Right now, I'm logging onto AIM, chatting with friends, copying YouTube videos, and visiting Web sites that would set off red flags in Playboy's IT department. I should be writing my column. So why am I admitting anything? Because nobody will catch me. I hope.
Normally, this slacker's soapbox covers games and goofing around that you presumably do when you're off the clock. And this time of year, we've all got plenty to do after hours. In the past week alone, the awesome Gears of War 2 and Mirror's Edge have hit the scene. (Trust me--buy both.) The World of WarCraft gets even bigger with a new expansion. You get the idea. But this week's column is serious business! I found a great way to get away with goofing off during working hours, and I had to share it with you guys. Just don't show your boss--or my boss--this story.
The program that inspired all this unproductivity is my new enabler, ArmorSurf. After a little tinkering with this program, I've got to tell you, I'm digging it--maybe a little too much. It's a secure Web browser. It's a flash video downloader. It's a straight-up devious little program. The best way to sum up its features is to talk about a day in the life. So don't think of this as a formal review; just consider it one man's experiment in how to look busy without doing any actual work.
Not every war game is like some steroid-riddled Michael Bay explodo-fest. I mean, yes, people line up to buy Gears of War 2 as I write this (to learn more about the newest Xbox 360 hit, read Matt Peckham's take), but I want to be in command, not just a grunt. I want to take the time to survey the battlefields and be the armchair general. Lucky for me, no less than five strategy games--each with a very different take--have come out within the past few weeks. But it comes down to the same old problem: So many battles, so little time. You need a quick breakdown of intel on what's new on the store shelves--thereby helping you win the ongoing war against productivity.
The Not-So-Turn-Based Game
The classic strategy game--whether you're talking chess, Risk, or Axis & Allies--usually goes something like this: Two mad geniuses chin-stroke for a couple hours, pondering Every...Single...Move. You weigh choices carefully, deploy your troops...blah...blah....blah. And maybe add a little more action to your battles. Sega's Valkyria Chronicles is a high-style take on turn-based strategy for the Playstation 3 that you really have to see in action to believe. In an alternate-reality take on the World War II era, you find bits of sci-fi steampunk plunked into a pastel-colored battlefield. In fact, it almost looks like you're fighting your way through a storybook landscape--with bullets.
You wanna rock. But between Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour, there's a bona fide battle of the bands going on as the holidays approach. Both games promise arena-filling rock-god dreams, and both are good--so let's take a look at what makes each game tick. (I evaluated the Xbox 360 versions of these games, but both are also available on the PlayStation 2, PS3, and Wii.)
The latest Guitar Hero offers many new features, but you have a couple of big questions to answer before taking the stage: Do you invest $180 dollars to form a Rock Band, or do you spend 190 bucks to go on a World Tour? Which game offers the better selection of songs? Which has the better instruments? We had a jam session with Activision Blizzard's newest gig, so we can give you a detailed, hands-on breakdown of what you'd get for your money and how it compares to Rock Band 2.
The Extra Features
It's not a huge surprise that the developers add songs with every new rock game at this point. But what are some of the standout features of each game this time around?
Rock Band 2: Rock Band is playable as a solo act, but they call it "Rock Band" for a reason. And really, the game is meant to be played in the massive World Tour mode. The band leader chooses where the band plays as you earn more fans--and then you carefully pick your roadies and band manager to book the next gigs.
Building the Ultimate Rock Band
Okay, you have a feel for the ups and downs of the newest Rock Band and Guitar Hero games now. The two are similar and yet different enough to make both of them worthy additions to your collection. Never bought a plastic guitar or a game drum kit in your life? Don't worry, here's the bottom line on the essentials you'll need to cram into your tour bus.
Vocals The bundled mics work, but they aren't the best option to use. To make song selections, you need to keep a controller nearby, so you're likely to find yourself fumbling to grip the mic and a controller between sets. Hardly rock-god-worthy. Mad Catz's M.I.C. gets a full 50,000-lighter salute for not only creating a rugged microphone, but also integrating basic controls that let you do everything with a single device, instead of two. The Xbox 360 version of the M.I.C. sells for $60;a PS3 version is coming soon.
