Firmware 2.DOH!

Sony-PS4-SharePlay

A year and a half doesn’t sound like a long time, but in video game land, a LOT can happen.  Case in point, my perception of the ‘green’ and ‘blue’ competitors have flip-flopped.  After the initial console reveals in 2013, I golf-clapped towards Sony and rained fire and brimstone at Microsoft.  Flash forward to today, and Microsoft – despite being forced – seems to ‘get it’, while Sony does virtually nothing to maintain the gobs of good will they had acquired prior to the PS4’s launch.  I know my opinion rests amongst the minority, but will that change over the course of this generation?  After scouring countless message boards across the web, I’ve begun to see some sparks of discontent fly, sparks which have the potential to erupt into the fiery flames that fuel an awakening.  Simply put, people are beginning to understand that Sony isn’t the savior they once appeared to be.

Yes, Sony may have been able to resurrect a bed full of roses after Microsoft poisoned the soil with toxic waste, but were they really the ‘good guys’?  Not really.  For starters, Sony have experience selling a console that most consumers noped themselves away from… at least until cheaper iterations became available and the library had expanded.  Making this statement didn’t exactly help, either:

Ken Kutaragi:  “…for consumers to think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one’.  We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.”

Sony arrogance was at an all-time high… but people like to dismiss the ‘Sony is arrogant’ claim from conversation as if it were hyperbole, especially now that Don Mattrick – previous President of Interactive Entertainment Business for Microsoft – is on record saying:

Don Mattrick:  “We have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity; it’s called the Xbox 360.”

As a result, fan boys tend to partake in the continual volley of ‘my black box is better than your black box,’ or ‘your preferred company sucks, but mine understands what gamers want!’  And you know what?  Each and every person that holds that ‘mine is better than yours’ mentality is missing the point:  BOTH companies are arrogant.  From time to time, Sony AND Microsoft display a lack of common sense.  After all, no one is perfect.  Everyone makes mistakes.  However, when you’re in business and responsible for communicating with millions of potential consumers, mistakes are costly.  Sure, Ken Kutaragi probably meant well enough… maybe he meant the PS3 was so good, people would do whatever it took to get one.  Perhaps Don Mattrick was saying that Microsoft still fully supported the Xbox 360 as a viable option.  Or not.  Who knows?  Point is, loose lips sink ships, and both companies are now painfully aware of that.

But, here’s the difference:  Microsoft have done everything in their power to make the Xbox One an attractive option for consumers.  Has it worked?  Not entirely, but they’ve certainly come a long way and they’re fighting hard with the temporary price reduction this holiday.  Sony, on the other hand, have been watching the money roll in and… well, that’s just it.  That’s ALL they’ve done.  Not only have they sold over 10 million consoles – it’s what, 13 million now? – but they sneakily slipped multiplayer behind the PS+ pay wall.  What have their loyal customers seen in return?  There’s been a host of minor changes over the last year, but the only things of any real significance to come along has been ShareFactory – their video editing suit, which handsomely beats what Xbox has – and more recently, firmware 2.0.

Why was 2.0 going to be such a huge step forward?  Well, at launch, the PS4’s UI was clean, but its ‘home row’ setup left a LOT to be desired.  Imagine everything you ever downloaded or purchased showing up in one long, continuous row… all lined up in order of last app used.  It only took about a day of installing games – both physical and digital – to see how ugly things would get later down the line.

In retrospect, it’s like Sony just made as simple a user interface as they could… not so they could wow us with something clean and sharp, but to ensure their console got out the door on time for launch.  Why do I feel they weren’t ready?  Well, let’s take into consideration that of their two biggest features – SharePlay and Suspend Mode – only one has seen the light of day.  SharePlay – which allows one of your friends to play any game in your library, via streaming technology, for an hour at a time – was finally introduced in 2.0… nearly A YEAR after the console hit retail shelves.  Suspend mode – which allows you to leave your game and come back where you left off – is still floating in the ether with no target date in sight.  But joy, you get to change the PS4 UI’s background now!  Isn’t that great?!

But, oh, what’s this?  SharePlay isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Apparently, there are some restrictions that won’t allow you to share every game in your library.  What’s sure to be one of the biggest releases this holiday is already behind a restriction wall – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.  How can this be?  Sony previously promised SharePlay would work across ALL PS4 games, as there was no opt-out clause for developers/publishers.  Certain scenes were to be blocked, as to not reveal any major spoilers to potential customers, but that was it.

Well, that was a bunch of hocus pocus, because Activision said ‘Hahaha, sorry, but no,’ restricted every bit of Call of Duty, and Sony?  They’re in damage control mode, of course.  Here’s Sony, per Gamesbeat (of Venturebeat):

“Share Play is a system level feature enabled by System Software Update 2.00, making it available for all PS4 titles; however, the option is available to developers to disable the feature according to what they feel will best benefit the consumer experience,”

Sony made a promise they can’t keep?  That sounds awfully familiar… (link to the Driveflub article with that last bit of text) I guess they just hoped every publisher would fall in line?  Poor form, and poor business, at that.

That aside, the real problem with 2.0 isn’t what it did or didn’t include, but what it failed to do:  Keep the PS4 stable.  Basically, the console’s Standby Mode – which allows you to keep your PS4 in a low powered state so you can Remote Play or download updates when you’re not around – was renamed to Rest Mode… although some aggravated customers would probably dub it ‘Rest In Peace Mode’.

Basically, a bunch of people complained that after putting their PS4 to sleep, it refused to awaken.  Some were able to temporarily resolve the issue by holding their power button down for a while, rebooting in safe mode and rebuilding the database.  Others found that ensuring the disc drive was empty could work.  Various tweaks to system and color settings seemed to work for others, but none of these resolutions worked for everyone, and in some cases, some PS4’s were bricked.  And what really stunned me, was that there were STILL people apologizing for Sony’s goof.  Here’s a brief conversation I had on Reddit to show what I mean(name of the reciprocate kept private):

Some Guy: In the land of the entitled, everything is amazing yet…no one is happy.

