Tutorial #24: Tweaking the Asus Tuf Gaming A15

Previously, in my review of the laptop, the only tweaking I had undertaken was an auto-overclock of the GPU which, as per expectation, yielded a performance improvement of around 6% overall with only a slight loss in CPU performance, purely on the basis of the additional available thermal headroom.

During that time I had left the CPU untouched because AMD does not officially support tweaking on laptops and Ryzen Controller did not work for me then. However, later I came across Renoir Mobile Tuning and found it to be operational for this laptop, albeit with a few bugs. I switched to Ryzen Controller again and found that it too now worked well for Renoir with the additional benefit of applying the setting automatically on boot.

With a CPU tuning tool in place, the next thing was determining what to do with it. While these tools often end up as overclocking utilities, my intention couldn't be further opposite to that. The idea was to effectively underclock the system without losing performance i.e. to reduce the temperatures while still maintaining a performance boost over the stock settings.

To cut a long story short, I played around various combination of settings to finally settle on one that seems to work the best. Not that it an exhaustive analysis but rather the most practical among the ones I had tried. Note that I only experimented with the Boost TDPs and the temperature limits. The boost duration seemed pretty logical and I did not want to introduce yet another variable that muddied up the testing. Eventually this resulted in the following changes:
  • Temperature Limit: 90
  • Long Boost TDP: 54 
  • Short Boost TDP: 50
For reference, the default temperature limit is 95 with long and short boost TDPs of 60 and 54 respectively. Also, I auto-overclocked the GPU again to make the most of any benefit available from reduction of the CPU performance. So, how did this theoretical reduction in CPU performance impact the benchmark scores for Fire Strike and Time Spy compared to the ones from the review?

As expected, this has quite an impact on the CPU performance as it has dropped by nearly 5% but on the other hand the graphics score has jumped by 1% resulting in an overall gain of 0.7% on Fire Strike, taking it past 16,000 for the first time. However, the result for Time Spy was more interesting as there was a minor loss instead overall indicating the underclock has more of an impact of DX12 than it does on DX11, which is probably not unexpected. Note that this is an indication of the gain over the gain already achieved by overclocking the GPU originally, so overall the incremental gain is still worth it.

Lastly, the laptop has a secret weapon up its sleeve. Until now, all the tests were conducted using the default Performance mode. However, there is also a Turbo mode which sets the fans whirring to possibly the maximum setting under full load. Yes, it boosts up the scores even further. Below I have again attached a comparison of the Turbo mode performance for the stock CPU settings in comparison to the underclocked one and it is quite the same as earlier. While the DX11 performance is higher with the underclock, it is lower by an equal proportion in case of DX12. 

It has to be kept in mind though that apart from the scores, the underclock has an additional benefit in reducing the overall temperatures and also prolonging the life of the components. Also with the combination of the 4800H with the RTX2060, it is the latter that is going to hit the limit rather easily compared to the former, so a sacrifice of CPU performance for a GPU gain makes a lot more sense.

Finally, I leave you with a comparison of the current profile comprising of a GPU Overclock and CPU Underclock on Turbo with the stock GPU and CPU settings.

A jump of 7.8% on DX11 and 6.6% on DX12 with lower overall temperatures to boot is nothing shoddy. Seems something called as free lunch does exist after all.

Review #65: Asus TUF Gaming A15 Laptop (Ryzen 7 4800H | RTX 2060) ★★★★✭

 Team Red + Team Green - A killer combination!


Ever since Y2K, when AMD stole the limelight for a bit with breaking the 1 GHz barrier and releasing AMD64, AMD as a company failed to impress on me the need to purchase their products. I had opted for Intel just prior to the Athlon breakthrough and every upgrade cycle of 4-5 years led me to opt for Intel. Hence, I was simply enthralled at switching to Team Red after nearly two decades of being stuck with Team Blue. My GPU always has been Team Green but with the integrated Vega 7, there is a dash of Red over there as well.

The Choice:

During the holiday sale 2020, it was between this and the Acer Predator Helios 300 for the princely sum of "not quite" one lakh INR. I could see the reviews racking up for the Core i7 variant on Flipkart and I had even purchased the same but cancelled it as soon as I came across this Renoir masterpiece. It helped that Amazon also offered a much higher exchange price for an old laptop that was lying around, compared to Flipkart.

To put it straight, the Helios 300 has only one thing going for it compared to this one and that is the screen. On the flip side, this comes with a monster CPU, DDR4-3200, a 2000+ Mbps 1 TB SSD from Western Digital, a large 90 Wh battery, lighter weight, higher travel keyboard and about as good a cooling solution as the Helios. It also looks more professional than the Helios, so you can use it in formal environments without having people snickering at you. So overall, it is a win for the A15 over the Helios 300.


To address the elephant in the room, Asus gimped on the screen, using a Panda panel that has only about 65% sRGB colour gamut and >20 ms response time with quite some screen flex. It pales (no pun intended) in comparison to the 90% sRGB panel with 3ms response time on the Helios, but that is about it. I still managed to get popping colours out of it by increasing the saturation on Radeon Software and calibrating the display from within Windows. Sure, it throws accuracy out of the window in favour of something eye-pleasing but I am not looking to do any colour-work on it and even otherwise, I am looking to connect it to my 120 Hz 4K TV at home for gaming. I am unsure about it, but with the HDMI or DisplayPort output being driven by Vega, it should also support FreeSync directly compared to laptops having output routed through the Intel GPU.


The primary reason for getting this laptop is the Ryzen 4000 series. The 4800H puts the Core i7 to shame. I ran Cinebench after updating the system and without any tweaks. It registered nearly 500 on the single core and 4386 on the multi core, that even the Core i9-9980HK can't touch in most laptops, due to it being a blast furnace rather than a processor. The 4800H did not even touch 80 degrees on the Cinebench multi-core test. It did go past 90 on Firestrike but it never thermally throttled whereas the under-volted 9980HK in my earlier laptop hit 100 degrees within seconds and throttled like it was being asphyxiated.

