. Put simply, the iPod part of the iPod Touch is nothing short of brilliant. Easy to use and a joy to navigate, it ticks every box. *Surfin' Safari* As an Internet device, the iPod left me stunned once again. Of course, without 3G, the touch has to rely on Wi-Fi alone, but this is no problem when it works so well. Connecting to a hotspot is painless and loading times with a reasonable connection are excellent. The Retina screen once again makes for incredibly crisp web pages while the touch screen allows for great manipulation of the sites. Pinch to zoom out and move your fingertips away from each other to zoom in, while rotating the device to a horizontal position adapts the site you're on to a widescreen format, using the inbuilt accelerometer. The safari browser is intuitive, with a crucial centred address bar and a Google search bar to the top right of the page. The touch screen navigation makes surfing a breeze and basically any website is accessible. Sadly, Flash sites don't work on the touch (due to legal disputes) but given the popularity of the device, popular Flash sites like YouTube have simply created a compatible app instead. You can surf up to five pages at once and a button at the bottom of the page allows you to simply swipe left and right between them. The interface is intuitive, accessibility brilliant and connection simple. Coming from the PSP, this was the biggest shock as it blew Sony's admirable attempts at portable web-surfing out of the water. *Watching and making videos* As an mp4 player, the touch is also an admirable piece of kit. Once again, the Retina screen shines on videos, with films and video clips looking sharp and near HD quality, no mean feat on a portable device like this. What's more, the iPod also has two inbuilt cameras on the front and rear from which you can make free video calls via Wi-Fi to fellow iPod owners and take everyday snapshots. Don't expect miracles though, as still photos are rather poor quality and won't win any competitions given their VGA resolution. Luckily, the video camera is amazing, shooting at up to 720p HD. From personal experience, the videos are great quality, remaining sharp even when transferred to a 19" PC screen, while the sound capture during filming is crystal clear. The fact that this device can shoot HD is an amazing plus, especially when at gigs or even at the footy, allowing you to capture the atmosphere well despite the lack of flash. *Reading books on the move* The device even acts as a fully fledged e-book reader, one of the most impressive (and understated) aspects of the device. Avoid the frankly pricy iBooks store and there is a plethora of free alternatives to get you up and running in no time, while you can download free classics from sites like Project Gutenburg to satisfy your novelistic needs. An array of free apps offer you the chance to read e-books and PDFs on the move and given the clarity of the Retina screen reading on the go is a pleasure. Books look nearly as crisp as the real thing, and you can customise the page colour (from white to sepia), the font you use and even the level of zoom you can give to your e-books to make them easier on the eye. The touch screen allows you to swipe across pages with ease, mimicking the real thing quite brilliantly. As a rival to Amazon's kindle and other e-readers, the ability to read books on the move goes some way to justify the exorbitant price-tag. *The AppStore* However, where the Touch really diverges from its rivals is the AppStore. After all, it is this key aspect which allows you to turn what is essentially a music and video device into something much more substantial. From personal experience, apps have made my iPod: a word processor (which I've written this review on), an e-book reader, a pocket dictionary, a digital camera and even a Dictaphone (with the smashing Recorder Pro Software - review forthcoming!). The AppStore is essentially what justifies the ridiculous price-tag of the device as it offers an enormous amount of possibilities to pimp your device and make it truly your own. With the most common price-tags ranging from 59p to £3 they are also great value and extend the life of the iPod touch much more than the PSP ever did. What's more, they are quick and easy to download and can be synced to your PC when your memory runs low. This means that you can purchase Apps in a sale and keep them on your PC 'til you have enough space to run them. *A rival to the DS and PSP?