Author: Katherineb

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Dishonored 2 review: The best stealth game of 2016

Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. It’s one thing to put a beloved set of characters in a rich, new environment, empower them with new and exciting abilities and surround them with a beautifully drawn support cast of ne’er-do-wells, one-armed pirates and evil megalomaniacs, but the real star of Dishonored 2 is its humble quick-save function.

It might not sound like the sexiest kind of things to rave about in a review, but combined with the game’s astonishingly fast loading times – something that seems to be a rarity in this year’s top blockbusters (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided[1], I’m looking at you) – the sequel to 2012’s best stealth game[2] quickly ascends to an even higher plane of gaming bliss.

When it only takes a few seconds to change tack, try a new route or simply have another go at taking out a group of guards, Dishonored 2 gives you everything you need to push its vicious blend of action-stealth gameplay to the limit, opening up hundreds more opportunities to play and experiment with Arkane’s masterful set of systems. 

Much like the original Dishonored, you can play the game in whatever way you please. You can choose to go in swords and guns blazing, slitting the throat of each and every enemy you see, or you can opt for a soft, silent approach to maintain the element of surprise. This time, however, you have the pick of two protagonists: returning assassin and former Lord Protector Corvo Attano, or the now-grown Empress of Dunwall, Emily Caldwin, the girl Corvo risked his life to save and protect in the first game.

Political unrest is brewing once again on the streets of Dunwall, however, and you’ll need to decide which one you’ll want to play as fairly early on. I chose Emily for my first playthrough to see how her magical powers differed from Corvo’s, but it’s a testament to Arkane’s expert level design that both protagonists feel like equally valid choices for tackling the challenges ahead of them. 

They share a few basic traits to help ease players in with their overall traversal – Corvo’s teleporting Blink ability has been repurposed as the lunging Far Reach power for Emily – but their wider array of magical powers couldn’t be more different. Domino (see the screenshot above), for instance, is easily one of Emily’s highlights, as this allows her to chain up to four enemies together, the fate of one instantly befalling them all. It makes for some highly creative takedowns, whether it’s by sleep dart, pistol or simply shoving one off a balcony, and gives you a far more flexible set of rules to play by than its predecessor. 

However, it’s the world in which Emily and Corvo find themselves in that really makes Dishonored 2 such a joy to play. Dunwall was a masterful portrait of a Victorian steampunk London, but the imposing, European-flavoured port town of Karnaca is an absolute marvel. Each mission covers a huge play area, and its maze of open apartments, rooftops, alleyways and dingy side-streets make it all the more sumptuous, giving you plentiful space to poke around and explore to your heart’s content while offering up a bounty of different pathways to take on the way to your target. 

Some missions are so huge, in fact, that they practically contain two levels in one. The Clockwork Mansion is a great example of this. Not only is this constantly shifting puzzle house one of the finest locations in the entire game, but the sheer size of the surrounding district you need to move through in order to get there would have probably been a level in its own right had this been in the original Dishonored.

The same goes for a manor later on that’s sealed itself off from the world while two rival factions stake their claim on the streets outside. You can crack a rather smart and fiendish riddle to open the lock and get inside straight away, or you can plunge deep into the neighbourhood gang war and present either faction leader with the body of their enemy to try and get them to help you. Either way, it’s incredibly satisfying, the intellectual complexity of the riddle being more than equal to the political dexterity of negotiating with the gangs. 

With its dense, richly drawn environments and brilliantly intertwining systems, Dishonored 2 raises the bar for all stealth games going forward. It goes above and beyond what most sequels manage to accomplish on a second outing, and the sheer scale and sophistication of what Arkane’s achieved here shows a studio at the very height of its powers. Regardless of which path you pick, Dishonored 2 never stops surprising you. It’s a Best Buy. 

