I struggle to play fighting games with a standard controller. The dexterity requirements are simply too much for my lonely thumb navigating the face buttons, and I refuse to adapt the ‘claw’ technique of using fingers on the top. I’ve muddled away with Killer Instinct, and Dead Or Alive 5: Last Round for a while, since all my arcade sticks are for the Xbox 360. But, with the announcement of backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 titles, it started to make some sense to buy a new arcade stick to play the significant back catalogue of arcade titles that played well with a stick.

So, after having the Razer Atrox sit in my virtual shopping trolley with Mighty Ape (it was on sale) and watching their stock slowly deplete by about one a week until there was just one left, I pulled the trigger and bought it.

There’s a lot to like about it, from the genuine Sanwa parts, to the fact that you can press a button to pop it open, and a compressed-gas lever-arm thingy will keep it open and in place until you close it again. Unfortunately, before even plugging it in, I could hear the infuriating noise that could only be a screw loose inside the casing. Worse, on painstaking inspection, the screw clearly wasn’t just rattling around in the easily accessible open area

“This is the hidden price you pay for buying something on sale,” I told myself. The last stick I bought, the Mad Catz Arcade Fight Stick SOUL Tournament Edition isn’t a matter of public record, but I bought it for a relative pittance ($80) and had to invest a significant amount of time testing and correcting some serious issues with both the buttons and the sticks. Sure, returning is an option, and the folks at Mighty Ape are nothing if not friendly and reasonable (their Banana Points rewards system is ridiculously out of date to the point of offending long-time customers, but they’re great) but that involves setting aside social anxieties and engaging with humans, whereas fixing the issue could be as simple as me, the machine, and some time.

The Atrox comes with ccustomisation as part of the design, and has a wee double-ended screwdriver fitted on the inside of the case. Other things to be found on the inside: a bat-top which can substitute the ball-top which comes fitted standard for the stick, and the detachable 4m cable with a fancy braided outer layer. The screw driver isn’t the total solution, though, since the shaft of the screwdriver is quite short, and the rogue screw just happens to be trapped in behind the front bumper, which some deep holes, too narrow to reach the screws. My fiancee thankfully has a pink hammer with several screwdrivers concealed in the handle, so with a bit of force the screw was recovered and the need to confront anyone with my mild customer dissatisfaction was averted.

The screw had somehow dislodged (or, for all I knew, never been properly in) from one of the pins that holds on the detachable face plate – a feature that I’m thankful for if only because the stock artwork on the top is generically ugly, a mash of the Razer logo which I’m not fond of and green circuit boards, which is about aesthetically pleasing as a still of the weird downward flowing glyph-codes from The Matrix.

Removing the face plate to get at the artwork actually involves unwiring all of the buttons so they can be popped out, and unscrewing the ball-top; an ordeal I haven’t gone through with yet partly because the “quick connect” connections on the Sanwa buttons require more force than I’m comfortable exerting on something I’ve just bought, and the surface area of the artwork is larger in both dimensions than a piece of A4 paper, so I have no easy way to replace it with anything.

In Practise

Jumping straight into Killer Instinct, the Atrox’s benefits became immediately apparent, and the Dojo training challenges that I’d given up achieving on the standard pad came together in one session. The button layout is such that you already have the standard rows of punches and kicks, ascending in severity from left to right. This means that RB and RT (R standing for “Right” for the unaware) are actually placed to the left of LB and LT. Upon noticing this, I made a mental note to compensate for this should the occasion arise, as LB and RT often get used to navigate left and right respectively… but no need! Upon playing around in some non-game situations, I discovered that this very thing was foreseen by the software engineers, and the buttons are flipped for the purposes of navigation.

