Well… At Least 2015 Is On The Horizon

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While some promising titles have seen the light of day in 2014, I have to be honest: It’s been a disappointing year. Not because there weren’t any games to play, mind you. In fact, I was overwhelmed with the number of titles to play across various platforms (PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Wii-U, 3DS). No, what really soured the year for me was that most games just didn’t live up to their potential. Nothing stood out enough to make me say, “Wow, this could be game of the year.” As it stands right now, my best of 2014 (so far) list would be dominated by remakes and remasters… but they don’t count. Francis Ford Coppola could re-release The Godfather, but that doesn’t mean it would be eligible for any current awards. If they COULD count, my conscience wouldn’t allow it. I’d much rather stick with my respectable ‘chosen by default’ list of originals.

But don’t mistake my disappointment for surprise. Every time we move to a new console cycle, we, as gamers, have little choice but to clasp our hands together, breathe deep, and wait for developers to acclimate and produce. That takes time, of course, and I wasn’t expecting the PS4 and Xbox One to match the industry’s output in 2013… which, by the way, included the likes of Rayman Legends, Pikmin 3, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Assassin’s Creed IV, Super Mario 3D World, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us.

Even so, it felt like something was amiss this year. I know there’s a number of gamers that want to enjoy their products without focusing a critical eye on the industry, but I think it’s important – if not imperative – that we try our best to do both. Of course, that’s a difficult proposition when you’re left to wonder where that game of the year is…

The first title to really make waves in 2014 was, without question, Titanfall. I mean, the hype was unprecedented. According to Wikipedia, it took over 60 awards at its E3 2013 reveal, ‘including a record-breaking six E3 Critics Awards: Best in Show, Best Original Game, Best Console Game, Best PC Game, Best Action Game, and Best Online Multiplayer.’ IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey contributed to the hype, saying, “You will buy an Xbox One for Titanfall, and you should.” Needless to say, the hype was unprecedented.

As a ‘consumer watch’ side note: Why did Ryan McCaffrey go on record with such high praise? I could understand if he said something like, “Wow, this game is really promising. It could really shape up to be something special.” But he didn’t do that. He told people they should buy an Xbox One for Titanfall… without having seen the final product. Is it any wonder why people tend to take everything IGN (or various other industry ‘news’ sites) says with a grain of salt? I mean, this guy is an Executive Editor, meaning he probably overseas the work of other writers, ensures articles hold up to IGN’s standards, and even produces some of his own content. Furthermore – and this is the kicker – he probably makes and maintains relationships with various partners (as is typical for his job title). So, what was this guy’s motive? To maintain a relationship with the publisher (EA)? To get quoted on the back of a case? Ah well. The guys at IGN believe they’re on the right side of integrity…

So, back to it: What was wrong with Titanfall? It certainly wasn’t the core gameplay. No, the mech battles and parkour inspired verticality were a breath of fresh air in a genre staled by Call of Duty. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough content to back the gameplay. The campaign was shallow, boiling down to 9 multiplayer maps (and only two game modes between them). Multiplayer – the crux of the game – was also thin. More maps entered the fray with DLC – surprise, surprise – but it wasn’t enough to keep me playing. Again, Titanfall isn’t a BAD game… just lacking, and in a pretty big way.

Later that month, Infamous: Second Son broke the scene, and after many had expressed disappointment with the PS4’s launch lineup, it was poised to be the system’s first killer app. Its predecessor was a real treat: Character development was spot on, the story always had that much needed sense of urgency, and the gameplay had a great balance between challenge and fun. Second Son, on the other hand, seemed to take a step backwards in most respects. It’s one of the best looking next-gen titles to date, but the campaign has little variation in story and side quests, and secondary character development was seemingly saved for – again, what a surprise – DLC. I understand the devs had the task of introducing us to a new lead in an oppressive political climate, but variety is the spice of life, is it not? Get the drones, spray paint walls and billboards, take out the enemy strongholds, rinse and repeat… that was it. It’s a fun game overall, but again, just didn’t reach its potential.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes… I know the typical response is to say that it was a glorified tech demo. I hate to jump on that bandwagon… but it was. A really fun tech demo, sure, but certainly not worth its asking price.

