Monday, 30 July 2018

Low latency HDR in 4K

So I bought a LG 27UK650 gaming monitor...

...and here are my eyes on, literally, thoughts about it. This gaming monitor came out earlier this year and for me here in Norway, I had to buy it as an import purchase from the UK. Although there have emerged a few really expensive full 4K, HDR with at least 1000 nits light strength, extremely low latency and freesync technology monitors, this model aims for a considerably lower price range. Albeit still fairly pricy though for a gaming monitor, and less powerful 450nits HDR strength maximum, but does it deliver a good experience for a console gamer like me and customers wanting the full 4K, low latency and HDR triple combo?

To be short it's a perfect match for me as a Xbox One X owner, and I imagine PS4 Pro owners. The 4K is present, the HDR is strong enough when you sit as close as you do a PC monitor and the freesync is a great way to experience games which drop frames below 60fps for Xbox One X owners. Plus the seriously reduced latency going from a traditional TV screen to a PC monitor is incredible for those unaware.

Out of the box the screen sports a super thin frame with a great non-reflective surface, sporting only a lip of a frame at the bottom. The back panel is white and there's a fairly simple looking matte, silver stand. A power supply and high speed HDMI, both in white, are packed in the box. All the navigation onscreen is done with a single joystick underneath the bottom of the screen lip. Setting up the picture is fairly simple as PC monitors aim to output the most straight forward and raw image from your device, this is what is key to getting the latency low. All the extra picture effects from traditional TV's add input lag to your games and serve little purpose as console are getting increasingly powerful and great looking graphically when it comes to resolution and image quality. Perhaps this generation of consoles is the first where you really benefit from playing on a PC monitor, provided you have a place to sit close to the screen.

Even on a 27 inch monitor like this, the difference between 1080 and 4K is very apparent. Higher resolutions than 1080p look super sharp and make the distant details pop much more. This is my first time experiencing HDR too, as my 4K TV is without HDR. I'm very impressed by the extremely bright lighting and beautiful colours it delivers. Although it depends on the how each game implements it. some games look a little overdone with HDR and offer no ways to alter it's brightness. I really enjoy the ones that let you tweak the setting to your liking. Forza Motorsport 7, Assassin's Creed: Origins, Gears of War 4 on the Xbox One X and even my 1080p-only experience with Horizon Zero Dawn back on the base PS4 all showcase fantastic and impressive implementation of HDR. Turning it off again in these games that implement it well, is like looking at a duller and less colourful version of the game, even though that's what you used to play with!

As mentioned earlier, another star of the show with this monitor, and most PC monitors in general, is the extremely low latency. While it's been a norm for PC gamers to be in the 1ms to 5ms range in monitor latency for a few years now, it's a huge difference to go from my TV's rather lazy 40-60ms range to this screens 5-10ms one. Non-HDR mode sets you at 5ms if you choose the fastest setting, while activating HDR, which is conveniently done automatically for games that are detected as such, will put you on the "fast" setting in the 10ms ball park. It's a really noticeable and precise feeling going over to playing on such low latency, even for 30fps games that have felt sluggish on normal TV's.

The Freesync technology can be activated regardless of HDR. This makes the refresh rate of the screen match the framerate of the game. It's perfect to help games that drop below 60fps feel consistent in the controls and not like they're slowing down. Games that hover in the 40-60fps range will feel like they are speeding up and slowing down all the time, the consistency in framerate is key and freesync aims to help with, it's a fantastic technology that luckily the Xbox One X supports. I hope to see this technology become a norm in later generations of consoles and supported on TV's across the board.

Although I've mostly tested my XB1X and base PS4 with the monitor, I have also given retro consoles a spin with a Open Source Scan Converter (OSSC). This device converts analogue signals from old consoles to digital ones through a HDMI cable and basically zero addition to input lag. My Mega Drive and PlayStation 1 felt great and the picture looks razor sharp in RGB output from the old classics. I like that I can pivot my screen for Tate modes in games, although it sadly pivots the wrong way compared to many Tate games and as such I had to disconnect the screen from the mount to turn it vertical. PC monitors are in general very suitable screens to play old consoles on as they match the low or non-existent latency that old CRT's screens had.

