Vizio CinemaWide TV set is made for watching movies


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The Vizio CinemaWide is a big-screen TV set with a simple mission: to remove the annoying black bars that come with watching, as its name suggests, widescreen cinema movies.

The CinemaWide is a 58-inch HD 3-D TV that stands out because its ultra-wide screen was specifically designed for watching movies, theater style.

It removes black bars by displaying content at a stretched 21:9 ratio, unlike most HD TV sets, which have a 16:9 ratio. The CinemaWide also has higher resolution, -- 2,560 by 1,080 -- than the typical HD TV.

The screen isn't the only big thing about this TV. The set weighs 66 pounds and is more than 4 1/2 feet wide. It also costs a hefty $1,999.99.

But if you're a big-time movie buff, it might be worth that price. I watched a couple of movies on the CinemaWide, and they were some of the most cinema-like experiences I've had with a television set.

Whether it was a Blu-Ray movie, something streaming from Netflix, or a 3-D film from Vudu, the CinemaWide performed admirably, and in each instance, the content filled up the entire screen or nearly did so without cutting anything off.

There isn't any content made specifically for this TV set, but the CinemaWide does a good job at automatically stretching content without making it look bad.

When watching a widescreen movie, the CinemaWide stretches the screen and eliminates the black bars. When I watched "The Fighter," the image filed up the entire screen, and while watching "Man on Fire," only a little bit of the black bars were left.

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    • By Usama Jawad96
      Windows 11 review: Aesthetics over functionality
      by Usama Jawad

      Despite announcing Windows 11 availibility on October 5, Microsoft has pulled the trigger on the staggered rollout as it becomes October 5 around the world, so the general rollout of Windows 11 is starting today October 4 in North America. The OS will be flighted in a staggered manner to eligible users automatically via Windows Update.If you are on a supported machine and are eager to the receive the update, you should head over to Windows Update and manually check to see if you can trigger the update. If it doesn't become available, it's likely that you are not included in the initial subset of users that the OS is being seeded to. Since the OS is being rolled out in a staggered manner, it means that you'll eventually get the update. However, if you simply can't wait, you might want to check out how to upgrade to Windows 11 right now.

      Windows 11 was officially announced on June 24 and is the successor to Windows 10, which was formally unveiled in September 2014. It is available as a free and optional update for those on supported Windows 10. This time, Microsoft has been really strict with system requirements (you can check out more details here) and while unsupported machines can still upgrade to the OS, they will have to sign a waiver confirming that they will not be entitled to updates. If you're unsure about whether your PC is eligible for Windows 11, you should probably check out Microsoft's PC Health Check app, which can quickly tell you the status of your machine. It is important to remember that even if your PC doesn't qualify for the free upgrade, you're not being left out in the cold. Windows 10 is supported until October 2025, and you will receive version 21H2 of the OS soon as well. That said, if you were really looking forward to updating to Windows 11 but don't want to do so in an unsupported state, you'll likely be left with a bad taste in your mouth.

      We have been discussing Windows 11 for quite some time now and taking a Closer Look at some of its standout features and enhancements. However, with the OS now generally available, we feel like it's time to compile our thoughts in a comprehensive manner and see how the individual pieces come together. Let's begin!

      Start menu


      The Start menu has received a major overhaul with this release of Windows. Gone are the Live Tiles that were a design staple since Windows 8, and in come pinned apps that will be more familiar to users of smartphone devices. I personally never used Live Tiles that much and will likely never utilize Pinned apps either. But people who leveraged the Start menu in Windows 10 quite a lot will be disappointed that Microsoft has taken away some useful features such the ability to group apps, which essentially means that you have a lot more scrolling to do if you want to find a specific app. I can't help but feel that this is a design oversight on Microsoft's part, especially considering there's no workaround.

      While recommended files are displayed in the bottom half of the Start menu, Microsoft thankfully does allow you to disable this, which I think is great in terms of privacy. In today's hybrid world, if I'm sharing my entire screen, I don't want my files to be visible to the audience each time I click on the Start menu.

      Meanwhile, the Search experience in Windows 11 is a bit of an odd duck. When I initially had a look at it a few months ago, I noted how the search bar in the Start menu is closely coupled with the dedicated Search button. In fact, it was so closely related that if you click the search bar at the top of the Start menu, it closes the Start menu and opens the dedicated Search UI, which is a very jarring experience. You would hope that Microsoft would have fixed this by the time of Windows 11's general availability, but unfortunately, this is not the case. While Search seems to offer relevant local results in my use-case, I find it simply ludicrous that Microsoft is shipping Start menu in its current stuttering state when it comes to integration with the Start menu. This is not a good look for the OS, especially considering that the Start menu is used by tons of people.

      Closer Look: Start menu in Windows 11 Closer Look: Search in Windows 11

      Taskbar


      The Taskbar in Windows 11 is probably the most controversial feature of the OS. That is because Microsoft has taken a bunch of features away and practically added nothing back in the name of "simplification". If you used to right-click on the Taskbar and open the Task Manager from the corresponding context menu, too bad, you're out of luck. The Windows 11 Taskbar does not have a proper context menu.

      Then there's the problem of its placement. The Taskbar is centered by default and while you can align the items on it to the left, you can't change the location of the taskbar. Although I always position my Taskbar at the bottom, I absolutely understand why some people are furious that Microsoft has taken away this capability.

      And that's not even all the company has taken away. You can't even drag-and-drop apps on the Taskbar to pin them. You can't view the date and time on multiple monitors. The system clock does not show time to the accuracy of seconds anymore. You can't make items smaller. The list goes on and on.

      The apparent reason for these drastic changes is that the Taskbar is actually something that was borrowed from the now-defunct Windows 10X, a simplified OS that was being designed for dual-screen devices. This simplification results in a modern aesthetic that is arguably nice to look at in Windows 11, but it fundamentally cripples the functionality of a UI element that is very important, especially for power users.

      Closer Look: Taskbar in Windows 11

      Widgets


      Widgets are a mixed bag for me in Windows 11. Microsoft gave us a taste of widgets in the Taskbar with the "News and Interests" functionality at the start of the year. For some reason, it decided to do a u-turn on this stance in Windows 11 and you'll no longer find that information directly in the Taskbar. Instead, there is a dedicated button for Widgets in the Taskbar.

      Clicking on it opens up a set of widgets where you will find information related to weather, stock prices, news, and more. It also integrates with Microsoft To Do, Outlook Calendar, and OneDrive albums so there is a lot of opportunity for personalization here. You can also further customize what categories of news you are interested in. Alternatively, if you're not interested in Widgets at all, you can simply remove the Widgets icon from the Taskbar via Windows Settings.

      I don't have major complaints against the implementation of Widgets in Windows 11 and I do find myself using it sparingly. However, it takes up a lot of screen real estate. It occupies roughly 40% of the horizontal width on my 15.6-inch laptop display with a resolution of 1920x1080. Clicking on any other UI element closes the Widgets pane. This essentially means that there is no room for multitasking. Either you have Widgets open or you continue with other tasks, there is no way to have them both open side by side, where I can maybe scroll through the news on the side while browsing social media. I feel like Microsoft can further enhance the UI behavior to make it more useful for those who want to benefit from the capability.