* When you factor in the device's growing strength as a portable gaming platform, the iPod touch just gets better and better. Games like Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 show that the iPod is capable of matching and even beating PSP games - and all for much, much less money. A key example: one of the priciest AppStore games is Football Manager at a high £7, yet the same game on PSP is £15+, over double for the same game! Even though the iPod's gaming credentials take a distinct back seat to it's other features, as an avid gamer I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth, quality and value of AppStore games and as popularity in the device grows the games seem to be improving every month - unlike the PSP which constantly failed to deliver on its promises of compelling portable play. As a portable gaming device, the iPod touch is a dark horse which is gaining ground on the DS and PSP, and the added benefit of intuitive touch controls and the ability to listen to your own music in many games gives it an added edge. *Battery life and memory* As far as battery life goes, the longevity varies considerably according to how you use it. A full charge can take up to three hours and if you listen to music alone it could last for around three days. However, using Internet or games, the battery could last a mere matter of hours, understandable given the energy needs of such processes. From personal experience, I need to charge it at least once every two days, but, given that I often play my Xbox or use my PC, charging the iPod isn't too much of a chore; I simply connect it to any USB device I'm already using With regard to the 32GB flash memory, I have found this more than enough space to dabble in all of the device's respective features. As of writing this review, I have thousands of songs, around 50 videos, 44 apps (mostly games) and over 100 photos, not to mention the wealth of e-books I've downloaded to it, and I've only just maxed out the memory. For those with an average to quite large music collection, there'll be enough space to use all the features to the max. *Summary* So is it worth £250? If you're looking for a device which does everything and then more then this is the one for you. Acting as an mp3 and mp4 player, an e-book reader, a digital (video) camera, a portable internet device and a games console, the iPod is simply breathtaking. Factoring in the endless possibilities of the AppStore, it becomes clear that you get what you pay for in comparison to other devices. If you literally want your world in your hands, the iPod touch is for you.

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              • More +
                31.05.2011 13:18
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                A refreshing next-gen innovation which fuses film and game impeccably.

                Back in 2001, Rockstar Games stood at the fore of one of the most groundbreaking changes in the games industry with their impressive GTA 3. With LA Noire, Rockstar teamed up with the young Team Bondi (headed by the main developer of the brilliant PS2 Getaway series) to push the boundaries of gaming once again. For once, Rockstar offers us the chance to side with the law, in a quest for redemption and justice which spans an impressive 21 hours of gameplay. You assume the role of Detective Cole Phelps, a World War Two veteran who fought against the Japanese and who post-war is plying his trade as an up-and-coming detective of the LAPD. Your task is basically the same as what an LA detective's task would have been at the time, scouring the crime scenes themselves, amassing evidence and, crucially, interrogating people to bring justice to the City of Angels. However, as the film noir allusions imply, not all is as it seems, and Phelps's quest will have him unearth grim secrets about both the city and his own past... The game is essentially divided into four sections, aptly organised as a transition between four crime desks - traffic, homicide, vice and arson. As you progress through the story, the movements between the two are well explained and the story acts as a bridge between each of the crime investigation departments. Moreover, the tasks on each desk feel sufficiently fresh to keep the game feeling innovative throughout. Just like they did in 2001, Rockstar has pushed the envelope for video game realism, with two innovations of note marking this game as one of the most unique to have emerged on next gen consoles. Indeed, as a police detective, the crime scene investigations had to be pulled off and, due to the immense attention to detail and care accorded to these sequences, they are simply jaw-dropping. Feeling just like an interactive detective film or TV series, Phelps has to find clues by walking around a crime scene, searching the area meticulously to amass evidence which will offer clues to finding the culprit. Find them all and your leads will multiply, leading to a faster and more astute decision. Leave evidence behind, and you'll be running all around LA to find your man. Most importantly of all, Bondi and Rockstar absolutely nailed the presentation of these investigations. The cases are introduced like a TV episode, with impressive titles and music giving some character to the cases you undertake. After a brief glimpse of the case in hand, the cut-scenes begin at the station, where you hear the crime details and then venture out