Watch Dogs was set to launch on virtually every platform in November, but was delayed until May. There was a bit of controversy about graphical downgrades, but I bought it anyway because it’s the GAMEPLAY that counts. As far as strolling through virtual Chicago goes, the devs really brought it to life. Citizens were walking, talking, jogging, you name it. I even came across a couple arguing at a hotel: The man stood in the parking lot, pleading for his significant other to forgive his infidelity. She, on the other hand, was tossing his belongings over the balcony. Small touches like this made all the difference, and I don’t think enough credit is given for the ‘world’ that’s been created. It. Was. ALIVE. And, because Chicago WAS so immersive, I spent a great deal of time snooping on people and doing the side quests. Then, I went back to the campaign, only to get bored. Why? Because there’s virtually no difference between the story and side content. Watch Dogs recycles the same few game modes over and over again. Say it with me now: Fun for a while, but didn’t reach its potential.

Mario Kart 8 – much like Titanfall and Infamous – was also poised to be a system seller… and to be fair, it was. Still, it felt a little light on content. Sure, there’s always been four new cups and four old, but that’s precisely the problem: Half of the core game is remakes of old tracks. Nintendo fans have more or less told me “That’s just the way it is.” But that’s not really a good justification, is it? Furthermore, why does the roster feature so many duplicates? Doesn’t Nintendo have a wide enough array of characters that they shouldn’t have to resort to this sort of thing? The lack of unique tracks and roster slots are going to be addressed… but – surpriiiiiise! – as paid DLC.

In September, Bungie finally got to launch their new franchise: Destiny. From the get go, I absolutely adored this game. See, I’m the kind of guy that HAS to play through the campaign first and tackle multiplayer after, and Destiny broke me of that habit. It didn’t matter how I bounced between strikes, patrols, campaign missions, PvP and even other fire teams… everything was integrated well enough, that I never felt like I was leaving the core game. That said, I recognized and even acknowledged the game’s numerous flaws… but I was having so much fun, that I didn’t care. Once I hit the soft level cap of 20 though, my opinion began to change, and it was only a short while before I lost the will to justify the lack of content, plot, character development, etc. Yes, the veil had been lifted, and I finally accepted Destiny for what it was: A DLC platform. An empty shell of a game.

I don’t really want to take a lot of time to comment on Shadow of Mordor since I haven’t completed the campaign, but there’s something missing from that game, too. Yes, the Nemesis system is amazing and is precisely the sort of thing I want to see from this generation of gaming, but it’s not the 8 or 9 out of 10 most of the early reviews made it out to be. And, if you’ve been following the news as of late, it seems that those reviews were compromised by WB Games… sort of a ‘don’t talk negative about our game and we’ll give you a digital code’ sort of deal.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity was supposed to wow everyone with a highly detailed recreation of Paris. The city is certainly gorgeous, but the rest of the game has been criticised for a slew of immersion breaking bugs. The game allegedly has 25GB of lighting data, but shadows come and go as they please. Characters will pop in from 30 yards away. The main character fell through level geometry. The frame rate regularly dipped below 30fps and, at times, looked like a slideshow. Technical issues aside, is Unity a fun game for Assassin’s Creed fans? Yes, but hold on to your money and wait for Ubisoft to confirm the game has been fixed. Also, you should ask yourself if you’re tired of the franchise at this point or not. While Unity is certainly fun, it isn’t ‘Black Flag’ fun.

Halo: The Master Chief Collection was supposed to make people want to buy an Xbox One, but a key component – multiplayer matchmaking – didn’t work at launch, nor two weeks after the fact. But, if you don’t care for multiplayer, that’s all well and good. After all, there’s four stellar campaigns that have received performance upgrades. Oh, and Halo 2 has been given a COMPLETE overhaul. But, for people like me who have more games than they know what to do with, these campaigns may not have been the primary selling point. I’ve played Halo 1-4 a bunch over the years, and while I have no doubt I’ll revisit them again in the future, all I wanted was to relive some of the best multiplayer console gaming has to offer… and 343i botched it.

There’s other games, of course, but I haven’t been able to get hands on with some of the notables as of yet. Sunset Overdrive is on my Christmas wish list, as is Little Big Planet 3. I have Far Cry 4, but Dragon Age: Inquisition is also waiting for me on my game rack…

“Woah, Mr. Zupan. You’re forgetting some important releases!”

