Bit-Review: Playstation 4 – Greatness Has (Almost) Arrived

"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…”

The Playstation 4 has arrived to usher in the next generation of console gaming, and if you’ve been paying attention to the internet – like, at all – then you know it’s been a rocky start. The big name review sites have been unimpressed with first party and certain third party titles, and everyone’s in a tizzy over what’s become known as the ‘blue pulse of death’. I’m not here to provide opinions on the games just yet – as I’ll cover them in future updates – and I don’t think I need to discuss the blue pulse of death just yet. Is it an issue? Of course, but we really don’t have much statistical data to go on. No, I’m merely here to describe my experience with the PS4 thus far.
For those who don’t want in-depth impressions, here’s the short and thick of it:

PROS:

-The Dualshock 4 is the most comfortable controller I’ve ever used.
-The ‘Options’ button is an effective replacement for ‘start’ and ‘select’… and then some.
-Ability to view detailed list of updates and what they fixed/added is a huge step forward.
-‘Share’ is easily my favorite feature at the moment. Live commentary is fun… even if nobody is watching (I’m a sad, sad man).
-The user interface is simple, and gives you easy access to everything you want/need to know.
-Streaming video and switching between multiple apps has produced zero hiccups… like, at all.
-‘What’s New’ is a brilliant cascade that reminds you of your accomplishments, as well as your friends.
-Games have run with zero lag in my experience.

CONS:

-The included mono headset is functional, but that’s about it. Horrendously cheap addition.
-The charge on the DS4 doesn’t last as long as the DS3.
-There are some easy things that Sony missed – How about the ability to import Facebook friends?
-The UI overall will eventually need a better way to sort your apps.
-Certain features that were advertised are not yet live at launch (‘taking over’ someone’s game, for example).

User Interface:

I pulled my PS4 out of its box around 12:15 am, hooked it up to my A/V receiver and turned it on. The moment I finished setting up the network, it began to download the day 1 patch, and by the time I finished the overall initial setup it was already 1/3 of the way complete. It wasn’t long before I was up and running.

Finally playing around with the user interface, I was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was. I didn’t think I was going to like it at first, but it won me over and then some.

There are two reasons the UI will likely appease the masses – Information and social integration, and there are only two rows for accessing all the PS4 has to offer. That said, I can already foresee a problem looming in the distance based on this two row approach.

The ‘home row’ is made up of large icons that come with their own drop-down menus. The first of which is labeled ‘What’s New’, and gives you a nice and blocky mosaic that details what trophies you’ve earned, the games you’ve downloaded or updated, and what you’ve decided to share on Facebook and/or Twitter. It also shares what your friends have been up to. The following icons in the home row are for games and other apps/services. The drop-downs for games will show you how many trophies you have, how many of your friends have the game, provide a direct link for add-on content, and more. There’s even a ‘like’ button similar to what you’d find on Facebook.

Also in the home row is the ‘Live on Playstation’ icon, and this allows you to browse through live streams and spectate to your heart’s desire. You can also participate in text-based chat. Eventually, you’ll also be able to ‘take over’ someone’s game when they need help, but this feature wasn’t live at the time of launch.

The uppermost row is the stuff we’re already (mostly) accustomed to – The PSN Store, Profile, Friends, Settings, Notifications, etc. The Notifications section is probably the most appealing for me, because it’s more like a hard breakdown of what we’ve done as opposed to the pretty ‘What’s New’ layout. You can see when you’ve earned trophies, when you’ve updated games and when installs are ready, and it’s also where you can check your current upload and download status.

So, what exactly is the downside to this two row approach? Whenever you install a new app or game, it obviously makes the row longer. Any time you use a game or app, it puts it at the beginning of the row. After buying lots of games on disc or PSN, it’s going to end up being a chronological mess. Here’s hoping Sony comes up with some sort of grouping option in the future.

Sony also missed some features which have already been well integrated into other (mostly mobile) platforms. Facebook integration is heavily transparent on the PS4, so why not allow people to import friends from their Facebook profile? It’s small stuff like this that makes it almost painfully obvious that this is ‘just the beginning’… a work in progress. The potential is almost there, but there’s still a lot of stuff they can tweak to make the experience perfect.

