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They Are Billions Review – A Fun Zombie RTS – Wolf’s Gaming Blog

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Zombies just don’t go out of fashion, do they? I “reviewedThey Are Billions over a year ago when it was in Early Access. It was all about building up a chunky base to hold out against swarms of zombies and it proved rather promising. Now that They Are Billions has officially left Early Access it boasts a proper campaign mode, so does it live up to its own potential?

The campaign casts you as an unnamed general in the army of the Emperor. Your orders are to expand the empire, retaking the land from the undead hordes at the behest of the Emperor himself who will be watching your progress intently.

The story is kept basic with only the occasional cutscene popping up where the Emperor waffles on. The voice acting and animation are both equally iffy, but it gets the job done. This isn’t really the kind of game where you look for a strong narrative, though a little more meat to sink our teeth into would have been nice.

Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Numantian Games
Publisher: Numantian Games

All of the core mechanics are quite typical RTS bits and bobs: there are resources to gather and buildings to construct. Workers are the most basic thing you need for almost everything and they need to be fed using hunters cabins, fishing or even more advanced farms. From there you’ll need to drop down some sawmills for wood, find a stone seam and then carry on to more advanced stuff like iron and oil so that new defenses, units and buildings can be constructed.

One interesting idea is that everything you build needs to be able to access the energy grid which you expand via special towers. This forces you to gradually push your control outwards. Of course, the downside to this idea is that you can’t create outposts. Even if you pop down a power-generating windmill you can’t have a second base, it absolutely must be connected to starting location via towers.

Sprucing it up is the cartoony steampunk vibe. Annoyingly there’s no camera rotation so you can’t get a full 360-degree view of the lovely art-work, but They Are Billions still looks pretty nice.

You’re building all this while also dealing with locals, who just so happen to be zombies who like the idea of chowing down on your poor population. Early in the game you typically start with four Ranger units who use bows, so you’ll send them out to scout the area and begin clearing out the nearby undead. The ever-looming threat, however, are the massive hordes. They Are Billions helpfully tells you on which day they’ll arrive, so you always know how long you have to start building up defences, but the exact direction won’t be known until the day. These hordes are a blast, especially because you’re never quite sure if your defences are strong enough to withstand them.

What makes the rotting corpses tottering toward you so damn dangerous is that a single zombie can royally fuck everything up. If just one reaches a house, for example, it can instantly turn the occupants into the undead, who then go to the next house and so on and so on. Just one zombie can lose you the game, which makes it all the more annoying that occasionally one will shamble past your early game defences because it just happened to walk along the treeline and for some reason They Are Billions doesn’t let you rotate the damn camera.

Nor does the game let you save whenever you feel like it. Missions will occasionally auto-save, but outside of that the only way to save your progress is when you quite the game entirely. In otherwords, you can’t just load up a save and try again when things go wrong, which can of course be annoying if you’re several hours into a match and decide to try something different. Personally the lack of manual saves doesn’t bother me, but I can imagine for a lot of people, especially those who load busy lifestyles, it’s going to be frustrating.

I also have to say that I sadly had a few crashes in my time with the game, leading to having to replay big chunks of missions.

Ultimately, though, the zombies wind up being the weakest part of the game. Their mindless nature means they don’t exactly make for the most tactically challenging of opponents. They have a pretty singular goal and tend to rely on one strategy: shambling in a straight line toward the nearest building, piece of wood or hapless fleshbag peasant. Cunning they are not. The thing is, in other RTS games it’s the opponent that makes each match feel different because they’ll usually employ different strategies. What worked for you in the last game might not work in the next. But with zombies there’s no variance outside of a few different enemy types, and so matches tend to feel the same. They follow the same formula of locating choke points, chucking up some walls and towers and maybe some automated defences and then just waiting for the zombies to shamble into your deathtrap. Then you maybe expand a little, build the same defences again and wait for the next horde.

The actual mission design doesn’t help bring any variety, either. Almost all of them involve needing to reach a certain population, and that means having to spam the crap out of tents, and then later houses. It actually becomes somewhat hilarious just how many dwellings you need to toss onto the map.

Rather than opting to go down the randomized route every map is hand-crafted which I very much appreciate. There’s some genuine effort made toward trying to make each one feel different, doing things like having a single checkpoint or a giant lake in the middle. It’s just not enough to stop each match feeling the same, though. It’s not enough that an objective might be to get X amount of gold production, because that doesn’t hide the fact that building the base and defending against the zombies feels the same almost every time.

Mixed into the campaign are two other mission types. The first has you defending a tower by buying units and defenses with points. It’s fun the first couple of times, but becomes a chore quickly. It doesn’t help that the most effective tactic is just to buy as many soldiers as you can and then keep them together in a ball formation around the tower.

