Tag Archives: Xbox One

Best of 2014 #5: Threes

ThreesA real surprise, this one, which literally only displaced my original choice for the fifth spot, Monument Valley, in the last few hours, having been a post-Christmas purchase in light of its presence on a couple of other lists.

Even now that puzzle games are my iPhone distractions of choice, most of what I play is a variation on a classic theme – falling blocks, matching blocks, unscrambling letters, or picross. I’m not sold on the format for most long-form experiences but find it undeniably the platform of choice for time-wasting puzzlers. It’s usually to blame when my homeward commute has to be passed without podcasts after I’ve blown through the battery.

Threes is the closest thing in the puzzle realm to being completely new that I’ve touched upon in a while. It’s a bit of a maths game, a bit of a sliding tile puzzle. I know being difficult to explain succinctly isn’t often an indication that a £2 puzzle game is a winning formula, but trust me here. Watch the demo animation on the official site and it should become clear. Games are finished quickly, making it a great time-waster, and the advanced strategies are there for those with a sufficient head for numbers.

My high score is 3,078 at the time of writing, with a mere 750,000 required to get you into the top ten and a credulity-stretching 1.8 million sitting on top. Not bad for a game that starts off tasking you with calculating 1+2.

2014: Everything was Remasters

Everything was remastersI’m planning out my annual Game of the Year list for 2014 and I have a serious problem: I’m fairly sure I haven’t even played ten new games this year. I still don’t have a Wii U, meaning I’ve so far missed out on a couple of gems there – Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 would almost certainly make the list – and I’m aware of a couple of candidates that I haven’t touched on the big consoles – The Evil Within, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadows of Mordor, Far Cry 4 – but it’s still a disappointing crop.

That lot, coupled with the ones I actually have played, would still only take me up to a dozen or so, which is well down on years when putting together a top ten was a challenge for good reasons and left me with enough worthy games to fill an impressive honourable mentions list. Now, though, I’m either dropping it to a top five or just going with a handful of favourites to be hailed as one.

One trend is clear, though. My one remaining preorder for the year is Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD, which joins Final Fantasy X HD, Grand Theft Auto V for the PS4 and Metro Redux on my shelf. And I’ve been quite selective with those four, skipping Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and no doubt some lesser examples that are slipping my mind. Just today, Dark Souls II was announced for the PS4 and Xbox One. Not the superior previous games in the series, and coming in the face of the series creator’s eagerly awaited next project. Just Dark Souls II. Again.

I know this isn’t necessarily a zero sum game where we’re getting remasters instead of new games, but such a barren 12 months really makes it feel that way.

I felt positive about this new generation after a generally disappointing and far too long one, but it’s been marred by technical issues and this blight. Thank god we have the scintillating first half of 2015 to make up for it.

E3 2014 Conference Review

The second E3 is usually when the big guns come out, the developers working on the second wave of games for the new consoles show off their labours, giving us the first proper taste of the games and franchises that will define this generation.

What we got if that was your expectation was a disappointingly conservative showing. Sequels, sequels, sequels, and a stubborn refusal to move on from the 360 and PS3, which is undoubtedly holding things back. Very few surprises and certainly none of the shocks that leave fond memories of fanboy meltdowns. Third-party exclusives haven’t been common for a while, of course, but my god do I ever miss those announcements that one was jumping ship or getting into bed with the enemy. There’s no excitement in platform holders’ conferences when you know that everything shown will be on the rival systems too.

This E3 may have been low on flash, then, but it was up there in terms of substance. It was full of impressive demonstrations of quality games, even if none of them were particularly memorable announcements.

As always, in order of appearance…

Microsoft

As the first to go and arguably the one with the most to prove, Microsoft felt like the one with the most potential for surprises. What it absolutely got right – and it really had to – was the focus on games. MS’s scramble to reposition the Xbox One has been done with admirable speed, and with the bombs like the Kinect-free version out of the way, all it had to talk about was the reason why people liked the first two Xbox systems.

Starting off with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare felt like a misstep, as that’s a franchise in decline, with nothing to surprise and a disappointing lack of impact. It looked utterly uninteresting even for COD. I’m done with this series, I think it’s safe to say. When the next game was a cross-platform Forza, my will to live was quickly being sapped.

Once through the safe bets, though, there was some great exclusive stuff. Sunset Overdrive is unusual in a number of ways – it’s colourful, a new property, an exclusive, and a game from Insomniac that looks worth playing. Ori and the Blind Forest and Inside look beautiful, though I kind of feel like arty indie platform games are like modern military shooters at this point. The Master Chief Collection is astonishing value – four campaigns and over 100 multiplayer maps – when we’re being charged £55 for versions of The Last of Us and GTA V on the new consoles. I wonder if Crackdown was of its time and should be left alone, but I did adore the first one and will certainly give the new one a chance.