Game Installation –

First time you put a game in the PS4, you’ll see its icon pop-up on the home row with a small status bar beneath it. This indicates that the game is currently installing on the hard drive, and the process is surprisingly fast. You’ll also be able to play a game while it installs…

Dualshock 4

This controller is my new favorite. The sticks have convex bowls that are surrounded by a raised circular ridge, which offers a firm grip for our thumbs. Stick movement is somewhat stiffer than those of the DS3, and in-game control is greatly enhanced as a result (no more ‘overshooting’ your target). The top triggers are wide and concave, and are by far the most comfortable fit on a controller to date. All hard buttons (directional and X, O, etc) have eliminated the ‘squishy’ feel from the DS3.

The major draw is going to be the touchpad, and it’s incredibly responsive. Its implementation is disappointingly sparse at the moment, but the promise is there. In Killzone, you have to swipe a certain direction to change the ‘mode’ in which your OWL bot operates (electro-shock, zip cord, attack, shield), and AC IV uses it for map navigation. Knack – as fun as it is – doesn’t use this feature at all. I’m sure other games will get around to it in the not too distant future, but it’s disappointing to see a lack of day 1 support. One thing I was hoping for, was that it would be utilized for mouse functionality in the PS4 web browser, but that’s not the case. You can’t even use the touchpad to navigate the PS4’s UI, despite Sony having showed that off at one time. As with many other things, I’m sure that will change with a future firmware update… which is a wise move on Sony’s behalf (so they can work out the kinks before implementing more features), but it’s still disappointing nonetheless.

And then there’s the light bar – It’s very, very bright, and each player will have a different color assigned – Blue, red, yellow, or pink. The light helps the PS camera identify which player is which, and if players manage to change their seating position, games can switch the split-screen to coincide with where players are sitting. Killzone made terrific use of this light in-game, though – The light indicates health, and changes from green, to yellow, to red. This isn’t much help during the day since you can’t see the light reflected in front of you, but it was helpful at night as I was far better able to gauge when it was time to take cover.

Let’s not forget the in-controller speaker, which I guess takes a cue from the Wii-mote. In Killzone, I picked up audio logs, and I was surprised when they came through the controller for the first time. In Knack, you can hear the blocks mixing together when collected. It’s a neat feature…

But there’s one thing the light and speaker aren’t good for – Battery life. Don’t worry, you can still sit down and marathon for hours at a time, but the charge just doesn’t last as long as the DS3. The upside? The DS4 charges faster than its predecessor. There’s also an aux jack on the bottom for headphones or the included mono headphone with mic, and as wonderful a feature as it can be – it’s awesome to hook some headphones to the controller instead of laying a lengthy cord across the living room from my receiver – I’m sure it doesn’t help matters much, especially when you decide to route all sound to the headphones exclusively.

The ‘Options’ button is a real treat, too. People cried foul when there was no sign of a ‘start’ or ‘select’ button, but this button is pretty much an all-in-one. Press it within a game and it will pull up the game menu. Press it outside of a game, and you’ll see options that are specific for a game or app. One of my favorite features of the ‘options’ button, is that I can pull up a game’s update history… and not just the dates of update, but the specifics as to what each patch fixed/implemented. People will need to remember to start using the ‘options’ button instead of looking for some sort of ‘settings’ menu, but once they do… bliss.

There’s also the ‘Share’ button, but it’s a major software feature and I’ll discuss that in a bit.

Last but not least is the audio jack, which allows you to use any headphones with standard audio plug, even if it has a mic. A nice feature on the PS4 is that you can actually choose to route all in-game audio to the headphones through the DS4. I found this to be preferable to dragging out a long extension cable to plug into my receiver.

All in all, a massive improvement and probably the best controller I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

Included Mono Earpiece and Mic

It gets the job done, and will do in a pinch for anyone who doesn’t want to scramble and spend money on a better headset with mic… but what the hell was Sony thinking? The hard, rounded ear piece design is terrible and reminds me of the original ipod ‘phones… minus the soft pad. This thing won’t stay in your ear if you’re prone to moving around while you play, and when they do, they can get uncomfortable after a short amount of time. Couldn’t Sony have opted for something that would at least fit in our ear? Would it have been difficult to give us a basic bud with a rubber piece that would keep it in place? You’re going to want to replace this, no questions asked.

Console Design

The PS4 is sleek and surprisingly small. You think people may have lied when they said it wasn’t much bigger than a slim PS3 model… but if you haven’t seen the PS4 in the wild yet, wait until you do – The box is really slender and left me scratching my head. “My PS4 is in there? How in the…” Unlike the Xbox 360 or the upcoming Xbox One, Sony not only squeezed all the pertinent hardware inside the small machine, but the power supply, too.

