Opinion-Bytes: So Much For Unity In The Community

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So much for unity.

If you’ve ever so much as glanced at next-gen console news, you’re probably familiar with Resolution-gate. For the rest of you, it goes a little something like this:

Just prior to the PS4 and Xbox One launch, bloggers and news outlets made a big stink over Call of Duty: Ghosts’ resolution. While the game ran at 1080p natively on the PS4, it was only pushing 720p on the Xbox One (and subsequently upscaled after the fact). Needless to say, the internet erupted with cries of, “EHRMAHGAWRD! The Xbox One is a hunk of junk! Game over, man! GAME OVER!” In the months that followed, Microsoft were continually barraged with negative press, as nearly every cross-platform title showed similar disparity. Of course, gamers and press alike continually fussed over resolution and frame-rate, and now, they’re pretty much used as marketing tools… and we, as a community, allowed it to happen.

What happened to playing video games for fun? Forget the numbers: 1080p, 960p, 900p, 720p… who cares? If resolution and frame rate were the only two things that mattered, shouldn’t I be tossing my last-gen library in the trash? Of course not, because resolution doesn’t tell the entire story. RYSE is still up there as one of the most impressive looking next-gen titles to date, and what was its resolution? 900p. The bottom line, is that games and features should determine the outcome of any ‘console war’ – which is a ridiculous term, in and of itself – NOT resolution.

Well, apparently, gaming communities across the net don’t agree.

Yesterday, news broke that Assassin’s Creed: Unity was locked at 900p/30fps on both the Xbox One and PS4. Here’s the actual quote from Senior Producer Vincent Pontbriand (as reported by Videogamer.com):

“We decided to lock them at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff,”… while explaining that it’s the consoles’ CPUs – not the GPU – that prevents Ubisoft Montreal from improving the game’s performance.

“Technically we’re CPU-bound,” he said. “The GPUs are really powerful, obviously the graphics look pretty good, but it’s the CPU (that) has to process the AI, the number of NPCs we have on screen, all these systems running parallel.

“We were quickly bottlenecked by that and it was a bit frustrating, because we thought that this was going to be a tenfold improvement over everything AI-wise, and we realized it was going to be pretty hard. It’s not the number of polygons that affect the framerate. We could be running at 100fps if it was just graphics, but because of AI, we’re still limited to 30 frames per second.”

Of course, the gaming community immediately went into knee-jerk reaction mode. The most popular theory is that Microsoft paid Ubisoft to maintain parity across the board. Also, for whatever reason, Ubisoft may have their own incentive for console parity. Another idea is that Ubisoft are so lazy and hungry for money, they didn’t feel like optimizing the game for each platform. Yet another possibility – and this seems to be the one that gets overlooked the most – is that because this is the first next-gen exclusive Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft may have hit some snags in development, which in turn could have forced their hands into making some concessions.

Either way, it wasn’t a great PR move. For wanting to ‘avoid all the debates and stuff’, they managed to shoot themselves in the foot in spectacular fashion.

Ubisoft then attempted to clarify the situation a short time later:

“We understand how Senior Producer Vincent Pontbriand’s quotes have been misinterpreted…” Ubisoft said in a statement to Kotaku. “To set the record straight, we did not lower the specs for Assassin’s Creed Unity to account for any one system over the other.

“Assassin’s Creed Unity has been engineered from the ground up for next-generation consoles. Over the past 4 years, we have created Assassin’s Creed Unity to attain the tremendous level of quality we have now achieved on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It’s a process of building up toward our goals, not scaling down, and we’re proud to say that we have reached those goals on all SKUs.

“At no point did we decide to reduce the ambitions of any SKU. All benefited from the full dedication of all of our available optimization resources to help them reach the level of quality we have today with the core Assassin’s Creed Unity experience.”

It’s the highly sanitized PR babble you’d expect when a situation like this erupts, but this, too, backfired on Ubisoft. Mere months ago, a Level Designer for AC: Unity told GamingBolt that ‘they are indeed targeting 1080p resolution and 60fps for both consoles.’

Oops. So much for achieving those goals… BLAM! Aaaand there goes the other foot.

You should never lie to your customers… ESPECIALLY while they’re parading #PS4NoParity on Twitter, with the hopes of getting next-gen console owners to boycott the game.