The other mission type involves one of the two hero characters choose between at the start of the campaign and plays out like a top-down action game, except without the…er, everything, really. The idea is that you navigate ruined fortresses with the goal being to acquire a specific item, plus optional ones that will net you extra campaign resources. But since you’re facing zombies in relatively tight spaces the action amounts to clicking on an enemy, watching it die and repeating until boredom drives you to suicide by zombie. Sometimes numerous zombies will come charging at you, so backing up a little might be needed. That’s it.

Another problem is that the two heroes you get to choose from are virtually identical from a gameplay perspective. The male fires slower but deals more damage, while the female is quicker to shoot but doesn’t shred flesh quite as well. Neither changes how you approach combat.

Occasionally little ideas get tossed into the mix, like finding allies to order around or automated turrets that you can lure the brainless zombies into. It’s not enough to bring any excitement to the levels, though. Each one feels nearly identical, a slow plod through a dull map where objects you can pick up are annoyingly hard to spot, forcing you scroll over anything that looks remotely like it could be an item.

But outside of the standard missions the campaign does have one saving grace; a fun tech-tree to work through. Missions will give you research points that can then be sunk into opening up new options, from better resource gathering to tougher soldiers or entire new buildings. Research points aren’t dished out at an absurd rate, so that forces you to make decisions about what you want now and you want to get in the future. The tech you choose can even influence or be influenced by the missions available. Fancy trying the mission with extreme cold temperatures that increase energy usage? Well, that upgrade to the mill sure would be handy. The only flaw is that there are some things which ultimately wind up being objectively better, such as the soldiers.

They Are Billions did struggle to keep me coming back. The key to enjoying the game is to not play too much or else the repetition becomes an issue. And that’s a shame because the actual building of a base and holding out against the undead is genuinely good fun. The steampunk aesthetic works well, I like the idea and despite its flaws I even enjoyed the lengthy campaign. It’s a flawed game, yes, but still worth playing despite that.

3.5 out of 5

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Wolfenstein: Youngblood Review – A Passable Offshoot – Wolf’s Gaming Blog

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The official artwork for Wolfenstein: Youngblood from Bethesda, Machine Games and Arkane.

I really love the idea behind games like Wolfenstein: Youngblood. Cheaper, smaller offshoots of the main series that let the developers play around with some ideas without having to create something quite so vast. Taken in that context, though, reviewing this smaller projects can be difficult because just how much should they be compared to their main series counterparts? Wolfenstein: Youngblood, after all, does do a lot different: new lead characters, co-op gameplay, RPG mechanics and a second developer in the form of Arkane, the folk responsible for Dishonored. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s jump into it.

The Terror Twins

Taking centre stage are the Terror Twins Jess and Soph, the daughters of B.J. Blazkowicz and his wife Anya. They’re teenagers raised to kill Nazis by a father who, and let’s be honest here, is a tad on the crazy side. The first time the twins kill a Nazi soldier they become giddy and excited, then one of them throws up and laughs again while the other picks brains out of their hair. They revel in slaughtering Nazis, perhaps more so than their own dad. They’re also goof balls who mess about in elevators, refer to themselves as Arthur and Kenneth after their favourite book series and are frequently immature.

Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Machine Games, Arkane
Publisher: Bethesda

The plot kicks off when B.J. mysteriously vanishes. Jess and Soph decide to go find their dear old dad with help from their best friend Abby, the handy-dandy tech geek whose personality and relevance to the story could best be described as exceptionally non-existent.

The Terror Twins also represent the game’s single biggest problem, at least for the majority of people, it seems. Their brash, almost like the quintessential bro-dudes of gaming from years ago, acting like the long-lost siblings of Marcus Fenix and Dom. Their antics can be annoying, and they have no real development over the course of the story. But I liked them in a strange way, and that’s because I think they are supposed to be annoying and weird and dude-broish. The reason, of course, is that they were raised to kill Nazis and their enthusiasm for doing that is…kind of worrying.

Here’s how I view it: the twins still have basic teenager traits, from their less than subtle humour to their antics in elevators. Mixed with that, though, is a terrifying bloodlust. They were trained from birth to kill people and they are good at it. Just as good as their dad, it seems. In other words, I feel the over-the-top tone is quite deliberate and that the twins aren’t meant to be likeable in the traditional sense. In a way we’re supposed to feel sorry for them because they’re already so caught up in blood and death that they’ve clearly never had a chance to have a childhood or grow up normally. They lack social skills because that’s just not something they had the opportunity to build up.

There are two big problems with my little theory, though: either I’m correct about the twins portrayal being deliberately more worrying than likeable, in which case the writers failed horribly to get this across because most people just find the twins annoying, or I’m completely wrong and they are indeed just crap characters. Neither of those possibilities is a good one. Either way the writers failed in their job, and the Terror Twins are a pale shadow of their own father.

But knocking these deeper debates to the side, the twins just don’t have much personality. Though they may look different they both have largely the same character, and their sole drive is that daddy taught ’em how to kill Nazis and now daddy is missing, so they’re going to go kill the Nazis. It’s not compelling stuff and by the end of the game they haven’t changed, grown or developed.