The RTX 2060 is also the 2020 "refresh" variant with the 1.25V GDDR6 and higher TDP. It passed 15,000 on Firestrike on the first run but with the CPU running much cooler, it opens up the possibility of over-clocking the GPU farther than you can on an Intel machine.

Among other points, the machine ran without much noise on the benchmarks, but I expect it to reach whirring heights with demanding games, something that is to be expected of most gaming laptops. I haven’t checked the battery life and probably never will over the life of the laptop, as I always used it plugged, but the 90 Wh battery with the 4800H will provide a longer battery life than any Intel gaming laptop. The lonely USB 2.0 port on the right-hand side is a bit of a let-down but I have my fingerprint reader permanently plugged in so that I can use Windows Hello. Not having TB3 is also disappointing but I can’t see myself needing it over the lifespan of the laptop as DLSS will most probably help with higher resolutions in the near future.


As expected, the UEFI on the laptop is barebone. AMD also doesn't support Ryzen Master on laptops, leaving it to OEMs to decide on the thermal envelope. That leaves Ryzen Controller as a tool of choice as it has experimental 4000-series support but with it currently being limited to STAPM settings, it is more likely to be needed to extract more performance rather than to lower temperatures, and thus is not the need of the hour.

However, as I mentioned previously, there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of extracting more performance from the GPU. As the following 3DMark screenshots indicate, the GPU is able to provide 6-7% more performance using Auto-Overclock at the loss of less than 1% CPU performance. The GPU temperatures too are similar, though the CPU temperature does go up by 4-5 degrees at idle and 2-3% degrees at full load, but still does not throttle.


The unit received from Amazon was manufactured just 2 weeks before as per the warranty registration date. It can be changed to the invoice date by providing Asus with the invoice and a photo of the laptop serial number. An additional year of warranty, after using the 10% off code provided with the laptop, costs about $35 which is quite respectable.


To sum it up, at the sale price, you can only go wrong with a gaming laptop if you choose Intel. Asus got most things right apart from the screen which is gut-wrenching but not a deal breaker, especially if you use a monitor or TV. In this case, it is what’s inside that counts and this thing is as TUF as it gets.

P.S.: It comes with a huge 16A plug that would probably go well with a microwave in the kitchen. Thankfully, the power adapter has a standard connector as a desktop PSU, so I was able to connect a 16A cable with the regular sized plug. You can also probably get away with a lower amperage cable but it is best to get a 16A one if you can.

Musing #61: Adapting apps for Gear Fit2 (Pro)

While the original post was about the 2048 app, I feel it would be best to have a single post for all my adapted Gear Fit2 (Pro) apps. The original article is still present below for any guidance it may provide in installing the apps on the device. I will be listing the apps along with a screenshot and the link to download the *.wgt files. A short description has been included along with references to the original source/app.

1. 2048: Based on the latest source (Oct 2017) for 2048 posted on Github with suitable interface/colour modifications for Gear Fit2 Pro. Uploaded on Sep 11, 2018.

2. SciCal: Based on an app called 'Kalkulator' or 'Calculator Net 6' for the Gear S, I have renamed it to SciCal as it is a scientific calculator while adding a catchy icon from Wikimedia. The dimensions of all the "pages" of the calculator have been modified so that no scrolling is present. Unfortunately, the interface stays as it is due to the large amount of information involved. Uploaded on Sep 23, 2018.

Original Article (Sep 11, 2018):

It is no surprise that Samsung has artificially stifled the Gear Fit series for it to not steal the limelight from their flagship "S" series. Consequently, Galaxy Apps store submissions for the Gear Fit2 and Pro are only limited to watch faces with partners like Spotify being the only ones allowed to publish apps for the device.

This doesn't imply that the device itself is incapable of running third-party apps. Samsung provides the necessary tools to create, install and run applications for the Tizen platform as a whole and this benefits the Gear Fit2 devices as well. However, without a centralised distributor, it takes a lot more effort to get an app distributed and installed on the device.

The Gear Fit2 is capable of running web apps which are essentially websites stored on the device. Hence, for my first Tizen app, I decided to go with the sliding-block puzzle game 2048 which is freely available on GitHub under MIT license and presents an everlasting challenge, even on the wrist.

Apart from scaling the game to fit the 216x432 screen, I have made a couple of tweaks to the interface so as to optimise the experience for the device. The first is switching the colour scheme to darker colours to preserve battery life on the SAMOLED screen as against the default lighter colour scheme. The second tweak, apart from adjusting the font size and spacing, is to switch the 'New Game' option higher up and to the left to prevent accidental resetting of the game when swiping up, as has happened to me on more than a few occasions.

I have uploaded the 2048.wgt file, as installed on my Gear Fit2 Pro. This implies that the file is self-signed and hence will not install on any other device. Thus, you will have to sign it specifically for your device prior to installation. Detailed instructions on the same can be found on XDA. After self-signing, the app can be installed using the Tizen Studio SDK by connecting to the device using "sdb connect <ipaddress>" and then issuing the command "sdb install 2048.wgt". Details on that command can be found here.

So, test it out and let me know how you feel about it in the comments. You may also share the details of any other web applications that you would like to adapted for the Gear Fit2 devices.

Musing #57: Steam Link on Fire TV

The release (or lack of it) of the Steam Link app caused a lot of brouhaha in the past month. While it it is meant for mobile devices, it undeniably adds a lot of value to the Fire TV and for that matter to all Android devices. It is a must-have that would have certainly made it to my list of  'The Essentials' were it available back then. It is not officially available on Amazon, so your best bet is to sideload it.

