video games Tag

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man

It may seem somewhat odd to shine a spotlight on a game that was released more than a year ago—or to even be talking about gaming at all on a site devoted largely to luxury home cinema. But the simple truth of the matter is that when Marvel’s Spider-Man was released for PlayStation 4 back in September 2018, I found myself in the middle of a long hiatus from console gaming to focus on some more strategic PC games that had been piling up in my Steam library. What drew me back was an unused PlayStation Network gift card my dad had given me for my birthday, as well as the relatively new release of Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition, which hit store shelves recently. What I discovered when I finally dug in was one of the most compelling home cinema experiences I’ve had in ages.

 

For those of you who aren’t deeply imbedded in video-gaming culture, “Game of the Year Edition” is common vernacular for a soft relaunch of a popular game that generally includes all of the little add-ons that have been released since, bundled with the original title, for one lower price. In the case of Spider-Man, that includes three mini-sequels, collectively dubbed Spider-Man: The City that Never Sleeps, which sold for $9.99 a pop in the months following the main release. Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition collects all of this content—the original game and its followups—on one disc (or in one download) for $35.

 

As for why I’m taking the time to write up a year-old game on a site like Cineluxe, there’s a good reason for that, which has nothing to do with my long delay in finally picking it up and playing it. Simply put, Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the most cinematic games I’ve played in ages, both in its gameplay and its AV presentation. But not in the most intuitive of ways.

At its heart, Spider-Man is what’s known as an open-world game, the world in this case being a slightly scaled-down and very Marvel-specific version of Manhattan circa 2014 (when development of the game began). Simply put, this playground in and of itself is a technological wonder, not only in its relatively faithful recreation of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, etc., but also in the way it captures the feeling of moving through the city from district to district, squinting at the sunlight gleaming off buildings in the daytime and the stunning array of neon, halogen, and LED lights piercing what little darkness exists in the shadows at night. The way the game uses its deep shadows and intense highlights to convey the Manhttanhenge effect is simply among the best applications of HDR I’ve seen to date.

 

All of this could be written off as mere eye-candy, of course, but it’s more than that. The developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games, spent so much time working on the web-swinging mechanic—making sure webs would only attach to buildings or flagpoles or what have you rather than clinging to empty air as in past Spidey games, for example, and also 

making sure the parabolic physics of such swinging felt genuine—that if there weren’t some verisimilitude to the look of the city itself, the illusion of Tarzaning through its vertical landscapes would be broken. 

 

It isn’t just graphics and physics that drive the experience, though. The sound also elevates the AV presentation of the game, 

Marvel's Spider-Man

with a rich real-time uncompressed 7.1 soundscape and cinematic score that whips and whirs around you as you swing through the city or walk its streets, or even poke around in the science lab where Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) works when the red-and-blue pajamas come off. (By the way, not that this really affects the gameplay, but you’re far from limited to the default two-toned onesie, as one of the game’s most compelling Easter-egg hunts is an ongoing search for the badges and components that allow you to craft or unlock all manner of other Spidey-suits.)

 

Of course, whooshing around from skyscraper to skyscraper or tinkering with circuit boards in the lab isn’t all there is to do here. There’s an overarching story—based not on any of the previous versions of the Spider-Man mythos, but rather a new amalgamation that draws elements from the best that movies and cartoons and comics have to offer—and you’re drawn to new story beats by way of police-scanner alerts or cellphone calls from allies and loved ones.

 

Quite frankly, it’s a more emotionally engaging story than that of any Spider-Man film to date, in part due to its complex ethical and moral themes, but also due to its length. Simply burn through the main storyline without stopping to thwart muggers or

Marvel's Spider-Man

terrorists or take perfectly framed photos of Manhattan’s numerous landmarks and you could probably reach the story’s conclusion in 20 or 25 hours.

 

That’s certainly enough time to become attached to the characters and invested in the relationships, but it would also be completely contrary to the point of the game. 

The beauty of Marvel’s Spider-Man is the freedom it gives you to explore this world and its wonderful original storyline at your own pace.

 

As I approached the end of the main quest, my wife and I sat on our sofa—me an active participant in this wonderful interactive storytelling-and-exploration experience; her a very willing passive viewer—and openly wept at the poignant and impactful emotional resolution of it all. It’s honestly that engaging.

