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Acer Nitro 5 review

Budget gaming laptop sometimes feels like an oxymoron – has Acer got it right with the Nitro 5?

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Acer Nitro 5 review

Budget gaming laptop sometimes feels like an oxymoron – has Acer got it right with the Nitro 5?

1. Design

Acer Aspire Nitro 5 design

I’m not ashamed of being a games writer. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. That being said, I do feel like a massive tool when I’m using a traditional ‘gaming’ laptop in a public setting.

Nothing makes you feel quite so juvenile, sitting on a train amongst the hyper-professional MacBook Pros and Dell XPS 13s, as when you pull out a laptop that lights up like the New Jersey boardwalk. Someone, somewhere, decided that the default ‘gaming’ look – complete with angry lines, flared arches, and neon lighting – is the illegitimate lovechild of The Fast and the Furious and Robot Wars. And I hate it.

But there’s a peculiar thing that happens with gaming laptops. If you go to the extreme high end of the scale (like the Razer Blade and Blade Pro) then you get a beautiful, unibody, precision-milled aluminium chassis that – until its logo and keyboard light up green – you’d think was a MacBook Pro. And if you get right down to the budget end of the scale? Then all of the ‘gamer’ frippery falls away, culled by budgetary concerns, and you end up with a device that looks far nicer for its absence

Case in point: the Acer Nitro 5.

It might not have all of the bells, whistles, and RGB lights of Acer’s high-end Predator range, but there are still subtle clues that the Nitro 5 is a gaming laptop.

The Acer logo on the – very slightly angular – lid of the Nitro 5, for example, doesn’t glow with the fires of Hades. Instead there’s a deep crimson aluminium-effect accent on the hinge, with the word ‘NITRO’ machined into it, which sits above what are unusually large air vents for a laptop. If you know what you’re looking for those are a dead giveaway for the type of CPU and GPU that are installed in the chassis, but at least they don’t light up like the side-skirts of a 1994 Toyota Supra.

The backlighting for the island-style chiclet keys – including a proper numpad, gods be praised – is a warm red, rather than the subtle white of most consumer or business laptops. It’s a little more ‘gaming’ in style than standard white backlights, but not as extreme as the Joseph’s amazing technicolour RGB lighting you find on some gaming machines.

Oh, and the WSAD keys are outlined in red, just in case you forget where to put your fingers.

On the whole, then, the design of the Acer Nitro 5 is a winner. It’s a little bigger and bulkier than some of the higher-end machines, and the budget will have stripped out some of the ‘gaming’ features that some may prefer, but at least I’m not embarrassed to be seen out with it.

2. Build quality

Acer Aspire Nitro 5 build quality

The corollary of the “cheaper laptops don’t look as ugly” argument is that many of those non-gaming components are built to a price point.

The lid might look like brushed aluminium, for example, but I’m fairly certain it’s just a plastic lid with an aluminium effect baked into the surface. Ditto for that rather nice aluminium-effect hinge. The palm-rest of the laptop is smooth, shiny plastic – no pretence of metallurgy here – but like the lid it seems somewhat resistant to picking up finger marks. With no illusions of higher-end materials required, the underside of the chassis and the (somewhat chunky) screen bezel are made of a rough, industrial plastic.

Because of the proliferation of polymer in the chassis, there is quite a lot of flex to it in places. The lid and screen are particularly vulnerable to this tendency for torsion, and you can’t lift the lid one-handed as a result. That’s not a big deal in the real world, of course, but the ability to open a laptop one-handed without tipping it backwards is seen as a good indicator of material and build quality.

There are varying levels of flex in the palm rest and keyboard too, depending on whereabouts you apply the pressure and how densely-packed the components are underneath. The keyboard itself is nicely spaced and satisfying to use, though, in spite of a little flex and bounce. The layout is well-designed too, and while there are a couple of buttons I keep getting wrong (hitting the very small ‘home’ key instead of the equally small, adjacent ‘delete’ key, for example) it’s comfortable to use and quite accurate.

The same, sadly, isn’t true of the trackpad.

First, as a little bit of a disclaimer: I know I’m not the first person to use this review unit. I can tell because the box has clearly been opened (and not all that carefully) several times before. I can tell because someone has somehow disabled (or broken) the on-board speakers. And I can tell because the buttons on the trackpad are flabby and difficult to use accurately.

I’m sure they’re not this bad when the laptop is brand new. I’ve used Acer’s devices before and they’re usually fairly responsive, but someone who used or reviewed this laptop before me has evidently given this one an absolute kicking. The gesture controls work well enough and the tracking itself is accurate, but the buttons – particularly the left one – are spongey, at times to the point of irritation.

It’s hard to mark the Nitro 5 down because some ham-fisted oaf killed the speakers and abused the trackpad, but perhaps for a laptop that’s only been available since July 2017, it shouldn’t feel quite so well-worn, quite so quickly.