to the scene. When there, locate a piece of evidence and it doesn't just magic into your hand but Phelps actually picks it up, clasping it and allowing the gamer to examine it carefully for clues. Here, the incredible detail will have you in awe, with Phelps's hand looking jaw-droppingly realistic and the evidence looking plucked out of the real world. The importance of such details in a game which relies so heavily on evidence cannot be overstated - you really fell immersed in the game's narrative when the interactive crime scenes are pulled off so well. Of course, the fanfare around the game has centred on the motion capture technology created by Bondi and implemented in the game. Using 32 HD cameras to map actors' faces (yes, real actors not just voice actors) every character you meet in the game has a real face with real expressions. For the first time in a game, cut-scenes are not a chore, as the facial animation is literally true to life. Yes, it may still seem a tad cartoony, but watching a cut-scene in full-flow can trick you into thinking you're watching a film or crime series. In an unprecedented move, Bondi and Rockstar have managed to portray characters' emotions to gamers for the first time. You'll see Phelps' chuffed expression as he earns a promotion, his fear as he comes under fire and his grimaces as he accuses suspects . And that is the next innovation in the game, the focus on reaching your objectives through measured thought. Indeed, Bondi's main developer explained to interviewers prior to release that his primary aim was to have Phelps identify suspects through observation, and not solely hard evidence. The result is that the gamer has to look closely at the suspects' reactions to lines of questioning and either conclude that they're telling the truth, that there's room for doubt or that they're lying to you. This is crucial to making the detective experience feel realistic, as if you decide to jump in and accuse someone of lying, lacking the evidence to back such a statement up will offer the suspect an excuse to stay silent rather than cough up important information. Posing such a question will bring up the wonderfully implemented Detective's notebook, again graphically realistic, which sees Phelps highlight lines of questioning with his pencil and cross them off one by one. This notebook is also an ever-present source of information for Phelps, containing all the clues pertaining to a case and, crucially, the locations to visit to gather more evidence. Unlike in GTA, you most often have a partner in LA Noire, a fact which allowed Rockstar and Bondi to allow the gamer to skip to destinations rather than drive through LA by asking your right-hand man to take the wheel. Yes, I know some readers will wonder: it's a free-roam game, so why not drive? Well, if any criticism is to be levelled at the game, it is the repetition of 'find evidence - locate suspect - drive there' with such long drives becoming tiresome given the expanse of the game world, especially when the vehicle AI is so idiotic. Moreover, when the cut-scenes are so good, you'll find yourself skipping some of the gameplay simply to revel in the performances, and, given the expanse of the game and the cases themselves (some last over an hour), it's a welcome addition. Of course, innovation would be nothing without a story solid enough to implement it well and, crucially, it delivers. Personally, the second third of the game lost a bit of momentum, but the pulsating finale more than made up for it, tying together the various plot strands revealed during the game in a satisfying conclusion. Although your tasks have basically the same structure on every desk, the different crimes - all inspired by real-life events plucked from 1947 LA papers - always leave your detective juices flowing and the excellent voice-work and acting performances make for one of the most immersive and realistic narratives to emerge from a game on next gen consoles. *Summary* LA Noire feels and plays more like an interactive film than a game, but this is by no means a bad thing. In fact, in spite of certain weaknesses (maybe there are too many mundane chase scenes and the vehicle AI could be better) the game delivers due to its successful implementation of the detective genre on next-gen consoles. Scouring scenes for clues, observing your notebook for leads and, most satisfying of all, interrogating suspects by looking for visual tells are all wonderfully implemented around a core story which is as compelling as any detective film or series you're ever likely to watch. Highly recommended.

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                • Office² (iPhone Application) / Apps / 24 Readings / 22 Ratings
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                  21.03.2011 14:15
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                  A brilliant app which will have you typing on the move in no time.

