Sony announces investment and partnership with Discord to bring the chat app to PlayStation

Sony and Discord have announced a partnership that will integrate the latter’s popular gaming-focused chat app with PlayStation’s own built-in social tools. It’s a big move and a fairly surprising one given how recently acquisition talks were in the air — Sony appears to have offered a better deal than Microsoft, taking an undisclosed minority stake in the company ahead of a rumored IPO.

The exact nature of the partnership is not expressed in the brief announcement post. The closest we come to hearing what will actually happen is that the two companies plan to “bring the Discord and PlayStation experiences closer together on console and mobile starting early next year,” which at least is easy enough to imagine.

Discord has partnered with console platforms before, though its deal with Microsoft was not a particularly deep integration. This is almost certainly more than a “friends can see what you’re playing on PS5” and more of a “this is an alternative chat infrastructure for anyone on a Sony system.” Chances are it’ll be a deep, system-wide but clearly Discord-branded option — such as “Start a voice chat with Discord” option when you invite a friend to your game or join theirs.

The timeline of early 2022 also suggests that this is a major product change, probably coinciding with a big platform update on Sony’s long-term PS5 roadmap.

While the new PlayStation is better than the old one when it comes to voice chat, the old one wasn’t great to begin with, and Discord is not just easier to use but something millions of gamers already do use daily. And these days, if a game isn’t an exclusive, being robustly cross-platform is the next best option — so PS5 players being able to seamlessly join and chat with PC players will reduce a pain point there.

Of course Microsoft has its own advantages, running both the Xbox and Windows ecosystems, but it has repeatedly fumbled this opportunity and the acquisition of Discord might have been the missing piece that tied it all together. That bird has flown, of course, and while Microsoft’s acquisition talks reportedly valued Discord at some $10 billion, it seems the growing chat app decided it would rather fly free with an IPO and attempt to become the dominant voice platform everywhere rather than become a prized pet.

Sony has done its part, financially speaking, by taking part in Discord’s recent $100 million H round. The amount they contributed is unknown, but perforce it can’t be more than a small minority stake given how much the company has taken on and its total valuation.

US video game spending increased 30% in Q1

Even as signs of life after the pandemic have begun to emerge here in the U.S., increases in video game spending continue. There’s no doubt that much of last year’s big numbers were driven by stay-at-home requirements in much of the country and the world. All said, U.S. spending on the industry increased 27% for 2020.

There remains a broader question, however, around whether this momentum can maintain, as people start to, you know, leave the house more. For now, at least, things are continuing to look rosy for the industry. NPD noted this morning that U.S. spending on the category jumped 30% y-o-y for Q1 2021, to $14.92 billion.

When we break the number down a bit, however, it becomes clear that the driver goes beyond mere pandemic entertainment. Content was up 25% for the quarter, accessories jumped 42% and hardware went up 82%.

The motivator behind that last figure should be immediately obvious to anyone who follows the industry with any amount of interest. Where Nintendo’s Switch dominated the conversation for most of 2020, Sony and Microsoft both launched their next-gen consoles late last year.

“While we are still seeing elevated rates of both engagement and spending resulting from changes in consumer behavior driven by the pandemic, we are also seeing cyclical gains from the November launches of both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles,” analyst Mat Piscatella said in a release The growth driven by these new platforms, combined with gains experienced in mobile, PC and VR content spending, as well as the continued strength of Nintendo Switch, have pushed the market to new highs.”

 

Xbox Cloud Gaming beta starts rolling out on iOS and PC this week

The era of cloud gaming hasn’t arrived with the intensity that may have seemed imminent a couple years ago when major tech platforms announced their plays. In 2021, the market is still pretty much non-existent despite established presences from nearly all of tech’s biggest players.

Microsoft has been slow to roll out its Xbox Cloud Gaming beta to its users widely across platforms, but that’s likely because they know that, unlike other upstart platforms, there’s not a huge advantage to them rushing out the gate first. This week, the company will begin rolling out the service on iOS and PC to Game Pass Ultimate users, sending out invited to a limited number of users and scaling it up over time.

“The limited beta is our time to test and learn; we’ll send out more invites on a continuous basis to players in all 22 supported countries, evaluate feedback, continue to improve the experience, and add support for more devices,” wrote Xbox’s Catherine Gluckstein in a blog post. “Our plan is to iterate quickly and open up to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in the coming months so more people have the opportunity to play Xbox in all-new ways.”

The service has been available in beta for Android users since last year but it’s been a slow expansion to other platforms outside that world.

A big part of that slowdown has been the result of Apple playing hardball with cloud gaming platform providers, whose business models represent a major threat to App Store gaming revenues. Apple announced a carve-out provision for cloud-gaming platforms that would maintain dependency on the App Store and in-app purchase frameworks but none of the providers seemed very happy with Apple’s solution. As a result, Xbox Cloud Gaming will operate entirely through the web on iOS inside mobile Safari.

Xbox Live Gold is getting a big price hike

In what feels like an attempt at kicking some bad news under the rug on a Friday, Microsoft announced this morning that the price of Xbox Live Gold is going up.

