Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Mighty and Magical Humble Bundle

It's Tuesday, which means it's the day that Humble Bundle updates their main offering. For the next two weeks, you can pick up potentially a bunch of games at a great discount, benefiting charity in the process. This time the bundle is one that holds a special place in my heart: you can pick up the majority of the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic games in one fell swoop.

The games were mostly created by New World Computing in the late 80s and 90s, though some of the more recent releases are after the bankruptcy of NWC and the buyout of the rights by Ubisoft, with development coming from Nival Interactive. I played most of these back when they were new and cost $50, and I even have discs (and in some cases, disks!) floating around somewhere in storage. But to get all of the games again in a digital distribution format is enough to seriously tempt me. Let's talk games, though.

Pay What You Want

Might and Magic I through VI Collection: This is probably the weakest part of the bundle, simply because as I mentioned in the last update to the Humble Origin Bundle #2, old games rarely stand the test of time. User interfaces have improved dramatically, and while great graphics don't inherently make for a great game, poor and low resolution graphics can certainly make for a poor gaming experience.

The first two games in particular are painful in today's market -- 320x200 graphics, 16 colors, and you wander around grid-style maps (90 degree turns and move forward/backward in 10' steps) fighting many battles. The original Secret of the Inner Sanctum game was released in 1986 while the sequel Gates to Another World came out in 1988. I played these on a Commodore 64 way back in the day with "Uncle Dan". Hahaha.... The third installment, Isles of Terra, bumps to VGA quality (256 colors, huzzah!), and it was the game that for me finally made the series "fun". I remember running into a problem on my old 386 where the game crashed if you stepped on a square where you would fight a Minotaur, so I had to skip that battle but I did actually complete the game. Plus, it ditched random encounters and added an automap -- thank goodness!

The next two installments actually served as two parts to a single large game, the World of Xeen. Clouds of Xeen launched in 1992, using essentially the same engine as M&M3, and then Darkside of Xeen cme out the following year. If you had both installed, there were additional quests and such to fill out the story. The final game, Mandate of Heaven, didn't come out until 1998 and was the first "made for Windows" game in the series. It also moved to a real 3D engine, though I recall thinking at the time that in many ways the 3D engine almost made the game worse. Anyway, most of these games are now 20+ years old, so don't let nostalgia get the best of you. YMMV.

Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars: The "Heroes of Might and Magic" games were a spinoff first launched in 1995, taking the game world and turning it into a strategy game (and ditching the sci-fi stuff that often crept in at the end of the RPG games). The seeds of the Heroes games actually came from an early game, King's Bounty, released in 1990.

This second installment built on the core engine of the original, came out in 1996, and consisted of two campaigns -- "good" and "evil" (with The Price of Loyalty expansion following in 1997 and adding four more campaigns, which comes in the Gold package of this bundle). You roam the overhead map, fighting for treasure and creature spawn points (who would join your army), conquering the towns of the map. The battles are a different view, featuring a tactical turn-based fight. Great stuff back in the day... but questionable in many ways today.

Heroes of Might and Magic IV Complete: Four years later, New World Computing released their final Heroes game, with upgraded graphics and larger battle maps allowing for more creatures/armies. The battles in particular were quite a change from the previous three installments, and the core game included a lengthy six campaigns. There's at least 60 or more hours of gaming time included just in this single compendium, and the gameplay is still reasonably decent.

The problem is that in becoming "bigger" the game wasn't always "better" -- I remember the later maps in campaigns taking a very long time to complete, and the fun factor often went missing. The maps follow a standard pattern: start with one or two heroes fighting smaller armies, grow them, increase your number of heroes, and eventually build a gigantic army to crush the final enemy positions. Lather, rinse, repeat ad nauseum.

Might & Magic Heroes Online: Angel Starter Pack: The last item in the core bundle isn't really much to speak of, as it's just a free starter pack for an already Free 2 Play game. You play Heroes Online in your web browser, and it looks as though there's only one server still active (which might be overloaded due to interest from the Humble Bundle right now -- all I'm getting is the loading screen at least, after 10 minutes, though after 15-20 minutes it seems to be working now). The game seems a bit slow from what I experienced (when it finally did load up), and it has the usual F2P hooks (get armies now for money, or wait several hours). Pass.