Availability
Available formats PC, PS4, Xbox One
PC requirements
OS Support Windows 7/8/10 (64-bit versions) 
Minimum CPU  Intel Core i5-2400 / AMD FX-8320
Minimum GPU NVIDIA GTX 660 2GB / AMD Radeon HD 7970 3GB
Minimum RAM 8GB
Hard disk space 60GB

References

  1. ^ Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  2. ^ 2012’s best stealth game (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
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Panasonic TX-50DX802B review: A superb 4K HDR TV

Walk into any TV showroom and you’d be forgiven for thinking that every set looks almost exactly the same. If it hasn’t got a flat, rectangular base, it’s probably got a two-pronged stand design much like Samsung’s top-end KS9000[1]. Panasonic, however, knows how to make a statement with its TVs. If the monolithic, slab-like stand of its flagship DX902[2] wasn’t bold enough for you, the easel, swing-like setup of the DX802 – the next one down in Panasonic’s flagship 4K TV range this year – certainly is.

It’s quite unlike any TV I’ve ever seen. Suspended in mid-air by its sturdy metal support, the DX802 looks more like a piece of modern sculpture than something you’d put in your front room. It’s a beautifully designed TV, and it even comes with a bundled soundbar that produces all the TV’s sound.

This plugs into the back of the TV via a short proprietary cable and sits neatly within the outer frame. Measuring only 65mm tall, its short stature cleverly draws the eye upwards, emphasising the screen that seems to levitate above it.

The DX802 comes in two sizes: the 50in model on test here and a larger, 58in model. Naturally, a bigger screen means the stand will end up occupying even up more room on your TV cabinet, so take note of the measurements before you splash your cash. The 50in model is 316mm deep and 1.2m wide, and will require a media cabinet of significant stature to support its bulk.

Picture quality

The DX802 isn’t certified to meet the UHD Alliance’s UHD Premium standards like Panasonic’s top-end DX902, but it’s still capable of producing a fantastic picture. It still supports SMPTE’s ST2084 and ST2086 standards for HDR, for instance, so it can display HDR content just as well as any UHD Premium-badged TV (the latter of which must meet the ST2084 standard anyway), and its black level was impressive across the board, hitting levels as low as 0.01cd/m2 in Cinema mode and 0.03cd/m2 in Normal mode.

Contrast was also excellent. Even with the default Normal mode enabled, our colour calibrator returned an astonishingly high contrast ratio of 9,937:1, which rose to an incredible 12,058:1 when I switched to Cinema. The THX Cinema and Professional modes took a bit of a hit down to respective ratios of 6,133:1 and 6,738:1, but that’s largely down to their lower default brightness levels.

Colour accuracy is also spot on. Normal already covers 90% of the sRGB colour gamut on its default settings, while Cinema raises it to a near perfect 97.4%. THX Cinema and Professional modes once again took a slight dip down to 93.2% and 94.7%, but a small change to the colour gamut settings in the advanced settings menu (switching from the default Rec.709 to Rec.2020) quickly bumped this up to a full 100%.

Admittedly, having a Rec.2020 setting is a little misleading, as there’s currently no consumer TV available that’s anywhere near capable of displaying the true Rec.2020 standard. It’s also a shame Panasonic has only included this colour gamut option on its two Professional modes, as it would have been great to see the other picture modes benefit from it as well. Still, for those who want an excellent picture without the hassle of manually fine-tuning each individual colour value through the DX802’s extensive ten-point white balance controls and colour management settings, it’s a welcome addition nonetheless.

With such great image quality out of the box, the DX802 is primed and ready for watching 4K Blu-rays the moment you get it home. Indeed, Batman vs Superman looked stunning on the DX802, and the TV’s superb contrast meant that even dark night scenes were packed with tonnes of detail, even in the shadows. Explosions and Superman’s eye lasers were wonderfully rich and vivid thanks to its excellent HDR capabilities, and even the brightest areas of the screen retained excellent levels of detail.

My only criticism, and it’s minor, is that the screen as a whole doesn’t quite hit the brightness heights of its UHD Premium-certified rivals. Even with the backlight setting on maximum in “Professional 1” mode, brighter objects didn’t look as piercing as on Samsung’s similarly priced KS7000[3], or indeed Samsung’s flagship KS9000, so the overall impact of the HDR is somewhat lessened. Still, when the rest of the DX802’s picture quality is so good, it seems churlish to come down on it too harshly just because the panel’s a touch dimmer.