As I mentioned previously in my review of the AFTV3, the Ethernet adapter doesn't make a whole lot of sense as it is limited to 100 Mbps. However, it would be more than enough in this case as Steam Link requires a maximum of 30 Mbps for streaming. Unfortunately, I had to rely on the 5 GHz WiFi network (Steam Link doesn't support 2.4 GHz) with the TV being 25 metres away from the router, separated by a wall. This issue is compounded by the fact the 5 GHz receiver on the AFTV3 is exceptionally weak.

After playing with the settings, the only way I could get Steam Link working on the AFTV3 over such a long distance was by switching the 5 GHz channel bandwidth to 20 MHz. This significantly reduces the throughput but is a necessity for my current setup which I hope to change soon. Over the 20 MHz channel and at a distance of 25 metres, Steam Link works unimpeded in the 'Balanced' mode which uses 15 Mbps. I was even able to get the 'Beautiful' mode, requiring 30 Mbps, to work over the 20 MHz channel but it was inconsistent. On the other hand, it worked exceptionally well over the 40 MHz channel as can be seen below, but the AFTV3 was unable to sustain the signal over the distance, resulting in frequent disconnections. Nonetheless, this is an issue that can be easily resolved through some rearrangement.

Steam makes it quite evident that the software is in beta and that AFTV is not officially tested.

 However, as long as the network is up to it, the AFTV is more than capable of streaming.

Inability of the network to stream properly is indicated with the frame loss and network variance.

Setting up Steam Link is extremely easy as it essentially requires pairing the TV with the host PC using a PIN.

Additionally, the Steam Client on PC requested the installation of additional audio drivers once the setup was done, but I presume this might depend on the setup. I had sold my Xiaomi Bluetooth controller a few months back so I didn't have a controller to pair with Steam. However, I did have my Apple Wireless Keyboard and Logitech M557 paired to AFTV which ought to have done the job. 

While the keyboard worked fine with the Big Picture mode, v1.1.3 of Steam Link that I installed initially didn't support the mouse which was subsequently rectified in v1.1.4, indicating that Valve is actively paying attention to user feedback. At present, the lag isn't too bad, but the mouse controls are too sensitive which I presume is due to the fact that the tuning has been done as per analog controllers. It might make sense to pick up the Xbox One S or Steam controller for universal compatibility.

With the initial impression being quite good, one can only hope for Steam Link to work seamlessly once it comes out of beta. Perhaps the Steam Sale will become a lot more attractive for AFTV owners.

Tutorial #15: Running Comanche Gold on Windows 10

There are those indescribable moments in life when you come across a relic from the past and are instantly flooded with fond memories. This was precisely the case when I stumbled across a mention of Comanche 3 on the web, one of the earliest PC games in my life that I spent countless hours on at a friend's place (though candidly it was more of watching than playing, ala wingman to the PC occupier).

This meant I couldn't resist the temptation of digging through my treasure trove for the Comanche Gold disc. Comanche Gold is essentially Comanche 3 for Windows with few extra missions and being 32-bit meant it could be run natively on current 64-bit PCs without the need for virtualisation. The geek in me couldn't resist the challenge of getting it running once again on Windows 10 (Creators Update Build 15063.413 as of this writing) and hence this guide details out the steps to getting it done.

First things first, you need to have the following things on hand:

1. The Game Disc, of course, though I recommend creating an image of it for sheer convenience. The image can be directly mounted on Windows 10 as a DVD drive, can be archived and used on tablets that lack an optical drive.

2. Comanche Gold Patch Pack: I had come across various mentions of patches for Windows 7/8/10 but most of the links were long dead. However, the most recent mention of it can be found here. All credit is due to the original author(s) and contributor(s) of the patch. Since things tend to get lost with time, I have uploaded a copy of the patch to Google Drive.

3. DXGL: This seems to be the real differentiator in getting the game to run properly on Windows 10 with the correct video mode. As of this writing, the version used was 0.5.11.

The ideal scenario would have been that I just install the game and replace the files with the patch as depicted in the forum post from SimHQ that I have linked to previously. However, that is not how it panned out for me and I had to engage in some trial and error to get the game working. Below are the fruits of my labour laid out in sequence.

1. Install the game to a simple directory structure (eg.: C:\Games\Comanche Gold) using the 'Large Install' option. Installation to the default 'Program Files' directory resulted in the game starting in the 'Multiplayer only No-CD' mode, despite the fact that the patch contains an exe that removes the CD verification.

2. Extract the contents of the Comanche Gold Patch Pack to the root game directory, overwriting files wherever necessary.

3. Install DXGL, add the Wc3.exe file and retain all the default settings. The only change I made was to change the Video mode to 'Aspect corrected stretch' but you can easily change this to 'Stretch to screen' in case you are not a fan of letterboxing.

4. At this stage, I still couldn't get the Wc3 exe to launch as it only lead to a Windows error, none of which could be rectified using any of the compatibility options. Turns out the game needs the obscure 'DirectPlay' feature in Windows to be enabled which is a long deprecated DirectX API.

As it turned out, this was the last hoop I had to go through. Thereafter, the game launched in full screen mode and I was able to push the resolution to 1024*768, though 1280*1024 led the game to crash. Considering the age of the game, I would say it is an achievement to get it working perfectly two decades later. Love it or hate it, Windows compatibility and its legacy support is worth its weight in nostalgia, in spite of all the cruft.

(Originally published on July 4, 2017)

Update #1 (May 12, 2018): The game installs and works fine on the April 2018 Update of Windows 10 (Build 1803) with the same instructions.

Things are now much easier as even the default settings on the current version of DXGL (0.5.13) work fine and Windows automatically prompts the installation of 'DirectPlay'. I would still recommend using the 'Aspect corrected stretch' option as otherwise Windows changes the resolution rapidly and pops up a 'fix blurry text' prompt on first run.