Beat the Average

The above three packages (I'm not counting Heroes Online, thank you very much) already provide plenty of hours of gaming, but I'm not really convinced the gaming is worth having other than perhaps the two Heroes games. Beat the Average (currently sitting at $10.40) and you unlock four more titles -- with more to come next week.

Heroes of Might and Magic V: The first game in the list to come after New World Computing, Heroes V features a fully 3D engine. It's also new enough (2006) that you can find a ranking on Metacritic: a moderately good score of 77%. It's also the last Might and Magic game I ever played -- the series had finally lost its charm I suppose, or I was simply too busy. There are six core campaigns once more, providing for many, many hours of gaming. At present the two expansion packs (Tribes of the East and Hammers of Fate) are not included in the bundle, though that may be a good thing as both received relatively poor reviews.

Heroes of Might and Magic VI: We're not done with Heroes yet, though, as there's still the final installment (at present -- HOMM7 is currently in development). As with the previous installment, this one was developed initially by Limbic Entertainment for Ubisoft, but it was completed by Black Hole Entertainment and then passed back to Limbic when Blackhole filed for bankruptcy. Ouch. The game has five campaigns telling an interlinking story, and there are two expansions. The original game was horribly buggy, but after 20+ patches it seems okay now. Also included are the Danse Macabre and Pirates of the Savage Sea expansions. (Note that the standalone Shades of Darkness expansion is not included in this tier of the bundle.)

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic: The Dark Messiah game was perhaps intended to be another Might and Magic spinoff, only this time as a first person shooter. It didn't do so well, with an average score of only 72%, so a sequel was never made. To tell you just how forgettable the game was, I beat it back in 2006 when it was new, but I couldn't even tell you about it's plot without looking it up. Mediocre FPS games don't usually hold up too well over time, but at least the Source engine should allow this to run well on even low-end current GPUs (e.g. Intel's HD 5500).

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes: This isn't a game I've tried yet, but it looks pretty ho-hum considering this was originally a Nintendo DS game later ported to iOS/Android and then eventually the PC. It's basically a lite RPG with puzzle elements, with an average rating of 76% (so not that bad). Graphically, it looks a lot like some of the indie RPG games you see, which can be fun for a retro style experience.

Pay Donate $15 or More

This bundle has a high average price probably largely thanks to the $15 tier, which nets you five additional titles -- though a couple are not too exciting. The Heroes VI Shades of Darkness standalone expansion for example is available here, along with a Duel of Champions Starter Pack (another F2P game). Here are the other three more interesting titles (IMO of course).

Heroes of Might and Magic III HD: I would argue strongly that of the Heroes games, the third one was the best overall game. I remember spending countless hours playing the campaigns back in college, and the expansions helped keep me going for much longer (though sadly those aren't included). With updated graphics and gameplay but before the 3D makeover, this was NWC at their best. There's a reason this one got stuck on the $15 tier....

Might and Magic X: Legacy plus The Falcon and the Unicorn DLC: Wrapping things up, the final two games/expansions go back to the RPG roots of the series. Legacy is set in the new Ubisoft world of Might and Magic, carrying on from the story in Heroes VI. It's the most recent game in the bundle, though it didn't receive all that great of reviews (71% average). The big surprise here is that the game is a throwback to the earlier grid-based games in the series, so even though it has a 3D engine all movement is done on a grid similar to the first five games. If you loved the earlier titles and want something of a modern remake, this is as close as you'll get -- and like the final Wizardry title, this may be the end of the series (outside of the Heroes games, that is).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Humble Origin Bundle 2 - A Nostalgic Update Brings More Games

It's one week since the Humble Origin Bundle 2 first launched, so naturally it's time for the final games to unlock. Those of you (like me) who bought the bundle and beat the average already will find the games automatically unlocked for you. And if you haven't already jumped at the bundle (seriously, what's wrong with you!?), the price is still under $5 for the entire collection ($4.93 at the time of writing). So let me quickly cover the new additions, and then I have some feedback on the already unlocked games.
Colonel Blair, this HD thing didn't do us any favors, did it?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Overview of Laptop Processors, April 2015

Recently I've had a few people come up to me asking for advice on buying a laptop. The problem with asking for advice on a laptop is that many are looking for a good budget laptop, and the term "budget" is rather vague. I've spoken with many people over the years, and for some when they say "budget" it's almost the equivalent of saying "free"; others are a bit more sensible in that they're looking at $400 or less, while at the higher end of the definition a budget laptop could go as high as $750. And of course there are plenty of non-budget processors to consider as well.

