Random Thoughts – Randosity!

A Review of No Man’s Sky

Posted in botch, video gaming by commorancy on August 30, 2016

No Man's Sky ShipThis game is getting a lot of flack, particularly for being boring. Let’s explore.

Sold To The Wrong Audience

In this day and age of Call Of Duty, Destiny, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, gamers have become jaded. We, as game players, are used to these huge story driven games. Games that talk (ahem, preach) about some topic near and dear to the developer’s heart.

Unfortunately, Hello Games made a critical error in its bid to woo a lot of gamers on-board. Before that, let’s get one thing perfectly clear, No Man’s Sky is an eclectic open world exploration game made on an indie budget. It is not a story driven blockbuster. Trying to woo in the gamers who are used to playing contrived and mostly rail-based story games was the wrong audience to bring. This is an audience that will take one look at this game and call it a “nothing game with no story” and boring.  Yes, it’s very slow paced and very VERY open world.

Hello Games shouldn’t have tried to shove a round peg into a square hole, though with enough work it can be achieved. Unfortunately, these types of gamers are now posting one star reviews all over Amazon. This was mistake number one.

Over-promised and under-delivered

For those gamers who were watching this game’s development very closely since 2014, when those same gamers got their hands onto this game, they were sorely disappointed. What they saw on the demo was an unrealistic contrived world crafted by artists solely for demonstration. It wasn’t the actual in-world gameplay. It was a prototype of what the game might be. Was that a promise to deliver? Did they actually fail to deliver? That’s for you to decide.

Personally, I don’t think they under-delivered. I personally think that what they achieved as a small indie developer team is pretty frickin’ awesome. Not only did they manage to get the release out the door (mostly functional), they did achieve most of their objectives with the game. This is a far cry more than I can say for some Kickstarter campaigns. Don’t get me started there.

However, there were promises made around space combat that haven’t panned out. All of the space combat I have found has been random encounters, usually based on the fact that I’m carrying too much valuable loot. It’s pretty contrived and the space battles have nothing whatever to do with the overall story, such that it is. Failing to deliver even one promised feature is mistake number two.

Story Based Games

caveWhile No Man’s Sky does offer a get-to-the-center-of-the-universe story arc, that’s really pretty inconsequential compared to how many star systems there are and what you can do and see there. While I will say that the worlds can be somewhat repetitive, the animals are diverse, the flora is diverse (sometimes abundant, sometimes devoid) and the planets can even be hostile, contain water or contain huge cave structures. Unfortunately, far too many of the resources are duplicated throughout each world. For example, the hexagonal iron and the crystalline plutonium structures which are the same on every planet. In other words, some things aren’t procedurally generated.

What Hello Games failed in was the open worldness of the entire universe they created. Instead of promoting and touting exactly how much the universe is diverse, they instead focused on the story arc leading to the center. And, they expected gamers would follow suit and also fall in love with that. Unfortunately, how can we?

A story starts with characters and in No Man’s Sky, we have none (other than a few sparsely populated aliens sitting or standing in structures). Aliens, I might add, that do not walk, talk (other than in gibberish language), fight or do anything else other than stand there and look pretty. The worlds themselves are devoid of humanoids entirely. The only thing you’ll find on the worlds are animals… and some are a might strange at that. Without a cohesive set of characters, it’s hard to wrap your head around that there is a story. This is mistake number three.

Procedurally Generated Environments

This is a catch phrase that makes up for a large amount of the banter around this game. Instead of focusing on the fact that the worlds are crafted in a bunch of code, we need to focus on the lack of story. So many people came to this game thinking that there would be a story. Instead, the story is a loose thread of getting to the center of the galaxy. That’s not a story, that’s a quest. Unfortunately, it is among about 3-4 actually defined quests in this game. For example, learning words of the Aliens seems to be another type of quest. What happens when you finally learn all the words, I don’t know. Is it related to the center-of-the-galaxy story arc? Again, I don’t know. When I get there I might, but I’m not there yet.

It’s great that the worlds are crafted entirely in code. But, what I find is that the random hilly landscape of most worlds is tedious to traverse. Worlds should be made up not only of rolling hills, but they should be made up of mesas, deep ravines and all manner of flat plains. It should also be made of of volcanoes, ice and snow and water. Though, I have found a mostly water world that is highly radioactive.

Suffice it to say that of all the things that Hello Games got right was the procedurally generated landscapes, even though they can be tough to navigate on foot.

Starts Very Slow

Yes. Yes, it does. As with most games of this genre (I’m looking at you Elite II: Frontier), the game starts you out with a small everything: ship, suit, money, inventory, inventory slots, resource, etc. You name it, the game starts you out small… very, very small. To progress, you must have a lot of patience. Some might say, the patience of Job. That is, the patience to wade through the constant recharging of your suit, recharging your power ups, recharging your equipment, recharging your ship, recharging your gun and keeping up all of the things that help keep you alive. On top of that, the game requires you go out and find the resources to keep those recharges going. And, in the beginning, it’s a constant battle for survival. It can take several real hours to level your gear up enough to even dent making No Man’s Sky somewhat bearable.

Again, this was a mistake. Most games today offer Easy, Novice, Intermediate and Hard levels. Hello Games should have worked this in. For those who end up on Easy, you can skip all of the constant recharging and jump right into space battles and other types of combat. Better, the game should have offered character classes. Classes that would have allowed for more diverse suits, access to specific types of ships, to let people choose whether to explore, smuggle, trade or what ever profession they chose in this universe. It’s a diverse universe with almost infinite planets. Constraining the player to a single type of personality goes against the diversity of the universe.

Adding classes allows for more weapon choices. Instead of just the multi-tool, you could get a real gun, a saber or even add other character enhancements (powers). This would take No Man’s Sky to a whole new level. Unfortunately, Hello Games focused way too much of its effort on the procedural generation and not enough on the game mechanics of what you would actually do on these worlds once there. This is mistake number four.

Mercantile System

While there is a commerce system in the game, it is naively designed, arbitrary in its creation and what I would call bare-bones-basic. So, while you can sell found resources (gold, plutonium, carbon, emeril, pearls, etc), you cannot sell your ship, sell your weapon or sell certain crafted items. In fact, when you go to the store (which consists of what looks like an ATM), what you can sell is strictly controlled by the store, not by what’s in your inventory. For example, Dynamic Resonators (a key item in crafting pieces of your hyperdrive) are not purchasable or saleable in the store and do not show up when you attempt to sell or buy stuff.

Worse off are the ships. While you can buy star ships from various aliens that show up on landing pads, you cannot sell your ship. In fact, if you do buy a ship from an alien, your old ship now becomes abandoned where you left it. You can reclaim it if you want, but then you’ll abandon the other one. This means you cannot own more than one star ship at a time. You also can’t sell your star ship to get money back towards a new sale. This is all the more frustrating because these ships cost a mint (like 4 million units for the smallest decent ship and up to 50 million for a 39 slot job).

So, while it’s perfectly fine to go mine for resources (and sell them), you can’t sell your ship or weapons? I don’t think so. This is huge mistake number five.

What did they get right?

The worlds and the way they look. The stylized futuristic worlds are amazing to behold and stand on (when you’re in the sunlight). When it’s dark, not so much. When you’re in caves, the suit doesn’t have a flashlight. In fact, there is a flashlight, but unfortunately the flashlight is disabled when the sun is up (even if you’re in a cave). Yet another faux pas. So, there’s no easy way to illuminate dark places at times. Thankfully, Hello Games got the bio-luminescence of the plants right to at least illuminate enough of the underground world so that not having a flashlight isn’t so much of a problem. But, having a flashlight available all of the time would definitely help.

The multi-t0ol. For being both a weapon and a mining tool, it works quite well against sentinels and animals alike. The tool itself is rather generic, though. Calling it a multi-tool makes me think of a Swiss Army Knife. It doesn’t make me think of a gun. Still, it works well once you have the right power up mods on it.

Mining. Looking for and locating resources works very well. Unfortunately, the resources are always too abundant on every world. You can always find plutonium to power your suit and other things. If you end up in a cave, you can usually find lots of plutonium (and other resources). It’s not exactly hard to find the stuff you need, it can sometimes just be time consuming if you find yourself walking around the planets a lot.

Exploring. It’s easy to get around the worlds and find new stuff.

Selling stuff. It’s easy to find and sell stuff to make credits. It’s practically impossible not to find stuff to sell. Though, you can’t sell animal skins. You can sell resources, but not animals.

What they didn’t get right?

Space battles. The battles in space are random encounters with random ships. Ships that come in large squads and that usually outstrip your ship’s armament and shields. I’ve learned to simply avoid these battles by landing on a nearby world. Just make sure you stay close enough to a world that you can dive-bomb the world and land. Otherwise, you may be forced to find your grave in space.

Graves. When you die, your ship drops all of its cargo, or your suit drops all of its inventory. This is highly frustrating because you’re forced to work your way back to where you died and pick it all up. If it’s in space, you’re likely to run into those ships that began your space battle while trying to pick it up.

In-game Commerce. While it’s relatively easy to sell resources, the fact that you can’t sell your star ship or weapon or, indeed, own more than one weapon or star ship leaves a lot to be desired. If anything, the commerce system is so rudimentary that I’m surprised it works at all.

Lack of Story. Since there are no characters, it makes it hard to offer a story arc that makes sense and is even worth hearing. Writing stories is hard, I get that. But, there are plenty of story writers you could hire.

Lack of Humanoids. Since there is really no story, there’s likewise no characters. So, the game doesn’t need humanoids walking and talking on the worlds. But, not having them there does make for a rather solitary and, dare I say, boring environment. Meeting up and talking to humanoids would at least offer something to do besides scouring for resources… even if the humanoids have nothing to do with the story.

Repetition. You end up doing the same things over and over far too many times. While I agree that it’s important to drive the point home about recharging everything, at some point you need to find a suit and ship enhancement that auto-refills everything. Finding this enhancement makes you fully appreciate having done it manually.

Hyperspace Star Map. It’s hard to navigate. For those of us who need to invert the Y axis, navigating the hyperspace star map is extremely cumbersome because there is no setting to inverse the camera. Worse, because the stars are not labeled at all, you have no idea which star is which. Instead, you are forced to touch and look at each star to know if you’ve already been there or not. There is no indication (color, shape or any other distinguishing visual characteristic) to know which you’ve already visited (in case you want to go back there or avoid it). Instead, you have to click on it to find out.

Overall

I give this game a solid 5 out of 10 stars. They got about half correct. The other half is cumbersome, repetitive and annoying. I wanted a solid space adventure and received a lesson in tedium. It’s definitely not game of the year, yet. It needs a whole lot more work for that. But, considering the sheer number of worlds to explore, see and land on, it’s still an amazing achievement for an indie game developer. Is it worth playing? That depends on if you require a story or if you can be satisfied by making up your own as you go.

If you work at Hello Games, please read this. Lose the center-of-the-galaxy idea and focus on exploration and making space battles actually fun… and fix that blasted Hyperspace star map to respect an inverted Y axis and add names next to stars already visited. Let’s get to work. Chop Chop.

Game Review: Resident Evil 7 Demo

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 20, 2016

While I realize this is a only demo and may not resemble the real game all that much, what I will say about it is, I’m not terribly fond of it overall. I’m hoping the game is far different from this. Let’s explore.

Story

Your character ends up stuck in a creepy old farmhouse and must figure out a way to get out of it. Along the way you find things that may or may not help your character. Can you actually get your character out of the house alive?

Game Mechanics

Whether or not you can actually get out of the house is not really the question. The question is, are the game mechanics good? First, it is a preliminary game demo. So, in that aspect, it’s a little dumbed down.

On the one hand, it is somewhat better than Resident Evil 5 and 6… meaning, there aren’t zombies running and jumping at your character at every step. On the other hand, there are no zombies at all. In fact, the entire house is devoid of enemies entirely (other than when you answer the phone or find the back door key and try to leave). And then, the enemy is a cut scene that you can’t fight. So, in effect, this is more or less a puzzle questing game… and not a very good one at that.

Second, the only redeeming factor is the video tape. Because watching the video tape is also player interactive, you can do things with the characters on the tape (in the past) that open things up for the player in the future. This is the one and only one cool gimmick about this demo, but it is so underused as a game gimmick that it’s almost hardly not worth mentioning.

Graphics

Plainly and of what you can see of them, the textures, wood, roaches, character models and environments are supremely well done. Unfortunately, you’re hindered by having to roam the house using a flashlight. This means you can only see what you can illuminate with the flashlight. Otherwise, it all ends up dark. It reminds me a little of the way that Bioshock was lit in terms of the dark undersea lighting that gets brighter as you approach walls and items. Not so much the textures, but the lighting concept. In some ways this works, but it gets old and tiring after about an hour of play. I was hoping the fuse box would have actually let me flip the lights on in the house. But no, the only thing the fuse box does is let you drop down the attic stairs. And, that’s just a little weird. In such a decrepit old farm house, why would the owners have installed a drop down electric set of stairs that lead to the attic? Doesn’t really make any sense.

Puzzles

Unfortunately, other than the video tape gimmick mentioned above, the puzzles are mostly weak. Worse, the puzzles are tied to successfully completing events. Meaning, unless you do a very specific thing in the house, you can’t progress to and find the next puzzle piece (i.e., it simply won’t appear). If you cannot figure out what the game wants you to do, you’re stuck. Too many games offer puzzles like this. Some puzzles are glaringly obvious what you need to do. Though in this game, many of the puzzles are so obscure that you can run around for hours and never figure it out. That doesn’t make a game fun, it makes it tedious.