Well, I can’t talk about EVERY game.

I guess I glossed over South Park: The Stick of Truth. Honestly, it was an excellent RPG and I enjoyed every minute of the 16 hours it took to slay the campaign. Keep in mind, those hours INCLUDED the side quests. That said, 16 hours is nothing to scoff at… but once you beat the game, there was nothing left to do but start over. Dark Souls II was amazing, but in many ways failed to live up to its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong: These are really good games… but not ‘great’.

Not that there weren’t games that took me be surprise. Wolfenstein actually EXCEEDED expectation (which, granted, was pretty low to begin with). But the most refreshing game this year, at least for me, was Bayonetta 2. Yep, Microsoft and Sony are going to have to pound sand this time around. The Wii-U exclusive is absolutely smashing, both literally AND figuratively. It has INSANE over-the-top action coupled with breathtaking set-pieces, and the combat offers enough variety that it remains fresh and satisfying throughout. The only downside is that it’s an incredibly linear experience, but I was having so much fun watching Bayonetta unleash her ballet of pain, I just didn’t care. Oh, and they ported the original Bayonetta on its own Wii-U for this release, at least in the United States. THAT’S how you support a release.

Just for fun, I’ll talk about those remasters now:

I had never played the new Tomb Raider, so my time with it on the PS4 was pure bliss. The Last of Us made its way to the PS4, and I didn’t regret the upgrade for a single second. Diablo III (Xbox One / PS4) wasn’t only an improvement over the original PC edition, but I found it to be the definitive version overall. Rockstar seemingly did a bang-up job with Grand Theft Auto V, too.

But, like everything else in this article, while there’s a positive take on all these remasters, it only makes the rest of 2014’s line-up look all the weaker. When some of the best games of any given year are titles we’ve already played… well, isn’t it obvious that something isn’t right?

Here’s hoping 2015 rounds out to be better in every perceivable way.

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Opinion-Bytes: Sony’s Driveflub

Driveflub

I remember the day that Sony announced the Playstation 4, and vividly, at that.  They came out with a consumer friendly machine, $100 less than the competition at that, and… say whaaaa?!  They slipped multiplayer behind a PSPlus pay wall?  Sighs.  I wasn’t happy about being bent over a barrel, so to speak, but I didn’t feel I had much choice but to sit there, hope Sony’s ‘entry’ would be gentle, and take it.  I wasn’t going into the next generation of gaming without multiplayer.  I just wasn’t… and they knew it.  Ah well.  At least they promised to use that additional revenue to improve the service.

In an interview with  Computerandvideogames.com:

Yoshida explained the move was necessary to maintain a high quality service and facilitate improvements and expansions.
 
“That’s (was) a big decision,” he said. “what we internally discussed and decided is that we will continue the free access to online play on PS3 and Vita, so that’s clear. But because on PS4 the online connectivity features such as second screen, auto downloads and share features – these are one big pillar of the PS4 experience and we will continue to invest in this area to expand and improve these online features and services.
 
“If we keep giving away online access for free, the natural pressure is that we have to cut down on the cost to provide this free service. But that’s conflicting with our goal of being able to provide very robust and great online services going forward. So we decided that on PS4, because we want to continue to invest and improve our new services, we’ve asked the most engaged consumers in the online activities to share the burden with us so that we can continue to invest.”

Unfortunately, PSN is still very much the quirky experience that was provided on the PS3.  It seems to work more often than not, but more and more, we’re seeing the service go down for one reason or another.  Of course, these minor interruptions were somewhat acceptable on the PS3.  After all, multiplayer was free, and in a way, something of a privilege.  People are PAYING for this service on the PS4 though, so it’s no longer a privilege.  No, customers pay for it, and when customers pay for something, they expect it to work.

And it’s not as if Sony can just say, “Well, that’s multiplayer for you!  Anything can go wrong at any time.  It’s the nature of the beast!”  They can’t say that because Microsoft’s service is, and always has been much more stable.  A lot of people like to say, “Well, yeah, because Microsoft is a software company.”  Does that really matter, though?  If you provide a paid service, it needs to work.  Constantly.  It doesn’t matter if said service comes from a staff of 3 or 3,000… people will settle for nothing less than consistency.