                  You know how it is. You're on the train home knowing you have that important assignment to crack on with when you get back. If only you could start it while on the move...well, fear no longer iPhone users! Office Squared is a cheap and cheerful app which makes your iPhone an impressive word processor and spreadsheet viewer. Among a plethora of Word imitators to be found on the AppStore, it can be a hard enough task to pick the right one for you. My choice was based on Dropbox functionality and the few reviews I found online but I was still sceptical given the £3 price tag. Nevertheless, eager to add word processing to my iPod's arsenal I snapped it up...and it's been a trusty companion ever since. The first, and arguably most important, feature of note is the incredibly slick and simple interface. Supporting the Retina display, the basic home menu will have you arranging your files or opening new documents with summary ease. The Local Files menu lists your documents in order of when last modified, seperated between days and weeks to simplify your search. The document links themselves show the format type (.doc...) and once you've found the one you want to open, you just tap it and voilà. A bar along the bottom of the screen presents you with a range of neat tools, ranging from a new folder option to a button which allows you to copy or move files between folders. A little bin icon also allows you to delete those no longer needed documents. As you open a document, the on screen keyboard is immediately visible but can be hidden for text-only viewing by tapping the keyboard icon. Working in both portrait and landscape orientations, a style conducive to everyone's typing style is offered. I personally prefer the landscape view which offers just enough space for text while permitting for fast typing speeds on the sizeable QWERTY keyboard. What's more, linguists (like me) can type in other languages as they can in the iPod's notes section if necessary. A task bar sits atop the keyboard offering an impressive array of tweaking tools for use on the move. A save icon does just that, while a font button allows for font colour, size and even style to be changed and bolded, italicised or underlined. Orientation tools allow you to justify or centre your text, while bullet point tools are also available. Further tabs allow you to input photos from you iPod photo library while there's even the option to spell check and print your work. Finally, undo and redo buttons make it in to help you limit those errors. Typing is a breeze, and I have in fact written this entire review on my iPod in this app. Most impressively of all, I can copy this text to my Dropbox once done to sync it with my home PC, allowing me to tweak it on the big screen after I'm off the train. This really is a stunning option which means you never waste of minute of time when sitting bored of the train journey. The fact you can listen to music while typing simply sweetens the deal. Spreadsheets are also translated to the iPod well, though it is obviously harder to navigate one on the move. With the ability to save documents to the app from online attachments for later viewing, the app is made even more impressive, while the range of formats supported is impressive, with PDFs, .doc and XLS documents all viewable among many others. Finally, the developers offer frequent updates which implement features users ask for. Things like the spell checker were added after user pleas for such a function, and this just rounds off the app's success. *Summary* Those looking for a word processing app need look no further. With simple menus, easy access, Dropbox functionality and a fully-fledged word processor and spreadsheet app included for just £3 it's a hit you'll be willing to take.

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                  17.03.2011 22:32
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                  A wider-ranging, more mature and louder album which is a great follow up to DIOYY's 2008 debut.