Me: I don’t think there’s anything ‘entitled’ about expecting a machine people pay for, to work properly. Some people are getting stuck in an endless reboot loop, some can’t even use the power button to boot out of ‘rest mode’ and into ‘safe mode’. You spend $400 on a machine, it should work. Some on the internet can say, “Well, firmware can have some bugs to work out.” Why should that be something ‘we just deal with’? Why should that be acceptable?

Some Guy:  You paid that money to play games predominantly. Perhaps find a new, less stressful waste-of-money-type hobby? Or do what the rest of us are doing…waiting for it to be fixed. You seem to live in a perfect world where nothing goes awry and the cost of something immediately indicates it’s level of flawlessness. TL;DR Shit happens. Deal or kick rocks.

Me:  And when firmware comes along that’s preventing some from playing their games? I guess that’s to be expected with a $400 price tag, too?

Some Guy:  Expected? No. Reasonable considering it’s a relatively new system? Yes. Also, I own a launch-date console and it hasn’t given me one problem. Best 400 I ever spent.

Me:  So a firmware that can corrupt your $400 machine is reasonable? Okay. You must love licking the bottom of Sony’s boots when they want them shined.

I own a Wii-U, Xbox One and PS4. The PS4 is my console of choice this generation because it’s the one that performs the best with the multiplats, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call ‘bullshit’ when Sony are off their game. Ever since the launch of the PS4, it’s been clear that they launched this thing in a state that was ONLY able to play games. Microsoft did the same, but look how far they’ve come in the last year. Sony? Eh… In an effort to make sure nobody had a yearlong head start like last generation, they both released their machines in a state that wasn’t quite ready. Just ‘good enough to play games’.

Playing games is ultimately what counts, but Microsoft haven’t really busted anyone’s console with a nasty firmware update. They even have a program that allows certain users to test firmware at their own risk if they want to, which allows MS to gather feedback and release a good product to the general product when it can finally go live.

And that last bit highlights another difference between Sony and Microsoft.  A lot of people like to say, “Well this should be expected from Sony.  They’re not a software company like Microsoft…”  That’s not really an excuse though, is it?  If you buy an expensive product, you expect it to work.  Not only that, but you hope the company that sold you the damn thing doesn’t break it somewhere down the line.  How can they rectify this?  Easy:  Take a page from the book of Microsoft.  Allow people to enter some sort of testing program so they can report the kinks.  Then, Sony can use that feedback to correct issues before they become a problem for PS4 owners worldwide.

Sony are already catching lots of crap for how PSN has been an up-and-down roller coaster the past few months (or more), not to mention the botched Driveclub release… why risk bricking a bunch of consoles JUST before the busiest gaming season of the year?  Before the busiest SALES season of the year?  I don’t care if it’s arrogance or just poor planning; something isn’t right.  Their business model seems to be similar to that of South Park’s Underpants Gnomes:

1 – Release Hardware

2 – ??????

3 – PROFIT!!!!

That could work if your console was a ‘one and done’ sort of deal, like the NES, SNES, and so on… but this is 2014.  There’s plenty of competition out there, and make no mistake about it, it’s fierce.  I’m not sure how much longer Sony expects to ride the coat tails of the ‘Xbox One DNR Express’, but being ahead isn’t good enough.  Who cares who wins this month’s NPD’s, the year overall, or even this generation?  What does it matter if by the time the next machine comes around, people are saying, “This company makes good hardware, but man their support and service sucks”?  Hopefully they step up their game sooner, rather than later, because the honeymoon phase is coming to a close.

At least they’ve been quick to resolve the Firmware 2.0 debacle with patch 2.01… even if it doesn’t slap a band-aid over their broken SharePlay promise.  Unfortunately, I just can’t bring myself to feel all warm and fuzzy inside over it.  As I said before, the longer this issue lingered, the more units Sony would be replacing through the mail, and THAT would have been HORRIBLE press just before the holidays, especially with the Xbox One selling for $349.

Sony, I’ve got my eye on you.

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Cluster-Bits: PS4 Launch Title Impressions, Why the Wii-U Completes Our Next-Gen Console Selection

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I seem to have a habit of making a lot of posts and then dropping off the face of the Earth for a few weeks, and for that I apologize.  It’s obviously been a little difficult with the holidays, not to mention a three year old that catches colds like it’s his job… and then, of course, mommy and daddy get the distinct privilege of catching said colds.  I also write Blu-ray reviews for a fairly well known DVD/Blu-ray review site, so that occasionally takes precedence over my blog… because, you know… free stuff.  So with that said, let’s get to it, shall we?

Despite how much I loathe Nintendo for the company they’ve become, our household has finally decided that the Wii-U shall be our second and final console in the next-gen war.  Xbox One has really failed to grab my attention, but the Wii-U?  They may not end up with as many great games, but Nintendo’s first party titles are generally amazing – That said, don’t confuse great first party devs with Nintendo being a great company, because those are two entirely different ideas.

I really didn’t have much reason to own a Wii, because most of the games were created for a single reason – to exploit motion controls.  A good amount of Wii titles were mini-games with a party vibe and lost their playability in a matter of weeks, if not days.  WarioWare, Cooking Mama, Trauma Center… all good fun for a little while, but certainly weren’t games that were designed to appeal for years to come.  I enjoyed the Mario and Zelda offerings, but outside of that, the Wii didn’t have much I appreciated.  The Wii-U had a slow start during its initial year, but more titles are coming… and with the catalog of BOTH consoles now at my disposal, I’ve finally found enough reason to bring Nintendo back into the house.  Besides, my wife and son actually enjoy Nintendo games and we can all play together as a family.  That’s a primary reason to buy-in right there.

So far, I’ve only been able to play through the first six worlds in the New Super Mario Bros. U, as I’m taking my time and attempting to grab every star coin along the way, but it won’t be long before I’ll be able to talk about Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Super Mario 3D World, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.  I’m also working on getting a Wii backlog going, and have already picked up Donkey Kong Country Returns, Super Mario Galaxy, and a copy of A Boy and His Blob that I HOPE will work (can’t complain if it doesn’t though, as it was only $5).  Anyway, here are the titles I hope to pick up in the upcoming year:

Wii:

-Resident Evil 4

-Sonic Colors

-Zelda – Twilight Princess

-Zelda – Skyward Sword

-Super Mario Galaxy 2

-New Super Mario Bros Wii

-Super Paper Mario

-Muramasa

-Mario Kart Wii

-Okami

Wii-U:

-Pikmin 3

-ZombiU

-The Wonderful 101

I’m sure there’s more for both consoles I’d be happy to own, but that’s pretty much my tops.