3. Specs

Acer Aspire Nitro 5 specs

Here’s the hardware that’s included in the unassuming Nitro 5 laptop I’m currently reviewing.

Acer Nitro 5 specs:

  • Operating System: Windows 10 Home
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-7700HQ 2.8GHz; Quad-core
  • Chipset: Intel HM175
  • Memory: 8GB DDR4 (up to 32GB maximum)
  • Storage: 1TB hard drive, 128GB SSD
  • Screen: 15.6″ Full HD (1920×1080) IPS panel (with ComfyView technology)
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 4GB (GTX 1050 Ti variant also available)
  • Connectivity: 802.11ac wireless LAN, Bluetooth
  • Audio & Video: 1280×720 webcam, Two speakers
  • Ports & Connectors: 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, Network (RJ-45), HDMI Output, 1x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C
  • Battery: 4-cell 3220 mAh Li-Polymer
  • Battery Life: (up to) 7 hours
  • Adaptor: 135 W external
  • Dimensions (W x D x H):  390 mm x 266 mm x 26.75 mm
  • Weight: 2.7 kg (approx.)

This variant of the Acer Nitro 5 currently retails for £899.99 on the Acer UK store. A lower-end model with an i5 7300HQ processor and without the 128GB SSD retails for £849.99, while the – otherwise identical except for a – GTX 1050 Ti upgrade model sells for £999.99.

4. Power, cooling and noise

Acer Aspire Nitro 5 cooling

Right now, as I type this review on the Nitro 5 itself, it’s as quiet and polite as its design is (relatively) understated. In many respects, it’s like a hybrid car: peaceful and serene while we’re pootling around the city centre, doing mundane things, but you know the noise will kick up if you ask it to hit 70 on the motorway.

And when you do ask it to do something more demanding, like intense gaming or heavyweight rendering? It really makes quite the racket. That’s not to say it’s unbearably loud, however; compared to laptops that try to cram bigger GPUs into thinner chassis, the Nitro 5 is positively serene… if you’re sitting in front of the screen. If you’re behind it, however, it’s like being downwind of a hairdryer – keep that in mind if you’re sitting opposite someone in a coffee shop or on a train.

That’s thanks to the clever design of the Nitro 5’s cooling, where fresh air is always sucked in from under the laptop and exhausted horizontally out the rear through those big old vents. This smart design also means that while the components get toasty – 60°C on the GPU, 80°C on the CPU – the surfaces of the laptop get warm, but they never get too hot.

Seriously, never.

I keep a cushioned lapdesk with an integrated USB-powered fan handy for heavy gaming sessions on laptops, lest I scorch my thighs, but I’ve not had to use it once with the Nitro 5. Even after six hours of solid PUBG, which is really saying something.

Not that you’ll be disturbing folks opposite you on the train for too long with portable gaming sessions; as is always the case, the “7 hours” battery life claim is a guide, and your mileage will vary depending on the tasks you’re performing. I’ve found it to be somewhere between three and five hours based on general productivity use – once I turned down the unreasonably short default sleep timers – and between one and two hours under intensive loads (like gaming).

It’s not groundbreaking battery life, but in a device of this type and at that price point? It’s perfectly serviceable.

5. Performance, usability

Acer Aspire Nitro 5 performance

First up, some figures on what the Acer Nitro 5 was able to achieve in some benchmarking tests. Synthetic benchmarks are fine and all, but real gaming benchmarks – against a mix of older and newer titles, as this is a budget laptop with a budget graphics card – are more useful.

Benchmark data:

  • Gears of War 4 (high settings, 1080p) – average 56.82 fps
  • Bioshock Infinite (ultra settings, 1080p) – average 77.31 fps
  • Batman: Arkham City (very high settings, 1080p) – average 57.8 fps
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (medium settings, ultra draw distance, 1080p) – average 45 fps in quiet zones / 25 fps in busy zones

For the games with built-in benchmarking tools, we ran the tests five times and calculated the mean average. For PUBG, which is so variable it’s damn-near impossible to benchmark accurately, we played about 30 hours (seriously) and worked out rough averages based on what we’ve seen during different play conditions in that time.

The key thing here is that, in spite of its GTX 1050 graphics card, the Nitro 5 can achieve around 60 frames per second (or better) in a variety of titles at its native 1080p resolution. The Gears of War 4 figures, for example, were achieved by letting the game pick the best graphics setting for the card; this was a mix of mostly high settings, with a couple of advanced features turned down to medium (or off completely).

You’re never going to be pushing 4K with all the details turned up on this laptop – we tried – but that’s not what it’s for. The Nitro 5 is for people to be able to play pretty much anything you can throw at it, as long as you’re prepared to be sensible with your expectations for detail levels (or sacrifice frame rates, if you’re not).