Anyway, enough of my gawking – Let’s address this ‘wobble’ that everyone has been freaking out over. I’ve decided to use my PS4 in a horizontal position, and the wobble is a non-issue. If I push the front left corner of the machine done, it does have a teeny tiny wobble, but who cares? I won’t be pressing on the top of my console… ever. I put in a disc, the machine doesn’t move. I take out a disc, the machine doesn’t move. I hook a USB cable up so I can charge my controller, and the damn thing STILL doesn’t move. It’s stable, and nobody should listen to the hyperbole on the net.

I love the light that runs down the center of the top of the console (right side if you store it vertically). When the machine is turning on, there’s a blue pulse and when the UI launches, the light turns a solid white. Putting the console in standby – the mode in which USB power still works and will allow the PS4 to gank and install updates from PSN while you’re away – is indicated by a dim yellow light. I think Sony have really outdone themselves with the sleek slanted look, too – This makes the power and eject buttons much easier and natural to use, and it just looks so modern, if not somewhat futuristic. It’s certainly leaps and bounds better than the original, fat PS3 design… and I’m sorry, but the PS3 looked terrible. Major thumbs up to Sony.

Share

I know that sharing video feeds over the net isn’t exactly new, but including such a feature in a game console is something of a revelation. If I sound overly excited about the Share functionality, it’s because I am. It’s another one of those things that I thought I’d never really use, but it’s causing my inner-geek to leap for joy. Any time I’m not using bandwidth on my PC, I’m streaming my gameplay on the PS4… for now and ever more. But I’m getting ahead of myself:

How does sharing content work? Hit the ‘Share’ button.

Once you do, a menu pops up with three options – Share a screenshot, share a video, or stream.

Screenshot is self-explanatory.

When you choose to share a video, you’ll be brought to a screen where you can scroll through your last 15 minutes of gameplay and trim to your heart’s content. If you want to share all 15 minutes, you can. If you only want to share 10 seconds worth, you can. And just as an FYI – People have widely reported that you can’t include commentary over your gameplay for video sharing… but YOU CAN. By default the PS4 doesn’t record mic audio, but if you hit the ‘Options’ button in the Share menu, you can enable this feature. Upload your video – which currently only supports uploads to Facebook – and wallah, there’s your video WITH commentary. Youtube support is supposedly coming in the future… here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

Streaming is also simple. At first you’ll have to setup a Twitch or Ustream account – which you can easily and quickly do from the PS4 – but after? Just tap ‘Share’, select the ‘stream’ icon, and then you’re greeted with a few simple options before telling the PS4 to start your stream. You can actually share a feed link with Facebook and/or Twitter, and you can select whether or not you want to include yourself via the camera or mic audio. Hit the ‘Options’ button and you can even change the quality of the stream.
Honestly, prior to launch, I didn’t see myself using the Share feature much. I figured it would be a hassle… but once I saw how simple and intuitive it was, I was hooked. If I’m playing, I’m streaming. End of story.

App Switching

How many times have we tried to do something on the PS3, only to be told, “Are you sure, because you’ll have to get the hell out of your game if you want to do that, dumbass.” Well, the PS4 hopes to rectify that… and so far, I’m impressed. I’m playing a game, and all of a sudden I randomly decide I need to do something else. I press the ‘PS’ button on the controller and go out to the main menu. Or, I double tap the PS button to immediately switch to the last app I was using. The transition is smooth, and that’s all I can really ask for, isn’t it? There’s no stutter, no slowdown… nothing. Just pure performance.

I’ve probably missed some stuff, but this wasn’t meant to be a full review. These are my initial impressions from the first week, and I only see the PS4’s features improving as time goes on. The fact that they don’t support other multimedia support out of the box (from external hard drives, for example) is really unfortunate, but mp3’s will be supported in the future, and I hope other video files will as well. Outside of that, this console is definitely a sharp contrast from what the Xbox One offers – If you want an all-in-one living room experience, the Xbox One will fulfill that (and reviews in this regard have been good, with the caveat that you should wait until certain kinks are worked out). If you want a pure gaming experience… well, here’s the PS4.

In short? Greatness has arrived… almost. The PS4 is a solid machine and runs as smooth as a baby’s behind, but it still needs a little work from a firmware standpoint. Outside of that, it’s definitely worth picking up now. Enjoy!

