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Avid gamers' must-haves
Getting an upgrade
PlayStation 4 (2016)
Price: 500 GB (S$449) 1 TB (S$499)
WHILE most consumer tech devices go through an annual upgrade cycle, one product category has avoided doing so, until now. Video game console makers Sony and Microsoft will be releasing new, updated hardware by the end of the year, about three years after the launch of the latest game consoles, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, in 2013. Sony will start selling this updated and slimmer PlayStation 4 from today, along with a new and improved controller. In November, it will release an even more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro here.
Meanwhile, Microsoft will launch a more powerful Xbox One S system here by November, and is slated to introduce an even more powerful Xbox One game console, currently code named Project Scorpio, by next year.
This upgrade of game console hardware breaks the tradition of extended product life cycles of game consoles, which had gamers buy the same console for many years. For example, Sony's PlayStation 3, released in 2006, and Microsoft's Xbox 360, released in 2005, have not had any hardware performance upgrade rolled out. They are still being sold and the only changes made since their launch are design and non-game related hardware changes.
On paper, the new slimmer PlayStation 4 is 40 per cent smaller than its predecessor, and comes with a new fan that reduces noise, as well as a more energy efficient power management system that draws less power.
The only thing missing from this newer PS4 is the optical port, which was on the original PS4. This means that gamers cannot connect their console directly to their home theatre systems or amplifiers.
Audiophiles who want an optical port on their PS4 should pick up an original PS4 console while they still can, as this newer console is set to replace the 2013 version.
Instead of a half matte and half glossy shell, the new PS4 is a single shade of matte black. A big design change is the removal of the touch power and eject buttons, which used to have a hair trigger on them. On the older machines, the forward-facing buttons are also identical in size, and it always led to the confusion as to which button is which. The new power button is now slightly bigger than the eject button, and both are now upward facing, so accidental brushes will no longer turn on the machine unexpectedly. Despite the overhaul, Sony has chosen not to include 4K ultra high-definition support to this console. This wouldn't matter if you do not own a compatible 4K TV to support this feature, but the upcoming upgraded Xbox One S console does support 4K, so it seems that Sony clearly intends to use this console as a dedicated gaming one, while Microsoft is looking to expand on the home entertainment features of its upgraded console.
The updated Dualshock 4 controller looks and feels exactly like the original, and the only physical difference is that the black buttons are now grey in colour. Performance wise, there is now a transparent strip on the touchpad that shows players the colour that their controller has been assigned to. Previously, players had to tilt their controller upward, to peek at the forward-facing lightbar. The new controller also allows for it to be used directly with the console when linked with a USB cable, instead of merely connecting it via Bluetooth. This matters more for pro-gamers who want to minimise latency with shooting or fighting games, and it makes use of the USB port other than to charge the controller.
Unless you have a special reason to want the optical port, the new PS4 offers just a little more, at the same price point as the original.
Playing the waiting game
Xbox One S
Price: To be confirmed
Xbox One S Gears of War 4 Limited Edition 2 TB bundle
WITH the new Sony PlayStation 4 Pro and Microsoft Xbox One S due here by year-end, it is better to wait a little longer before deciding which upgraded video game console to get.
Though both companies are competing for the same audience, they are also using different tactics to draw gamers in. Sony is set to launch the PlayStation VR headset here in October, offering virtual reality games to console players months after VR made its debut on PC gaming. With VR gaming, players can immerse themselves in a virtual-digital world, and literally see things from the perspective of the character that they are controlling.
But Sony's trump card comes at a steep price. Available from Oct 13, the headset is priced at S$599, which is about the same price as a console.
To some, it is a small price to pay for the chance to become Batman, pilot an X-Wing fighter from the Star Wars series, or be a protagonist in the latest Resident Evil horror-game franchise, but for many, it is still an accessory with an untested gaming track record.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is betting on 4K ultra high-definition resolution and cross-platform gaming with its new console. With some games, players only need to pay one price to play it on the Xbox One and on their PC.
But while Sony has been open with launch pricing and availability, Microsoft has been rather tight-lipped.
At a recent local launch event that saw the debut of Microsoft's latest Xbox One S game console here, the company did everything, from revealing new and upcoming games, to talking about the new hardware, to highlighting the new console, but it stopped short of revealing the local launch price and availability.
Yet, it took the time to announce the pricing and availability of the upcoming Xbox One S Gears of War 4 Limited Edition 2 TB bundle, which is only due to be released on Nov 25 for S$699. Those interested in a normal Xbox One S have no details to work on.
Which is unfortunate because the Xbox One S is an entertainment powerhouse that serves as more than just a game console. It will be the first game console to offer 4K capabilities for gamers who already own a compatible 4K TV set. With it, gamers can also use the console to stream 4K content from content streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.
This might seem redundant, since most 4K smart TVs come with a variety of streaming apps, but some services, such as Amazon Instant Video and Hulu, have not launched here yet so such apps are not available on smart TVs, and it is not easy to sideload them either.