Game Development / Demo / Beta Testing

The game devs have a whole lot of work ahead of them to get this game right. I’m assuming this demo was released to test the waters with gamers. RE4 was a spectacular achievement for the Resident Evil series. But, as much as RE4 was an achievement, RE5 and RE6 were not.

I’m one of those people who firmly believes, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”. In fact, I’ve been bitten one too many times with this series… both with RE5 and RE6. Shame on me. I won’t be bitten again. This is the reason I’m playing this demo. I was, in fact, hoping that this would have been another Leon game like RE4. After all, it’s been well long enough to finally get another Leon game.

Commentary

While Capcom seems to be on the right track with Resident Evil 7, assuming it can expand on this puzzle questing and video tape idea, I’m still very skeptical. This game has all of the hallmarks of tricking gamers into a decent opening puzzle level only to convert the game into yet another dual player zombie shooter (like RE5 and RE6 turned into) once you exit the house. If Capcom can keep this puzzle questing survival horror idea on-track throughout the entire game (throwing in some zombie apocalypse battles here and there), it might turn out to be a decent game. Unfortunately, it has a little too much of the telltale signs of converting into a completely different game once you leave the house. For this reason, I will wait until the game is fully released into the stores before I plop down $60 for this title. I simply don’t trust Capcom.

Though, I absolutely love the video tape idea of going back in time and opening doors, finding hidden secrets, leaving things behind, etc, for future characters to find and use. This is probably one of the freshest ideas in this game. Unfortunately, it’s way underused in this demo and I’m not certain exactly how much it could be used unless the main character carries around a camcorder and finds tapes along the way.

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on November 9, 2015

Warning: This review may contain spoilers. If you want to play this game through, you should stop reading now.

acsWhile Ubisoft got some parts of this game right, they got a lot of the parts very very wrong. And, this game cheats, badly. Let’s explore.

The Good

As with most Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is filled with lots of very compelling gameplay in its open world environment. The stories are decent, but short and the assassinations make it feel like Assassin’s Creed I (mostly). They’ve done well to bring back a lot of what made Assassin’s Creed I fun. Unfortunately, there’s also a whole lot of bad go with that fun. And, if you’re sneaky enough, you get the chance to use cover assassinations, air assassinations and haystack assassinations with much more regularity. Unfortunately, this game is about equally outweighed by the bad and the ugly.

The Bad

Controls

As with every single Assassin’s Creed game, the controls get harder and harder to work as the game progresses. And by harder and harder, I mean the designers require much more fine grained control over button presses or else you miss the opportunity to do whatever it is they have you doing. This usually means you miss your opportunity do take down an enemy, you fall off of a building, you can’t escape a fight or whatever.

For example, a person steals something and you have to tackle the thief. Unfortunately, as you happen to be running after the thief, if you also happen to straddle along side a carriage, the carriage will usurp the tackle button and you’ll end up stealing a carriage (all the while letting the thief get away). The really bad part is that you cannot break out of the carriage stealing maneuver and attempt to continue on with the thief chase. Oh no, you have to watch the entire motion capture playback from beginning to end all while your thief you were inches away from tackling runs away.

As another example, there are times where you begin a fight and a ton of enemies surround you. Then, one of them takes a swing and practically knocks you out with one blow. You don’t even get enough time to press the medicine button before you’re dead or desynchronized.

On top of this, the game still does not tell you every side mission requirement in advance. You only find them out after you’ve failed them.

Zipline Gun

And this is not the only incident of these types of bad controls. Once you get the zipline gun, it’s handy to use for quick getaways to the top of a building. That is all except, when the designers prevent you from using it. And they do prevent its use intentionally in some areas. Meaning, you can stand in front of some buildings and the zipline control appears. In others, nothing. This is especially true in areas where you have to complete a mission. So, you’ll be down on the ground and spotted, the first thing to do is find a rooftop to zipline to the top. Unfortunately, you can’t in a lot of mission areas. In some you can, in others you can’t.

Ubisoft, if you’re going to give me the zipline gun, let us use it on any building of any size. Not just those you randomly allow. This is so frustrating.

Calling Attention

When you’re sneaking around as an assassin, the pedestrians around you are constantly saying things like, “I hope he knows he can be seen” and other stupid things. While it doesn’t bring attention from enemies, it’s just nonsensical and stupid. Most people would merely ignore someone doing something like skulking around. Worse, it’s not like we have control over day or night in this game. Clearly, for most of the work of an assassin, it should be done at night under the cover of darkness. Instead, you’re out doing this stuff at noon.

Syndicate

Syndicate? What syndicate? Sure, you have a gang that you can find and call together on the street, but you barely ever get to use them alone let alone on missions. You can rope in a few at a time, but it’s almost worthless. When you enter into any place, they only thing they end up doing is drawing attention to you. As an assassin, that’s the last thing you want. You want stealth kills, not big grandiose street kill events. This is not Street Fighter. Other than that, there is no other syndicate. It’s not like you can switch to and play Greenie, which would have been a cool thing. It’s not like there were other assassins roaming the city that join in on the cause. I was hoping the syndicate would have been a huge group of assassins who all band together to get something done. Nope.

Recognition

On some levels, you don’t get recognized quickly. On others, it’s almost instantaneous. It’s really frustrating that there is not one level of recognition that you get with this game. Instead, it’s random and haphazard based on the level designer’s whim.

The Ugly

Glitchy

While it may not be anywhere near as bad as Unity, it’s still bad enough that you have to start (and restart) missions over to complete them. I’ve had glitches which locked my character up in a move that I had to quit out of the game to stop. I’ve had glitches where Jacob falls off of a rooftop merely by standing there. I’ve had glitches where I stand inches from an enemy and don’t get the assassinate action. I can hang below windows with enemies standing in front of me with no assassinate action. I’ve fallen off of the zipline for no reason.

The controls get worse and worse as the game progresses, to the point that if you want to get anything done, you nearly can’t.

Cinematics you can’t abort

Throughout the game, you’ll find that when you click a button to enter a carriage or zipline to the top of the building, you cannot break out of that action until it’s fully complete. If you were trying to do something else and accidentally launched into one of these cinematics, you have to fully complete the action entirely before you get control back.

Character Levels

The introduction of character levels is just plain stupid. I understand why they are in the game, but the reality is, they make no sense. Fighting a level 9 versus a level 2 is not at all realistic. You don’t have levels in real life. You have people who are more skilled than others, but not levels. These enemies are no more skilled than any other. If I walk into an area, my level should not dictate how hard it is to kill an enemy. I should be able to perform moves on a level 2 or level 9 in the same way and take them down at the same rate. In fact, enemies shouldn’t even have levels.

Bosses & Gang Wars

As you complete a section of the city, it unlocks a gang war segment. So, your gang fights their gang. Except, it’s not really a gang war. Instead, it’s half a gang war. The first segment starts out as a gang war where your gang fights theirs and you get to participate. After that first segment is complete, you must fight 5 to 6 of their gang members alone (including the boss). That’s not exactly a gang war. That’s an unfair fight. Where is my 4 to 5 other gang members to help me out. If it’s a gang war, make it a gang war. If it’s to be a 1 on 1 fight then make it so. Ganging up 5 or 6 against 1 is not a gang war and is in no way fair. I know some gamers like beating these odds, but I find it contrived and stupid. If it’s supposed to be a gang war, make it a fight between gangs.

The only consolation is that the game gives you one shot at taking down the section boss right before the gang war. If you can manage to kill them then, you don’t have to do that segment during the gang war. Still, a gang war should be about gangs.

Desynchronization and Load Times

This is one of the most ugly parts of this game. If you fall off a building and die, you have to wait through an excruciatingly long load time. So long, in fact, you could go make yourself a cup of coffee and be back in time for it to finally load. I mean, this is a PS4 and the game is loaded on the hard drive. Yet, it still takes nearly 2-4 minutes just to reload a level? I’m amazed (not in a good way) at how long it takes to reload. Once the game finally does reload, it drops you off some distance away from where you were. This is also frustrating. Why can’t you drop my character exactly in the location or at least close enough that I don’t have to run a ton just to get back there.

Starrick Boss Level

This level is ultimately the most asinine fail level of the entire game. Once you finally find the shroud (which is the whole point to the present day piece of this game), the game should immediately stop and move to present day. No. Instead, you have to attempt to assassinate Starrick in one of THE most asinine levels I’ve ever played in a game.

Evie and Jacob, the two twins, have to be the two most stupid people on Earth. Otherwise, they would simply realize they could cut and drag that shroud off of him with a good cut of their knives and then stab him. No. Instead, you have to attempt to wear-him-down while wearing the shroud. As if that were possible with the supposed healing shroud. If it were truly as healing as it is shown to be, there would be no way to wear his health down ever. I’m not sure what the writers were thinking here, but this level is about as stupid as it gets.

Worse, there are times where Starrick gets these hammer-on-your-character-without-fighting-back segments. Starrick just punches your character and you just stand there taking it. Really? There’s no reason given for these segments. These just wear down your health without any method of fighting back, breaking out of it or countering it. Now that’s just plain out cheating from a game. There is absolutely no need for this part of the fight. When in real life would this ever happen? Like, never. It makes the ending twice as hard without any real payoff.

Either of the twins could cut and pull the shroud off of him. It’s very simple. Then just assassinate him like anyone else. Why is it that you must melee this guy to death? These are assassins who kill from the shadows or by using other stealth methods. Assassins are not street fighters. That the game turns AC into Street Fighter is just plain stupid. This is NOT WHY I BUY Assassin’s Creed games. If I wanted a fighting game, I’d go buy Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. The game devs have lost it. Whomever thought it would be a great idea to end this Assassin’s Creed game by turning it into a stupid fighting game should leave the game development field and specifically be fired from Ubisoft. That person has no business making gaming choices for this (or any) game franchise.

Overall

I give this game 4.0 stars out of 10. It’s a reasonable effort in places, but it’s in no way innovative and the ending plain out sucks from so many perspectives. The zipline is cool, but it doesn’t really help you as much as it needs to. There’s way too much carriage driving. The boss levels are mostly okay up until Sequence 8 as a Street Fighter ending… especially considering that the ‘present day’ part only needed to confirm where the shroud was located. After locating the shroud, the game should have immediately transitioned to present day. There is absolutely no need to kill Starrick, especially in a Street Fighter way. These people are assassins, not fighters. Sure, they can fight, but this tag-team-switching-melee-brawl-that-only-intends-to-wear-down-health is just insanely stupid, especially considering just how quickly that fight would be over by cutting that shroud off of him. I don’t even know how many times either of the two of them had gotten close enough to yank that thing off of him. Yet, the game insists on throwing punches to bring him down.

Ultimately, it has an insanely stupid ending that is majorly out of character for a game franchise that deserves so much better and which offered so much promise. And, of course, where is the Syndicate in all of this melee stuff? Why is it the gang is not there? Instead, Starrick should have been killed by a standard overhead assassination by both of them simultaneously through instant decapitation. I’d have preferred if Greenie had been in on the action and then have all three of them take Starrick out. Even the most healing shroud in the world couldn’t heal a severed head… and it should have been done in one big maneuver by both or all three of the assassins at once. That would have been an ending befitting of the name Assassin’s Creed.

Recommendation: Rent

Can the Xbox One catch up to the PS4 this year?

Posted in business, video gaming by commorancy on August 21, 2015

ps4-system-imageblock-us-13jun14We all know that Sony’s PS4 has outsold the Xbox One fairly substantially. However, will moving into this holiday season help or hurt the Xbox One? Let’s explore.

Halo 5

In October, we will see the next installment of Halo 5 released. This is unusual in that this title usually releases in November. I’m assuming that Microsoft is attempting to gain an early head start in console sales. I’m also certain that Microsoft is hoping that Halo 5 (an exclusive Xbox One title) will push consoles off the shelves. The problem is, however, UltraHD 4K.

4K TVs and Consoles

With HDTVs rapidly dropping in price and especially 4K TVs (there are several sub $1000 models), this spells a big problem for console manufacturers. I’m sure it wasn’t expected to see prices of 4K TVs dropping this rapidly this soon. None of the Xbox One, PS4 or Wii U currently support 4K content or 4K TVs. This is shaping into a much bigger problem and is especially a problem for Microsoft and Sony. Without the ability to deliver 4K content to these sub $1000 4K TVs, many people are going to be hard pressed to justify the investment in a $500 console that doesn’t support 4K. So, not even Halo 5 may be able to budge many of those consoles off the shelves, at least not to existing Xbox One owners.

Personally, I’m not planning on investing in any new console systems until there’s 4K support. When Sony and Microsoft can finally get off their collective butts and release a 4K HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.2 console version, I will definitely consider replacing my existing consoles, but not until that happens.

Of course, I already own a PS4 and Xbox One. I got both day one, but I’ve recently bought a 4K TV. Barring Netflix and Amazon, there’s effectively no 4K content. Still, it does make my 1080p content look amazingly clear without all that annoying pixelation so common in 1080p TVs.

Console Purchasing and the Holidays

Because 4K TVs are now becoming more commonplace and because 1080p TVs will likely be mostly a distant memory in even just 2 years, it’s hard to justify a $500 expense only to replace it in 6 months or a year. It’s not worth it. Additionally, you can buy a video game at any time after it’s released, but it doesn’t have to be on day one. You can just as easily play Halo 5 in spring of 2016 as you can in the fall of 2015. Yes, there are a lot of day-oners out there (must have it the moment it’s released), but because of the deluge of titles in the fall, it’s easy to pick and choose which ones to leave for later. This means you can delay that console purchase or buying that game until the 4K version arrives.