      Closer Look: Widgets in Windows 11

      File Explorer


      The File Explorer in Windows 11 has received a redesign too. Notable changes include some fresh icons that I personally really like, and a ribbon UI that replaces the legacy toolbar interface provided by previous versions of File Explorer. I have no complaints against either of these things since I have been able to find what I want quite easily. Most of the settings in the toolbar have been moved to the three-dotted menu. However, the emphasis on ribbon icons instead of the usual text in toolbar makes the job of support desks relatively difficult, and it also means that people have to familiarize themselves with a new interface, especially if they don't use shortcuts.

      There is a new context menu too, but this is more of an OS-wide change rather than something that is dedicated to File Explorer, so I'll discuss it more in the "UI" section of this review.

      While I like the overall UI redesign, I have started noticing some performance issues when it comes to my day-to-day use of File Explorer in Windows 11. This is especially prominent when I'm choosing a download location for a File and the icons take a second to load. It's not a deal-breaker but it is definitely noticeable. I have no such issues in File Explorer on Windows 10. Other Neowin readers have noted the problem too, so the issue is definitely not isolated and will be noticed by other people who upgrade to Windows 11 too.

      Closer Look: File Explorer in Windows 11

      Multitasking


      Multitasking is a very broad area when it comes to the OS level, so I'll only be focusing on major improvements in this area rather than each and every detail. Starting off with probably my most favorite Windows 11 feature, we have Snap Layouts and Snap Groups (collectively, Snap Assist). This is something that the OS has borrowed from PowerToys in Windows 10, and enables users to quickly snap windows to different areas on the screen. Screen locations are presented when you hover over the "window" icon of a window. Although the functionality has been available in previous versions of the OS using shortcuts too, this new interface really makes things a lot easier and brings other advantages in the form of Snap Groups too. These are essentially collections of apps in a Snap Layout that you can open or close with a single click. I find that Snap Layouts and Snap Groups have really increased my productivity thanks to their ease-of-use.

      Similarly, Virtual Desktops have received some nifty improvements too. The most obvious one is a clean UI because Timeline has been axed. Other enhancements include the ability to set different backgrounds for Virtual Desktops, and the ability to efficiently move them using the context menu. This is not groundbreaking stuff, but all these small improvements make for a much more satisfying experience overall.

      Meanwhile, the Quick settings are a bit of a mixed bag. Microsoft has done away with the Action Center and split quick settings and notifications into their own separate trays. This isn't a bad thing in my opinion as it means that less screen space is taken up. What really bothers me here is the odd coupling of the system icons on the Taskbar. If you click on any of these icons, you have to see all the Quick settings rather than the relevant ones. It isn't a deal-breaker but it's an odd design decision because it means that you might have to visually sift through all the settings before you find the relevant one, until you familiarize yourself with the new interface, at least. I really hope Microsoft changes this behavior in future iterations of the OS.

      Closer Look: Snap Layouts and Snap Groups in Windows 11 Closer Look: Virtual Desktops in Windows 11 Closer Look: Quick settings and notifications in Windows 11

      User Interface


      Although we have indirectly talked about UI a lot when discussing specific features above, I think it's worth discussing it separately too, particularly due to the fact that some UI changes are OS-wide. These are primarily rounded corners and updated context menus.

      Rounded corners are a minor but noticeable change that you'll notice when you upgrade to Windows 11. Instead of having sharp corners across windows and context menus, you'll notice that a lot of OS component and apps have been updated to have rounded corners. In my opinion, they are pleasant to look at and do not detract from the core experience of using Windows. Some may not like them but I think everyone will get used to them eventually, which isn't a bad thing.

      Context menus is yet another element which has received a major revamp. Context menus now support a ribbon at the top for common functionalities, similar to File Explorer, while other options are neatly grouped below them. However, one thing of note is that some options that contain third-party apps integrating directly with certain file types will not be immediately visible. They are tucked away in the "More options" configuration which will open the legacy context menu. Simply stated, this not the final behavior. Microsoft hopes that developers update their integration mechanism to be shown in Windows 11's updated context menu, but until they do that, they will have to reside in the legacy context menu which is not immediately visible. While I agree with the overall approach, the potential drawback is that many developers may simply refuse to update their apps or may have already abandoned them, so there's absolutely no guarantee that you will see all third-party integrations in the Windows 11 context menu ever.

      There are other smaller UI improvements too. This includes updated icons and design language across the OS as well as certain Microsoft apps like Clock, Photos, Snipping Tool, and Paint. But this is more of a work in progress and we'll likely see more improvements being made in this area with the passage of time. The modern UI seems to a strong focus in Windows 11, but more work needs to be done to make it consistent across the entire OS.

      Closer Look: Context menus in Windows 11 Closer Look: Power and battery settings in Windows 11 Closer Look: Clock app in Windows 11

      Microsoft Teams Integration


      Ah, probably one of the most unnecessary features in Windows 11, in my opinion. Microsoft is positioning Teams as a brand for consumers and is integrating it directly into its new OS. It can be accessed directly from the Chat icon in the Taskbar. The idea is to make Teams the FaceTime of Windows 11, something that the company has failed miserably at with Skype.

      Right now, Teams integrations offers a flyout UI directly above the taskbar when you launch it, and from there, you can communicate online with your friends and family. While there isn't anything inherently wrong with this approach, the issue is that there is no strong selling point for the feature. Most people have better alternatives at hand for online communication and the only possible selling point I see for this over other alternatives for personal online communication apps such as WhatsApp is the ability to quickly share your PC screen. In the 25 years that I have spent on this Earth, I have personally never come across this use-case.

      Then there are other issues with this Teams integration too. Chat windows do not support Snap Layouts - even though it's an OS-level functionality -, the context menus are barebones, the UI is unintuitive, and frankly, quite buggy.

      Simply stated, Microsoft really wants to utilize Teams for personal communication, likely banking on its success in the enterprise space, but right now, there just isn't a strong enough selling point for people to move en masse to Teams for online communication.

      Closer Look: Microsoft Teams integration in Windows 11

      Microsoft Store


      The Microsoft Store redesign in Windows 11 is coming to Windows 10 too, but since this is something that Microsoft worked on with Windows 11 in mind, it makes sense to discuss it in the OS' overall review as well.

      The digital store has been overhauled pretty much end-to-end in an effort helmed by Rudy Huyn, a stellar developer who worked on third-party clients for Windows Phone when prominent developers such as those behind Instagram and Snapchat refused to support the platform.

      The app has been seemingly built from the ground-up with a brand new experience across every page that you visit including search, individual listings, library, settings, and more. There are some nifty effects and animations too when you interact with certain UI elements, space utilization is much better, and I have genuinely enjoyed my time with the app. Make no mistake, it's not perfect, but I feel like Microsoft is on the right track here in terms of design and I can see things only improving from here.

      Microsoft has made the pot even sweeter for developers by opening the Microsoft Store to competing browsers and other storefronts like the Epic Games Store. It accepts all applications too, regardless of the framework or technology used to develop them. This essentially means that developers can publish Win32, .NET, UWP, Xamarin, Electron, React Native, Java, and Progressive Web Apps directly to the storefront, and will be responsible for its update mechanism. Coupled with developer-friendly policies related to revenue-sharing, I think the Microsoft Store can become a major player in the app distribution front.