 

Of course, having the Game of the Year Edition meant I still had three more intertwining stories to explore, more petty crimes to deal with in the byways and back alleys between the Church of the Intercession and Battery Park, and more time to rummage around in the city’s sewers and abandoned subways. And while feeling a little tacked on at first, this trilogy of mini-sequels eventually evolves into yet another web of intrigue that picks up on threads only hinted at in the main storyline. It may lack some of the personal emotional resonance of the main game, but it does amp the moral complexity up to new levels.

 

Whether you merely play through the primary questline of Marvel’s Spider-Man or pick every achievement and side quest clean, as I’ve done (purely as a consequence of wanting to spend more time in this amazing world), you owe it to yourself to play it on the best AV system in the house. And yes, that even includes an Atmos sound system.

 

I know I’ve grumped in the past about not being the biggest fan of object-based surround sound with movies, but the 7.1 soundtrack of Spider-Man upmixed into Atmos opens the landscape of Manhattan up, bringing it into the third dimension in a way that meaningfully enhances the open nature of this exploration-based interactive experience. Hearing the roll of thunder and crack of lightning not merely around you, but also above you, helps transform the game world into something you exist within, rather than merely a backdrop you navigate through. 

 

By the way, if you do play the game through a reference-quality sound system, make sure to dip into the audio settings and make one essential tweak. Change the default sound mode from “Home Theater,” which is really intended more for soundbars and smaller sound systems, to “Maximum,” which is mixed for “premium home theater systems or studio playback.”

 

Little touches like that prove at least some game developers realize the home cinema potential of their efforts, even if the AV industry continues to treat video games like mere children’s entertainment.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How the XBox Became My Favorite Video Player

Xbox One X

I just finished reading Dennis Burger’s ode to his Roku Ultra, and it inspired me to write one of my own—to my Xbox One X gaming console, which has positioned itself as the preferred video playback device in my everyday home entertainment system.

 

I reviewed the Xbox One X for HomeTheaterReview.com a few months back. As I stressed in that review, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have reviewed my fair share of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as many generations of streaming media players from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Nvidia. My approach to the Xbox review was to answer this question: Does this gaming console succeed as a complete all-in-one media player? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the review: It does.

 

What’s my proof? Well, four months later, the Xbox One X remains the sole set-top box connected to my living-room TV, while an Apple TV 4K, Roku 4, and Amazon Fire TV sit idle in a box in my office/test studio. Sure, I’ll pull one of those players out when I’m reviewing a TV or projector, along with my Oppo UDP-103 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

But the player I choose to use on an everyday basis is the Xbox. Why? Because it really does give me everything I want in one box, with one common user experience.

 

First of all, the Xbox One X is the only gaming console to sport an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, so I can pop in UHD Blu-ray discs when I want the highest-quality video experience. I use a Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in this everyday space—but if I had a surround sound/Atmos system here, the Xbox One X could accommodate it, too. I can also pop CDs into the disc drive . . . and only listen to them halfway through.

 

Second, the Microsoft Store includes all the streaming apps my kiddo and I use on a regular basis. That includes Netflix, Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Tablo, PBS Kids, YouTube, and Pandora. Here I will confess that I do miss the convenience of voice search offered by Roku, Amazon, and Apple . . . but apparently not enough to make a switch.

 

As a cord cutter, I no longer have a cable or satellite set-top box. If I did, though, I could pass it through the Xbox’s HDMI input and unite that source into the user experience as well.

Xbox One X

And then there are the games. Over the years, the kiddo and I have casually enjoyed the simple, family-friendly games that are available through platforms like Fire TV and Apple TV—such as Crossy Road, Pacman 256, and Hill Climb Racing. But now my daughter’s eyes have been opened to a glorious new world filled with Minecraft, Super Lucky’s Tale, Star Wars Battlefront, and Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure—and I’m afraid there ain’t no going back to Minion Rush.