Yes, Halo 5 will push some consoles off the shelves. But, those looking for a 4K version will likely wait. I’m definitely waiting for the console refresh from Sony and Microsoft. For whatever reason, both of these companies are taking their sweet time to provide this refresh. In fact, Sony should have pushed out this refresh as part of the fall game launch. Sony being at the forefront of the 4K revolution makes it ever more important for Sony to finally get this refresh out the door. It’s even more important to get this refresh out for holiday purchases even if we can’t take advantage of the 4K content yet. Though, I know that Sony’s video on demand services for use with the Sony 4K UltraHD Media Player already offers a very large number of 4K movies. There’s no reason not to get this technology into the PS4 and widen that audience. Not only will it widen the audience for their movie services, it also immediately widens their game playing audience. In this case, were Sony to release this 4K refresh faster than Microsoft, Sony would have tremendous advantage both in sales and in gaming.

Sales Advantage

It’s clear, which ever company gets out their 4K refresh faster, they will have a sales advantage. As I said, considering Sony’s involvement in 4K, it makes perfect sense for Sony to get this refresh out now.

I don’t believe even Halo 5 sales could argue with a Sony 4K hardware refresh. People would think twice about buying an Xbox One until Microsoft also provided a 4K Xbox One refresh themselves. Should Sony release first, it would push Sony’s PS4 much higher in sales numbers because many existing PS4 owners would immediately replace their existing PS4. I know I would. So, that means double sales. Sales to everyone who already has a PS4 and to those who don’t. Of course, this would happen with the Xbox One as well once their 4K refresh is available.

Though, should the Xbox One and PS4 4K edition release together, I would still buy the PS4 version first unless Microsoft released the Xbox One 4K version with a 4K 60Hz playable version of Halo 5. There is currently no franchise title that Sony owns that is that compelling. But, were Black Ops III or Fallout 4 to support 4K, I’d be hard pressed not to consider a 4K PS4.

I personally believe that Sony is currently more likely to release a 4K refresh sooner than Xbox One. Microsoft doesn’t embrace new technologies quickly, especially when Sony is one of the primary proponents of that new technology.

Ultra HD 4K Content

Today, there’s not much 4K content. The drought of 4K content is about as severe as California’s rainfall levels. This can all change with a console refresh. Consoles are quickly becoming the ubiquitous media outlet for the home, especially for children. With a console refresh from Sony, that immediately picks up a relatively large number of 4K movies. With the addition of developers taking advantage of 4K gaming, that opens up a huge new door (literally pixel-wise). While that number of pixels is immense, it offers a brand new immersive level of gaming that hasn’t yet been achieved. Yes, it requires producing much bigger content, but the games will be spectacular, the environments breathtaking and the realism levels achieved would be astounding.

The problem today is that most developers can’t even grasp 1080p. So, I do not expect 4K gaming any time soon. Perhaps from the Call of Duty brand and possibly from Microsoft’s Halo (if 343 can figure it out). But, smaller companies like Atlus and even larger ones like Bethesda struggle with high def gaming. If we can get one HD title out of a developer per year, I consider that a win. With Ultra HD 4K content, I’d expect it might even take 2 years per title. That would suck at not having a new game every year, but 4K is where we’re going and Sony, Microsoft, Bethesda, Ubisoft, EA, Square Enix and the rest would do best to take heed. Not only does gaming want 4K, we need it to move forward. In fact, it should have been included in the original PS4 as Sony already had a 4K TV available at the time the PS4 was released. If Sony had had the foresight to create the PS4 with 4K, I wouldn’t even be writing this article.

Ultra HD’s Time Has Come

ultra_hd_blu-ray_logo_uhd_bd_bluray_logo_6501Sony, release your 4K refresh with the Ultra HD blu-ray spec. Microsoft, release your refresh with a 4K Halo 5. Because these two consoles are on the cusp of 4K, I’m anxiously awaiting their release. I won’t consider a new console purchase until these are out. Because they are so close, I would suggest you wait also. I would love to see any 4K console refresh for this holiday season. I’d love to see Halo 5 running in 4K. In fact, I’d love to play pretty much any of this holiday’s season games including Fallout 4, Halo 5, Black Ops III, Just Cause 3 and Star Wars in 60hz 4K. That would be an amazing holiday gift this season.

How to pair your PS4 controller wirelessly

Posted in Sony, video gaming by commorancy on July 31, 2015

DUALSHOCK 4[Updated: 8/28/2016] We all know the drill. You’ve just run out and spent $65 for that new and oh-so-cool camo DUALSHOCK 4 controller for your PS4. Well, now you’ve got to go through that hassle of pairing it with your console. But, why can’t I pair it wirelessly? You can. Let’s explore.

USB Pairing

The Sony recommended procedure of pairing your new controller to your PS4 is by plugging it into the console with the Sony USB cable and powering the PS4 with the power button. While that’s all well and good (or at least so Sony thinks), it’s a complete and utter hassle… especially when you have other controllers already working. If this is your only DS4 controller (i.e., your other one is broken or lost), your only choice is to pair it with a cable… so you better go find that cable.

However, if you have more than one working controller, you can skip this hassle and go to …

… wait for it …

Wireless Pairing

PS4 DUALSHOCK 4 controllers are bluetooth devices and like all bluetooth devices you can pair them wirelessly. Of course, you can’t pair the device if it is the only device (see above), but if you happen to have other working devices to control your PS4 (like another controller or a media remote), you’re good to go to with wireless pairing.

Before you start this process, go to the PS4’s Settings => Devices => Bluetooth Devices area and leave it on this screen. On this screen you’ll see all your paired devices and this is also where all new unpaired devices will appear. Unpaired devices will have no grey or green dot next to them.

DS4PairingGuideHow to begin? Press and hold the PS button and the sharing button simultaneously. The sharing button is the small black oval button to the upper left of the touch pad labeled creatively enough SHARE. Press and hold the PS and sharing buttons until the lightbar begins to strobe quickly (approximately 3-5 seconds). While it’s quickly double strobing, it’s in the pairing state like any other bluetooth device. If the strobe is a slow on and off, then the controller is trying to connect to your PS4 or PC. This isn’t what you want. If it’s slow strobing, then you’ll need to wait until it stops to try again. Pressing the PS button before the share button could lead you into slow strobing. So, I would suggest pressing and holding the share button slightly before you press and hold the PS button to avoid triggering the slow strobe.

Once it’s double strobing, look at your screen under Bluetooth Devices and look for the DUALSHOCK 4 that has no dot (probably at the bottom of the PS4 screen). Using a working controller or remote, select the new controller and complete the pairing on the next screen.

If you don’t see your DUALSHOCK 4 device in the list, check to make sure the device is still in pairing mode. If not, put it in pairing mode. If it’s still in pairing mode, back out of that screen and then go back into it. This will force a search refresh for new devices. Hopefully it will appear now. If not, move closer to the PS4 with the new controller. If this all fails, use the USB pairing method above… again, time to go dig out that cable.

Once paired, you can now use the controller normally.

Don’t have access to your PS4?

I’ve had a number of comments on this article regarding corruption or rebuilding of a PS4 after a new hard drive insertion. Before you lose access to your PS4 entirely either because you failed to power off the unit properly, because the hard drive failed or because you replaced the hard drive, you should make sure you have some alternative form of PS4 XMB menu control. You have to remember to set this up while you still have a working PS4. You won’t be able to easily do some of these steps after you lose access and cannot find or do not have a proper microUSB pairing cable.

Note, if you are replacing the PS4’s hard drive, setting anything up in advance probably won’t work as the new hard drive will need to be reinstalled with a new operating system. So, any settings will be lost on hard drive replacement… skip down to Wired Controller below or be prepared with a PS4 compatible micro USB cable.

HDMI-CEC

Many flat screens today support control of the PS4 through the HDMI cable using your TV’s remote. This is called HDMI-CEC or simply CEC. You must enable this on your TV and on the PS4 both. To enable this on your PS4, go to Settings=>General=>HDMI link and check this box. Now, go to your TV and enable CEC / HDMI Link to control the connected PS4 with your TV’s remote. Not all TV manufacturers call it CEC, some call it something with the word ‘Link’ in the name, but the protocol is standard. Once enabled, reboot your PS4 and then turn your TV off and then on.

[UPDATED] Note, the TV’s remote does not have a PS button. Therefore, there is no way to get into the menu using CEC alone with a generic TV remote.  If you have a Sony branded TV, it might work. But, non-Sony branded TVs do not seem to get into the PS4’s XMB with any button press.

Technomancer Screen Shot 7:20:16, 4.52 AM 2CEC control has changed since the latest PS4 system update. When you have CEC enabled, the remote is now considered a controller. Once you flip over to the PS4’s HDMI port on your TV, the PS4 should turn on. Once booted up, the remote control should present as a controller (see screenshot to the right). The screen should show your login ID. Press your ENTER or OK key on the remote to enter into the XMB menu. Apparently, Sony realized this intrinsic problem with CEC and updated the PS4 to now allow the remote control to be recognized as an XMB controller on the bootup screen. What this all means is that you can now fully control your PS4 with your TV’s remote control without needing a DS4 controller at all. With CEC, you can now pair your controller using your TV’s remote through settings. Though, I wouldn’t recommend trying to play games using your TV’s controller.

If the PS4’s screen does not show the login ID panel and simply has the words “Press the PS button to use the controller” in the middle of the screen, the PS4 has not recognized a controller. This can be for several reasons. If you powered the PS4 on before flipping to it via HDMI, the PS4 doesn’t see the TV as the controller. The device that powers the PS4 on is the device presented on the boot up screen. When you use a DS4 to power it on, the DS4 will show as the controller on the boot screen. When you use the the TV to switch to and power on the PS4, the TV’s controller becomes the default on this screen. If you can’t get the TV’s controller to show up at all, then you will need to skip down to the next section for pairing with a USB cable.

As mentioned above, you will need to set CEC up on your TV and the PS4 in advance to use this feature. If you have no functional gamepad controllers, your TV doesn’t support CEC or you haven’t set CEC up in advance, skip to USB pairing.

MicroUSB pairing cable

If you’re looking for something right away, you can stop by a store (or order online) and purchase a microUSB pairing cable. Sony offers an official cable that costs around $10. You can get a cable from the following places:

Wired Controller

If you’ve completely lost control to your PS4 through your Dual Shock 4 and you don’t have any other way to activate a PS button and you can’t seem to get your DS4 controllers paired with a cable, you will need to use a wired controller. There are only a few PS4 wired controllers on the market, but Hori makes a couple of gamepad versions.

While these gamepads are not as full featured as a Sony Dual Shock 4 (i.e., no light bar, no rumble, no speaker, no headset jack, etc), they will at least let you control your PS4 when nothing else will. Amazon also offers a few PS4 wired arcade-style stick controllers that may work. Make sure they have a PS button to launch the PS4’s XMB menu. Also, you will need to double-check that they are, in fact, wired controllers. While most third party controllers are wired, you’ll definitely want to read through the product description in the listings carefully to make sure it doesn’t use a wireless dongle. Though, a wireless dongle may work for controlling the PS4 for a short period of time, they may not work for long gaming sessions as they have tendencies to time out forcing the controller to be reconnected often.

Hori Pad FPS Pro Gamepad

I recently picked up a Hori Pad FPS Plus. This is a very nice controller with the exception of two things. First, the shoulder buttons take getting used to because they are pressure sensitive in a different way from the DS4’s trigger shoulder buttons. Because it takes a different amount of pressure to activate them, it feels different from the trigger controllers on the DS4. Once you get used to the pressure needed for these shoulder buttons, everything else is pretty much spot on including the touch pad. And, I like the reversed placement of the D-Pad and the left joystick (like the Xbox controller). This game pad is also well made and quite light in weight because it doesn’t have the lightbar, rumble or battery. I also like that I can continue to play without worry of running out of battery. The second issue, it won’t turn on the PS4 with the press of the PS button when the PS4 is off. For me, this is only a small problem because I have CEC enabled. Simply switching to the PS4’s HDMI port turns the PS4 on. Otherwise, you’ll need to get up and touch the power button or use a DS4 to turn it on and then use PS button on the Hori to get into the menu (the DS4 controller will automatically turn off when the Hori Pad logs in).

Note that there are other things the Hori Pad doesn’t have, like a headphone jack or a speaker. While I do like the speaker on the DS4, for me it doesn’t ruin the game without it. Yes, it is kind of cool when GTA5’s phone comes out of the DS4’s speaker, but it’s mostly a gimmick.

Dualshock 4 and Computers

Note, you can use this same pairing approach to pair this controller to other operating systems. For example, a Mac or Windows. The trouble, while the DS4 does pair, you still need a driver to map the buttons to make the controller useful. For this reason, it’s not that useful on a Mac yet, but you might try Joystick Mapper. I know the Joystick Mapper devs were working on an update to drive the DS4 controller on a Mac. For Windows, there’s InputMapper that does work.

As for pairing and using it on iOS or Android, it might pair but won’t be useful. Yes, some have managed to pair it, but it doesn’t seem to have any kind of drivers or support. I’d like to see Sony create a PS Vita gaming tablet that fully supports the DS4. That would be the best of all worlds. Skip iOS and Android and go right for a full out Sony gaming tablet. But, Sony definitely needs to get more gaming devs on board to bring the blockbuster titles. But, that’s another topic entirely.

Documentation

While I understand Sony’s reluctance to document a wireless pairing guide like this due to the need for an already working controller, I really don’t like having to locate that special Sony microUSB cable for this process. Not all microUSB cables are equal. If you don’t have the correct Sony PS4 (or compatible) cable, the pairing process above won’t work. Because this cable looks like all other black microUSB cables, you can easily mix them up or lose them. For that $65, I don’t understand why Sony can’t include a 3′ compatible cable in the box with the controller since the PS4 is so finicky about which cable will work.

