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Review #11: Hitman Absolution

27 March 2015
Posted in: 2015 special, Gaming, Tech | 2 Comments

Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: Absolution continues the story of our favourite shiny-headed, barcoded and stony-faced assassin, Agent 47. The player takes on the role of this genetically-engineered killing machine to carry out a series of contracts—ahem, and we don’t mean the kind of contracts you and I usually sign. Mr 47 is skilled in all manner of grisly things, such as sneaking up undetected, throwing sharp things with grim precision and leaving the earth a few vile humans short without anybody realizing he’s been visiting.

52 reviews of 2015Absolution is the fifth in the Hitman franchise and coming as it did six years after its predecessor Blood Money, there were a lot of expectations from it. Needless to say, though most 47-parched gamers loved it, there were those who found a lot to complain about. More on that later.

Absolution is a continuation from where the previous game Hitman: Blood Money left off. Diana Burnwood, 47’s handler, had sabotaged the Agency (the shadowy organization that hires 47 and probably others of his ilk) and exposed all the agents. 47 survived by shooting his way out of his own funeral and has now been contracted by the revamped Agency to assassinate Diana.

And thus begins another Hitman, this one being different in that unlike a series of unrelated assassinations for 47 to pull off, he is drawn deeper into a conspiracy that is disturbingly close to home. Had Diana really betrayed him? What is the new head of the Agency Benjamin Travis’s agenda? Who is Victoria, the mysterious teenager 47 must keep safe? There is a linear story arc that many fans of the series have complained about, and though it is a complex and well-developed narrative, one does tend to lose interest in the twists and turns by the time it draws to a close. That said, the immersive quality of the game is incredible. If your hardware can manage it, the graphics (and sound) are quite stunning and there is a cinematic quality to the gameplay. Even without ‘high’ settings, Absolution is a joy to play and don’t be surprised if you end up wasting a couple of hours just exploring your environment.

There are some gameplay changes, of course. Agent 47 now possesses what is called Instinct, which allows him to scan his surroundings for enemies and points/objects of interest, as well as predict enemy movement. It allows him to go into a slow-motion mode for precision shots called Point Shooting. It also helps him blend in. Blend-in is a welcome addition to the disguise system. Just donning a disguise doesn’t guarantee invisibility any more; people in the same job/profession will be suspicious of you and they will see through your disguise in a matter of seconds. Thus, you will need to use your Instinct to go undetected. Think that makes it all easy? Well, Instinct depletes as you use it (and only regenerates in Normal mode when you complete objectives and generally do anything a good assassin should do), so you need to use it judiciously.

As mentioned before, Absolution is supremely immersive. Walking around, hiding around a corner, shimying up on ledges, popping inside a handy cupboard—it all feels quite intuitive. The cover system has also changed—going in and out of cover with the press of the spacebar (I was playing on the PC), movement under cover, shooting or subduing victims from cover feels much more natural. The once-favourite sedative of those gamers who favoured Agent 47’s stealth approach is now history, but the good news is that our man now has a deadly subdue option to silently take down enemies. 47 may choose to just incapacitate the victim or go all the way and kill. Oh and this needs Instinct to carry out, so another reason to plan you use of it. As with most games, the AI tends to be somewhat moronic, but is still much improved from before. If 47 is spotted, matters can be contained by subduing eyewitnesses before an alarm is raised. 47 also has an option to pretend to surrender, lead an unsuspecting guard or cop to a quiet corner and take care of him.

The biggest hassle with Absolution is the lack of a save system. All you have are in-game checkpoints, but they only last as long as your gaming session. So if you end up making a teeny mistake—or a game glitch strikes just as you’ve spend half an hour creeping up on your victim—have fun doing it all all over again. The checkpoints too are not without bugs: I’ve had characters respawning or items disappearing, requiring me to restart entire levels. Fortunately, each mission is subdivided into sub-levels, which makes the lack of a save system a tiny bit less painful.

The abundance of empty bins and cupboards to conceal bodies—or for 47 to hide in—is a little too convenient. There are also gas canisters and proximity mines lying about with abandon in certaion locations, not to mention weapons. Speaking of weapons, 47’s trademark Silverballers only make an appearance mid-game. You’re also not able to choose weapons at the start of a mission. Neither of these made much of a difference to my stealth-based gameplay, however. As in the other Hitman games, you are free to choose your style of play: sneak about like a ghost or go in all guns blazing. However, a major grouse is that one of the missions forces you to use Point Shooting, which required a certain amount of desperate Googling to remember the correct commands.

Unlike many gamers out there, you’ll find no complaints from me abouts Absolution‘s single-player focus since I prefer solitary gaming. That said, it game is not free from the ubiquitous social networking of our current lives: at the end of every level not only are you given a score, but it is pitted against the average scores of players across the world and also in your region. There are also Challenges that add to your score—various achievements that are unlocked when you finish certain objectives including remaining undetected, the manner in which a target is eliminated, collecting evidence and so on. Which reminds me, every level has an ‘evidence’ tape, presumably incriminating 47 in some way, that can be collected for extra points. Side note: it is impossible to clear every challenge on a single playthrough.

In addition to the regular story mode of Absolution, there is also what is called the Contracts mode. This comprises player-created chapters played on any of the game’s existing levels, including a custom challenge and up to three targets for 47 to eliminate. This is a great way to revisit the scene and keep the game going once you’re done with it. Any player may create and share a Contract online, provided that they’re able to complete it themselves first.