Shifting gears, I promised reviews on some PS4 launch titles a while back… but since it’s been a while and I’ve played and completed much of what I picked up on day 1, I figured I’d provide my thoughts in a single blog post.  So, here goes:

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag: 

The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one that managed to escape me.  I don’t know how, and I don’t know why – Perhaps it had been the mixed reactions to the initial title?  Whatever the reason, I didn’t start collecting the AC games for my PS3 until mid-2013.  Up until the release of the Playstation 4, the only game I had a chance to play was the original with Altair and Desmond, and I loved it.  It was a little tedious as I got in the latter hours of the game, but it was still good fun.  Because I was interested in proceeding with the franchise, I decided to hold off on AC IV: Black Flag until I had a chance to catch up.  Once the reviews were released and began to call it a good starting point for new players however, I decided it would be worth picking up… and holy hell, I’m glad I did.  Black Flag is easily up there as one of the best games of 2013.  That’s my humble opinion, but many would tell you the same, with their only caveat possibly being The Last of Us.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence and give you an entire recap on what the gameplay entails.  There’s been 5 Assassin’s Creed titles before this… or 6, if you want to include the Vita’s installment.  What I will say is that as far as this game being n00b friendly is concerned, the reviews were spot on – A story arc has apparently closed in the previous game, and Black Flag does a pretty good job of filling you in on the events.  It doesn’t give everything away, mind you, but definitely gives you a vague gist of what happened.  The overall story used to be told strictly through modern day events, and while that still holds true in AC IV, you spend very little time in the present (near future?).  95% of the game takes place within the Animus, meaning you’re left to pillage and plunder as a pirate without much interruption.

And that’s the beauty of Black Flag – You really get to feel like a pirate.  The open world was actually pretty massive, and there was no shortage of things to do.  I could stop playing the main campaign whenever I wanted, and simply explore the seas and the land that I stumbled upon as an adventurer looking to line his pockets.  Throughout the entirety of the game, I was able to engage in TONS of naval combat and use my spoils to upgrade my ship and weaponry (not to mention my own like pirate town), and they got the naval combat right.  I was even able to attack seaside forts with the cannons on my ship, all while avoiding/attacking enemy ships and avoiding mortar fire from land.  Things got pretty intense, let me tell you.  Oh, and you can go out on a rowboat with harpoons and a hunt massive sea creatures.

Once I pulled up to land – be a it a small, uninhabited island or a town on the verge of becoming something more – I was able to look for animus fragments, treasure chests left in the open or even those of the buried variety, treasure maps, more sea shanties for my crew to sing aboard the ship, and hunt so you could craft better items.  The fact that you could do any of this at will without being forced to tackle the main story missions really helped to make my time in the Animus as immersive as possible, and I’d liken it being Batman in the Arkham-verse games – No matter what you do, you just FEEL the part the devs wanted you to be a part of.  A lot of people are claiming this to be the best title of 2013, and some even call it the best Creed game of all time (or, at the very least outside of AC II)… and although I haven’t had a chance to play the other games just yet, I can see why.  It’s not often I stumble upon a game where I could play the 15-20 hour campaign and then want to continue for another 20+, but that’s precisely what happened with AC IV.  So yes, it’s worth the money and then some – It’s worth it if you like a lengthy campaign, it’s worthy if you like a gameplay experience that can last for tens and tens of hours (the devs said there’s about 80 hours of content total), and it’s worthy if you’re a fan of the series, regardless of how you felt about the prior installment.  Pull the trigger on this one… or, at the very least, unsheathe your sword and ask for this game nicely.

Knack:

This game was met with polarizing reviews, and for the record, I can understand why.  Knack is not a title that everyone will enjoy, although it’s a title that everyone SHOULD enjoy.

Why all the hate, though?  Well, the gameplay mechanics aren’t exactly complicated.  You most run through each stage and collect block so Knack can get bigger and bigger, and at any given time you’re not given many enemies to deal with.  That said, there’s still a bit of difficulty because Knack dies quicker than you’d expect for a game that looks to be geared towards children.  So people complained that there wasn’t enough to do, the range of attacks wasn’t enough to contend with, and the growth and inevitable shrinking of Knack during each stage feels forced and takes away from the excitement of becoming a big, hulking beast of a fighter made out of relics.  I guess all I can say to those complaints would be, “Fair enough.”

But for me, I felt Knack was a hell of a lot of fun.  The story and graphical presentation were Pixar-esque, and exuded a certain amount of charm through and through.  That said, I feel one of the main characters were kind of irritating if not downright stupid at times, but it didn’t ruin the overall experience for me.  Anyway, Knack is, simply put, a beat ‘em up platformer that requires you to study enemy patterns in order to succeed.  Yeah, you might only face three enemies at any given moment (sometimes more, this is just an example), but it isn’t always easy to determine the most effective way to take them out.  Do you move in and attempt to get the ranged weapon user out of the way first, or should you clobber the guys up front because they’re quick and will destroy you before you even make it that far?  Or, do you play it safe and use the crystal energy you’ve accumulated and user a special power to obliterate them all?  As Knack, you have options, and it’s up to you to determine the best strategy.  This keeps the game challenging, especially in the latter parts of the game… but if you want some REAL fun, then you have to play on one of the harder difficulties.  ‘Normal’ may be too easy for seasoned gamers, so choose your difficulty wisely.

There are some interesting gameplay mechanics, and I enjoyed their utilization well enough, although there was a bit of hand-holding that will turn some people off.  Knack can turn into a pure crystal form for a short amount of time, and he can also accumulate ice and wood to bulk up, although they will break upon impact and melt or burn accordingly.  The problem with this idea is that you weren’t exactly free to gather materials at will… they were there, or they weren’t, and you sort of force fed everything you were supposed to do.  Same thing goes for Knack’s growth – Every level starts you out as tiny Knack, and you collect pieces throughout the level only to lose them once again by the end.  Rinse and repeat.  Would have been amazing if the ability to grow or shrink was dynamic and you could figure it out on your own, but once again, it’s all sort of built into the design of any given stage.