Outside of the twins the rest of the characters are forgettable and dull. Likewise, the story, which revolves around the fact that one day B.J. goes mysteriously missing, is half-hearted nonsense that only occasionally pops up to get in the way before disappearing again. Indeed, there’s arguably a better storyline going on in the collectibles.

What’s frustrating is just how much cool potential there was for Jess and Soph to be compelling and interesting people, had the game ever taken the time to raise some of the obvious questions. What’s it like being raised under Nazi occupation as the daughters of the most famous Nazi killer ever? Should they follow in the bloody footsteps of their father? At the very start of the game we see Jess hunting a goat under the watchful eye of her father. So focused on the target she is that she doesn’t see the snake about to bite her, and is saved by B.J. at the last second who teaches her a valuable lesson; don’t become so focused on one thing that you forget about everything else around you. As for Soph, she’s training with her mother on a punching bag and wants to stop because she’s tired, but her mother pushes her on, telling her that all it takes is one Nazi. These set up potentially interesting character flaws and beats for the sisters to overcome later, but they don’t. In fact, in the story’s big twist it becomes almost comically stupid.

And finally, the constant use of “dude” and “bro” is downright fucking annoying.

But The Shooting Is Still Good

Alright, so the twins aren’t going to be winning any awards, but the good news is that the core Nazi-shooting gameplay still feels mighty fine, albeit with a few questionable tweaks that stop it from being as refined as the previous two games in the franchise.

The magic is in the guns which feel chunky, powerful and awesome to use. Each pull of trigger feels freaking great, although now it takes considerably more firepower to put down the Nazi soldiers who are determined to introduce your face to the wonders of fast-travelling metal. You see, somewhere between the events of the last game and this one the Nazis have discovered health bars and an armour system, both of which make killing them to death much harder.

Let me explain this new armour thingy because along with health bars it’s one of the two things that Youngblood gets wrong with its core combat. Basically many of the Nazi soldiers ambling around come packing hard amour or soft armour, as denoted by a small white rectangle or a slightly different small white rectangle. If you don’t use the correct weapon against the right armour then you can still kill the Nazi bastards but it’s going to take a lot more bullets.

Presumably the system is designed to make you swap weapons and use the entire arsenal at your disposal. I suppose on paper it’s not a bad idea but in practice it’s awkward, breaks the flow of the otherwise smooth combat and stops you from using the guns you actually want to be using.

The level design is where you can feel the influence of Arkane the most. While certainly not as impressive or layered as those found in the Dishonored series, Youngblood’s levels tend to have some nice verticality to them so that your double jump feels awesome to use. This brings some extra energy to the combat that I appreciated, though I wish the enemy A.I. could have made more use of it, too. Everything feels nice, fast and fluid, and so while Youngblood doesn’t manage to match its own predecessor it’s still good fun in its own right.

As for the stealth, it’s still featured but its inclusion feels almost like an afterthought. In the previous games killing Commanders would stop reinforcements from arriving, so sneaking around until you could kill them was often a good plan. Here, though, killing a Commander simply decreases the amount of high level reinforcements that will come tumbling in, which doesn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying a reward. Plus, the enemy layouts make pure stealth almost useless – more often than not it all ends in a hail of bullets.

There’s An RPG In My Wolfenstein

The biggest gameplay change to have occurred is that somehow seems to have got confused and accidentally put some RPG into my Wolfenstein. Enemies now sport little numbers next to them that indicated their relative level, while others will have a skull. At the game’s launch these bastards were nigh on unkillable, but along the way updates have made it so that it’s possible to tackle skull enemies and still walk away with your limbs intact.

Killing Nazis grants you experience which in turn levels you up, and for each level you dish out more raw damage. That would be wonderful if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies level up with you anyway, so no matter how many levels you gain everything feels the same. There’s no sense of true progression, even when you head back to previous areas.

You’ll also be given points to invest in improving your character, but somebody in the development team forgot that levelling up is supposed to be an exciting prospect. There are a few skills you can buy and upgrade but they boil down to improving health, making your charge attack a bit better and making your throwing weapons more dangerous. The only two that felt truly fun and game-changing to get was the ability to pick up heavy weapons and store them in your inventory, where they could then be upgraded. The second lets you turn invisible, which feels more like a crutch for the weak stealth elements.

Considering this is a Wolfenstein game you might expect to be gathering up Nazi gold, but instead the levels are sprinkled with silver coins that can be hoovered up. You can then spend these coins to upgrade your weapons, each one having several pieces that can be swapped out for one of three parts which alter the stats. Now this little piece of RPG goodness is one I actually liked. It’s kind of cool to tweak your weapons to your liking, and there’s a small selection of skins that you can apply, too. There’s even extra bonuses to be earned if you decide to match up part manafacturers.