Here’s how the price changes break down:

  • The one-month plan is going from $10 per month to $11.
  • The three-month plan is going from $25 to $30.
  • The six-month plan is going from $40 to $60 — but only for new customers, says Microsoft.

“But what about the twelve-month plan? Didn’t they used to offer those?”

They did! It was $60 — or the price that a six-month subscription will go for now. They stopped selling twelve-month plans back in July of last year, presumably because this change was on the horizon and they would’ve had to acknowledge on the price tag that 12 months of Live Gold would cost $120.

The good news: the price hike on the six-month plan only impacts new customers. If you’ve already got a six-month subscription (or are grandfathered into an auto-renewing twelve-month subscription), Xbox Support confirmed in a tweet that the price won’t increase:

If you’re on the one-month or three-month plans, though, it sounds like you’ll be paying the new price.

So why bump the cost? Microsoft doesn’t officially outline their reasoning (beyond pointing out that they haven’t increased the price in years, or as long as a decade in some regions), but one can assume it’s at least partially to make the $15 a month Xbox Game Pass (which bundles Xbox Live Gold with a library of all-you-can-eat, on-demand titles) that much more alluring.

Sony to launch PlayStation 5 in India on February 2

Sony said on Friday that it will launch PlayStation 5 in India on February 2, suggesting that the gaming giant has been able to improve its supply chain network worldwide. 

The Japanese firm said it will begin taking pre-order requests for the new gaming console in India, which is the world’s second largest internet market, on January 12. The console will be available for pre-order at Amazon, Flipkart, Croma, Reliance Digital, Games the Shop, Sony Center, Vijay Sales and select other authorized retail partners, the company said.

The announcement today should allay concerns of loyal PlayStation fans, some of whom secured a unit from the gray market at a premium in recent months after India was not include in the first wave of nations for the PS 5.

More to follow…

Xbox cloud gaming coming to iOS and PC in Spring 2021

Microsoft has shared some details about the roadmap for its cloud gaming service. In addition to Android devices, the company confirms that it plans to add support for more platforms. In Spring 2021, Microsoft will launch its cloud gaming service on iOS and on computers.

Originally called Project xCloud, Microsoft’s cloud gaming service lets you play Xbox games on non-Xbox devices. The games run on a server in a data center near you. The video is streamed to your device, and your interactions are relayed to the server in real time.

Xbox cloud gaming isn’t a separate subscription. People who subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for $14.99 per month can access cloud gaming as part of their subscription. The plan also includes access to a library of games, EA Play and Xbox Live Gold.

When it comes to new devices, you’ll soon be able to launch a game on Xbox cloud gaming from a PC. The service will be available in the Xbox app and using a web browser.

While you can download games to your PC if you’re an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscriber, cloud gaming is going to be particularly useful for people who don’t have a powerful GPU in their computer. It’s going to be interesting to see whether Microsoft limits its service to web browsers running on Windows computers. I’m sure many people would like to access the service from a Mac as well.

As for iOS, Microsoft will launch cloud gaming through web browsers exclusively due to restrictive App Store rules. Nvidia already launched a beta version GeForce Now for iOS web browsers. I tried Nvidia’s service from an iPhone and an iPad, and the web browser workaround works really well.

If you have an Android phone or tablet, Xbox cloud gaming is already accessible from the Xbox Game Pass app. Your experience will greatly vary depending on your internet connection and the quality of your Wi-Fi network.

You also need to be located near a data center to minimize latency. That’s why Xbox cloud gaming is only accessible in a handful of countries — mostly the U.S., Canada, South Korea and part of Europe.

In its blog post, Microsoft says that the company is opening more data centers and expanding to new markets. You can expect Xbox cloud gaming in Australia, Brazil, Japan and Mexico soon.

Cyberpunk 2077: A retro-futuristic fantasy with huge potential – if you can ignore the Cyberjank

Practically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to offer a real review of Cyberpunk 2077, the long-awaited follow-up to The Witcher 3 from developer CD Projekt Red. In the first place, it’s so big that the few days I’ve had with it aren’t enough to realistically evaluate the game; second, it’s so buggy and janky now that it feels wrong to review it before it becomes the game I know it will be; and finally, everyone’s going to buy it anyway.

The Witcher 3 is among the most universally lauded games of the last decade, up there with Breath of the Wild, The Last of Us, and Dark Souls. Though it had its flaws — lackluster combat, a limited scope — it did the open world thing better than anyone before or since, largely through improved writing, interesting characters, and consequences to player choices.

It was during what you might call that game’s honeymoon period that Cyberpunk 2077 was announced, and in the years since then the game has approached untenable levels of hype: It could never live up to what people expected, but it could very feasibly be a good game in its own right.

Recent controversies, however, have cast a pall over the launch: A seemingly hypocritical condemnation of pre-release crunch from the developer, some indefensible choices regarding diversity in the game (racialized gangs and a questionable approach to gender and trans representation), and delays suggested this may not be the magnum opus people hoped for.

In the first place I can confirm that the game probably should have been given a few more months of polish, at least on PC, the platform I played it on. From the very start I encountered obvious bugs like characters failing to animate, objects floating in mid-air, and the admittedly expected physics silliness one finds in every open-world game with simulated objects interacting. A day-one patch may fix some of them, but it’s clear that a game this big is nearly impossible to smooth out entirely. (I should say that I’m only partway through the 40-odd-hour campaign, though like its predecessor that will be padded out considerably with side quests.)