All this said, flaws and all, Knack is still a lot of fun.  It’s not ‘amazing’ or anything, but it definitely takes me back to the days where platforming was fun despite its simplicity.  I think if Knack ended up on a Nintendo console, people would have been raving about it and perhaps even calling Knack the next great mascot.

Battlefield 4:

I’ll have to update you all later on this one.  As you’re all aware, there’s been a slew of issues with this game on the PS4… well, and on every other platform for that matter.  I had started the single player campaign and experienced some crashes, and thankfully because I stayed away from the multiplayer mode, I hadn’t run into file save corruptions.  Not wanting to test fate any further, I decided to set the game aside play whatever else was at my disposal until Dice resolved a majority of their issues.  Needless to say, I was kind of upset that a game got released in this state, because it’s a hell of a promising title.  I’ll say that the controls look great, the campaign is average, and the graphics are incredible.

Need for Speed Rivals:

This franchise has been largely hit or miss for me.  There’s simply no consistency as far as the controls are concerned, and that’s troublesome.  Sometimes they’re very ‘arcade-racer’ like, and other times they’re a bit too realistic to have the amount of fun you SHOULD be having.  Fortunately, Need for Speed: Rivals seems to nudge itself between both styles of gameplay quite comfortably.  The car you start with is an impressive little machine, for sure, but you’ll have to be careful going around turns or when making last second decisions to go this way instead of that way.  As you race however, you accumulate points which allow you to purchase upgrades and make your vehicle stronger, faster and more responsive.  Although you’re faster and can handle turns with a bit of drifting (by tapping the brakes), you never feel unstoppable.  The ‘heat level’ from the cops keeps ramping up and soon there are choppers keeping tabs on you, and the police with even use electromagnetic gadgets to slow you down so they can hit you and damage your vehicle to the point of no return.  It’s a lot of fun trying to escape from the cops, and there are occasional checkpoints – posing as gas station/garages on the side of the road – that you’ll drive through to make your vehicle as good as new and keep the chase on.

But before I get ahead of myself, there’s something worth noting – The single player and multiplayer is rolled into a single package.  You’ll join a server with multiple other racers – although I typically get the feeling that they should allow more people per server – and you can challenge anyone you pass just by tapping a button.  You can even do certain objectives together as long as you’re both close enough to start around the same time.  Because you can begin any given challenge – be it from another racer or from an actual objective listed on the map – at any time, that means you can ramp up the fun by racing others while the heat is already on at the start… and this is where things really get interesting.

You have your own set of gadgets at your disposal.  You can use a small shockwave to make someone nudging your door to lose control of their car, blast the back of a car with an electromagnetic pulse (much like the cops), drop land mines that also deliver a temporary debilitating blast, and more.  Do I even need to explain how much fun this amounts to?  These tactics will slow your opponents down, thus making the cops thirstier for their capture.  Hell, performing a move at the right time could actually crash your opponents car, getting them busted since their car won’t be able to move.

Anyway, there are essentially two ‘campaigns’ you can play through – One as a racer, and the other as a cop.  You’re able to choose between which shortlist of objectives you’d like to complete next, and once you do, you’ll earn the right to buy a new car as well as additional upgrades.  This adds longevity to the gameplay while also providing you with two very different experiences.

That said, as fun as Need For Speed: Rivals is, I’m not sure how long it’s worth playing.  After a while, you get the sense that all you’re doing is the same old thing time and time again, and there just aren’t enough racers from the ‘real world’ at any given moment to add a sense of meaningful population.  I guess that’s just the nature of any open-world racing game, but regardless, I’m pretty sure this won’t be able to withstand the test of time.  If you’re an arcade racer fan however, by all means, this is a solid title.

Honorable Mentions:

Resogun:  Mix the gameplay of Gradius with the insane graphical style of Geometry Wars, and that’s Resogun in a nutshell… and yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.  I put a lot of time into this game near launch – mainly when I didn’t have enough time to sit down and actually invest in another game’s single player campaign – and it was some of the most fun I’ve had with a free indie title in quite some time.  That said, I haven’t touched it in a while, because the experience is largely the same from one level to the next… just with a semi-modified layout as well as an increase in difficulty.  Each level doesn’t make itself feel diverse enough from the last, which is a shame.  I guess the ‘turntable’ game design makes this an inherent flaw as opposed to one made by laziness, but it’s still worth noting.  Also, it may be difficult to figure out what is going on at first, as the game doesn’t explain some of its subtle, yet oh so important gameplay elements.  Make sure you grab this for free before it goes away for good, because it’s still one of the best ways to kill time there is.

Escape Plan:  This was an unexpected surprise.  It wasn’t free, but if you’re into puzzle solving, it’s worth the coin.  You take control over two nearly-faceless ‘things’ in a world of black and white, and essentially have to get them from point A, to point B without succumbing to the dangers that await them.  I wasn’t sure how well it would hold up, but man, it’s addicting.

One is a skinny little dude while the other is something of a blob, and you have to use their strengths and weaknesses when planning a strategy.  The big guy is often used for turning big wheels or standing on pressure plate switches, while the little guy can fill himself up with air and then be controlled by tilting the DS4 in any given direction… although my favorite is when he drinks a gallon of coffee and tweaks across the screen at high speed.

The controls are hard to get used to at first, but it all seems to make perfect sense after a while.  Draw circles with your finger on the DS4’s touchpad, and fans will rotate to clear the room of a deadly gas or even to lift/lower platforms.  You can tap on a wall to lure enemies into a trap, or scare sheep into running where you need them to be.  You’re also able to push things in and out of the environment, and many of these objects will only stay that way for a certain amount of time… so whatever you plan on doing after you’ve moved them, you better do it quick.

I haven’t completed the game just yet, but every stage adds new complexities and subtly bumps the difficulty.  If you’re looking for something that’s challenging in a puzzle-solving sort of way, give this a go.