 

As I said in my original review, if you look at each of the above categories individually—UHD Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or music player—of course you’ll find better performers. Products that deliver a higher level of AV performance or a better user interface. But the Xbox One X does it all quite well, and for me the convenience of being able to jump from a game like Minecraft to a streaming source like Netflix to live TV through Tablo and then to Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray—without having to switch inputs or remotes—is just too darn enticing to pass up.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

PS4: Celeste

As is the case with any form of media, nostalgia is a strong selling point with video games these days. Interestingly, the nostalgic push that has permeated the gaming market for the past few years has taken a few radically different forms. One example is the recreations of classic consoles with HDMI ports slapped on and built-in collections of classics pretty much in their original forms. Then you have popular games of the ‘80s and ‘90s being re-released for modern platforms, complete with remastered high-definition graphics, re-recorded audio, and modern conveniences like game-save options.

 

The most curious way nostalgia has crept into the video game market, though, is by way of brand-new offerings that look like they could have been released a quarter-century ago, including all of the pixelated graphics and controller-throwing difficulty that defined games of the 8-bit era.

 

At first blush, Celeste looks like one of the latter. Despite debuting on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, the game looks as if it could have just as easily been ported to the original Sega Master System. And that blocky, pixelated look complements its gameplay quite well.

 

At its heart, Celeste is what’s known in gamer’s parlance as a “platformer”—and if you don’t speak the lingo, just imagine the dominant genre from that era of gaming, in which you spend most of your time jumping from platform to platform as you work your way from one end of a flat 2D world to another. Think Sonic or Super Mario or Super Metroid or some other game with “Super” in the title, and you’re at least on the right track in terms of the gameplay.

Celeste

In this case, though, Celeste’s hook is more of a lure. And I’ll admit, even I was drawn in by the premise of recreating the gaming memories of my youth without actually having to actually suffer through one of the unforgiving actual games of that bygone era.

 

Spend a few hours getting sucked into this delightful little slice of neo-nostalgia, though, and it becomes apparent—not quickly, but undeniably—that Celeste isn’t merely trying to feed you a dose of the feel-goods. There’s a point to all of this: The look, the feel, the simple three-button controls. Even the luscious piano and synth score, which isn’t exactly held to the same retro standards as the rest of the game’s aesthetic, is true to the spirit of music from ‘80s and ‘90s games, thanks to its deceptive simplicity and undeniably hooky melodies.

 

All of these retro trappings combine, in a weird way, to keep you focused on the task at hand, which is jumping, dashing, and grabbing onto platforms, with a level of precision that my teenaged self never would have dreamt possible. And the thing is, due to that intense concentration on running and jumping and not dying, you sort of end up missing the point of Celeste until you’re a few hours in.

 

Masterfully woven into all this platformer action is a rich and nuanced, slow-burn story about depression and ennui and the consequences of constant aspiration. It’s not heavy handed at all, and if you’re the type of person to skip dialogue sequences, you can easily nope right past it all. But you’d be missing out on one of the most heartfelt and gripping stories I’ve encountered in any form of media in quite some time.

 

Oddly enough, it’s a narrative that’s so tightly interwoven with the presentation of the game that I can’t imagine it being quite as impactful if Celeste had been a beautifully rendered, fully modern game with 3D graphics and 14-button control schemes. In other words, all of this isn’t merely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, no matter how much it may look like such. The real brilliance of Celeste is that with its form, it sets up expectations of a silly narrative about saving princesses or whatever, then sucker-punches you with the sort of substance that would have been nearly unimaginable back when games had no choice but to look like this.

 

If you have access to a modern gaming console or computer, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. At $19.99, it’s practically a steal, and although you’ll probably burn through it in seven or eight hours the first time through, Celeste is a game with a heck of a lot of replay value. I can’t imagine putting it down anytime soon.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is either the 9th or the 11th game in the popular anti-Nazi video game series, depending on how much of a purist you are in your counting. And if that statement strikes you as somewhat confusing, well—welcome to the world of video game series reboots. The New Colossus is a direct sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a soft relaunch of the franchise that was followed up by the 2015 release of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which was equal parts expansion pack and standalone prequel.