The DX802 isn’t just good for watching 4K Blu-rays on, either. Its Full HD upscaling is also excellent. Our Star Trek Blu-ray still looked very well defined on the DX802, and the Panasonic’s “Resolution Remaster” setting only refined it further, creating a pin-sharp image without edges and outlines looking overly jagged. Its image processing chip is equally good, with fast-paced action scenes remaining largely free of judder and glitching artefacts. You can smooth things out, too, using the Intelligent Frame Creation setting, but don’t get carried away. Anything above Minimum looks too artificial, inducing that dreaded soap-opera effect on your films. I found the Minimum setting provided the best balance.

References

  1. ^ KS9000 (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  2. ^ DX902 (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
  3. ^ KS7000 (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
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Philips Brilliance 258B6QUEB/00 review: Is this the best USB C monitor for your new MacBook Pro?

With more and more laptops and smartphones opting for reversible USB-C connections, you’d think there would be more monitors catering for this type of port. After all, aside from its super-fast data transfer speeds, USB-C is also capable of outputting video, making it ripe for extending your new laptop’s display to a second screen, or displaying media from your smartphone.

It also gives you the option of attaching a USB-C dock and adding even more connections to your monitor without having dozens of cables strewn across your desk.

The Philips 258B6QUEB, however, is first USB-C monitor to arrive in the Expert Reviews offices, and it might just be the most flexible monitor I’ve ever seen. In addition to that all important USB-C port, it can turn its hand to just about anything.

It comes with your standard HDMI, DisplayPort, dual-link DVI and VGA inputs as well as a trio of standard USB 3 ports. One of the latter happens to support “fast charging”m although it’s only 1W, so don’t expect smartphone charge times to rival a dedicated wall adapter. There’s also a headphone jack and 3.5mm audio input, plus a pair of 2W integrated speakers to round everything out. The only thing missing is a second USB-C port to enable ongoing daisy-chaining of other USB-C peripherals.

That’s a small complaint, though, given how flexible this monitor is. And it’s not only flexible in terms of its data connectivity. It’s highly adjustable from a physical perspective as well, with 130mm of height adjustment available and -5 to 20 degrees of screen tilt. It can swivel -65 to 65 degrees side to side, and can pivot 90 degrees so you can use it vertically. Its robust, silver highlighted stand looks smart and professional, making it a good fit for home or office use.

Of course, such flexibility means nothing without an equally excellent panel to go with it. Luckily, the Philips has come-up trumps here. Equipped with a 25in, 2,560 x 1,440 IPS display, the 258B6QUEB flew through our colour calibration tests, scoring an impressive sRGB coverage of 98.2% straight out of the box on both its 6500K and SRGB colour profiles. There’s a slight shortfall in its blue coverage, but the screen never looked overly warm as a result.

There’s also a User Define mode that lets you tweak the colour profile yourself, but sadly I wasn’t able to claw back that tiny bit of blue coverage to get it to full 100% once I’d calibrated it. Instead, its sRGB coverage remained at a steady 98.2%. Still, when you combine that with an excellent contrast ratio of 1,118:1 and a peak brightness of 352cd/m2, the 258B6QUEB acquits itself very well in terms of overall punch and vibrancy, making it a great option for web browsing, editing documents or watching video.

At just £300, the Philips Brilliance 258B6QUEB is an absolute steal for both office and home users alike. Its colour accuracy is top notch across every colour mode and it has more inputs than you probably know what to do with. It’s a Best Buy.  

Hardware
Screen size 25in
Resolution 2,560 x 1,440
Screen technology IPS
Claimed contrast ratio 1,000:1
Claimed brightness 350cd/m2
Refresh rate 60Hz
Claimed response time 5ms
Response time type grey-to-grey
Horizontal viewing angle 178 degrees
Vertical viewing angle 178 degrees
Screen elevation 130mm
Portrait mode Yes
Internal speaker (power) 2x 2W
Detachable cables Yes
USB hub 3-port USB3
Integrated power supply No
Video inputs VGA, dual-link DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, USB-C
Audio inputs 3.5mm audio input
Warehouse Discounts 0

HTC 10 Evo review: Hands-on with the HTC 10 evolution

HTC’s 10 Evo is nothing short of a repackaged HTC 10[1]. On the inside and out, it’s more or less identical. It has the same basic design, it’s powered by the same Snapdragon 810 processor and its 5.5in QHD screen is exactly the same size and resolution. So why should you give it the time of day?