The lack of big surprises and the one more thing that would have topped off Phil Spencer’s turnaround of the Xbox division left me underwhelmed, but since that’s a problem for all three platform holders, I’m not going to hold it against Microsoft. When looking at what was there rather than what wasn’t, it was solid and safe. Nothing more.

B

Sony

Microsoft had patched many of its weaknesses in the weeks leading up to E3, leaving no easy wins like last year’s price and DRM announcements. In the absence of such freebies, Sony was much like Microsoft: lots of solid games, no surprises, little to really get giddy about.

Destiny was the opener – both conferences starting off with an Activision shooter, interestingly – and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Bungie’s game hasn’t set the world alight in its recent public showings. The alpha has convinced me that it’s a lot of fun, however, but to watch it on stage, it’s hard to see it coming close to making its supposed $500 million budget back. That white PS4, though. Wow.

The Order: 1866 was the headlining exclusive and hasn’t so far enamoured me – stunning-looking but it’s going to take something spectacular for an over-the-shoulder cover shooter to get me excited. LittleBigPlanet 3 is as uninteresting as the series has been since the disappointing first game. Uncharted 4 looks amazing if that is indeed, as has been stated, a real-time trailer. Bloodborne deserves hype simply for being a new action RPG from Hidetaka Miyazaki, the man behind Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and whose touch was missing from Dark Souls II.

The return of Grim Fandango was a pleasant surprise, and as ScummVM was a fixture of my modded PSP, so will this be on my Vita. What it represents is also exciting: a sign that LucasArts under Disney hasn’t abandoned its point-and-click legacy in the way that the independent LucasArts seemingly had. Here’s hoping the excellent Monkey Island special editions will soon be getting some company.

Sony’s focus on indies still strikes me as a convenient and politically trendy way to plug the gaps in a thin release schedule. Nonetheless, I’ll take Hotline Miami 2, and assuming it has the gameplay to back up the concepts, No Man’s Sky deserves its accolades. Proof that a game can skimp on budget and development team size without giving up scope and ambition.

B+

Nintendo

Removed from physical E3 conferences as it’s removed from the hardware horsepower race, Nintendo brought its successful Direct format to the show. It worked well, I thought. All the games with none of the annoying, hooting, American crowds.

I’ll discount Smash Bros immediately, since I can’t stand it and find the astronomical hype around it baffling. I’ve bought the last three and still haven’t liked the series since the novelty of a Nintendo fighting game in the N64 one wore off. Following it with a Skylanders equivalent in Amiibo and Nintendo had a poor start in my opinion.

With the kids’ stuff and pretend fighting games out the way, though, Nintendo’s range of new announcements impressed me. Yoshi’s Wooly World gets some more mileage out of those shaders built for Kirby’s Epic Yarn and looks gorgeous, as Yoshi games have tended to through Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story. I love Nintendo when it gets creative like that a lot more than I do over another Mario Kart or Mario game that isn’t in the style of Mario 64, even if the experiments are not always successful.

The new Zelda is an exciting foray into open-world games – Nintendo being late to the party there again – with a nice art style that straddles cartoony and realistic. I’ll only temper the Zelda love with the caveat that it wasn’t Majora’s Mask 3D, which must surely be coming with the mask sightings increasing in frequency. Nintendo must be doing it deliberately, and I expect that to show up in a Nintendo Direct before too long.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (formerly X), Bayonetta 2, a follow-up to the excellent and underrated Kirby’s Canvas Curse, and Mario Maker, which is infinitely more appealing than another LittleBigPlanet, rounded up a strong line-up of exclusive releases. Hyrule Warriors was there, too, though Dynasty Warriors isn’t usually to my taste, so we’ll see on that one.

The biggest compliment I can give Nintendo is that if I was sitting on the fence and didn’t yet have a current console, the E3 showings would have had me leaning towards a Wii U, even despite the power deficit. Nintendo in HD is as beautiful and varied as we’d all hoped, with a commitment to smooth gameplay and flawless image quality that many third-parties could do with imitating – too bad it’s a generation late. Drop the price a bit more and I’ll happily be buying a Nintendo console for the first time in the better part of a decade.

A-

Perhaps my biggest complaint about E3 2014 is that so many trailers ended with the words “coming 2015”. It seems to me that this year’s biggest releases are GTA V, The Last of Us and Halo 1-4, suggesting that the games industry has finally outdone Hollywood in one respect: while Hollywood milks the 80s and 90s for remakes, gaming does it to last year. That’s a depressing state of affairs.