Feeling the rug sliding out from underneath them, Ubisoft provided another update, this time to Eurogamer:

“Final specs for Assassin’s Creed Unity aren’t completed yet,” a Ubisoft spokesperson explained, “but we can say we showed Assassin’s Creed Unity at 900p during our hands-on preview event last week. We’re confident that gamers will be thrilled with the gorgeous graphics and how Paris is brought to life in Assassin’s Creed Unity.

“The development team has been hard at work delivering the best Assassin’s Creed possible on next generation consoles. Regardless of which platform you’re playing on, Assassin’s Creed Unity will answer what an Assassin’s Creed game built from the ground up for the next generation of gaming looks like and will be the best looking Assassin’s Creed game ever developed.”

So, what are the facts?

Well, it’s basically just a bunch of PR nonsense that’s inconsistent at best. Nobody REALLY knows what happened. That said, I’d like to dissect some of what the various representative at Ubisoft have said:

“We decided to lock them at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff,” and then goes on to explain why AC:U’s performance isn’t better than that.

Personally, I don’t see the conflict here. They aimed for parity (at 1080p), and they achieved parity… at a lower resolution and frame rate, yes, but parity WAS achieved.

‘They are indeed targeting 1080p resolution and 60fps for both consoles.’

People REALLY yanked their ‘jump to conclusion’ mats out over this, all while ignoring the most important word of all: TARGETING. Ubisoft may have set their sights on 1080p/60fps, but that didn’t mean it was going to happen. And by the way… did ANYONE complain when those parity numbers were 1080p/60fps? Of course not. Now that the numbers are lower, however, people are assuming the worst and passing conjecture off as fact.

“To set the record straight, we did not lower the specs for Assassin’s Creed Unity to account for any one system over the other.”

There is literally ZERO evidence to show that the decision to go 900p/30fps was to accommodate one console over the other. Parity was in the cards before making the decision to drop resolution and frame rate.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything worth complaining about. Ubisoft lied and hoped nobody would notice. It upsets me, and it should upset you, too. There’s a blatant lack of transparency in this industry, and when publishers make up whatever they think we want to hear just to shut us up, it’s insulting.

Everything else though – from Xbox moneyhatting to whatever – is merely conjecture. As of right now, nobody ‘knows’ why Unity has the same specs on both consoles. For all we know, Ubisoft could have bitten off more than they could chew – keep in mind, the game already had a minor delay – leaving themselves little time for optimization… but that’s just it. We. Don’t. Know. It’s also worth noting that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag launched at 900p, but was eventually patched to 1080p on the PS4.

Me? I’m still going to buy Assassin’s Creed. Why? Because I like Assassin’s Creed.

As Andre Gide once said:

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

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Opinion-Bytes: …When It’s DONE

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What’s your idea of an optimal gaming experience?

Granted, this is a dangerous question. It often propels what’s meant to be a thoughtful discussion into heated debates about graphics and gameplay mechanics. One thing that people tend to overlook in these ‘debates’ however, is a far more basic necessity. First and foremost, a game has to work. Having grown up in the glam-tastic 80’s, I remember what it was like to grab a cartridge, jam it in a console, push the power button and play for hours on end. I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I never encountered an issue – after all, blowing in NES cartridges was practically a staple of my childhood – but my paranoia fueled brain had never been sick with concerns over game breaking bugs. When I bought a game, it worked. No fuss, no muss.

But today? We have to endure the rigmarole of firmware updates. As most of you are well aware, most games require a day one update to – and these are just a few examples – correct issues we never would have noticed in the first place, enable multiplayer support, or hammer out game breaking bugs. Furthermore, if consumers manage to stumble upon something in the post-launch window, developers are conveniently able to address those concerns through another patch. It’s nice to know that if a bug manages to squeak through quality control, I can (supposedly) rest assured that developers will be working ‘round the clock until I’m able to experience their game the way they intended. Of course, because nothing is sacred when money is involved, this once consumer friendly feature is now little more than a shadow of its former self.