                  Three years is long time in the music industry. Even more so if that's the time it takes your band to forge their 'difficult second album'. For Does it Offend You Yeah?, the band whose 2008 debut impressed indie, dance and electro house fans with a relentless succession of ear-busting rave tunes, the release of their second album can't help but seem...well...a bit too late. But would Don't Say We Didn't Warn You be worth the wait? The album's soft introduction may initially throw fans off course, with its lightly strummed acoustic riff wrapped around whispered vocals. Then the trademark sound kicks in: the main tune drops in with ferocity, blasting your ear-drums with great synth sounds which become increasingly layered as the song goes on. Only a brief return to the tune's intro vocals stems the onslaught, making the return of the drums and beats all the more impressive. To call We Are The Dead a great tune is an understatement: it lulls you in then blows you away in a brilliant start to the album. This relentless loudness is sustained as the album moves onto John Hurt. A suspenseful electronic beat plays along to a soft drumbeat while the once-again-soft vocals slowly build up: then the crescendo blows you away. Reminiscent of Muse's Origin of Symmetry days, the chorus blares out an intriguingly layered sound, whose furious vocals complement the heavy beats to weave into a song with a measured tempo but frequent tone shifts. The end is arguably the best part, where Rushent's psychotic chant pulls you into the song's final wall of sound. This is where DIOYY plied their trade in 2008, and the more refined, louder sound suits the band well to round off a storming entrance to the album. Song three changes the tone completely, with a drummed intro working into softer lyrics for a much more accessible song with more indie overtones than the electronic/dance style the band are known for. Nevertheless, the harmonic vocals on Pull Out My Insides offer a great twist in the album with the chorus making this a real treat which fuses the two different styles to good effect. The next effort Yeah! Reverts back to the band's roots, with a light drumming tune building up to an electronic onslaught where the beats drop with great speed beside a strong bass-line. The song can throw you at first, with its almost discordant whirring tunes like nothing you have heard before. But by the last third, you are left in awe of the song's layering; a brief relapse to a suspenseful tune bursts into life in an expression of high tones which can only be described as mind-blowing. The Monkeys Are Coming changes the rules of the game once again, featuring samples from an internet meme where a man does indeed proclaim 'the funky monkeys is coming' to a group of dumbfounded skateboarders. If the song matter seems bizarre, then listen to the song, which can be best described as a medley of strange vocals and blaring electronic notes. Though the beats deliver, especially by the end whereby the tune has layered impeccably, the song doesn't hit you as hard as the earlier efforts and results in as strange an experience as the event which spawned it. It's lucky then that DIOYY innovate again for Wrong Time Wrong Planet, a blissfully simple yet mesmerising song. The smooth drumbeats accompany a simple riff, complementing Rushent's hypnotic vocals to draw you into another impressive offering. A chorus of sorts sees chanted humming drive into a faster drumbeat, weaving into a brilliant electronic crescendo which evokes the space scene seen on the album art. The song moves from the band's trademark style almost completely, but this makes for a great addition to the album. In arguably the best song on the album, the band goes all-out rave, with a brilliant sample of former ECW chairman Paul Heyman psyching up his wrestlers weaving into the tour de force which is Wrestler. Bursting into life after a rolled drumbeat, the tune is both incredibly loud and fast, with frequent drops back into the original sample offering little respite from the powerful sound-offensive. This is DIOYY going back to basics, with an electronic tune of epic proportions balancing deep beats with a great sample. After a seamless transition into song eight, the band's next innovation is revealed with grime rapper Trip offering a great diversion from the band's electro/dance norm. Wondering is still driven by whirring beats but it's the stunning rap which steals the limelight. The smart lyrics and the sharp delivery see Trip rage against everything from war to advertising with great panache, while the chorus is simply psychotic, drawing you into a trance of sorts which weaves into the cuica fuelled finale. Sure, it's uncharacteristic but it's a novel and unexpected hit on the album. The Knife offers yet another great shift in the album's tone, with a perfect mix of high-tempo beats and great harmonic lyrics. The tune is one of the album's more conventional ones, but its gradual layering as the song wears on makes this no problem. A choral infusion in the last third of the song is a highlight, merging soft sounds with the loudness of the rest of the album. Overall, the impressive chorus and layered beats wrap around tight vocals for another strong offering. In a strangely fitting end to the album, Broken Arms rounds the record off in the complete opposite way to how it started. The tune replaces big beats for soft strumming and understated vocals to make for a musical experience echoing the styles of The Vines and Jet. The song fails to pick up immediately with the tempo so much slower than the earlier songs, while the movement from the earlier walls of sound to such a subtle tune may confuse some. Regardless, give it time and it develops into a trance-inducing song with great depth and even better production. *Summary* Well, it may be three years late but the band has offered a stunning second offering. Louder, more mature (bar Monkeys), and more furious than before, the band excels in contrasting hypnotically soft vocals and winding intros with huge breakdowns and head-banging tunes. If one criticism can be levelled at the album, it's the lack of cohesion between the individual songs (an immensely loud tune here, electronic song there...) which stops you feeling a sense of progression in a complete play-through. Nevertheless, this format does allow the band to dabble in various genres, moving from efforts such as the grunge infused John Hurt, to the indie Pull Out My Insides and even showcasing grime in Wondering. Overall then, DIOYY's second offering comes highly recommended - treat your ears to the loudest album you're likely to hear this year. If you download only three songs choose... - We Are the Dead (free download off the official website) - John Hurt - Wrestler.