That’s a lie, actually. My biggest complaint was that Shenmue III wasn’t there. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo: you’re missing out on an easy win!

Thoughts on the PS4

Although their commercial performance has been heartening amid reports of the slow death of the console market, the long-overdue launch of a new hardware generation has been greeted with a lukewarm critical response. I can understand the disappointment that the days of launching a system alongside a bone fide classic seems to have died in the years since Halo, but I’m shallow, damn it, and I wanted a new toy. It’s been eight years. I’m only human.

PS4

This round of launches has brought two firsts: the first Xbox launch at which I haven’t jumped in, and the first PlayStation launch where I have. Past habit would have put it the other way round, but anyone who’s been following the two consoles will understand. The Xbox One has been woefully mismanaged, and even after numerous 180s, it’s still facing an uphill battle to win me over. I’ll get one eventually, but I’m past giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. The downright scummy F2P business model in full-price games shows that it might not be a bad idea.

The PS4, on the other hand, while the most technically impressive is also the most pleasantly nostalgic. I like that it’s a games console first and foremost. It’s not a trojan horse for a new media format and it’s not diverting large chunks of its processing power to things I don’t want. It’s got a great controller – so good, in fact, that hardcore Sony fans now feel comfortable admitting how bad the Dual Shock 3 was. It has a premium online service that actually gives you something for your money. It’s been built to avoid the kludgy, obnoxious amount of time spent watching progress bars on the PS3. It’s svelte and looks nice – another first for a launch model PlayStation in my book.

Maybe I’m being optimistic here, but I hope that a console designed by the newly humbled Sony, likely to be a clear market leader this generation with the best third-party ports and the lion’s share of newly resurgent (please?) Japanese support, can be a kind of benevolent dictator. Think of the PS2 coupled with the hardware advantage of the original Xbox and the superlative first-party line-up that Sony pulled out of somewhere in the PS3 generation. Let Nintendo and Microsoft learn from their mistakes this time around and come back stronger, like Sony has after suffering through its own third console curse.

Let’s just hope the success doesn’t go to their heads like last time…

Sorry, Microsoft. Damage Done

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that yesterday’s reversal was unprecedented. Games companies have gone back on unpopular policies before, of course, but for a hardware company to withdraw its plans for new DRM features that until yesterday had been trumpeted as essential to the new system, that had only been codified less than a fortnight ago, and all only a week after E3 – by far the biggest opportunity they’ll get to set out their stall before the consoles actually arrive

Now I don’t necessarily hold such a reversal as a mistake in itself. I see many, particularly in the States, where the suggestion of ‘flip-flopping’ can torpedo a politician, saying that this makes Microsoft look weak. There’s value in admitting one’s mistakes and rectifying them, and it’s far better than a dogmatic refusal to change course.

But this DRM snafu is only the latest in a line of missteps that have shaken my faith in Microsoft and the Xbox platform. Although this makes the Xbox One a far more attractive – and, once the price drops and Halo comes out, far more likely – purchase for me, I’m still jumping on the PS4 train for my primary console this generation.

As superb as the first few years of the 360 – and, indeed, the original Xbox – were, Microsoft hasn’t represented my interests for some time now. There’s the complete dearth of interesting first-party titles, even compared to Nintendo’s increasingly token efforts and especially so next to Sony’s adventurous, technically world-class internal studios; the relentless focus on Kinect, once an avoidable annoyance and now “an essential and integrated part of the platform”; the backwards inability for indie developers to work outside the traditional publisher-developer relationship when it’s a dinosaur in these days of digital distribution; the twice-exhibited inability to close out a console with software support up to its successor’s release.

Mainly, though, it’s the inability to see me, as a consumer who has spent hundreds on Xbox games every year since 2002, as anything other than a walking wallet.

I actually didn’t mind paying for Xbox Live Gold and have done since the beta in 2002, as it provided by far the best online gaming experience around. Even today, after innumerable updates over years of development, PSN can’t compete in terms of the integration of the whole system. But PSN is now good enough, and its premium service offers far better value for less money. I don’t care that the PS4 locks online play behind the paywall now because I stocked up on PS Plus membership when it was £20 for a year in Game.

Microsoft, meanwhile, arbitrarily locks features behind the paywall to justify the cost, when most of them – Netflix, Sky Go, et al – require separate subscriptions and are free elsewhere. Why would I pay to use Netflix on my Xbox when my PS3, Blu-ray player, laptop, iPad, phone and DVR all have it integrated at no extra cost. Hell, why should I? This inflexibility famously kept the BBC iPlayer off the 360 because Microsoft didn’t want to give away access and the BBC wasn’t allowed to charge for the same thing.