Anyway, even though Sony had everyone by the brass with their pay wall shenanigans, they wanted to ensure the masses saw this as ‘value’ instead of extortion.  So, they got out the ol’ stick, tied a carrot to the end of it, and dangled it where everyone could see:  Evolution Studios were going to provide their next AAA driver to PS+ subscribers free of cost… well, most of it.  ‘Rushy’, a developer with Evolution, had this to say on NeoGaf:

Rushy’s NeoGaf post

“You can earn the platinum trophy in the PS+ Edition, remember its the full game minus a few cars/tracks.”

Of course, the game was delayed, and it’s been a sore spot with the gaming community ever since.  Certain people went a little overboard with their ‘give me free stuff now’ attitude, but there’s no sense in blaming consumers for feeling duped.  I mean, Sony and Evolution worked together in SOME capacity to soften the blow of PS+ as a pay wall… and then the game wasn’t ready.  More than that, there were some pretty egregious PR blunders that followed.

One such example was the digital upgrade fiasco.  Via Twitter, Joshua Hood (@joshlhood) asked Shuhei Yoshida – President of Sony Computer Entertainment – “(would there) be a discounted package to upgrade to the full game?”  Yoshida confirmed this would be the case, and sure enough, news broke that a digital upgrade would cost $50 instead of the usual $60… but according to the official Playstation blog:

Playstation Blog:

“This will give you access to all five locations, 55 tracks, 50 cars and all 50 tour events, as long as your PlayStation Plus subscription remains active.”

That’s right.  If you were to opt for a slightly discounted version of Driveclub, it would only remain playable as long as your PS+ account was active.  Keep in mind that discounts via PS+ have NEVER worked this way.  Once you buy a game, you own it.  Period.  Fortunately, gamers told Sony and Evolution ‘no thanks’ and the issue was resolved.

But wait, there’s more:

2-panel-its-free-l “One of the recurring questions we keep seeing is about the scale of the Playstation Plus Edition.  The simple answer is that with an active Playstation Plus subscription, you can download Driveclub Playstation Plus Edition, which comes with one location (India), 11 tracks, 10 cars and access to all game modes.

11 tracks and 10 cars?  Does that even come close to Rushy’s promise of ‘the full game minus a few cars/tracks’?  44 tracks and 40 cars… that’s how much the PS+ edition is leaving off the table.  I know some of you are probably saying, “Look, regardless of how much content you’re getting, it’s free.  How can anyone complain about something they’re getting for ‘free’?”  Again – and I hate to sound like a broken record here – this goes back to the idea that ‘free Driveclub’ was used to soften the blow of Sony locking multiplayer behind subscriptions.  Regardless of intent, this whole thing turned out to be little more than a terrible case of bait-and-switch.  Let’s break it down:

Sony locks multiplayer behind a pay wall, but uses Driveclub as an added incentive for joining PS+.  Millions of people purchased the PS4 and a PS+ sub to go with it… and then Sony and Evolution said, “Sorry, did we say free game?  What we MEANT was you’d receive a glorified demo…”

But wait, there’s even more:

On October 7th, Driveclub finally saw its launch after a nearly year-long delay.  Unfortunately, the multiplayer component – the very crux of the game – just wasn’t working.  There were intermittent connection issues which only intensified as time went on.  As a result, the PS+ edition of Driveclub was canceled ‘indefinitely’.  A number of people tried to justify this as day 1 multiplayer woes – which shouldn’t be ‘a thing’, let alone an expectation – but something was clearly amiss when things didn’t get better on days 2, 3, 4, and so on.

Oh, and customers for a refund from Sony were flat-out denied.  “Hi, Sony.  I bought Driveclub the other day, but it’s defective and the devs have no clue how long it’s going to take before these issues are resolved.  I’d like a refund so I can purchase a different game that works.”  In what universe is it okay for Sony to say, “Nope, sorry.  No refunds.”?

On October 12th via Twitter, Rushy (@Rushy33) broke the silence to respond to some inquiries:

“We’ve got no limits to the amount of servers or the quality of hardware, it’s purely down to server code having bugs.”  In regards to some sort of compensation, his only response was, “We’re considering all of our options right now.”  It was later clarified that early adopters could receive (some) free DLC, but resolving their server bug(s) is, obviously, their current priority.