Think of the Evo as a version 2.0 of sorts, sticking with the familiar all-metal premium build of the 10, with its bold chamfered edges and slick lines, but ditching the curved back of its predecessor. A convex back may be a little easier on the hands but I much prefer a smartphone to sit flush against a desk.

HTC’s also done an Apple and ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack. Sticking solely to a USB-C connection, you’ll no longer be able to listen to music through headphones and charge at the same time. As with the HTC 10, you’ll find a fingerprint scanner on the front that does double duties as a touch-sensitive button, perfect for both Google Now and Android Pay. And, with an IP57 rating, the HTC 10 Evo should fare better against water than its IP53-rated elder.

To help ease the blow of losing the headphone jack, the 10 Evo launches with adaptive in-ear headphones in the box. These USB-C powered Hi-Res headphones have a fancy sonar-based sensor which assesses how good your hearing is on the fly and adjusts the equalizer. It told me my left ear isn’t quite as good as my right, something I should probably get checked out.

The 12-megapixel rear camera of the original 10 has also been abandoned in favour of a 16-megapixel f/2.0 wide-angle lens. It still has 4K video recording, phase-detection autofocus, RAW support and optical image stabilisation, though. Meanwhile, the 8-megapixel front-facing snapper has a new panoramic selfie mode and can now record video in Full HD.

Inside, you’ll find an octa-core Snapdragon 810 chip and 3GB of RAM, the same used in its flagship brother. The year-old 2GHz processor is still pretty snappy, though, especially since HTC claims it’s re-engineered it to improve thermal efficiency. As for storage, the Evo comes with 32GB onboard with the option to expand up to an extra 128GB via microSD.

There’s a 3,200mAh battery inside, up from the HTC 10’s 3,000mAh capacity. Considering the HTC 10 lasted just over 12 hours in our battery tests, I’d expect the Evo to last a little longer, especially with its more power-efficient processor upgrade. There’s also fast-charging support, thanks to the USB-C port at the bottom, just like with the regular 10.

HTC doesn’t want to directly compete with its older flagship, but considering the 10 Evo is set to cost about the same as the HTC 10 is at the moment, it’s all but assured. From what I’ve seen, it’s going to be a very hard sell in the run up to Christmas, but I’ll bring you my full review once the HTC 10 Evo officially launches later this month.

References

  1. ^ HTC 10 (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
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Pokémon Sun and Moon review: Dawn of a new era

Evolution is one of the key tenets of Pokémon[1]. As your monsters grow and level up, they eventually transform into bigger, more powerful creatures, opening up new move sets and methods of play. And yet for years, Pokémon as a series has been growing a bit stale. For the past two decades, it’s been the same old adventure, the same old gym battles and the same old final showdown with the Elite Four at the end, leaving the last 24 games feeling pretty much the same as the one that came before it.

Change, however, is finally at hand, as Pokémon Sun and Moon represent the biggest leap forward in the series’ history. It’s as dramatic as Magikarp evolving into Gyarados, or ugly-mug Feebas shape-shifting into the sublime Milotic. This is Pokémon as you’ve never played it before, and it makes the franchise as a whole all the better for it. 

Your main goal still involves catching ’em all and being the best like no one ever was, but this Hawaii-inspired island adventure completely rewrites the Pokémon rule book. Gym battles are out, badges are gone, and even the famed Elite Four Pokémon League HQ is still under construction. Heck, you don’t even have a bike. 

Instead, you’ll be tearing up the dirt tracks (in a full, fluid 360 degrees, I might add) on your very own Tauros, one of the brand-new Ride Pokémon you can call on from your Poké Pager. Tauros isn’t just a faster means of travel, either, as his charge attack can also crush rocks to open up new areas that in previous games would have required a Pokémon who knew Rock Smash.