Trine 2:  Another one I didn’t have the chance to finish just yet… or, actually play that much, but that’s because I’ve spent most of my time dealing with all the other games that came out since launch.  It’s a stunner in almost every way from what I can tell though… the gameplay mechanics are intelligent and require platform puzzle-solving, and wow, everything is beautifully rendered.  This game made its debut on the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, but Trine 2 looks better than ever on the PS4.

I’d like to give mention to some other titles, like Warframe or Contrast, but I just haven’t gotten around to playing them yet.  As you can see, I’ve been busy in the last month, month-and-a-half.  J

But then there’s the Wii-U… and once I’m able to delve into some games other than the New Super Mario Bros. U / Super Luigi U, I’ll discuss them.

Oh, and since I started writing this blog post… we’ve acquired a Nintendo 3DS XL… so expect some updates in regards to my experience with that (which thus far, is generally positive).

Bit-Review: Killzone-Shadow Fall

Yeah... it looks THAT good.

Yeah… it looks THAT good.

Killzone is the franchise that drew a line in the sand… even if it didn’t mean to. It’s not the best FPS series out there, but it has a strong following and for good reason, too – The graphics were jaw dropping and the gameplay actually felt fresh. Instead of merely complying with ‘twitch shooting’ mechanics, the devs opted for movement that took your weapon and armor weight into consideration. Furthermore, they implemented a realistic cover system which wasn’t some mere gimmick, but a vital tool for your survival. The Killzone Trilogy wasn’t a flawless experience by any means, but the alternative gameplay it offered over the likes of Call of Duty had been welcome with open arms. It comes as no surprise that Sony’s highest regarded FPS has made its way to the PS4, but now that it’s here, I’m afraid hype is probably going to work against it. It’s a fine entry in the series overall, but has some identity flaws that just can’t be overlooked.

You’re playing as a Shadow Marshal, which means you’re faster and more agile than the character in previous games. As a result, the controls are more in line with other shooters, as opposed to going against the grain with a weighted feel. As a fan, I was worried this would be a major detriment to the game’s enjoyment, but that wasn’t my experience at all. The gameplay is still heavily focused on cover and tactical maneuvers, so there really wasn’t much lost in translation. In fact, much has been gained – For starters, you have the ability to scan the area and detect and identify nearby enemies. Based on what you find, there’s a number of ways you can decide to dispatch them.

This is where the OWL comes in.

Your drone has been programmed to function in four distinct modes, each of which can be accessed by swiping the DS4’s touchpad (up, down, left or right). If you want to reach a ledge below, your OWL will provide a makeshift zip line. Enemies using high-tech shields? No problem, just have the drone blast an electromagnetic pulse, disabling your foes temporarily and leaving them open for attack. Furthermore, you can actually send your OWL in to attack for you. It’s capable of taking a couple of soldiers out on its own, but more than that, and it’s likely to come back for a recharge sooner, rather than later (it’s never completely destroyed). However, even in situations where the odds are against you, the drone’s attack mode is useful as a diversion so you can move into flanking position. Last but not least, it can set up a shield which will last as long as the OWL doesn’t take too many hits. As you can imagine, all of this brings an intriguing wrinkle to Killzone’s gameplay.

And I guess the best name for that wrinkle is ‘choice’, and the OWL offers plenty of that when it comes to dealing with the demon-eyed Helghast. The game actually tries to push us into the promise of freedom more often than not, but it’s merely an illusion. That’s probably the most disappointing thing about Shadow Fall in general – Lots of promise, yet never fully realized. The first level is semi-open and lulls you into thinking each level will be expansive and allow you to choose which objectives you’ll tackle in succession, but it isn’t long before the game sets you on a linear path that only LOOKS ripe for exploration. Some levels offer a fork-in-the-road approach to multiple tasks, but that’s hardly the sense of freedom this game hoped to evoke. The forks are often an illusion, too – Sometimes you can forego the obvious path by sneaking around in vents, but other times the vent is literally your only option to progress.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with linearity. It’s worked well for the franchise and continues to work in the latest iteration, but the game was touted as being something more, meaning those who ultimately expected more will be disappointed. Go in expecting more of the same however, and you’ll find the level design to serve its purpose well. You would think having the ability to scan environments and deploy a drone would make you unstoppable, but the devs have ensured the scale will rarely tip in your favor. As with previous installments, you’ll need to find cover from afar and plug away at the opposition methodically. While other games reward a pray and spray mentality, Killzone will put you down in a matter of seconds. So, use what’s at your disposal – Hide behind plants, walls or whatever else in the environment… but be snappy about it. A fair amount of cover options are destructible, which can work both for you and against you. Of course, much like the game’s ‘open nature’ (lack thereof), such freedom is only an illusion. Certain parts of the game allow you to blast through walls, but most of the time it’s only the small stuff that acquires battle damage.

Speaking of damage, health generation has been tweaked for Shadow Fall. As most other shooters nowadays, you’ll notice the outer edge of your screen going red if you’re close to death, and hiding is an effective way to get back in the green… and I mean LITERALLY back in the green. The light bar on your controller has been utilized by the devs as a health indicator – Green, yellow and red. In addition, you’ll find adrenaline packs littered throughout the game… and you’ll need them. If you’re low on health and can’t get to cover in time, it will boost your health and slow down time (think of the COD: MW3 round winning kill cam) while aiming down the sights. If you get sloppy and fall to the ground, your OWL can use the adrenaline to revive you. Of course, if it’s currently charging because it had to flee battle with its tail between its legs, then you’re SOL.

Another thing you’ll notice, is that the AI isn’t very smart. Yeah, they’ll chew you up and spit you out if you leave yourself vulnerable, but their movement is limited. They pretty much get in position and hide, only peeking out on occasion to squeeze off some rounds. The AI in previous Killzone titles had been substantially better, so it’s disappointing to see it take a back seat to all the action.

