Monthly Archives: November 2013

Game Junkie impressions so far: The Xbox One

It’s a familiar logo, a familiar boot-up sound and a familiar colour – Xbox green – but it’s a completely new experience and a completely new console: The Xbox One, Microsoft’s next-gen machine.

Pride of place: The Xbox One doesn't look out of place sitting above my Panasonic DVR.

Pride of place: The Xbox One doesn’t look out of place sitting above my Panasonic DVR.

It’s bigger than the 360 –  about 10 per cent, apparently and putting the latter on top of the former shows by just how much –  but the new console’s unobtrusive look means it’ll blend in with all your other entertainment hardware without problem. It’s not some space-age looking piece of kit that’ll catch a visitor’s eye,  and it sort of reminded me of the old Mitsubishi Black Diamond VCR I used to own. Not much to look at but functional.

Breaking up the blackness are a silver accent around the Blu-ray drive and a white touch-sensitive Xbox button on the right hand side.  The “brick” power pack of the Xbox 360 is back and the console runs near silent, which is perhaps why it’s the size that it is: plenty of room for air to flow around?

Kinect is mandatory this time but it’s a much more advanced design to the original

Kinect camera: The new Kinect is bigger than the old one and shinier, too (yes, that's my reflection you can see).

Kinect camera: The new Kinect is bigger than the old one and shinier, too (yes, that’s my reflection you can see).

Unlike the Xbox 360, Kinect is mandatory this time but it’s a much more advanced design to the original, featuring a 1080p HD sensor that can even pick up your heart rate (granted that was using the game Kinect Fitness).  It was easy to set up, with the Kinect adjusting itself until it was happy, and a neat feature was that once set up, Kinect could differentiate between my profile and that lf my son’s,  even noticing when I had handed the controller to him.

Another impressive feature was that if left in standby mode, the Kinect will wake up the console as soon as you walk into its field of view field of view, greeting me with “Hi, Gerard!”. You can still use the traditional controller to sign in, if you want.

Microsoft says the Xbox One’s controller has been radically overhauled and while it feels a lot more organic, a lot smoother,  I can’t say I noticed much difference: It feels nice to hold, though. The  button layout is similar to that of the Xbox 360 (although I don’t think the bumpers are solid as those on the Xbox 360), with the Xbox button having moved upwards. There’s a much improved D-pad and menu and view buttons replace start and back. It’s powered by two double AA batteries but I think there’s a plug and charge kit available if you want to go the non-AA way.

Old with new: Here's the old controller alongside the new Xbox One, er, one.

Old with new: Here’s the old controller alongside the new Xbox One, er, one.

The Xbox One’s dashboard has the live tiles like Microsoft’s Windows 8 “Metro” interface, and it takes a little to get used to. There’s a central tile that shows your most recent activity – game, application – and pressing the  Xbox button on the controller will pause the game/app, taking you back to the dashboard.  Click on the central tile again and you’re taken back to the game or application, exactly where you left off. No pause, no waiting.

There’s also a Game DVR function that I’ve been playing around with. It records up to five minutes of game play footage (I’m not sure how it determines when and what footage to capture) then you can save the clips, edit and add a voice-over using Upload Studio and Kinect.

It’s a pretty neat feature  and I’m looking forward to playing around with it. You can also do “Picture in Picture”, where it overlays one game play clip over another, but for some reason the recorded voice over was echoey.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Kiwi gamers, though,  is that voice commands aren’t enabled for New Zealand at launch (no doubt that’ll be updated with a patch at some point but when? Who knows: It took Microsoft a long time to get voice commands for us Kiwis with the Xbox 360s).  Stupidly, I didn’t actually know that until I found out from Xbox’s NZ PR person earlier this week, so spent the first night with the console saying things like things like “Xbox, go to games” and “Xbox resume Ryse: Son of Rome” , wondering why nothing was happening.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Kiwi gamers is that voice commands aren’t enabled for New Zealand at launch

It’s sad but hopefully it won’t be too long until voice commands are New Zealand-ified. [Sidenote: Something I’ve noted about Xbox One application delays – the YouTube app is delayed in NZ at launch – is that we’re lumped in with Ireland and Austria. We’re not even anywhere near each other so I don’t understand the delay? Shouldn’t we be alongside Australia?]

While voice commands don’t work, Kinect still does and I used it to feed a giraffe in Zoo Tycoon by  holding an outstretched hand and did some fitnessy things playing Kinect Fitness, where it told me what my resting heart rate was (it was 77, if your interested).