In side-by-side testing with our in-house ‘lower spec’ gaming PC, however – which features a quad core AMD Athlon 860k CPU, 8GB of DDR3 memory, and a GTX 1050 Ti – the Nitro 5 was more than able to keep up with the better GPU in that desktop. In some cases it was even able to push higher frame rates, in spite of having fewer cores and a lower clock speed in that GTX 1050 GPU.

This was particularly noticeable during busier segments in PUBG, where the desktop-grade Core i7 7700HQ processor (and the faster DDR4 RAM that goes with it) in the laptop were able to outstrip that ageing AMD CPU and slower memory. That processor SKU may seem like overkill in a budget machine, but there’s no danger of the GPU being bound by a low-voltage CPU in the Nitro 5, that’s for sure.

It’s worth pointing out that the Nitro 5’s spec also makes it an ideal machine for budget-conscious creative types, too. We’ve spent time playing around with video creation (which it handled just fine) and have thrown some incredibly poorly-optimised and GPU-intensive scenes at it via Unity (so… much… grass…) and it’s gobbled them up with aplomb. If you’re an indie developer looking for a lower-priced machine for working on the move – and you don’t mind not having a Razer Blade or MacBook Pro like the trendy kids – then this is a good starter option.

The Nitro 5 might not be the most powerful gaming laptop on the planet, but by not scrimping on that high-end processor and (in this model at least) an SSD for the boot drive, Acer have managed to eke out as much performance as they can from that budget price tag.

It’s not going to blow your mind, but if your expectations are sensible, it’s certainly not going to disappoint, either.

Acer Nitro 5
4

Summary

Manufacturer: Acer
Availability: Out now – Shop for the Acer Nitro 5 on Amazon (we may receive a commission for purchases made through third-party retail stores)


The Acer Nitro 5 has definitely been built with a price point in mind. Yes, that means some fairly cheap plastic construction and a spongey trackpad, but on the flipside, it’s well-designed and mostly looks like a normal, non-gaming laptop. And while it might have a budget GPU Acer certainly haven’t scrimped on the processor, so it performs admirably for gaming and other intensive tasks – so long as you have reasonable expectations for a £900 laptop.

There’s really very little to choose between this and other budget offerings from the major vendors (the Dell Inspiron 7000 gaming and Lenovo Legion Y520 spring to mind) but on the positive side, that means it’s really hard to go wrong if you’re looking for moderate gaming prowess on a tight budget.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Reviews

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Switch rises above a host of small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Nintendo’s Italian plumber is still king.

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Super Mario 3D All-Stars
Nintendo / Thumbsticks

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Nintendo Switch rises above some small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario is still king.

I’m not sure what it would take to satisfactorily celebrate the anniversary of an icon with Super Mario’s legacy and stature. It’s evident, however, that Super Mario 3D All-Stars has fallen short of what some fans hoped for. And although it’s easy to be disappointed by what this new Nintendo Switch collection doesn’t include, it’s thankfully easier to be entertained, enthralled, and exhilarated by what it does.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars features three titles plucked from the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii eras. Two of them are universally acknowledged as classics. The other is a divisive title, ripe for reappraisal. Each game runs in high-definition with a few modest enhancements such as improved HUD elements and some updated art assets. HD rumble is another welcome addition. Super Mario 64, in particular, benefits from the subtle pulses and purrs that now support Mario’s acrobatics.

This anniversary collection is completed by three soundtracks, and that’s it. If you’re a fan of Digital Eclipse’s work with the Mega Man franchise, for example, I expect you’ll be disappointed by what’s on offer here. Put simply, 3D All-Stars is a compilation of three classic games presented as close to their original format as is possible given the requirements of modern HD televisions. It is the bare minimum, then, although it’s worth noting that all three games look splendid nonetheless.

Mario 3D All-Stars artwork

Super Mario 64

Much of the disappointment surrounding this collection is directed at the presentation of Nintendo 64 classic, Super Mario 64. Unlike Activision’s Crash Bandicoot and Spyro trilogies, the All-Stars version of Super Mario 64 is not a remake, but it’s also not a full remaster. Instead, it’s the Japanese Shindō Pak Taiō version of the game presented in 4:3 ratio at 720p resolution. The frame-rate is locked tight at 30 fps, but the in-game camera is still the Lakitu-controlled experiment of incremental positioning it was in 1996. The one concession to modern gameplay expectations is a switcheroo of the horizontal camera axis, from inverted to normal.

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game still being absolutely brilliant. Those black borders on the side of the screen are disappointing, but then I tumble into a strange swirling pool of colour and land in a subterranean maze. I long jump across a ravine to escape a nasty bug. I weave through a path of tumbling boulders. I plunge into a pool of water and climb on to the back of a sea monster. I discover a small island topped by a ring of gleaming coins with a glowing star at its centre. I take the star, and I win. It’s an action movie refined into 84 blissful seconds.

