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Belkin Switch2 Wireless for PC USB with Audio - KVM / Audio Switch - 2 Ports
This switch is very easy to set up, a simple matter of connecting the peripherals to their sockets on the main part of the device and then connecting the leads to the two computers. Once I had switched between the two machines and let them update their drivers, the process became almost seamless. My Windows 7 machine has a 4-5 second hiccup while it realises that the disconnected mouse and keyboard are back again, but that's it.
The only drawback is the video quality, which is clearly effected. My desktop runs at quite a high resolution (1440x900) and through the switch takes on a very slight, but noticeable, blurring. It's fine for most activities, but I might be tempted to connect the monitor directly should I intend to run any high quality video or games. Unfortunately the lower resolution from my work laptop is more of a problem, with the whole screen being slightly blurred and somewhat flickery, too. I'm going to see how I get on with it, but if I find it too difficult to work on then I may have to try another KVM, which would be a shame because for its primary purpose this really is an excellent product.
Lips (with 2 Microphones)
2 New from
Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making a really good karaoke game to rival Sony's Singstar and if you judge them purely on the basis of how the games interpret, track and score a player's singing, it's clear that Lips is really a step on from Singstar.
Sony have stood still with Singstar and the technology behind it hasn't changed much at all over the years and that's caused it to carry it's single biggest flaw from version to version to version: really good singers are penalised by Singstar, which only scores notes that are held flat. Anyone with vibrato is at a distinct disadvantage.
True to form, Microsoft have picked up on Singstar's flaws and made sure that they are absent from their clone. Singstar will not only accurately score vibrato, but gives bonuses for it and other vocal trills and improvisation that are in key. In technological terms, score a big fat one for Lips.
The technology is only half the story of course, as a karaoke game lives and dies by the strength of its catalogue. The 40 songs on the disc are a pretty good mix - there's something for everyone, but at the same time most people will struggle to find more than four or five songs that they want to sing. MS are clearly pinning a lot on Xbox Live Marketplace, but so far, a week or so after launch, there's only about eight new songs available, although A Ha's Take on Me is available free to anyone who thinks they can hit those high notes. At 200 Microsoft Space Bucks (or £1.70) they're pretty good value and comparable to the Singstar download prices, although the clunkiness of buying MS points and then buying the songs will be as irritating as ever.
Right now though, Lips is a fine product in dire need of more downloadable content. If Microsoft can get 30 songs up on XBL before Christmas, then I think they'll have a hit on their hands. If they don't, then Lips will be in Singstar's shadow for a long time.
Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution
5 New from
I've played every version of Civ since I first played in on the Mac in about 1993. The long nights and lost weekends to Civ and Civ II are fond memories and I can still think back to certain campaigns from those days with fond nostalgia.
Civ 3 and Civ 4 were good games and I had some fun with them, but neither drew me in like I and II did and I was never able to quite put my finger on why. Until I played the Civ Rev demo, that is. The new stripped down game has gotten right back to the roots of the series, and has kept the best ideas from the later games too.
I think this could be the stealth hit of the year and I'm looking forward to losing many a weekend to it.
Gears Of War (Classics)
13 New from
Gears was the first game that felt truly 'next gen' to me, with most of the 360 games available at that time feeling like tarted up Xbox 1 games. Nearly two years on and it still holds up as a truly great game, I simply can't find any significant fault with it.
The game plays so differently to the other big 360 shooters that it deserves a place in everyone's collection. The cover, movement and aiming systems work wonderfully to really immerse you in Marcus's actions and surroundings. Playing co-op with a friend, it's easy to find yourselves dashing from one piece of cover to another, leaping over obstacles and scanning for locust, even if you know the locust aren't going to appear yet. Marcus and Dom move around like real soldiers in a hotzone might and it's just plain fun to move through the richly textured maps that way.
I haven't played a lot of multiplayer, but I can tell that Gears offers a very different experience to both Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3. Players are harder to kill than in COD4 but not as hard as in Halo 3, though there are neat tricks with grenades and the chainsaw that will kill the unwary instantly. There are also far fewer players on the map and lots of cover, which makes for more calculated and tactical gameplay. The rapid 'see-shoot-kill' of COD4 doesn't happen in Gears, but neither do the OTT running battles of Halo 3.
There are a couple of things I'd like to see improved upon in the inevitable (but welcome) sequel. Firstly I hope Epic can finally figure out how to banish the pop-in textures that have been a feature of so many games based on the Unreal engine. I guess it's a device to help cut loading times but it's been an issue for several years now. Secondly, the teammate AI needs a real tune up. The pathfinding is quite patchy, with characters often taking the long way round obstacles unnecessarily, even if that means getting ripped to shreds by krill in the process. They'll also often charge straight into the teeth of enemy fire, or crouch on the wrong side of cover. My biggest gripe is that they don't seem to pay any attention to the player's firing solution and often you'll be popping rounds into a grub only for Dom or Baird to walk straight through your line of fire. Then they even have the gall to complain about getting shot!
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Game Of The Year Edition)
2 New from
I originally bought Oblivion on the PC and played a fair way through it before I got my 360. I thought that the pick-up-and-play aspects of a console would suit such an epic game, but I didn't want to pay for a game I already owned on PC and then have to start again from scratch.