On the other hand, a slight tweak to the console's settings means that the Xbox One S can deliver these apps readily.
The biggest draw is that the new Xbox One S console can convert current Xbox One games to 4K resolution, and it is also able to play the new crop of 4K Blu-ray movie titles out in the market.
Both of these features are not available on the new, updated PlayStation 4 console, and while the upcoming PlayStation 4 Pro console offers 4K gaming, it is not equipped with a 4K Blu-ray disc player.
So if you are planning on getting a new console, wait for Microsoft to reveal its pricing for the Xbox One S, before committing yourself to a gaming platform.
At least, until the next upgrade cycle rolls along.
Missing the action
No Man's Sky
Format: PlayStation 4 and Windows
Price: Standard Edition S$69.90
Limited Edition S$107.90
Genre: Action Adventure
WHEN it was first introduced, No Man's Sky was touted as a complex open world game that allowed players to explore planets in the galaxy, learn the various alien cultures, interact with other players, and turn gamers into the masters of the universe.
But by the time the game was released, it seemed that the in-game universe was a deserted one, populated by technologically backward planets filled with animals and plant life, but with no other indigenous intelligent life forms present.
Interaction with other gamers exploring the same universe was impossible, and players were merely struggling to survive one planet by harvesting its resources, before moving on to another planet, to do more of the same.
On a technical front, the vast open world of No Man's Sky, along with the hundreds, if not thousands of planets available for discovery, is an impressive one. Each planet is different from the one before and after it, and filled with various flora and fauna worth cataloguing. The game uses an algorithm to create unique plants and life forms, so that no two creatures, plant or planets are the same, even for different players.
The objective is to find the centre of the galaxy, and normally, the process would be to fix your spacecraft, gather enough fuel and resources, and fly off towards the next planet and objective.
Yet, the draw of every planet is to explore strange new worlds, and to seek out new life, and when a game is made such that the main objective can be ignored, it means that the developers have crafted something worth a closer look.
But upon closer scrutiny, the building blocks of the game start collapsing. Even with the game's ability to create unique planets and life, it still uses a set number of base assets to work on and after a while, the feeling of deja vu sets in. Imagine giving 1,000 chefs the same set of ingredients. Some of them will undoubtedly end up cooking a variation of the same dish.
No Man's Sky is like watching Star Trek for the exploration bits, but there is little action, interaction or human drama to maintain the series for several binge watching seasons. The open world bits are enticing for a while, but how long can a gamer operate in a vast open world setting such as Fallout 4 or Skyrim, to just scavenge for food and supplies?
Here is hoping that developer, Hello Games, has some updates and expansion plans ready, to deliver on some of the promises given early in the game's development.
No Man's Sky has a great premise, and shows sign of intelligent life, but it would take several rounds of evolution to make it a great game.
Adding the different elements
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Format: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows and Mac
Genre: Action role-playing
DO not let the lengthy 20-minute talking heads video at the beginning of the game fool you. Even if you did not know the events of the previous hit game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, this sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, serves as a great way to enter the cyberpunk, role-playing world of augmented humans.
The ensuing battle between normal humans and those who have enhanced their physical bodies with mechanical augments, such as a bionic appendage or cybernetic implants, has led to the creation of a terrorist group, and players take on the role of Adam Jensen, a reluctant augmented human being tasked to capture the equally augmented terrorists.
While it is primarily a shooting game, Mankind Divided crosses several video game genres, by adding role-playing, stealth and tactical elements into the gameplay. While not entirely open world, players are free to explore the area, to figure out the best way to enter the other side. They can choose to go in with guns blazing, or opt for the stealth mode. There are many shortcuts that can get players closer to the end of each level, either hidden behind a puzzle, or by an everyday item that only reveals itself under closer scrutiny.
These decisions are further complicated by Adam's failing augmented body parts, which adds another layer of consideration to the game. Some of his mechanical parts have to be disabled, and players are rewarded with a new tech-tree-upgrade path to choose from.
The choice for which path to take is not always that obvious, as one can easily choose to augment Adam's stealth skills, compared to his hacking ones, but there will come a time when a high level hacking skill is a must have.
Yes, some in-game choices seem inconsequential, which begs the question of how many options can there be, before they become more of a burden to pick from. Then again, it beats playing through a mindless shooter where all gamers do is shoot, toss grenades and make big explosions, before proceeding to the next level to do the same.
Given the wide array of playing options, one thing the game can improve on is its gameplay mechanics. Like in the previous game, the controller scheme is not always responsive, and players can find themselves jumping over an obstacle, instead of skirting silently around it, because the game failed to recognise an action.
For video game completists, the game is also extremely punishing because side quests are not always readily highlighted. You have to explore every area and speak to everyone, in the hopes of finding characters who want your help on side missions.
And you would probably want to seek them out, as the main game itself is rather short and the game requires the side missions to boost its overall gaming value.