That’s a shame, because the world CD Projekt Red has created — or rather adapted from the tabletop RPG on which it is based — is undeniably rich and lovingly fashioned. The easiest way to describe it is simply to say that it’s exactly what you imagine when you think of “cyberpunk,” no more but surely no less.

The look of overcrowded streets filled with weirdo future people, shuffling between food carts offering vat-grown meat, beneath floating neon advertisements for cybernetic limbs and hacking tools, all watched over by enormous corporations of dubious intention… it’s right out of Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic, Strange Days, Ghost in the Shell, Neuromancer, and dozens of other genre pieces that informed both the original RPG and the general ideas that constitute “cyberpunk” in the zeitgeist.

It’s a familiar world you’ll be entering in some ways, with few real surprises if you’re at all conversant in the genre. That is a good thing in many ways, as it feels like a lived-in place: a crystallization and expansion of ideas that, while you have seen them elsewhere, have never been at your fingertips so readily, save perhaps in the original Deus Ex, which had its own limitations.

Yet at the same time there is very much the feel of a lack of imagination and willingness to update those ideas in ways that seem obvious. The gangs based on racial identities seem like such a poor fit for both this era and for a future in which such distinctions have no doubt declined in relevance, especially in a vast melting pot like Night City. The stereotypical “Mexican tough guy” dialogue of your otherwise likeable companion Jackie grates, for instance, as do for example the stilted, supposedly Japanese mannerisms of staff at an Arasaka corporate hotel.

Gender is also a mixed bag. Reviews by queer-identifying reviewers at Polygon and Kotaku have much more relevance here than anything I can say, but I can only concur that the freedom the player has in selecting their presentation is an important step towards better representation of queerness in games — but also has a “do as I say, not as I do” feeling. Elsewhere in the game sex and gender are handled regressively or inconsistently with the clear implication that, with body modification something anyone one can do on a street corner for a few eurobucks, race and gender are fluid and unimportant in this world.

This future feels like it was extrapolated exclusively from the forward thinking but still limited minds of a bunch of smart white guys from the ’90s. Perhaps that’s why I feel so comfortable in it. But as Ready Player One demonstrated, there’s a limit to how much can be accomplished by those methods.

At the same time I want to call out the care that was obviously taken in some ways to have a future filled with people of different shapes, sizes, colors, inclinations, and everything else — it’s clear there is genuine good intention here, even if it stumbles with unfortunate regularity.

“What about the game itself, you babbler,” you ask, after 800 words, “is it any good?”

Yes, it’s good, but difficult to categorize. On one hand, you have a paralysis-inducing freedom in shaping the capabilities with which your character approaches the various situations he or she will encounter. Brute force, stealth, hacking, gunplay — all are quite viable, but don’t expect to get far relying on only one. A “pure hacking” approach, for instance, will be far more tedious than it’s worth, while a “pure gunplay” one will likewise miss the point.

In navigating an enemy base, taking down some rando street gang, or getting through one of the game’s highly involved criminal operations, there are many options for any given situation, but none is reliable enough (certainly not early on, anyway) to get you through without resorting to the others.

One inconveniently placed guard may be susceptible to having his eyes hacked, while another may be easily distracted by one of the numerous items you can make fizzle out and attract their attention. But when you eventually slip up and the bullets start to fly, you’re not going to hack your way out of it. That’s okay, though: You’re not a scalpel, you’re a Swiss Army knife. Act like it!

The open world in which you’ll be undertaking all these missions is a rich one… perhaps too rich. Open the map and you’re presented with a sea of icons, though they’re not quite the Ubisoft-style to-do list so much as letting you know that this is a big, dense city where you’ll never lack for gun shops, criminal activities to engage in or disrupt, and interesting locations to explore. If you think of the map as more “where’s a ripper around here? Let me check my phone” than generic “video game map” it makes more sense, though it’s obviously the latter as well.

You’ll be driving around a lot as well, a process that is about as smooth as it was in Grand Theft Auto 3. Using the totally inadequate keyboard controls for my car, I’ve caused panics and accidents, mowed people down, and obstructed traffic constantly, while attempting to follow every law and attract as little attention as possible. This part of the game feels hilariously last generation, like how in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, your all-terrain horse vehicle was an object of terror and lethality to any peasant stupid enough to walk on one of that game’s many mountain trails.

The helpful GPS directions once took me through a pedestrian occupied area with a gate that was just narrow enough to completely trap the car, though it extricated itself offscreen when I called it. Another time I summoned the car to my location and instantly heard a distant explosion and screams. The car arrived 30 seconds later completely trashed, missing the doors on one side. Fortunately it seems to repair itself by mysterious means when you’re not looking.

But when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing — you know, cyberpunk stuff — things are smoother, if not what I’d call completely modern. I had this feeling the whole time like I was playing a game whose bones were built 8 years ago and then wrapped in layer after layer of stuff, creating systems and environments that feel incredibly cool in some ways and, like the car, huge throwbacks in others. The gunplay isn’t as good as any shooter today, the melee is about at Skyrim quality, the hacking is perhaps Deus Ex levels, and stealth is nowhere near Metal Gear — but none of those games actually offered the breadth or richness of systems and environments as Cyberpunk 2077.