By the way – My experience with the games has been pretty stellar thus far. Killzone Shadow Fall isn’t a perfect title, but it’s gorgeous and still a solid Killzone title. Knack has been bashed by reviewers… but it’s a perfectly competent and FUN action platformer. Battlefield 4 has way too many issues to even think about playing at the moment though, unfortunately, but the devs should be issuing a patch early next week. Resogun is a free title on PS+ at the moment, and it’s ADDICTIVE. Think of a Gradius meets Geometry Wars, and you’ve got a grasp on what to expect. There’s also other free to play titles, but I haven’t had a chance to get to them. I’ll update on those in the future.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now THAT’S ignorance.

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

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

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

God of War: Ascension

I didn’t get to play this game until months after its release, and not for a lack of interest. No, my poor PS3 had died in 2012, and with a kid at home and all, it was difficult to acquire the funds for a replacement. It’s a good thing I waited though, because I was able to nab the God of War (red) edition of the PS3, which included the God of War Origins Collection (the two PSP games via download voucher), God of War Collection (God of War 1 and 2), God of War 3 and God of War Ascension. The console itself came with a 500gb hard drive, and I got it all for the sweet price of $300. Yep, it was a sweet, sweet deal (steal?).

Yes, I’m a die-hard God of War fan. I know many regard it as a mindless button masher, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It’s infantile to dismiss an entire genre, based solely on its gameplay style. What matters most is how well the devs take advantage of that gameplay, and when it comes to God of War… it works. BOY does it work. For a ‘mindless button masher’, it’s offered some of the most action set-pieces gamers have ever seen. Even if you’re not a fan of the franchise, you’d be a fool to deny as much. I mean, entire levels played out on beasts that were larger than mountains, and you were tasked with taking them down. Granted, controls for God of War were nothing special – as they mostly required you to endlessly beat your attack buttons – but nobody has ever used such a simple mechanic with such satisfying results. God of War and the sequels it spawned were all pinnacles of the ‘mindless action platformer’… and for a franchise that only demands you turn off your brain and enjoy the ride, nothing has ever come close to surpassing it. You want to talk about a killer app? God of War helped move more Playstation 2’s than a guy who got arrested for beating a prostitute moved Sham-Wow.

That being said, I was highly skeptical of God of War: Ascension. God of War III was a spectacular action platformer that was backed by insane visuals, and it finally completed Kratos’ trilogy of rage. Knowing full well it would have been downright silly to further a completed plot line, the devs wisely decided on a prequel. Now, I wasn’t against the idea of a prequel per se, but I was convinced they wouldn’t be able to top the action from God of War III. After all, that was Kratos’ endgame, so it wouldn’t have made sense for this game to feel larger in scale. So, where this game really needed to excel was its story. Unfortunately, it failed to deliver.

Why? There’s a missed opportunity here, for starters. As an origin story, we really should have started amidst the battle where Kratos’ army was slaughtered to no end. We could have fought our way through the madness as men all around us were being skewered and dismembered, until Kratos finally decides to offer his services to the God of War. But no, the story begins AFTER Kratos has killed his family, cursed to wear their ashes on his skin forever. What’s the point of having a prequel then? I don’t think I’m the only one who hoped to play through Kratos’ origins, and I’m honestly shocked that the devs missed such a golden opportunity.

Anyway, at the beginning of our tale, Kratos still shows signs of humanity – He’s confused and conflicted, and his destiny isn’t quite set in stone just yet. He could forge his temper to a manageable point, or he could give in to the rage that’s swelling inside… we obviously know which path he’s chosen. The seeds of revenge have already been planted, and their vines – as black as night – are beginning to sprout and corrupt his soul. Kratos has already made the decision to break his oath to Ares, and the Fates – quite possibly the most disappointing villains in the franchise – have imprisoned him as a result. Kratos breaks free and sets forth on a quest to ‘put down’ the Fates so they won’t be able to intervene in his assault against the Gods. It’s a decent setup, but getting from point A to point B feels empty, somehow.

The Fates are the ultimate tipping point for Kratos, pushing him from a man betrayed to a man blinded by his anger, but I didn’t see this play out with natural progression. More often than not, it feels like Kratos is getting angrier ‘ just because’. Furthermore, other than the weak ‘Fates holding Kratos captive’ storyline, there’s literally nothing to bridge this adventure to the big picture. It doesn’t add anything, or do much to preface the things to come.