      The only major issue worth highlighting is the lack of Android app support, which isn't really a flaw of the Microsoft Store, but is closely related. Microsoft touted it heavily when it announced Windows 11, but since then, we have learned that the feature - made possible due to a partnership with Amazon - is not coming on October 5 after all, which is a major bummer. Unfortunately, there is no firm release date for the capability and it's not even available in the Windows Insider Preview channels, so it could be days, weeks, months, or years away from general availability, who knows. But overall, it's not a good look, especially considering the hype surrounding it.

      Closer Look: Microsoft Store in Windows 11

      Default apps settings


      While I didn't plan to write about this initially due to the fact that it's not really a feature, I was skimming through my Closer Look articles, and realized that people simply have to know about this especially because of the potential headache that it is going to cause them and because it's straight up anti-competitive.

      Windows 10 offered a way to quickly set the default app for particular categories such as Email, Maps, Music player, Photo viewer, Video player, and Web browser. This is completely gone in Windows 11. Now, Microsoft wants you to manually set the default app for each extension protocol. If you want to change your default browser from Microsoft Edge to Google Chrome, you'll have to painstakingly set it as such for each file type and extension.

      Apart from being a headache for consumers, it's also blatantly anti-competitive. There's no other way to say it. The move has faced massive backlash from competitors and Mozilla has even reverse-engineered Microsoft's code to quickly change the default browser to Firefox for all relevant extension types. It's just unacceptable and developers are already building tools that forces Windows to bypass default apps, just because the OS does not really respect user preferences in a lot of cases.

      People who upgrade to Windows 11 and utilize a lot of third-party apps for certain file types need to be aware of this caveat, especially since it affects the end-user experience in a notable way.

      Closer Look: Default apps settings in Windows 11

      Conclusion


      Before I properly kick off the final section of my review of Windows 11, I would like to highlight that my final score (verdict badge at the end) is not the average of the aforementioned features. If that was the case, my final rating would be 6.05/10, which it is not. That is because I believe that an OS is more than the sum (or in this case, the average) of its individual parts. It's more about how all those different pieces come together to provide an overall experience.

      Simply stated, I really, really wanted to like Windows 11. You can gather from everything I've said above as well as my dedicated Closer Look articles, that I love the modern UI design as well as specific features like Snap Assist, the Microsoft Store, and other multitasking enhancements.

      However, there are some things that I just can't ignore. Glaring examples of this is the half-baked and shoehorned implementation of Microsoft Teams, the awful Taskbar, and the default apps settings.

      I fully understand that a lot of these things will improve with time, but I just can't help but feel that Microsoft rushed to meet some deadline that we don't know about yet. You can't just make a big deal out of Android app support when you unveil the OS on June 24 and then randomly decide that you're not going to make it available with general release on October 5.

      Then there's the problem of missing functionality too. Microsoft, you shouldn't need Windows Insiders to tell you that they don't want to sacrifice functionality for the sake of simplicity. And even if that was the case and the company absolutely needed your input on each and every feature, it's not like the Feedback Hub already doesn't have hundreds of highly-upvoted bug reports and feature requests. It's just absurd that we are getting a "simplified" taskbar that barely functions and a Start menu whose search functionality stutters majorly. Microsoft may treat Windows Insiders like glorified software testers, but they shouldn't be shown disrespect in the form of ignored feedback for even the most basic of functionalities. Given the misses in this OS and half-baked implementation of a bunch of features, one has to wonder whether Insider feedback is even taken into account at all.

      Don't get me wrong, there is stuff to like here. As I've stated multiple times, I really like the modern UI, aesthetics, icons. I don't even have a problem with the bottom-centered taskbar or the divisive Start menu, but people really need to be given more options when they're using something as big as an OS. You can't just remove functionalities left and right in the name of simplification and expect everyone to sit quietly.

      All in all, the problem with Windows 11 right now is that with the absence of a standout feature like Android apps support, it just feels like a re-skin of Windows 10 and nothing more. The re-skin is nice but is it something that you should upgrade to as soon as possible? Not at all. Windows 11 has a bunch of right ideas but it needed more time in the oven, I don't understand why Microsoft decided to rush an OS update which doesn't even have all of its marketed features yet. And even the included features lack lots of functionality.

      Unfortunately, Windows 11 is just another entry in Microsoft's book of "ship first, fix later". It's not bad, but it's not great right now either. There's tons of potential here; simplification of UI isn't a terrible idea but having it there in a half-baked manner doesn't really make for an enticing user experience. Windows 11 will undoubtedly get better with time, but did we really need an OS update before the basic functionalities were complete? I don't think so. Right now, Windows 11 is little more than a glorified re-skin. There's more form here than substance. That isn't to say that the OS will never be truly great, it just wasn't ready for primetime yet, in this reviewer's opinion.



      Have you used Windows 11 yet? If you have, what do you think about it? If you haven't what's holding you back and when do you plan to upgrade?

    • By Asher Madan
      Alan Wake Remastered on Xbox Series X review: The return of a cult classic
      by Asher Madan

      This is a spoiler-free review of Alan Wake Remastered

      When Alan Wake launched in 2010, it presented Xbox 360 players with a unique third-person action-horror experience, the likes of which we haven't seen since. The title garnered great reviews, and is regarded as a cult classic nowadays, as are many other Remedy Entertainment games. Understandably, when rumors of Alan Wake Remastered began circulating towards the beginning of the year, there was a lot of excitement among consumers. Now that it's available on consoles and PC, how does it stand the test of time? Read on to find out.

      Alan Wake is heavily inspired by important works of fiction by Stephen King, episodes of The Twilight Zone, the show Twin Peaks, and much more. The town of Bright Falls seems like a harmless setting for a game, but there are a lot of mysterious forces at play. While Alan questions his sanity, a Dark Presence has plans of its own. You'll have to explore the world to unravel this supernatural mystery.

      Story and gameplay
      For those unfamiliar with Alan Wake's gameplay, the title relies on traversing contained environments, looking for pages of a mysterious manuscript, while using light — and firearms — to fight shadow creatures. The namesake character awakens from a car crash to find that his wife, Alice, is missing. During his search through a Twin Peaks-like town, Alan encounters a number of quirky characters who guide him on his journey. You explore dark forests and remote cabins along the way. Alan Wake is a linear game, but encourages you to venture off the beaten path to find hidden supplies and collectibles.

      You have to constantly scour for resources in order to stay alive. It seems like an endless number of shadow figures attack you at any given time, so it's best to stock up on batteries and bullets. Once in a while, you'll come across a flare gun. Since light is the primary weapon against the dark creatures, you can use it like a grenade. It's so satisfying! Additionally, walking into the light also heals you and acts as a safe haven.

      In order to take out these foes, you have to focus your flashlight on them and then shoot when they're disoriented. Remedy is known for its stylish action sequences, and Alan Wake is no different. After almost every kill, you're rewarded with a gorgeous slow-motion effect when the beasts dissolve into thin air.

      The lines between dreams and reality are blurred in this game. At any given time, you'll be hard-pressed to ascertain the truth. This is why Alan Wake is such a compelling experience in my opinion. It's hard to put the controller down once you pick it up because you want to know how it ends.