Overall, these attempts to introduce RPG elements into the mix don’t really work. A whole redesign would be needed rather than attempting to stuff them into the current Wolfenstein template. I’m not actually opposed to that, but it needs to be done right. I mean, why let players choose between the sisters at the start of the game if they both have the same skills anyway? Why not let us build wholly different characters?

A Whole New Structure

The previous two games were purely linear shooters featuring bespoke levels for every mission. It was a glorious return to hand-designed missions and controlled pacing. For Youngblood, though, there’s a new structure in place with Paris being divided into small sections that act like little hubs. Whenever you head out on a story mission or one of the basic side-missions you’ll jump into one of these sectors and head for the objective. As a result you retread the same ground over and over, with the enemy groups having respawned and somehow not become suspicious of the fact that you always come storming through the same area. At some point you’d think they would realise that you keep coming out of the metro and would at least board it up or something.

The problem is that these little hubs just aren’t very interesting, so coming back to them is hardly exciting. Arkane’s influence is something I mentioned earlier and it can be felt in the general layouts, but while the Dishonored franchise gave you a wealth of tools to play with around the environment Wolfenstein: Youngblood does not. The sectors of Paris remain the same every time you come back with nothing new or exciting to explore. Even enemy locations are mostly the same.

A small attempt at making revisiting parts of Paris was made by including doors which can only be opened using certain guns, almost a very light Metroidvania element. It’s inclusion, though, feels so incredibly half-hearted because your reward for slogging back through a level after trying to remember where the hell these doors were is a few coins, some armour and ammo. There’s no cool secrets, new routes or potentially awesome new weapons to unlock behind these doors. Nothing of worth whatsoever.

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus had a main hub that you returned to and it was not a feature which was appreciated, for the most part. It’s surprising to see the exact same idea employed in Wolfenstein: Youngblood. To get new missions you need to head back to the Catacombs that act as the Terror Twin’s base of operations, and oh boy, is it boring. There’s nothing in it. The characters that stand around in the catacombs exist to hand out some missions, there’s nothing to do and there’s no reason for the place to exist.

Microtransactions

It’s hard to escape microtransactions these days, and Bethesda seem more than happy to sneak some into their games. By paying real money you can purchase weapon and armour skins, including some they aren’t available via any other means.

You can also pick up boosters that increase the rate at which you pick up ammo, health or gain experience.

The good news is that there’s nothing pushing you toward these microtransactions. Health, ammo and experience are all easy things to come by and the few skins that can only be picked up using real money are really not worth it. Indeed, most of the weapon and power suit skins aren’t worth a glance, let alone spending coins on.

Co-op

The big selling point of Wolfenstein: Youngblood is the co-op, or at least it should be. But they really dropped the ball here by crafting the most basic, bog-standard co-op they possibly could. The extent of the co-op gameplay is picking up your downed sister or both of you having to use a lever at the same time. You might, at the very least, expect enemies that have weakpoints to be exploited by one player acting as a decoy, but Youngblood doesn’t even have that.

I’ve said before that any co-op that is fun simply because you’re playing with a friend is not co-op worth having. Pretty much anything is more fun if a friend is along for the ride, including torture, casual murder and trying to break into the Queen’s Palace. A good co-op game builds its mechanics around having someone else there. Just look at Portal 2. But Wolfenstein: Youngblood effectively feels like two people playing singleplayer together. That sense of co-operation is never there.

I’m also pretty baffled by the fact that a game supposedly build around multiplayer does not support local co-op. WHAT!?

With that said, leaping around and gunning down Nazis together is enjoyable, so if all you want is a run and gun shooter to enjoy with a mate then this might just do the job for you.

Oh, and I do have to mention the buddy pass system! Basically if you buy a copy of the game you can then have a friend play in co-op with you for free by downloading the demo version of the game. Obviously they can’t play solo or with other people, but it’s still a great idea that I’d love to see in other games.

Black Boxes of Doom!

I have to say that on PC Wolfenstein: Youngblood looks amazing at times with plenty of detail, lovely art design and smooth performance. With my Ryzen 1600 CPU and GTX 1080 I was able to get over 100fps with everything turned up, and no major drops or anything of that sort. That’s great considering the combat is fast and fluid.

I also have to say that there’s plenty of graphical options to play around with so that you can nail the right settings.

And for the most part it was a bug-free experience, with one major exception that is so damn major it could hold the rank of major in the bloody army. You see, occasionally and for no apparent reason giant black boxes will appear on the screen and obscure your vision. I can’t find what triggers these floating boxes of non-colour, but they seriously do fuck everything up. At one point I spent most of a boss battle unable to see because every time I looked at the giant robot Nazi thing trying to stomp my face into the ground I would just wind up looking at a massive black box. Lots of people seem to have this issue, and it’s a fucking nightmare. It needs to be fixed ASAP.