Super Mario 64 - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

That’s the magic of Super Mario 64. The game’s age is almost its defining feature. Displayed in HD and released from the fuzz of a CRT screen, it looks dynamite, even at 720p. Sure, a full visual makeover would be an interesting exercise, but there’s also a chance it would shine a harsh light on the game’s limits and those hazy, out of reach borders. There is an innate beauty in the simplicity of its polygons simplicity. Unlike its successor, every shape and colour in Super Mario 64 feel deliberately positioned to create the ultimate digital playground. Whereas the muted, earthy tones The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time benefit from its Nintendo 3DS upgrade, Super Mario 64 looks and feels timeless.

For me, revisiting Super Mario 64 is an exercise in flexing 24 years of muscle memory. Newcomers might struggle with its camera or find some the trickier platforming sequences frustrating, but Mario can still turn on a dime, wall bounce with grace, and triple jump with a finesse that no other video game character can muster. Age can not diminish that, and it never will.

Super Mario Sunshine

Super Mario Sunshine has always been considered the black sheep of Mario’s 3D family. It was acknowledged as a minor classic in 2002, but over time it has been quietly pushed aside and forgotten, like a misguided holiday romance.

Super Mario Sunshine - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

On Nintendo Switch, Sunshine finds itself upscaled to 1080p and given much-needed room to breathe with a 16:9 aspect ratio. These welcome changes are offset by a stubborn refusal to allow the inverted aiming controls to be changed, despite a reversal of the horizontal camera. The F.L.U.D.D. mechanics have also been migrated from one pressure-sensitive GameCube trigger to two digital shoulder buttons on Switch.

It’s not an ideal compromise, especially when combined with the game’s wayward camera and looser approach to level design. All of this would be a problem were not for the game being such a uniquely singular Mario experience. Aiming F.L.U.D.D. is needlessly counter-intuitive, but then I swan-dive into a stream of water, and I forget all about it. I slide down a hill and launch into a jump. I bounce from a rope and hover in the air, held aloft by two jets of water. I climb a windmill to battle Petey Piranha in a mess of water, goo, and ground-pounds.

Super Mario Sunshine is a hodge-podge of the sublime and the ridiculous, a vacation of wild highs and hangover headaches. It’s a flawed, scruffy game by Nintendo’s standards, but I predict those expecting a disaster will be pleasantly surprised.

Super Mario Galaxy

Of the games in this collection, Super Mario Galaxy requires the least amount of polish from a visual perspective. Nintendo’s artistry looks wonderful in 1080p, and the game runs a silky smooth 60 fps without any hiccups. The implementation of the Wii version’s motion controls is more of a mixed bag, however.

In docked mode, you can play with a Pro Controller or two Joy-Cons. They work well enough, but the motion aiming is not as precise as Wii players will recall, and the absence of an infrared sensor means frequent recalibration.

In handheld mode, these actions are transferred to the Switch’s touchscreen. It’s an obvious solution, but in practice, some of the more intricate levels result in a spaghetti of fingers as your hand moves back and forth from the controller to the screen in quick succession. Thankfully, Mario’s spin-jump can now be performed with a simple tap of the Y button.

Super Mario Galaxy - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game remaining one of the purest distillations of platforming ever committed to silicon. The touchscreen controls can be fiddly in the heat of the moment, but when that moment is a journey across a galaxy featuring castle planets, physics-defying bridges, a glass space station with constantly flipping gravity, and a gauntlet of lava-filled boulders, those problems fade away. It’s simply a joy to watch this version of Mario in action, bending the rules of space and motion across a series of varied and outrageously imaginative environments.

It’s striking how significantly video games changed in the decade between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and how little they have evolved since. Despite Super Mario Odyssey‘s obvious achievements, it sits firmly in Galaxy‘s shadow. It’s another outright classic from Nintendo and a masterpiece of video game construction.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review
4.5

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: September 18, 2020


Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a limited time release in both physical and digital formats. We can only guess at the reason but whatever misgivings you have about the nature of this collection – or its position as Nintendo’s big fall release – it’s still an essential purchase. All three games look better than ever and provide hours and hours of exquisitely designed and consistently inventive entertainment.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 review

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

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Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
Activision

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

My experience with Tony Hawk has, more often than not, been mediated by Vicarious Visions.

The prolific studio once put out 14 games in a year (12 in their still-ridiculous runner-up), porting just about every popular early aughts IP to Nintendo’s handhelds. If there’s a mascot platformer you loved on consoles, chances are Vicarious Visions broke it down to its barest essentials – which usually meant a switch to 2D – and put out a Game Boy Advance version.