      I originally played Alan Wake in college and was enthralled by the story. It got my heart racing because it was terrifying. However, playing it again a decade later made me appreciate it even more because there are a lot of Easter eggs and other secrets that I missed the first time around. Plus, the visual upgrades and smoothness that Alan Wake Remastered offers gives long-time fans a reason to go back.

      As mentioned above, Alan Wake contains numerous Easter eggs. While there are too many to list because the game takes inspiration from so many different forms of media, there are a few that stand out the most. The first is a scene during a cutscene where a deranged lunatic tries to murder you with an axe. The way the clip plays out looks exactly like Jack Nicholson in The Shining trying to kill his wife by breaking down the door.

      The second, and most significant one, has to be the fictional Night Springs show in the game. It's identical to The Twilight Zone in every way. A narrator who's clearly imitating Rod Serling presents strange scenarios and talks about the lessons learned. The music and visuals are also similar.

      It's details like these that give Alan Wake a new layer of depth. It's clear that Sam Lake and the original development team put a lot of effort into making sure the game paid homage to iconic pop culture moments.

      Performance and visuals


      Alan Wake Remastered looks great on modern displays. The game appears to be running at a high resolution and 60 frames per second (FPS) on Xbox Series X. According to the title's website, the render resolution is 1440p, but with post-processing effects to enhance the image quality. During my roughly 13-hour playthrough, I didn't encounter any noticeable FPS drops, and the bugs were limited to audio being out of sync during cutscenes. Luckily, the team has assured me that there's going to be a patch to address this close to launch.

      The game looks sharp and smooth on a 4K TV, and features high-resolution textures to match. It's hard to tell that it's just rendering at 1440p. However, some last-generation relics remain. For example, the ground is flatter than usual where there isn't any foliage. The overall aesthetic reminds you of an experience like Dark Souls Remastered or Mafia II: Definitive Edition. The visuals are crisp, but they lack the complexity found in other remasters like Diablo II: Resurrected or even native Xbox One games like Far Cry 5.

      Alan Wake Remastered brings new face models and that really enhances the experience, especially during cutscenes. Everything looks much more detailed, which adds to the immersion. However, during gameplay, the lip-sync is quite basic. There's definitely an unresolved dichotomy between the two which can be a little jarring to witness, especially during the opening scenes of the game.

      Alan Wake Remastered, just like the original, relies a lot on contrast — a dance between light and shadow — and would've greatly benefited from high-dynamic-range (HDR) lighting. This feature is missing from the remaster. In my opinion, Remedy should've gone the extra mile to enable HDR on Xbox Series X because it would've elevated the visuals even further. With that said, the contrast is still great, but you're left wondering about what could've been.

      The same goes for ray-tracing support. According to Remedy, adding HDR or ray tracing "would've taken resources away from other critical areas." This is understandable since it's a $29.99 game, but you're still competing against other titles out there, especially other remasters. Given the quality of Remedy's past endeavors — and the high visual bar the studio has set with Quantum Break and Control — I was expecting more. I realize this is an unreasonable request, however, other teams have done it. For example, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is a remaster but overhauls the original's Xbox 360 visuals in a striking manner. It looks like a completely different game.

      Overall, the changes are such that it might seem as though Alan Wake Remastered merely exists to generate hype for the franchise as a whole. It's unclear if there's a proper sequel in development, but given the fact that Remedy now owns the rights to the series, the chances are high. It may depend on how well Alan Wake Remastered sells.

      The environment plays an important role in building suspense and concealing secrets, including enemies. When you're exploring the forests surrounding Bright Falls at night, you'll notice that there's a dense fog that hampers visibility. The darkness coupled with the fact that you can't really see that far into the distance creates a tremendous amount of tension. For me, this was the most harrowing aspect of Alan Wake. Then again, I'm frequently scared while watching horror films.

      The remaster's clearer visuals help ease some of that tension, but the gameplay still manages to maintain most of it. There's nothing worse than running low on bullets and having to take on half a dozen creatures in a closed-off intersection. Do you run or do you fight? That's the question you'll have to answer during almost every combat scenario. If you choose to engage every enemy, you may not have enough resources to tackle the next area. This can lead to a lot of challenging situations.

      Music


      The music is another important component of Alan Wake. It's not an afterthought like many titles and suits the mood of the game perfectly. Usually, it's slow-paced, but when an unexpected event occurs, whether it's birds flying away or a mysterious force destroying a park ranger's outpost, the score changes to one that's equally dramatic. The action and sounds have a high degree of cohesion.

      The Finnish band Poets of the Fall contributed to Alan Wake's music and they did a phenomenal job. In the Alan Wake universe, they're referred to as the Old Gods of Asgard. However, this collaboration wasn't without its controversy.

      In May 2017, Remedy announced that Alan Wake would be delisted from all platforms because of expiring music licenses. However, a year after this announcement, the title was available again for purchase. It's unclear what behind-the-scenes negotiations took place, but that incident gave everyone a scare. It's great to see that the music is available in this remaster.

      New content and lingering issues


      Alan Wake wasn't a perfect game when it launched a decade ago, and some of the original's problems still plague the remaster. For example, the voice acting is either superb or questionable. The main characters do a great job, but when it comes to smaller roles, they just aren't as believable, especially when some individuals are crying out in pain.

      For example, Alan's friend and agent, Barry Wheeler, sounds natural during his hilarious interactions with the writer. But a character like Rusty, the Elderwood National Park Ranger, feels forced when he's injured and terrified. Alan Wake features a lot of unnerving moments, and this is where even main characters like Alice don't deliver a convincing portrayal.

      Alan Wake is a writer, so it's understandable that he can't hold a weapon properly. A lot of the input lag issues seem to have been resolved from Xbox 360 given the bump to 60 FPS, but aiming and shooting still isn't ideal. Unlike recent Remedy titles, shooting feels clunky and you waste a lot of bullets. Even taking your time to line a shot — if an enemy's far away — doesn't offer any reprieve. The controls need to be a little tighter because opening cupboards and turning on devices also feels imprecise.

      Alan Wake featured good gameplay due to its unique using-light-to-weaken-or-kill-enemies mechanic back in 2010, but aside from the natural reduction in input lag the boost to 60 FPS offers, there aren't any noticeable quality-of-life changes. Alan Wake Remastered doesn't really need tweaking due to the quality of the original, but I would've liked to see Remedy tighten the controls when it comes to interacting with objects.



      Alan Wake Remastered contains The Signal and The Writer expansions. They don't offer a concrete resolution to the events of the base game, but provide some more insights into the mind of the protagonist. You'll probably have to play Alan Wake: American Nightmare — a standalone sequel — through Xbox Backward Compatibility to get a complete understanding. Nevertheless, they enhance the value of the package that costs just $29.99 on all platforms.

      There's also developer commentary from the game's writer and director, Sam Lake, included, so you gain additional insight into the development process. This can be toggled from the menu. Existing fans will have a blast listening to Lake discuss the atmosphere, environments, and mechanics of Alan Wake Remastered.

      The original Xbox 360 version required only 6 GB, but the Xbox Series X version comes in at around 39 GB. This is mostly due to the high-resolution textures and audio files. Storage space on current-generation consoles is a precious resource, so it's important to be cognizant of this issue.