The Wrap Up

Wolfenstein: Youngblood has gotten kind of brutally demolished by the gaming community, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair: a lot of folk have treated it like it’s Wolfenstein 3, which it isn’t. It’s a budget spin-off game trying some new stuff, and can’t really be held up to the same standards as the previous two main entries in the franchise. That isn’t to say that Wolfenstein: Youngblood isn’t deserving of criticism; it’s certainly a game with big issues, an experiment that doesn’t fully work. The Terror Twins themselves are the prime example of this having failed to connect with the majority of players.

But I don’t think it’s a complete failure. The core combat, even with the changes that don’t work, is still a lot of fun and blasting Nazis with a friend is pretty cool. Therefore, even though it’s already a budget game this is one I think is worth picking up on sale.

2.5 out of 5

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FIA European Truck Racing CHampionship

FIA European Truck Racing Championship Review – Keep On Trucking – Wolf’s Gaming Blog

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The human race can be a confusing species indeed. We merrily build powerful trucks designed to transport lots of cargo, and then for some reason decide to go racing with them, despite the fact that we also build incredible cars and bikes designed specifically to race. These trucks are so completely unsuitable for racing that their brakes literally attempt to self-destruct, and yet race them we do. Because humans are bloody stupid. We’re the same species that create energy drinks, slap on a warning that they shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol and then proceed to mix them with alkanol anyway. It’s a wonder we’ve actually made it this far. And that brings us to FIA European Truck Racing Championship, the officially licensed game of the real-life sport of racing things that shouldn’t be raced.

Since it’s based on the official sport that means there’s a selection of 14 circuits, including the likes of Laguna Seca and the Fuji Speedway, plus 45 trucks across 20 different teams. Before you can unleash your racing fury on these tracks, though, you’ve got to work through a pretty extensive tutorial in order to earn your race license. It’s a lengthy process that reminds me of playing Gran Turismo back in the day. It might be frustratingly long for some people, but it does give you a good idea of what makes racing big rigs different to anything else.

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: N-Racing
Publisher: Bigben Interactive

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher

The career mode forms the bulk of the game and offers two modes; the official European championship and an entirely fictional worldwide championship involving slightly faster but more cumbersome trucks. The game holds you back from getting to the best stuff, though, by having you sign weekend contracts with teams for the first while. Once you finally get free of these you can sign up properly with a team, unlocking the ability to upgrade your truck. Profit becomes part of the mix, too, since damage must be repaired and your team will have certain demands when it comes to performance and cash. If you fail to meet expectations then you might even get kicked out of the team.

It’s certainly fair to say that the career mode lacks the polish, flair or even depth of other racing titles like F1 2019. Deciding to have you go through an entire season without getting to sign up with a team properly, upgrade your truck and try to maintain cash flow baffles me. With the A.I. turned up I still wound up winning the European championship in my first season despite not being signed to any one team, and the idea of going for a second season was daunting.

Over on the multiplayer front it’s pretty barebones, too. There are no online championships or full seasons to play through with friends, for example, but of course you can just jump into a standard race with other folk or create a custom event. Be warned, though, that finding people to race against is tricky. Even close to launch the online community isn’t large, a direct result of the niche nature of the game.

But let’s get to the actual truck racing part of this truck racing game. If you need proof that chunky 5-tonne machines aren’t meant to be raced around tracks then look no further than the brakes which will scream in pain as soon as you touch them. These things just aren’t designed to stop so much weight so quickly. Stomp on the brakes, and they’ll basically try to destroy themselves. To combat this the racing trucks are equipped with jets that can spray water directly onto the brakes to cool them back down. These are manually controlled, so while you race around you also need to keep an eye on the brake temperatures. To get the best stopping power you want to keep them in a certain temp range, and if you let them get too hot they’ll degrade.

This brings an interesting extra layer of strategy to the game, at least in theory. A limited water supply means you should need to be careful with cooling off the brakes, yet there’s so damn much water that I never came close to running out during races. Still, having to think about cooling off the brakes before coming charging into the next air-pin bend does make the game stand out from so many of the other racing games out there.

It might be tempting to see overheating brakes as a perfect excuse to smash into the other trucks but FIA European Truck Racing Championship is actually a very strict game. If it was wearing a shirt and tie the very top button would be done up and the tie would be cutting off all blood and oxygen to the brain. There are penalty markers on corners to stop you cutting them, and merely brushing up against another truck in a vaguely sexual manner is enough to earn a warning. Sometimes, though, the penalties can be extreme and unwarranted. I’ve been given penalties for other racers smashing into me, being shoved off the track and more.

Thought they might look all sexy and sporty trucks do not handle like Formula 1 cars and that’s what makes them interesting. Momentum is everything in these metal beasts, but keeping that momentum is tricky. They’re big and lumbering, the braking distances large and the turning radius akin to the average iceberg. Despite this they’re prone to powersliding, too, so it’s not unusual to find yourself going sideways around a bend.