In the final — for the purpose of this article, which is to say incredibly limited and initial — analysis, it’s both accurate to say that this game is GTA: Night City 2077 and totally inadequate. It’s both unique and totally derivative, futuristic and regressive, wide-open and painfully restrictive. Like many AAA games these days, Cyberpunk 2077 contains multitudes, and short of being a total faceplant, which it undeniably isn’t, it has a huge draw and value for the millions of players who want to hoon around a cyberpunk dystopia, hacking and shooting and scheming and getting better armblades, eyeball replacements, and future-guns.

I suppose the simplest summary of my review would be that I look forward to playing Cyberpunk when it’s finished. The Witcher 3 came out to acclaim but also criticism of many of its systems, and over time it has evolved into the genre-leading game it is. Cyberpunk has that potential, but it undeniably also has real issues that I would like to let them address before I play it. If you have any patience, I’d give it a few months at least so you don’t have the best of the game spoiled by the worst. At some point in the future I think Cyberpunk will be a pivotal title in gaming, but not yet — let’s just hope it gets there before 2077.

Review: Wireless headsets from Logitech, Audio-Technica, SteelSeries, HyperX and more

With the amount of time you’re spending at home these days, you deserve a better headset. A wireless one that works with your computer and maybe your console as well, with a mic for calls and great sound for games and movies. Fortunately there are a lot to choose from, and I’ve tested out your best options.

I asked the leading audio and peripheral companies to send over their flagship wireless headset, with prices ranging from about $100 to $250. Beyond this price range returns diminish swiftly, but right now that’s the sweet spot for comfort, sound, and usability.

For years I’ve avoided wireless headsets because there were too many compromises, but I’m pleased to say that the latency has been eliminated and battery life in the ones I reviewed is uniformly excellent. (NB: If the wireless version feels too expensive, you can often get wired ones for $50-100 less.)

To test the headphones, I used them all for a variety of everyday tasks, from video calls to movies and music (with only minimal EQing to get a sense of their natural sound) to AAA games and indies. None require an app to work, though some have companion software for LEDs or game profiles. I have a fairly large head and medium-sized ears, for what it’s worth. All the headphones are rather bulky, though the angle I shot them at individually makes them look huge — you can see in the image up top that they’re all roughly the same size.

None of these headphones have active noise cancelling, but many offer decent physical isolation to the point where they offer a “monitor” feature that pipes in sound from the outside world — useful if you’re playing a game but waiting for the oven to preheat or something. Only the first set has a built-in mic, the rest have detachable ones of generally solid quality, certainly good enough for streaming and chatting, though for broadcast a separate one would be better. All these headphones use a USB-A style dongle, though the 7P/7X also has a USB-C connector.

SteelSeries 7P/7X – $149

The 7P and 7X headsets, designed with the PS5 and Xbox Series X in mind (as well as PC) respectively, are my first and most unreserved recommendation.

The standout feature on these is, to me, a truly surprising sound with an almost disturbingly broad stage and clarity. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I put on some familiar tracks I use for reference. This isn’t a 7.1 simulation or anything like that — but no doubt the gaming focus led to creating a large soundstage. It worked!

I also found the headphones to be very comfortable, with a “ski goggle” strap instead of a per-band adjustment that lets them sit very lightly as well as “remembering” your setting. The spacious earcups rotate for travel or comfort.

The built-in mic is unobtrusive and stows away nicely, but if you’re picky about placement it was a bit floppy to adjust. Many of the other headsets have nicer mics that completely detach — maybe that’s a plus for you but I tend to lose them.

My main issues with these are that the controls feel cheap and not particularly well laid out. The bottom of the headset is a jumble of ports and buttons and the volume dials don’t have much travel — it’s 0 to 100 in one full swipe. (Volume control is independent from system volume.)

The dongle is different from the others in that it is itself USB-C, but with a USB-A cable attached. That’s good for compatibility, but the cable is three feet long, making it kind of silly to attach to some laptops and whatnot. You could easily get your own short cord, though.

At $150 I think these are an easy recommendation for just about anyone looking at that price range.

Audio-Technica AT-GWL – $250

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The high price on these is partly because they are the wireless version of a headset that also comes wired, so if you want the solid audio performance and comfy fit, you can save some money by going wired.

The sound of the AT-GWLs is rich and naturally has a focus on the upper-mid vocal range, which makes voices in media really pop. I did find the sound a bit confined, which hitting the “surround” setting actually helped with. I know that this sort of virtualization has generally been frowned on, but it’s been a while since these settings have been over the top and distortive. I found surround better for games but not necessarily for music, but it’s very easy to switch on and off.

The headphones are light and adjusted with traditional, no-nonsense metal bands, with a single pad on the top. I would say they are the lightest-feeling pair I tested, with the SteelSeries and Razer coming in just behind owing to some extra weight and bulk. Despite being compact, the AT-GWLs felt airy but not big. The leather-microfiber combo cups are nice, and I think they’ll break in well to provide better isolation over time.

