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MONSTER HUNTER 3 ULTIMATE REVIEW

Every time a new Monster Hunter games comes out, I think: surely, I must be done with this now. After several hundred hours over at least three versions, I’m not going to get sucked in again. But I do, every time. It’s because Monster Hunter’s world is so absorbing, and the gentle rhythm of prepare, hunt, and collect is so innately satisfying. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is the slickest game in the series to date, and it’s an ideal introduction to the hugely enjoyable business of cooperative monster-slaying.

The basic idea is to venture out into the wilds, find an impressive monster, kill it, and then make hats and swords out of its entrails – but there’s a lot more to it than that. There are 12 weapons, hundreds of items, and more than 100 hours’ worth of quests, but it’s the thrill of the chase and the addictive rush of hard-earned victory that continually hooks me in.

Monster Hunter has a reputation for being intimidating, but really it’s a lot easier to get to grips with than it looks. It’s challenging, sure – thrillingly challenging – but it’s hardly Dark Souls. In Japan this is a game played by mums, little brothers, couples… something like five million people, going by Monster Hunter Portable 3rd’s sales. All you need is someone to show you the ropes.

There are a few new monsters, a rearranged single-player experience and a whole new multiplayer area, but the meat and bones are the same as 2010’s Monster Hunter Tri –

with updated graphics on Wii U, of course, and much better loading times. It’s got the same finely-tuned selection of weapons, the same storyline, and many of the same single-player quests, though they have been reshuffled to incorporate new monsters and the difficulty curve is slightly gentler this time around – some of the toughest missions have been moved up a rank or two, evening out a few of Tri’s difficulty spikes. 

Whether you’re playing on 3DS or Wii U, you’re getting the same experience, which is pretty remarkable in itself. You can transfer your save between the two platforms using a free app from the eShop. You can play online on Wii U, but not on 3DS – and if there’s four of you in a room together, you can play locally on three handheld consoles and one Wii U, and the TV screen becomes an HD showcase for your battle – which is by far the most exciting way to play. Monster Hunter really comes alive in multiplayer, so you’ll want to coerce some friends into playing with you. Show them a few of the best battles, though, and they probably won’t need much persuasion.

The graphical update is a touch disappointing for players of Tri, though. It’s clear that Capcom has spent most of its time making the monsters themselves look better; the environments, by contrast, are still very sparse, with some textures that are noticeably out of place in HD. The smaller monsters and non-player characters in the single- and multiplayer towns also haven’t been remodelled.

Touchscreen features, though, are a valuable addition. The Wii U gamepad and 3DS touchscreen can be customised with panels, so you can put your map, health and stamina, item pouch, and whatever else on the bottom screen if you want, giving you an unobstructed view of the action. It unclutters the screen, it’s customisable to your tastes, and it’s more convenient to actually play.

Monster Hunter quests come in three broad flavours: head out and gather some of this thing, kill a number of smaller monsters, or kill one big bad monster. The third flavour makes up about 75% of the quests on offer, and those are the ones that progress you through the ranks;Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate knows we don’t want to spend hours collecting mushrooms before we’re allowed to fight anything.

That said, crafting is integral to Monster Hunter, and gathering materials out in the wilds to make the tools you need provides the slower-paced, more soothing counterpoint to the lengthy battles. You need ore and metals for armour, herbs for making potions, plants and animal parts to combine into useful things like performance-enhancers and, of course, weapons and armour. There are only six large areas, from desert to volcano to beautiful mountain to the obligatory frozen tundra, and one new area that looks like a mystical Chinese jungle. Almost all of the quests take place in these same six areas (excepting a few that have their own special arenas); it might seem stingy, but it forces you get to know them intimately, mentally mapping every shortcut and resource point.

It’s all preparation for the main event. Monster Hunter’s battles are among those rare video game confrontations that truly qualify as epic: they last up to 50 minutes, and at their most gut-wrenching they are battles of attrition that go right down to the wire, as you launch your lance into the air with your last sliver of stamina just as a monster opens its jaws and miraculously kill it with seconds left on the clock. It’s these tremendously rewarding struggles that deliver the most powerful adrenaline surge, and if the first one works on you, you’ll be chasing that hit through the 200-odd quests in the game.

Underpinning Monster Hunter’s grand battles is a lovably quirky sense of humour. It’s got eccentric gestures, ridiculous armour, talking cats that cook your dinner, pigs in Babygro onesies, a cheesy barbecuing mini-game, and wittily translated dialogue – and the sight of my hunter haplessly sprinting away from a monster before falling on her face still raises a smile 40 hours in.

The best moments in Monster Hunter are when you meet a new beast for the first time. These creatures look incredible; aggressive, distinctive, and properly alive. They don’t have anything so obvious as a health bar – you have to ascertain how close you are to victory by observing their behaviour, watching for a limp, a damaged wing, or signs of tiredness. This is one of the best things about Monster Hunter – you have to rely on your instincts and get to know your quarry.

There’s a lot to learn about here, too. Even 50-plus hours in you will be seeing new monsters – though you’ll also be seeing a lot of the same ones, or a subspecies of a different colour. If you want to make a full set of armour out of a monster you’ll have to hunt it a lot. It can start to feel like a grind; friends come in handy here to alleviate the repetition. Working together towards a common goal feels a lot less like grinding than hunting the same monster on your own to mine it for parts, and gives you more room to experiment with the different weapons.