Perhaps one of the strongest multimedia applications for the Kinect is that you can make Skype calls. I made a Skype call to my wife t his morning [her at work 6km, me in my living room at home] and it was flawless. The preview unit Xbox One that I have at the moment had a sizeable patch on Tuesday night (over a 1Gb) and apparently the Skype functionality was enabled with that.

Using Skype with Xbox One was a far more pleasant experience than using it on a laptop or with a camera on a desktop computer. A nice feature is that the Kinect follows the user when you move around, meaning I was always in the shot.  It even followed me when I squatted on the ground and stretched up really high. Using Skype on the Xbox One is a joy.

I’ve still lots to test out with the Xbox One – I haven’t watched a Blu Ray yet or really checked out the Store, apart from a few downloadable games – so this is a “review in progress” that will evolve and update as I discover more,  but it seems a solid console so far, despite many of Kinect’s much-touted features not enabled for our region.  I haven’t had the chance to compare it against the PlayStation 4 yet, either: the unreliability of couriers and my heading to Melbourne for five nights tomorrow meant things just didn’t work out.

The launch games I’ve played are a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest: I didn’t like Crimson Dragon much at all;  Zoo Tycoon is fun for those that like to micromanage things;  Dead Rising 3  is fun but didn’t initially screen next-generation (or is it current-generation now?) to me, apart from the masses of on-screen zombies and Forza Motorsports 5 looks great and it’s what you’d expect from Turn 10 studios. I’m playing a fair bit of Ryse Son of Rome and I’ll post a review next week sometime when I’m back in NZ but for the most part, I’m enjoying it,  apart from some niggles.

As I said, this is a review in progress so I’ll post more updates as I discover more stuff. Feel free to ask me any questions and I’ll answer them if I can (I might not be able to, but I’ll try if I can).

Update: I’ve had some more play time with the Xbox One and I think it’s a solid, solid console. I’m still making my way through Ryse: Son of Rome (I’ve completed about 88% so far) but have yet have playthroughs of other stuff. I’m doing a review of EA’s NBA Live 14 for NZ Gamer.com so I’ll get onto that t his weekend. The only issues I’ve heard relating to launch consoles is that some people are suffering “crunchy” drive issues, where the drive gives off this horrible clunking sound. I know of one Xbox Live friend who had issues with his launch-day Xbox One – only to have the replacement one do the same thing! Here’s hoping his third one is trouble-free.

The war of the war first-person shooters

“Different strokes for different folks”.

It’s one of the English language’s most bizarre sayings – one that would confuse the hell out of non-English speakers, I’m sure – but it essentially means that different people like different things. That one thing won’t suit us all.

I like to apply the phrase to EA’s Battlefield 4 and Activision’s Call of Duty. Both are first-person viewpoint war games, both have single player campaigns, both have online components, yet they seem to be the two games that are the most divisive when it comes to which one is best.

It seems fans of one like to slag off the other but here’s my take on things:  If you don’t like Call of Duty, don’t play it. Same for Battlefield. No-one is forcing you to spend time on a game you don’t want or like. Both have millions of fans, each happy with the game they’ve picked, so why the bitching?

BF4Personally, I don’t have an allegiance to one or other. I’ve played both BF4 and COD Ghosts, and if I’m being honest, my favourite Battlefield game is Bad Company and my favourite COD game is Modern Warfare. Neither of them the latest in the long running franchises.

Now, most people won’t buy either of these games for their single-player component, and rightly so as both are highly MP-focused, but I’m not most people and still like to play solo campaigns, often more so than online offerings. 

Here’s my take on campaigns from BF4 and COD Ghosts: They do a solid, if somewhat unremarkable job. I didn’t hate them but I didn’t fall in love with them either. I wouldn’t take either out for a second date .

Both have a silent protagonist, which sort of bugs me about a lot of shooter games. It bugged me back in the day that Gordon Freeman from the Half Life games was mute. It bugs me now. With today’s games wanting to immerse the player in the experience, having a silent lead character just disconnects the player from the action. I might as well be playing as an ice cream cone. 

Ghosts tries to mix things up a little – one of the opening missions takes place in space but it’s too brief, and the remote sniper is great fun – and Riley, the trained dog, is a nice touch, but it seemed to me that just as you were settling in to controlling him and thinking “This is pretty cool”, the control was ripped from you and it was back to the tried-and-tried “move forward and shoot everything in your path” gameplay.