 

If that seems like too convoluted a history for you to even bother with at this point, rest easy. All you really need to know about the Wolfenstein series is that the Nazis won World War II, they’re taking over the world, and it’s your job to shoot them. Imagine The Man in the High Castle if it had been written by Paul Verhoeven instead of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. This new game draws on characters and themes from much earlier entries and manages to tell a quite personal tale about identity, parental relationships, and indeed the very nature of freedom.

 

But at its heart, the real draw of Wolfenstein II is in shooting Nazis. Tons and tons and more tons of Nazis. Sometimes you shoot them with big guns. Sometime with pistols. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them and whack ‘em with an ax. But in the end, dead Nazis is the first, second, and only meaningful objective in the game.

 

The biggest thing setting The New Colossus apart from its forebears is that this time around the action takes place in the United States—one overrun by the Reich, whose citizens have, for the most part, acquiesced to or outright embraced their goose-stepping overlords.

Wolfenstein II

That has led to criticism from those who see the game as a critique of our current political environment. It’s not intended as such, mind you. Games like this take years to develop and its developers aren’t prognosticators. But the fact that a game about killing Nazis is seen as a commentary on American politics at all, accidentally or not, is certainly worth mentioning. As much as this is a silly, brutal, over-the-top violence-fest, the central message here is that racism is bad. Fascism is bad. But also key to the narrative is the fact that most people aren’t badthey simply play along with their own tribe.

 

One thing I can say about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that isn’t even remotely controversial is that it’s an audiovisual tour de force. It’s a game that positively begs to be experienced on as large a screen as possible, with as many channels of sound as you can throw at it. Developer MachineGames has managed to shake up the series with entirely new environments while also hanging onto the same art design and overall aesthetic flair that made the last two games such stunners. And the Hollywood-caliber sound mix is, without question, the most dynamic and raucous I’ve heard in quite some time. Attempt to play this game on your tinny TV speakers and you’re just betting to blow a driver or two.

 

Truth be told, there are times when I wish I could just pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch someone else play the game. It truly can be that compelling. Whether you experience it from the firsthand perspective or as a passive bystander, though, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

How Video Games Changed the Movies

video games changed movies

One of the laziest and most ubiquitous criticisms leveled at movies these days is to say they’ve been somehow corrupted by video games. It’s a dismissal based primarily on ignorance—the assumption that video games are nothing more than flashy computer graphics and frenetic action. And while it’s true that more and more movies rely on such crutches (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), I would argue that video games aren’t to blame. Movies like Transformers are simply a result of cheaper digital-rendering effects and lazy writing.

 

If anything, the influence of gaming on movies has been a net positive, but not in the ways you might expect. The biggest change Hollywood has made in response to the overwhelming dominance of the video-game industry—it is, after all, bigger than the music and movie industries combined—is in the way movies tell stories. Specifically, the way they draw you into the narrative experience.

Video games have long had an immersive edge over movies. With games, you’re an active participant, not merely a distant spectator. Can there be any denying, for example, that the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was, consciously or not, influenced by video games? And I don’t merely mean its action sequencesI mean even the film’s most pedestrian dialogue exchanges, which are often framed in such a way that the character being spoken to is so close to the camera as to spill out of the screen. The film’s over-the-shoulder cinematography sometimes so closely mimics the camera angles of third-person action games that you almost feel your hands reaching for a phantom controller.

 

It’s not just aesthetics, either. The very narrative structure of games is starting to sneak into movies in inventive ways. Contrast, for example, two very popular “time loop” films—1993’s Groundhog Day and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. Mind you, I realize they’re different genres altogether, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the radical differences in the way these films deal with the concept of being forced to repeat the same events over and over again. In Edge of Tomorrow—which, by the way, director Doug Liman has admitted was largely influenced by the storytelling experience of games—the protagonist isn’t merely there to learn one overarching lesson from his repeated days. He literally learns from every death, much as is the case with video games.

 

I would also argue that the upward trend in the length of films has at least a little to do with games. Before you scoff, hear me out. Video games, by and large, spread their narrative over eight, ten, thirty, sometimes even hundreds of hours of gameplay. They’ve trained us to sit for longer stretches of time to absorb a story—and in a way that’s not quite like reading or like binge-watching a TV series.