These different weapons are the key to Monster Hunter’s lasting appeal – whenever your hunting style is starting to feel stale, you can just craft yourself something new, and combat transforms. Playing with a greatsword feels almost like a different game than playing with a bowgun. Each of 3 Ultimate’s 12 weapons is easy to learn, but there are nuances to the combat system that reward those willing to dig deeper, and within a team the dynamic of each one changes. Ranged weapons can feel a little sterile playing on your own compared to the up-close thrill of a sword or switch-axe, but in a team the bowgunner’s role is more exciting.

The single-player sees you trying to save a quaint little fishing town called Moga Village from mysterious monster-related earthquakes. It’s a place I already know and love from Tri, but if you’re new, this is where you’re taught how to hunt. It has a farm where you can enlist feline minions to grow useful items for you and a fishing fleet that can bring back treasure, whilst free-hunting in Moga Woods gains you resources that you can use to help the villagers out.

Playing alone, you’re gifted a little companion called Cha-Cha who comes in very handy on quests, distracting monsters for you whilst you land big hits. As this is a game designed for multiplayer, his help is invaluable. In MH3 Ultimate, there’s a second companion called Shakalaka who unlocks towards the end of the single-player story, just in time to help you with the high-rank quests. There’s some cute competitive interplay between the two sidekicks, but essentially he’s extra monster bait; it’s not exactly a game-changing addition.

When it’s time for real multiplayer, you head to Port Tanzia, where you can meet up with friends. Local multiplayer is easy to set up, but the online interface on Wii U is unfortunately still as archaic as it was in Tri; one connection error and you’ll be booted aaaaall the way back to the start screen. Once you’ve managed to connect to a lobby, though, it rarely stumbled in my experience. The player population will obviously ramp up post-release (and in April, a patch is coming that will let American and European friends play on the same servers), but it’s difficult to imagine that the servers will be slammed.

Monster Hunter has often been a series where you have to work around its quirks, whether it was the absurd claw-like hand position needed to operate the camera on the PSP versions or the inconvenient lack of online multiplayer. With 3 Ultimate, a lot of these frustrations are gone; both versions control well. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate wasn’t made for the Wii U controller and it does feel a little awkward at first, but it never gets in the way of enjoying the game.

On 3DS, even without the Circle Pad Pro attachment, controlling the camera using the touchscreen works surprisingly well. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s certainly a lot better than it ever was on the PSP; it’s only noticeably slow when you’re fighting underwater. Target Camera, meanwhile, lets you focus the camera on large monsters, which is a godsend for newer players.

THE VERDICT

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is a good update of a great game that is starting to show its age, but it’s still very much worth your time and money. The monsters are stunning, the fights can be incomparably exhilarating, and the 3DS and Wii U connectivity is really impressive – even if the online infrastructure is still rather archaic. There’s just enough new stuff for Monster Hunter addicts to get into, and if you’ve never dived into this complex and rewarding series, this is the best opportunity yet.

Gears of War: Judgment’s Campaign Will Break You

The heavy chord at the end of a Gears of War battle used to be congratulatory. Your chainsaw roared, corpses crumpled, and a thundering hum warned the world what you’d done. In Gears of War Judgment, the sound that used to celebrate success is a comforting signal to unclench your teeth and start breathing again. You probably won’t make it out next time.

Judgment starts 30 days after Emergence Day, just as humanity goes to war with the Locust. The COG doesn’t know its enemy just yet, which leaves them exposed to the grubs’ fearless aggression. Locust spawn by the dozen, popping out of the ground, crawling out of emergence holes, and knocking down doors in the largest, scariest groups you’ve seen in a Gears game. They are lethal individually, seemingly unstoppable in mixed groups of enemies new and old, and utterly terrifying for even the most grizzled Gears vet. At first, this challenge defines Judgment. Before long, that gives way to an impressive level of newfound complexity.

The common thread between difficulty and depth is variety – each enemy encounter is unique, both by design and thanks to the new semi-random spawning system, which generates different opponents each time you retry an encounter. If a group of Bloodmounts takes you down, don’t expect to see them a second time – Maulers and Grenadiers may replace them, perhaps with a half-dozen Wretches in tow.

Judgment doesn’t ever dial back because you’ll always have the tools necessary to scrape by. This is Gears at its quickest and most aggressive. I swapped between guns as opposed to relying on my Lancer, typically because I’d thrown it to the ground after running out of ammo. Early in the story, when Damon Baird’s Kilo Squad makes its way through the Onyx Guard’s home city of Halvo Bay, you’ll hunker down to defend the Museum of Military Glory using sentry turrets. The tower defense-influence works as effectively in a campaign context as it did in Gears of War 3’s Horde 2.0. It’s a stark change of pace from the push-push-push mission structure preceding it.

 

 

Baird, Cole, Paduk and Hendrick – Kilo’s key members – previously swapped Gnasher shotguns and close-quarters combat for the ranged superiority of the new Markza semi-auto sniper-rifle. They chainsawed grubs beneath the burning surface of Halvo Bay’s Old Town district, where they’d later mount turrets to chew through the horde. With Mauler, Boomer, Kantus, Cyclops, and Dark Wretch corpses behind them, Kilo should have earned a leisurely rest while turrets took down Locust inside the museum. Judgment never gives them that chance. I died three times trying to hold off incoming forces. Later, I’d die nearly 10 during a futile stab at the punishing Hardcore difficulty.