BF4’s campaign was more enjoyable than I expected but it’s still a cliche riddled affair, with stereotypical characters that I didn’t care for (I couldn’t even tell you their names). I played it on PC and it looks wonderful when things are cranked up to “OMG” fidelity.

Both suffer from instances where one moment you have to lead the way and open a door then the next there’s no way you can progress any further until your team catches up – and open a door for you. Ghosts’ campaign also dishes out trophies (I played it on PlayStation 3) like they’re going out of fashion: It seemed like most missions had two or three trophies each.

call_of_duty_ghosts-wallpaper-big

Right, now to the MP. I’m not a massively successful online gamer – sadly, my twitch reflex isn’t what it used to be –  but if I had to pick a game that had MP that I enjoyed the most, I’d take Battlefield’s MP over Call of Duty. That’s not to say that Ghosts’ isn’t enjoyable – I really enjoyed its infected mode – it’s just that BF4 online game gelled more with me.

BF4’s MP  is an assault on the senses, though, with explosions everywhere, voices echoing in your head  and bullets zipping all over the place (generally into my avatar’s body from an unseen sniper).

It probably doesn’t help that I’m not very good at MP, though: I always tend to get killed more than kill. My Kill/Death ratio would generate much laughter and mirth around hardened MP players, but I stick with it, slowly but surely earning points so that I can rank up.

How bad am I? Well, I’m ecstatic when I manage to hit an advancing enemy with one bullet from the almost entire clip I’ve emptied into him. Some people might call that luck but I call it … Nope, who am I trying to kid: It’s pure luck that I actually manage to kill enemies in this game. And I’m OK with that.

I’m not going to dwell on specific maps and all their intricacies – there are plenty of other reviews around if you want those details – but some of the best moments in BF4 were when I spawned into a vessels and manned one of its side guns. I once spawned into a tank and made so many kills it made me giddy … then the game crashed, causing me to loose all my points.  Another time I spawned onto a boat. I shot down a helicopter that time, just continuously firing at it using the boat’s mounted gun as it flew past. It took a few hits  but he just seemed to hover conveniently near where we were. It was strangely satisfying seeing it erupt into a cloud of smoke and fire. Moments after that, I got killed by a sniper.

One MP mode in Ghosts that I like is Infected, where one player starts out as an infected human while the other are soldiers. Slowly but surely as each soldier becomes infected, it becomes an exciting game of cat and mouse as the surviving humans ward off the advancing infected.  It’s a pretty neat mode and a nice change of pace from the usual capture the flag or deathmatch-type affair.

It may be naive of me, but I believe there is ample room in the gaming landscape for both Battlefield 4 and COD: Ghosts, but, I guess, if someone held a gun to my head and told me to pick one or else, I’d have to say I liked BF4’s overall experience more than COD: Ghosts, both in MP and single player.

Not that I’m an expert, mind you. I can’t tell you the intricacies of how each weapon’s rate of fire differs from the last game, impacting on game play,  or how the scoring system has changed for the better/worse. I can’t tell you whether vehicles are now overpowered (although on some BF4 maps I noted that if you didn’t manage to get a vehicle you were pretty much screwed): I just play the damn things and tell you if I like them or not. That’s how I do it.

“Different strokes for different folks”. It’s rather appropriate here, I think.

Dead Rising 3 story trailer

Like fighting zombies with a variety of weapons and machines you’ve crafted? Then Dead Rising 3 might be the game you’re looking for.

An Xbox One exclusive, the third game in the Capcom series welcomes new protagonist Nick Ramos, who has to take on the zombie hordes in a game world said to be larger than those from the two previous games combined.

I loved the weapon crafting aspect of Dead Rising 1 and 2 and it seems in this new installment you don’t need a work bench to make wild and wacky zombie-killing implements – you can make them on the fly. Apparently the time limit from missions has been removed, too, which is nice, but there is a game mode that reinstates the time limit for those of you who like to slay zombies under pressure.

The Dead Rising series has always been known for the ability to craft just about everything to form a weapon, so I’m interested to see just what combinations gamers will come up with.

Sound like your cup of tea (or whatever hot beverage you prefer)? Here’s a story trailer on what to expect.

Tearaway preview: where paper replaces sack cloth

2013-11-08-135040Tearaway, the new game from Little Big Planet creator Media Molecule, is a game that made me smile.

My biggest smile came as Iota, the cutesy lead character in PS Vita game Tearaway that has a head that looks like an envelope (you can also play as a female character called Aoti, if you want), was riding on the back of a pig – that I was controlling – as it ran riot through the game’s brightly coloured world, a world made entirely out of paper and cardboard.