Where they fall short is in the interface. First, a note to Audio-Technica: Turn down the notification noises! Turning the headset on, the mic on or off, or hitting the system-independent volume max produces loud, surprising beeps. Too loud!

Second, the buttons and dials are stiff, small, and same-feeling. Lifting a hand quickly to turn down the volume (maybe after a huge beep) you may very easily mistake the power switch for the volume dial. The dial also doubles as a button for surround mode, and next to it is a microscopic button to turn on and off the sound of surroundings. It’s a bit of a jumble — nothing you can’t get used to, but considering how nice other headsets on this list made their controls, it has to be said.

HyperX Cloud II wireless – $100

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

HyperX (owned by Kingston) wasn’t exactly known for audio until fairly recently, but its previous Cloud headset got the crucial Wirecutter endorsement, and it’s easy to see why. For less money than any of the other headsets in this roundup, the follow-up to that headset (which I’m wearing right now) has excellent sound and isolation.

I was surprised to find a soundstage nearly as wide as the 7P/7X, but with more of a focus on the punchy lower register instead of on detail and placement. My music felt big and close, and the atmosphere of games likewise, more immediately present.

The Cloud II’s controls are simple and effective. The volume dial, tied directly to the system volume, is superb: grippy, with smooth motion and just the right amount of friction, and just-barely-there clicks. There are two good-size buttons, the power one concave and the mic mute (which gives different sounds for muted and active) convex.

It’s unfortunate that they’re not as comfortable, for me anyway, as the others on this list. The cups (though a bit on the warm side) and band are perfectly fine. It’s that there’s little rotation to those cups, meaning there’s no play to accommodate the shape of your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just my big dome, but they were noticeably tighter at the front of my ear than the back, so I was constantly adjusting or trying to twist them.

I’ll say this: if they add a bit more adjustment to the cups, these would be my default recommendation over the 7P/7X. As exciting as the SteelSeries sound is to me, the Cloud IIs seem more like what people expect and $50 cheaper.

Logitech G-733 – $130

The matte texture of the G733s had a weird interaction with my camera — they don’t look speckly IRL. Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

These are Logitech’s streamer-friendly, color-coordinated, LED-sporting set, but they’re better than the loud design would suggest.

The sound is definitely gaming-forward, with a definite emphasis on the low end and a very central, present sound that was a lot like the Cloud II.

To be honest, I was not expecting the G733s to be very comfortable — their stiff plastic look suggested they’d creak, weigh down my ears, and crush my noggin. But in fact they’re really light and quite comfy! There’s a lot of play in the positions of the earcups. The fit is a little odd in that there’s a plainly inferior version of the 7P/7X’s “ski goggle” strap that really only has four settings, while the cups slide up and down about two thirds of an inch. It was just enough to accommodate my (again, apparently very large) head.

The mic boom is rather short, and sadly there is no indicator for when the mic is on or off, which is sometimes a minor inconvenience and sometimes a major pain. You can tell from the sound the mute button makes, though.

The volume dial is nice and smooth, though the “clicks” are really far apart. I like the texture of it and the mic mute button, the power button not so much. But it works.

The colors may not be to everyone’s liking, but I have to hand it to Logitech for going all the way. The headset, mic, and even the USB dongle are all the same shade, making it much easier to keep track of them in my growing pile of headphones and widgets.

Logitech Pro-X – $200

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Currently Logitech’s most premium set of gaming headphones, the Pro-X abandon the bright, plasticky look of its other sets and goes for understated and black.

The sound of the Logitech is big and very clear, with almost a reference feel in how balanced the bands are. I felt more presence in the mid-lows of smart bass-playing than the other sets. There is a “surround” feel that makes it feel more like you’re in a room of well-configured speakers than headphones, something that I think emerges from a de-emphasis of the center channel. The media is “out there,” not “in here.” It’s not a bad or a good thing, just distinct from the others.

The controls are about on par with the Cloud II’s: A nice frictiony volume wheel controlling system volume, a nice mic toggle button, and a fairly meaty on-off switch you’re unlikely to trip on purpose.

Also like the Cloud IIs, there is no rotation to the earcups, making them less comfortable to me than the ATs and SteelSeries, and Logitech’s cheaper G-733s. A larger head than my own, if that’s possible, would definitely feel clamped. I do think these would wear in well, but all the same a bit of play would help a lot.

The external material, a satinized matte plastic, looks truly lovely but is an absolute fingerprint magnet. Considering you’ll be handling these a lot (and let’s be honest, not necessarily with freshly washed hands), you’re going to need to wipe them down rather more than any of the others I tested.

Razer Blackshark V2 Pro – $180

Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

The understated Razer Blackshark V2 Pro soon became my go-to for PC gaming when the SteelSeries set was attached to the PS5.

Their sound is definitely gaming-focused, with extra oomph in the lows and mid-lows, but music didn’t sound overly shifted in that direction. The soundstage is full but not startlingly so, and everything sounded detailed without being harsh.