I also don’t typically leave dangling cables hanging from my console for a variety of reasons including safety. So, locating this special pairing cable is not always quick in my house. I mean, one black cable looks like any other. Sony doesn’t specifically mark the cable well, so digging through a ton of microUSB cables trying to find that special Sony cable isn’t something I want to spend my time doing… especially when I already have a working controller.

When you have at least some kind of a functional controller, wireless pairing is a perfectly acceptable (and more efficient) alternative. Yet, Sony’s site mentions nothing of this process. That’s the reason I document it here.

If this article helped you, please leave a comment below. If you had difficulties pairing your device, please let me know that too.

Skylanders Trap Team: Review + Kaos Trap?

Posted in botch, video game, video gaming by commorancy on January 9, 2015

trap-team-compatibility-logo[Update 3: 4/6/2015]: Gamestop.com has several Kaos Trap bundles now available online for purchase. Not only do they now have the same 3 trap bundle as on Amazon for $15.99 (only available in stores), Gamestop.com also carries 3 additional Kaos Trap bundles (online only) that Gamestop has created (Kaos-Water-Magic, Kaos-Water-Earth & Kaos-Water-Life) containing 3 trap singles as a bundle for $17.97. If you’re looking for the individual trap (not as part of a 3 pack), this is the best and least costly way to get it. Now I know why Gamestop has been hoarding Kaos Traps from their case packs at their warehouse instead of sending them to the stores. They have been stockpiling these Kaos Traps to create these 3 trap single bundles for online sales. Retailers should not be allowed to break case packs open and hold out stock for months for the purpose of creating bundles. All I can say is, if you want this trap, hurry.

[Update 2: 4/1/2015]: It seems Amazon’s stock of the 3 trap bundle has been temporarily depleted at $14.99. Try back in a day or two as Amazon refreshes their stock every day. However, don’t limit yourself to Amazon. All retailers are likely to get this 3 pack. Try looking at (or calling) Best Buy, Walmart, Gamestop, Target, Kmart, Toys R Us or any other retailer near you that carries Skylander’s toys.

[Update 1: 4/1/2015]: If you’re looking for the Kaos Trap, it is now included in a 3 trap bundle (Air, Kaos, Earth) for KaosTrapBundle$14.99 available now at Amazon. Be sure to choose the Amazon version marked at $14.99. Amazon has a tendency to put items in stock as the first item in the listing (even if it’s a higher price). Choose the Amazon item at $14.99 even if it says it ships later. If you don’t see a $14.99 listing, it means Amazon’s stock has been depleted and their listing has been temporarily removed. Try back again another day.

Skylanders Trap Team

While I have to give kudos yet again to Activision for producing a top notch installment to the Skylanders franchise, there is one huge peeve I have with this series. What is Skylanders you ask? Let’s explore.

Skylanders Video Game and RFID

This game is relatively simple video game with a brilliant gimmick that parents all over the country are cursing their wallet. This is exactly how it was designed by Activision. So, what is it?

It’s simple, it’s basically a cartoon turned into an action fighting game with characters that you must purchase separately. Each figure you purchase has its own strengths and weaknesses in battle. These are determined by the character’s abilities. Once you buy a character toy, you place it on the Traptanium Portal (included with the Starter Pack) and an RFID reader pulls character information stored on the toy into the game. So, the more you play with that character, the higher it levels up and the stronger it becomes.

In fact, it’s a brilliant use of RFID technology and video games. I’d love to see more RPG games use this idea. For example, a series like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect or even Star Wars RPGs could benefit from this. Instead of relying on finding items in the world, you would buy them at the store and level them up on your character. The item could then be added to any character you own. There are so many uses for this idea in gaming, it’s sad that it’s not being used more. I think it’s absolutely brilliant for gaming.

Toys and Scarcity

My peeve.. Activision has taken the approach of releasing toys in waves and at random times throughout the year. This does a couple of things. First, withholding some toys means that you can’t play parts of the game until the toy is released. Second, some of the toys are intentionally hard to find so that parts of the game cannot even be completed until you manage to find it or you are willing to pay the highly inflated price on eBay or Amazon.

For Skylanders, this approach is extremely frustrating and introduces kids into the fray of toy collecting early. But, unfortunately, kids don’t have the money to locate or pay for these toys. The parents are firmly on the hook for locating and placating their child’s video game play.

To this I say, “Shame on you Activision”. This series appeals to children at an age that have little concept of collectible toys or scarcity of toys on the shelves. What am I talking about here?

Skylanders Traps

The latest Skylanders game is titled Trap Team. The concept behind this game is that not only can you buy and use toy characters, you can now trap the villains you defeat and they become good characters you can use to defeat new villains and trap them. But, this is not just about any old trap. I’m specifically talking about the Kaos trap. Note that there are 40 or so villains in the game. This also means you need to invest in about 40 traps to to entrap the villains. What is a trap? It’s a small toy that looks like a crystal. It is initially empty, but once you trap a villain, it becomes associated with that specific toy trap. So, everytime you place that trap into the portal, it recalls that same villain. If you take that crystal and put it in someone else’s game, it will also pull in that villain into their game.

In addition to buying small traps, there are different elements (earth, air, water, fire, life, tech, magic, undead, light and dark). Each of these element types requires a special trap that is color coded. So, unless you have one of these specific types of traps, you cannot trap a villain of that type. More specifically, the main villain in the game is Kaos. He has his own personal trap type called, creatively enough, the Kaos trap. This trap can only ever hold Kaos. Once you trap Kaos, you can use him as a character in battle.

KaosTrapUnfortunately, Activision has dropped the ball heavily with this game in this area. While it’s easy to find Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Tech, Life, Magic and Undead traps pretty much everywhere, the Kaos trap is extremely hard to find. In fact, in a case of 20-30 traps, there may be only 3 Kaos traps. This means the store gets a boatload of these easy-to-find elements and Kaos trap immediately sells out. Because Kaos can only be trapped in a Kaos trap, you have to find that trap or your child cannot play as Kaos. Kaos is the absolutely strongest villain in the game, so having him to use in battle is extremely useful.

Note, a lot of people believe this trap has never been released. It has. It was released when all of the traps first released. However, there are so few in the retailer case packs that you’re unlikely to ever see it in the store. What I recommend at this point is to buy the Dark Edition Starter Pack which contains an Ultimate Kaos trap. This will at least let your child play as Kaos. The Dark Edition is a whole lot more expensive than buying the Kaos trap at retail price, but this trap is almost impossible to find in any retailer. At this point, to buy the Kaos trap alone aftermarket might cost you $50. Though, that’s cheaper than buying the Dark Edition Starter pack. But, if you’re buying the game brand new, I highly recommend buying the Dark Edition set. If you’ve got an existing a game you’ve already purchased, then buying an aftermarket trap may be the only answer. I’d also suggest filing a complaint with Activision on the scarcity of this trap.

Light and Dark Traps

The reason I excluded the Light and Dark traps from the above is that both of these sets were released immediately prior to Christmas. These traps are a bit hard to find because they are brand new. But, they can be obtained in the light and dark adventure packs that also contain the new level, the trap and a trap master. The light (Sunscraper Spire) and dark (Midnight Museum) adventure sets can be found periodically on Amazon. Note, make sure that it says you’re buying these from Amazon and not a third party seller to get the lowest price. When Amazon (or any store) has these in stock, they should cost around $29.

Activision’s Game Clock

There is absolutely no reason the Kaos trap is so hard to find. Activision could ship retailers cases entirely of the Kaos trap and completely eliminate the scarcity of this trap. In fact, there is no reason this trap is so scarce. This is an artificial scarcity that Activision has introduced into the series, but this type of scarcity doesn’t belong with this game. This is a completely mistaken and asinine strategy. If this were a series aimed at adults (and specifically adult collectors), such as The Elder Scrolls series, this situation is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, this game is targeted completely at children. This scarcity of the Kaos trap is likely backfiring on Activision hard and ruining their PR, but they seem oblivious to this issue.

Parents have no interest in playing this game (other than getting things for their children) and will ultimately take the game away from little Timmy when it becomes too costly and problematic. That means, no more money to Activision from that family. More and more families are pulling the plug on this game in their household because of this exact scarcity issue. To avoid disappointments in children, you take away the thing that’s causing it. Worse, children don’t have the longest attention span in the first place. So, when a child can’t do what they want to do in the game, they’re going to give up on it sooner rather than later and never come back to it. Meaning, if they can’t get the Kaos trap to play as Kaos when they need it, they’ll give up on the game and forget all about it by the time the Kaos traps do arrive.

Shelf Life of Games

Games typically have a 6 month or so shelf life at the longest before a newer more compelling game is released. Seeing as this game released October 4th, 2014, the clock is firmly ticking on Activision to make these toys more readily available. If Activision cannot solve this Kaos scarcity problem, assuming the parents haven’t already pulled the plug on the game, the kids will lose interest by the time the next game arrives.

Kaos Arena Game Play

What’s worse is not only the shelf life, but the replay-ability. This game is short. It doesn’t take long to get through the entire story piece. Getting through the arena levels takes only slightly longer. However, if you want to open every door and unlock every treasure, that takes substantially longer. Unfortunately, you can’t easily do this because Activision was, until recently, withholding critical toys to make this a reality. But, in gaming, not everyone is a completionist, let alone assuming this of children. While some children may want to finish the entire game and get every medal, not everyone will.

In reality, once you get through the story entirely, you’re pretty much done with the game. You don’t learn anything new or gain any new story by completing everything. So, it’s a stretch to ask kids to wait months to get the final content they need to complete the game. In fact, Activision is stretching it if they think they can stretch this game’s lifespan longer with this slow drip toy strategy. Activision will be lucky if many kids are still playing this game come March. Timing is everything with this game and Activision not delivering critical pieces of the game within a few weeks of the release of this game is really not a great strategy.

Costly

SkylandersDarkEditionOne aspect of this game that I haven’t yet touched on is cost. To really play this game properly, in addition to buying the Starter Pack Edition game kit (around $50) or the Dark Edition Kit (around $125), you need a Trap Master of every element and purchase traps of every element. Like Skylanders Swap Force required purchasing characters that you could swap their top and bottoms, you also needed every element and every power type to complete Swap Force. The same goes with Trap Team. Not only do you need a Trap Master of every element (of which Magic, Light and Dark are the hardest to find), you also need to buy a trap to contain each villain to be a completionist. That entails purchasing 40 traps in addition to 10 trap masters. Traps cost around $6 a piece and trap masters anywhere from $12.99 to $14.99, though Toys R Us puts them on sale at buy one get one 40% off regularly. So, you can reduce the cost by taking advantage of this deal. You can also save a little money if you buy the bulk trap packs that contain 3 or 8 traps bundled together.

And don’t think you can get away just with purchasing the toys. No. You’ll need to organize and store them. So, you’ll also need to purchase a chest for the traps and a case to hold the figures to keep them organized and stored.

EliteChopChopIt doesn’t stop there, there are also standard toy characters that you can buy to battle with and more powerful characters called Eon’s Elites (which are primarily collectibles and only available at Gamestop and EB Games in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and select retailers in Europe). They also appear to be limited. Be prepared to call Gamestop or EB Games looking for these Elites if you need to find them. There are adventure packs to add new levels to the game which usually retail around $30-35.

This is a fairly substantial investment for a game. Most games cost $60 with at most $10-20 worth of DLC. But, Skylanders can run you into the hundreds of dollars with all of the toys and add-ons. I’d recommend that, unless absolutely necessary, the toys should remain in their packaging. This will retain the value of the toy. So, when the game is done, you can put it on eBay and sell it off at a reasonably good value. People are willing to buy figures still in the package, so it’s always wise to do this when possible. Keep in mind that this is impossible to do for the traps. The traps have to be extracted from their packages to be used. But, the Trap Masters and most of the characters will play just fine if left in the package. The only exception to this is the Light and Dark adventure packs that include traps that must be extracted to be used. So, you have to rip open these packages for the traps.

Overall

The game is reasonably fun and plays like watching a cartoon. The voice acting is superb and the story is well written. But, it does require a costly investment in toys and extras. Unless you have the means and you are willing and able to run around or call stores constantly to find that ever-elusive toy or trap, you might not want to consider this game for your child. It could end up being a huge source of frustration. Else, you’re likely to find yourself spending a lot of time running around looking for the elusive trap, toy or character. And, these waves of new toys don’t stop. There are many variations of trap shapes (well more than there are villains). Toys will continue to show up in stores until Activision releases the next version of Skylanders. However, you will be able to use these toys in the next Skylander’s game, but Activision will require a new gimmick to force repurchase of an entirely new set of toys. Ultimately, the game itself is fun, but not overly replayable. However, for some children Trap Team may offer some level of replay.

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Call of Duty – Advanced Warfare Review: Good, but a mixed bag

Posted in reviews, video gaming by commorancy on November 8, 2014

CallOfDutyLogoCubeMost previous Call of Duty titles were more-or-less grounded in some reality close to today. Well, Advanced Warfare finally tosses all of that aside and goes straight for a fantasy shooter. No longer are we looking at real world locations with real world weapons, we’re now firmly looking at some distant future where there are robotic suits you can strap on, flying drones with machine gun weapons, magnetic wall crawling abilities and more. This is definitely not the Call of Duty of yore.