Moment to moment, Judgment always has something new and interesting for you to do, but it also presents the opportunity to add an interesting variable to each and every enemy encounter. Activating glowing crimson omens heralds not a hidden COG tag but instead unlocks the “declassified” version of an upcoming fight. Typically, these opt-in objectives limit your weapon usage to, say, Hammerbursts or a Gnasher/Sawed-Off combo. Others give the enemy an advantage. You may come up against Cyclopes with Lancers, grubs who attack from behind, or One-Shots with high-ground positioning. But why on Sera would you willingly make a tough shooter harder for yourself? What good could possibly come from wandering into a claustrophobic cloud of dense, blinding smoke when it’s unnecessary?

Two things.

 

The common thread between difficulty and depth is variety.

First, declassifications present narrative conceits that fits Judgment well. The story begins with Kilo Squad in a military court, and each mission we play representing a testimony of the events leading up to their trial. The testimony Kilo Squad delivers will change as you activate omens, revealing information you may not have known about the characters and world. Sometimes it relates to military rules, characters’ origins, or simply the COG discovering the intelligence of the Locust.

Secondly, declassified objectives tie into Judgment’s scoring system – and before you run off, it’s not as awful as it sounds. Earning stars for performing well adds substance to the combat without trivializing it. Fighting is more tactical and engaging than ever when you’re rewarded for speed, style, and efficiency. You’re always rewarded for headshots, executions, gib-splosions and other decidedly Gears of War kills, but playing with optional variables adds a multiplier to your score tracker. Earning more stars for kill combos feels even better when the pot’s sweetened. In turn, the way you think about Gears of War’s combat changes – not only because the actual flow of battle is different, but because you’re actively trying to do better than usual. Suddenly Gears of War feels smarter, even if it has more video game-y elements in the mix.

All of this plays hand-in-hand with multiplayer. Free-for-All remains an aggressive departure from the norm, particularly on the smaller-scale street map, while OverRun encourages a different kind of cooperative experience than fans are used to. Epic told IGN that completing challenges and goals across all modes contributes to character unlocks; each character can be customized in a way that’s comparable to past Gears’ weapon skins.

Really, the only way Gears of War Judgment is the same as previous games – core mechanics aside – is in the way its cast interacts. There’s some smart, funny writing behind the characters in Kilo Squad, and it comes through in the way they tease, mock, or outright dislike each other. The witty banter between these characters is exactly what you’d expect out of Marcus and Dom, which speaks volumes about how well this cast – whether they’re old friends or new – will carry its story.

Samsung Ativ S review

Samsung Ativ S review
If I asked you to name a manufacturer of Windows Phone-based handsets it is very likely that you’d come up with Nokia. The company has plenty of models available, and it has worked hard in its partnership with Microsoft to offer some good software add-ons that help its brand stand out.

But of course others are producing Windows Phone handsets too, and Samsung has just joined them. Samsung is rather late to the Windows Phone 8 party, but that doesn’t stop the Ativ S being a smashing phone with a lot going for it. The absence of LTE support is irritating, but there’s a lot more here that’s very nice.

The Ativ S is a big phone – the largest of any to run Windows Phone 8, in fact. The Super AMOLED screen measures 4.8in thereby just about beating Nokia’s 4.5in Lumia 920, and it houses 1,280 x 720 pixels. It’s the same screen found in the Galaxy S3, in fact, and it is obvious why Samsung has chosen to resurrect it here – it’s a pleasure to work with. If anything, Super AMOLED works better with Windows Phone than Android because the big blocks of colour that make up the tile-based interface respond much better than the Android interface to the bright sharp rendering on offer. Video looks great too and, well, you get the idea.

Having mentioned the Galaxy S3 I should continue with the comparisons. Some might say the Ativ S is a very similar looking phone, but in fact it isn’t. It is similar in size, sure, and Samsung has opted for a physical Windows button that takes you to the Start Screen just as it opts for a Home button on the Galaxy S3. Here the flanking touch buttons are back and search, incidentally. The reflective Windows Phone symbol on the physical button looks a little cheap and cheerful for my taste, and sadly it is not backlit. It’s an odd aberration, and a very visible one, in what is otherwise a pretty stylish physical design.

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The backplate is very thin and flimsy, but the fake metal finish to the plastic material looks great. The grill towards the bottom of the back covers the speaker, which in turn produces audio that’s too heavy on the treble for my taste and tends to distort at top volume. This grill also has a fake metal finish.

The fake metal concept extends to a long plate at the bottom of the back that melds into the edging. This has been given a chrome-like makeover and it’s the only part of the metal lie that doesn’t quite work. Plastic with a chrome finish just never seems convincing.

The chassis has a has squarer and blockier appearance than that of the Galaxy S3, though the overall dimensions of the two handsets are remarkably similar – the Ativ S measures 137.2 x 70.52 x 8.7mm, while the Galaxy S3 is almost identical at 136.6 x 70.6 x 8.6mm.