In sum, Hitman: Absolution was a briliantly immersive, thoroughly enjoyable episode of getting into the skin of Agent 47 with his impeccable suit and shiny red tie. (Point of interest: he gouges out his barcode early in the game, so you get to see the back of his head with a bandaid on it instead of the familiar barcode.) It’s already been too long—almost three years, but it feels like an eternity—since Absolution has been out and word is that details of a new game will be revealed later in the year. I can hardly wait and have my fingers tightly crossed that we shall see more of Victoria in it.

RATING: 8/10

~PD

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Review #7: Asus G551JK Republic of Gamers laptop

16 February 2015
Posted in: 2015 special, Gaming, Reviews, Tech | 4 Comments
Asus G551JK

The beautiful beast: Asus G551JK gaming laptop. (Photo: Asus)

The best thing about being a tech writer is that you get gadgets to play with. Unfortunately, you have to give them back eventually. Be that as it may, ever since I found out—and this was eons ago—that ‘gaming laptop’ is a real thing and not a figment of my wishful imagination, I’ve always wanted one. So when the Asus G551JK was offered to me for a couple of weeks, I was beside myself with joy.

52 reviews of 2015The G551JK is one of Asus’ Republic of Gamers series of gaming machines. And this is a beautiful beast. The red-and-black colour combination is stunning and the brushed-metal outside is complimented with a red Asus logo that illuminates when the computer starts up, which is a nice touch. The red-backlit keyboard—with the W, S, A, D keys highlighted with red bevels—makes you want to turn off the room lights right away. The screen and keyboard have a matte finish, a welcome change from the usual glossiness. I’m told that the machine comes with an Asus gaming mouse and headset, but these were not included in my review unit.

Let’s get the specs out of the way: the Asus G551JK is powered by an Intel Core i7-4710HQ 2.5GHz processor going up to 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost, with 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard disk. This is complimented by an NVIDIA GeForce GTX850M graphics card with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. There is a 6x Blu-Ray optical drive, card reader, HDMI port and three USB ports. The screen is a 15.6-inch full HD IPS LCD screen, with a maximum resolution of 1920x1080px. All of this weighs in at an hefty 2.7kg, but then, I would use it to set up my gaming corner and not lug it about everywhere.

From a user perspective, the G551JK was comfortable to use. Having small hands, I’ve often had a problem with laptops much smaller than this one, with things being hard to reach, especially during gaming when quick reactions are key. With this machine, there was enough space to rest your hands and reach the right buttons and trackpad comfortably. The keyless trackpad—that is, no dedicated right- and left-click buttons—was particularly impressive. It is multitouch, with tap-to-click enabled and nicely responsive.

The laptop comes preinstalled with Windows 8.1 and starts up really fast. I tested it out with Hitman: Absolution at ‘ultra’ settings, not because the game has heavy demands, but because I’ve been consumed with finishing the game and since I’d been playing it recently, I could easily compare. Well, the performance was fantastic. What few hiccups there were were in no part to do with the hardware (hint: you need to run it in Windows 7 compatible mode). The machine zipped through Absolution and made no bones about my incessant loading and reloading. The screen is fantastic, including the viewing angles. Mention must be made about the cooling fan—effective and quiet.

The only place that the Asus G551JK was found wanting in my limited use was battery life. In normal circumstances, that is, non-gaming, it gave me about three hours. Even my three-and-a-half-year-old MacBook Pro can easily beat that. The capslock indicator is another thing I had a problem with—a tiny light towards the bottom of the machine that indicates if capslock is on is a bit too subtle for convenience.

In sum, the user experience was extremely satisfactory. At Rs 82,999, it is not bad value for money. If you’re on the lookout for a gaming monster, you could do seriously worse than snag this one.

RATING: 8/10

~PD

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Week #16: A mini-crisis

22 April 2014
Posted in: 2014 special, Tech, Writing | 1 Comment

52 weeks of reading and writing
This is going to be quick and dirty because I’m currently involved in some fire-fighting. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this for all of us, I’m just not sure what it is yet.

This is what happened:

lock and keyI usually password-protect all my writing work. Even on my own computer. I don’t know why—it’s a habit from the days I used to share my computer and I still do it. This evening, I found that the ODT file containing the manuscript of my latest novel wasn’t opening. The error message OpenOffice kept giving me was that my password was wrong. After a few minutes being convinced that I was losing my mind, I had the brainwave of trying another file, also password-protected, with a different password. And sure enough, same problem.

That’s when I realized that my brain was intact. But something else was Very Wrong.

I started to retrace my steps. The file had been accessible in the afternoon, so in what way had I tinkered with my machine since then? The answer: installed a new printer, including printer software, and when a message from Keychain popped up, I remember not paying too much attention to it and allowing it to go ahead

There was no need to panic too much since I Dropbox my work files every night and periodically take other sorts of back-ups. So I’d lost a maximum of half a day’s work, but it was still annoying (not to mention a jolt to the ego). In order to check if my files were okay, I went to Windows, copied the files over there and tried to open them. It worked. Phew. So I haven’t lost any of my work, just some time.

Now I’m off to figure out how to sort out the mess on Mac OS. I’m blaming the HP software for messing with it and find myself in the unlikely position of being grateful to Windows for keeping me sane.

Maybe that’s the lesson! And of course, there’s no excuse for not paying attention when messages pop up on your screen.

~PD

(Photo credit: ba1969)

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