I will be buying this though, because I want to play Oblivion on the Xbox and Knights of the Nine is intended to be in place from the beginning of the game, so its more incentive to start over. Can't wait to play through into the Shivering Isles too!
3 New from
Firstly, I see a lot of people trying to compare apples to oranges with this game. Shadowrun is aimed squarely at providing a multiplayer experience, so comparisons to solo campaigns from other shooters are meaningless. Having said that, the training levels are enjoyable and the bot matches are fun and as challenging as you want them to be (great for trying out a new build or getting to grips with another race).
The format of the games is similar to counterstrike: two teams compete in a best-of-eleven-rounds matchin one of three game types: extraction (a normal CTF type affair), attrition (kill the other team) and raid (one side defends the 'flag' and the other side has to steal it). Like CS, if you die you're dead for the round, although you can be resurrected by a teammate (it's not quite as simple as it sounds; you could literally write a review about the intricacies of Shadowrun's rezzing system). Between rounds you get to spend the money you earned on weapons, magic or technology (I'd recommend going for magic and tech first, as you don't lose those when you die).
Gameplay is a blast, I've never seen teamwork as evident in an fps before. If you aren't such a hot shot, you can make yourself useful by healing and rezzing allies, or putting down magic traps to frustrate your enemies. FASA have introduced a whole host of new tactical elements to FPS gaming. My online experiences have been very good so far, and I've not experienced any abuse, other than mild annoyance when somebody accidentally kills their own side and once when a player repeatedly started votes to kick whatever player killed him in the previous round (SR has an option to kick the player who starts the votes, so he was soon kicked himself!). Generally people are positive and the elitism and trash talking that was so common in Halo 2 doesn't seem to be around (yet).
There are issues getting into games and it usually takes me about 5 minutes to find a party, which is longer than it should take but it's not that bad either. Once you've joined a group, you can usually stay with them for as many matches as you like. I say usually because the game assigns the player with the best connection as the 'server' and if that player quits (you have know way of knowing who the server is) your match is terminated. More often than not the same players will immediately be moved to a new map and start a new match, but sometimes you get booted out altogether. FASA are aware of all of these issues and a patch is anticipated in the near future.
In summary, this is possibly the finest multiplayer FPS experience I've ever had and once some glitches are fixed and a bit more content is released (personally I think the number of maps is fine, but apparently there are some more that weren't ready for the retail release that will be available for download) I think this will become a classic in its own right. The pricing point is perhaps an issue and I must confess that I paid less for my copy than Play is selling it for (and it is a brand new copy). If you're unsure then I'd recommend downloading the demo, completing the training and having a few matches against the bots. I was sold within minutes of playing it.
Forza Motorsport 2
5 New from
Like many people, I was underwhelmed by the Forza 2 demo but I've been delighted with the full game. The career mode is really fun, encouraging you to noodle around with different cars and paint them however you want (good move to make the cosmetic options free). In Gran Turismo I always felt like I would either win by miles or be completely outclassed, but the structure of the races is spot on; I often find that my car is not the fastest in the field, but has more grip in the corners (the game's 'Performance Index' encompasses both power and handling modifications) so I can win with tidy driving, but I'll be pushed all the way and a bad mistake will likely lose me the race. Car physics are practically flawless. I'm lucky enough to have driven a Lancia Stratos around Donnington and the car in Forza 2 is uncannily realistic, right down to the unruly back end that bites sooner than you expect.
I've dabbled with multiplayer over XBL too and found it a lot of fun. There are plenty of games, from standard 3 lap races to 20 laps of flat out oval racing. Generally games are set up quite quickly, but sometimes people seem to take an age to pick their car, or apparently don't know they have to press A to toggle their ready status.
There are a few minor niggles, which is why I've gone for a 4 star rating: If you crash your car in a race you can restart without penalty, I'd prefer if you had to pay for the repairs even for aborted races; the online auction house seems a bit pointless for buying new cars, as people are currently just selling the reward cars you get early on in the game. I've seen people selling cars they have made impressive custom paint jobs for on there though, and that seems like a great way to reward creativity; There appears to be no way to 'flip' vinyls in the painting mode, so if you put a wavy stripe on one side of your car there is no way to flip it horizontally to put it on the other side. You can only spin it through 180 degrees, which only works for symmetrical shapes. This is something I really hope they fix with a patch.
Colin McRae: DiRT
Downloaded the demo last week, having been a big fan of CMR04 and 05 and although I was impressed by the look and quality feel of the game, the handling of the cars was all wrong. The two rally cars have far, far too much grip and they both stop on a sixpence, giving the game a much more arcadey feel than the simulation of the previous games. I remember people complaining about the lack of grip, but having done some RL driving on both sand and gravel I always found it spot on (it really is like driving on glass).
The 10 car dirt buggy race saved the demo though, as it's an absolute scream. Pure chaos in the first few corners and the track is like a rollercoaster, you're never quite sure how the buggy will behave on landing so you need to be alert.
So in summary, if you're looking for the sequel to CMR05, with realistic car handling and a co-driver you need to listen to, then the demo certainly does not deliver that. There are harder difficulty levels which may reintroduce some of that, but in previous CMR games all the higher levels did was make your opponents faster and your car more fragile. The dirt-racing aspect sure is fun, but it won't be enough for me to buy the game on its own. I'll be reading the reviews of the finished game and maybe renting it before I think about doing that.