Sadly, the Atrox isn’t designed as a “use where and if you can; the console will think it’s a gamepad” device, and it seems the software has to be written specifically to support it. I tried loading up Shovel Knight, and was greeted by a message saying “No gamepads present, please connect a controller to proceed”, and buttoning past the prompt only causes it to spring back up. Worse still, I attempted some backwards compatible games (remember, the original impetus for purchasing?), N+ and Alien Hominid HD, neither of which, and I’m willing to form a blanket rule based on this anecdotal evidence, took any input from the stick. The whole backwards compatibility aspect is still in preview for now, but I don’t consider this a good sign.

Sumary

I don’t regret purchasing the Razer Atrox, it’s made Killer Instinct fun to play to a degree that I didn’t actually expect, but I find myself fervently hoping that the backwards compatibility for 360 titles starts supporting non-standard game devices.

“Battlefield 4 is pretty average.  It’s basically Battlefield 3.5”

Battlefield 4 - Golmud Railway

This from someone who’d played at least as much of the game as I had.

”But… average doesn’t mean anything.  I’d say it’s the best shooter in the business,” I replied.  Not looking to mess about with placation here, you understand.

”You have played Counter-Strike, right?”

Ah.  I’m beginning to see the problem here.  And silly though it may sound, I don’t entirely disagree.  Counter-Strike is still monstrously popular, despite its dated graphics and frankly rather limited gameplay.  Even I‘ve been playing a fair bit of it lately; or I had been, until Battlefield 4 launched.

CS is about precision.  About flawlessly executed set piece teamwork and accurate marksmanship.  Compared to a competitive 5v5 CS match, Battlefield is messy.  Sprawling, dynamic battles, munitions screaming overhead, shit exploding all around, the screams of the vanquished and the triumphant shouts of the victors.  Battlefield is war.

Battlefield 4 - Operation Locker TDM

Bafflingly, DICE have thrown in a new game mode called Defuse.  In this mode, 5 man teams take one another on, with one team trying to plant a bomb to destroy one of a couple of objectives that the other team must defend.  Either team can win by eliminating the other team, though the bomb must be defused or not planted in order for the defenders to win.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is exactly how Counter-Strike works.  It’s also the least compelling game mode in Battlefield 4’s arsenal.  If you think it sounds like a bit of fun, CS:GO is like $20.

My CS playing friend did have one good point to make, though; one that seems to have become lost in my unjustifiable and irrelevant BF – CS comparison.  Battlefield 4 does feel a little like Battlefield 3.5.  Graphically, if you’re not in sight of the glorious new rolling ocean waves, you could be forgiven for not seeing much of a difference.  3 already had some of the nicest graphics out there, as well as a well-deserved reputation for bringing some decently specced PCs to their knees.  Battlefield 4 lobs on DICE’s new Frostbite 3 engine, which is more advanced again than what was already a bit of a puterbreaker.  The controls, the movement, the shooting, they all feel very much the same as last time round.  And that’s no bad thing.  BF3 was superb, if not particularly reliable.  BF4 looks set to continue that, for both good and ill.

A month or so before the launch of Battlefield 4, I attempted to rope some mates into some BF3 online to get us psyched for the release of the new game.  One person was actually unable to install Origin at all.  Some googling revealed a lot of other people with the same problem (a bad version check in the installer) and no response from EA.  We’d get kicked at random from games with Punkbuster issues; a problem that had been around more or less since launch and apparently never officially addressed.  There were several workarounds, of varying complexity, which consumed an inordinate amount of time to implement and test.

”This is why people buy consoles!” I raged.  “I might as well be making yet another boot disk for Wing Commander 2.”

My traumatic childhood isn’t the real problem, though; it’s the reputation of the Battlefield franchise for not really being the most reliable of games.  Day one bore this out, but that was to be expected.  A few game crashes, a few server crashes.  But also a few awesome games.  Of course there was all manner of rage in general chat.  People seemingly utterly disgusted with this utterly unprecedented difficult first day.  I thought back to the clusterfuck that was the Battlefield 3 launch and thought, yeah, this is just not too bad.

Things improved over the next few days, with crashes now almost a rarity, and server problems largely limited to 64 player games.  My copy of Battlefield 3 is still not correctly listed as the Limited Edition in Origin, so yeah.