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                  • More +
                    07.01.2011 11:41
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                    A cheaper cousin of iPhone FM which is a more than worthy footy sim for play on the move.

                    As a keen follower of football management sims, I was eager to see how the format would work on my iPod touch. Sadly, at a ridiculously high price of £6.99, my first choice sim Football Manager was knocked off my list. At a lowly 59p, I decided to instead give Championship Manager 2011 a go. But is the game really as bad as AppStore reviewers will have you believe? Aesthetically, the game is incredibly slick. Simple menus make great use of the touch screen, which sharp visuals depicting a six- tile menu giving access to functions from squad management to transfers. Moreover, a sub-menu can be swiped to access other areas of your managerial arsenal, such as league information. The selection of teams is also impressive, with certain clubs even showing their real crests. The Championship, French Ligue 1 and Spanish La Liga are all licensed though the same can't be said for the Premiership. You can manage in five countries only but the database extensively covers even the most obscure leagues; unlike on PSP Football Manager I even managed to approach players from my favoured team in Cyprus, an impressive advantage over it's rivals. Players are also realistically priced, though attracting them to your team does simply seem to stem from offering more money. What's more, loans are sadly omitted, making my managerial life at Crystal Palace a much harder journey. Nevertheless, a novel addition of a live press conference, where you can improve the board's, the fan's or the media's confidence in your reign is an interesting prospect. If it wasn't for the incredibly poor English used in the responses offered to you this addition would be yet another advantage over Football Manager. When it comes to match day, an intuitive 'tactics' interface presents your team in your chosen formation, with each player depicted by a swipable icon. You simply drag and replace players in and out of your team with your fingertips, making a change of formation or personnel a breeze. Furthermore, another neat addition offers the chance to change the emphasis of your team, the twist being the inclusion of real life past tactics used by legendary squads. You can choose to play like a defensively minded Inter squad from the sixties, play a slick passing game like Barcelona '09 or even silky soccer of a sixties Madrid squad. Whether this changes your style during the game is debatable, but it is nevertheless a nice addition. During the match itself the game begins to show its true weaknesses, though. First off, unlike in the most recent Football Manager games, entire games are not visually played out in the form of virtual 2D dots. Instead, this system is used to show only select highlights, with the classic text commentary taking precedence. Given the need for short and sweet games on a portable device this could easily be forgotten if it was flawlessly executed; however, player movement in these highlights mostly seems erratic and random, with your team sometimes shown to be attacking at the time you concede and free kicks making your whole team stream off to the other side of the pitch in an inexplicable glitch. Scorelines tend to be rather realistic, though, with very few routs and upsets few and far between. Overall, then, is the game worth it? For my 59p I have a simple, intuitive football management game which lacks the bells and whistles of a polished Football Manager game while still managing to capture the beauty of management sims. It's not perfect, but it shows that Championship Manager is seriously trying to challenge Football Manager in the footy sim stakes, and for currently less than half the price of it's rival at £2.99, it's definitely worth a shot.