Given the range of options at the various price points, I wanted to take some time to dig deeper into the laptop market and talk about what processors are available and what sort of performance you can expect from each. The reality as usual is that there are compromises you'll have to make, either in spending more money or giving up performance or features. But since it's important to lay the groundwork for laptop performance before getting into any specific recommendations, I wanted to post this in a separate article.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Acer V3-572 Review - Budget Laptop with Upgrades

Acer V3-572 Review and SSD Upgrade

If you've ever tried shopping for a new budget laptop, it can be a bit maddening. Nearly every one will come with one or two serious compromises, either to the build quality, battery life, display, keyboard, touchpad, or storage -- or in some cases many of these areas. With new models now coming out, the questions of which budget laptop is best can be a bit difficult to answer. More than anything however, laptops can live or die by their storage subsystem; finding a decent budget laptop that doesn't completely botch the storage system is virtually impossible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Humble Origin Bundle #2: Just Buy It Already!

I've been a long-time fan of the Humble Bundle, not necessarily because they support charities -- which is always nice -- but simply because they have many excellent offers where you can pick up several quality games at a great price. Not every bundle is worth buying in my book, especially when you already own several of the titles, but some are so good that there's simply no passing them by. The latest Humble Origin Bundle #2 is one such offer that you simply can't afford to miss.

The first Humble Origin Bundle (which I wrote about at AnandTech) included six good/great games with a combined value of over $150. I can't believe it has been a year and a half since that offer, but we're now getting a second bundle from EA Origin. Interestingly, it fills out some of the gaming series that were started in the first bundle, so where the last one give you Dead Space 1 and 3, you get Dead Space 2 this round. Here's the full list, with some additional comments from yours truly.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Repairing and Replacing the Nexus 5 Screen

Anyone who has ever owned a smartphone knows the horror that strikes when you drop your phone. The split second as the phone goes air-born and falls towards the ground elongates, your muscles refuse to respond fast enough, and you watch in despair as your $400 piece of electronics falls towards the hard ground. Sometimes it lands on the back and you breath a sigh of relief; other times it lands on the glass but you get lucky. But unless you buy a good case, you will almost certainly eventually end up with something that looks like this:
My Nexus 5 After a Fall
Depending on your smartphone, the difficulty of fixing the display after such a fall varies. In the case of the Nexus 5, unfortunately, the Gorilla Glass is bonded to the digitizer and LCD beneath, and while it's in theory possible to replace just the glass, in practice that can take hours and result in a less than ideal result. After researching the process of trying to repair just the broken glass, and finding a lengthy video documenting the process (which required more than a few specialized tools), I did the sensible thing and ordered a complete screen and case assembly.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Microsoft Windows Speech Recognition

I've been a long time user of Dragon Naturally Speaking, going all the way back to 2006. I've also fooled around with the speech recognition provided by Microsoft, which used to be a part of Microsoft Office but it's now built into Windows (starting with Windows Vista if I recall correctly). I've upgraded computers a few times over the past several years, and in the process I got away from using Dragon Naturally Speaking. Recently, I decided maybe I should get speech recognition another shot, and since I haven't tried Microsoft's speech recognition for a while I thought I would start there.