So, the action doesn’t top III, and the story seems like an insignificant one-off, much like the PSP titles. None of this really comes as a surprise however, but that’s precisely the problem. The devs really shouldn’t have pushed forward with another installment unless they COULD surprise us, but they did anyway because they had to milk their money maker. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Ascension is a BAD game, because it’s most certainly not. The fighting gameplay feels familiar, if not identical to what we’ve been treated to previously… which isn’t a bad thing. As I said before, if it works, it works, and in God of War’s case it most certainly does. The devs added some switchable powers for Kratos’ blades, all of which harness unique abilities. They’re mostly useless, except for fire, but I definitely appreciate the options. Also, a big addition to the series was the use to manipulate objects through time – Come across a bridge that’s been demolished? Use this newfound ability to have it go back in time, until it’s reconstructed itself block by block. This comes into play with more than a few puzzles, and it’s always fun to experiment with. Last but not least, the game offers some jaw-dropping set-pieces. It’s expected at this stage of the game, and I was actually impressed that they were able to deliver something that felt fresh and new – the large mechanical snake ride through the skies and mountains comes to mind – while continuing the tradition of massive monster battles. Still, when compared to the likes of God of War II and III, most everything else is forgettable. Even the new time-shifting gameplay mechanic, as cleverly implemented as it was, isn’t new to gamers. Hell, Prince of Persia did the very same thing some years back, and other franchises years before that.

Despite all my bitching, I’ll say it again – God of War: Ascension is a decent game. If you’re a fan of the God of War style of gameplay, then you’re going to enjoy most of what this game has to offer (outside of the story, that is). Personally, for me, it’s the weakest game between the PS2 and PS3 iterations, but I’m still glad I played through it. It didn’t knock my socks off, nor did I want to claim it as ‘game of the year’, but it was still God of War, through and through. Here’s the only caveat – If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, don’t make this game your introduction. Do yourself a favor and pick up the God of War Saga collection, and start from the beginning, working your way through. Once you have an appreciation for the series and all it has to offer, Ascension will likely become more enticing.

Bit-History: Final Fantasy VII

As blasphemous as it sounds, I’m not a huge fan of RPG’s.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed plenty – everything from The Legend of Zelda (I’ll count both original NES titles as RPG’s) to Dragon Age – but I find myself incredibly picky over what I’m willing to play.  Plenty of genre efforts come and go, never so much as blipping on my radar… and why?  I believe the answer begins and ends with Final Fantasy VII.

Sitting to write this piece really takes me back.  A nerdly friend of mine had purchased Final Fantasy VII without owning a Playstation… on purpose, because he was allowed to borrow the console from someone.  I spent numerous weekends at his place, and we did nothing more than take lengthy turns playing video games.  Frankly, when he excitedly told me about how far he had gotten in FFVII, I was like, “Great, I’m going to have to suffer watching this crappy game all weekend.”  Boy, was I put in my place.  He was nearing the endgame, and he was unleashing a bunch of impressive summons, including ‘Knights of the Round’.  My jaw was agape, and for the first time ever, I found myself intrigued by a turn-based RPG.

Keep in mind, up to this point, I was never interested in Final Fantasy or any other RPG with similar gameplay.  I was young, and wanted the instant gratification of arcade style gameplay.  You can play Final Fantasy III on the SNES all you want, but I was going to chill at home with Contra, Mario, Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon and Metroid.  My attitude, more or less had been, “What?  I have to READ to play this game?  And then I have to passively take part in a battle by choosing attacks from a menu system?  Wake me from my sugar cereal overdose in about a week, by which time you should be done with this boring tragedy you call a game.”  Ignorant, yes, but I was a kid… so shaddap.

I hadn’t realized it yet, but my life as a gamer was about to change forever.  My preconceived notions – and yes, ignorance – were about to catch wind and fly out the window.  Based on what I saw at my bud’s house, I ended up getting a Playstation JUST to play this game (although many games followed).  I was intimidated before I even pulled the shrink-wrap off the case.  “The game is on THREE CD’s?!  Goodbye, life…”  At the time of its release, playing a game that could take 40 hours, if not more, seemed like madness… at least to me.  After all, Ocarina of Time had not been out yet, and I can’t recall what the longest game I had ever played before it was.  I honestly had no idea if I had the stamina required to make it to the end… but I did.  Not only did I make it, but I actually went above and beyond to level up and find as much stuff as possible, playing for about 63 hours (I believe).  Never once did I feel the game drag, or ask myself when it was going to be over.  On the contrary – I wanted more, and when I was nearly finished, I was sad it was coming to an end.  Sure, I could go back and play it again, but a game like this?  Your second time is never quite like the first, you know?