Button and connector placement is completely unremarkable. The headset slot is on the top edge, micro-USB on the bottom. A smallish volume rocker is on the left, main power and camera shortcut on the right. Under the backplate there’s a slot for your microSIM and another for microSD, both of which can be got at without the need to remove the battery.

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You get 16GB of built in storage, and that microSD card slot lets you add up to 32GB more, so there are none of those old issues about being unable to expand Windows Phone storage here.

Samsung has used a 2,300mAh battery in the Ativ S, and it did a pretty good job of keeping the phone alive. Placing it under an average (for me) burden that included some web browsing, email syncing, calls and even a little gaming, it saw me through a working day. If you are a heavy user, or listen to music on the commute, you’ll probably need to find mains power during the day.

The 8-megapixel main camera benefits from a flash, and I found photos to be perfectly acceptable in terms of both colour depth and quality. However, I still carry a dedicated camera most of the time and use a cameraphone for tweetable photos and the like rather than anything I want to keep long term. There is a 1.2-megapixel front camera, too, for those interested in video-calling or taking pictures of themselves.

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The dual-core Qualcomm processor, which is supported by 1GB of RAM, might sound behind the times when compared to the quad-core processors that support top-grade Android handsets, but I had no complaints about the responsiveness or speed of the Ativ S. In both cases, it performed well and did not let me down. As befits a high-end handset these days NFC is built in. It’s a pity, though, that there’s no LTE support.

I’ve said before that if you want software extras to lift the standard out-of-the-box Windows Phone 8 experience, then Nokia’s Lumia range is probably where you should be looking. Samsung has not changed my view with the bundle it supplies on the Ativ S. Yes, there are some extras here, but nothing that’s a deal-maker, I’m afraid.

You get Samsung Now, which is just an aggregator for weather, news (from Yahoo! News), stocks (from Yahoo! Finance), currency conversion, and an odd Top Tweets service that delivers tweets from several countries including France, Germany and Italy, but not the UK.

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Live Wallpaper is a fairly nice app that lets you choose up to 12 photos for the lock screen. I rather like this one as it helps you personalise things and get away from Windows Phone 8’s otherwise samey look across handsets. It is really easy to use which means you might be encouraged to change photo sets regularly.

MiniDiary lets you gather information in one place and can accommodate notes, photos and voice recordings. Personally, I’d install Evernote instead. Music Hub gives you some music related extras and is built around a store. Photo Editor will for some be the star of the show as it gives you a range of useful image editing facilities.

Samsung has also taken the opportunity to pre-install ChatON, its IM application. It does the job well enough but your contacts will also need to be on ChatON for you to take advantage of it. The same goes for Family Story, an app designed for sharing photos, notes and events with owners of other Samsung devices. You need a (free) Samsung account to use it.

To be honest, the pre-installed apps won’t draw you to the Ativ S. The good battery life, nice design and plentiful (and expandable memory) are the key features in that respect.

Verdict

At the time of writing this, Samsung’s Ativ S is the Windows Phone 8 handset with the largest screen, and the screen is bright, clear and a real eye-catcher. Slick operation under the fingers, NFC, plenty of memory and a generally stylish physical design are all additional points in its favour.

Specifications

Manufacturer and model Samsung Ativ S
Network GSM 850/900/1800/1900

HSDPA 850/900/1900/2100

Processor Qualcomm 1.5GHz dual-core
RAM 1GB
Built-in memory/memory expansion 16GB or 32GB/microSD
Display 4.8in, 1,280 x 720 pixels
Main camera 8-megapixel
Front camera 1.2-megapixel
Wi-Fi Yes
GPS Yes
FM radio No
Battery 2,300mAh
Size 137.2 x 70.52 x 8.7mm
Weight 135g
OS Windows Phone 8

 

Microsoft Surface Pro review: Smart almost-laptop nearly gets it right

The good: The Microsoft Surface Pro fits a full ultrabook experience in a compact 10-inch tablet. Thanks to the ingenious Type and Touch covers, it offers a comfortable interface and typing experience. The clean, crisp design and sharp 1080p screen rise above the competition.

The bad: The battery life is disappointing, and more ports would be nice. The 64GB model barely has any free storage. It costs as much as a regular laptop, especially because the cool keyboard cover isn’t included by default.

The bottom line: The Surface Pro’s gutsy design successfully reinvents the Windows 8 laptop by cramming an ultrabook experience into the body of a 10-inch tablet. Those wanting to go all-in on the tablet experience won’t regret buying the Surface Pro, but we’re holding out for a future, more polished generation of the device.

 

On February 9, the Surface gets another lease on life. This version, known as the Surface Pro, tackles head-on many of the complaints about the original Surface RT — especially that model’s compromisedWindows RT operating system. The Surface Pro offers a full Windows 8 experience that works with older Windows software titles, packs a real Intel Core i5 processor, and boldly stuffs the entire PC experience into a sleek and appealing tablet body that’s just a tad thicker and heavier than the RT version.

There’s a lot to like here — if not to love. While the Surface Pro isn’t the first Windows 8 tablet, it may well be the best one to date, at least in terms of design. The magic here is in the details: the ingenious detachable keyboard cover and the included pressure-sensitive stylus both go a long way toward setting the Surface Pro apart from the other laptops, tablets, and hybrids we’ve seen so far.