So to summarise; if you are on the market looking for a nice monitor to play your consoles on, and PC games alike, I can really recommend LG's 600, 650 and 850 lineup. They're all identical panels, that support a few physical extras for each model up: 600 has no pivot stand, no USB/USB-C connectors and no speakers, 650 (my model) adds a pivot stand, while the 850 adds USB/USB-C connectors and speakers. The screen panel is identical across the models and as such the picture quality alike. All models have two HDMI 2.2 ports, a Display Port, and a headphone output.

While I mostly would recommend Xbox One X or PS4 Pro owners going for this screen, I also played the PS4 base model, standard Xbox One games and even a Nintendo Switch on it and they all looked great. It's a nice alternative if you lack the space of a large TV and want the latest technologies in screens without paying for a full price, massive TV. Plus that latency is really going to impress you if you have only played games on flatscreen TV models prior to this.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Battlefronts among the stars

Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)

Platform tested: Xbox One X
Released: 2017

Review: Although I appreciated the first Battlefront with it's large amount of modes and solid multiplayer gameplay, it always felt like it could have done with a singleplayer experience, not that a game can't purely by multiplayer. T  Luckily this time around EA's DICE have made a campaign mode for Battlefront II, Titanfall did much the same; multiplayer only in the first game, the  went with an excellent singleplayer in the second. But where Respawn really nailed a great singleplayer in TF2, DICE struggles a little to make itself not seem like multiplayer game at it's core when playing the campaign.

This review will solely be about that campaign, as I have not used time in the multiplayer. Gameplay is identical between the two though.

SWBFII's gameplay is a solid DICE quality shooter experience, much like you'd expect from the developer behind the Battlefield games. The gun fights are satisfying and the sound is rich with a heavy weight to explosions. The TIE fighters scream like they are supposed to, making the spaceship battles a joy to play. I really enjoyed the diversions with controling various vehicles like the X-Wing and TIE fighters, as well as the imperial  two legged walkers and four legged, giant AT-ATs.

The view angle options though, to switch between third and first person when playing the main female character, Iden Versio, leaves me a little undecided. On one hand the third person view gives you a more personalised approach to the main character and actually seeing her gives the player a better connection. However, the animation of the characters look little clunky and the feeling of precise aiming when doing so seems somewhat lost. 

On the other hand you can switch to a precise first person view, probably the view intended when not playing as the famous Star Wars heroes, which are locked to third person. The first person mode is probably the best for the gun fights, but it kind of takes away the experience of being Versio. I'd like to see the third person view with more polished animation and settle for it being the default view.

DICE absolutely nails the visual resemblance of famous Star Wars locations here; planet surfaces, small cities, space battles etc. it's a beautiful looking game and is spot on with movie aesthetics. The layout of the level design though, have this generic feeling to them and look like they're pulled straight out of the multiplayer levels design. The lack environmental interactivity is quite obvious too, when walking around in a walker or AT-AT blowing up enemies but hardly any environment. There's a barrel here and there to shoot, but everything else feels like solid concrete you can't damage.

So while they have visually made the game look incredible at first glance, especially in 60fps and 4K on my Xbox One X combined with sharp image quality and detailed textures, the actual level design and interactivity needs work.

I went into this game well aware that it had a short campaign and as such waited for a sale to pick it up, and although I've complained a bit here; I ended up having a fun and exciting playthrough. Playing as the dark side with Version is satisfying, and the levels in between with the famous Star Wars characters are refreshing and a entertaining distraction.

Although the game should have ended at a point in the story and the stupid tie in with the new movies right at the end felt forced, it's a solid shooter for Star Wars fans. The way the game truly perfectly captures visual style of the old 70's style of the movies is fantastic, combined with how sharp and smooth it runs. Nothing revolutionary or out od the ordinary here then, but a solid shooter at heart.



Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Don't crash the coot

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy

Platform tested: PlayStation 4 & Xbox One X
Released: 2017 & 2018

Review: Long story short, I bought the Crash Bandicoot remaster collection back on the base PS4 when it launched in 2017. Gradually getting frustrated at the games strange control system and frustrating hitboxes I gave it up and forgot about. Fast forward until the recent release on Xbox One and I repurchased it for the X, bonus was that this version is native 4K with HDR.

My initial thoughts on this game weren't positiv back in 2017, I had considered reviewing it, but I became increasingly frustrated over what felt like input lag and hitboxes that didn't correspond with enemy sizes and the edges of falls. The added annoyance of an un-skipable intro, long loading for levels and simple tasks like title screens, I abandoned the game. My PS4 has been in little use since the XBox One X launched, but I always had an idea of going back to the Crash Bandicoot remaster, but never got around to it. However, a spontane repurchase on the X left me replaying this badly titled "N. Sane Trilogy", but this time around on way better monitor in 4K, with HDR and super low latency. Did it change my opinion? Well actually it did.

My initial disappointing impression then, has changed. The super crisp and colourful world pops even more in the largely enhanced upgrade from the standard 1080p on the base PS4 to the native 4K with HDR on the X. The HDR transforms the colour and lighting to become really vibrant and just shine even more. CB is a good looking game, that brings back a great nostalgia feeling of the original games. A lot of care is taken in each of the three games look visually extremely close to how you remember them, albeit with far improved and modern graphics. It's one of the best made remakes visually for sure.

Gameplay is another story though, the developer seems to have thought it needed to resemble the original games a little too closely in my opinion. There's even a difference here in that CB1 controls noticeably worse than CB 2 & 3, much like the original games. I ended up using the d-pad for CB1, as that was how the first game was designed to be played. But should I need to in 2017/2018? I wish they'd modernised the controls and gameplay further, but I guess they aim to copy that exact feeling for the old games. As such, this collection can get extremely frustrating at times. You'll be misjudging distances and enemy positions consistently and ripping you hair out as you will die. You will die so many times. Those archaic controls can burn in hell.

The transition then going from a 40-60ms input lag on a TV, to my new monitor at 5-10ms was significant and a great factor in making me enjoy this trilogy far more. These games have a slow momentum increase as you accelerate into movement and a sluggish precision to the jumping that I dare say it almost has to be played on a screen that allows a low latency. Playing this game on standard TV settings, which are usually terribly optimised by the manufactures for gaming, will drive you annoyed real fast. For my X playthrough I really wish they could have bumped the game up to 60fps too, it would have helped tremendously to control Crash more precisely. It's a missed opportunity once again, not aiming for the 60fps should have been a priority and will be something only PC gamers can do.

Otherwise though, the collection is a healthy bargain. Half price of a new game price and a complete set of all the first three CB games is great value for money. You'll have plenty of hours of platforming to dig into and it's a far better way to enjoy them for old Crash fans and newcomers alike. There's even a more cohesive look to the animation and model of Crash too as he is alike in all three games compared to the original three games that developed over the years they were released. Nothing to complain about there, and I like that they even allow you to play Coco on all stages too, even in CB1!

CB N. Sane Trilogy is mostly for the nostalgic players out there, wanting to relive those 90's years of the classic on the first PlayStation. While the base PS4 version is fine, the loading really hampers the game and I would recommend the X version over it, if not only for the HDR too; it makes the whole world pop out so much more and the native 4K is so crisp. Most importantly though; for those interested in some platforming you should play this game with two factors in mind. Firstly it's a brutally difficult and unfair  game at times and secondly you need to play on a low latency screen.

A nice remaster release then, hampered by some weird design choices to keep stuff that even nostalgia can't hide were bad ideas even back in the 90's. While newcomers will have a lot of value for money here, it perhaps is aimed at the fans of the games back on the PS1. Keep also in mind the frustrating difficulty before purchase.