Anyway, outside of the normal ‘infiltrate – cover – attack’ scenario, Shadow Fall gives you plenty of other objectives throughout its 10-12 hour campaign… and some of them are jaw-dropping cinematic pieces you have some control over. You’ll hang on to a rope dangling from a helicopter, free-fall through the air, fortify and hold down a small base, maneuver and battle through zero gravity, use small bots to sabotage equipment and more. The variety of gameplay is definitely welcome, and helps to keep things from getting repetitive. The only thing they recycle time and time again is using the OWL to hack into computers. This is first utilized to deactivate alarm systems, but quickly devolves into a ‘get to this terminal and hack it so you can get to the next objective’, which gets tedious.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough about the gameplay. As one of the first exclusive PS4 titles, it’s absolutely gorgeous and really makes me excited for the future of console gaming. Graphics aren’t nearly as important as the gameplay, so I won’t prattle on forever… but the graphics go a long way in helping to sell this tale of a ‘world that’s been divided’. You fly over a city, and the draw distance is just… nuts. No lack of detail in distant buildings, no artificial haze to hide details, no tricks whatsoever. I noticed the OCCASIONAL pop-in, but this only occurred with minor details. Lighting is amongst the best I’ve seen in a console title to date, and the colors? Shadow Fall isn’t nearly as drab as its predecessors, that’s for sure. There’s plenty of bright tones this time around, and even when the game is at its darkest, there’s still color being used to bathe us in atmosphere.

Last but not least – I have to address the story. It’s some time after the events in Killzone 3 (30 years, I believe?), and each side of the opposition is basically separated by their version of the Great Wall. Of course, there are some things at play that hope to change all that, and you find yourself smack dab in the middle of it. As a soldier, you were raised to believe in the black and white scenario – You’re good, the other side is bad. Fortunately, the plot attempts to put us in a position where the line between right and wrong is blurred, but it doesn’t do a great job of driving it home. It’s conceptually sound, yes, but much like the previous Killzone titles, the central cast are mostly unlikeable (with the exception of ‘Echo’).

So far, my experience with the multiplayer has been fun, but there’s nothing new or innovative to write home about. If you want a variety of standard multiplayer modes with a control scheme that feels good, and with graphics that look phenomenal… then you’ll have fun. I know I did, but once Battlefield 4 is working the way it should, I expect most players to gravitate towards that.

So, as I said in the beginning – The game wants to provide this and it wants to present that… but Shadow Fall never reaches the heights it strives for. It’s just another shooter with a mediocre plot that’s driven by dull characters… but that’s not to say it’s a bad game. For all the negativity I’ve spouted, it’s only because I have a responsibility to give it to you straight. Still, it’s important I stress that most of the negatives were outweighed by the positives, because Killzone Shadow Fall is still fun as hell. There wasn’t a single time I said, “Come on, just end already.” I legitimately had a good time, and wouldn’t mind going back to play through the campaign again. In the end, that’s what a game is all about – Being fun. If it plays great and I have great time playing it, what’s left to say? I recommend Shadow Fall for anyone who picked up a PS4 (unless you simply aren’t a fan of shooters). It’s not a ‘killer app’, but is certainly leaps and bounds above most other launch titles I’ve played in previous generations.

Keep an eye in the not-too-distant future for my review of Knack. For the time being, I’m compelled to share that the game isn’t the downer that most reviewers made it out to be. It’s simple, but a lot of fun. That’s all I’ll say for now! Until next time!

Congratulations Xbox One – And A Reminder On Perspective…

First and foremost, congratulations to Microsoft for their release of the Xbox One, and congratulations to anyone who picked one up at launch. Thanks to the launches these last couple of weeks, Christmas has come early for many of us, indeed.

For some who haven’t read back in my blog, I’ve been asked if I plan on picking up an Xbox One to sit next to my PS4 – No. I can’t really afford to dump money on two consoles at once, and Microsoft made me pretty upset with their DRM policies early on. They’ve reverted, but the damage has been done. In terms of features and games though, the Xbox One seems like an awesome machine for those who want (mostly) full media integration in the living room, so all the power to anyone who prefers it to the PS4. Personally, I just don’t care about any of that stuff. I want a simple gaming machine, and that’s what the PS4 delivered. Games? I figure Sony is going to have the better exclusives, so I’m pretty excited to see what’s yet to come.

Anyway, there’s something I want to address – The internet hate. Holy shit, it’s been absolutely bananas. When the PS4 launched last week, Microsoft fans were jumping on Sony’s willy for having some issues… issues which were allegedly under 1%. Furthermore, fake reviews were written across the net in an attempt to make the PS4 look bad. There were those of us who said, “Media integration in our society is making this sound wayyy worse than it is… just relax, and enjoy your new console people. Xbox One will have issues when it launches next week as well… and not because we wish harm on the Xbox One, but because that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Well, here we are one week later, and guess what? The Xbox One has issues as well… and you know what? It isn’t a big deal. It sucks for anyone to have a bum console on day 1, but the vast majority are enjoying theirs. There’s no need to drag company names in the mud for errors which obviously happened in a variable manufacturing and shipping process. These things happen, and no product launches at a zero percent fail rate. Ever. Last week, I told many that the PS4 seemed to be well in line for a low rate of failure, and the Xbox One issues appear to be isolated as well.

This just goes to show you folks, that there’s no conspiracies and nothing sinister going on behind the scenes… this is product launch 101. If you’re that concerned about what awaits, get the extended warranty through your company of choice. But please, stop all the bickering online and stop trying to blow minimal fail rates out of proportion.

With that said and out of the way, I want PS4 and Xbox One owners alike to have a great time with their recently acquired games and consoles… I know I have.

Stay tuned to the blog for a review on Killzone Shadow Fall’s single player campaign in the next day or two!

Opinion-Bytes: Next-Gen Console Prices Aren’t Outrageous

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I remember a time when the going price for a console was $199, and at the time, it was undoubtedly a parent’s worst nightmare. Could you imagine the shock? Last year, little Jimmy only asked for a big-box toy which cost $40, but this year? He wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System, the premium in-home gaming solution that was priced at an ‘affordable’ $199. After his mom and dad finished cleaning the coffee the spit across the kitchen table, they figured it was time to start saving. After all, the kid had never asked for anything so expensive, and he was a good boy, so why not? Besides, an NES was the gift that kept on giving – Gone would be the days when a rainy day forced a child to drive his parents up the walls! Of course, that gift only kept giving as long as the parents did. Spare controllers were needed, game cartridges, and it wouldn’t be long before a Light-Gun and Power Glove would be added to the list.

