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I'm quite a keen gamer and for years I'd been using Razer's excellent Diamondback Chameleon mouse. However, years of abusive gameplay took their toll and a minor failure appeared, the left mouse button had become partially broken. I felt it was time to get a new mouse... The Razer Diamondback 3G was the perfect choice. Although it doesn't come with the metallic finish that was the distinguishing feature of the chameleon, it does come in a three primary colours... red, green and blue. I opted for the 'Frost Blue' version as it matches other lights around my desk. My monitor, keyboard and computer case all sport blue LEDs, so I figured it was best to get a colour that matched! The clour itself emits from the mouse wheel and the slightly translucent panels on either side of the mouse. Just like it's predecessor, the Diamondback 3G is the perfect gaming mouse. It has a perfect slimline shape suitable for both left and right handed use. It has a multitude (seven to be precise) of buttons that can be configured. It has a long cable, perfect if your computer is a distance from where you have your mouse. It's also incredibly precise. In fact, the only real difference between the 3G and the old Diamondback is the internal sensor. They've replaced the old Diamondback sensor with one from one of Razer's other mice, the Copperhead. The new sensor is 1800dpi as opposed to the 1600dpi of the old Diamondback. I can not honestly say I could notice the difference in precision. The 1600dpi sensor was so powerful and precise that it's hard to notice an added extra 200dpi! However if you're after a good high precision mouse the 3G is definitely worthwhile.
As the third continuation in the epic Microsoft Games Age of Empires series, Age Of Empires 3 lives up to the greatness of its predecessors, adding numerous new features that both rookie and veteran players will welcome. In Age Of Empires III, you begin with a settler, a hero, and a few military units, and you're set off against the world, racing through the colonial time period (and 5 different epochs) to conquer all in your path! The Age Of Empires III graphics are pretty much what you would expect them to be for a game of its time and reputation. The water reflects objects, the grass has all the particles you could ask for, and the unit models are perfectly detailed. A great new addition to the series is the visualization and animation of structures breaking apart. If units attack a ship or building, pieces of it will fly off, and the building will remain deteriorated until it is repaired. The background music is superb, it's soothing and not annoying like in so many other games. The rest of the sound is of a high quality too, units have individual voices, and none of them are inappropriate. The voice acting in the game is good, but not quite up to the standard of other games. Finally, the most important aspect of the game... the gameplay! ge Of Empires III does much to improve the fun factor of the series; units no longer move their goods back to a storage area or town centre; all units harvest directly. This greatly speeds up the game and allows for greater mobility and control of troops. Farms can now support 10 farmers, and they never run out of food. This allows you to focus on more pertinent micromanaging and warfronts, rather than continually check back to the farms to make sure half your workers aren't standing around. Microsoft have added a new feature to the Age of Empiure series, The Home City. This adds much value to the game. After obtaining a certain amount of experience (through killing enemy units, finding treasure, and completing game objectives), you are allowed to send cards to your colony. In campaign mode, you unlock cards for a civilization, allowing different units/upgrades to be sent to the colony.
Theme Hospital (a sequel to Theme Park) is a humourous parody of American hospitals. Without a welfare state, the rich get all the care and attention they need but the poor are regarded as a burden. The opening cut scene tells it all. You see a patient called in to the Emergency Room. A doctor comes rushing in to attend to the patient. He needs an operation, fast and he's quickly placed on the operating theatre. However, before the operation takes place, a credit check is made. It's soon realised that the patient has no money to pay for the operation, so he's sent flying down a trap-door! Theme Hospital is divided in to 12 progressively harder main levels. You start the game with small plot of land on which to build your hospital. You'll need to cater for the diseases that you might encounter. To do this, you build a number of different diagnosis and treatment rooms. Rooms include GP's offices, pharmacies and wards as well as specialist clinics such as the inflator room where patients suffering from "Bloaty Head" are sent. To cure their ailment, their oversized heads are punctured with a pin to deflate them, before being increased to normal size with the inflator! You'll need to employ doctors to diagnose and treat your patients; these include specialists such as surgeons and psychiatrists. Nurses are also used for some diagnoses and treatments. You'll also need receptionists to manage your queues. Finally, the handymen from Theme Park return. They clean up the rubbish, pools of vomit and other bodily fluids that your patients sometimes deposit on the floor. They are also responsible for keeping your machines well maintained and watering the plants. A number of criteria are set for each level. You have to get your hospital to a certain size, you have to make a set amount of profit, cure enough patients and gain a good enough reputation. Once you have met these criteria, you are offered a job in the next hospital. The new job takes you to the next level, where you will find increasingly more demanding diseases which require a wider variety of diagnosis and treatment rooms. The game really is a laugh a minute. Intermittently, an announcement from a receptionist will be heard over the tannoy system, such as "Patients are reminded to have their cheque books ready", "Patients are asked to kindly not vomit in the corridors". The diseases are mostly fictitious, with some interesting causes and cures. Baldness is caused by telling lies and making up stories in order to be popular and can be cured by seamlessly melding hair on to the patient's head using a painful machine! Invisibility is caused by being bitten by a radioactive and invisible ant; however a colourful liquid drunk in the Pharmacy soon restores the patient to full observability! Theme Hospital really is a great game. The graphics are fun, the learning curve is spot on, the difficulty level rises at a good rate, making the first levels easy enough for you to get to grips with the controls, while providing a good challenge later on. Dealing with ill people has never been so much fun!