Musing #53: Cluedo Champ!

Somehow, my childhood never crossed paths with Cluedo amongst the myriad of board games that helped shape it. Ironically, I watched the related movie several years back without having ever rolled the dice within Tudor mansion. I suppose the ignorance of those days, without access to mobiles and the Web, was a bliss in more ways than one. However, the competitive spirit was fostered by other familiar games as well as ones whose obscurity isn't lessened by scouring the Web.

It is never too late to start with something and hence I didn't bat an eyelid in getting the iOS version of Cluedo once I became aware of its existence earlier this week. I immediately felt like a duck in the water and soon found myself at the top of the leader board without much effort. Who knew that all those years of reading and watching whodunnits would make me such a great detective? Now, if only someone were to accept Cluedo as proof of my real-life logical reasoning skills.

For anyone looking to jump in to the app, I would recommend it with a few riders. The good part is that the digital representation is faithful to the physical one and is certainly captivating. On the flip side, the app has more than a few game breaking bugs, the biggest one being that the murder cards are repeated when there are not many players online and bots make up the numbers (looking at you, GreenToucan838). This can prop up the score if you so wish and I encountered it at least half a dozen times; but such instances are frustrating and I wish the developers had done a better job of it.

While I enjoyed partaking in Cluedo with people around the world, I felt it best to leave at the top. I suppose the screenshot below will immortalise my tryst with Cluedo, even though I am sure that the more persistent players would have beaten it by now. Yeah, that's Scarlett you see as me. I hope that a lot of players harrowed by my existence would now breathe a sigh of relief. Just may be, I have a come back in me somewhere down the line.

Review #49: Masters of Doom ★★★☆☆

It is not all doom and gloom!

This was a strange choice of book to begin a new year with but it is one of those things that pique your interest and you follow through with it. Stranger still is the fact that I never completed a level in any of the id games, let alone Doom. I do remember starting up the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3-D and the demo for Doom 3, but the session never lasted more than a few minutes. In fact, I remember returning a copy of the Quake II to a vendor stating technical issues when in fact I disliked the game. Gratuitous violence was never my thing. Yeah, I am one of those ‘story’ guys that John Carmack might have so despised. The only game I could relate to throughout the book was Deus Ex, which incidentally happens to be my best game of all time.

Musing #46: Saitek R440 Force Feedback Wheel

There are some items that you hold fond memories of but there comes a time when you have to let it go. I suppose I am attaching a bit too much emotion to an inanimate object, but the Saitek R440 Force Feedback certainly evokes them. After all, it happened to be my first and only gaming wheel.

For its price, it was hard to beat the R440. The price certainly made it easier to convince irate parents who would otherwise be bothered at having another wasteful "toy" around. But, the R440 was anything but that. It did most of what any of the more expensive wheels would do, if you could temper your expectations. It was built like a tank and the exaggerated force feedback certainly provided one of the best arm exercises you can get.

It was then, very difficult to let it go, especially as it still worked the way it did when it was first unboxed, eons ago. No sim or arcade game was ever an obstacle, unless the game manufacturer chose to not support custom wheels. As a swansong, I couldn't help but immortalise it through the following YouTube video.

For those still hooked on to the device, following are some useful links and instructions that might come in handy.

Drivers: They can be downloaded directly from the Saitek website by browsing to the Saitek section and scrolling down to 'Saitek R440 Force Feedback Wheel'. The site also has links to the Saitek Smart Technology profile editor that I personally never found a use for.

Fixing the Force Feedback problem: I think the drivers are originally for Windows 7 and hence the force feedback encounters some issues on modern versions of Windows. However, this can be easily resolved by following the instructions below:
1. Delete any folder in the registry starting with "VID_06A3" in the folder HKEY_CURRENT_USER\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\MediaProperties\PrivateProperties\Joystick\OEM".
2. Delete the two entries referring to the R440 wheel in the device manager, make sure to select the checkbox to delete the driver software when doing so.
3. (Re)install newest driver package from the Saitek website.
To the purchaser of my device as well as to any other R440 users around: May the Force be with you!

Musing #29: StarCraft discovered

Blizzard caught everyone by surprise earlier this week with the free (as in beer) release of the original StarCraft along with its Brood War expansion. Although it last received an update within the past decade, a 2-decade old game is always treading on the grey area of abandonware. While the intellectual property of the game continues to be of immense values as far as sequels (or prequels) are concerned, the product itself can be considered to be obsolete. 

Hence, it was a masterstroke to release the original version of the game which was certainly not out of altruism but as a promotion for the remastered edition. It is also a great move to maintain compatibility across the two releases since it ensures that there will be a substantial online community associated with the game, even if not many are paying for it.

Against this back drop, it is quite odd then that I never experienced Starcraft in any form, despite being a 90s kid. I had read about its follow-up being a staple diet of eSports events, but even then curiosity eluded me. Some of it must be due to the fact that my first PC and net connection arrived at the fag end of 90s but that doesn't explain it all. India was quite a different place 2 decades back in terms of accessibility to computing as well as the web, but I still reminisce the NFS 2/3 and FIFA 98 days with friends. Hence, it must simply be the social circle that was much more focussed on Age of Empires and Command & Conquer as far as strategy games were concerned.

However, it's better late than never as I fired up the free release of StarCraft just a couple of days back. I can't really be convinced to run it on my gaming desktop, but I found it to be an ideal fit for my Windows tablet (Dell Venue 11 Pro 7140) with its keyboard dock. In what is generally a rarity, the low powered Core M processor ends up being quite an overkill. The gameplay seems to be holding up really well and I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that the 90s were a period where the focus was much more on engagement through gameplay than graphics since processing power was quite limited. I am unsure whether the interface and controls have been tweaked since the original game, but it is surprisingly playable with the small trackpad and the 10.8" screen does more justice to this game than what a separate monitor or TV would. I guess that is precisely the reason why one might wish to go with the remastered edition, but for something that's free, this game is a real gem that beats most of the stuff that comes out on mobile these days.