Over the years however, prices have gone up. Consoles began to cost a little more, as did the games. Before long, a brand new console went for $299… and then the PS3 launched its premium package for $599, which made the future of gaming seem a little intimidating. Compared to that however, next-gen offerings aren’t going for the throat as many had imagined. The PS4 seems to be the bargain at $399, whereas the Xbox One, while offering more in the box, is asking for $499. While a majority of gamers consider these prices to be fair, if not better than expected (especially in the PS4’s case), there’s still a number of consumers who feel they’ve being extorted. To them, my response would be, “Really?”

Let’s just look at all the technological doodads many of us use, or see prominently displayed at retail. How about smartphones? Most of us have one, and most of us probably spend $199-$299 with contract terms attached. Want to upgrade early or get a phone without a contract? That price skyrockets to anywhere between $500-$700. How about those tablets that have become all the rage? There’s a variety of brands and models to choose from, but you can pay as little as $150, or as much as $1,000. Then there’s e-readers. They cost a bit less, you’re still likely to spend over $100. MP3 players are all the rage, and a decent one with larger storage capacity is going to set you well over $200, if not $300. There’s also laptops and PC’s to consider, as they’re the ‘other’ (and in many cases preferred) platform to game on, and we know the price for any kind of gaming rig can range from $500 to… well, the sky is the limit depending on how much you plan to future proof.

So I have to ask – Why is a console priced at $400 such a big deal? People obviously have no problem justifying the expense of various other devices, so why are consoles unable to escape the financial stigma they’ve been associated with? Yes, many of us remember the early days where consoles were only $200… but our dollar was worth more back then. Everyone’s aware that prices have escalated substantially over the years, and it’s hard to ignore the contrast of living costs from 1985 to where it’s at today… so why do some people feel that consoles shouldn’t cost more than $199 or $299? Some people just don’t want to spend that kind of money when a price drop is inevitable, and that’s fine – I’m strictly inquiring about the people who solely believe the price to be out of this world.

Part of the answer rests with the rate of inflation. We don’t seem to notice when things go up a few cents here and there, and even if we do, the cost isn’t enough for us to miss. “It’s just a few cents, who cares?” But that difference becomes increasingly notable over time, and because most of us don’t have time to ‘stop and smell the roses’, it’s a shock when we finally catch up with what’s happened. ‘Meh, it’s only a few cents’ is an attitude that knocks our perspective out of whack, and allows us to maintain an unrealistic idea of what things SHOULD cost. So, naturally, people are recalling the days when consoles were $200-$300, wondering why they have to spend at least $400 today.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone is ignorant. For the most part, we’re talking about human nature here, and the snail’s pace at which our economy gouges us is a blatant attempt to exploit that. I’m merely suggesting that if you’re one of the consumers affected by ‘sticker shock’, you should pick your jaw up off the floor and understand that these price hikes aren’t ‘just because’ (well, Microsoft could have dropped the camera and charged $100 less like Sony but, I digress). You’re more or less paying the same financial value as you did in 1985, or 1995, etc.

Outside of price, there’s the perception of gaming to consider. There’s a fair number of people who enjoy their time behind a controller, but consider it to be a lesser form of art (The Last of Us says hello, by the way). In the eyes of these individuals, consoles are nothing but mere toys, and what toy can be worth nearly half a grand?

Now THAT’S ignorance.

Consoles. Aren’t. Toys… Period. They’re PC’s that are designed specifically for gaming. Each unit is produced with uniform hardware, thus allowing everyone to experience each and every game as the devs intended. You can browse the web, watch DVD and Blu-ray, stream from various services (Amazon Instant, Netflix, etc) and your PC, and more. If you’re one who fails to see why consoles are so much more than toys, just ask yourself a question – do you consider your desktop and laptop to be toys? How about DVR, digital disc and mp3 players? If the answer is no, it’s time to reevaluate from a perspective of logic.

Gaming isn’t just some idiot’s chore, and pricing isn’t quite as crazy as certain people make it out to be. Games are just another form of expressive entertainment, and considering the hundreds, if not thousands of hours you’ll spend gaming throughout the course of single generation, half a grand really isn’t that much to ask.

But how do you feel about it? Do you feel that people have blown the prices to enter next-gen out of proportion, or that they’re justified? Are there any other angles to this debate that you care to express? Leave a comment, and I’d be more than happy to continue this discussion/debate.

Bit-History: Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts

My previous ‘Bit-History’ detailed my negative reaction to Super Mario Sunshine, a game which was ‘alright’ but felt like anything BUT a Mario game (many of those elements were there, but they just never came together in a cohesive package). Now, I’d like to do a 180 here and talk about a game from my childhood that I’m VERY fond of – Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts.

There’s no messing around here. The premise is as straight and simple as it gets – A princess is captured by some demons, and King Arthur has to kick some evil, medieval butt and get her back. The end. Usually a weak premise can hurt a game, but it works well enough for Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts… and why? Because the gameplay is equal parts awesome and infuriating. The game is challenging… like, you’d probably waste about $150 in the arcade trying to beat the damn thing… but the challenge, although punishing more often than not (ok, it’s punishing ALL the time), is what makes this such a unique experience.

Honestly, this game was the ‘Demon’s/Dark Souls’ of the NES and SNES. You needed to execute every move with surgical precision, or else you were toast. This required you to learn the pattern of your enemies and certain environmental hazards, and you often had to replay the same areas over and over again until you found the best way through each obstacle… and even then you could find yourself turned into a pile of bones. Why was this game so difficult? Well, there was always a lot coming at you, right from the beginning of the game. Zombies pop up from the ground, flaming skull columns pop up and shoot flame balls, while red-eyed wolves lunge through the air at you. Tidal waves will wash you away, demons will fly at you from angles that seem impossible to avoid, and that’s not even the tip of the hell-mouth. This game wants you to constantly be 100% offensive and defensive at the same time, and all it takes is two hits for you to die – One to lose your armor, and one more to lose your skin. What makes it hard to stay alive is the game’s jumping mechanism – Once you jump, you’re essentially ‘committed’ to going where you’re going… however, you are able to jump one additional time in mid-air, so you can correct your course if you absolutely need to. Unfortunately, this turns your back on the enemy, and you could find yourself jumping into another inescapable hazard that wasn’t there a moment ago. It’s a brutal game. BRUTAL.