Another feature of trucks that makes them different from racing anything else is that there’s just four gears, two of which you don’t even use very often. The trick behind this is that the trucks have a narrow power band and a powerful turbo, so you need to keep yourself in that band to get the most performance. It can take a bit of time to get used to this, but once you do it’s yet another fun way in which FIA European Truck Racing Championship differentiates itself from the rest of the rabble.

There’s even some tyre degradation to take into account. While I’d say it’s not a heavy focus of the game (you can’t choose tyres or pit for new rubber) you can certainly feel the grip altering and fading away as the laps count down. Later in races it’s not uncommon to wind up trying to coax your truck round a bend because the damn thing just won’t turn any more.

I have to give some props to the A.I. too. While they’re too slow they do also race in a fairly believable manner, often misjudging corners and overtakes before going flying off the circuit, barrelling into other racers and into you. They can race wheel-to-wheel as well, and given the size of trucks the close battles can be a lot of fun. I had some great battles side-by-side through several corners. For all of their prowess, though, they can also be horrendously stupid, managing to spin off on formation laps and being prone to braking randomly on straights. This is why drink-driving is a bad idea, kids, not because you might hurt someone but because it makes for shite racing.

This is absolutely a racing game that benefits from a wheel and pedal setup. It’s much easier to appreciate the challenges of racing massive trucks when you literally have to wrestle the wheel round and round. Unlike proper racing machines trucks take considerable steering to actually turn, and the wheel is suitably heavy. Even small adjustments take a surprising amount of movement in the wheel. It’s a pretty solid workout if you can’t be arsed going to the gym.

For the best experience I’d recommend heading into the force feedback and ramping up the suspension setting as that helps give the trucks a heavier feeling. And speaking of the force feedback it does a pretty decent job of telling your hands what’s going on, though I’d say the road surface itself doesn’t have much feel to it outside of the kerbs.

However, a frustrating bug does appear when using a wheel, or at least when using my Logitech G920. When you come back on track after taking a drive-through penalty it’s like the deadzone is suddenly exponentially increased and the force feedback nearly disappears. The only way to correct the fault is to pause the game, unplug the wheel and then plug it back in.

I don’t mean to say that playing with a controller isn’t fine, too. You just don’t manage to get quite the same sense of lumbering weight as you do when you’re spinning a steering wheel around like you’ve just been told that your life-long crush is standing behind you wearing nothing but a thong and some whipped cream.

One thing I disliked about the game wasn’t really its fault, rather it’s the reality of licensing a real sport and thus being held to its rules and structure. A typical race weekend of European Truck Racing will consist of a practical session, a qualifying, a SuperPole qualifying, two races, another qualifying, another SuperPole and another two races. It’s certainly an authentic experience but personally I did find it to be too much of a single track. While there’s an option to cut down race distances and you can retire out of practice sessions whenever you want, there’s no way to trim down the amount of events over the course of a weekend.

But on the other hand the structure of the racing is great. The first race plays out as you’d expect, but the second race reverses the finishing positions of the top eight trucks in order to form the grid order for the second race. If that sentence made any sense to you then congratulations, you’re probably a petrol head or as mentally challenged as I am.

It’s a real shame that while truck racing in real life has 18 vehicles but the game is limited to just twelve. I’m not sure if this is a development limitation or perhaps a deliberate choice to avoid too much on-track chaos.

Unsurprisingly where the smaller development budget shows is in the graphics which are occasionally quite good but mostly about on par with something from the end of the Xbox 360/PS3 era. It’s almost at its best when the sun is sitting low on the horizon and blinding you with its burning rays of doom. It’s at its very best when it’s wet and the reflections of the light manage to make the track look more dynamic and alive. But when the track is dry and the sky is staying frustratingly free of wetness the game looks…flat. The trucks themselves are wonderfully recreated, but everything around them lacks detail.

The audio does fare a little bit better. Although the music will be forgotten faster than a cheap petrol station sandwich the sound of the chunky engines comes across great. I just wish there was a chunkier sound when trucks collide.

As a game aiming for a niche audience I think FIA European Truck Racing Championship is actually a lot better than I would have expected. Though it feels like a basic, bare bones package in comparison to a lot of other racing titles on the market it makes up for it with some terrific on-track action.It’s not going to be for everyone, but if the idea of 5-tonne trucks drifting round corners sounds like something the world needs more of then FIA European Truck Racing Championship is the game for you.

But for the sequel I demand that your truck can transform into Optimus Prime.

3 out of 5

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Oculus Rift S Review – Upgrade, Or Downgrade? – Wolf’s Gaming Blog

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A side view of the Oculus Rift S VR Headset

The Oculus Rift S is not the next big Rift that we’ve all been waiting for, and Oculus themselves have been careful not to advertise it as one. No, the Oculus Rift S is…uh. Honestly, the problem is I don’t think anyone is sure what the S actually is. It isn’t an upgrade nor arguably even a refinement as many of the improvements have come at the expense of other features. So, let’s review the Oculus Rift S and try to figure who this VR headset is really for.