Review #23: Deus Ex Mankind Divided

I didn't imagine that it would be this long since the preview till I came up with the review, but such are the vagaries of life. Having said that, Steam puts the play time for my first playthrough at a little over 60 hours at the 'Give me Deus Ex' level with the 'Desperate Measures' DLC (not including the Breach Mode). This length is simply a reflection of my playing style which involves a stealth only approach and exploration of the complete map the first time I enter it, including hacking all doors/computers and finding alternate paths. I must add that this style of playing might only be for fans of the franchise since it really tends to get tedious after a while. It has exceeded the time I spent on Human Revolution only on account of the larger, free-roaming maps. For those playing through the main story alone, I can't imagine the game length even extending 15 hours.

So what's the verdict on this one? On the plus side, the gameplay has certainly been improved if you consider the changes to the cover system, hacking, health and bioelectric energy systems. The game stays true to the Deus Ex template of having alternate quests, conversation choices and alternate pathways. However, this is not necessarily good as it feels really stale in its implementation and seems to be there just for the sake of it. Also, the decisions made in conversations, especially concerning high profile characters like Miller seem to have little effect on the overall story as against the situations with Paul and Jock in the first game of the series. The developers have tried to bring in some degree of freshness through experimental augmentations but I didn't need or want to use any of them apart from Remote Hacking. I have a particular gripe with the way the side missions are handled which are more of a "go there and do this" kind of a thing. An open-ended approach (as in the original game) wherein you discover and choose your path without worrying about a checklist would have certainly been more engaging. To me, it seems that the developers have put too much focus on unessential aspects at the expense of a good story which has always been Deus Ex's strong point.

The game's marketing did a great job of hyping up the game's premise through the live action trailers but the game fails miserably to deliver on that front. The game stands a notch below Human Revolution and quite some way away from the original game in terms of its story. The previous game epynomously focused on the idea of human evolution through augmentation. Even then, Purity First depicted the fracture in the society as not all conceived augmentation to be an evolution of humanity. Mankind Divided, on the face of it, takes this concept to the next level where the society is already deeply divided with the "evolved" beings being on the side of repression after the Panchaea incident. One can draw analogies to the current state of society which is divided on race and caste rather than augmentation. However, this tension is never really felt through the game. It tries to enforce the feeling through police checks throughout and poverty at Golem city but none of them really strike an emotional cord. In fact, the variety across the locations is sorely lacking, especially when the original Deus Ex managed to convey much better ambiance through its rudimentary graphics but awesome soundtrack. There is just one antagonist who appears at the end and even then I inadvertently defeated him in seconds with weapon misfire that brought him right next to me. What's worse is that the game has been left open for a sequel without a proper ending. The Marvel-like in-credit cutscene makes it even more unbearable since the game could have definitely used a conspiracy story arc and if it was thought of, it should have been part of the main game rather than DLCs or sequels. I am not too enticed at this moment about playing as Adam Jensen once again only to have the story tie up somehow with the original game and JC Denton. This is pretty much evident by the desperate attempts being made to put in to play all the main characters from the original game.

Moving on to other extraneous aspects of the game, the pre-order consumables turned out to be absolutely unnecessary since the game is benevolent with XP if you engage in exploration. Also, the micro-transactions are thankfully unneeded. Stealth gameplay does not require any ammunition, so you are left with a lot of cash as well. As far as augmentations go, hacking and invisibility are the only ones I ever needed to explore the entire map at a decent pace.The Breach mode also deserves a mention here since I am least enamoured by it having experience it partly during the main game. This makes it pretty evident that there is hardly any depth to this game and as I mentioned previously, the developers are blindly following the Deus Ex template without proper thinking and integration. I almost forgot to mention DX12 which was unusably buggy till recent patches and just as it has finally reached a level of polish, it is essentially useless since the game doesn't offer much replayability and I am not inclined to spend on DLCs unless there is a bargain-basement sale. A post-game check revealed that I missed just one side mission - " 01011000" and hence I am satisfied with my gameplay. Also, there is only one "either or" mission selection scenario in the game and a properly timed save allows one to try out both, even though you have to eventually select one of the options.

To conclude, on its own, this would be a "just above average" game. Being part of the Deus Ex universe only makes it even worse and is more or less a slap on the face of long term fans. For the sake of the franchise, I hope they abandon the protagonist and somehow complete the story arc (even if through DLCs) before the next iteration so that we can have a Deus Ex game that doesn't have to follow the shadow of the original game and fail miserably while doing so.

Preview: Deus Ex Mankind Divided

Being enamoured by the 2-level Deus Ex demo that came with a magazine disc back in 2000, there was no way I wasn't going to pre-order Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Having said that, this happens to be my first pre-order since I am accustomed to mostly purchasing games during the Steam sale. Going by my past experiences of Deus Ex games, I am pretty sure that I won't be finishing this game anytime soon, so I thought I'd post a Day 1 preview instead to answer the queries of those inquisitive souls who are still on the fence regarding this purchase.