      The product placements have also been removed so you won't see any Energizer batteries and Verizon billboards. All of them appear to have been replaced with generic versions. I viewed this as a positive because it's less distracting. You can just focus on the narrative of Alan Wake Remastered instead of questioning why he's using an obscure VZ Navigator.

      Conclusion


      Alan Wake Remastered is an excellent game, but mostly because the original was simply incredible. However, when it comes to re-releases, it's important to take into account what changes have been made and how it stacks up against other remasters. This is where Alan Wake Remastered slightly suffers.

      I don't think the upgrades are significant enough, and those expecting a next-generation version will be disappointed. While the game runs at 1440p 60 FPS, it lacks HDR and complex lighting. Luckily, the higher frame rate makes aiming your flashlight and shooting enemies more precise.

      The thrilling story is the reason you should pick up Alan Wake Remastered if you haven't played it already. If you really loved the original, then this version is the best way to experience the cult classic. I was just hoping for a visual upgrade close to Control or Quantum Break given Remedy's focus on quality and pushing the envelope.

      Usually, it's easy to offer a recommendation, but with this game, it's a little tricky. It all depends on what you're looking for. To me, playing Xbox 360 games on a 4K display is too distracting. I'm a stickler for resolution so Alan Wake Remastered is the best way for me to experience this classic. However, that may not be the case for everyone. I'd definitely recommend picking it up if you've never played Alan Wake, but if you have and don't really care about resolution or frame rate, then the Xbox 360 version is still a blast through backward compatibility.

      You can purchase Alan Wake Remastered from the Microsoft Store or the platform of your choice for $29.99. The game launches on October 5, 2021 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.

      Epic Games Publishing provided a review code for Alan Wake Remastered. The game was tested on an Xbox Series X console.

    • By Steven P.
      Neabot NoMo Q11 review: It sucks, but in a good way
      by Steven Parker

      The Neabot NoMo Q11 started life as an Indiegogo campaign, which ended up being backed at 1000% of its asking back in July earlier this year. In fact, the developers are still shipping the units to backers and it's no longer possible to join the campaign as it has now ended. Right now it is being sold for $599.99 on Amazon, which is $100 off it's normal MSRP of $699.99. For the purpose of this review, and my sanity we'll refer to it as the Neabot.

      Specifications Max Suction Power 4000Pa Runtime 150mins Battery capacity 5200mAh Charging time 6 hours Storage capacity External dustbin 2.5L - Internal dustbin: 250ML Watertank 300ml Dimensions Robovac Height: 3.42" (8.42cm) Width: 13.58" (34.5cm) Dimensions Dustbin port Height: 12.59" (32cm) Width: 16.14" (41cm) Depth: 10.62" (27cm) Smarthome support Neabot app, Amazon Alexa Smartmapping Four beams Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) navigation Price $599

      First impressions
      The company, which is also called Neabot, sent me the NoMo Q11 in a big box, because it is bundled with the dustbin charging port which is rather large in itself. The charging dock is 27cm deep, 41cm wide, with a height of 32cm. It also houses the trash bag, of which two are included in the box. The top lid, which although is plastic, has a premium quality feel and weight to it and is completely removable for maximum access to the trash bag which can be inserted or removed by sliding the cardboard piece in or out of the housing.

      In the box

      Self emptying dustbin Neabot Q11 User guide (English, German, Japanese, Chinese) Side sweepers x2 Dust bag x2 Cleaning brush (in a compartment of the internal Neabot dustbin) Hepa filter x2 (one is already fitted) Mop cloth x2





      Design
      The first thing that struck me is how retro modern it looks. I'm a big sci-fi fan and it really looks like the Neabot docks to some sort of spaceport, and that's a good thing. It's not boring to look at, and after having it sitting in my kitchen for a couple of weeks, it looks great, doesn't look out of place, and it even matches my brabintia trash bin. The finish is a glossy white plastic, and with the blue light at the top that moves around when charging, and in the direction the Neabot is moving as a finishing touch.

      On the bottom of the Neabot you can secure one side sweeper and a removable mop attachment with a cloth that is attached by two small pouches on one end and Velcro patches on the other. Flipping the Neabot over, you have access to the top buttons and the dust/water tank. The water tank has a capacity of 300ml which is welcomed, as I have found it will go for about three full cleans of around 90m^2 before needing to be refilled.

      Getting started
      First of all, you will have to download the Neabot app, which you can look for on the Apple App store or Google Play, or scan the QR code on the Quick Start card that is included in the box. The Neabot turns on if you dock it to the charge port, or by holding down the standby button for five seconds. Once you have the app installed on your phone, you need to choose which model you have and the app will guide you through connecting it to your WiFi. I had to give this a couple of tries before it was successful, but I had this with the Proscenic M7 Pro that I own too, so that's probably just me, my advice is to just take some time with it and be patient. As with other robovacs I've setup, the app requires you to be on the 2.4GHz WiFi because the Neabot does not support being connected to the 5GHz band.

      The different attachments The different attachments slide into place on the same side as the charge ports, which means that if you need to access it to refill the water tank, you physically have to pull it out of the charging dock and whip it around to access the tank. The mop does not have to be attached for the Neabot to function, it will simply disable mopping mode if the white mop attachment is not detected. The dust/water tank has a satisfying click when sliding it into place to let you know it is secured, the mop also clicks into place and can be inserted while the Neabot is flat on the floor. To disengage it, simply press the buttons on the far left and right of the mop and slide it out.

      Once you are paired up and you have enough charge, you can simply tap Go in the app to do a Total clean, which is the default setting. This utilizes both the vacuum and the optional mopping mode.



      As you can see with the above images, it takes the Neabot around 37 minutes to clean the ground floor of my house, which is roughly the same time it takes my Proscenic M7 Pro. Moving back to the app, the first image shows the total number of devices in the Home, tapping on "Neobot" (I named it wrong, but can no longer change this) you will enter the cleaning management.

      Upon first use, it will completely map the cleaning area, and on tapping the top right icon next to the chat bubble (which are robot messages) you can choose "More Function" and then Map Manager. This displays each cleaning task as a map and gives you the opportunity to bookmark it. This is useful if you have multiple levels in your house, so you can select which floor map to use.



      The Neabot also has a "Light volume" just off the "More Function" menu which allows you to turn off the lighting and lower or completely turn off the voice commands. Speaking of voice commands, the Neabot comes with several language packs, aside from English, you will find French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Polish, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Spanish, Tamil, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, and Vietnamese all supported.

      The app itself does have a lot of options, but it could be better if it had a better translation into English, some options like "Light volume" isn't immediately obvious you can control the lighting, it took me a while to find it too, because the option is not in the full "More Function" menu page.

      Usage
      The Neabot is said to have "obstacle avoidance" and on viewing it in action this really does seem to be the case. Rather than just bashing into table legs and chairs, it stops short of these obstacles and carefully moves forward or around it. In fact, the only problem I found that it has, is navigating curtains. It will either completely try to avoid curtains, leaving a sort of jagged path around them in the cleaning record, or drive through them as if they aren't there, which can cause it to get stuck on my mosquito netting screen door.