The Razers look heavy but aren’t — it varies day to day but I think they’re definitely competing for “most comfortable” with the A-Ts and SteelSeries. The cups feel spacious and have a nice seal, making for a very isolated listening experience. Adjustment is done with the wires attached to the cups, which is nothing special — I kind of wish this setup would let you adjust the cant as well as the height. The material is like the Logitechs — prone to fingerprints, though a little less so, in my experience.

Their controls are very well designed and laid out, all on one side. The protruding (system-independent) volume knob may seem odd at first but you’ll love it soon. The one big notch or click indicates exactly 50%, which is super useful for quick “calibration,” and turning the knob is smooth yet resistant enough that I never once accidentally changed it. Meanwhile there are conveniently placed and distinguishable buttons for mute and power, and ports for the detachable mic, charge cord, and 3.5mm input.

I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides to the Blackshark except that it doesn’t work with consoles.

Gift Guide: Games on every platform to get you through the long, COVID winter

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

It’s a great time to be a gamer — I mean, what else is there to do? And with the prospect of a long winter and lonely holiday season ahead of us, here’s a list of games on all the major platforms that you can really sink your teeth — and a few dozen hours — into.

Buying for a gamer and have no idea what’s worthwhile? Once you’ve figured out which gaming system is their platform of choice, any of these should be guaranteed wins.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

All major platforms:

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Screenshot of Assassin's creed valhalla showing a viking on a british landscape

Image Credits: Ubisoft

I genuinely enjoyed AC: Odyssey’s gorgeous landscapes and main characters, but the game systems felt disconnected and arbitrary. That’s much less the case with AC: Valhalla, which tells a similarly sprawling tale of vikings in England but works a little harder to put it together into a cohesive whole. It’s still very much “Ubisoft Game, but with Vikings” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Price: $50 from Amazon

Minecraft Dungeons

I thought this game was a bit limited when it first came out, but since then it has gotten several new areas and cross-platform multiplayer. Between that and its simplified systems and PG-level violence, Minecraft: Dungeons is a great option for families that want to fight monsters together.

Price: $20-30 (depending on platform) from Mojang

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

Reviewers agree: the new CODBLOPS is definitely more CODBLOPS. The latest in the gritty military series is the one everyone will be playing for the next year, so it’s definitely a must-have for quite a few people.

Price: $50-60 (depending on platform) from Amazon

Cyberpunk 2077

Image Credits: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077, the futuristic RPG from the creators of the Witcher, isn’t out yet, but it’s one of the most anticipated titles in recent years and your special someone might like the idea that they’re getting it day one. Of course if it’s anything like The Witcher 3, they’re probably going to want to wait a few months for the bugs to get ironed out. But hey, it’s an option.

Price: $50 from Amazon

PS4 and PS5

Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Image Credits: Sony

This semi-sequel to the much-lauded 2018 Spider-Man is smaller in scale but plays even better. Plus it has a wonderfully inclusive cast and tone and feels authentic where the original, for all its strengths, had a pretty flat take on New York. Bonus: If you buy the PS5 version of Miles Morales, you get the remastered 2018 game for free. I’d argue you’re simply not going to find a better bang for your buck right now with any other new game.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Demon’s Souls

Image Credits: Sony

The only “true” next-generation game out there right now is a remake of a PlayStation 3 game, and in many ways it feels like it. But in other ways, it’s the most amazing game on the market right now. If your loved one has enjoyed Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and other incredibly hard games, this is the one to get.

Price: $70 on Amazon

Ghost of Tsushima

Between Nioh 2, Sekiro, and Ghost of Tsushima, there’s a real bumper crop of samurai and ninja action to be had. But Ghost is the broadest and most beautiful of them all — if not necessarily the deepest.

What it lacks in challenge… first of all, is more than made up by the difficulty of those other two games I mentioned, give me a break. But Ghost’s draw is in the unity and beauty of its game world and systems. For example, instead of a quest marker or arrow pointing towards your objective, the wind is just always blowing in that direction. Amazing, right? The single player campaign is remarkably well acted, and a free update has brought a surprisingly extensive multiplayer co-op mode as well. This is truly a game you can lose yourself in. Just don’t start trying to collect everything or you’ll never leave the first area.

Price: $40 on Amazon

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

Image Credits: Vanillaware

This totally unique game came out of left field and obsessed me for two solid weeks. A combination of adventure game, visual novel, and tactical action game, 13 Sentinels puts you in charge of a bunch of high school kids piloting giant robots to save the world from alien invaders. (In case you can’t tell, it’s a Japanese production.)

Sound familiar? That’s the idea — and then it starts pulling rugs out from under you and doesn’t stop until the last few minutes. The labyrinthine story, which progresses simultaneously through 13 interwoven narratives, is the very best kind of sci-fi mind-boggler and a pleasure to unravel from start to finish. The combat is also compelling and satisfying, if not particularly deep or challenging. There’s simply nothing else like this out there.

Price: Currently $30 from GameStop

Xbox One and Series X

Halo: The Master Chief Collection

Image of Master Chief from halo

Image Credits: Microsoft

If your loved one is a Halo fan, they’re likely very sad since Halo: Infinite, once a launch title for the new console, won’t be coming out until next year. But it can’t hurt to have the original games all updated and beautified to play through as an appetizer. Plus there’s the famous Halo multiplayer to get everyone through the winter.