What does this mean for us as consumers, exactly? It means that publishers are taking advantage of what they’ve perceived as consumer complacency. Now, once a game is deemed ‘good enough’ by the powers that be, it’s whisked away in its unfinished state to a pressing plant. The discs are then packaged, shipped, and held in stock rooms until release. All the while, developers continue to work on ensuring their product is 100% in time for launch.

I think most of us would agree that actions speak louder than words, so what’s the logical conclusion here? Simple – Publishers couldn’t care less if you’re spending your hard earned money on an incomplete product. They believe that as long as they have everything fixed in time for launch, most of the gaming community won’t even care… and to be fair, it’s not like we’ve proven them wrong. Despite the outcry from message board crusaders, there aren’t many people actually speaking with their wallet. How can we expect publishers to listen to our concerns while we’re still throwing money at them?

I know what some of you might be saying. “It’s a digital future anyway, so who cares if there’s a day one update? All that matters is that the game works.” Of course, the caveat is that not every game actually works at the time of launch. There shouldn’t be any precedent that allows publishers to kick a game out the door for competitive reasons rather than logical ones, because when they do, they’re basically gambling with our money.

And trust me, you’ve probably been affected by the stuff I’m talking about already, and multiple times at that.

We don’t have to look too far back to see what can happen when a game’s release is the product of a deadline. Yeah, you know where this is going – Battlefield 4. Single player campaign saves were corrupting, network issues were rampant, and while the experience has drastically improved ever since, people are STILL reporting problems to this day. Is there any question that this game wasn’t ready, and that the parties involved weren’t aware of that? It’s unacceptable by every stretch of the imagination, but what’s worse is how they’ve been tripping over themselves in the media as a result of their irresponsibility.

Some months ago, DICE had stated on the official ‘Battlelog’ that, “Resolving the launch issues is our #1 priority. In fact, we are so serious that we have the entire team working to stabilize the game and we will not move on to other projects until we are sure that Battlefield 4 meets – and exceeds – your expectations. It is the right thing to do.” Technically, the ‘right thing’ would have been to stop selling DLC and pull the game from shelves until it was fixed, but I digress.

Fast forward to February, and EA’s chief creative officer Rich Hilleman – in an interview with Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Scissors – sang an entirely different tune. “Battlefield 4 has been an exceedingly successful product on both consoles and PC. From a sales perspective, from a gameplay perspective.” He went on with, “I don’t think most of my customers are willing to say – ‘it’s a bad product, I wish I didn’t buy it.’ That’s not the conversation we’re having now.” I don’t know about the vast majority, but I’ve had that conversation… with LOTS of people. “We did things wrong. We know that. We’re gonna fix those things. We’re gonna try to be smart about what customers want in the future.”

There’s so much wrong with his response, my head’s still spinning. I mean, money aside, how can BF4 be spun as an ‘exceedingly successful product’? Regardless of where you stand today, I think it’s fair to say it had one of the worst launches in recent memory. And as far as ‘trying’ to appease the community… well, allow me to counter that quote with another – “There is no try. Only do.” People just want their games to work. It doesn’t get any less complicated than that.

Broken Game

Another way this ‘patch it later’ attitude has affected the community, was with the entire next-gen console lineup. The Wii-U required a firmware update to activate most of its key features, while the PS4 and Xbox One were loaded to the brim with promise – Promise you’ll have this feature, promise you’ll have that feature… that is, as long as you’re willing to spend $400 to $500 up front. The PS4 and Xbox One – despite the fantastic gaming experience they provide – clearly weren’t ready to be released. So, why were they? Well, if you recall what happened last time, Microsoft had a yearlong advantage over Sony, and I don’t think either party was willing to risk a similar disparity this time around. So, once the consoles were in a playable state, they were kicked out the door. The end result? Well, PS4 owners are dealing with broken Share functionality to this day, and despite how far the Xbox One has come, it’s still paying the price for its lackluster reveal in 2013. I don’t want to spin near hyperbole here, but the early adopters have essentially paid for the privilege of beta testing next-gen consoles.

But that’s peanuts compared to what this means for us over the long term. To put it bluntly, I think we’re witnessing the death of video game preservation as we know it, and that scares me. I know, I know – Some of you have a tendency to play a game and trade it in just as fast. I’ve been there, done that… and have almost always regretted it. I wish I still had my NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, and the list goes on. But you know what? I could go to my local retro gaming shop today and buy these consoles with their respective games. Once I get it all home and set it up, all I’d have to do is grab a cartridge, jam it in a console, push the power button and play for hours on end. Unfortunately, that convenience simply won’t be possible with the games of today.