At the end of the piggy rampage, the pig spotted a female pig and the pair trotted off to a barn, a giant question mark hanging over Iota’s head. Tearaway is a game that will make you smile till your face hurts. Earlier, I’d had to make the pig cuter for its owner, attaching a false moustache to his piggy lips (do pigs have lips?)  I took all the photos in this write-up using my Vita’s image capture function but in hindsight, I wish I’d taken a screenshot of the pig.

Tearaway is a game where your face – yes, the face of the player – plays a starring role, captured by the Vita’s front-facing camera and pasted on the game world’s sun (there’s a photo here where you can see my ugly mug staring out), elevating you to the lofty heights of a god that the world’s inhabitants revere. You’re referred through out the game as “You”.

It’s a game where you use your fingers (and the rear touch pad) to punch through things to move obstacles, pull open ribbons on presents and beat drum skin-laden bounce pads that propel the game’s star, Iota to higher levels. It’s a game where you’ll use your fingertips to open presents and trap doors.

2013-11-08-135000Tearaway is a delight of a game that takes the magic developer Media Molecule crafted into Little Big Planet and plasters it liberally in a world with dancing apple cores made out of paper open and close when you approach, squirrels throw acorns at each other and paper plants unfurl their leaves when you walk through them.  It’s magical.

Iota is a messenger sent to safe the world from an unknown evil and as Iota explores, the world comes to live.  When he stands on a bounce pad (it looks like a drum skill), tapping on the Vita’s rear touch pad, propels him into the air, landing on platforms above. Bridges made out of green paper unfurl as he approaches them, carnival music blaring in the background. Paper plants pop up as he walks by, and concentric circles radiate from his feet as he walks through a stream, made out of paper.

It’s a platformer at heart, with Iota/Aoti jumping and rolling about the game world but the fact that you have to use your fingers to manipulate the game world for your character to progress is just genius. There’s combat, but it’s basic, basic stuff where you roll into enemies (Iota/Aoti can turn into an orb) called scraps, knocking them senseless, then pick them up and toss them.

I could wax lyrical about Tearaway for much, much longer but I won’t. I’ll stop here but it’s been one of the most enjoyable handheld gaming experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

It’s games like Tearaway that make it worth owning a PS Vita, a fantastic handheld console – with an amazing screen – that has been neglected for too long by Sony, but it seems that with this year’s Killzone Mercenary and now Tearaway,  Sony are actually giving the love back to its handheld. Tearaway creates the same kind of magic that LittleBigPlanet did and for my money, Media Molecule have another hit on its hand.

Right, enough waffling: I’m off to guide Iota on his next quest. I wonder what wonders will unfold before my eyes?

Tearaway is out on PS Vita on November 22.

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Sorry about this: Oh, look it's my ugly mug staring back at me (and now, staring back at you).

Sorry about this: Oh, look it’s my ugly mug staring back at me (and now, staring back at you).

Creep, creep, creep, stab, stab, stab: Assassin’s Creed IV impressions

1362401647-1-noscaleUpdate: I’m about 28 per cent through ACIV Black Flag and just gave up on perhaps one of the most frustrating chase missions I’ve ever endured in a game. After about 12 attempts, and a few swear words, I gave up and turned off the console.

Without spoiling anything, Kenway has to track a ship through a swampy marshland then follow a rowboat – he’s on foot – until he’s spotted eavesdropping on a conversation then has to chase a British captain. It seems as soon as the chase starts, Kenway was reluctant to actually run and it took a few metres for him to wake up and start running: what follows is a chase that seems destined to fail as Kenway is hampered by  all matter of objects (paths blocked by collapsed rubble, guards, explosions) in his quest to chase down a captain. I just about reached captain, but he apparently got to his destination, desyncronising the mission. 

The mission was just frustrating, to be honest, and there’s no need for frustrations like this. On a more positive note, earlier in the game I found a diving bell, which meant I could now dive the various shipwrecks I’d come across previously and not been able to do anything. You can also hide from sharks in seaweed. I don’t think you can punch them, though.

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There are lots of things to climb in Assassin’s Creed IV: bell towers, windmills, British troop fortifications, Mayan outcrops, big trees.

I like climbing things in Assassin’s Creed games. It’s probably one of my most favourite things to do.