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games got a similar treatment. Though Natsume’s Game Boy Color version of the original THPS is underwhelming, Vicarious Visions managed to capture much of the series charm in their subsequent GBA ports. I played a tonne of the studio’s isometric take on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and dumped dozens of hours into the series’ blocky DS debut, American Sk8land. Meanwhile, I somehow never made it past the Hangar on my N64 copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

For much of its 30-year history, the Activision subsidiary has had the unenviable task of making worse versions of beloved games, dumbing down the graphics and simplifying the gameplay until they had something that would keep a seven-year-old kid happy enough on a long car ride. They did impressive work for unimpressive hardware.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 02

In recent years, though, Vicarious Visions has finally had the opportunity to give games glow-ups. With 2017’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, the studio lovingly reimagined Naughty Dog’s decades-old original run for modern hardware, kickstarting a wave of remasters at Activision (Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled from Beenox, Spyro Reignited Trilogy from Toys for Bob) and clearing a path for a brand new Crash Bandicoot game, Crash 4: It’s About Time, set to release next month.

Now, Vicarious Visions has focused that same love and attention on remaking the series they spent the ‘00s de-making for handhelds. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic remake of the earliest games, and a wonderful return for a series that went out on the sour note of 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. It also proves that if Activision is interested in continuing to cash-in on nostalgia, Vicarious Visions is one of their most essential assets.

Pretending I’m (still) a Superman

Skating in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 feels effortlessly good – exactly how you probably remember these games feeling. Despite the fact that I hadn’t played a Tony Hawk game in almost 15 years, re-learning the controls was easy and fun. An optional, extensive tutorial with VO instructions from the Birdman himself is a nice touch.

Though getting a hang of the basics is easy, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will push you to put it all together. The addition of the revert, which was added in THPS3, and the manual, which was originally only present in THPS2, makes pulling off long chains of combos seamless. That isn’t to say that it’s easy, though. You will almost certainly curse when you land wonky, allowing a 100,000+ combo to slip through your fingers. As a result, though, the most enjoyable part of these games is the sense of slowly learning a park’s layout until you can navigate it smartly enough to successfully rake in those massive points.

This is what I enjoy most about this game: the perfect interplay between tight level geometry and the player’s moveset. Learning level layouts is an essential part of getting good at this game. But, unlike the pattern recognition required to take down a Cuphead or Dark Souls boss, the memorization you do in Tony Hawk is creative. You are memorizing a routine, sure, but it’s a routine that you made up, that plays to your particular strengths. And while I don’t love the fact that the remake retains the originals’ old school “Complete 8 More Park Goals to Unlock [next level]” model of campaign progress, I do appreciate the way it forced me to learn the intricacies of each park; to figure out where the massive combo hotspots are hiding in parks as initially unintuitive as Burnside.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 01

Vicarious Visions has done a fantastic job preserving that god-tier level design, while sprucing up the environmental art to make each level feel suitably distinct. Looking back on videos of the original games, there’s a sunny drabness to most of the levels. But, in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, each level feels like its own unique place.

Burnside is dark, moody and rainy now in a way that borders on neo-noir. The Mall, which previously just looked empty, now feels almost apocalyptically abandoned. The School is bursting with newfound colour, and COVID-era messages about the “new normal.” All the while, the soundtrack – featuring plenty of the original tracks and some new ones that fit in perfectly – blasts a ripping array of punk, ska, metal and hip hop.

If you were a big fan of the early Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, or if you just w11nt to see what all the fuss was about, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic return to form for the beloved series. Activision has a fantastic platform here and I only hope they continue to build on it. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4 are right there!

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
4.5

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Vicarious Visions (original games: Neversoft)
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: September 04, 2020


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 marks the triumphant return of a beloved franchise. With a vibrant updated look and remixed soundtrack, Vicarious Vision’s remaster brings Neversoft’s stellar originals shredding into 2020.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Continue Reading

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RPG Maker MV – Nintendo Switch Review

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

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RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch review
Degica / Thumbsticks

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

The tides of time, life, and a career have put paid to those ambitions, unfortunately. Unless I win the lotto or retire, I doubt I’ll ever find the time to learn how to program and design a game from the ground-up.

One hope is access to an increasing number of game-making applications designed to do much of the heavy-lifting and offer a guiding hand to aspiring creators. The RPG Maker series – currently under the stewardship of Degica – is one such example.

Ostensibly a program for PC and Mac, RPG Maker debuted in the early 1990s. The series has also made occasional appearances on consoles with versions produced for the Super Famicom, the original PlayStation, and most recently, the Nintendo 3DS.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

The series has continued to grow in popularity by offering a comprehensive suite of tools that let users create 2D role-playing games that echo Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest favourites of the past. Some developers have also pushed the boundaries of the platform to make genuine classics. Kan Gao’s exquisite To The Moon and Future Cat’s sublime OneShot being prime examples.

The most recent version of the program – RPG Maker MZ – was released for PC and Mac last month. Now, NIS America is bringing a port of 2015’s RPG Maker MV to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Unlike the Nintendo 3DS version – which was significantly reworked to suit to its dual-screen home – the console edition of RPG Maker MV is a seemingly straight port of the PC original. The decision to take this approach comes with its benefits and problems.

