Well… At Least 2015 Is On The Horizon

sigh-95m6d3md3-110474-485-321_large

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.

Remember, Remember, The 11th of November…

HaloMatchmaking

I know the holidays are when publishers want to release their most ambitious games… but come on, guys. Really?

In late spring/early summer, the fall months were already overloaded with games. So, I began to scrimp and save, until I finally amassed enough coin to purchase Bayonetta 2, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Grand Theft Auto V, and Far Cry 4… with the latter four split over two consecutive weeks. And these were only MY must-have titles. The rest of the gaming community had to weigh Sunset Overdrive, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Little Big Planet 3, and Smash Bros. for the Wii-U. For all intents and purposes, November was primed to be every gamers wet dream… so, why do I feel like the industry is in shambles now more than ever? The media’s ranting, gamers are raging, and… well, okay, that’s par for the course. So, let me put it this way:

On November 11th, when I SHOULD have been enjoying Halo and Unity, I was playing Super Mario 64 instead.

What the hell happened?

Well, from my perspective, this generation of gaming has… how do I put this gently? “A lot of room for growth.” Nintendo has decided to release yet another iteration of the 3DS, while expanding their focus to include cheap toys – that is, high in price and cheap in quality – and DLC.

In green vs. blue land, Microsoft is competing while Sony hardly competes. Resolution and frame rates have become marketing tools. Lies and broken promises continue to litter the landscape of consumer relations. Make no mistake about it; patience thins as incompetence grows. As a result, you would think the major publishers would take every precaution to ensure their games shine at the time of release… and yet, the opposite is happening. While it’s true that day 1 patches have become the norm, most of these come and go without a peep from the gaming community. And why? Because these updates are perceived by many to be trivial. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. But over the last couple of months – if not the entirety of this generation – the industry has sunk to a new low.

“The game just launched. OF COURSE it’s buggy!”

Let’s be clear: Nobody should EVER justify poor quality control as, “That’s just the way it is.” All that justification does is inform the industry that people are okay with products that don’t work as advertised. But… why? Why should they be granted amnesty? Battlefield 4 was broken for, what, half a year or so? Destiny was hyped to the high heavens, yet only the shell of a game had been delivered. Driveclub’s multiplayer was a joke, and its PS+ version is still a promise laughing from the wings. The Evil Within had a bunch of performance issues. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare suffered from some multiplayer hiccups. The sad thing? This list is only the tip of the iceberg.

Things truly came to a head on November 11th. Mark this on your calendar as the day apologists allowed a dose of reality to seep in: The industry is focused on launch windows so much, that releasing a finished product has become a secondary concern. I know, I know: Some will find that last statement to be a double-barreled load of hyperbole… but is it? On this date, two of 2014’s most anticipated games were unleashed, and both were clearly not ready to leave their respective stables. It doesn’t matter what school of thought you want to bring to the table: This. Is. Not. OK.

halocrack

Halo: The Master Chief Collection. For all intents and purposes, this was poised to move Xbox One’s and increase the average software attach rate. EA’s Titanfall was the previous steward of such responsibility, but let’s be honest – It failed to make a significant enough splash. So, Microsoft looked to 343i to deliver its beautifully culminated package of Spartan and Cortana for the holidays. Unfortunately, 343’s early Christmas present to their parent company amounted to little more than a black eye.

For starters, 343 Industries decided to punish consumers for choosing physical over digital. Unintentional, I’m sure, but that doesn’t really make the situation any better. Weeks prior to release, the studio announced there would be a 20GB update on day 1. And no, that isn’t a typo: 20GB (although it was condensed to 15GB just prior to release). Why? Because the single player campaigns utilized all 45GB of usable disc space. No big deal, right? 343i had included a second install disc for Halo 4, right? Well, this time they said, “Screw it, that costs money. Let’s just let people download the additional content at home.” How is it I perceive this to be punishment? Because people who pre-ordered digitally could access the update ahead of time, meaning they could play the game on the stroke of midnight at launch. The rest of us had to wait until we downloaded that behemoth of an update…

…only to find out the matchmaking didn’t work.

When I complain about this around the web, the common response I get is, “You can enjoy the single player for the time being. 343i will fix it.” True enough, except I – and many others – purchased the Halo collection primarily for multiplayer. Not only that, with the onslaught of games being released at the moment, I have next to zero motivation to play Halo 1-4. I’d much rather play something new.