Whenever I arrived at a new location in the game – it’s a pretty big game world so there are lots of locations to explore –  I pull up the map, set the marker to the nearest syncronisation point and head for it. I’ll then climb to the top of the building/bell tower/mayan temple and look out, often taking in the breathtaking view that stretches out below me, before free-falling into a conveniently placed pile of hay.

For me, Assassin’s Creed IV is an infinitely better game than its predecessor, and much of that is due to the game’s main character, pirate Edward Kenway, who is a billion times more interesting than Connor from AC3. I also wasn’t that taken with the American setting of AC3. It just seemed a tad uninspiring. I felt Connor had little personality and I think part of the charm and appeal of Kenway for me is that he’s a pirate: That’s always good for fun times but he’s also a bit of a scoundrel, a man who is prepared to step outside the bounds of the law to the get the job. He’s an interesting character.

As I write this, I’ve completed about 21 per cent of the ACIV so far, but I’m not sure whether that’s 21% of the entire game or just of the game world. Most of the game is set in the Carribean and most of it seems open from the start. I’ve only come across a couple of points where the game has told me that a particular area wasn’t available yet.

I have to say, though, I found the opening couple of hours pretty uninspiring but I’m glad I’ve stuck it out. Once you leave the rather restrictive location of Havana there’s a huge and varied game world to explore, with much of it taking part on the open seas with you captaining the Jackdaw, Kenway’s ship, which you can upgrade by attacking merchant ships and looting warehouses stationed at British bases.

There are a lot of things to do in ACIV, outside the main story missions. I mean, we’ve got the return of the rather routine “catch the courier” stuff and collect things like sea shanties and animus fragments but there are also treasure maps to collect and mayan puzzles to solve. There’s also things like harpooning whales and sharks, which fits in with the time period, but I hunted one bull shark for curiosity’s sake then didn’t bother doing it again. Besides, you can become a pretty good pirate without wiping out the whales (Interestingly, a several points the game told me that I was the most profitable pirate out of all my Xbox Live friends, but that could be because not many of them are playing ACIV.)

The free-running seems more fluid this time around, although every now and then Kenway will come across a wall that for some reason isn’t climbable (although a similar one nearby is) or get stuck in a corner because I guided him the wrong way, but it happens a lot less than it did in other AC games but I’m surprised at the inclusion of one what I like to call insta-fail mission where guide Kenway through a jungle avoiding what seemed like the 2 million assassins patrolling the place. Well, it seemed like 2 million assassins were there. It was one of those mission that whenever you were spotted that was it and you had to restart at the last checkpoint. I made it through, eventually, but I did yell at my TV a few times during that mission.

AssassinsCreedBF_THUMBThings I like doing in ACIV: Whistling at a guard (not in a sexual way) to catch his attention then stabbing him when he gets too close and pulling him into the undergrowth, hiding the body. It’s funny, though, when you knock a guard out and they writhe around and moan, and a nearby guard doesn’t hear a thing! (Video games, eh?); Taking on a ship more heavily armed and stronger than the Jackdaw – and coming out victorious!; Firing a berserk dart at a soldier and watching him fight other guards near him. Things I don’t like in ACIV:  Those eavesdrop missions; trying to attract one guard’s attention but inadvertently attracting the attention of two, meaning they spot you; insta-fail missions with 2 million patrolling assassins.

The time spent on the high seas is great fun and the sea battles are a blast but it pays to spend money early on upgrading the Jackdaw’s cannons and hull strength. As the game progresses many of the missions take place in British gunship and frigate-infested waters, and against  mortar-fortified bases, and a strong and powerful ship will get you through with less damage.

ACIV is also a game within a game, if you will, as the Kenway storyline is part of a TV series produced by Abstergo Entertainment (remember the Abstergo agents in the other AC games that were hunting Desmond Miles), which you, the player, work for. It’s a little confusing at times.

All and all, I’m enjoying my time with Assassin’s Creed IV. I shares a lot of DNA with the previous games but it seems Ubisoft have listened to many of the complaints with previous installments and done its best to remedy those. That said, whether I have the fortitude and stamina to visit every single location and collect every single collectible is another thing (for example, I can’t be bothered chasing the flying shanty fragments). Some missions require a little grinding, too, like one which needed a much tougher Jackdaw than I had so I had to plunder a few more ships and warehouses to get enough stuff to upgrade her hull and armaments.

ACIV is a much better game than AC3, which had a boring lead character and I just didn’t find fun, but I wonder how much life is left in the series? This is about the sixth full console AC game and there’s only so much assassinating, collecting and free-running you can do until the formula starts getting real tired. The AC series might be nearing that point now.