Price: $30 from Amazon

Yakuza: Like a Dragon

Image Credits: Sega

The latest in the long-running and beloved Yakuza series of character-driven adventures of Japanese gangsters set in a fictional Tokyo neighborhood, this one changes up the style with a turn-based combat system and new protagonist — but some are calling it the best yet.

Price: $35 from Amazon

Gears Tactics

Image Credits: Microsoft

No one really expected that the Gears of War series would lend itself to a tactics game in the style of XCOM — let alone that it would leapfrog others in the genre and become one of the best you can get, period. Naturally it isn’t quite the urgent, visceral experience that Gears normally is, but this is a surprisingly deep and engrossing game.

Price: $38 from Amazon

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The sequel to the lauded “metroidvania” Ori and the Blind Forest is technically on several platforms, but the Series X seems to be the absolute best one on which to play it. With beautifully updated art and a silky-smooth framerate, this will look better on that new 4K HDR TV than many “real” next-generation games. But don’t let the beautiful yet cute art style make you think this is will be a cakewalk. Like the first in the series, you’ll need some serious dexterity to complete this platformer.

Price: $30 from Moon Studios

Risky move: Preorder Halo: Infinite

No one is quite sure whether the first Halo of the next generation is going to be as good as everyone hopes, and a delay to early next year didn’t allay anyone’s fears. That said, many a gamer will cherish the idea of playing the latest in this venerable series day one, so pre-ordering a copy is a possibility if none of the other games really ring their bell.

Price: $60 from Amazon

Switch

Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Technically this is also a “toy,” because it’s real-life RC carts zooming around your home on an augmented-reality racetrack. We thought it was tons of fun, and it’s a great way to take video games off the TV and into real life… kind of. Just be aware that every player needs their own cart and their own Switch.

Price: $99 from Best Buy

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity

Don’t go into this game expecting a full-on new Zelda title, and you’ll do just fine. This is definitely an action game, and a big, rather mindless one at that. But it’s hard to resist the concept of playing as Link, Zelda, or any of the champions from Breath of the Wild and dispatching enemies by the hundreds.

Price: $50 on Amazon

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Image Credits: Ninendo

Okay, I gave Nintendo some guff over the perfunctory nature of this collection of amazing games. I’ve wanted to replay Mario 64 for years and was waiting for Nintendo to touch it up just a bit — but it, and Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy, are virtually unchanged in this retro package. Really, you couldn’t make it widescreen? But for most, the chance to play these games again (or for the first time) on the Switch is worth the price of admission, period.

Price: $60 from Amazon

PC

Spelunky 2 and/or Hades

The “roguelite” genre, with its randomly generated levels and complex interlocking systems, has grown in popularity and sophistication for years — and here we have two fine examples that take the genre in different directions.

Spelunky 2 is the most traditional, in a way. Sequel to one of the best games out there, this one adds more variety, more weirdness, and more challenge to the unforgiving platforming of the original. Like before, every death (and there will be a lot) is avoidable and while some runs may last only seconds, it’s hard to be deterred when you know that if you just paid a little more attention, or saved your bombs, or went over that other way… just one more game. (Pro tip: Buy a couple copies for friends and indulge in jolly cooperation.)

Hades combines the procedurally generated levels with an incredibly beautiful art style and an ingenious story and progression system. Escaping from the ever-shifting landscape of Hades, you’re going to die over and over, but as a young god that’s more inconvenience than obstacle. Meanwhile every death and every inch of progress moves you closer to the mystery of your birth in a clever modern take on Greek mythology. It’s honestly hard to imagine how Hades could be improved in almost any way.

Price: $20 for Spelunky 2 on Steam | $25 for Hades on Steam

Crusader Kings III

Image Credits: Paradox

This long-awaited strategy title puts you in the throne room of a European medieval dynasty, where you can do… pretty much anything to get ahead. Assassinations, proxy wars, brutal taxes, religious cannibalism, strategic marriages… it’s all on the table. This is a story-telling engine that’s remarkably robust and, once you get past the initial learning curve, very fun. It’s also very, very nerdy, and proud of it.

Price: $50 on Steam

Other options

Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros

Nintendo's Super Mario Bros handheld system

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

This little gadget has the original Super Mario Bros, its sequel (not the weird one — what we knew as “The Lost Levels”), and a remade LCD game all built in. It’s a charming device and the games play well, plus you can turn it off and resume progress later, making it that much easier to get through the whole game.

Price: $50 (but finding one in stock can be challenging.)

Backbone One for iPhone

Image Credits: Backbone

Got a friend who prefers to game on their phone? The Backbone is built for them. This snap-on controller brings buttons and analog triggers (and good ones, at that!) into the iOS gaming world, along with a surprisingly solid companion app that can do things like record your gameplay and help you edit and post your highlight reels. It only works with select iOS titles, but the library is growing. TechCrunch Editor-In-Chief Matthew Panzarino reviewed it in October and gave it his stamp of approval with very little reservation.

Price: $99 from Backbone

 

Gift Guide: Which next-gen console is the one your kid wants?