Battlefield 4 - Angry Sea naval combat

So, the game.  Think Battlefield 3, but with more cool shit.  Much has been said about Levelution.  Levolution?  Hmm.  Anyway, a lot’s been said about it.  Maps can be drastically changed by player actions: bringing down a skyscraper across Shanghai, flooding out an already fairly well flooded city, that sort of thing.  Mostly it seems to be a mechanism to ensure I die in the most pointless way possible at least once every round.  On the tropical island chain map of Paracel Storm, a naval vessel can be crashed into an island, nearly bisecting it and destroying the buildings in its path.  But that map has a far cooler party trick, something hinted at by its none too subtle name.  The weather starts off beautiful and sunny, but it soon clouds over.  The wind picks up, rain starts to fall.  Before long the islands are in the grip of a proper tropical storm.  Flying a helicopter becomes… inadvisable.  The swell increases dramatically, making boats perilous to embark upon, but also difficult to detect and destroy. 

I was a little disappointed that the game launched with so few maps, but most of them play very differently depending on game mode.  Rush is a meat grinder, with attackers throwing themselves at a desperate defensive line.  Conquest is dynamic, with flanking manoeuvres, diversionary tactics, and massed assaults all coming into play.  The new Obliteration game mode starts as a mad scramble for a randomly placed bomb.  The bomb is always visible on the mini map, even when being carried by an enemy player, so once it’s retrieved, a fast-paced game of cat and mouse ensues.  This, if things go to plan for the bomb carrier, evolves into a massed attack against an enemy objective (each side has three objectives to defend).  Team and Squad Deathmatch have their own flavour, and as I mentioned earlier, Defuse is basically Counter-Strike with good graphics.  And proper sights on the guns.  And maps other than de_dust2.  What I’m saying is, there are plenty of maps.  For now.

One thing that has really changed things up for me is the ability to mount two sights on a gun.  You can mount a scope in the traditional position and a canted iron sight to one side, maximising accuracy and target acquisition for both long range and close quarters battle.  Alternatively a red dot sight can be mounted, with a 2x magnifier that can be flipped in and out.  Not having to pick the range at which I’ll be effective is rather nice, though as ever there are sacrifices to be made.  Mounting a magnifier or canted iron sight means you can’t have a laser sight, for example. 

The single player campaign exists, so I should probably comment on it.  It’s a bit like the Battlefield 3 campaign, but this time lumped with an awkward silent protagonist treatment.  It’s decent, plays well, is a bit too serious, and frankly somewhat ham-fisted compared to what Call of Duty busts out for every game.  What boils my piss though, is the half arsed attempt they made at cooperative play.  Six missions in Battlefield 3, which were still buggy and half baked as of a month ago.  There were never any more missions added, despite the early hints, and the co-op option has been quietly dropped.  This seems like a missed opportunity.  Co-op gameplay in the campaign proper would be a real asset to the game, in this author’s not even slightly humble opinion.

Battlefield 4 - Hannah and Irish

I’ve yet to try out Commander mode.  That will be a separate article once the Android Commander app is out.  Speaking of apps though, the Battlelog app for Android is handy.  You can follow your friends’ battlefeeds, edit your loadouts and even join multiplayer games, though personally when I want to do that I’m usually already at my PC.  With BF4’s load times, on the other hand, I could probably join a game when I leave work and arrive home just in time to play…

Oh, speaking of load times, here’s a little tip for getting a head start in Rush battles.  Install the game on an SSD, and you can be into the game in time to arm the first objective before most people have even spawned.  It makes for some hilarity.  Rage, too.  Lots of rage.

So what am I saying here?  Battlefield 4 is really good.  Probably the definitive multiplayer shooter, in the realistic but not too realistic modern warfare genre.  Next time I want a World War 2 game, damn it.  Oh wait, next one is a Star Wars one, ain’t it?  Well, that, then.  But after that, WW2.

