February 5th, 2014: Hardware Review — Razer Tartarus
Posted by Tom at 4:02 pm under Hardware Reviews. Comment?

While this won’t be a terribly common occurrence on my blog, today I’m going to divert from the norm and throw up a review for the latest piece of gaming hardware I acquired: the Razer Tartarus, the successor (and slightly more expensive sibling) to the more well-known Nostromo. I picked one up for myself recently after recommendations for the Nostromo from friends, and I’m happy to say I’ve not been at all disappointed.

Please note: While the Tartarus is very similar to the Nostromo and its bigger brother the Orbweaver, this review only covers the Tartarus model. However, the software used is the same for the other devices, and they serve a comparable function with minor differences (the Nostromo only has 14 keys but includes a mouse scroll-wheel, the Orbweaver has mechanical keys and an extra row).

First and foremost, what is the Tartarus? In a nutshell, it’s a small keyboard for one hand, providing 15 numbered and fully customizable keys (more on this later), two additional buttons and an eight-way control stick which are reachable by the thumb, along with a shaped hand-rest which I can describe only as absurdly comfortable, especially compared to a regular keyboard. It connects to your PC via a standard (and fairly lengthy) braided USB cable, and without any software installed, will simply act like a keyboard, mirroring the leftmost set of keys. While of limited use in this form, the Tartarus truly comes into its own when coupled with the Synapse 2.0 driver software.

The software allows a wide variety of configurations for every key and button on the device — including the directional thumb-stick, which can be configured to act as either a four-way or eight-way set, and each individual direction can be configured as fully as any other key. In theory this means you’re looking at a total of 25 keys, though in all practical use, the thumb-stick is best employed as a directional device, for example, moving the camera in an RTS or MOBA. However you choose to configure it, though, the freedom to configure each of the eight (or four) directions individually is a welcome addition.

So how can the keys be customized, you ask? It ranges from the simple — for example, assigning a button to a keyboard key, mouse or joystick function (including simulated mouse double-clicks), multimedia commands, configurable macros, launching programs, Windows shortcuts or charms, or even switching the keymap. The three little lights on the picture to the left represent the currently-selected keymap, which is a sort of subset of button assignments for the current profile — different combinations of the lights represent different maps, and up to eight may be stored per profile.

So far, we’ve got a total of 25 highly-configurable keys and buttons, and eight different keymaps per profile — and yet, it gets better. Not only are the profiles stored on Razer’s “cloud,” meaning you can log into a friend’s computer and have your keymaps downloaded and synced automatically, not only are an unlimited number of profiles supported, but my favourite feature of all is the software’s ability to automatically select a profile when it detects a certain program running. With only minimal tweaking, the Tartarus will reconfigure itself automatically to suit the game you’ve just loaded, ready to go. The sheer amount of configuration options, flexibility, and immense comfort of this device makes it hard to not recommend to anyone; after using one for a couple of days, going back to a keyboard already feels clunky and inelegant.

The configurable controls well suit anything from an FPS to an MMORPG, RTS or MOBA, or anything in between. It’s hard to imagine any game being unsuitable for the Tartarus — even if 15 keys aren’t enough, the thumb buttons (or even the keys themselves, if you so desire) can be set to change keymaps on the fly, allowing up to 136 different configurable keys if the maximum amount of keymaps per profile are employed. Other minor things to mention is that the brightness of the green backlight can be adjusted in the software to various static light levels, set to pulse on and off, or disabled entirely (though the colour cannot be changed, it’s only available in green), and that the palm-rest section can be physically moved up to about an inch back and forth, allowing for different hand-sizes to find their comfort level.

The Razer Tartarus retails at £69.99 in the UK ($79.99 in the US), and if you’re a serious PC gamer, it’s well worth every penny.

January 20th, 2014: Tom’s Top Games — Bioshock Infinite
Posted by Tom at 6:55 pm under Game Reviews, Gaming, Tom's Top Games. Comment?

Stand tall for the beast of America.

I’ve decided to start a new section on this blog — rather than writing game reviews, as I’ve done in the past, I’m going to be starting a new series showcasing my personal favourite games of all time, ranging from the very old to the very new. Of course opinions like this are highly subjective, and you’re welcome to disagree, but I hope to introduce you folks to some gems you may otherwise have overlooked. All of these titles on Tom’s Top Games are some of the best I’ve experienced in over two decades of gaming, so I guarantee they’re at least worth a look. Without further ado, it’s time to begin with one I’ve only played and finished recently: Bioshock Infinite.

Some of you may be familiar with the original Bioshock, a first-person shooter with a surprisingly complex story set in the underwater city of Rapture, a would-be paradise now populated by tyrants and madmen. While its sequel was not as well-received (and developed by a different studio), Bioshock Infinite proves itself to be the true successor to the throne, bringing to life a whole new and bizarre world in the form of Columbia, a floating city in the clouds, pictured to the right. Unlike Bioshock’s city of Rapture already lying in ruins, the player’s first experiences of Columbia are a stunningly beautiful, familiar-yet-alien society living in the heavens, seemingly all too perfect — aside from some uncomfortable religious zealotry, that is.