So, here I sit, staring at my computer screen wearing a microphone headset, trying to dictate the complete article without touching the keyboard. It's perhaps not the most effective way of using speech recognition, especially if you're not physically unable to use a mouse / keyboard, but it does give a good feel for the accuracy and usability of the software. Once I'm finished here, I will go back to using Dragon Naturally Speaking to see what has changed in the past couple of years.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

$500 Budget PC Guide

If it's been a while since your last PC upgrade, chances are good that you stand to benefit from a refresh to your hardware. While in theory anything with a Core 2 Duo / Athlon X2 (the later variants at least) or newer is still "fast enough", gains in efficiency not to mention system responsiveness are definitely worth pursuing. And if you're having any sort of stability problems on an older PC, trying to fix things can often end up costing just as much time and money as simply starting anew.

While picking out parts for a new PC is relatively simple on one level, the trick is in choosing parts that provide a good combination of price, performance, reliability/stability, and features. Despite advances in technology, the reality remains that going out and buying the cheapest motherboard often means you get exactly what you paid for: a cheap motherboard. That might mean things like compatibility issues with certain devices (e.g. DIMMs or PCIe cards), instability, and/or other issues. Troubleshooting such problems is no fun, so saving $20 at the cost of hours of lost productivity isn't something I'd recommend.

For other parts, however, the choices are pretty straightforward. CPUs/APUs rarely cause instability or other problems on their own, so the only real factor in selecting a processor is how much performance you want and how much you're willing to spend. I'll be listing several potential processor choices below. Storage and memory are for the most part compatible with any good motherboard and are largely interchangeable -- again, the decision mostly boils down to performance and capacity versus price.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Graphics Card Guide, April 2015

I mentioned working on some other articles, so this is going to be my first real non-cryptocurrency article in some time. Given my background, it's only fitting to start with graphics cards. So you're thinking about buying a new graphics card (GPU), but not for cryptocurrency mining or anything serious -- you want to use your PC for something useful! You want to play games.

I enjoy games as well, and with a long history of benchmarking and testing games, I've been exploring this realm for a while. But what's different is that I'm not going to try and benchmark everything under the sun on a regular basis -- I have a separate site for that sort of thing. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture and focus on what's important and what ends up being marketing fluff.

Use your PC as intended: for gaming!

Time for Change

I'm going to try to keep this short, but after a few years of involvement with cryptocurrencies, I have become at best disenchanted with much of what is going on. The number of companies that have folded and run off with users' coins is well beyond anything we should consider acceptable, and similarly the broken promises, hyperbole, and straight out lies just begins to grate after a while. So, at this point I'm going to largely discontinue covering cryptocurrencies -- at least until there's something exciting enough to make me reconsider. There are other "news" outlets chasing clicks and traffic, but I don't want to be a part of that game.

So if I'm not going to look at cryptocurrencies, what will I be doing here? Hopefully I can start to provide some more interesting and relevant computer technology news. I don't think it's a surprise to most of you that I've been doing this just as a sort of side hobby while working for my main job at AnandTech. Well, if you've liked anything I've done there over the past 10+ years, I'll continue providing similar coverage here. Which is a way of saying that I'm no longer with AT, if you're wondering. It's a long and somewhat complex story, but let's just say I probably should have left a couple years ago. Not that AT wasn't good to me, but with a family to support there wasn't a great future there -- heck, even Anand "retired" (to Apple) and sold off the site to Purch a few months back.

Being this is my own site/blog, I'm free to do pretty much whatever I want with the site. The cryptocurrency background might look a bit odd going forward, but let's just leave that as a footnote in history. Moving forward, I'll post news and commentary, recommendations for hardware, benchmarks, etc. as time warrants. If things go well, perhaps I won't have to find a new full-time job and can focus on my own blogging, but that's more of a long-term play.

To all those who have read this space up until now, thanks for hanging around. If you only care about the cryptocurrency world, I just don't have it in me to continue researching the new stuff, most of which ends up being complete garbage. PayCoin is still puttering along, making promises that never seem to materialize, and now there's Mineral and MineralTalk to carry us "forward". Maybe some day all the XPY I'm holding will actually be worth something more than $1000, but today is not that day. Besides, the original plan for this blog was to talk about all things nerdy and fun, and Bitcoin/crypto just ended up being a distraction for a year or two.

So, onward and upward! I'll have more to say with my next post, which will hopefully be ready in a few hours....

Jarred Walton
Editor in Chief
(I always wanted that title....)