Good thing Assassin’s Creed: Unity was there to save the day, right? Right?!

unity9suje-665x369

While I HAVE been enjoying my time with the latest dose of ‘sneak-stab-climb’ from Ubisoft, there’s no excuse for the condition this game was released in. There was a pretty big stink raised when the devs announced they ‘achieved parity’ between the Xbox One and PS4 iterations. Why? Because people believed the Xbox One was holding the PS4 version back at 900p and 30fps. Personally, we didn’t have any facts to back such a claim, so I decided to wait and see how everything shook out. There’s really nothing wrong with 900p, is there? 1080p is much better, of course, but Ryse was 900p, and stands – a year after the fact, mind you – as one of the most impressive looking titles of this generation. 30fps isn’t a big deal to me either…

…But there’s a difference between ’30fps’ and Ubisoft’s 30fps.

Frame rate issues jank the game on a regular basis. It doesn’t usually affect gameplay, but there ARE times where the game looks like a slide-show on my PS4. Pop-in is especially atrocious. It doesn’t matter if you’re running across rooftops, getting a panoramic view of the city while ‘synchronizing’, or pounding cobblestones beneath your feet. You’re going to see shadows, clothing, and even complete character models come and go. Arno – the main character – would also fall through the world’s geometry. The game also locked up my PS4 on a couple of occasions.

Outrageous.

No less than 10 teams worked on this game for about 4 years… and this is the how the game launches? “It’s day one, of course…” No. Just no. Keep in mind that of these 10 teams, not everyone was working on the game itself. Some of Ubisoft’s resources were allotted for developing a mobile app, while others (more than likely) focused on the microtransaction system. Some have undoubtedly spent their time building content for the season pass.

You have to hand it to Ubisoft, I suppose, because the set of balls on them are enormous. They released a game THIS buggy, yet have the unmitigated gall to suggest we further support their product by purchasing a season pass and in-game currency? Are they freakin’ nuts?

Truth be told, all the major studios are bonkers. As stated earlier in this article, Halo and Unity aren’t the only games with issues as of late. A week later, on November 18th, three additional AAA titles were reported with certain bugs and/or performance issues: Far Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 5 (Xbox One/PS4), and Little Big Planet 3. As of this writing, Smash Bros will be launching on the Wii-U and (regardless of how you feel about Nintendo) I’m willing to bet their latest offering will be the least problematic of the bunch.

I’ve tried to remain as diplomatic as possible in writing this editorial, but the bullshit has stacked so high, I doubt I’ve come across that way. Not that it matters. After all, if I’m about to rage, it’s because each and every day I recognize the video game industry a bit less than the day before. For the sake of transparency, I should also share that I feel hurt and betrayed by just how far things have slid down the proverbial slippery slope.

You see, I’m a physical media kind of guy. I don’t really have anything against digital content, but I believe hard copies of video games are likely to outlast the servers that currently host them. In theory, if I wanted to play a PS4 game in 20 years, I should be able to insert a disc, install, and play. Unfortunately, the reliance studios have on updating games at, and even after the time of release is crippling that future. With the way things are, if I wanted to play a PS4 game in 20 years, the hard copy wouldn’t be enough. No, I’d need to download an update to play the bug-free version, but without any servers to acquire said updates, what’s the point?

So, yes, as a result, I’m weighing a digital only future with my Xbox One and PS4 (not my Wii-U, since its storage capacity is rather limited). Not because I’m feeling ‘jazzed’ about it, but because AAA publishers are doing everything in their power to make this aging dinosaur feel all but extinct. I mean, if my physical copies are worth virtually nothing – remember, they’re incomplete versions sitting on those retail shelves – then what’s the difference? Why not go digital? Why not join the masses in pre-load ecstasy, being able to enjoy these games the very moment they go live without ever having to leave the house?

Oh, I remember now. It’s because I have a spine, and I’m not willing to let the studios bully me into a position I don’t want to support. I’m not saying I’m as solid as a statue, because that’s not exactly true. If I were as ‘pure’ as one of my friends (dude’s a warrior, I’m tellin’ ya), I wouldn’t have purchased Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and most all the other freakin’ games I mentioned in this article. Or, I’d buy them, hear the negative reports, and return them promptly to their point of purchase. But, I’m not that strong. Call me crazy, but I still want to enjoy the games I’d have fun with. Those day 1 bugs will inevitably be patched, and Arno falling through the streets of Paris will become a distant memory, amongst a host of other negative memories.

And I’m not justifying all the incompetence we’ve seen with the industry as of late. No, I’m merely saying that most of these games are going to be insanely fun once the kinks are worked out… but that doesn’t give any of the greedy big-wigs a pass. Their huge fuck-ups this year have finally allowed the casual gamer to take notice of the things I’ve been rambling about for months… and as GI Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

But hey, look at it this way: I don’t get these games from publishers. I buy all my own games with my own money (sometimes they’re gifts, but you know what I mean). I get too curious and want to try these games first hand to know what the deal is. So… use me. Watch me play and vent my frustrations, or positive reactions, while playing these games live on Twitch. If a game sucks, LET ME BUY IT SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO. If my mistakes happen to help a person or two, then I’ll be grateful for the anguish.