I’ll preface the review by saying I upgraded from the original Rift to the Oculus Rift S, so I’m familiar with the Oculus Rift and am writing this review from the perspective of someone who made the sacrifice.

Oculus Rift S Packaging, Comfort & Build

But before we delve deep into the headset itself let’s stop and quickly chat about the packaging. I know, I know, does the box it comes in make a difference? Not really, but in some ways the packaging for the Oculus Rift S is indicative of the system as a whole. Unboxing the original Oculus was a pleasure: a massive chunky box, clips holding the headset in place and lovely foam padding. By comparison the Oculus Rift S box feels cheaper with less padding or feeling of luxury. It isn’t a huge problem, but this is a prime example of how the Rift S can sometimes feel like a step down from the headset it’s replacing.

This new iteration of the Oculus Rift has been designed in partnership with Lenovo, as indicated by the Lenovo logo on the side. The fabric straps of the original Oculus Rift have been tossed into the design bin and instead it looks like the PS VR has been copied almost entirely. There’s now a halo band that encircles your head with a strap at the top and a large, easy to use dial at the rear which tightens the whole headset. At the front there’s another familiar PS VR feature; the whole front piece moves in and out which is very handy if you wear glasses.

All in all I found the Oculus Rift S to be much more comfortable than its predecessor. The weight feels like its more evenly spread around your skull now, and so longer sessions are a doddle. Due to the new cameras the front of the headset is heavier than ever, but the halo manages to balance everything out nicely.

The cushioning is less impressive. Both front and back have very basic foam padding that doesn’t seem to be moisture resistant, so during intense games they tend to become a slightly soggy mess. The cushions running around the halo band have all been glued into place, so you can’t remove them which makes cleaning more awkward and also means you can’t just replace them. At least the entire front faceplate can be taken off so swapping it out with a superior after market cushion that offers better comfort and cleaning is possible. But for a £400 product the cheap foam padding that you get is disappointing.

Speaking of cheap, the whole unit lacks the polish and refinement that you hope to see in such an expensive product. The original Oculus Rift has a lovely fabric finish and a relatively sleek design, whereas the Oculus Rift S is made of a hard plastic and looks kind of cheap. Of course, when its strapped to your face what it looks like is everyone else’s problem.

Even the cable has gotten a redesign. It’s now 1m longer than the original Rift bringing the total length to 5m, and it’s a much thicker gauge. The whole thing still connects via USB but the HDMI connection has been thrown out of a window and in its place is a DisplayPort connector. Inside the box you get a DisplayPort-to-mini-Displayport adapter which lets it connect to some laptops.

Another big change is that the physical IPD (interpupillary distance) of the Original Oculus has vanished into the ether. What we get now is digital IPD but it has a smaller spectrum of adjustment, so if you happen to have quite a wide or narrow IPD then the Oculus Rift S isn’t for you. This change is sadly a direct result of the change from dual screens to a single screen system, but it’s still a potentially big problem for some users.

A close up image of the Oculus Rift S touch controllers.

The controllers have gotten a redesign, too. The sensor ring has been shifted to the top now, for example, and the slightly awkward mini-touchpad has vanished entirely. They’re comfy to use and while I still wish there was a proper place to rest my thumb I’m quite happy with them. They’re still powered by single AA batteries which are covered using magnetic covers, though the magnets seem a bit weaker this time round.

Inside-Out Tracing Is The Future?

Probably the biggest change with the new Rift S is that external sensors are gone. This has some obvious benefits: firstly, with no sensors needed you no longer have to worry about losing 2-3 of your USB ports. You also don’t need to route cables around your room, or awkwardly move your PC to find a good spot. Personally, this new freedom to position myself in the room was fantastic as previously the only places I could put the sensors meant I didn’t have as much space as possible and the wire was constantly getting in the way.

The new inside-out tracking system means there are now cameras embedded in the headset itself which track your controllers. You have instant access to room-scale VR with this, the only limitation being the cable tethering you to the PC. On paper, it’s a huge change. If you have a room free then now you can utilize the entire space without needing to buy extra sensors or route cables. That’s an exciting prospect, the only thing missing from the equation being a wireless headset.

A rear view of the Oculus Rift S headset showing the strap, padding and lenses.

But there are some big tradeoffs when it comes to the tracking. The five cameras positioned around the front of the headset provide pretty good coverage, but when you bring your hands up in front of your face the tracking can go a little crazy. Likewise, raising your hands above your head or reaching for something behind your back can cause the tracking to struggle. There’s also issues when you place one controller in front of the other, like when using a two-handed gun in a game. These problems are being worked on through software updates but it’s fair to say that while convenient inside-out tracking isn’t as accurate as external sensors.