      The left image is how I found it one morning, stuck. It had only just started the cleaning program too. The right image shows it negotiating the same area with the curtains open without a problem. One thing I'd like to note as well, the doormat hardly ever gets moved with the Neabot, where with other robot vacuums it tends to get dragged around and out of place. With previous robot vacuums, I've actually removed the mat before a scheduled clean, but with the Neabot it is not needed.

      I ended up having to place a restricted area on the screen door so that it doesn't drive up onto it and get stuck, in the roughly two weeks I've had it, it has only happened three times, but as I schedule the cleaning at 3am and the kitchen is the first area it does, this means the rest of the ground floor doesn't get cleaned. I am happy to report that it doesn't get stuck anywhere else, even where others have failed me. A bit more on that later.

      Action shot! The Neabot detects which type of floor it is on, and surprisingly even separated my ground floor areas, with yellow being the kitchen/diner and the blue area being my office/lounge area. It deploys the mop and lowest 1500Pa suction on hard floors such as my stone kitchen tiles and wooden or laminated floors, you can see above that it actually looks like it is cleaning and has the 300ml water capacity to do it.

      Moving on to carpets, as with most robot vacuums, it can be noisy at maximum power. On max mode, which must be manually turned on, it has 4000Pa suction, which rivals some traditional hand vacuum cleaners. When it detects carpet, 2500Pa suction is used and at just 65dB, the Neabot is not too noisy.



      Under my coffee table I have a medium pile rug, which the Neabot cleans thoroughly well and even manages to navigate past a spot on the rug near the coffee table leg which is black, where other robot vacuums have stopped dead and detected as a drop, triggered by the "cliff sensor". This is a well known problem of robot vacuums, black carpet, black lines or black streaks as in my case, in carpets are mostly detected as drops. This is good news to me because it means I don't have to setup a restricted area to block it from encountering the troublesome blacks in the rug, which would defeat the entire purpose of fully automated cleaning.







      In the app itself to the left and right of the map, you can set the restricted areas (Forbid setting), water level and suction. The default setting is 2500Pa for carpets and medium flow level for water, which can also be turned off completely. The app also allows you to turn off dustbin collection, since that is quite loud at 89dB. If you opt for turning that off, the Neabot reverts to the 250ml internal dustbin management and you will get an alert in "Robot messages" when that needs emptying.

      The charging dock has a radio beacon, so that the Neabot can find its way back home to recharge. In my experience, it has never failed to find the charging dock, but you are going to want to ensure it is in a place where you have a bit of free space around it. This is also suggested in the manual.









      As previously mentioned, Total Clean is the default setting, on tapping on Go, it will just clean the entire area, and will automatically map any new area it encounters. Area cleaning is basically zone cleaning, you can also split the generated map into zones, as you can see from the above middle image, I split my ground floor into three zones, so I could tell the Neabot to just clean the Kitchen, or Living Room while I am working in the Office. There's also Partition setting, which is automatic; remember when I said that the Neabot automatically split my ground floor into a yellow and blue area on the map? These are those partitions, and although I am not sure how they work I am guessing that it detects the difference between my stone kitchen tiles, and wood finish laminated floor. It's possible to further split partitions, but I am not sure what use that is over setting up zones. Finally there is Local clean, which appears to be a default for localized cleansing of spills or whatever, this is a small area on the map that you can move to wherever needs cleaning and it can't be adjusted in size. It looks to be around two square meters.

      Conclusion
      My contact told me that because the Neabot NoMo Q11 is still so new, the app is still evolving and will receive an UI overhaul and English translation refresh soon, the evolution of features is evident by just doing a search for reviews of the NoMo Q11 and finding that the app had limitations a month or more ago that it doesn't have now. If I had one major complaint about the app, that is the poor translation into English, some terms are just not great but this is also the case in the Deebot and Proscenic apps, they mostly all suffer from it, hopefully the translation refresh will address this. On Amazon it is claimed that the Neabot can be paired with Google Assistant (Google Home) but I have not been able to do this, my contact told me that Google Assistant support will arrive in October, so I will update this once it is available. Alexa pairing is already available, but I do not have any Alexa devices to test this with. There's also no digital manual in English that can be downloaded, despite it being included in full in the phone app. I prefer to download the manuals to machines like this so I can view them on a larger screen.



      I really have no complaints about the Neabot itself. After using both the Deebot 900 and Proscenic M7 Pro, which can be considered mid-range robovacs, this is the least annoying one I've used so far. Only getting stuck a couple of times in two weeks, and mainly a bit of a headache navigating through the app, which is still under development.

      However, as with all robovacs, they need a little help too sometimes. As you can see in the above image, I make the Kitchen Neabot-friendly before I go to bed. It's up to you, of course, but I like having the entire space under my Kitchen island cleaned, not just parts of it.

      Overall, I recommend the Neabot NoMo Q11. Most options in the mid-range cost around $500 and don't always include a self-emptying dustbin. In this case, it's not optional to buy without the self-emptying dustbin, but I have to say I do enjoy not ever having to empty the internal dustbin every few days, because 250ml is not a great deal of capacity.

      Get the Neabot Q11 for $599.99 at Amazon
      As an Amazon Associate, Neowin may earn commission from qualifying purchases.

    • By Asher Madan
      Diablo II: Resurrected on Xbox Series X review — A classic reborn
      by Asher Madan

      This is a spoiler-free review of Diablo II: Resurrected

      As you may have assumed after reading the title, Diablo II: Resurrected is a remastered version of Diablo II and its expansion, Lord of Destruction, which released in 2000 and 2001, respectively. It features all of the content that launched twenty years ago, but adds modern refinements like upgraded visuals, a redesigned user interface, and an expanded stash. This new version was developed by Blizzard Entertainment and Activision's Vicarious Visions studio. On the whole, it's an impressive project, but it may be a little dated — particularly when it comes to inventory management — to be thoroughly enjoyable for all gamers.

      Characters and environments
      For those of you new to the franchise, Diablo II: Resurrected is a dark fantasy isometric action game where you pick a unique hero and work your way through a number of environments, pursuing a mysterious figure known as the Dark Wanderer. You'll traverse somewhat randomized swamps and deserts in a quest that eventually pits you against the titular villain.

      Diablo II: Resurrected features a number of unique environments and locations that increase in splendor. While the camp you start at is quite understated, you'll eventually explore desert cities carved out of rock and venture into crypts that haven't been opened in generations. The visual variety is quite astounding and there are a number of biomes throughout the adventure. Each area also has distinct enemies that increase in difficulty. Diablo II: Resurrected constantly keeps you on your toes because complacency leads to death.

      The plot is simply fantastic and I'd forgotten how many twists and turns are woven in there. It has been almost twenty years since I played the original. Running Diablo II on my old HP laptop, in my college dorm, has to be one of my best memories. It was a great way to relax after studying biology and chemistry the whole day. Diablo II not only featured a rich story, but the build-up to the climax has to be one of the best in gaming history. Even to this day, many other titles can't match it. The stellar plot is a testament to the writers who carefully constructed the narrative and slowly let the player figure out what was going on.