The box comes with a 3-DVD pack that considerably eases the download burden compared to a digital purchase. The installer launches Steam automatically if already installed and presents a custom 'Product Activation' prompt for the activation key. Note that the included code is for the RU/CIS/IN/BR version and should you wish, you can download the complete game from Steam (sizing up at 22.7 GB) instead of installing it from the disc. The installer itself just adds the game to your library and allocates the disc space, so you have to manually trigger the installation from the disc using the following command:

<Path to steam.exe> -install <DVD drive>
eg. "C:\Program Files\Steam\Steam.exe" -install E:

The DVD installer size shows the progress over 46333 MB even as the Steam downloader shows the progress over 22.7 GB, as it would if you are downloading the game directly from the web. However, it takes nearly an hour for the disc installation to be completed, demanding much patience. Even after the disc installation, there is a sizeable 3.8 GB download to bring it up to scratch (18.9/22.7 GB is completed by the discs).

The Day 1 edition comes with some additional goodies (Covert Agent Pack, Extra In-Game Mission - Desperate Measures, Digital OST Sampler and the Digital Books - Digital Comic Book, Digital Novella & Digital Artbook) which are installed from the disc. The pack and mission will of course be found in-game but the digital extras can be accessed at \Steam\steamapps\common\Deus Ex Mankind Divided\Extras. All this content gets ticked off in the DLC section of the game in Steam. However, you should keep in mind that this is not a complete package as the Season Pass for this game is only digitally available for an additional Rs. 499 on Steam. This 'Narrative DLC' is stated to include 2 side missions - "System Rift" and "A Criminal Past" among other minor points, kits and packs. Only time will tell whether the DLC is going to be worth the money, though I feel that one is better off purchasing it during a sale. Additionally, 2 more release-day DLCs - Assault Pack and Tactical Pack, priced at Rs. 79 each, are not part of the Day 1 edition. Also, regretfully, Eidos decided to include a micro-transaction "Shop" within the game. Thankfully, the core game isn't in any way compromised without the additional DLCs, so that's a good thing.
The game also features an alternate game mode called Breach which was only publicized only in June. It gives the vibes of Tron, Superhot and Metal Gear Solid's VR mode depending on how you interpret it, but considering that this additional content came about unexpectedly, there is absolutely nothing to complain about. From a fan's standpoint, more the Deus Ex, the better (not counting the mess of a mobile port, The Fall).

The premise of the game is already well known by now with marketing terms such as "Mechanical apartheid" and "Augs lives matter" stirring up some controversy. However. any long time fan would already know that the game is all about the the choices you make and the stealthy approach. Unfortunately there has been some backlash over the PC port and at the time of this writing (Aug 24), Eidos has already released a patch (build 524.7) which addresses some of the issues. I have used Geforce Experience to optimise the settings and it has maxed out everything on my GTX 1060, so I have to see how it really goes over the duration of the entire game. There is also the controversy over the one-time use only Covert Agent Pack (since augmented with the term consumables) which wasn't clarified prior to launch, so that is something to keep in mind when starting off with the game.
I guess that's enough said for now as I am yet to delve deep in to the dystopia. More from me later once I save the world from its divided inhabitants. Till then, I ought to take care to not "spill my drink" while playing.

P.S.: Sorry for the blurry cam pics, but this is what excitement does to you. Also, the rating I have assigned is not a reflection of the actual gameplay experience at this time, so I hope to edit it later for the review.

Update #1 (Aug 29): I wasn't able to start my campaign until today as the game simply crashed during the intro itself with Windows displaying a "low system memory" dialog box. It seems 8 GB of RAM is right on the limit and after installing an additional 8 GB of RAM, I could see the Windows RAM usage peaking to 9 GB. It is of course dependent on the level of details set in game and Windows' background memory usage, but you can be sure that the game developers are serious about the minimum RAM requirement of 8 GB.

Review #19: Zotac GTX 1060 Mini (6 GB)

This purchase was never on my radar until the day I made the purchase. My existing GPU - GTX 660 was serving me well enough for the few hours I spent every weekend on gaming. It is true that I was using Medium to High details on recent games and perhaps not hitting 60 FPS, but it was not that distractingly visible as compared to the experiences one had more than a decade back with an underpowered GPU. However, the 660 made the decision for me when it simply burnt out at the stroke of midnight on Independence Day (the irony!). It was strange to see burn marks on the PCB along with broken capacitors, but I wasn't too perturbed because I guess I secretly did want to upgrade. I have been sheepishly keeping an eye on the AMD RX480 and the Nvidia GTX 1060 since their launches, unable to convince myself to jump the fence, so the (un)timely demise of the GTX 660 wasn't much of a shock, especially as I was at the sweet 3-generation gap between GPU purchases.

When it came to deciding between the RX480 and GTX 1060, I feel that the only thing the RX480 really had going for it was the price which isn't a factor at all in India due to some absurd pricing. The RX 480 does seem to have better DX12 Async performance as per current benchmarks but it has a much higher power consumption and certainly runs hotter even as AMD has apparently fixed some issues using drivers. This was important for me as I have been using the same Corsair 450W power supply for 8 years now and was in no mood to change it. The GTX 1060 in fact has a lower TDP than the GTX 660, so I was in fact reducing my power consumption while getting much higher performance. Another thing AMD has going for it is CrossFire support but I never have and never will get a dual GPU setup. It is simply unrealistic to do so at this price point. Keeping objectivity aside, I must admit that I feel Nvidia is more invested in PC after losing out to AMD in the console arena. The driver support is much better and features like Ansel and Simultaneous Multi-Projection technology indicate that they are totally invested in PC. Also, I have borne allegiance to Nvidia for over 17 years now starting with the Riva TNT2 M64 and then subsequently moving on to FX 5200, 9600 GT, GTX 660 and now to GTX 1060. So perhaps, the decision was already made even before I started to make it.