Can the Surface Pro work as a real, everyday PC — a task that rival iPads, Android tablets, and even those Windows RT models couldn’t quite handle? For me, an initial skeptic, it can. You can color me impressed.

If you were skipping the Surface RT because you wanted “true” laptop power and performance, the Pro version is definitely the way to go.

 

But while it’s undeniably more powerful, the Surface Pro makes trade-offs — most notably, middling battery life, a heavier chassis, and a price tag that starts at $899. That hit on your wallet becomes closer to $1,200 if you go with the 128GB version (a necessity) and add the so-cool-you’ll-want-it keyboard cover. And you can say goodbye to the free version of Microsoft Office that came with the Surface RT; Surface Pro buyers will need to spring for that, too.

I’m waiting for Microsoft to throw me a bone. The Surface Pro’s best feature isn’t even in the box; toss in the $129 Type Cover. Or give me Microsoft Office. Otherwise, I think I’m holding out for the inevitable Surface Pro 2 — the one that will undoubtedly offer better battery life and a host of other upgrades. This version makes strides, but it’s not the perfect laptop-killer yet.

Price as reviewed / starting price $999 / $899
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory 4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 64GB SSD ($899), 128GB SSD ($999)
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating system Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 10.8×6.8 inches
Height 0.53 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 10.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2 pounds / 2.6 pounds
Category Ultraportable / Hybrid

 

 

Design: Boxy-sexy-cool

Microsoft has done something right with the Surface Pro’s overall design: everything works exactly as advertised, and with an extremely elegant, bordering on beautiful, sense of design. The industrial magnesium chassis of the Surface Pro feels solid but isn’t too heavy to hold in one hand. One notable difference between it and the slightly thinner RT version of the Surface is a hairline wraparound vent on the rear that works with internal fans to keep the more powerful CPU running smoothly.

 

At 2 pounds, the Surface Pro weighs less than a regular ultrabook, and at 10.81 inches by 6.81 inches by 0.53 inch, it’s more compact. But it’s bigger than your average tablet, and weighs more, too. It feels like a larger iPad decked out in a fat suit. In fact, it still feels more like a super slimmed-down laptop than a regular tablet, especially with the Type or Touch Cover attached.

 

The Surface Pro on top of the HP Envy x2 tablet/laptop.

The closest equivalent we’ve reviewed was the Acer Iconia W700, a nearly identical tablet in terms of specs. The Iconia is longer and wider and has an 11.6-inch screen; the Surface Pro’s is 10.6 inches.

 

Made of the same “VaporMG” magnesium as the Surface RT, it feels even better than it looks, which — despite being cleanly honed — is a little boxy.

 

The Surface Pro tips the scales at 2 pounds even; add half a pound for one of the keyboard covers, and another 0.6 pound for the AC adapter and cord. That’s heavier than the Surface RT and iPad (both around 1.5 pounds), but lighter than most laptops, even with the keyboard case in tow.

 

If there’s any ergonomic complaint I can level at the Surface, it’s the angle of the tablet in kickstand mode when sitting at a desk and using the small kickstand flap that folds out to form the back of the system. The angle is not adjustable, and while it works fine with the Type Cover attached, I would prefer it angled up a bit more. I found myself hunching over to get to a perfect angle.

Display
The 10.6-inch display is small, especially for a full Windows laptop, but it’s crisp and bright and has a full 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution. I found myself able to work on it easily, but I could also see that you’d want to plug in a monitor for all-day use. The good news is that the Surface Pro supports up to 2,560×1,440-pixel resolution on an external display. Even if you didn’t use another monitor, the Surface’s IPS display is one of the best I’ve ever seen on a small Windows computer. Capacitive multitouch feels buttery-smooth. That’s the magic that made the iPhone and iPad so fun to use. The Surface Pro, in painting programs and a few other apps I tried, felt comfortable to navigate. It’s not quite as brilliant as the iPad’s Retina Display, but it feels like it’s getting spiritually close.

You can connect the Surface to a larger monitor easily; many will. A built-in Mini DisplayPort carries audio and video, and with adapters (sold separately) you can switch over to VGA or HDMI if needed. Working in multimonitor mode operated exactly the same as you’d expect on a Windows PC. It took some fiddling to get window sizing just right, but I found that working on my desk with the innocuous Surface on the side of my monitor as a PC-slash-second-screen was a bit of a treat.

 

Type Cover, Touch Cover: Killer accessories, neither included
Nearly this entire review has been written on the Surface Pro, using a combination of Type and Touch covers. The $130 Type Cover has an actual keyboard with depressible keys, whereas the $120 Touch Cover is a membrane keyboard. They both weigh about half a pound, and double as screen covers for the Surface.

The Type Cover keyboard feels wonderful, easy to bang away on, and largely responsive. The Touch Cover…well, not quite as much. It’s usable, however. The key spacing on the Touch Cover is identical, and as long as you can get used to the lack of actual key motion and give in to tapping away lightly on what amounts to raised polyurethane squares, then it can work — even with touch typing.

 

The Type Cover has a real but tiny honest-to-goodness multitouch touch pad with lower click zones; the Touch Cover’s touch pad has “clickable” areas delineated below the touch-pad space with cut-out grooved lines. The Touch Cover is fun (it’s available in multiple colors), but the real keyboard on the Type Cover only costs $10 more.