Visuals are a key aspect of Bioshock Infinite, along with its nuanced and compelling storyline — from the magnificent to the grotesque, every aspect of Columbia is treated to an absolutely stellar artistic representation, truly bringing the world to life. The visual treat is combined with a complex, ever-changing story based around a few central characters — Booker DeWitt, the somewhat gruff and unscrupulous protagonist of the tale, the mysterious Elizabeth, a young woman imprisoned and possessing mysterious powers, and the self-styled prophet of Columbia and antagonist of the story, Zachary Comstock. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bioshock game without some major plot twists, and without giving too much away, I’ll just say that not too far into the game, things start to get pretty crazy and reality itself is not quite as absolute as it previously seemed.

The gameplay is your fairly standard first-person shooter fare, spiced up a little with the addition of “vigors” — much like the plasmids in the original Bioshock, vigors are a sort of elixir that grant almost magical powers such as being able to shoot fire or lightning from your hands, trick enemy foes or machines into temporarily joining your side, and so on. In a remarkably welcome and refreshing change from the usual “escort quest” style gameplay in other shooters, Elizabeth as a companion is never a hindrance and instead a great help, often finding money or throwing Booker spare ammo in times of need. It’s the little details like that which make the game so fantastic and memorable; it’s clear that the developers have put a vast amount of effort into polishing this offering to a mirror shine.

It’s hard to say much more without giving too much away, and I feel Bioshock Infinite is a game better enjoyed the less you know about it before you begin. However, I can assure you folks that the game has a hundred times more depth than what I’ve been able to describe here, and a truly excellent storyline to boot. If you’re looking for a story-driven shooter with a fascinating and beautifully-constructed world, you’d be doing yourself a favour by giving this one a whirl.

January 19th, 2014: I’m just going to throw this out here…
Posted by Tom at 8:17 pm under Rambling. Comment?

Hokay, this isn’t normally something I’d make the subject of a blog post, but I figured I’d just throw this out there, and maybe someday I’ll get a bite.

When I was a kid, we had BBC Micro Model B’s in our school, which I’m sure will be familiar to many of my fellow Brits who grew up in the good old 80s. While primarily intended as learning tools, they also had a number of games available on a plethora of 5.25″ floppy disks — something that the kids in my school learned very quickly. I seem to recall a lot of them being multiple games on one disk — loading one disk would bring up a colourful menu screen, offering up to a dozen different simple games to play.

There were the obvious well-known favourites — Granny’s Garden, for example, in which free will is a thinly-veiled illusion, the bizarre red creature Podd which provided entirely too many hours of amusement (especially after we discovered the command “Podd can pop” — this was grade A humour for the kids in my class, which probably says a lot about my generation), and some shitty Spider-Man game that nobody really understood, but involved some small amount of web-slinging onto buildings before inevitably falling off and dying. We weren’t very good at that game.

There is one I remember specifically, though, and thus I get to the point of this blog post — not only can I not recall the name of this game, but nobody else seems to remember this game even existed. It’s possible that it was something written by one of the teachers (or even a particularly enterprising student) and left on one of the spare floppy disks in the school, or perhaps it’s just such an obscure little game on a compilation set that nobody else remembers it. For whatever reason, though, I’ve been unable to find any information about this game online, and frankly, it’s driving me up the wall.

For those who know the more technical specifications of the BBC Micro, I believe the game ran primarily in either Mode 2 — the chunky, yet most colourful mode — or Mode 7, which was the same format as Teletext. The main character was a small, roundish, red, alien-looking fellow with blue boots, and I believe his name was either Little Bit or Little Byte. He had two older, larger brothers — one was dark blue and one was green — who featured in some of the game’s puzzles. The gameplay involved a number of different puzzle elements, such as one where the hero had to traverse a grid of coloured squares (red, magenta and yellow, if I recall correctly) by figuring out the correct sequence; stepping on the wrong tile would send him back to the start. I’m pretty sure there was one part that was a simplified Towers of Hanoi puzzle, where the three brothers could be rearranged and stood on each others’ heads.

It later turned out, in the game’s simple story, that the smallest of the brothers was actually a super-hero in disguise, called Mega Bit (or was it Mega Byte?), and secretly had the most power even though he seemed to be the smallest and weakest of the three. Unfortunately, my memory of this game ends there — that must have either been the end of the game, or it was the furthest I was able to progress at the time. Worse still, no matter how many people I ask or how much I Google around, nobody remembers this game at all. So I’m writing this blog post as a plea, to anyone who reads this who knows what on earth I may be talking about — if you remember this game, I implore you to please leave a comment and let me know. If you remember what it was called, or any details I’ve forgotten, even better! Surely, I’m not the only one out there who has played this odd little game? Surely I’m not just going crazy and imagining all this… right?


January 16th, 2014: Do not panic, citizen. Everything is under control.
Posted by Tom at 10:46 pm under Site News. Comments (2)

If you’re seeing a bunch of random old posts from days gone by suddenly show up on your RSS feed, worry not: I’ve just been salvaging some of the old gaming-related content from my previous blog, before I shut it down for good and 301 redirect the whole site here.

Everything is now complete, relative normality is restored.

January 16th, 2014: DoW2 Last Stand wargear lists
Posted by Tom at 9:13 pm under Site News. Comment?

Just another little update: The wargear list for Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II‘s Last Stand game mode have been ported over from my old site to their new home here, and can be found (along with all the old comments including loadout suggestions) by clicking here, or selecting DoW2 Last Stand in the sidebar. Any links to the old site’s pages should automatically redirect here, but if there are any problems with the new lists, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and let me know!

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