      For the most part, Diablo II: Resurrected plays like a traditional hack-and-slash experience. You equip increasing powerful weapons and armor, while taking on greater challenges. However, each hero has unique abilities that make the fight against the legions of Hell a little easier. For example, the Druid can transform into a werewolf or "werebear". The Amazon, Assassin, Necromancer, Paladin, and others have their own skills to choose from, though some are more dramatic than others.

      To illustrate this, let's compare the Druid and the Paladin. The Paladin has a number of devastating abilities like the Holy Bolt that vanquishes enemies or the Holy Shield to protect himself from arcane damage. He's a strong character, but the Druid is just so much more fun. Transforming into different creatures never gets old and requires you to experiment with more balanced builds if you want to use brute force and magic at the same time. I'd recommend trying all of the characters — particularly the Assassin and Druid since they were part of the Lord of Destruction expansion — to find the one you like the most.

      Visual upgrades


      Diablo II: Resurrected pays homage to the original's graphics, but with greatly enhanced effects. If you were expecting a visual upgrade along the lines of Diablo III, or the upcoming Diablo IV for that matter, you’ll be disappointed. Diablo II: Resurrected stays true to the look of the cult classic, but features all-new textures, animations, and cutscenes.

      It's clear that a tremendous amount of work went into this game. Diablo II: Resurrected also adds wet surfaces, better weather, real-time reflections, and much more. Suffice to say, it's a noticeable upgrade if you compare the two versions side by side.

      If you haven't played Diablo II in a while, you may feel that the game looks relatively the same, it just runs at a higher resolution. However, that couldn't be further from the truth. When you kill enemies like Dark Hunters, encounter a pool of water in the middle of a marsh, or witness the light shimmering on a wet brick bridge, you’ll realize that Diablo II: Resurrected is a modern game. Blizzard and Vicarious Visions have done an excellent job with the new graphics. Because of this, the remaster shines.

      If you're ever curious as to what the original looked like, you can always press Left Trigger and the View button together. The View button is commonly referred to as the boxes button on the Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One controllers. I promise you you'll be shocked and astounded by the results. I had personally forgotten how clunky the old animations were.

      Console performance


      Diablo II: Resurrected offers two modes on Xbox Series X. The default, oddly enough, is "Quality". This boosts the resolution to 4K, but locks the game to just 30 frames per second (FPS). Despite how crisp Diablo II: Resurrected looks on Quality mode, I wouldn't recommend it because the input lag is horrendous. I would go as far as to say that it's unplayable on this setting because it feels like you're trudging through molasses.

      Luckily, there's a "Performance" option that lowers the resolution to around 1440p — based on our estimate — and boosts the frame rate to 60 FPS. This dramatically enhances the experience because the title is much more responsive. When you load Diablo II: Resurrected, your first step should be to go to "Settings" and change the visuals from Quality to Performance.

      It's curious as to why we don't have a 4K 60 FPS mode on current-generation consoles, at least for "Offline" single player. To me, it seems like a problem with optimization more than anything else. Unfortunately, I don't think Blizzard or Vicarious Visions will go back and change this on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

      Controls


      Inventory management has to be my biggest gripe with Diablo II: Resurrected. While it's a little cumbersome to use a thumbstick to hover over objects, it gets worse when you want to sell tiny gems or other miscellaneous items to a trader. You have to inelegantly maneuver the cursor over them and hold a button. Understandably, this isn't an issue with a mouse and keyboard, but it's one of the most torturous acts on consoles. Surely there's a better solution.

      Diablo III's circular inventory system was tailored for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — despite some questionable results — and is a marked improvement over Diablo II: Resurrected. The development team should've included a similar setup that was made for thumbsticks in this remaster.

      Now that's out of the way, let me tell you about why you should consider playing Diablo II: Resurrected with a controller. Instead of clicking enemies or clicking where to go, you can control your character directly through the thumbstick. This gives the game a more action-focused feel because you're directly connected to everything happening on screen. Let's say that you want to kite an enemy, but there aren't a lot of options except for a massive tree. Well, with a controller, you can just run around the tree and keep hitting the foe whenever the time's right. This added maneuverability isn't really found with a mouse.

      Using your abilities or casting spells is just as simple as it is with a mouse and keyboard, in my opinion. You can bind whatever you want to a button or combination of buttons. Just look in the general direction and press. The standard abilities bar can be augmented by holding down Left Trigger. This gives you even more slots to bind abilities to.

      The revamped user interface really doesn't live up to the hype on consoles, but the fact that you directly control your character with the thumbsticks is a blessing. You're also given a few extra inventory boxes for good measure. In my opinion, the controls are the most prominent changes that improve quality-of-life the most. As you know, the inventory still requires using a cursor and its few extra slots don't dramatically ease hauling loot. You'll still have to make a number of trips back to town to sell or store gear.

      Online play


      Diablo II: Resurrected features online and offline modes. As mentioned earlier, Offline is the single-player setting and you can take on endless enemies on your own. However, if you choose to create an "Online" character, the difficulty goes up a little, but you can team up with more than half a dozen players to help you along the way. I'm positive that all of them can hire mercenaries, so you essentially end up with a small army by the time you take on Diablo.

      Aside from the launch day login problems, Diablo II: Resurrected servers still suffer from occasional rubberbanding — you move in one direction and suddenly you're teleported back several feet to where you once were. I plugged in the Xbox Series X directly to the modem and it still exhibited the same problem on a 1Gbps connection. Hopefully, Blizzard and Vicarious Visions have a fix in the works because it can lead to an untimely demise if you're playing online.

      Conclusion


      Overall, Diablo II: Resurrected still holds up surprisingly well even after all these years. It's a must-play title. The story is captivating, and slowly unraveling the mystery behind the Dark Wanderer is quite thrilling. I just wish the teams had completely revamped the inventory system for consoles.

      Diablo II: Resurrected relies on constantly finding better gear, and having to manually control a cursor to select items is tedious, to say the least. Luckily, you get used to it, as it becomes second nature after a few hours. While the game is brimming with nostalgia, and is clearly designed for those who've played Diablo II before, it should still appeal to newcomers. It's a very good remaster, but the aforementioned design choices are holding it back from greatness. The original didn't have any noticeable issues that I can recall, but it seems like the PC version is the way to go because Diablo II: Resurrected works the best with a mouse and keyboard given its inventory situation.

      If controlling the inventory with a cursor seems like a dealbreaker, you should check out Diablo III due to its radial menu. The game brings you up to speed rather quickly with what happened in Diablo II and its expansion.

      Diablo II: Resurrected features cross-progression so you can experience it on any platform and retain your progress. Unfortunately, you'll have to spend another $39.99 to buy it on another system.

      It'll take players around 20 hours to complete Diablo II: Resurrected's campaign, but if you're looking to slay demons on the highest difficulty there is, then it's probably going to be around 150 hours of playtime. It's a substantial game with addictive gameplay. Despite the problems, I can't recommend it enough because it's just so much fun! You don't even realize how quickly the hours fly by.

      You can purchase Diablo II: Resurrected from the Microsoft Store or the platform of your choice for $39.99. The game was released on September 23, 2021 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

      Blizzard Entertainment provided a review code for Diablo II: Resurrected. The game was tested on an Xbox Series X console.