Sniffer dog Stoutland also doubles up as your faithful Dowsing Machine, allowing you to uncover hidden items around your environment, while Charizard and Lapras are on Fly and Surf duty. This effectively banishes the need for HM (or Hidden Machine) slaves – those sad, ever present Pokémon you begrudgingly drag everywhere with you just to cut, smash or strong arm your way through caves and jungles – allowing you to finally focus on building a team that’s truly your own rather than one that feels constrained by your current environment.

Indeed, when you catch a new Pokémon in Sun and Moon, you now get the option of adding them to your party there and then, swapping them in for one of your current ‘mon rather than waiting until you get to the next Pokémon centre. With this newfound freedom to change your team on the fly, the game not only feels much more elastic and dynamic, but the ability to view their stats and moveset means you’re also a lot more informed about each individual capture. It takes the guessing game out of hunting down particular natures or abilities, making the whole process a lot more streamlined.

This sense of openness extends to Sun and Moon’s revamped battle screen as well. Now I know that menu tweaks are hardly the sexiest of game topics, but I’m not overexaggerating when I say Sun and Moon have really outdone themselves here. In addition to seeing your Pokémon appear in all their beautifully animated glory on the top screen, for instance, you’ll also find small sprite versions of them on the touchscreen.

Tap them and you’ll see each ‘mon’s HP, type, ability and stats, the latter of which have five small triangles next to them to show whether any buffs or debuffs have been applied. It’s incredibly nerdy, but when previous games forced you to hold all this information in your head, the chance to see it all there in front of you comes as a huge relief for those who haven’t been quite so studious on the latest Pokémon developments.

Add in new indicators denoting which moves are super effective or not and information buttons for each individual attack – something that in previous games would have involved tapping through dozens of menu screens – and Sun and Moon are easily the most accessible Pokémon games yet, catering to long-time fans as well as complete newcomers. 

Ditching the gym leader structure does wonders for the game’s pacing, too. They still exist in a very loose sense – here they have the title of ‘Kahuna’ – but instead of simply rocking up to a new town and adding yet another shiny badge to your collection, Sun and Moon see you tackling specific trails that play out across each of Alola’s four main islands.

Trials form the back bone of your journey. Some incorporate a bit of light puzzling while others introduce you to new mechanics, but all of them work toward making your journey feel more organic, as though you’re traversing these islands for a reason rather than simply trudging from town A to town B. It gives Alola a much greater sense of place than either Kanto or Johto, and the smooth, swooping camera angles and lush 3D environments put the rigid and rather static corridors of Kalos to shame.

Completing a trial gives you a much more tangible reward, too. Defeat the area’s super powered ‘Totem Pokémon’, for instance, and you’ll be presented with an elemental Z-Crystal. These allow your Pokémon to dole out a flashy, once-per-battle Z-Move, making them much more useful prizes than any gym badge.

It’s the smaller, more personal touches that really seal the deal, though. Thanks to its revamped affection system, known here as Pokémon Refresh, Pokémon you have the strongest bond with will now glance back at you with a reassuring ‘I got this’ nod each time you summon them in battle, and you in turn cheer them in the text box on as they fight. Occasionally they might even avoid certain attacks or shake themselves out of crippling status effects, reinforcing the idea you’re fighting as a real team rather than issuing orders to bits of data.

With such an exhaustive overhaul of its core systems, Sun and Moon are, quite literally, like night and day compared to the rest of the series. They’re a resounding transformation, and they’ve managed to achieve what I once thought was impossible – having grown out of the series around the time of Black and White, Sun and Moon have somehow managed to put me firmly back on the Pokémon band wagon again, making me more excited than ever to get my team back together again. It might have taken 20 years and 24 games to get here, but these are easily the best Pokémon games to date. Whether you’re a fresh-faced newcomer, a stalwart veteran or simply a lapsed, casual fan, now’s never been a better time to return to the world of Pokémon. 

References

  1. ^ Pokémon (www.expertreviews.co.uk)
       
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