 

I can’t say enough good things about the Type Cover keyboard — if I were reviewing it separately, it would get an Editors’ Choice hands-down. It attaches magnetically and seamlessly to the Surface Pro’s bottom. It forms a pretty attractive cover along the lines of Apple’s own (keyboardless) Smart Cover, but with the addition of that Surface-powered keyboard-touch-pad combo that doesn’t noticeably drain battery life at all.

 

And, yes, it forms a strong enough bond to dangle the Surface Pro upside down, but I wouldn’t try this at home over a concrete floor.

Working with the included touch pad gets the job done, but you can just as easily use the Surface’s touch screen — or add a Bluetooth or USB mouse or touch pad. I used the Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse that Microsoft included with this review unit. It’s expensive but small enough, and it pairs nicely with the Surface.

 

Surface Pen

The Surface Pro supports pressure-sensitive styli, and the Surface Pro comes with its own Surface Pen that magnetically attaches to the power connector to hold it in place when you’re on the go. Writing and sketching felt natural, and the pen worked far more responsively than a capacitive iPad stylus (the technology’s different).

 

 

 

The “fun factor” is definitely present in the Surface Pro, but there isn’t the incredible level of tablet-friendly app support that iOS and Android enjoy. You can run legacy Windows applications on the Surface to your heart’s content, but those won’t be nearly as touch-friendly.

Speakers, cameras
Audio, conveyed through built-in stereo speakers, sounds adequate but not spectacular. It’s better than you’d expect out of a machine this small, however.

The Surface Pro has two cameras, front- and rear-facing, and they’re both 720p. No high-megapixel camera is included. That’s okay for front-facing Web chat, but for rear camera photos it’s a bit of a letdown, even though I can’t ever imagine holding a Surface Pro up to take a picture.

Software and security
Microsoft Office does not come preinstalled on the Surface Pro, though it will run the full version of Office as well as any similarly configured Core i5 laptop. You get a bare-bones set of basic software, and that’s it. Microsoft does include BitLocker encryption to more safely protect the data on your solid-state drive (SSD), but that’s not a feature we tested.

 

Microsoft Surface Pro Average for category [ultraportable]
Video Mini DisplayPort HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 3.0, Micro SD 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet (via dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None None

 

Ports
I’m comparing the Surface Pro with an ultraportable PC instead of a tablet, because for its feature set and price, that’s what you’ll be comparing it with when shopping. I don’t think many people will choose a Surface Pro over an iPad, but some people might indeed consider it over an ultrabook or 11-inch Windows 8 ultraportable.

 

And based on that comparison, one of the big drawbacks of the Surface Pro as your main PC is its limited set of ports. A single USB 3.0 port, microSDXC card slot, and Mini DisplayPort are all you get. Granted, having USB 3.0 is better than the USB 2 on Atom-powered Windows tablet-laptop hybrids, but at least those (like the HP Envy x2) have two USB ports, plus a normal SD card slot.

 

There’s no Ethernet jack, and not even a packed-in USB dongle, which might be the most bothersome part of all. It means you’d better be ready to live off Wi-Fi. There’s nothing technically stopping you from plugging in a USB-based Ethernet adapter, but I found doing so hard to set up. They’re not all made alike.

The Surface Pro needs a dock, particularly one with Ethernet. Something small that it can preferably jack into via the same magnetic connector strip that the keyboard covers attach to on the bottom. If the Surface Pro is meant for pros, wouldn’t a dock that adds a few USB ports, Ethernet, SD card slot, and HDMI make sense? I hope it happens soon. The Mini DisplayPort’s bottom-right position is easy enough to plug a monitor into when the Surface is in kickstand mode, but I’d prefer something more elegant.

Consider that the Acer Iconia W700, another Windows 8 tablet, has its own dock with extra USB ports. I like the Surface Pro’s design better, but I have a hard time accepting the lack of a dock.

Configurations
Configuration options are limited: you can either choose 64GB or 128GB of SSD storage, for $899 or $999, respectively. That’s expensive for a tablet, but just a small premium over many Windows 8 touch-enabled ultrabooks this small.

The funny thing about the Surface Pro’s available memory is that, according to Microsoft, only 23GB of the 64GB Surface Pro’s hard drive can be used for user files. That’s odd because we only found about 20GB of system files on the fresh-out-of-the-box Surface Pro, which would leave 44GB free on the 64GB version. If true, it would really hamper the use of the 64GB Surface Pro, and practically dictates that you pick the 128GB version instead.

The Surface Pro is a lot different from last year’s Windows RT version of the Surface, despite similar branding and looks. The Surface RT had a Tegra 3 processor, less RAM, and a lower-resolution screen, and lacked improved stylus support. (The RT can use capacitive styli like the iPad, but it lacks the pressure sensitivity and palm-blocking technology of the Pro version.)

 

Performance
Whereas the Surface RT costs $500, the Surface Pro costs $899. But even though they look alike, they’re very different beasts: the Surface runs off an ARM processor and uses Windows RT, whereas the Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 processor and runs full Windows 8, just like a laptop.