The following is a true story: I'm walking through San Francisco's Chinatown, down a well-hidden side street. The mysterious person I had contacted earlier on Craigslist had instructed me to stand near a trinket store at the corner of "Lost" and "Tourist." Eventually, a petite Asian girl walks up and asks, "Nintendo DS?" I nod, forking over some cash. She gives me an R4. All this trouble for what amounts to a cartridge that you pop into a Nintendo DS. Why do I feel so dirty? Because Nintendo--and some members of the media--tell me to feel that way.
Let me back up for a second. I love my Nintendo DS Lite. And Nintendo has done a fantastic job supporting this device. It's the perfect traveling companion--any platform that can have me defending castles one second and coming up with cooking recipes the next can't be half bad. (I'm serious about the cooking thing; right now I'm testing out the Jamie Oliver interactive cookbook and shopping guide.) But I've been wanting more.
When I first heard about the hard-to-find R4--a device that resembles a Nintendo DS cartridge but has a microSD card slot--I was intrigued. But I heard the buzz, too: "It allows you to play pirated Nintendo DS games. Just copy files from a PC to the microSD card, and pop that into the R4." I'm no pirate! I support the guys who make my games! So at the time I decided to steer clear.
"Want to review this back shaver?" Scrolling through inboxes full of product pitches on a daily basis, PC World editors are swamped with all sorts of geeky--and in some cases, straight-up strange--gear submissions. (I'm serious about that back-shaver pitch I got from a PR person.) But there are plenty of things that we don't usually get to cover that we should. Did you get a chance to check out Tom Spring's early sneak peek at some sweet holiday gear? That's just the tip of the iceberg, my friends. This week's Casual Friday column is a gadget grab bag of some cool, useful, and goofy gadgets. All are 100 percent geek-approved. And if you're curious about what I want for the holidays, keep reading.
My Mouse Blues
I'm still trying to find a happy middle ground with mice. Do I want my mouse to be weighty, like a professional gamer's Logitech G9? Well, yes, but I also want it to work on any surface. That's where Microsoft's new BlueTrack Mouse comes into play: The company promises that this little critter will function on just about anything. Really? So if I ran it over hot coals, it would work? On a mirror? Okay, maybe not every surface, but I'm curious enough to want to try it out.
Plenty of stories provide advice for elite mobile professionals. But what about you, the unproductive traveler? Maybe you're on vacation. Maybe you're trying to chill out before a day's worth of travel and business meetings. Point is, you need to pack a little smarter to entertain yourself, and that's what this week's column is all about. I have some great roadworthy games and a few ways to watch video--and, yeah, I'll even throw in some helpful, practical tips.
The Impractical Tips
The Practical Tips
Have the right headphones and the right audio settings: Most MP3 players come with a pair of earbuds. Throw them out. I'm serious. First, earbuds are potentially bad for your hearing. Jam these things into your ears and crank up the volume, and you're begging for a busted eardrum. I prefer over-the-ear cans, namely Creative's Aurvana X-Fi headphones. They not only improve the sound quality at the touch of a button, but they also provide noise-canceling features the same way Bose's overrated offerings do.
Another bonus of noise-canceling headphones is that you don't need to turn up the volume. Couple that with an MP3 player's smart volume-adjustment feature, and you might not blow out your hearing. Sounds good to me.
There's this little game, Portal--maybe you've heard of it. Part of the critically acclaimed Orange Box that came out late last year, Portal sprang from the minds of recent college grads whose only previous game-authoring credit was a student project called Narbacular Drop. And what about Flow, the hypnotic game that's an obvious inspiration for the cellular stage in Spore? (How do you like that--two free game links in the first paragraph!).
The next time you're in a store, take a good, long look at the video-game shelves. Many of the odd titles that catch your eye (the ones that don't feature some supermuscular space marine or mustachioed handyman) can be traced back to the indie community. Some of those great original games have been online for a while, where they served as models for subsequent retail releases. And this week I'll give you a quick tour of a handful of freebies that are the inspirations for--or good, quick alternatives to--some great retail games coming out now.