Coming to the GPU itself, the form factor is indeed small compared to the GTX 660 I discarded. It has a single fan with a direct GPU contact aluminium heatsink which on the face of it seems to be a downgrade compared to the dual fans and copper cooling pipes I had on the GTX 660, though looks can be deceiving. On the flip side, it meant much better spacing in my cabinet which I hope will afford better ventilation throughout. It might seem illogical to go for the mini-ATX form factor with an ATX cabinet, but to be honest, I have been on the lookout for the cheapest GTX 1060 I could find and the Zotac Mini at about 3k less than the AMP edition filled the bill perfectly. Also, the 2 + 3 years warranty on registration is simply phenomenal and I can certainly have some peace of mind knowing that I am covered should anything go wrong like it did with my GTX 660. The packaging is barebone and comes with literally nothing, so make sure you already possess any screws needed for installation. It runs on a single 6-pin power connector, so almost any decent power supply unit should have you covered. The card itself has 1x DVI, 1xHDMI 2.0b port and 3x Display Port 1.4.
Since the package doesn't come with a disc, you have to rely on GeForce Experience for the drivers until which Windows shows something generic like 'Microsoft Display Device'. Zotac makes its own GPU tool called Firestorm and I decided to give it a go before trying out something else like MSI Afterburner. Firestorm seems to have the tools needed for some basic tweaking but doesn't look to be the most elegant. On idle, after installation, my GPU reported a temperature of 35 deg. Celsius with core clock speed of 139 Mhz and memory clock of 405 Mhz. The base (1506 Mhz), boost (1708 Mhz) and memory (2002 Mhz) frequencies are at reference values, so there is no overclocking out of the box, unlike the AMP edition. 
While I have no need to run benchmarks since I have nothing to compare against, I decided to give 3DMark a go to see how the combination of this GPU and my CPU (i5-3470) performs with respect to some review rigs running this GPU. The Graphics score of 13,123 for Firestorm - Performance compares favourably with the GTX 1060 Founder edition scores that can be found on the web. The Physics score of 6120 indicates that my CPU (i5-3470) may be the weak link in my setup. However, the combined score of 4592 is only about 2-3% lower than reviews with much beefier CPUs, so I wouldn't deem the CPU to be much of a bottleneck as far as gaming is concerned. Taking a quick peek at games, it was simply a pleasure to see the Geforce Experience optimisation turn up all the settings to 'Extra High' on MGSV: The Phantom Pain. I am one of those who has a huge backlog on Steam because of which I don't purchase any big ticket games on release, but there was no way I could resist not pre-ordering Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and am salivating at the prospect of maxing that one too using DX12. 
A key point of this card is the single fan setup, so it is imperative to keep an eye on the temperatures. I decided to stress test the GPU using FurMark to see how well it copes with the pressure. From an idle temperature of 35 deg. Celsius, the card hit 80 deg. shortly after 3 min, but thereafter it stayed stable at that temperature till the 5 minute mark when the fan was running at 72% of its max. speed. Interestingly, the core clock was constantly over 1800 MHz at full load which is higher than the stated boost frequency of 1708 MHz. A custom fan profile that bumps up the fan speed at higher temperatures ought to reduce the temperature compared to the "Auto" mode used by me and will mostly be essential on overclocking. As for me, I can't justify a need for overclocking at this moment considering that all my needs at 1080p are taken care of.
As you can tell, I am extremely pleased with this purchase. I think Nvidia has hit the nail on the head with the release of the GTX 1060. It felt great to be able to purchase it just a month after its global release, something that was unheard of when I made my GPU purchases in the past. The price may be a bit all over the place at the moment depending on the seller, but I got mine for a shade less than 20.4k through a local seller on eBay, taking advantage of eBay's high value 12% discount coupon. When you think over it, the premium paid with all the import duties isn't as obnoxious as it used to be in the past. Hence, I can heartily recommend this to anyone looking for a VR ready card that is going to max out absolutely anything at 1080p (and may be at 1440p) for years to come.

Update (Aug 29): I ran the DX: MD benchmark and it yielded the following results:

Very High preset (DX11): AVG: 45.1; MIN: 37.4; MAX: 57.4
Geforce Experience Optimal (DX11): AVG: 39; MIN: 30; MAX: 50

When compared to the results available online for a GTX 1080 with the same CPU, the 1060 offers 80% of the performance which is simply phenomenal. Also, for those interested in the temperatures, the card hit a maximum of 69 degree during the benchmark with the fan at 61%. Idle temperature was 34 deg. and the average was 49 deg.

Review #20: Life is Strange

There are always some highly rated games that you are ignorant about but have to compulsively purchase on a Steam sale. For me, Life is Strange was one of them in this year's summer sale. I had already picked up Episode 1 as part of a Humble Bundle much earlier but never played it, so it seemed apt to complete the collection. I usually don't like being left stranded at cliff hangers, a reason why I don't usually watch in-progress TV shows, so starting off with all the episodes in my kitty felt good.

However, I made the purchase with a certain degree of trepidation because I haven't had the most enjoyable of experiences playing episodic, multi-choice games. I played Season 1 of the Walking Dead earlier in the year and it unravelled the workings of the episodic formula to me. It goes something like this. You will have to wander about a scene speaking to all the people to find the right clues or equipment. You will make a lot of life-death decisions that seem huge for the moment but turn out to be a bit trivial in the larger context of things. You will have extremely emotional conversations between the characters that ought to wet your eyes and set tears flowing. Rather expectedly, Life is Strange turned out to be true on all those accounts.

However, where the game differs is in closely knitting story elements like photography and time travel within the story. Being able to rewind time would seem to take a lot away from the decision making as it allows you to undo any mistakes but this aspect is in fact encouraged within the game, even offering you critical new dialogue options. The game doesn't feature puzzle solving in droves but being able to use time travel to solve them seems cool. The deduction puzzles that feature towards the latter part of the game seem to be more of a chore as it isn't too challenging and may lend to players adopting a trial-error approach. The game feels best only when it simply tells you the story and the music really takes you along for a ride.