Total Annihilation is a futuristic real time strategy game from Cavedog Entertainment. Real Time Strategy (RTS) is a tricky genre. As Westwood Studios proved with the Command & Conquer series, when you get the balance right, you have a hit game on your hands. However for every successful RTS, there's a bargain basement full of disasters! Let's see how Cavedog Entertainment's offering does... A series of single player levels are included in the game which slowly become more complex and utilise more of the available military units as they progress. This acts as a great tutorial for new players. However, this game is really designed to be played as a multiplayer game. You can pit your wits against up to 9 other players or Artificially Intelligent opponents either on the Internet or on a LAN. Each player starts off with just one unit, the Commander and a limited amount of energy and metal resources to get you started building your base. The Commander is equipped with a number of guns, including the all-powerful D-Gun which can destroy any opponent with just one hit. However, he's slow moving and can be a vulnerable target, depending on the pre-agreed rules, his death will either result in you losing the game, or the nuclear explosion from his power pack will destroy a large area of your base. For emergencies he is able to cloak himself to make him invisible to your opponent, but it costs a lot of energy resources to do so. Once the Commander has built a few factories, construction vehicles and army units can be produced to do his fighting for him. Total Annihilation is certainly an ambitious attempt. It has more unit types than any other RTS game. The vast array of units really makes for varied gameplay. Every unit has its strengths and weaknesses and assembling an army in just the right proportions to thwart your enemy's legions can be quite a tactical battle. Rather than opting for finite resources, Total Annihilation opts for a more flexible approach. Energy can be gained anywhere from wind turbines, steam generators, solar panels or nuclear power stations. Metal can be gained from metal ore deposits found across the maps, but unlike how you'd expect, the metal never runs out, meaning that you don't have to continually search for new sources of metal, and potentially allows for much longer games. However, you only have a limited storage capacity so there's a limit to how much you can have at any one time. Through some hitherto unknown futuristic technology, metal can also be produced from thin air using special energy-powered metal generators! Each unit or building takes a specific amount of energy and metal to produce, and as long as you've got the resources you can speed up development by adding more and more construction vehicles to each one as it is building. The battles in Total Annihilation take place on a massive scale. It's not unusual for a single player to take upwards of one hundred units in to battle at any one time. You'll need to be a quick thinking strategist to master the battles, but that adds up to the challenge! Total Annihilation is a fantastic real time strategy. There's plenty of depth and variation to the units and each game you play is different. It's an exciting step forward in the genre.