The original Surface RT tablet received mixed reviews, largely because of its Windows RT operating system. The Surface Pro is the more significant product, because it makes no computing compromises: it’s a strong case for a tablet as your PC, while the original Surface felt more like an iPad competitor. Not only can you use the tile-based Windows 8 interface on the Surface Pro, but you can visit a regular desktop and open older applications, run Steam, and do anything you’d do otherwise — including Java, Flash, and legacy Windows apps. The Surface Pro connects to monitors and outputs at resolutions beyond 1080p, and you can add Bluetooth and USB 3 peripherals like mice, keyboards, and external hard drives.

 

The great part of having a tablet with a Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM is that it’s every bit as powerful as a regular ultrabook. On our benchmark tests, it more than held its own, and even matched some Core i7 ultrabooks. The integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are good enough to run some games on Steam with settings dialed down a bit. They match what’s on any current ultrabook without discrete Nvidia or AMD graphics.

As opposed to the dialed-down Atom-based performance on an HP Envy x2 or Acer Iconia W510, you can open up windows and perform lots of simultaneous tasks with relative ease. The system fans kicks in after a while, and I found the bottom getting hot when using it on a bed, particularly since the wraparound thin vents are on the back of the Surface Pro.

 

Battery life
If only the Surface Pro had excellent battery life. It doesn’t. In our video-playback battery drain test, the Surface Pro lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes, regardless of whether the Type Cover was connected or not. That’s not far off from some other high-powered 11- and 10-inch ultraportables, but it’s a big step down the 6-hour mark on many ultrabooks. The Acer Iconia W700 lasted more than 7 hours despite having a similar processor. Intel’s newer processors coming later this year should result in a more battery-efficient Surface Pro at some point. As it currently stands, the Surface Pro can last you a good chunk of a day, but you’ll need to monitor battery life and keep that sleek charger handy (which, incidentally, has its own extra USB charge port for accessories or phones). This qualifies as fair-enough battery life, but disappointing compared with other tablets — though not totally surprising.

 

Conclusion: Where Windows 8 is taking us via the Surface

We’ve already seen a number of hybrid and convertible laptop/tablet designs from Microsoft’s usual hardware partners, including the Lenovo Yoga 11S, the HP EliteBook Revolve, and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, not to mention more experimental gaming-centric devices like theRazer Edge. And, with Intel’s newer processors on the horizon, you’d have to wonder whether the Surface Pro could be refreshed to benefit from even more tablet-ready CPUs.

The Surface Pro will compete with those devices and others. But, based on how good that Type Cover is and how good the Surface Pro’s screen feels — not to mention its small size — the Surface Pro seems well-positioned to rise to the top of the pack. From the moment the Surface was announced, the real killer feature was the Type Cover. The success or failure of the Surface hinges on the ability of that cover to be comfortable and productive. And I think it is. It also draws power from the tablet, never needs recharging, and has a grip strong enough to hold the whole Surface tablet from the cover alone.

Microsoft and the Surface have proven the hardest point of all: that a tablet with a funky keyboard cover can replace a regular laptop, or even a desktop PC. The finer points of needing a dock, finding a better price that includes the Type Cover instead of making it a side purchase, and improving battery life — and, maybe, slimming down a bit — will hopefully come in the next iteration. Right now, the Surface Pro works. It’s not the most price-logical Windows 8 PC in the world — for $1,000, I might get an iPad Mini and a cheap Windows 8 laptop instead — but I think a fair number of people are going to end up being Surface Pro fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Garriott on launching new RPG series Shroud Of The Avatar

Richard Garriott, creator of Ultima and Ultima Online, has launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new RPG series called Shroud Of The Avatar. While it’s not set in the world Ultima, it builds on the key tenets of the pioneering series – it is, in every sense, a spiritual successor to Garriott’s previous work. We spoke to the Portalarium founder about the underwhelming state of fantasy RPGs today, the future of online multiplayer and why grinding should be a thing of the past.

Why is now the right time for you to return to fantasy RPGs?
It’s been 15 years since I wrote a medieval fantasy RPG, and if I look at what I still think is the state of the art of most genre offerings, while there are a few examples of greatness, on the whole we’re still retreading the same ground – especially with MMOGs. There’s tons of great MMOGs that have been released, but there have been a few of enormous flops in the last couple of years, too. But whether they failed or not, these are games that people spent three to seven years creating and upwards of $100 million.

And if you look at how they play, the first thing you have to do is still decide on what your character class and race is before you play – and it’s a permanent decision – then you have to develop the look of your avatar, then when you finally get dropped in the world, you go, “Okay, well here I am in a nice looking town, and sure enough there’s the weapon shop, and the magic shop and whatever else, and oh look, there’s the explanation point over the quest-giver’s head, and if I click through all the obvious answers in his conversation tree everything’s now in my quest log, and now there’s an arrow on the map that takes me out of town to go and start farming my level one monsters”.

And then you just repeat. And that’s still basically all MMOGs and solo-player ones are often worse where you’re really just unleashed into a world to go kill the bad guy and you min/max your way to become powerful, often in a morally ambiguous way. So I think the time is right to really push a strong story-telling RPG out there, as well as to reestablish what multiplayer can be like – to make multiplayer compelling instead of just obligatory.