 

You could argue whether or not that’s a good thing, of course. But what it boils down to is that the influence of games on the current state of cinema doesn’t simply boil down to pretty lights that hypnotize.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

How to Make the Perfect Gaming Room

I’ve written quite a bit lately about the value a high-end home theater system brings to the video gaming experience. One thing I haven’t mentioned, though, is the effect gaming has on such environments. In other words: What makes a high-performance gaming room different from your average TV and movie viewing?

 

In many respects, the answer is a simple “not much.” After all, the surround sound mixes crafted on the fly by most modern video games have fundamentally the same format and layout as movie and TV soundtracks. A 5.1 or 7.1 or even Atmos sound system that sounds great with Baby Driver will rock just as hard with Project CARS 2.

 

But there are some things that set a good gaming room apart. First up: Large projection systems are oftentimes a no-no, if only because a number of video games require you to actually stand up in front of the screen while you’re playing. Unless you’re going for the old MST3K look, there’s not much value in having your silhouette covering the screen as you try to play Rock Band or ARMS. If you want to go truly big with a gaming video display, a 65-inch or larger TV or perhaps one of the new breed of ultra-short-throw projectors is probably your best bet.

 

Oddly enough, seating is another area where a gaming-room system might differ from your average media room. The key here is flexibility. A single comfy couch may be great for the entire family on movie night, but different styles of game work best with different seating positions.

 

When my wife and I are clobbering each other in Mortal Kombat X, we both want the widest view possible, since we’re both probably concentrating on one edge of the screen or the other. In other words, the couch is perfect.

 

But when I’m playing first-person action games by myself, I like to scoot up as close to the screen as possible, since my focus is right in the dead center, and things on the periphery are, well, peripheral. I used to have a small, portable, dedicated gaming chair for exactly such purposes, but space constraints these days mean I more often than not just rely on a big ottoman to move closer to the screen when I want to.

the perfect gaming room

Speaking of space constraints—depending on a gamer’s individual preferences, a number of peripherals will probably come into play, so having ample storage space is crucial to any good gaming room that must also serve double duty as an all-purpose media room and family gathering space. In my case, I have full-sized tubular steel frame with a Sparco racing seat and Logitech G29 racing wheel, gear shift, and pedal set that needs to be tucked away out of sight when not in use. You might also have plastic musical instruments, a big HOTAS flight control system, or any number of other peripherals that need to be secreted away when you’re not actively gaming.

 

And with those peripherals comes the need for charging. One of the best additions I’ve made to my media/gaming-room setup recently is a rack-mounted cooling fan for my AV cabinet that also serves as a four-port USB charger. It not only keeps my gaming controllers and wireless headset powered up and ready to go when I need them; it also keeps them hidden away when I don’t.

 

Of course, every gamer’s needs are different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to building the perfect gaming environment. If you’re a gamer who considers the high-end AV experience as essential to gaming as energy drinks and wrist braces, leave us a comment and let us know what makes your gaming room different from the typical media room or home theater.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

GAMING

Gran Turismo Sport PS4

Draw a Venn diagram of car enthusiasts and video gamers, and where the two circles intersect you’ll find a group of people who, without exception, have very strong opinions about the Gran Turismo series.

 

For most of us contained within that vesica piscis, the original “Real Driving Simulator” was far from merely a gameit was a religion. It taught us how to accelerate out of hairpin turns. It made us love mid-engine powertrains and AWD drivetrains. It turned us into oil-changing obsessives. Granted, many of us have graduated from Gran Turismo to more hardcore racing simulators over the years, especially since the disappointing sixth entry was released in 2013, but the nostalgia is still strong with this one.

 

In an attempt to win back the racers it lost to games like iRacing, Assetto Corsa, and Project CARS, GT developer Polyphony Digital is back with a wholly new and completely different effort dubbed Gran Turismo Sport. Don’t call it Gran Turismo 7. This is intended as the first entry in a newly revamped series whose emphasis isn’t on the single-player career mode that defined the franchise for the past 20 years but rather on eSports—ranked competitive multiplayer online gaming, that is to say. 