Mafia is a hybrid of "driving in the city" games like Grand Theft Auto and third-person shooting games like Max Payne. Whilst it's bourne of one of the smaller game development houses; Illusion Softworks, you wouldn't realise this just by playing it. The quality of the graphics, sound, and gameplay rival that of any big house title. You can enjoy this game for a long time - you won't finish this one in one day! In fact, I'd venture to say this is one of the best games to come out in 2002. The graphics within the game easily compare to Grand Theft Auto's quality, and yet in Mafia everything seems more real. While there is only one city to explore, Lost Heaven is larger than any city in GTA and, I believe, better crafted. There are tons of pedestrians and cars to keep you on your toes, a working lift bridge, a train system, tons of neighbourhoods, and even outlying rural areas and countryside. The lighting within the game is very well done, as are the graphics for the cars which are incredibly realistic especially when appreciated alongside the realistic vehicle physics. One thing that it does lack is day and night and weather changes. This doesn't impact the game greatly, and I barely even missed it. To me a game has to include all the little details or else I get bored with it. Mafia has lots, including being able to shoot tires out on cars, sounds which are specific to the environment (for example, rain falling on a metal roof vs. rain falling on a wood building), and the lips syncing is pretty impressive. Even the cut-scenes really feel like you're watching a movie, which adds to the cinematic drama of the game. This mafia game has been described as "The best movie Martin Scorsese never wrote" and you can see why, it reminds you of many of the mafia films that have appeared on cinema screens over the years. The weapons are authentic to the time period. It's all the little things that make this game so complete. It has been some time since "Grand Theft Auto 3" and "Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven" burst on to the computer scene with living, breathing computer environments to explore, and things haven't really moved on a great deal since, which means that Mafia, despite being an old game is still very playable today. The sound in this game is awesome! The music goes from swing to orchestra without missing a beat. It's tense when it needs to be, relaxed when you are, and really brings the game experience up with it. As I said above, the actual sound effects are really well done as well. The voices are incredibly good, matching the character to a 'T' and really adding to their personalities (I also have to give kudos to the writing team for that). The realism added to the game through sound effects is incredible, and when you add that to the graphics it becomes gaming heaven. After playing Mafia, I lost interest in many of the other third-person shooters and driving games. I couldn't find one complaint about this title, and enjoyed playing it greatly. It's a game I play again and again. Heck, I won't even let my friends borrow it! So it goes without saying that Mafia gets two thumbs up from me.
San Andreas is the sixth game in the Grand Theft Auto series. The game takes you in to a 1990's world of guns, ghettos and gangsters filled with violence, crime and corrupt police officials. The first thing you're going to notice about San Andreas is the gameplay area. It's huge. Far bigger than its predecessors. With three cities, a splattering of small towns and a vast amount of countryside, it's going to take you a very long time to explore it all. And with all that land area, you're going to need vehicles to explore it with, and there's no shortage of those either. From push bikes, to jet aircraft, and everything in-between, getting around has never been more fun. Graphically, Grand Theft Auto has moved on somewhat. It's nothing ground breaking, but it is an improvement on previous games in the series. The draw distance is fantastic. You can stand on top of a mountain and on a clear day, you can see the landscape for miles around you giving the game that greater sense of realism. Lighting has been improved with better haze effects, and the fog can be quite realistic at times, adding an eerie atmosphere as you're wandering around the countryside. The radio stations in the GTA series have always been a stand out feature and San Andreas continues this trend. Each radio station covers a different genre of 90s tunes. Lazlow is back with his talk show and if you decide that you don't like any of it, you can play your own MP3s instead. The radio stations have a dynamic edge. After certain missions, you can often hear the disc jockey mention events that have happened during gameplay. It all helps add to the realism. San Andreas has moved on slightly from the arcade-style of its predecessors. The cars, although far from pin-point realism, feel a bit more real. No longer do they accelerate to full speed in a couple of seconds or turn at ridiculous angles. The graphics are less brash and the whole game has a more realistic edge. There are a greater number of missions and many have a more cinematic quality to them, at times they'll have you on the edge of your seat and almost ducking for cover. These changes add up to make a more mature game. However, don't be afraid, San Andreas sticks close to its roots, if you enjoyed the earlier games, this one will be no exception. San Andreas is another rock solid game in the Grand Theft Auto series. It's nothing special, there's nothing here that's going to blow your socks off, but it's a good solid progression of the series. You can't fault it for that. There are enough new features to make it a worthwhile purchase, even if you own the other games in the series but don't be expecting too much from it.