So how do you intend to do that?
We have a fresh interpretation of multiplayer that I believe can set the stage for what RPGs can be in the next ten years or so, which is automatic, ad-hoc multiplayer. So as you’re traveling around the landscape the game is always searching for people to bring into your play space. If a friend of yours happens to be online and playing nearby, you’ll see them. And we’ll try to match people who are at a common point in the game arc, to give you some reason that you might want to adventure together. But we might also look for people who are on opposing points in the story arc. And if that all fails, we’ll still bring strangers into your purview to give you a richer world. Which is very different to MMOGs which try to manage the problem of 1000 people all entering the same space at the same time. We think our take makes it a better play experience, as well as a more manageable piece of technology.

Have Journey or Dark Souls influenced your design?
I’ve never played Dark Souls, but I really like the descriptions I’ve heard. Dark Soul’s approach, at least as I understand it, is a little bit different, but it’s kind of fascinating, and it’s a game I now want to go find and play! But I think both Dark Soul’s and SOTA are tackling the same problem. And I think the next generation of games needs to solve that.

How does the game world work with these ideas?
The first episode is called Forsaken Virtues, and we have a two-scale world. You’ll walk around in our world map, and then when you come to a point of interest, be that a town, a roving band of monsters, or a gypsy wagon, you can zoom in to a scenario scale and a thirdperson view. Each of those scenarios is encapsulated in five to 30 minutes of gameplay where you can explore, discover and adventure, while interacting with a highly detailed world.

As you’re playing, whether you’re in the outdoor map or a scenario, if you and I are friends I’ll see you walking around the map. If I watch you go into a gypsy wagon encounter, I can walk over behind you and enter, say, two or three minutes afterwards, and I’ll see you in that scenario however it’s unfolding for you. You don’t need to party, or do any other activities; we’re trying to really streamline how much you have to tell the game before you’re allowed to go in and start having fun.

The Forsaken Virtues map represents about ten per cent of what we think the total play space will be when we finish the currently planned five episodes. And we think we can release one approximately every year.

You’ve promised to minimalise griefing in the game’s PvP. How have you approached that problem?
We don’t want to make it fully open, nor do we want to make it segregated and opt-in. And so the initial proposal we’re working on right now that we /hope/ serves the player community, is that nominally, PvP is turned off: you can’t just walk up to somebody and attack them. However, throughout the story we’re building in activities where the game encourages you to participate, and if you do it changes the nature of the potential activities between you and other people.

Can you give an example of how these kind of encounters will work?
Let’s suppose you’re down on your luck and you need some money. We purposely present you with the opportunity to start working for an organized crime syndicate. So these guys say look, we’ll pay you a ton of money, but what you have to do for us is take this contraband from the east coast of the world to the west coast. If you accept, it forewarns you that by the way if you do this, once you’re running this contraband, you’re operating outside the law, and other players will be able to attack you.

Not only are you now vulnerable, but we’re also going to immediately kick off an announcement to half a dozen people that we know are on, or along, your obvious path saying, “By the way, there’s a rumour that the syndicate has a courier running contraband across the world – keep your eye out for them”. So now you want to be as sneaky as possible – you know there’s going to be six people along the path who know who you are, but you have no idea if they’re going to be higher or lower level. So do you stick to the roads, or risk more monster encounters by venturing into the forests and over mountains?

How deeply will player choice, and their associated consequences, be integrated into the game?
The effect of your gameplay on your own future is similar to what I did in the middle of the previous series of games where the game is largely playing big brother to observe your behaviour. So unlike most RPGs where you check things off in your quest log, in this game not only do we not intend to have a quest log, but even the definition of a quest is much looser. We’re constantly presenting you with options to show your mettle, so to speak. For example, at one point you can save this young woman from some attacking wolves and in thanks she offers you her wedding ring as she has nothing else of value. You can take it or not, and there’s no apparent judgement on you. The game just keeps a statistical record of your pattern of behaviour and based upon that, other individuals and factions in the game slowly change their attitude towards you.

In the persistent world, there’s both your contribution to it – which is the housing, shops, farms or taverns players build which are visible to everyone else in the world – but also the concept of control points , which I explored we Tabula Rasa. There are key pinch-points around the world where fortresses have been built, and if those fortresses are ever overrun by the ‘dark side’, so to speak, then that is their status to everyone until a player or a group of players go in and clear that space.

The Kickstarter campaign promises a crafting system that “avoids busywork” – could you go into more detail?
This is also a plan right now, so it’s important to point out that this could change with player feedback. But there are a handful of possible approaches to crafting, and one interesting one we can reflect on is what we did in Ultima Online. The more times you wove cloth, the better you became at weaving, and the same would be true for basically every other skill. The thing we liked about that system is that the game is largely classless – you don’t have to decide up front that you’re going to be a fighter or blacksmith or magician.

You can learn all those skills in time if you wish, and you’re free to play the game in whatever way that you want. That being said, as opposed to having to sit there and repeatedly weave over and over again – which became a mind-numbing level of effort to raise your skill in a particular category – we’re making it so skill is something that comes directly out of your broader experience. You can apply that general experience to whatever category of skills you wish, and that way we think that we can allow people to migrate their style of play more pleasurably than the busywork of old.

And encourage players to take more risks with their play styles?
Absolutely – if you spend you’re first ten days pursuing sword play, you’ll be that many days skillful as wielding a sword. If you spend the next ten days worth of experience on advancing your crafting ability, now you’re level ten in sword activities and crafting activities. We’re perfectly fine with that.