The game's redeeming moment is when it manages to pull off a twist towards the end of Episode 4 but it leads to a somewhat disappointing final act. The stealth nightmare sequence felt like a rip-off of Max Payne's dream sequence and a desperate attempt to break the flow of the game and introduce something different. The game leaves a lot of unanswered questions as it jumps across alternate realities. Also, it feels a bit too scripted to the point where dialogues trigger a "who's that" reference after you have already identified the person. The fact is that the game is set up to only tell you a story and the gameplay elements just don't seem that integral.

To be the devil's advocate, the story, an emotional one, is par for the course for games belonging to this genre. The game really works if you can relate with the protagonist Maxine and her friend Chloe, but for me that wasn't quite the case. Max's character is well laid out but I found the voice acting to be quite cringeworthy for the most part, especially during emotional scenes. Also, I could not generate any empathy for Chloe through the story and it didn't take me a second to *spoiler alert* sacrifice Chloe to save Arcadia Bay. Hence, the game really fell apart for me towards the end. Also, the time rewinding and the story going back to the beginning at the end means that the choices made throughout matter precious little and the game offers little replayability.

On the whole, however, I would leave a recommendation for this game because it will appeal to a lot of players, especially casual ones. It certainly achieves what it sets out to do, though the gameplay falters a bit. Depending on how you approach the game, it might even leave a lasting impression. As for me, I can forget the game this very moment as I move on to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided whose story telling and gameplay feels more up my alley.

Musing #16: Steam sale time!

It's that time of the year again when the wallets start begging for mercy. I am of course speaking of the Steam sale. The thing is that I look up to it in equal parts glee and horror. The latter, not because of the damage to the wallet but for the fact that my games collection now stands at 252 and I haven't even completed 10% of it. It suffices to say that even launching all the games in my collection will be an achievement I shall never accomplish.

So then, I will be completing my 3rd year on Steam next month and I have somehow managed to maintain a clean sheet as far as my friend's list is concerned. The problem is that not until a few months ago, there was no pricing in the native currency that made Steam purchases unlikely for the majority. Also, there wouldn't be too many PC enthusiasts willing to drop a bomb on the GPU, though mine has served me well for over 3 years now at 1080p. In spite of this, I have always waited for the Steam sale with bated breath for there were always bargains to be had. Of course, paying in dollars meant a huge penalty because of which I was perennially restricted to games discounted to the $5-$10 range and that was no bad thing for it meant being able to pick up hits going only a year or two back, not to speak of the classics. A small proportion of my collection comes from region locked discs sold by online retailers, but I must admit a majority of my collection is made of Humble Bundles which happened to be my saving grace time and again in the past..

Now, with the Steam sale in native currency, even Humble Bundles with dollar pricing have become expensive, though no one can resist a good deal and the altruism that comes with it. Hence, this particular sale holds greater significance. For someone whose fertile gaming period coincided with the genesis of Hitman, Deus Ex, Thief franchises, you can imagine what games will be on my wishlist. Even so, one of those acclaimed indie titles is bound to find a way in and I have Firewatch on my list for now.

Inevitably, the sale will end in contemplation of the lifetime that is destined to be inadequate to ever enjoy it to the extent desired.

P.S.: Day 1 of the sale indeed turned out to be the highest single day purchase I have made to date. They are certainly well regarded titles, so I really hope I can at least start off with all of them within this year.
  • SOMA
  • Life is Strange
  • Black Mesa

Musing #11: When evil's good

The moral of the story that I learnt early on is that the protagonist always wins the day (or the princess). Thus, there is nothing to dislike about the hero and therein I feel lies a problem. When you don’t dislike something, there isn’t much to reminisce about it either.

I would admit that my pace of gaming has slowed down significantly over the years and nostalgia always makes me go back to the late 90s and early 2000s in spite of gaming evolving tremendously over the years. Also, my gaming isn’t quite cutting edge with only Steam sales (and Humble Bundles) getting me to really open my wallet. My favourite game continues to be the original Deus Ex and as much as I liked the story and gameplay, there wasn’t too much in it to identify oneself with JC Denton (perhaps because you could change the look and the “real” name). Gordan Freeman is my next best hero and I assume that silence doesn’t work particularly well when identifying yourself with a character, although action ought to speak louder than words.  Being limited to PC gaming, I can only speculate whether the Master Chief or Solid Snake would have held more appeal.

On the contrary, there are two characters that keep cropping up in my mind whenever I have to come up with a new nomenclature and none of them are particularly righteous. These happened to be SHODAN (Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) and GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). While I thoroughly enjoyed both the Portal games, I haven’t completed either of the System Shock ones. I think I had gone half way through System Shock 2 with updated graphic mods before I lost the game progress and pivoted to watching all the cut scenes instead. Even that left quite an impression on me, especially the final cut scene. I hope that the System Shock 1 re-make comes out well and allows me to play through the story for I could never get myself to play the original one in all its DOS glory. Come to think of it, the parallel I can draw between the two is that both of them are rather malevolent AIs voiced by females. I don’t know what to make of this conclusion but there is a lesson in there somewhere.

Having covered the black and white, I assume there is a shade of grey that includes anti-heroes. Among the ones that have held appeal for me over time are Hitman and Thief. However, for better or for worse, 47 continues to be the same old cold blooded assassin and I couldn’t convince myself to command the next generation Garrett…yet. So, it turns out that the taunting, malicious, elusive and omnipresent antagonists are the real heroes of the game for me as they represent that asymptotic astuteness that can never be attained by the protagonistic puppet under my control.

Poetry #3: An ode to a game

There was once a love I knew
But then my life started anew
There kindled a flame within me
One that even I couldn’t see
Someone ought to decipher the link
As my life reaches its brink
Even if I might not know
To the moon I shall go
A poem dedicated a game that touched my heart at a tumultous time.