So, why did this game change my life?  What made it such a unique experience?  For starters, the development of plot and character were on a scale I’d never seen… hell, on a scale that NOBODY had seen before.  For the first time, I actually found myself vested in the characters and their plight.  Things start off with a bang, as the main character – none other than the infamous Cloud – is taking down reactors as a merc for hire, but after your escape, the experience is mostly a slow burn with satisfying flashes of action sprinkled throughout.  Although you could spend up to 70 hours drilling through the game, the ebb and flow of it is all very even.  When you first meet certain characters, everyone is a little apprehensive, and for quite some time.  It isn’t until you actually feel comfortable with these characters YOURSELF, that the characters on-screen begin to warm up to each other.  From there, they all form an unbreakable bond, and you come to love each and every one of them in different ways.  Cloud often finds himself in the middle of two women who care for him deeply… one is new and mysterious, the other a fond memory from his past before… well, everything that happens in this game.  There’s a very ‘alpha dog’ male companion who gets on your nerves from time to time, but you eventually make up in a very ‘s’all good, bro’ kind of way.  I’m not sure I’ve ever felt to the characters in a video game since.  Have you ever cried while playing a game?  I have… when a member of my odd little fellowship winds up as collateral damage.

This makes Final Fantasy VII both a blessing and a curse – A blessing because it’s a game that was on a completely different level at the time of its release, and still stands as a template for RPG’s today.  It’s a curse however, because serving as my introduction to RPG’s in general, my expectations of what an RPG SHOULD be have always been through the roof.  As a result, I haven’t been able to joy many of the ‘average’ RPG’s.  I won’t even give a game my attention anymore unless there’s something about it that really grabs my attention.  The last game to do that was Ni No Kuni, which I’ve just picked up recently.  I’ve only been able to play for about 40 minutes, so I won’t be able to give any opinions on it just yet, but it definitely shows promise of being every bit of fun, magical and whimsical as its trailers promise.  Before that?  I don’t know… I don’t think I can even remember what the last turn-based RPG I played was.  I hope to rectify that, hoping that my age and gaming experience will have allowed my expectations to level realistically, so I can enjoy a bunch of the titles I’ve missed along the way, such as Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Amazing story and characters aside, Final Fantasy VII has pretty much perfected the turn-based genre, with its combination of menus which are easy to use and understand, ‘real time’ button presses which can aide in delivering more powerful blows, and materia-based upgrade system.  As a newcomer to this style of gameplay (at the time), I was surprised at just how intuitive it all managed to be.  Squaresoft had gone on record saying they thought that Final Fantasy VII would have been too complex for gamers in the US… and all I could say after beating the game was, really?  Some of the battles were difficult, especially if you didn’t take the time to grind and level accordingly, but to say this would have gone over our heads in the United States almost seems like an insult.  I know we’re all perceived to be stupid drones that do little more than credit card ourselves into a hole that’s loaded with unnecessary goods and greasy food, but come on… this wasn’t a complex game.  The only thing that really demanded you pay attention was the story, but it’s so easy to become invested in this world and everyone in it, that you never lose sight of the big picture.  Anyway – Final Fantasy VII did such a great job at implementing all of its core gameplay mechanics, that I remember the next installment – Final Fantasy VIII – being a huge letdown.  It wasn’t a bad system, but it wasn’t nearly as fun to experiment with as its predecessor.

I’ll never forget Final Fantasy VII… I obviously consider it to be up there as one of the best games of all time, if not THE best.  Remember, that’s coming from someone who wasn’t, and still kind of isn’t a huge fan of RPG’s.  Sure, over the years I’ve enjoyed the likes of Dragon Age, Demon’s Souls, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and I’m certain Ni No Kuni will turn out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in a while… but the perfection that is FFVII is probably why I couldn’t get into games like Fable, Dragon Age 2, or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I’ve developed the opinion that an RPG simply isn’t worth it unless it’s going to be something extraordinary on EVERY front… otherwise, what’s the point?  It’s just going to be the same as any other RPG, right?  Right.

I love you Final Fantasy VII… and I hate you.  But I don’t love to hate you… I just hate to love you, because of what you’ve done to me as a gamer.