Story

Your character, Jack Mitchell, is an ex-military war vet with a missing arm lost in a botched mission. As you’re being washed out of the military, Atlas corporation enlists you to give you a second chance with a prosthetic arm (and to become a mercenary). No sooner is the prosthetic arm strapped on than is Atlas sending you into a training simulation, to which you fail because the ‘arm isn’t ready’ (part of the story). As soon as you get the arm repaired, you are sent in a second time (yes, you do this mission twice) and you succeed the second time.

From here, you find out that the owner of Atlas, Jonathan Irons (Kevin Spacey), likes what you have to offer Atlas and continues to court you into their team. From here, the story begins.

Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

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Kevin Spacey as Jonathan Irons

I’m mixed about this whole let’s-make-a-main-character-look-like-an-actor gimmick. In reality, the first and only thing I see each time I see this character is Kevin Spacey, not Jonathan Irons. In fact, Jonathan’s name is so not mentioned in the story that you really don’t ever know what this character’s name really is. Note, Spacey’s character name is so badly unmentioned in this game that I had to actually go Google his name to write this review. Unfortunately, that lack of namedropping doesn’t help this character to become more menacing. In fact, because he’s not in most of the game and because you don’t even know his name, what makes the writers think this character is even worthy of being a villain? I mean, one way or the other, this character had to die in the game. It was inevitable based on the way the story was set up. But, the character development around this villain is seriously lacking.

The rest of the story

Though, the story is less about Jonathan and more about you and Gideon’s (your sidekick) missions. It’s what drives the game and keeps the action interesting. The story is reasonably decent, but is centered around distinct missions that are distanced by time. So, the cohesion of the story isn’t always as good as it could have been. But, the action and lack of repetition does keep the story and environments quite interesting.

Story Choice and Player Character

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Cormack and Mitchell

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Gideon and Mitchell

Let’s just bluntly say, there are none. The story is linear. There are no choices that you can make that impact the outcome of any of the segments or the final ending. So, if you want to let someone live vs die, there are no choices in this game like this. You’re dragged through the story, more or less, as a tag-along for the entire game. While your character is made to seem important by Atlas, the missions treat you as a rookie who barely knows his way around a training coarse. The game does not at all treat you like you’re the well respected and experienced soldier that you formerly were.

Linear Shooter

The downside to this game is that it is a completely linear shooter. What I mean by that is that it has absolutely no open world elements. It’s a firmly closed world kept in check mostly by Mitchell’s death. Meaning, if you stray from the mission, Mitchell is dead. If you do the wrong thing, Mitchell is dead. If you lag, Mitchell is dead. If you do anything other than what the story requires, Mitchell dies or the mission fails and ends. If it’s not your character who dies, then it’s one of your sidekicks. If they die, your mission is over. If you’re looking for more of an open world to play around in, don’t look here. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is not the game for you.

Graphics

10525368_932844880078066_7906915004664649843_oOn the other hand, this game on the PS4 is absolutely stunning visually. From the detailed suits that everyone wears to the vehicles, to the landscapes, to the buildings, the signage, everything. There’s not a detail in this world that wasn’t painstakingly made in high res. Combining all of that with near perfect naturalistic lighting, and you have some amazing scenes in the game. In fact, the cut scenes may have been produced on the PS4 and recorded. The graphics on the PS4 are so close in look to the cut scenes, it seems they likely were recorded on the PS4. Even as visually stunning as this game is, it can’t overcome the forced linear nature of the gameplay.

Gameplay

For the most part, I like the game play. The controls are simple, they work well and the button layouts are perfectly placed. However, that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is the inconsistent nature of the suit (see Exo Suit section below). This game borrows heavily from games like Killzone Shadowfall (futuristic look and feel plus some story elements), Halo 3 (vehicle, weapons and shield) and Crysis (the suit and lighting). Unfortunately, as much as they borrow, it doesn’t help the gameplay that much because of the linear nature. In fact, the gameplay is so linear, it might as well have been a rail shooter. Why even let us wander off at all? Just put up barriers. Nope, instead, they let you wander off but then give you a warning message ‘You are about to abandon your team’.  If you stray far enough for long enough, the mission fails.

This is the most problematic portion of this game. Here the artists have created an absolutely stunning world with well developed characters using amazing character models, and we’re stuck being a tag along.  Though, the character AI on the sidekicks has to be some of the worst I’ve seen in a game. Gideon’s aim is about as good as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. That is, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn if it were 5 feet away. Seriously, the game entirely relies on your aim and your gun skills to kill anything and everything that moves. The other characters do occasionally manage to kill an enemy or two, but usually only at close range by melee. Not usually by killing them with a gun.

There are also times in the game where Gideon’s voice work is truly and utterly annoying. There’s one mission where you have to cross what amounts to a highway with continual cars and buses speeding by. At times, I felt like Frogger. Anyway, what’s most annoying about this scene is Gideon says ‘Get across the road’ every 2 seconds. Literally, every 2 seconds he’s chiming in telling you to get across the road. But, there are like 10 enemies on the median waiting to pop a cap in you. So, the first thing you need to do is sniper them all off considering Gideon’s (lack of) ability to actually shoot a gun. In among his constantly annoying chatter, you’re trying to pick off these enemies. It’s like, “Dude, shut the hell up and shoot these people first. Then, we’ll worry about getting across the damned road.”  And even worse, just a few feet away from you is a pedestrian overpass. If you try to go over to the overpass to get a higher vantage point, you can’t. The game simply won’t let you. In fact, if you try, it will warn that you’re about to abandon your mission. So, where is that ‘use whatever you can to get an advantage’ strategy that Call of Duty was so previously famous for?

Simulations and Checkpoint Saves

1956906_932045896824631_5119604728357774203_oAs with most Call of Duty games, the developers like to throw in a lot of different game modes to keep the game from becoming stale. In this case, there are flight simulators, suit jetpacks, jumping super high, a hover bike, hover tank simulator, mech suits, drone machine gun control, etc. These are some of the various additions. These are few and far between. In fact, you’ll only get one chance at each of these. For the flying simulator, that’s actually a good thing. The flight simulator in this game is probably one of the most horrible flight sims I’ve ever played. It’s so bad, in fact, that it feels like you’re flying about 2 MPH and you can’t keep yourself from running into anything and everything in the environment. Sometimes the developers just don’t get these pieces right.

On the hover bike level, I actually failed at a point where I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to finish. Because you’re supposed to be following Gideon on his bike, the save check point saved my game at a point where I was just too far away. So, every time it restarted my game, I didn’t have enough time to catch up to him. I finally found a trick that somewhat reset the fail timer and let me finally get past this level without restarting. I had this same exact problem on the hover tank level with the checkpoint save. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any tricks for the hover tank and I restarted the entire mission from the beginning. In this game, checkpoint saves aren’t always your friend.

Exo Suit

The suit itself is kind of cool, but a little too derivative of other suits like the Crysis Nanosuit. Though the initial suit was more or less a skeleton that attached to your body (rather than full body coverings), later in the game you get a full body suit that is much more reminiscent of the suit in Crysis (cloak included).

The suit has a lot of cool features, but the enemies always appear to have technologies that conveniently counter some of the most useful of the suit’s capabilities, like the cloak.  I mean, why even offer a cloak in the game when you can’t even use it most of the time? Seriously, why spend the time building the feature in the game when it cannot even be used for much of the game?

The secondary problem with the Exo Suit is that the features of the suit are turned on and off by the story and level segment. So, while you do have a drone you can use, you can only used it at specific limited times. If you want to jump high, that’s only available at limited times. If you want to use the grappling hook, that’s only available on limited levels. Instead of adding more and more to your suit, the designers chose to enable the suit features only when the gameplay warranted their use, not when the gamer chooses to use them.

Overall

1522580_932845190078035_8037699168592533202_oIn among all of the above problems, I enjoyed the game’s campaign and story. The main problem with this game, just like Killzone Shadowfall, the campaign is very very short.  You can expect to finish the entire campaign in under 3 days casually playing. If you are a hard core gamer, you can probably finish it in under 24 hours. For $60, this is far too short. This is also the exact same way I felt about Killzone Shadowfall. It also has a great campaign game, but is too short. Halo 3’s campaign is much more lengthy.  It took me at least a couple weeks or longer to get through Halo 3, not to mention all the easter eggs all over the level (i.e., the skulls).

It seems with the next generation games, short gameplay is the number one problem. To produce these visually stunning, nearly photo real and human motion accurate games, the gameplay and story are sacrificed. This leaves the story no more than 2-3 days worth of play value. It’s unfortunate, I’d rather have a less pretty experience and a much more lengthy campaign that might take a month to complete. For that $60, I want to have a long and lengthy story experience. I want to walk away feeling like I’ve just experienced the equivalent of a visual novel. I want to walk away also knowing I got my $60 worth of play.

Unless you are a really devoted fan of multiplayer games, I’d recommend that for the reason of shortness, you rent it. Though, the game does look amazing.

Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Gameplay: 7/10 (flight sim was horrible, suit lacks consistent abilities)
Overall: 7.5/10

The State of Gaming

Posted in botch, business, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on December 11, 2013

I’ve been an ardent gamer since the Atari 2600 broke onto the scene. Before that, I was an avid pinball and arcade attendee. Suffice it to say, I’m a gamer. So, let’s explore what’s changed about gaming.

Early Days

In the earliest stages of gaming, experimentation was commonplace. This is not as much true in early pinball games as the physics were pretty much set, but in video games the bounds are endless. Though, the pinball technologists would definitely surprise me over what they could do with a table and with digital displays. I digress. In the beginning, games like Pong (1972) set the stage as to what could be done. A simple table tennis game seemed a good first step. It was a game everyone already recognized, but now it’s on a screen with no need to carry around real rackets. Now you just moved your finger and the paddle moved. No more physical exertion. What was born was couch entertainment.

However, you couldn’t take the arcade home with you. At least, not for a while yet. We wouldn’t see video games become true couch entertainment until after the Atari 2600 is born five years after Pong’s release to the arcades in 1977.

Arcades

I loved visiting the arcades during the early 70s. The ambience, the music and the machines (oh so many to choose) all beckoned for that quarter. One quarter, the fuel that drove your gaming satisfaction. Of course, at the time, I was too young to have a job, so I was at the mercy of my parents to give me some money. When we visited the mall, my mother would always give us (my brother and I) a couple of bucks and off to the arcade we’d run. For her the cost was a shopping experience without a couple annoying kids constantly making trouble. For us, we got to explore the latest video games in the arcade like Atari’s Pong or US Billiard’s Shark (where you play as the shark eating the swimmer) or some of those old-style pinball games with the wheels for numbers. No digital numbers on these pinball games. Digital displays would come later.

This particular arcade (my first) was always fun and had unique games. It sat right across from a five and dime store. Some of the games even had some quirky behaviors born from carpet static. One of the pinball games would add a free game just by rubbing your feet on the carpet and zapping the coin slot. Unfortunately, living in humid Texas meant you could only do this at certain times of the year. The way-too-humid rest of the time you had to pay. That is, until the arcade owners figured out the trick.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s, I’ve visited many different arcades in malls, strip malls, at bowling alleys, at batting cages, amusement parks, convenience marts, standalone arcades, at mini-golf and at Malibu racing tracks. They all had their own ambiance and games that made each experience unique and left a lasting impression on each visit. I never tire of visiting a new arcade.

One of the arcades I would occasionally visit had a mammoth pinball machine that used what looked like a white cue ball as the pinball. This pinball game was ginormous. Though it was big, it really wasn’t one of the most exciting pinball games. Its uniqueness was in its size, not in its game board mechanics. I always thought that it played like everything was in slow motion. I always preferred the smaller pinball games. This particular arcade had a cave-like quality that made it seem like you were the only one in there.

Video Game Experimentation

During the early years of video games, many different companies experimented with video game ideas. There were even hybrid pinball and video games combined, though none of these really successfully married the two technologies.

The earliest games were flat single color games. The earliest video games also used black and white CRT screens. When color was needed, flat gel color panels were applied to top of the black and white screen. It wouldn’t been until later that color CRTs would be added to video games.

This was a great time to watch as video games progressed from being simple flat shapes on black and white screens to more complex pixel drawn characters in later games like Mortal Kombat.

Arcade Video Games

As we moved into the era of video gaming, games became increasingly more complex graphically and sonically, but the games themselves remained relatively simple. Games like Pong, Space Invaders, Asteroids and Shark moved into games like Donkey Kong, Centipede, Venture, Burgertime, Dig-Dug, Mr. Do and Galaxian. All of these games had a simple level based premise. Do something to ‘win’ the level and move onto the next level. The win-the-level premise really had its roots back to pinball and simply carried over into video games. However with pinball, it was less about winning the level and more about keeping the ball in play as long as possible. With pinball, you were typically given 5 turns or balls to play. Once you used up all 5 turns, the game was over.

With video games, the premise changed from ‘playing as long as possible’ to ‘playing as short as possible’ so that arcades could maximize their profits. You really didn’t want the same kid playing the game on the same quarter for hours on end. This could easily happen with certain pinball games, but with video games that was not a goal. As we moved into video gaming, it became less about skill and more about defeating the ‘enemies’ (whatever they happened to be). Video game creators quickly learned that ‘enemies’ were the motivator for play. At the same time, the enemies got more and more complex, ingenious and harder to beat. In centipede, it happened to be a big segmented centipede squirming its way down the screen towards your ‘gun’. If you managed to destroy all of its parts of the centipede, the level was over.