Batman: Arkham Origins was released with a bug that would cause save file corruption. Skyrim – much like any other title from Bethesda – suffered from broken quests, texture down-scaling, and massive load times after extended play. The Fable franchise also had its share of frustrating glitches and broken quests. Hell, even The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had a bug that made game progression impossible. These are just a few notable titles off the top of my head, but a Google search of ‘game breaking bugs’ will reveal much, much more.

Of course, most of these issues were later resolved with updates, but here’s the rub – What happens when we decide to revisit these games in 20-30 years? I mean, the content on the discs themselves is incomplete, so when we inevitably come across a game or immersion breaking bug, we’re going to be screwed. After all, the servers for our console(s) of choice won’t be around forever, and when they disappear, so will the opportunity to acquire a much needed patch. Worse yet, if you have a console that needs to be reformatted, you can kiss all the functionality that came after day one goodbye.

This is why we need to fight to ensure that developers and publishers refuse to release a game until it’s ready, because otherwise, we’re just spending full price today for a wasted investment tomorrow. Technology may have brought us to a point where games can be more fulfilling than feature length films, but when we can’t even trust that a product is ready at the time of release, it’s clear the industry has lost sight of pretty much everything. Strip all the variables away, and gaming is just as valid a form of entertainment as music or film. Could you imagine if a couple of songs on an album had been cut off, only to later find an apology in the booklet that says, “Sorry, we couldn’t finish the songs as we intended because we couldn’t meet the deadline. Here’s a digital code to redeem the completed tracks in two weeks.” What if you went to the movies and saw a similar message from the director on a title card in place of what should have been the final moments of the film? Would you stand for it? Of course not.

Because of the ever changing nature of technology in general, it’s easy to rationalize anti-consumer policies by saying: “That’s just the way things are.” But the gaming community proved a year ago that nothing is ever ‘just the way it is’, because we pretty much forced Microsoft – and Sony, even if you’re not aware of that – to change their stance on DRM. The more you complain and the more you refuse to spend money on products that don’t deserve it, the more we can make things happen.

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!

Congratulations on a Successful Launch, Sony!

"Sorry, I won't be coming in to work today... or all next week... or the week after that... or... you know what?  I'm sorry, but I'm deathly ill and have to quit..."

“Sorry, I won’t be coming in to work today… or all next week… or the week after that… or… you know what? I’m sorry, but I’m deathly ill and have to quit…”

I just wanted to congratulate Sony for a successful launch – Over 1 MILLION units were sold within the first 24 hours. The Playstation 3 had sold shy of 200,000 units in its first couple of weeks, and the Xbox 360 I believe was around 300-350 thousand. The problem with each launch? The supply just couldn’t meet demand, but it seems that Sony were on the ball and made sure to produce as much as possible. This obviously paid off, because they sold all they put out in the US. 1 million in week is pretty impressive, but Sony has higher hopes – To sell 3 million before end of the year, and 5 million by the end of their fiscal year (spring 2014). Considering the fact that there are still other regions of the world – including Japan – that have yet to receive a PS4 launch, I’d say they’re well on their way to making those goals. We’ve heard a lot about console problems, but that’s normal for any launch. Sony projected there was a .4% fail rate, but that was before the actual launch. The number is certainly higher than that, but there are PLENTY of people who are enjoying their PS4 without issue. The average fail rate on electronics in general is about 15%, so… there’s a LOT of wiggle room out there. There are tons of reports of issues, yes, but considering there’s over 1 million units out there… well, I’m sure the issues aren’t as widespread as they may appear to be.

Here’s hoping the Xbox One has a successful launch at the end of the week, and without much issue on the technical side of things. I think Microsoft probably learned their lesson though, and consumers should buy without a heavy conscience. We ultimately pay some kind of price to be early adopters, so even if you get a bricked console out of a PS4 or Xbox One box… that’s part of the risk.

Anyway, I beat Killzone Shadow Fall’s single player campaign last night, so expect a review of that soon. Happy playing everyone!

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

batmanmemjpg

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.