The attempt at matching PS Plus’s Instant Game Collection gave us free Assassin’s Creed II and Halo 3, from 2009 and 2007 respectively, while Sony has recently given us top-class games from 2012 like Uncharted 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rumour has it August will bring DmC: Devil May Cry, which is less than six months old, to PS Plus.

Even as I’ve dropped money on Xbox Live, year after year, Microsoft pushes out dashboard updates that seemingly do little but create more advertising space. It’s a company whose idea of generosity ends up looking insultingly miserly. That Mojang had to fight to allow the free content updates to Minecraft that have come to every other platform without issue. That simply doesn’t give most publishers the option of offering free DLC, even if they want to.

Well, a week from now on the 27th, my ten-year-old Xbox Live subscription will lapse and won’t be renewed. The Xbox One will be the first Xbox that I’m not picking up on day one. While I applaud Microsoft for reversing this disastrous policy, what it has lost over the last few years has been the benefit of the doubt. I should buy an Xbox One? Prove it, because you’re getting as little for nothing from me as I get from you.

E3 2013 Conference Review

Because you can’t have an E3 conference review without Nintendo, I’m putting today’s Nintendo Direct up against Sony and Microsoft’s conferences. I don’t see it as a disadvantage since a load of games shorn (mostly) of awkward executive banter can only be a good thing.

Without further ado, in the order in which they were shown…

Microsoft

The Xbox One had the most to prove after the disastrous reveal and preemptive clarification of the awful DRM policies, and while this showing won’t make that shadow go away, Microsoft did allay some fears. Not all, but some. Presentationally, Microsoft needs someone with charisma, who you could imagine successfully selling a used car; J Allard and Peter Moore are sorely missed when you’re forced to watch the automatons up there now.

But apart from that, Microsoft’s comfortably topped the other two for games, which is the important thing at these shows. New games from Swery and the Panzer Dragoon chap bring credibility; Insomniac is a nice coup, albeit not up there with Bungie in my book; Quantum Break, which looks like a serious Ghost Trick, intrigues; and, of course, there’s a new Halo, which gets bonus points for referencing Journey; Battlefield 4 looks like matching its superb predecessor; Metal Gear Solid V looked amazing, albeit multiplatform. Those are just the ones that tickled me; there were plenty more.

It’s just sad that Microsoft had to end on a sour note by saddling the hardware with a £429 price tag. That’s £4 more than I balked at paying for a PS3 back in 2007 – and I won’t be paying it for an Xbox One either. So once it has the DRM patched out, a substantially smaller second model released, and gets a couple of price drops, I’m right on board.

B-

Sony

Sony’s a weird one, as it was the conference that left me with the most positive impression, but one that doesn’t last when you really look at what was shown. Its success was down to the messaging, the flawless capitalisation on Microsoft’s missteps. Does the fact that it’s maintained the status quo by not setting out to control what we can do with our games really deserve to be the factor that ‘wins’ E3? I think it shows how low our expectations have become if it does.

(I must say, however, that I haven’t seen a crowd reaction in a press conference like the one to the announcement of no used game DRM. I hope Microsoft was watching.)

Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III are nice, but Square Enix has forfeited the presumption of quality. We need a couple of releases of PS1/PS2 Squaresoft calibre before I’ll be buying its games regardless of reviews. And as I said, Bungie is a coup and Destiny looks great.

But where was Naughty Dog? Where were all those other great first-party studios? Where was The Last Guardian? Where was anything for the Vita? See what I mean about some notable omissions? I felt like I saw more games at the PS4 reveal back in February, and I pretty much did see as many Vita games.

A solid showing, then, but mainly on the PR front. Thankfully for Sony, that message was good enough to secure my day one preorder.

C+

Nintendo

In shunning the E3 dog and pony show – an approach that has served the company well at the Tokyo Game Show for years now – Nintendo may have set out to lower expections, and I can see why. Mario Kart, Mario, Pokémon, Smash Bros, Donkey Kong Country, The Wind Waker. Notice a pattern? As much as I love Nintendo’s characters, the line-up is depressingly conservative, lacking even the creativity of the GameCube days, where Nintendo published interesting takes on new or forgotten franchises rather than wearing out ideas within a couple of years of their debut.

Nintendo is seemingly a shadow of its former self. Wii U is a sales disaster, third-party support is non-existent, and unlike equivocal successes like the N64 where Nintendo could be counted on to provide classics to make the purchase worthwhile, that’s not happening here. I can see why Nintendo didn’t want to shine the spotlight on this line-up, because it’s worryingly thin.

I’m excited about Bayonetta 2, though, so that’s something.

D