Let’s take the positive path to begin: It’s a seemingly straight port of the PC original, which is an excellent, full-featured game-creation platform with a mind-boggling array of configurable options. At a base level, anything you can create in the desktop version, you can also create here. That is a very big positive indeed.

For this review, I embarked on creating a small-scale RPG called A Short Adventure About Long Distance. Please be excited.

A Short Story About Long Distance

Development in RPG Maker MV is broken down into logical components. The map creation module lets you create overworlds, town maps, and interiors from a range of tilesets. The event editor is used apply conditions to almost every in-game object, creating reactions, triggers, and dependencies on a local or global scale. The battle system is similarly expansive, covering weapons, abilities, spells, items, and effects with every variable you can think of. You can also manage character classes and level progression with infinitesimal detail.

Keeping track of everything isn’t always easy, but development is underpinned by a well-structured database that organises everything from enemies and animations to weapons and party members. For the most part, if you can imagine it, you can make it.

If this, then everything.

The included selection of themed graphical assets is also impressive. At first glance, some of the in-game objects and building components look rather lacklustre, but they can be combined and used to create locations with variety and personality. One perk of the console version is the ability to recolour assets, increasing their usefulness a hundredfold.

There’s certainly an RPG Maker look that, despite your best efforts, you’ll never quite escape. Nonetheless, the tilesets are well designed and the results are often more impressive than you’d expect. The flexibility also extends to characters and NPCs. Mixing and matching character face parts is part Mii Maker, part anime fever dream.

On PC, RPG Maker MV is supported by a wealth of extra content that ranges from official DLC to plugins and user-created assets. RPG Maker MV on Nintendo Switch and PS4 has none of this. It’s reasonable to expect some official DLC packs in future but the absence of mods and plugins to enhance the experience is keenly felt.

And that’s the problem with RPG Maker MV on a console. The limits are just as evident as the possibilities. You can create a complex RPG, but only with the assets available. You can use character close-up images on dialogue boxes, but you can’t download the plugin to dynamically change them.

If this, then maybe that.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

These niggles also extend to a user interface that is fundamentally unsuited a game controller. An action that would normally involve a quick mouse scroll and a right-click becomes a Monster Hunter-esque fumble of thumbsticks, triggers, and face buttons. The result? Simple. Tasks. Take. Much. More. Time.

It’s initially infuriating, although over time – mostly due to sheer repetition – navigation gradually becomes second nature.

Thankfully, RPG Maker MV on Switch supports a keyboard when docked, and in handheld mode. The touchscreen also is used for selected actions and is an absolute godsend when it comes to entering dialogue and text. However, such is the size of the Switch display you’ll need fingers the width of chopsticks to perform some of the more precise menu inputs.

Loading times are also an improvement on last year’s Japanese release, noticeably so when moving from the database to the map editor.

RPG Maker enemy editor

The other Lavos-sized compromise is the ability to export your lovingly-crafted creations for others to play. RPG Maker MV games on PC can be exported to a variety of formats and are playable on a range of platforms. Here, you’re restricted to sharing via the game’s native online library. Fortunately, the free RPG Maker MV Player app – available from the Nintendo eShop – lets your Switch buddies download and play your games at no cost.

As for the quality of games created in RPG Maker MV, well, that’s down to you. For this review, I decided to developer a slimline 15-30 minute RPG with light combat, town exploration, and a happy ending. Even a game this simple in scope takes a lot of time, but it’s a slow, pleasurable progression of inspiration, planning, testing, and execution. The process will definitely give you an appreciation for the complexities of video game development.

I was hoping to have A Short Adventure About Long Distance completed in time for this review. Alas, it’s mired in development hell while I untangle a spaghetti bowl of cause and effect. As soon as it’s complete, I’ll update this review. Please understand.

A Short Story About Long Distance

There are multiple products on console that aim to bridge the gap between a creative spark of inspiration and a video game. Across PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, you can choose from Dreams, Super Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, Wargroove, PlataGo, and FUZE4, to name just a few. RPG Maker MV sits at the semi-professional end of the game-creation spectrum, but it’s accessible to newcomers and also has the benefit of a strong support community.

RPG Maker MV is not a shortcut to creating an excellent RPG, but it serves as an illuminating introduction to the principals and mechanics of game development. If you can cope with the idiosyncrasies of the console port, it’s an intuitive and fun to use game creation platform that can bring your RPG ideas to life.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Developer: NIS America
Publisher: Degica
Release Dates: NA: Sept. 8, 2020. EU: Sept. 11, 2020. AU & NZ: Sept. 18, 2020.


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker, and now I am. Creating games in RPG Maker MV is more of a grind than I expected, but the platform makes levelling up game development skills an enjoyable experience. There are compromises on console, but it’s still recommended for aspiring game creators.

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Control: AWE DLC review

“Alan, wake up.”