But again, that was all part of the fun. I used to go to my friend’s house around the corner, and we would waste entire weekends trying to beat the game… and we never were able to do it. Ever. Still, there was something incredibly rewarding in being able to get further and further with lots of practice, and even if we couldn’t make a lot of progress, we just didn’t care. The atmosphere in this game was flawless. This game was an action/adventure nightmare, and every stage was fleshed out enough to give you the willies. Gravestones, cobwebs, fog, flames, old haunted sail-ships… what wasn’t to love? There was also a lot to appreciate when you’d survive long enough to gain the special golden armor that improved the abilities of whatever weapon you equipped… you felt proud for having played so well up to that point, but having such an increase in power provided you with a false sense of security. Normally when you acquire such amazing weapons in a game, you became practically unstoppable… but not so in Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts. Nope… your mistaken assuredness would make you just a tad bit confident, which was enough to cause you to make a mistake and get yourself turned into… yep, you guessed it, a pile of bones again. To add to the experience, the soundtrack was some of the most memorable ‘eerie-vibe’ stuff I’ve ever heard from the world of gaming at the time. It was exciting yet creepy, the major themes always orchestrated by a creepy MIDI sounding organ.

I still play this gem to this very day. Every once in a while I hook my PS3 controller up to my PC, run my SNES emulator, and after debating long and hard about which game I’d like to enjoy for nostalgic reasons and, honestly, to have a lot of fun since these games hold up incredibly well… Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is one of the rare entries that I find myself coming back to again and again… and you know what? I still haven’t been able to beat the damn thing, and I was a pretty hardcore gamer back in the day. For the Mortal Kombat games for example, I had every character’s moves and fatalities memorized for every game… I excelled at most anything I played. The fact that Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts is one of the few games that have defeated ME, is probably one of the reasons why it remains such a compelling play more than 20 years after the fact.

I think I just may have to fire up the emulator tonight…

Bit-History: Super Mario Sunshine

‘Bit-History’ is going to be my attempt at reliving games from the past which have left an impression on me, positive or negative.  To kick things off, I want to discuss a game that I’m really not very fond of, spurred by a conversation I had just recently on a forum I frequent.  “He’s not going to bad-mouth Super Mario Sunshine, is he?”  Why yes… yes he is.

Before the Gamecube, I was a huge Nintendo fan, thinking anything they would ever do would amount to pure gold.  As far as the future of gaming was concerned, there was no question in my mind that Nintendo was going to lead the way.  Boy, was I wrong.  For me, the Gamecube was a huge disappointment.  Those tiny discs seemed like a joke, and the console itself looked more like a toy than an actual console.  But, aesthetics aside, my major gripe was the horrid controller.  I mean, what the hell were they thinking?  It’s the most awkward control scheme I’ve ever used, and it should go down in history as a prime example of what not to do.  But, I had to work with what I was given, and what was a better game to give my new crap-tastic controller a workout than Super Mario Sunshine?  I would have to run, jump and slide with surgical precision, so the controller was really going to be pushed to its limit.

Well, let me begin by running down a shortlist of some positives about this game – Compared to Mario 64, the controls were refined, and the camera wasn’t nearly as awful as it was in its N64 predecessor.  The ‘world’ that was created for this game was bright and colorful, absolutely shattering the limited color-scheme that was on display in Mario 64.  Yes, the game looked great and it controlled even better, the latter of which making for a pretty fun and at times challenging experience, two qualities which have always been at the core of the series.

That being said, the positives are ironically intertwined with the negatives.  First, let’s talk about that beautiful world which Nintendo had created for ‘Mario’s vacation adventure’ – Bottom line, is that it just didn’t feel like a Mario game.  Mario was always at the center of the screen, and most of the baddies we were familiar with ran amok in each of the paint-portal worlds, but it all felt misplaced.  Nothing felt like it fit in with the environment, but I guess this is really sort of nitpicky.

Nah, what really bothered me most of all was the convoluted ‘story’ and the new gameplay mechanic that was introduced.  Basically, Mario goes on vacation but is arrested and charged for vandalizing the island with a bunch of black gunk.  The real culprit is ‘Shadow Mario’, but the natives have made up their mind and can’t/won’t distinguish between the two.  This premise introduces us to a new accessory for Mario to utilize during his travels – the FLUDD pack, which is essentially a glorified water gun.  So instead of just platforming, you have to use this thing to spray away the dirty stuff… you know, because ‘cleaning’ sounds like fun.  Furthermore, your pack obviously can’t provide an endless supply of water, so you constantly have to find a water source and refill the damn thing.  My question, obviously, is why the hell did the developers feel the need to tack on such a useless piece to the gameplay?  I mean, yeah, Mario Galaxy had a ‘space’ thing, but it kept platforming at the core of the experience.  Not so with Mario Sunshine, which actually forced you to work around the limited abilities of your ‘FLUDD’ device.  Mario doesn’t require a gimmick… and in this case, that gimmick managed to hurt the gameplay.

Conceptually, the game feels rushed.  “How can we introduce a new environment that can show off the Gamecube’s potential?  I KNOW!  An island resort!”  “Wonderful!  But how can we improve on the gameplay, even though Mario really doesn’t need that?  A WATER HOSE!”  The funny thing is, developers have noted a concern about throwing Mario into a world that feels so un-Mario-like, yet they moved ahead in this regard anyway.  At least in Mario 64, you were accessing magical worlds through the paintings in a castle, and each of the worlds within FELT very much like something you’d expect out of a Mario game.  Mario Sunshine’s tropical locale failed to create a similar feeling.

But, I know I’m going against the grain here.  So many people defend Mario Sunshine ‘because it’s just fun’, and Nintendo fans will vehemently defend the Gamecube, despite the fact it really didn’t have THAT many great games.  Super Mario Sunshine was one of the best experiences on the console… and isn’t that saying something?