Many games adopted the ‘Centipede’ approach to levels and began building more and more complex ‘waves’ of enemies, such as Galaga. So, from where did Galaga descend? From Galaxian, of course. And, Galaxian descended from Space Invaders. Space Invaders was an early somewhat higher res game depicting ‘ufo invaders’ at the top of the screen that you had to shoot until you destroyed them all. From this game alone descended a bunch of other games, some direct clones like Galaxian, Galaga and Gorf, some indirect clones like Defender (a side scroller). From Defender came some sonically similar games like Joust. Note, there are plenty of games I could reminisce over games from this time period, but I’ll move on to get to my point.

Game Innovation

As we progressed, game designers continued to push the boundaries with newer and more interesting ideas with higher res and more compelling gameplay like Paperboy, Marble Madness and Pole Position. There were also a number of vector based games like Battlezone, Tempest and Star Wars which also pushed the boundaries using vector graphics which would ultimately die as a technology. At the time, though, vector games were some of the first games to depict objects in 3D space (even though they were just wireframe drawings). The vector technology did offer, at least for me, more compelling gameplay due to the pseudo-3D experience. Unfortunately, the vector drawing method would only become a stop-gap technology to getting us to the 3D shooters of today. Though, the games that utilized vector technology were definitely one-of-a-kind and would also see produced a home arcade cartridge driven version named Vectrex in 1982. I always wanted one of these.

In among all of the flat 2D sprite based games, I applaud Atari for pushing the vector boundaries at that time. Without these innovative arcade games to keep us interested in plopping more quarters into the machines, we wouldn’t have kept playing.

Moving on, innovation continued with games like Gauntlet which took the arcades by storm. The Tron games didn’t do so bad either. Even Journey (the rock band) got in on the gaming action with the mostly horrible Journey arcade game set to Journey music from the Frontiers album. An earlier Atari 2600 console game was also released based on the Escape album. We would even see video game innovation in the form of laserdisc based games such as Don Bluth’s animated Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace titles. I have no idea how many quarters I plopped into these machines. There were even controversial video games based on movies, like Exidy’s Deathrace 2000 (1976) where you ran people over which turned into a grave.

All during this period, game designers were pushing the envelope on game ideas without much thought to the idea of game genres. That would come later. So while there were fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street fighter and racing games like Manaco GP and Pole Position, these games would become a staple at most arcades. There would also be a few sports titles like Punch-Out! and these would introduce the idea of sports games, but the Maddens and FIFAs of the world would have to wait until consoles improved. Specifically, the later linked racing games where 4-8 players were linked and could race in unison in sit-down driving arcade cabinets. Other than racing, no other arcade games braved linking their cabinets for multiuser play. That wouldn’t happen until the dawn of home networking and later Xbox Live.

Arcade Gaming End

So, while arcade gaming has never really ended specifically, it is greatly diminished as a result of the introduction of the Atari 2600 and later the Nintendo NES and the Sega Genesis. It’s funny, Atari, Nintendo and Sega were all huge builders of arcade games. Yet they all introduced home gaming consoles that would ultimately more-or-less kill the arcade as the place to game. I guess you might say that it was inevitable looking back now, but it is interesting to consider this fact.

Keep in mind that all during the later home console period (mid 90s), home gaming on the PC would become stronger and stronger with games like Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein. Thanks to iD software, Doom would actually usher in the era of first and third person shooters and, thus, bring this genre front and center. It would be a bit later that consoles would steal the PC thunder and introduce games like Halo.

Anyway, as home gaming consoles improved from the Atari 2600 through the to Atari 5200 and then later from the Sega Genesis to the Sega Dreamcast, from the Nintendo NES to the Nintendo Gamecube and to Sony Playstation 1, this ensured that home gaming would continue to prosper and that arcades would lose ground. However, even up until the Sega Dreamcast, we continued to see innovative titles arriving at home from games like Blue Stinger to Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue series. With Shenmue being one of the first open-world free roaming games that allowed you to interact with much of the world including real-time season changes.

The Era of Home Gaming

With the introduction of the Xbox and PS2, the whole course of gaming changed. Once these consoles were introduced, the gaming landscape began to be shaped primarily by Microsoft and Sony. At this point, we began losing a lot of innovative titles. Sure, we might see one every now and then like Rez, but these were an anomaly and not the norm. Still, with the Xbox and PS2, the genres were solidified into basically a handful of names like ‘shooter’ or ‘racing’ or ‘fighting’ or ‘multiplayer’ or you get the picture. With these new branded titles, it was easy for developers to create and drop games into the slots and people would understand exactly what they meant.

Still, while the genres were pretty much set by the Xbox and PS2, there were still a few developers willing to go outside of these and produce something new and different, but rarely.

As we move forward to the introduction of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, we see undefinable genre titles diminish further and the standard genre become defined. Basically, if your game didn’t fall inside a genre, it likely wouldn’t be released. Or, it would be released as a low priced digital download game. The only real exception to this was Valve who seemed to be able to get a games like Portal released onto consoles. Still, Portal could be considered a first person shooter even though that wasn’t the primary objective of the game.

With games like Halo 3 and Gears of War on the Xbox 360 and God of War on the PS3, this era saw primarily genre based titles released. Few developers ventured outside of these tried-and-true genres, but the rule was that they could if the developer chose to and these still might happen occasionally. In fact, by the Xbox 360 and PS3, there were effectively no titles that fell outside of the genre labels.

Era of the Home Console

With the 2013 introduction of the PS4 and the Xbox One, the era of home gaming is likely coming to an end. With what I consider to be an incremental update to these consoles (Moore’s law no longer applies), these hardware updates are only minimal updates to their predecessors. There was a much bigger leap in quality from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 (moving from 480p 4:3 aspect and component video to 16:9 1080p HDMI output). Changing the video standard between the Xbox and Xbox 360 and between the PS2 ad PS3 was a huge leap. Not to mention, the cell multiprocessor system that Sony put into the PS3. At this point, the 2013 consoles are at the point of diminishing returns.

Both the PS4 and the Xbox One are simply mid-priced PCs with standard Intel processors and standard ATI graphics cards. They’re effectively mid-grade PCs running proprietary operating systems. In fact, I’d actually say the Xbox One is likely running a modified form of Windows 8 with greatly reduced features from the Xbox 360. The PS4, however, is running Sony’s own proprietary operating system similar in looks to was on the PS3, but also with greatly reduced features. Though, the Ustream/Twitch live streaming features of the PS4 are a much welcomed improvement.

Yet for the cost factor of the units, the games haven’t dramatically improved. Let’s observe the problems. With the new consoles, the genres are pretty well set in stone. At this point, no developer would be willing to stray outside of the standard defined genres: shooter, fighting, sports, real-time RPG (which is slowly being combined with shooter), turn-based RPG, puzzle, simulation, strategy, party (encapsulates dance and other party games) and creative. While there may be some sub-genres such as ‘horror’ or ‘mystery’ or ‘period’ which can apply to each of the genres, these are the top genres that are used. Sports encapsulates all forms of sports including baseball, football, racing, skiing, skateboarding, etc.

In fact, most games fall into one of the following: shooter, fighting, sports or RPG. The rest of the genres are lesser used.

The End of the Console?

As the PS4 and the Xbox One are now available, it’s becoming more and more clear. It’s expensive to create a game title on these consoles. To create a game that looks like Ryse, you need to outlay a hefty sum of cash to license the Crytek game engine. And that’s just to get the engine you need to drive the hardware. Still, once you’ve spent your wad obtaining a CryEngine license, you still need to hire a slew of programmers, artists and writers to develop a compelling story and then work to make that into some kind of a compelling play.

From concept to completion, you’re likely talking at least 3-5 years depending on the size of your staff. Of course, the more people you throw at the problem, the faster you can get it done. But, speed isn’t your only enemy here. For the example I mentioned earlier, Ryse, this game is absolutely gorgeous. The environments are amazing, the characters and armor are outstanding. So then what’s the problem?

The gameplay in Ryse is absolute trash. They could have taken the game mechanics straight from a 1990s Mortal Kombat game and plopped into to Ryse for all I know. The characters move in unrealistic ways, the game forces pauses at the most inopportune times and the gameplay is just overall bad. So, this issue is firmly the enemy of the PS4 and the Xbox One. A developer spends years and loads of cash creating a title only to produce something that plays like Ryse. In fact, Ryse is a firm example of what NOT to do on a next generation console. It is the low bar by which to make sure your game is above. Sure, it’s pretty, but that’s where Ryse all ends.

Limited Games, Longer Create Cycle

This will be the continual battle of the PS4 and the Xbox One throughout their console lifespan. Consider that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 have both been on the market for at least 8 years now. That’s 8 years of back catalog of games. Now, go look at these titles. Many of these games took less than 2 years to produce. And, of course, some of them show it (i.e., Two Worlds).

With these new console generations, the bar has now been raised again. Specifically for the graphics. To produce the graphics needed to look great at 1080p, this is not just a small amount of work. Not only does it require high res textures, it requires high res models. Producing such models and textures is not a quick process. Where the textures may have been half the size on the Xbox 360, they are now twice the size on the Xbox One. That simply takes longer time to produce.

This means that instead of the 2 year time it took for the Xbox 360, it might take 3-4 years to produce a title on the PS4 and the Xbox One. So, that means in 8 years, we’re likely to have half the number of big name titles we have on the Xbox 360. That also means it will take perhaps twice as long to produce titles for the Xbox One and the PS4. Further, this means there will also be a lot of engine reuse with new graphics dropped under the hood. In fact, I expect a lot of texture reuse across many games.

For the game studios that can afford the time it takes, these will continue. For those that can’t afford the time it takes to produce that level of a title, they will likely fold, stop producing or move to a different market.

The State of Games

Unfortunately, today we are seeing a convergence of genres. No longer do we see the new innovative titles, other than in digital downloads as small diversions. Occasionally a Japanese developer will produce a title geared toward the Asian market that will cross-over to the US market. But, that’s rare. Most titles produced today fall into one of the predetermined genres. It’s just too risky for game studios to gamble on an experiment. Game studios want to know their title is a guaranteed success. The only way that can happen is by making sure they stay within the trappings of the genres.

When games were like Pong or Shark might take a few people a several months up to a year to produce the game, it now takes many years to produce something like Halo 4. It’s too risky and expensive to gamble on experimentation. Game studios, therefore, won’t risk this. This is why we are firmly seeing more and more repetitive, trite and cliche games. Basically, we are effectively seeing games that you’ve already played at least twice already. Game studios believes having that level of familiarity with the subject matter will make it more likely to succeed. If it’s similar to a game you’ve already played, they assume, that familiarity will keep the gamers happy.

Unfortunately, the only thing this does is make the game crappy and annoying. Game studios don’t want to see or know this, but it is most definitely true. If you make your game feel like some other game or a game that you’ve played before, then it is that other game. It’s then not new or innovative and becomes an exercise in futility.

Predictions and Mobile Devices

I expect we will continue to see the smaller game studios close or be bought out. The larger game studios may continue to weather the longer cycle, but not forever. They have to see a return on their investment or they will also stop producing.

Overall, I expect that we will see less and less studios producing games for consoles. I also see this as the likely end of the ‘epic’ game. Game developers will begin go move back into smaller more easily built titles like ‘Farmville’ and move away from the epic titles like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Halo’. The only game studios producing such titles will be those that are subsidized by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Those game studios not being subsidized to produce such ambitious titles will move away from the consoles and begin developing titles for mobile devices. Since mobile computing is pretty much taking over, there’s really no need to own a living room console. It’s easier to play games on devices you are already carrying. Eventually, game studios will realize that it’s far more lucrative to produce games to play on what’s in your pocket than what’s in your living room. Especially considering how many devices are sitting in people’s pockets untapped.

Just a few compelling titles on iOS or Android, like Angry Birds, and you’re pretty well set. Angry Birds has already paved the way, it’s just a matter of time before studios wake up and realize what they are missing.

Technology Watch: Calling it — Wii U is dead

Posted in botch, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 10, 2013

I want Nintendo to prove me wrong. I absolutely adore the Wii U system and its technology. The Gamepad is stellar and it feels absolutely perfect in your hands. It just needs a better battery. The battery life sucks. There’s no doubt about it, the Wii U is an amazing improvement over the Wii. So what’s wrong with it?

Titan Tidal Forces

There are many tidal forces amassing against the Wii U which will ultimately be its demise. In similarity to the amazing Sega Dreamcast and, before that, the Atari Jaguar, the Wii U will likely expire before it even makes a dent in the home gaming market. Some consoles just aren’t meant to be and the Wii U, I’m calling it, will be discontinued within 12 months in lieu of a newly redesigned and renamed ‘innovative’ Nintendo console.  Let’s start with the first tidal force…

What Games?

Nintendo just cannot seem to entice any developer interest in porting games to the Wii U, let alone creating native titles. With such big game franchises as Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, Saints Row 3 and Deadpool (Activision, surprisingly) side-stepping the Wii U, this tells me that at least Rockstar and Activision really don’t have much interest in producing titles for this console. Even such bigger titles like Call of Duty, which did make it to the Wii U, didn’t release on the same day as the PS3 and Xbox versions.  Call of Duty actually released later, as did The Amazing Spider-Man.

Worse, Nintendo doesn’t really seem committed to carrying any of its own franchises to this console in any timely fashion. To date, there is still not even an announcement for a native Zelda for Wii U. Although, we’re not yet past E3, so I’ll wait to see on this one. My guess is that there will be a Zelda, but it will likely fall far shy of what it should or could have been.

Basically, there are literally no upcoming game announcements from third party developers. And there’s especially nothing forthcoming from the big franchises on the Wii U (other than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV, which is likely to be just another mashup and rehash). Yes, there are a number of b-titles and ‘family’ titles, but that’s what Nintendo is always known for.

Sidestepped, but why?