This holiday season the next generation of gamers, bless their hearts, will be hoping to receive the next generation of gaming consoles. But confusing branding by the console makers — not to mention a major shortage of consoles — could lead to disappointment during the unwrapping process. Before making any big promises this year, you’ll want to be completely clear on two things: which console you’re actually trying to get, and how much of a challenge it might be to get one.

By the way, it’s totally understandable if you’re a little lost — particularly on Microsoft’s end, the branding is a little weird this time around. Even the lifelong gamers on our staff have mixed up the various Xbox names a few times.

If you’re not 100% sure which brand of console your kid (or partner or whoever) has, go take a look right now. An Xbox will have a big X somewhere on a side without cables coming out of it, and a PS4 will have a subtler “PS” symbol embossed on it. The “Pro” has three “layers” and the regular one has two.

Okay, now that you know what you’ve got, here are the new versions that they want:

Sony PlayStation 5

The PlayStation 5, or PS5 for short, is the newest gaming console from Sony. It’s the one your kids want if they already have a PlayStation 4 or even a PlayStation 4 Pro, which they might have gotten a year or two back.

The PS5 is more powerful than the PS4, but it also plays most PS4 games, so you don’t need to worry about a game you just bought for a birthday or whatever. It has some fancy new features for fancy new TVs, but you don’t need to worry about that — the improved performance is the main draw.

There are two versions of the PS5, and the only real difference between them is that one has a disc drive for playing disc-based games; they both come with a controller and are about the same size. The one with the drive costs $500, and is the one you should choose if you’re not completely certain the recipient would prefer the driveless “Digital Edition.” Saving $100 up front is enticing, but consider that some titles for this generation will cost $70, so the capability to buy used games at half price might pay for itself pretty quickly.

The PS5 doesn’t come with any “real” next-generation games, and the selection this season is going to be pretty slim. But your best bet for pretty much any gamer is Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I’ve played it and its predecessor — which Miles Morales comes with — and it’s going to be the one everyone wants right off the bat. (Its violence is pretty PG, like the movies.)

The PS4’s controllers sadly won’t work on PS5 games. But don’t worry about getting any extra ones or charging stands or whatnot right now, unless your gamer plays a lot of games with other people on the couch already.

Microsoft Xbox Series X

The Xbox Series X is the latest gaming console from Microsoft, replacing the Xbox One X and One S. Yes, the practice of changing the middle word instead of the last initial is difficult to understand, and it will be the reason lots of kids unwrap last year’s new console instead of this year’s.

The Xbox Series X is more powerful than the Xbox One X, but should also play almost all the old games, so if you bought something recently, don’t worry that it won’t be compatible. There are lots of fancy-sounding new features, but you don’t need to worry about those or buy them separately — stuff like HDR and 4K all depend on your TV, but any TV from the last few years will look great.

There are two versions of the next Xbox, and they have significant differences. The $500 Xbox Series X is the “real” version, with a disc drive for old and used games, and all the power-ups Microsoft has advertised. This one is almost certainly the one any gamer will be expecting and hoping to get.

Like Sony, Microsoft has a version of the Xbox that has no disc drive: the $300 Xbox Series S. Confusingly, this is the same price, same color, and nearly the same name and type of console as last generation’s Xbox One S, so first of all be sure you’re not buying the One. The Xbox Series S is definitely “next-gen,” but has a bit less power than the Series X, and so will have a few compromises in addition to the lack of a drive. It’s not recommended you get this one unless you know what you’re doing or really need that $200 (understandable).

For a day-one game, there isn’t really a big must-have exclusive. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is probably a good bet, though, if bloody violence is okay. If not, honestly a gift certificate or subscription to the “Game Pass” service that provides free games is fine.

No need for extra controllers — the Xbox Series X supports the last-gen’s controllers. Genuine thanks to Microsoft for that one.

Difficulty level: Holiday 2020

A PS5 and controller.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Now that you know which console to get (again… a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X), I’ve got some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is they’re probably (read: definitely) going to be sold out. Microsoft and Sony are pumping these things out as fast as they can, but the truth is they really rushed this launch to make it in time for the holidays and won’t have enough to go around.

Resist the urge to buy the “next best” in last year’s model — the new ones are a major change and are replacements, not just upgrades, for the old ones. It would literally be better for a kid to receive a pre-order receipt for a new console than a brand new old one. And don’t go wild trying to find one on eBay or whatever — this is going to be a very scammy season and it’s better to avoid that scene entirely.

The pandemic also means you probably can’t or won’t want to wait in line all night to grab a unit in person. Getting a console will almost certainly involve spending a good amount of time on the websites of the major retailers… and a good bit of luck.  Follow electronics and gaming shops on Twitter and bookmark the consoles’ pages to check for availability regularly, but expect each shipment to be sold out within a minute or two and for the retailer’s website to crash every single time.

Don’t buy them a Nintendo Switch, either, unless they’ve asked for one of course. The Switch is fantastic, but it’s completely different from the consoles above.

The good news is they won’t be missing out on much right now. Almost every game worth having for the next year will be available on the new and old consoles, and in some cases players may be able to start their game on one and continue it on the next. Good luck figuring out exactly which games will be enhanced, upgraded, or otherwise carried between generations (it’s a patchwork mess), but any of the hot new games is a good bet.

Good luck!