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Control AWE review
Remedy Entertainment

“Alan, wake up.”

Coming hot on the heels of March’s The Foundation DLC, Control’s second helping of post-launch content easily offers the more interesting setup. Picking up on the numerous teasers and easter eggs found in the original campaign, it sets out with the goal of officially crossing over the Control and Alan Wake universes, and sees Jesse Faden investigate the eerie horrors that plagued Remedy’s beloved 2008 cult-classic.

It’s without question a tantalizing elevator pitch and seeing Remedy sow the seeds for its recently announced shared universe threequel is exciting. However, AWE can’t help but feel like more of a three-hour tease than a continuation of either story. It still has its moments, but it seems Remedy sees this new narrative as a vehicle to lay the groundwork for a sequel rather than a fully-fledged tale of its own.

The story of AWE begins with Jesse receiving a strange series of messages from Wake himself, who summons her to the Investigations Sector of the Oldest House. Much like the Foundation, Investigations is an expansive new area, with fresh mysteries to uncover, side missions to complete and enemies to face. That being said, it doesn’t do much to stylistically distance itself from the grey architecture and tunnels of interwoven pipework that were explorable in Control’s campaign.

Control AWE screenshot 1

The trade-off is that players get to face Control’s most overtly horrific antagonist yet, with a nightmarish, almost Cronenbergian monster stalking your movements throughout Investigations’ eerie hallways. Discovering exactly what this terrifying creature is makes up the majority of the DLC’s narrative, with Remedy proving once again that it excels when allowed to operate in spookier territory.

Few moments prove the studio’s aptitude for all things that go bump in the night than your frequent boss encounters with this horrifying creature, who will often force you into rooms with wide stretches of pitch-black darkness illuminated only by limited light sources, where it cannot reach you. Each of these battles act as intense, high-stakes puzzles, made all the more terrifying by the fact you can see the lumbering creature stalking you from beyond your well-lit haven.

For all the present Alan Wake fans, these light mechanics probably sound pretty familiar to you, and yes, AWE does frequently take inspiration from Wake’s flashlight focused combat-style. It pops up most frequently in the aforementioned boss encounters and sometimes in the occasional puzzle, but one of the biggest issues with the DLC is that it doesn’t do more with it. To be honest, although it does add a useful new gun form and the ability to hurl several objects at once, there is a sense that nothing AWE brings to the table is particularly fresh.

While The Foundation offered new ways to traverse and fight enemies with its crystal-based abilities, it feels like AWE needs something similar to match that big shift in playstyle. Whether that’s the ability to wield a flashlight to battle some new, darkness-based foes or maybe just a powerful new ability that achieves the same goal, it can’t help but feel like AWE misses a pretty wide opportunity to make something special.

Control AWE screenshot 2

The same goes for the overarching story, which feels like its building to a grandiose, jaw-dropping climax but is snuffed out with little fanfare. For one, while fans are likely paying the admission fee here to see Alan Wake – he is the feature attraction after all – there’s surprisingly little of him on show. Don’t get me wrong, this without a doubt begins to highlight what a Control and Alan Wake sequel could look like, but it always feels like more of a trailer for what’s to come rather than a fully-fledged continuation of that universe. Some fans even speculated AWE would offer answers to the puzzling conclusion of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare DLC, but don’t go into this thinking it’s going to spew out new revelations for that story.

Saying all this, it’s not that AWE is bad. It’s just safe. Everything you liked about Control is still here. The combat encounters are a hell of a lot of fun, the dark sci-fi humour returns in force and, while the additional side-missions focus more on fetch-quests, they offer an entertaining diversion from the main storyline. At the end of the day, I’m sure we’ll look back on this final adventure in The Oldest House as an essential bridge between Control and whatever comes next.

It’s just, for the time being, it feels like Remedy maybe could’ve been a little more ambitious with its first major crossover.

Control: AWE review
3

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: August 27, 2020


AWE offers an interesting first look at the future Remedy envisions for both the Alan Wake and Control franchises alongside featuring a terrifying main antagonist and some creepy boss encounters. That being said, it’s still somewhat underwhelming, acting as a teaser for the future with few crazy story beats or new features to get excited about.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review
EA

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

For a genre littered with incremental annual upgrades and a distinct lack of innovation, the EA Sports’ UFC franchise has always been a shining beacon of how to do a sports game justice. Opting for a biennial schedule, it has built itself up considerably since its admittedly rough first iteration back in 2015, introducing meaningful, transformative overhauls over the last five years and quickly becoming the best combat-sports simulation since 2011’s Fight Night Champion.

Its fourth entry, EA Sports UFC 4, is no different. While there are fewer all-encompassing changes and practically no game-altering new additions, EA Vancouver has instead spent some much-needed time refining and fine-tuning the UFC experience. Its gameplay flows more smoothly, its various modes have been polished and its new suite of accessibility options means anyone can jump in regardless of their skill level. As is usual for this constantly adapting franchise, this is easily the biggest and best EA Sports UFC package available to date.