I see titles like Grand Theft Auto V, Saint’s Row 3, Destiny and Deadpool where there is no mention of a Wii U version. For at least GTA5 and Saint’s Row, these developers likely had well enough of a lead time to be able to create a Wii U version. So, what happened? Why would these games not be released for the Wii U?  I think it’s very clear, these developers don’t think they can recoup their investment in the cost needed to produce the game for that console. That doesn’t mean that the games won’t be ported to the Wii U six months after the Xbox, PS3 and PC releases. But then, what’s the incentive to play a 6 month old game? I don’t want to pay $60 for has-beens, I want new games to play.

Hardcore gamers want the latest at the moment when it’s released. Not six months after other consoles already have it. As a hardcore gamer, I don’t want to wait for titles to release. Instead, I’ll go buy the an Xbox or a PS so I can play the game when it’s released, not wait 6-9 months for a poorly ported version of the game.

Competition

With the announcement of both Sony’s PS4 (*yawn*) and the Microsoft’s Xbox One ( :/ ), these two consoles together are likely to eclipse whatever hope the Wii U has of gaining the hardcore gaming element. In fact, it’s likely that Sony’s PS4 is already dead as well, but that’s another story. Also, with the lackluster announcement of the Xbox One, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Needless to say, people only have so much money to spend on hardware and only one of these consoles can really become dominant in the marketplace. For a lot of reasons to be explored later in this article, Nintendo’s Wii U cannot survive with the course it is presently on.

I can’t really call which is the bigger yawn, PS4 or Xbox One, but both have problems. Namely, no compatibility to previous console games which really puts a damper on both of these next gen consoles. Maybe not enough for either of them not to become successes in 5 years, but immediate adoption is a concern. Available launch titles will make or break these new consoles as backwards compatibility is not available. Meaning, without launch titles, there’s literally nothing to play (other than Netflix, which you can pay far less than the price of a console to get.. i.e., Roku). For competition alone, this is a huge tidal force against Nintendo that will ultimately keep the Wii U in third place, if not outright dead.

Let’s not forget the nVidia Shield based on Android that is as yet an unknown quantity. Although, the way it is currently presented with the flip up screen and the requirement to stream games to the unit from a PC is a big downer on the usability of this system as a portable. I don’t believe nVidia’s approach will succeed. If you’re a portable system, then it needs to be truly portable with native games. If you’re a console, then make it a console and split the functionality into two units (a controller and a base unit).  The all-in-one base unit and controller, like the Shield, isn’t likely to be successful or practical.  The attached screen, in fact, is 1) fragile and likely to break with heavy usage and 2) make it hard to play games because the screen shakes (loosening the hinge) when you shake the controller.  For the PS Vita, it works okay. For the Shield that still requires a PC to function, this isn’t a great deal, especially at the $350 price tag.

Nintendo Itself

Nintendo is its own worst enemy. Because it has always pushed and endorsed ‘family friendly’ (all age) games over ‘hardcore’ (17+ aged) games, the Wii U has pushed Nintendo into an extremely uncomfortable position. It must now consider allowing extremely violent, bloody, explicit language games into the Wii U to even hope to gain market share with the hardcore 17-34 aged gamers.  In other words, Nintendo finally has to grow up and make the hard decision. Is it or isn’t it a hardcore gamer system?  Nintendo faces this internal dilemma which leaves the Wii U hanging in the balance.

It’s clear that most already released titles have skirted this entire problem. Yes, even Call of Duty and Zombie U do mostly. Assassin’s Creed III is probably the hardest core game on the system and even that isn’t saying much.

Game developers see this and really don’t want to wrestle with having to ‘dumb down’ a game to Nintendo’s family friendly standards.  If I were a developer, I’d look at the Wii U and also ask, “Why bother?” Unfortunately, this is a catch-22 problem for Nintendo. Meaning, Nintendo can’t get people to buy the system without titles, but Nintendo can’t rope in developers to write software without having an audience for those titles. The developers just won’t spend their time writing native titles for a system when there’s not enough users to justify the expense of the development.

Worse, the developers realize they will also have to provide a ‘dumbed down’ version for the Nintendo platform to placate Nintendo’s incessant ‘family friendly’ attitude. For this reason, Nintendo can’t turn the Wii U into a hardcore system without dropping these unnecessary and silly requirements for hardcore games. Nintendo, as a word of advice, just let the developers write and publish the game as it is. Let the ratings do the work.

Bad Marketing

For most people, the perception is that the Wii U is nothing more than a slightly different version of the Wii. The marketing was all wrong for this console. Most people’s perceptions of this system are completely skewed. They really don’t know what the Wii U is other than just being another Wii. This issue is cemented by naming the system the ‘Wii U’.  It should have had an entirely different name without the word ‘Wii’. Unfortunately, the Wii was mostly a fad and not a true long-lasting gaming system. It picked up steam at first not because it was great, but because people latched onto the group gaming quality. For a time, people liked the ‘invite people over for a party’ quality of the Wii. This group gaming quality was something no other gaming system had up to that point. Then came the Kinect and the Move controllers and competition wiped that advantage out.

The Wii U design has decidedly dropped the idea of group gaming in lieu of the Gamepad which firmly takes gaming back to a single player experience. Yes, the Wii U does support the sensor bar, but few Wii U games use it. Worse, the Wii U doesn’t even ship with the Wiimote or Nunchuk, firmly cementing the single player experience. Only Wii compatible games use the sensor bar for the multiple player experience. Because of the focus back to single player usage, this again says Nintendo is trying to rope in hardcore gamers.

Unfortunately, the marketing plan for the Wii U just isn’t working. The box coloring, the logo, the name and the way it looks seems like a small minimal upgrade to the Wii. Until people actually see a game like Batman Arkham City, the Amazing Spider-Man or Call of Duty actually play on the Wii U, they really don’t understand what the ‘big deal’ is. Worse, they really don’t see a need replace their aging Wii with this console knowing that they rarely play it at this point anyway. So, when the Wii U was released, the average Wii user just didn’t understand the Wii U appeal. The Wii U marketing just didn’t sell this console to either the family audience or to the hardcore gamer correctly.

Bad Controller Button Placement

The final piece of this puzzle may seem insignificant, but it’s actually very significant to the hardcore game player. Because the PS3 and the Xbox map action buttons identically to the controller across games, you always know that when you press A, it’s going to do the same thing on the Xbox or the PS3.  So, you can move seamlessly between either console and play the same game without having so shift your button pressing pattern. In other words, you can play blind because the button location+action is identical between the Xbox and the PS3.  The buttons placement is then as follows:

Y/Triangle = 12 o’clock, B/Circle = 3 o’clock, A/X = 6 o’clock, X/Square = 9 o’clock (Xbox / PS3)

The actions of Y and Triangle are the same between the systems.  The actions of B and Circle are the same and so on. If you play Call of Duty on PS3 or Xbox, you always press the button at the 6 o’clock position to perform the same action.

The Wii U designers decided to place the buttons in opposition to the Xbox & PS3. The button placement for Wii U:

X = 12 o’clock, A = 3 o’clock, B = 6 o’clock, Y = 9 o’clock (Wii U)

This button placement would be fine if A (3 o’clock) on the Wii performed the same action as the B/Circle (3 o’clock position) on the Xbox and PS3. But, it doesn’t. Instead, because the Wii’s controller is labeled ‘A’ (3 o’clock position), it has the same function as the ‘A/X’ (6 o’clock position) button the Xbox and PS3. The ‘B’ button at (6 o’clock) matches the B/Circle (3 o’clock) on the Xbox/PS3. This means that you have to completely reverse your play on the Wii U and retrain yourself to press the correct button. This means you can’t play blind. This is a difficult challenge if you’ve been playing game franchises on the Xbox for 10 years with the Xbox/PS3 button and action placement. This would be like creating a reversed QWERTY keyboard so that P starts on the left and Q ends on the right and handing it to a QWERTY touch typist.  Sure, they could eventually learn to type with keys in this order, but it’s not going to be easy and they’re going to hit P thinking it’s Q and such for quite a while.

For hardcore Xbox gamers, making the switch to the Wii U is a significant controller retraining challenge. When I replayed Assassin’s Creed III, I was forever hitting the button at the 6 o’clock position thinking it was the A button because that’s the position where it is on the Xbox and PS3. Same for the reversed X and Y.  By the end of Assassin’s Creed III, I had more or less adapted to the Wii U’s backwards controller, but I made a whole lot of stupid mistakes along the way just from this button placement issue alone.

Either the games need to support Xbox/PS3 alternative action placement compatibility or the Wii U needs to sell a controller that maps the buttons identically to the Xbox and PS3. I personally vote for a new controller as it doesn’t require game designers to do anything different. This button placement issue alone is a huge hurdle for the Wii U to overcome and one that is a needlessly stupid design when you’re trying to entice Xbox or PS3 gamers to your platform. I don’t want to relearn a new controller design just to play a game. Ergonomics is key in adoption and this is just one big Nintendo ergonomics design fail. For the Wii, that button placement was fine. For the Wii U, the controller needs to identically map to the PS3 and Xbox button/action layout to allow for easy and widespread adoption.

Death of the Wii U

Unfortunately, due to the above factors, Nintendo will struggle to keep this console afloat before it finally throws in the towel to the Xbox One and the PS4. Worse, the Wii U really doesn’t have a niche. It lost its fad group gaming image over a year ago when people stopped buying the Wii for that purpose. Those who did use it for that shoved it into a closet. The Wii U may have been somewhat positioned to become a hardcore system, but due to poor controller button placement, lack of quality developers producing hardcore titles, the Wii U’s silly user interface, Nintendo’s antiquated ‘family friendly’ attitudes and Nintendo itself placing silly requirements on titles to reduce violence and language as part of that antiquated attitude, the Wii U doesn’t really have a market. It just doesn’t appeal to the hardcore gamers. So what’s left? Zelda and Mario and that’s not enough to invest in the Wii U.

Just looking at the titles presently available for the Wii U, at least 85% of which were original launch titles (most of which were ported from other consoles).  In combination with the new fall console hardware releases plus hardcore titles for existing consoles that completely sidestep the Wii U, Wii U just cannot succeed without some kind of major miracle out of Nintendo.

I full well expect to hear an announcement from Nintendo dropping the Wii U, not unlike Sega’s announcement to pull the plug on the Dreamcast so early into its console life.

Game Review: Defiance MMO on Xbox

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 29, 2013

Defiance While I really want to like Trion’s Defiance on the Xbox 360 and in some ways I do like it, it also has some highly annoying design ideas, features, levels and quirks. Before I begin, you need to know that Defiance is an online multiplayer game only and requires a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Don’t buy this game unless you plan to buy or already have a subscription to Xbox Live (which, of course, requires broadband Internet access). Additionally, this game is completely dependent on Trion’s servers being continually available. If Trion’s servers go down (and they do regularly), you cannot play the game AT ALL. Anyway, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get going.

Disclaimer: Be careful buying used copies of Defiance. If Trion folds or they shut down the Defiance servers, the game disk will become a coaster. The game disk has no standalone content. The Defiance game relies 100% on Trion to operate the servers and stay in business. The business of gaming is fickle. If this game doesn’t last longer than a year in operation or the TV series is cancelled, don’t be surprised if you can’t play the game. If you are reading this review a year (or later) since it has been written, do some research before investing in a used copy of the game. 

What is an MMO?

MMO stands for massive mutiplayer online. Basically, it’s a multiplayer game. It isn’t really a single player campaign game. Basically, what Defiance is to 3D gaming, a MUSH is to text-based gaming. Basically, it’s a large map environment with a load of players from all over all playing the game together.

What’s good about Defiance?

Defiance is not your standard third-person 3D Campaign based shooter or even a standard 3D death match style multiplayer game. Defiance mixes both single player campaign with multiplayer coop seemlessly.  In fact, it’s really the first game I’ve played to do so. Granted, I have not played World of Warcraft, so this game may offer that level of play, also. Basically, you and your friends can join in and all defeat an enemy or boss together… at least, sometimes. Yes, there are missions where coop is not possible. It really is a pretty cool idea. The trouble is, the idea of it is pretty much where the coolness ends.  The way it’s designed could be way better.

What’s bad about Defiance?

It’s highly repetitive.  

As you’re driving around, you see a whole bunch of different missions on the roads.  But, you’ll see the same drive-by road side missions time and time again. These drive-by missions are distinctly different from those that appear on your map as an exclamation point in a diamond. Once you’ve played several of those drive by missions, you don’t really want to do it again… and again.. and again. It’s not cool. Also, it’s the same enemies over and over. So, even though it’s a new mission, it’s the same enemies with all of the same tactics.  Tactics, I might add, which can be highly boring after defeating them several times. It’s okay when you’re doing it for the first time. But, after you’ve played the same enemies and tactics about 5 times or more, it gets old really fast.

Leveling up is very s l o w.

As you level up, you get more and bigger weapons and perks. So, at least you do get stronger weapons as time progresses. But, expect that progression to go very s l o w l y. Don’t expect to get the biggest weapons really quick unless you play the game non-stop. However, even getting to Level 650 doesn’t seem much different than being at level 200 or even level 0 in terms of health or shield. You character still becomes incapacitated just easily. So, effectively all you are really getting out of leveling up is somewhat stronger weapons, maybe.