    • By Asher Madan
      Psychonauts 2 on Xbox Series X review: A triumphant return for the franchise
      by Asher Madan

      This is a spoiler-free review of Psychonauts 2

      Psychonauts 2 is the long-awaited sequel to Psychonauts, a game that originally released in 2005, and is since regarded as a cult classic due to its wacky characters and mind-bending gameplay. Luckily, Psychonauts 2 is a third-person action platformer along the lines of the original, but picks up after the events of the virtual reality-only Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. Once again, you step into the shoes of Razputin Aquato — now a Psychonaut intern — and embark on a new adventure to uncover the identity of the mastermind behind a kidnapping. Unfortunately for Raz, the mystery deepens from there and leads to even more chaotic missions.

      Psychonauts 2 allows you to explore the minds of a series of characters as they battle various forms of mental illnesses. The title depicts addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions in a comical manner but, in my opinion, maintains a healing-focused tone that isn't disrespectful to those who live with them. As someone who copes with anxiety on a daily basis, I didn't feel like the game was making light of a serious issue. With that said, it's important to keep this in mind before you pick up Psychonauts 2.

      Story and gameplay
      You don't have to play the original Psychonauts — or Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin — to figure out what's going on in Psychonauts 2. Luckily, the title provides a lengthy exposition that goes over the events of the first game and the virtual-reality experience. Over the course of the first mission, you'll quickly gain access to various abilities, learn about collectibles, gain combat moves, and catch up on the plot. Psychonauts 2 can drag a little during this time, but it was beneficial to someone like me who hasn't played Psychonauts since college.

      As expected, gameplay revolves around running, jumping, melee combat, and using various powers like pyrokinesis and telekinesis to solve puzzles. You even gain the ability to slow down time down the line! Along the way, you meet a variety of quirky characters that tell you more about the story and give you tasks to complete. Without giving too much away, the story is entertaining, but may seem a little convoluted because a lot has happened in Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin.

      I enjoyed the plot because it all comes together at the end, but the game could’ve been elevated through clearer storytelling. However, in Psychonauts tradition, the title is mind-bending to say the least, because that’s the realm we’re in given the franchise.

      Replayability and customization


      Psychonauts 2 features a post-game state where you can continue to explore the well-developed and substantial world. Even after 35 hours of gameplay, I have numerous hidden items to collect. There are a lot of secrets to uncover, and you'll need to find them in order to reach Rank 102, the highest level in the game that makes you incredibly powerful.

      Otto Mentallis is one of the characters you encounter in Psychonauts 2. While you meet him in the main campaign, exploring his laboratory will help you make more progress in the post-game stage. He has a number of gadgets sitting around like the Thought Turner. The Thought Turner lets you access new parts of existing levels so it's necessary if you want to go for 100% completion.

      The game also features a unique twist on the traditional Photo Mode. You'll need to pick up an in-game camera that allows you to essentially unlock it. Psychonauts 2 is filled with thoughtful additions like this that make the title quite special.

      Psychonauts 2 features the ability to customize your powers through Pins. Pins are essentially ability points or runes you'd find in any other game. You can equip them to change damage output and cosmetic effects. While many of them seem to only trigger cosmetic changes, there are some that are inspired by traditional action role-playing games like Dark Souls and Diablo. For example, you can dramatically increase your damage output by lowering your health to a risky level. This Pin is rightfully called Glass Cannon. There are some others that allow you to withstand more damage, but it's up to you to find and equip the ones that suit your playstyle.

      Level design


      Abilities tie into level design seamlessly because in one encounter you may have to defeat fire-susceptible enemies, but in the other you may have to levitate or fly across an electrified path. Levels are self-contained for the most part, and you can access them through the Psychonauts headquarters hub world. The hub world is a fantastic place that is filled with lots of people and secrets. Be sure to scour the plants because a lot of collectibles are hidden in there!

      Psychonauts 2 features a number of awesome environments to explore. For example, you'll traverse a land filled with teeth to one made up of eyes that are constantly watching you. Your objective is to use all of your psychic abilities and traversal moves, like clambering and double jumping, to make your way to the end. My favorite has to be a cave-like level that's lit by — what appear to be — bioluminescent mushrooms. The team did an excellent job of making sure that every new area you access feels different than the previous one.

      Visuals and performance


      Psychonauts 2 looks gorgeous on Xbox One X and Xbox Series X. The visuals are crisp and the environments are as unique as they are odd. The game receives a substantial frame rate boost on Microsoft’s top-of-the-line console because it runs at a smooth 60 frames per second (FPS) at 4K resolution. However, there's also a 120 FPS mode — that limits the resolution 1440p — on Xbox Series X.

      Psychonauts 2 also appears to feature high-dynamic-range lighting (HDR) only on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series S version doesn't render the game at 4K resolution, but instead drops down to 1620p to maintain 60 FPS, and 1080p for 120 FPS. Lastly, on Xbox One X, the resolution appears to be 4K, but the frame rate is locked at 30 FPS without HDR.

      If you don’t have a powerful gaming PC, you should check out the Xbox Series X version because, not surprisingly, it’s the best one for consoles. However, the console is still sold out everywhere and on eBay is going for around $900. You may have to wait a while to experience Psychonauts 2 at its best until the device is readily available.

      Minor issues


      Developer Double Fine Productions has been working on Psychonauts 2 for the past six years, and it shows in terms of the overall quality. However, there are some problems that are quite noticeable. For example, during some of the cutscenes, the characters move in a very stiff manner that isn't present during gameplay. This can be somewhat jarring to witness because of the stark contrast between fluid gameplay and rigid cutscenes.

      As alluded to earlier, the plot is a little tricky to follow at times, but it redeems itself quickly once you get past the first mission. I'd recommend watching the exposition video a few times in order to truly understand all the events that happened in Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. It really helped me when I was somewhat struggling to follow along, especially when it comes to knowing who all the characters are and what your relationship to them is.

      My only real complaint would be the voice acting. It’s good, but it seems a little disjointed for some odd reason. On the whole, Psychonauts 2 is a polished experience, but the voice acting seems like the weakest link. I’m not sure if the voice actors recorded their lines separately, but having actors together — even on a call — gives it more of an organic feel. This is sadly missing from the latest adventure.

      Conclusion


      Overall, Psychonauts 2 is a great game, but it could’ve been even better had the voice acting been smoother and the plot slightly easier to follow. Some of the animations seem a little stiff too. Luckily, there are plenty of twists and turns in there so you’re always entertained. I’d definitely recommend picking it up, and if you have Xbox Game Pass, then it’s part of your subscription!

      The scale of Psychonauts 2 is much larger than before and not what I was expecting. Then again, we've come a long way since the days of the original Xbox. When I initially saw the $59.99 price tag, I was a little confused, but after playing Psychonauts 2, it makes complete sense. This may be Double Fine Productions' most ambitious game to date and is a blast to experience! I can't wait to see what happens on the next adventure. Psychonauts 2 blew me away on Xbox Series X!

      You can purchase Psychonauts 2 from the Microsoft Store for $59.99. The game releases on August 25. Psychonauts 2 is part of Xbox Game Pass which costs $4.99 a month on PC and $9.99 a month on Xbox consoles.

      Microsoft provided a review code for Psychonauts 2 and the game was tested on Xbox One X, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X.