So, what’s new in UFC 4? Not a huge amount. In truth, it’s EA Vancouver’s focus on removing tedious frustrations that truly changes how this fourth iteration feels to play. Takedowns have been switched from an irritating combination of triggers and thumbsticks to a much simpler two-button control scheme, while combos feel easier to execute with less emphasis on perfect timing.

However, It’s the clinch that easily benefits most from the tune-up, with UFC 4 completely switching up the mechanic to instigate more organic stand-up brawls. While players would previously have to engage in clunky, mini-game focused tie-ups while grappling on their feet, UFC 4 instead offers the ability to move in and out of the clinch in seconds.

UFC 4 Screen 3

Fighters merely press a button to enter the clinch, land a series of punches or knees, then push back the thumbstick to retreat to normal striking distance. Grappling-efficient fighters can even use these tie-ups to unleash huge slams or pull off impressive submission techniques, with a fighter like Jon Jones able to perform a guillotine while clinching his opponent. It often feels like that one key aspect the series’ stand-up combat was missing, and while moves from the clinch are slightly overpowered, fights generally benefit from the free-flowing pace they provide.

Newcomers are also catered to a lot more than in previous games, with UFC 4 specifically offering a simplified version of the game’s complex wrestling system. Grapple assist, as it’s called, strips away the more position-based style for a simplified alternative, giving players a three-prompt menu that allows them to posture up, lock their opponent into a submission, or return to their feet. Of course, it’s entirely optional, so players with more experience can instantly switch back to the more intricate wrestling options in the game’s settings.

While on the ground, players will also be met with a brand-new submission system, which switches out UFC 3’s needlessly complicated mini-game for two fresh ones. The more frequent of the pair sees the victim of the submission move a small bar around a circle, while the attacker moves a second bar on top of their opponents and tries to keep it there as long as possible. Think of it as a thumb war, just, you know, with more opportunities to break someone’s arm.

The second mini-game is used for joint submissions and works similarly. This one utilizes a much smaller gauge, however, with players using the L2 and R2 buttons to move from side to side. Both are far more intuitive than their overly complex predecessor, relying less on frantic button-mashing and prompting some fun mind-games.

As for who players can expect to utilize in combat, UFC 4 boasts the biggest and most diverse roster the franchise has offered yet. From current UFC Lightweight and Strawweight champions Petr Yan and Weili ‘Magnum’ Zhang to notorious British boxing mainstays Anthony Joshua and ‘The Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury, the roster is stacked with new names. But the standouts are easily the game’s updates to now-notorious fighters, such as cover star Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal, ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley and ‘The Last Stylebender’ Israel Adesanya. Some models don’t look fantastic, with Connor McGregor and Gilbert Burns standing out as particularly soulless, but for the most part, they’re on point.

Players will have the opportunity to fight in some new locations too, with the game offering a small backyard arena and, more excitingly, a stylized “Kumite” ring ripped straight from Bloodsport.

UFC 4 Screen 8

Then there’s the game’s revamped career mode, which is probably the most contentious new upgrade to UFC 4. Early on, it makes some welcome changes to the noticeably rigid career mode of UFC 3, showing you rise up through the independent scene and even giving you a chance to fight for an indie title if you so desire. However, once you reach the upper echelons of the UFC itself, it becomes less enticing, seeing you take countless uninteresting fights with little fanfare or fun.

Meanwhile, its new skill system smartly lets you build up your moves and perks through actual play, meaning any strikes you naturally lean on become more powerful as you progress. However, training camps are long and boring, especially once you reach the latter half of your fighter’s career.

There’s also the campaign’s rivalry mechanic, which feels like a wasted opportunity to sidestep the rigid structure of previous career modes. While it seems like the feature will let players call out fighters and set up dream matches, it instead falls to infrequent, fixed social media interactions and a bar which depletes every time you purposefully knock out an opponent in sparring. By the time your character is 10 years into their career, they’re locked into fighting unfulfilling opponents with no overarching goal to aspire to.

All in all, though, EA Sports UFC 4 is a solid new update to the series which introduces some much-needed quality of life improvements. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a wholly new take on the series. Like many sports games, it’s an upgrade that offers some crucial improvements and new features, so if huge innovations are what you’re after, you might be disappointed. But for fans looking for the best possible UFC experience, this is without question the most complete envisioning of the seminal MMA brand to date.

EA Sports UFC 4 review
4

Summary

Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Developers: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA
Release Date: August 14, 2020

Although it doesn’t offer many game-changing new features, EA Sport’s UFC 4 is without question the most comprehensive release in EA Vancouver’s MMA franchise. Setting aside some issues with the career mode, it offers a solid update to UFC 3, with smoother combat, a more accessible entry point for new players and the most complete roster of fighters yet.

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