Boss Levels have no checkpoints

Single player boss levels have no save points during battle. If your character becomes incapacitated, you start the entire boss over from scratch just outside of the room.  In other words, you could lose up to 30 minutes of play time whittling the boss’ health down only for one missile to incapacitate you and you have to completely redo the whole thing again and again and again. This is entirely frustrating and time wasting. Basically, you are forced to play the boss level on the game designer’s terms, not yours. If you decide that you want to use stealth and sniper tactics, you can’t. The only strategy given is the one forced upon you by the designers… which usually entails running away from the enemy in hopes you can strike them with enough to kill them before they incapacitate you. It’s all trial and error and timing. There’s no strategy involved.

No way to change weapon load out quickly

Due to the frustrating menu system, you cannot change your weapon load out while in the middle of any battle, let alone a boss battle. Otherwise, you will be incapacitated. If you don’t load out correctly before going in, expect your character to die early and often.

Scrip and other currency types

Scrip is one type money in this game.  There are vendors that sell cars, weapons, weapon mods, shields and lock boxes.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of currency in this game which include bits, resources, reputation and keys.

  • Scrip is obtained by completing any mission or selling goods at vendors
  • Bits are obtained by buying them with Microsoft points (i.e., real money).
  • Resources are obtained by completing missions or by breaking down objects into resources
  • Keys are obtained by completing arkfalls and other missions
    • Unfortunately, there is a severe limit on how many keys you can hold (my limit is 75)
  • Reputation is obtained by completing multiplayer co-op missions (requires 4 players to participate)

Some items for purchase require a mixture of the above currencies to obtain that item from a vendor. So, some specialized weapons may require 200 reputation plus some Scrip to get that item. Getting that many reputation points requires participating in many 4 player coop missions.

Main Missions

The main missions consist of a story that seems to be leading someplace, but I’ve not yet figured out exactly where. Sure, your character is being ‘groomed’ for something big, but who knows really what. At a point early in the game, you meet a character that looks very similar to a Borg (and sounds like one, actually) named Nim Shondu. Later on, you have to kill him. Believe me, this boss level is nearly impossible to beat unless you come into it with the correct weapons dealing a high amount of damage combined with overcharge.  Even then, expect to spend loads of time with this room. There’s no hiding place in the room, so you can’t get away from his sword and special attacks or his EGO moves. He moves so fast that you can’t block his attacks. So, the best you can do is try to stay away from his attacks just long enough to kill him. Worse, you have to kill him 3 times. Good luck with that unless you are equipped correctly. Worse, you won’t know his tactics until you enter the room.  And, by then it’s too late to go find the right weapon let alone equip it. Even worse than all of this, the game still charges you an extraction fee each time you die and can’t self-revive. Truly, a poorly designed level

So far, this story has been about rag tag missions that seem to just open up more missions and more side missions. I don’t really see where the story is going at this point.  So, let’s hope the writers have a cohesive story arc in mind.

Weapons and Shields, but no Armor

Unlike other military games which allow you to level up and find weapons, armor, shields and clothing modifiers, Defiance only offers shields and weapons, which isn’t really enough for this type of game.  Of the shields you can find, they are all weak. Basically, there are two types of shields you can find:

  1. A shield with a low threshold for damage (1000 points or less) and recovers fast (1-3 seconds)
  2. A shield with a high threshold for damage (1500 points or higher) and recovers very slowly (delay 7-9 seconds)

Some shields are augmented with other traits (like better protection from fire damage, your own weapon damage, biodamage, etc).  I’ve yet to find a shield that has offers a high threshold for damage and recovers quickly. There might be one in the game somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it or find it.  Even still, it only takes about two Dark Matter troops firing their weapons at you to completely wipe out your shield with about 5 shots and another 5 will wipe out your health and incapacitate you. Worse, you cannot augment shields with any mods at all, even though the game lets you mod weapons.

Arkfalls and Side Missions

There are basically three types of side missions. Random encounters, marked side missions and Arkfalls.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are basically roadside missions.  That is, you drive by and see something blocking the road.  It might be Raiders, 99ers, Dark Matter, Scrappers or Hellbugs.  That’s basically the list of enemies in the game.  So, it will be one of these enemies that pops out of a road side mission. In fact, it’s the only type of enemies that will pop out of any of the missions including Arkfalls.

Side Missions

These mission types are marked on your map with an exclamation point in a diamond shape. These give small amounts of scrip (money) and small amounts of experience points.  They usually ask you to locate and obtain something and sometimes drop it off.  It might ask you to plant explosives.  It might ask you to clear out a Hellbug nest or kill all of the Raiders in a camp.

Arkfalls

Other than multiplayer coop maps, these are the truly massively multiplayer exeperiences in this game. When an ‘ark’ falls and hits the ground, ark hunters swoop in and scour it for parts to be sold.  In the game, when an ark falls, it’s just a mechanism to create a huge Hellbug or Scrapper to kill.  Each Arkfall starts off small (destroying crystals in two or three waves) or killing the enemies in an area.  As the smaller arkfall crystals are destroyed, this leads up to the big boss arkfall. You might have to do two or three small arkfalls before the big boss appears. Once the boss appears, all of the online players congregate and use whatever weapons they have to whittle the health down of the boss until it’s destroyed.  At the end of the arkfall, a panel appears showing who did the most damage in an ordered list.

These usually give about 6500XP experience. So, if you want to gain experience and scrip fast, join arkfalls regularly. Also, do the main missions. These gain you a lot of scrip.

Incapacitation

This is one of the sore spots in this game and is poorly designed.  I understand what they were trying to achieve with this part of the game, but it just doesn’t really work. So, you’ve lost all your shield and your health is now drained.  Once this happens, you fall to the ground and become incapacitated. Sometimes you get two options (self-revive or extraction).  Self-revive is as it states, you revive in place and pick up right where you left off.  Extraction means you start over at the extraction point. Self-revive only becomes available after 5 minutes or so of playtime after the last self-revive was used.  So, if you fall quickly after a self-revive, you have to pay scrip to get extracted.

When you’re in the world, extraction is generally cool (other than you lose a percentage of your ‘Scrip’ for being extracted).. except when your closest extraction point happens to be halfway across the map.  I’ll discuss extraction points next. However, when you’re at the boss level in a dungeon, it’s not fine. In fact, it’s damn right annoying and frustrating.  Worse, when you’re on a boss level, the game doesn’t even give you the option of using self-revive. You are forced to defeat the boss in one complete perfectly executed go or you fail and start over. There’s no help, no reviving, no one there to help you revive.  In the case of the Borg, you’re have to completely kill him in one single go with the weapons you have in hand or you start the boss level over again.  Worse, if you abandon the mission, you have to completely replay the entire intro of the level over again to get back to the boss level inside the dungeon. That may involve 20 minutes of lead-up to get into the dungeon again.

But, if you didn’t enter the level equipped with the correct shield or weapon load out, don’t bother trying to do that in combat.  We’ll discuss weapon load outs shortly.

Extraction points

This game ‘binds’ your character to an extraction point that are post-like markers with a purple light (and an ammo dispenser near it). Once you get close to one of these markers, your character will become bound to it. If you extract, your character will end up back at one of these markers.  As you drive by the markers, your character will become bound to them.  Note, however, that these markers only appear on major roads. So, if you drive off-road all of the time or fast travel, you could leave yourself vulnerable to an extraction point that is a very long way away from where you presently are. So, if you’re doing an arkfall and you extract, you’re going to end up a very long way away from that arkfall and will have to spend the time to drive all the way back over there.

This is really one of the sore points of this game.  There should be twice as many extraction points as there are.  In fact, when an arkfall goes up, an extraction point should appear for the duration of the arkfall. So, if you have to extract, you end up somewhere close to the arkfall again. Better, if you’re in an arkfall, it should bind you to the arkfall until it’s done. Just extract me into the arkfall location where I previously was.  Why force me to drive a huge distance just to get back to it? Not very well thought out.

Weapon Load Outs from the Menu

The menu system in this game is also poorly designed. In most games like this, you would have a weapon wheel where you can assign your favorite weapons for easy access during active combat. Not in this game. You have to open a menu (which can take 10-20 seconds to completely draw), then you have to select the slot and dig through a scrolling list of weapons to place into the weapon slot (another 5-10 seconds).  The entire screen is completely covered with the menu so you cannot see any live actoin at all. Yet, everything remains live. There is no pause. So, your character is completely vulnerable while you diddle in the menu.

Bad bad BAD. This is one of the worst combat menu systems I’ve seen in a game like this. If you need access to weapons/grenades and shields easily and quickly, you NEED a selection wheel that pops up right inside the game over the top of the live gameplay. Sure, let us fill this wheel with our own weapons of choice, but after that, we can easily choose the weapon we want to use.  Instead, you have a completely cumbersome menu system that completely obscures live combat and that takes 30 seconds (or longer) to walk through. Even then, you can only get easy access to two weapons at a time.

The game offers alternative weapon load outs by pressing Y in the menu and will cycle through 3 different loadout presets, but even that isn’t fast enough to work. This game desperately needs a weapon wheel preset overlay.

Inventory and Menu

Menu System

The menu includes everything to manage your weapons, weapon features, and everything in your inventory. The menu system is really overloaded. Once you get into the menu, you have the base menu which is what appears when you press the start button.  But, there’s even another menu when you press the left trigger.  That pops up a wheel that contains more submenus to get to things like the Defiance Store, Social, Stats, etc.  Then there are the RB and LB sub menus of the main menu which cycles you through weapon modification, EGO powers, and more stats. Why they needed both the wheel menu and the RB menu system, I don’t know. It’s not intuitive and it’s confusing.

One thing, though, is that even with all of these menus, once you have created the look of your character, you’re stuck.  You can’t easily change that look if you don’t like it.  If it’s in the menu system somewhere, it’s well hidden. Suffice it to say that I’ve not found it.

Inventory

Inventory is severely limited.  When you first start out, you get something like 12 slots which you quickly fill. Note, anything you hold takes an inventory slot (shield, weapon or mod). I don’t understand why there’s even a limit in this game. But, it’s here and it severely limits what you can pick up. I’m forever destroying objects to be able to pick up something that’s fallen from an enemy. It’s highly frustrating and highly annoying to constantly have to destroy things to get new things.

Additionally, there is no lock box, locker or any kind of storage system for extra stuff. You constantly have to carry everything with you. You can’t offload your stuff into something you own (a house or a locker or any kind of personal offline storage). The closest you get is the ‘Claim Items’ in the Defiance Store. But, that only holds stuff that won’t fit into your inventory at the time that some quest tries to give it to you. You can’t place anything into the claims item area. It only takes overflow items so you don’t lose it.

No Armor, Only Shields (and they’re limited at that)

This game has no concept of armor.  Only shields.  Once your shields are drained, your health starts draining and then you become incapacitated. With any combat game, armor and armor rating should be a huge part of this game. Even at level 650, your character incapacitates as easily as a level 1 character. The shields you find just really do nothing.  Worse, you cannot modify shields by augmenting their protection levels. This game completely fails for character protection. There’s nothing you can do to help fortify your character’s health or protection. You’re completely at the mercy of the game to provide this protection which it does not do.

Multiplayer and Chat

Don’t bother to try and text chat in this world. The chat window is complete junk. The chat system in this game is never used by anyone because you simply can’t use it. To bring up the chat, you press the D-Pad to the right which opens a small menu, then you have to select the chat window which takes over the whole screen. Then you have to use the Xbox controller chat pad (if you have it) to enter your text. Otherwise, you’re limited to that horrible move-the-cursor-and-press-letters-thing (which is even worse).

If you do decide to chat in the Xbox version, get the controller chat pad. Even that is not enough to make this system work. Instead, grab a headset and plug that in. Voice chat is the only way to do this game. Even still, there aren’t that many people using that. So, what you end up with is most people doing their own things without discussions (except where clans are involved).

TV Show Defiance Tie-In

After the shows air, the game is supposed to change its play in-world to accommodate the changes to the series. So far, I’ve seen none of this. Granted, we’re only 2 episodes in as of this writing, still I see no changes in the world or in any of the missions. So, I’m still waiting for these changes to show. Personally, it looks like hype to me.

Audio and Graphics

The graphics are reasonably decent in most cases but there are a few brilliant places. Mostly, the graphics are average.  The lighting is adequate, but not spectacular. The surface textures are good, but could be better.  The graphics can be glitchy, especially where other online players are concerned.  Players disappear, jump from place to place or just don’t work correctly when other online players are doing their thing. The graphics are mostly smooth when it comes to your player, but it can be glitchy and jumpy at times even then.

The audio soundtrack works quite well. The audio voiceovers are mostly well done, but there are some bugs.  For example, EGO says ‘Shoot it in its hideous Moths’ (you know, those white things that fly around at night) when it specifically means the word Mouth (which is printed on the screen). Trion has not yet corrected this audio track. When dealing with side missions, EGO’s phrases are so generic they sometimes don’t make sense.  EGO also pops in at very inopportune times to say things. Sometimes, I wish she’d just shut up. Also, there are audio drop outs where EGO is supposed to chime in and doesn’t, but the audio volume lowers for up to 5 minutes until something else brings the volume back up. You also get these audio dropouts when entering and leaving buildings.

Overall

Defiance on the Xbox 360 is fun to a point, but is a bit too clumsy and has too many quirks and problems.  After you’ve played it for about a day, it gets old and repetitive really fast. The terrain is small and there’s really very little to do other than arkfalls which also become repetitive and boring. The menu system is cumbersome and annoying. The inventory system is overblown and convoluted, but doesn’t hold nearly enough. There are no long term storage lockers, so you have to destroy items frequently. The lack of a weapon menu wheel severely hampers the combat playability in Defiance. The lack of checkpoints makes playing the game a chore in places, especially boss levels.

I’m giving this game 4.5 stars out of 10.  It needed a whole lot more careful design treatment with playability testing and didn’t get it.

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