Forza Horizon

Veering sharply away from Forza’s usual strictish racing simulator style towards a more Need For Speed style thrasher, Forza Horizon was always bound to polarise opinions.  Forza faithful are likely to feel a little out of sorts early on as they’re bombarded with trendy people telling them that the most important thing in the world is to get more popular with the trendy people at the trendy Horizon music and car festival.

The first challenge is to win a heads-up race against a bunch of other cars to win the final entry to the Horizon races.  That achieved, you’re thrown head first into a world of stereotypes who’ll exhort you to do silly things to gain popularity.  I’ve still yet to decide whether the awkward caricatures that populate Horizon are intentionally absurd and hilarious or just poorly written.  They’re mostly easy enough to ignore, and even someone like myself who’d rather wear a fresh scalp than a flat peak hat can look past the douchebag aesthetic and get down to some racing.

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Not all retro revisits end in disappointment, Chris Wild is bringing one of the greatest 8-bit games back to life in December 2012 and it stands up tall.

The mid eighties were a blessed time for gaming, the teenage years of a fledgling industry – nobody could see the growth that was coming, yet even today those of us that were there still hanker after those early experiences and those that were not there are intrigued by the legends. Yearning for some of the magic that was squeezed into 48 or 64 kilobytes can be a distraction, more often than not the return to those 8-bit pastures is tinged with a sour taste. These games and game designers shaped the generation and many of those respected one man bands have become industry stalwarts today. Continue reading

Sherlock - Banner

Back in the glory days of video games many of the most popular games didn’t require the reaction speed of Bruce Lee on Speed, in fact with this type of game you could stop playing and have dinner without even the need to have a pause button. The style of game I refer to is the ‘Point and Click’ adventure, and in this modern high speed world even classic remakes aren’t really attracting newcomers and only getting love from us older gamers and our rose tinted glasses. So I was excited to find a new, up to date, take on the good old point and click adventure, but sad to think in this world of twitch gaming that it may just fade away into obscurity…

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Of Orcs And Men - Banner 

Everyone secretly loves playing the bad guys. And when it comes to Role Playing Games you can’t get more typically bad than Orcs and Goblins. The festering green skinned hordes who will always be standing in your way, whether you are on a world saving quest or just picking flowers for a local Mage, it’s always the green skins giving you grief. So now thanks to Of Orcs And Men you get to switch it up and become those nasty, pesky creatures and annoy the humans on your terms.

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Fable The Journey - Banner 

The Fable Franchise is one of the core IP’s for Xbox and I have enjoyed them for many great hours since the first one on the original Xbox, I even took a day off work on launch day to get stuck into it. And even if Peter Molyneux’s grandiose ideas never really came to full fruition, the Fable series has still captured a huge legion of loyal followers and been enjoyed by millions. So why would Mr Molyneux up and leave Lionhead pretty much on the eve of release of his latest ‘Kinect Required’ Fable title. Read on and it may just become clear.

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Project Zero 2 Wii Edition

Project Zero 2: Wii Edition is a remake of Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly, first released in 2003 on the PS2 and regarded by some as being one of the scariest video games of all time. It is the second title in the series of games known as “Fatal Frame” in the North America. Why this cult title warrants a re-release as the sun sets on the aged Wii is a question that may never be satisfactorily answered, but in any case it presents an appealing opportunity to dust off that old console one last chance before the relay baton is passed over to its successor.

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Heroes banner

Heroes of Ruin is an ambitious title which takes on a challenge few have attempted and even fewer have had any significant success at – taking a Nintendo console online for a compelling multi-player experience. While this action RPG can be played offline (important for a handheld console of course), there is very firm encouragement for players to join the online component, with the game defaulting to this mode from the very beginning. It is admirable that developer n-Space has attempted to bring Nintendo gamers a decent online gaming experience, being the first (hopefully of many) 3DS game to incorporate in-game voice chat – a feature which has been sorely lacking from the huge library of DS and Wii titles. 

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