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                    • FIFA 11 (iPhone Application) / Apps / 28 Readings / 27 Ratings
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                      05.01.2011 15:06
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                      PS2 FIFA in your pocket for five times less than on the PSP/DS

                      FIFA 11 on the consoles has been a rousing success and, as you can see in my previous review, one of the most addictive football games ever made. Unfortunately, the transition of football games from consoles to portable devices has always been far from smooth. DS owners can choose to play an ugly, pixelated version of the beautiful game while PSP owners have to shell out upwards of £15 for the privilege of playing the same game every year with updates alone warranting a purchase. But what about the iPod touch? Could EA use its touch screen to fuse the innovative DS gameplay with the graphical flair of the PSP to create a perfect hybrid? Well, the first signs are very good indeed. FIFA 11 has not only been given souped up visuals (which look impressively sharp on a 4G retina screen) but they are even sharper than on PSP, no mean feat given that the iPod is not primarily a gaming device. The touch screen makes menus novel to navigate, with simple swipe menus used to navigate the title and squad selection screens. They are also very sleek, with everything simplified just enough to still feel like a complete game but making dipping in and out of games very quick and easy. Despite costing much, much less than the PSP or DS versions (currently £2.99 but recently priced at a ridiculous price of 59p) features are also pretty impressive. Yes, there's no manager mode and yes, multiplayer mode is still pending but regardless, almost all of the leagues from the consoles make it in, complete wih authentic kits, crests, stadia and even footballs. Where else can you find a footy game with that kind of depth on the AppStore? Where's the catch? Well, the gameplay is very hit or miss. It's hard to blame EA for the problems given that the iPod has no actual buttons yet its downfall is indeed the need for a virtual analog stick. Without a physical stick, movement becomes rather clumsy and unresponsive as the virtual d-pad just isn't as fluid to use as the PSP's nubbin. On the flip side, EA have incorporated some cool uses of the touch screen to make things easier to perform. Swipe an off-the-ball player and he'll surge into space, or touch him to direct a pass to his feet. Three simple buttons allow you to pass, shoot or through ball in attack and pressure, slide or switch players in defence. The simplicity may annoy some but on a device which has only a touch screen for both controls and visuals it seems the most astute use of the on-screen space. Complete with console quality commentary (think PS2) and graphics which punch well above the iPod's weight it's ultimately easy to forgive the shortcomings of the game, especially when it's basically the same game you'd pay more than five times more for on other portable devices. It's far from perfect, but it's the best football experience you're going to get on the iPod touch and is more than worth the money. I paid £1.79 but at time of review it is available for £2.99. Keep your eyes peeled for sales and you may nab it for a laughably low 59p.

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                    • FIFA 11 (Xbox 360) / Xbox 360 Game / 60 Readings / 46 Ratings
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                      07.11.2010 21:11
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                      PES who?

                      If last year's iteration of FIFA wasn't a strong enough indication of EA's recent trouncing of Konami, then surely '11 is the final nail in the coffin for PES. Taking the tried-and-tested model of 10 and heaping improvements upon it, '11 is the closest you'll get to real football without using your jumpers for goalposts. The first thing you notice as you power up the game is the fancy new design that FIFA now sports. Interestingly, EA took a leaf out of PES's book here, bringing in menus which actually have some life to them for once. Gone is the overly sterile and functional interface and in comes one which oozes class and character. As you launch into a match, it may not be immediately clear that this is any different from '10. The slick visuals have hardly been improved, though facial likenesses of the world's best have been given a nice upgrade, and the game-play may at first have you sensing déjà-vu. But do not fear, for there is a lot here that has been upgraded to great effect. Do you remember conceding cheap goals aghast by your goalkeeper's baffling placement yards off his line? Were you endlessly on the receiving end of perfectly timed lobs? Did you find it impossible to score headers in open play? ALL of this has been addressed. Crosses are now a joy to perform, lobs have been made much, much harder and your keeper guards his goal with much more presence. Player animations have again been slightly tweaked to suit the new mammoth addition that is 'Personality Plus'. It