 

The results are a stunning mess, to put it mildly. Let’s focus on the stunning part first, because Gran Turismo Sport features without question the best use of High Dynamic Range video I’ve seen to date. And I’m not limiting the comparison to video games, either. Find me a movie with more lifelike use of shadows and piercing sunlight, and I’ll eat that UHD Blu-ray Disc. Without ketchup.

Pass alongside trees and other obstructions, and you can almost feel the shadows crossing your arms. Turn your car toward the west as sunset approaches and you’ll be scrambling for your sunglasses. This isn’t merely demo materialit’s the new gold standard for HDR that all content producers should be measuring themselves against.

 

Polyphony has also seriously upped the ante in terms of the game’s audio mix, likely in response to criticism of its previous games in this department. No longer does a supercharged V8 sound like a Singer sewing machine. The sound this time around is positively ferocious.

 

Sadly, in all other respects, Gran Turismo Sport is a rather hollow experience. At least for now. Long gone are the days when you could buy a cheap, beat-up four-cylinder car and scrape your pennies together to upgrade it as you slowly advanced through the ranks.

 

The single-player experience mostly consists of the game’s legendary driver’s-license challenges and a few driving-school scenarios. These are fun while they lastespecially with a good racing wheel like Logitech’s G29but they don’t last nearly long enough. And the online racing experience is sadly ruined by trolls who take pleasure from turning a good race into a demolition derby. What’s more, the punishment system set up to discourage such behavior punishes victims as harshly as instigators.

 

If Polyphony Digital can sort out such problems and add some more compelling single-player content down the road, it’ll have a successful game on its hands, if only on the strength of the audiovisual experience alone. For now, the lack of content and a middling online experience make Gran Turismo Sport feel more like an extended demo than a full-blown racing game.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

GAMING

The Future of Home Theater: A Manifesto

There’s been a lively exchange in these pages lately about the rise of high-end media rooms and what impact that could have on dedicated home theaters. So I wanted to take a moment to explain this site’s position in this debatenot as an effort to guide, let alone stifle, the discussion but to encourage an even more vigorous debate.

 

There’s a tsunami forming that could have as much impact as the iPod on how people experience entertainmentand we’re not just talking home entertainment here but all forms of entertainment everywhere. And it’s being formed by the largely chance convergence of the widespread acceptance of 4K, increased awareness of beyond-5.1-channel surround sound formats like Atmos, the surging popularity of streaming (fueled in part by the marked decline in quality of Hollywood films), and, maybe more important than any of these, increased bandwidth and its wider distribution.

 

But there’s another big factormaybe the biggest: Gender. Tech used to be an almost exclusively male domain. Those days are gone forever. Everybody not only uses but feels comfortable with smartphones, tablets, and myriad other forms of extremely sophisticated lifestyle tech. And hardly anybody looks under the hood anymoredigital makes that almost irrelevant.

 

But it’s not just a girl/guy thing. Anybody old enough to grasp the concept of a reboot realizes the potential of both contemporary and future tech, and feels comfortable swimming in that stream.

 

That means they want their tech to be a natural, and preferably effortless, extension of how they live their lives. That means the days of the man cavewith its connotations of a forbidding space, unusable by anybody but its overlord—are numbered.

 

But that does not portend the demise of home theater, whose best days probably lie ahead.

the future of home theater

The contemporary dynamic goes something like this: Almost everybody has a media-room system, even if it’s as rudimentary as an Internet-enabled TV. Incredibly sophisticated tech like 4K HDR and Atmos is becoming more and more affordable, and thus more and more pervasive.

 

Almost everybody wants the best home-entertainment experience their budgets can handle—and for an increasing number of people, that means being able to cobble together a system that can rival what they find at the local multiplex. But they also want to integrate that high-end entertainment experience into the flow of their day-to-day family life.

 

Thus the rapid rise of the media room.

 

But almost everybody knows a media room isn’t the ultimate at-home experience. And it’s part of the American DNA to keep pushing for something better (although that part of our heritage has taken a hell of a beating lately).

 

Bottom line: A dedicated theater room will always be the ultimate home-entertainment experience, and no media room will ever be able to make that claim.

 

But, to survive, home theaters can’t continue to be shrines devoted exclusively to moviewatching. (Like the male domination of tech, those days are gone too.) They also have to be the ultimate gaming experience—and live-concert experience and streaming experience, and ultimate form of whatever entertainment any member of the family can find to throw at it.