When it comes to listening to music on the move, there's generally a choice between earbuds and headphones. The advantage of earbuds is they're small and lightweight and can easily be carried around in a pocket. However, they can be uncomfortable and sometimes fall out if you're on the move, they can also suffer from poor sound quality because of their size. Headphones will stay in position and the sound quality is generally superior. However, they're big and cumbersome to carry around, and let's be honest, you look like a bit of an idiot wearing them in the street! In 2000, the A8 earphones hit the market and offered an alternative to both. The hook design of these earphones means they comfortably fit around the ear like a pair of spectacles. They have three adjustable parts which means they can be quickly adjusted to the size and shape of your ear for a perfect fit over your ear canal. The aluminium construction is both strong and light meaning they're no bother at all to carry around. Of course, a good fit is one thing, but what about the sound quality? In a word... stunning. I've listened to a few different earphones in my time, comparing the quality, and even after owning these for 10 years, I've not come across any earphones with better audio quality. The high notes are crystal clear. The midrange is great, and the bass... much better than you'd expect from earphones! Bang & Olufsen have achieved this quite cleverly... the hook design means that the actual buds are be bigger than could be achieved from standard in-ear buds, this extra size means that stronger bass notes can be produced and it really makes a difference! All this without any loss of comfort! Bang & Olufsen isn't just about good sound quality, it's also about style and superb minimalist Scandinavian design. The aluminium earphones with black rubber parts are a joy to look at as well as listen to! They come complete with a leather case to keep them safe and an extension cable which might come in handy if you need to attach them to a hi-fi or desktop computer. An extra set of foam pads is provided in case you lose any. Of course this premium quality and design comes at a premium price. Currently retailing at around £105, this could send a shock to those used to poor quality earphones. However, the quality workmanship will last for years and you'll never want to replace them! Superb quality music is a joy to listen to and wel;l worth forking out a bit of extra cash for.
I would never knowingly buy a cook book from a celebrity chef. Fortunately for me, I didn't realise Nigel Slater was a celebrity chef when I bought this book! A friend of mine gave me a recipe once for potato and smoked mackerel dauphinoise. It was really simple to make and tasted superb. The recipe was from this book and the friend recommended it, so I went out and bought it straight away. The book is quite simple in its concept. It's a big bunch of comfort food recipes! Very good, tasty, simple recipes that can be enjoyed with minimal fuss and preparation. There's some attempt to bunch them together into sections but there's some cross over and it's mostly a delightful assortment of delicious food. There's no attempt to be pretentious. There's no fancy ingredients or awkward preparation required. Each recipe appears to be chosen solely on its taste and ease of preparation. You could pick out any recipe at random and make it that day with ingredients available from your nearest grocery store. Anyone could pick up this book and cook up a delicious meal with little fuss. It almost makes pre-prepared ready meals obsolete!
As a rule, I generally turn my nose up at anything that's sold in a jar. The quality of factory made sauces tends to be pretty horrific. However, there are some exceptions and Sacla's classic pesto is one! Upon opening the jar, you are greeted by a delicious fresh basil smell. Inside is the pesto is firmly packed in with a generous coating of olive oil. This is important as the olive oil creates a seal protecting the pesto from exposure to the air. Air contact causes pesto to oxidise and quickly take on a nasty bitter taste which should be avoided as much as possible. The pesto is quite thick, a sort of lush green paste and it has a delicious rich nutty basil flavour with a superb gritty texture. Sacla don't seem to have scrimped on the expensive ingredients, you can really taste the flavour of the cheeses and the nuts alongside the basil. They've opted for Grana Padano which is unusual as Parmigiano Reggiano would be the more traditional choice. However it's a brilliant decision as it adds to the gritty texture that Parmigiano wouldn't provide. They've also added cashews rather than just pine nuts and I think this provides a creamy taste that offsets the mild bitterness of the basil. I usually make my own pesto, and still prefer home made, but in the winter, when basil is out of season, a jar of Sacla pesto makes an ideal substitute. I've bought fresh pestos which cost many times more which don't come up to the same standards as Sacla.
In a first person shooter game, good aim is essential. The key to a good aim is having a good mouse. The Razer Diamondback offers a 1600dpi precision optical sensor which is 4 times more than a standard optical mouse. This extra precision allows you to aim faster with more accuracy. When you swap your standard mouse for a Diamondback you will find that your frag rate in games will increase straight away! The design of the mouse is superb. The chameleon colour is very fetching with a metallic purple/green finish. The red lighting is pleasing to the eye, but also functional as it helps you to see the mouse in a darkened room. Rather than going for a supposed ergonomic shape like some other mouse designs, Razer have opted for a more simple, slender design which gives you more freedom to hold the mouse how you want without having to fit your hand to a specific moulding. The symmetrical design means it can be used just as comfortably by left handed people. It's very lightweight too which means you can move it faster which helps with precision. The mouse comes with seven buttons, two standard buttons on the top, two on each side and one on the mouse wheel. These can be customised for specific purposes within your game, potentially giving you an advantage in games with lots of controls. Although primarily designed for gaming, the advanced features of the mouse make it excellent for standard desktop use. You will find that the better precision allows you to navigate Windows better and more accurately and thus slightly improving your productivity. It is also an excellent mouse for graphic design work and photo editing, especially when retouching those fiddly areas of an image.