I think it’s safe to call this the worst next-gen game launch since Battlefield 4.  I also can’t help but wonder if people behind-the-scenes knew about these issues beforehand.  I mean, between the retail release and the free PS+ version, they should have anticipated MILLIONS of people raking their servers over the coals… and yet, they couldn’t even accommodate their paying customers?  As of this writing – October 15th – the game still isn’t 100%, and there’s no answer as to when the game will be fixed or when people can expect to play the (gimped) PS+ edition.

But in a way, I’m glad this happened.  Not because I hate Sony or anything nefarious like that.  I actually own both an Xbox One and PS4, and for obvious reasons, Sony’s black box is my primary gaming machine.  That said, I’ve been saying for MONTHS how Sony have done virtually nothing to keep getting, or even maintain the amount of good will they had before their console launched last November.  We’re still missing certain features that were promised at the time of its reveal, they haven’t done much in the way of optimizing their multiplayer service, and this ‘Driveflub’ is just another mark on a long list of promises that haven’t been met… and people are finally coming around.  THAT’S why I’m glad this happened.

And just to speculate a little, I wouldn’t put it past Sony to tell Evolution Studios, “Guys, you’re not going to delay this game again.  We’d, like, look totally bad if we did.  So, do whatever you have to.  What’s that?  The dynamic weather system won’t be done until November or December?  Well, take it out of the game for now, and when it’s ready, patch it in and call it ‘free DLC’.  People LOVE feeling like you’re giving them free stuff!”

Anyway, I was going to buy Driveclub, but this horrific launch chased me over to the other racing game which was released only a week prior:  Forza Horizon 2, and it’s fuuuuuun.  Not only is it fun, but it’s well polished and everything works the way it’s supposed to.  As far as blind buying Driveclub… well, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.  First and foremost, its issues need to be addressed, and even then, I’m going to wait until I can try the ‘demo’ before making a decision.  I know there are a lot of people that don’t have an Xbox One, so picking up Forza Horizon 2 isn’t a viable solution for them.  That said, don’t send the message to Sony or Evolution that everything that transpired is okay.  At the very least, this game shouldn’t receive consumer support until it’s working the way the developers intended.

Sony and Evolution Studios, here’s what it all boils down to:  If you promise something to consumers, they’re going to remember.  Don’t pull a bait-and-switch even if it’s unintentional.  Last but certainly not least, games need to work.  If you had to delay the game another few weeks or so, yes, you’d catch a lot of crap… but so what?  The backlash over this ordeal is likely going to cost Evolution some fans, and, well, I think people are finally coming to realize that while Sony makes great hardware, they’re not the most reliable company around.

Byte-Size Video: Discussing AC: Unity Parity and DriveClub Launch Issues

While playing Shadow of Mordor, I talk about the Assassin’s Creed: Unity 900p/30fps controversy, as well as launch issue that’s been plaguing the Driveclub servers.  This also stems into some discussion about PS+ and how Sony have dropped the ball in regards to bettering their service (which they had promised to do).

Source

This article quotes Yoshida talking with CVG at E3 in 2013, specifically in regards to the decision of the change with PS+. The article states ‘Yoshida explained the move was necessary to maintain a high quality service and facilitate improvements and expansions.’

“That’s (was) a big decision,” he said. “what we internally discussed and decided is that we will continue the free access to online play on PS3 and Vita, so that’s clear. But because on PS4 the online connectivity features such as second screen, auto downloads and share features – these are one big pillar of the PS4 experience and we will continue to invest in this area to EXPAND AND IMPROVE THESE ONLINE FEATURES AND SERVICES.

“If we keep giving away online access for free, the natural pressure is that we have to cut down on the cost to provide this free service. But that’s conflicting with OUR GOAL OF BEING ABLE TO PROVIDE VERY ROBUST AND GREAT ONLINE SERVICES going forward. So we decided that on PS4, because we want to continue to invest and IMPROVE OUR NEW SERVICES, we’ve asked the most engaged consumers in the online activities to share the burden with us so that WE CAN CONTINUE TO INVEST.”