 

In other words, home theaters have to shed their reputation as tomb-like retreats dominated by all kinds of intimidating technology and learn to embrace all forms of entertainment, and every member of the family.

 

There is no doubt the herd is being culled, quickly, efficiently, and without remorse. Multiplexes and other inferior venues and forms of playback probably don’t stand a chance. But four things will likely survive: Media rooms, event theaters, drive-ins, and home theaters. Why? Because each, in its way, makes the experience of entertainment something special.

 

But of these four, only a dedicated home theater can offer the ultimate experience, because only a dedicated home theater allows you to hold all the distractions of day-to-day life at bay, allowing you to focus all your attention on the optimally reproduced and calibrated picture and sound. Even the most tweaked-out state-of-the-art event theaters can’t match that.

 

And theater rooms will always have the edge over media rooms because everybody yearns to enjoy the best entertainment in the best possible way. And the only thing that can consistently deliver that experience is a home theater.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Gaming Is Way Better With Atmos

It’s 1989 and I’m helping my dad buy a new TV, because even at a young age I was that kid. The kid who knew things about technology. (Granted, that reputation was pretty hard-won after an incident at age seven when I dismantled the backside our then-new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV, fresh off the truck, and exclaimed that the delivery guy was ripping us off because the set was missing all of its vacuum tubesbut that’s a story for another day.)

 

Anyway, back to 1989. Pop and I are standing in our city’s brand-spanking-new Circuit City, right in front all of the Sonys and JVCs and Sylvanias, barking at each other like a couple of rabid mutts. The source of the conflict? I needed—needed, I tell you—a stereo TV. The old man just didn’t see the point.

 

“My Sega Genesis, though! I can route audio out of the headphone jack and into a splitter, and actually play video games with stereo sound!”

 

Long story short, I lost that fight. But it was the beginning of a complicated lifelong relationship between me, video games, and nascent AV sound formats. (Because, yes, in 1989, video + stereo audio at home was pretty cutting edge.)

 

When I acquired my first surround sound receiver (ProLogic, baby!), it was my PlayStation that drove the decision, not my Laserdisc player. On the other hand, after upgrading my sound system to support Dolby Digital and DTS DVDs, it felt like a long and torturous wait for video games to finally catch up with the times. ProLogic II’s stereo-to-surround-sound conversion capabilities had to suffice for a while.

 

Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself in a squabble just as fierce as the one I had with my dad back in 1989, and for very similar reasons. But the struggle is entirely internal. The audio innovation in question this time around? The new object-based sound formats, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which add overhead surround sound effects to the audio coming from in front of and behind your head.

 

I’ve reviewed any number of Atmos-equipped receivers and speaker systems for other publications. And I’ve always found the effect neat enough for movies and music. Enough so to get me to actually upgrade my reference home theater system permanently, though? Ehhhh, not so much.

Atmos video games

Video games, though? Now we’re talking! There’s nothing in the realm of cinematic audio that can quite compete with playing Overwatch, for example, and hearing Parah’s battle cry from above—actually being able to pinpoint her location as she drops rockets in the direction of your noggin. Just as effective is the Atmos mix for Star Wars Battlefront, in which the truly three-dimensional soundscape gives you an edge in locating the drop pods that rocket toward the planet from outer space with fresh supplies.

 

Sadly, for now, these experiences are all too rare. Until recently, video games with Atmos sound were pretty much limited to the aforementioned titles, along with Battlefield 1, and only on the PC. Seriously, though, how many of us have home theater sound systems attached to our PCs?

 

Thankfully, Xbox One recently joined in on the Atmos action with the release of Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4. Sony, meanwhile, seems to be taking a wait-and-see (or I should say wait-and-hear?) approach to this most expansive of audio innovations with its PlayStation 4 console. As such, for now, so am I. But you can rest assured that as soon as the gaming industry as a whole finally embraces the first and only sound format to fully flaunt its immersive superiority over movie sound mixes, I’ll but cutting holes in my ceiling and snaking wires through the walls faster than you can scream, “Justice RAINS from above!”

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.