may sound like an inconsequential addition but in truth it is a core feature of '11 and probably the best addition to a FIFA game for many years. Put simply, it is a system which aims to reflect the actions and traits of real footballers - if you are Messi, he will stream across the pitch evading defenders with smart dribbling; Drogba, meanwhile, acts like the powerhouse he is in the Premier League, holding off the feeble attempts of defenders to dispossess him; choose Bramble, and, well... you get the idea. The world's best now really play like them (as do the world's worst...) and it's a joy to behold. This mode weaves nicely into the next headline addition of 'Pro Passing'. Players' passing attributes really mean a lot this year and can make or break your team's in-game performance. If you pass with poorer quality players, the ball's more likely to be intercepted or fall short of your target; use a pass-master like Xavi and you'll be splitting teams apart with summary ease, executing through balls to your teammates with pinpoint accuracy. In practice, this means you have to use playmakers as you simply cannot ping the ball about like you could last year. Both of these additions are so simple yet so, so important. Last year, we had a game that looked the part and often played like a dream too, with the 360 dribbling opening another dimension. Yet it was still all too easy to win games with ping-pong passing and by taking the easy 'notice keeper off his line - lob him - repeat' formula. Now, FIFA is a thinking man's game. You can't win without the upmost concentration, as you need to be aware of what each and every one of your players is capable of. You now need strategies to beat the game - and this makes it even closer to the real thing. The AI has also been suitably hardened. If you want a bit of a laugh, play on Amateur, which will have you popping 10 past Chelsea with Brentford. However, if you're looking for a real challenge, the Legendary mode is for you, offering the most realistically tense games you can physically have against the CPU. The fact that the difficulty is stunted over around 6 levels means there is an adequate level for novices and experts alike. All the modes you know and love return this year, and each is as impressive as it was before. The only difference of note is the new 'Career Mode', which simply groups together the separate 'Be a Pro' and 'Manager' modes and adds a new player-manager one which isn't, truth be told, a revolutionary introduction. If one thing is to be lamented, it is the new 'Manager mode-lite', as I'd coin it. Many of the intensive features I enjoyed last year were notably absent here - you can't scout with a dedicated tool, nor can you purchase upgrades for your stadium or improve your staff so your players don't fatigue as easily. It seemed quite baffling (and disappointing) at first, but at least they've refined other more important aspects of the mode. Most notably, it's a lot more realistic. In comes a new tool which allows you to change the ratio between transfer funds and wages. Having a hopeless amount to buy players with at my trusty club Crystal Palace, I shifted my focus towards wages and exhausted the coffers to loan in Arsenal's Wilshere for a realistic amount of £25,000 a week. Which brings me onto another improvement - real-life player values. Messi and Ronaldo are worth hundreds of millions and even the poorest players are worth around £1m, mirroring the real world of football quite closely. Moreover, the boring interface has been revitalised with colourful and easy-to-navigate menus. Two new game additions of merit must also be noted: Creation Centre and Ultimate Team '11. The former allows you, for the first time on 360 FIFA, to create your own team on the 'net and import it into the game. Yes, that includes creating your own crest and kit (for which templates from Nike, Adidas, Puma and others are offered) and allotting players you and others have created into the squad. These can then be used in most game modes, and, despite being very much in its infancy, is an addition I welcome with open arms. As far as Ultimate Team is concerned, it has now returned to '11 with a huge incentive - it's now FREE to download. This is a great move by EA to attract more people into this immense (if slightly buggy) DLC. Put simply, it is a fully-fledged trading-card game: you play games to earn coins to buy cards. You then use these cards (representing players, managers, formations...) to make squads, and use them to participate in numerous rolling tournaments. Working both on and offline, it offers you the chance to truly create the team of your dreams. With its slick interface and endless footballing possibilities, it is a lovely piece of free DLC which offers the game even more playability. *Summary* FIFA 11 is simply sublime. The slick animations, the tweaked gameplay and the enormous amount of leagues (including even the Russian one now) work wonderfully in a host of game modes both on and offline and have moved a work of art into a masterpiece. While PES languishes in mid-table mediocrity, EA have cemented FIFA's status as the true football champion.

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