With that said, outside of those problems the tracking feels just as accurate as the original Rift.

Another benefit of the new cameras is that you can use pass through, which means you can swap to a grey-scale view of your real-world surroundings at the press of a button. It’s not a very detailed image, but it lets you check where your dog is, grab your drink, make sure you haven’t accidentally wandered close to something breakable and just provide one more excuse to never leave VR.

A New Screen, A Sharper Image

And finally, lets talk about the screen. Firstly the 90Hz refresh rate that Oculus adamantly declared to be the “sweet spot” for VR gaming has been abandoned in favour of a slightly lower 80Hz. It’s strange to see the company retreating from their previous stance, but after using the headset I have to admit that I didn’t notice the difference. That surprised me because I’ve always been quite sensitive when it comes to seeing the difference between lower and higher refresh rates on a normal PC screen. While it may not have had any effect on me, however, the drop in refresh unarguably risks VR sickness in other folk who might just find the 10Hz decrease to be too much.

As for the screen itself the original OLED is out and in its place is an LCD running at 2560 x 1440, which is a slight step up in terms of raw resolution from the previous 2160 x 1200. Without the OLED screen the contrast and color isn’t as good, but trade-off is a sharper image and a substantial decrease in God Rays, something which I always had a lot of problems with when using the original Oculus Rift. Overall the new screen, the resolution, the reduction in the God Rays and whatever other magic is being worked in the background were a huge improvement in terms of eye fatigue, at least for me personally. With the old Rift I would find myself awkwardly trying to focus on things in the distance or accidentally focusing on the screen door effect. With the Oculus Rift S this was much less of an issue and that meant I was a lot more comfortable overall. The resolution bump was probably most notable in racing titles like Project Cars 2 because distant corners, cars and markers were much easier to spot.

There’s also a larger sweet spot on the Oculus Rift S, meaning it’s easier find that point where everything is in focus. This in turn means there’s a little less hassle when ramming the Oculus Rift S onto your head.

As for setup it was a breeze. Once connected you’ll need to lay some boundary lines and for that the Oculus Rift S swaps over to the pass through cameras so that you can quickly draw your plays pace using one of the controllers. Easy.

Terrible Audio

So far the story of the Oculus Rift S has been one of tradeoffs: better resolution but lower refresh rate; easy access to room-scale VR but some big tracking problems. But now we arrive at a pure loss with no tangible benefit. The Oculus Rift came equipped with basic but effective earphones that sat on your ears. For the Oculus Rift S these have been removed and in their place is a new ambient audio system, with sound now being pumped out of the headband itself via a few small holes. This means the audio is being put out above your ears, and the result is frankly pathetic. In-game action, music and movies all sound tinny, lacking any sort of depth or bass. It also means anyone in the room with you is subjected to whatever gross, horrific thing you’re doing. Ahem.

The only benefits I can think of behind ripping out the earphones is that you can hear the real world and thus may potentially evade sneaky ninja attacks, and that not having something sitting on your ears feels better than having something on them. Neither of these things are worth the loss, though. Even by sliced up by one of them sneaky ninjas would be worth risking for some decent audio.

There is at least a standard 3.5mm output so that you can plug in your own audio solution. Finding anything to fit over the chunky headband can be a challenge, though. Personally, I’m using the PS VR Mantis which I previously had hooked up to my PS VR unit. These have a clamp which fits nicely over the headband, and by using a cable tie the wires can be kept out of the way. It’s a shame they only come in white and thus ruin the aesthetic a bit, but that’s worth it for half-decent sound.

Who The Hell Is The Oculus Rift S For?

The Oculus Rift S is a strange beast indeed. Oculus themselves were careful not to market this as a true sequel and that was smart, but it doesn’t seem to be a refinement of the existing hardware, either, which makes its existence…pointless? I’m just not sure who this is meant to be for. Certainly it isn’t for owners of the original Oculus Rift as the various trade-offs don’t make it worth upgrading to the Oculus Rift S. For VR newcomers the Oculus Rift S has replaced the original headset entirely on store shelves, but I can’t say they’re getting a better product overall.

But let’s toss all of that to the side for a minute and just talk about the Oculus Rift S on its own. While the Valve Index is Ferrari of VR headsets with a colossal price tag and the PS VR is more like the slightly dented second-hand Ford Feista the Oculus Rift S is the mid-range family car. A little expensive but still affordable. While the Oculus Rift S does have some obvious drawbacks it’s still a fantastic VR experience and the best way to get into virtual reality. Yes, PS VR is cheaper and the Valve Index is better, but the Rift S strikes the best balance in my eyes provided you’ve got a machine capable of handling it.

3.5 out of 5

Categories: Reviews, Tech Reviews

Tagged as: oculus, Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, pc, PS VR, review, Touch controllers, Valve Index, Virtual Reality, vr

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