Evolve Beta: The Good, the Bad and the Delicious

Image credit: Gamespot / 2k / Turtle Rock
Image credit: Gamespot / 2k / Turtle Rock

When does poor teamwork become a game flaw, and not just the burden of the player? In Evolve – an insanely fun 2K / Turtle Rock production that pits four hunters against one player controlled boss monster – the answer is far from clear.

The Good

Spoilers – I had a blast playing beta. Despite some rough edges, most of my matches were vigorous and rewarding no matter which side I played, win or lose. The graphics are fantastic and the combat is over the top, but what surprised me the most was that the characters, simple plot and dialog were actually very clever for a game that doesn’t really need much of a story. The short prologue fit in more character and plot than some games manage in their entire span, and the evacuation story mode shows much promise. Character advancement and unlock options within a given role (medic, trapper, support and assault) add a rich layer to team building possibilities, just as the multiple types of monsters and abilities each have very specific strengths.

The Bad

Evolve’s most unique feature can at times be the most frustrating one. Balancing the main abilities of each type of hunter against a single, far more powerful foe necessitates tight teamwork on the part of the hunters. I’ve only been in *one* winning match where not all of the hunters were on task, and it was a close match against a monster who’s heart might not have been in the fight, either.

I cannot overstate the discouragement felt when I enter a match as a medic and one or more of the party randomly breaks off from the party hunting dog’s lead or trail to go fight random wildlife, explore, or just go AFK. This match turns into either a very short or painfully long but easy win for the monster. As a hunter you are at the mercy of the match-making system unless you always game with a premade team of friends.

With all that said, is this an actual flaw in the game design? In some cases,  simple fixes like a “vote to kick / downrank player” party match making feature might help with chronically bad teams, but it might come with its own problems. Furthermore I’d be wary of any enhancements that also benefit a good team, since four competent hunters are exceedingly difficult to kill as a relatively new monster.

To be fair, this problem is shared to a lesser degree by any multiplayer RPG/Shooter with raids or dungeons. Also, Evolve does have a solo play mode although I am not certain if progression there carries over to multiplayer, which may or may not be a good thing if it did.

The Delicious

In the end, the sum of Evolve’s flaws and strengths turns out to be outrageously fun, most of the time. The thrill of a properly executed hunter team victory is matched only by the feeling of devouring a worthy team of opponents as the monster. I look forward to wrecking havoc when it is released February 10 – with friends. 🙂

Below is more havoc, from beta.

Evolve Beta fun with the Kraken:

https://t.co/gSc2fh2eFg

Goliath goes on a “see-food” diet:

https://account.xbox.com/en-us/gameclip/ee62d501-1eb1-4855-87ba-1bb2567a0dc8?gamerTag=BadDaddyDragon&scid=03a80100-9ff3-46ea-be76-e00e7fe465df

 

Destiny Beta Debrief: Vintage car muscle, new car smell

inboundflight
image credit: Bungie

Rally your fireteam, guardians. The creative geniuses behind the first several Halo titles poured their experience and passion for the genre into Destiny, a new IP that would both encompass everything they loved about the original Halo universe and bold new ideas that weren’t possible at the time. The result is far greater than the sum of its parts, and it plays like a dream.

Immersion

Being one of the oldest tricks in the book doesn’t make it any less important. Bungie understands what some developers seem to overlook – user experience is more than just the cool shooting parts, it includes finding a group, being social, choosing a game mode to play, and managing your character and advancement. Rather than defaulting to a polished menu system to find a game to play, Bungie encapsulates the “menu” experience and gameplay selection within the game world itself. The resulting level of immersion makes the competition’s nested menus look decidedly last century. What seems like it could have been a trivial detail turns out to be one of the finest bits of polish on an already outstanding game.

From the opening cinematic sequence, your guardian is on the move. No time is wasted establishing a sense of urgency and impending threat. Completing the new player experience concludes with the escape in a barely flight-worthy spacecraft and a beautiful cutscene arrival at “the tower”, the last safe city. At the tower, the player manages his character and gear and (later) finds missions. Leaving the tower to continue a story mission, embark in open world exploration, a cooperative PVE challenge or competitive PVP arenas is as simple as returning your spacecraft to orbit. The transition between land and orbit includes a stunning low orbit vista and cinematic quality scene of your ship and your friends ships should you form a fireteam. Select your destination from the map, and your ships fly there in spectacular fashion. At no point did the transition between game modes or forming a fireteam feels like leaving the game to a menu or a lobby.

“Goldielocks” Multiplayer

Player population in each region in the game and at the tower is managed by the server to always be at a median “just right” number of players to run into, preventing crowds or unnervingly vacant places. Venture into the wilderness alone and eventually you will encounter another player or group of players. Most of the time they will already be engaged with enemies, and on occasion may be in hot water. The way this dynamic matchmaking occurs is completely invisible to the user; it simply happens. I arrived at the wreckage to discover another player already dispatching foes, but enemy reinforcements are flanking the firefight. Time to jump in.

Public Event Challenges

Emphasis on challenge. Unlike other recent MMO titles to implement “public events”, Destiny’s do not occur only at easily recognizable, purpose-built outdoor locations. Here in the wild, these invasions and timed heavy encounters can occur anywhere. The type of event and method of finding out about it varies from simple communication, an unexpectedly darkened sky, to dramatic screen shaking scene entry. They are also scaled to be almost certain death in difficulty. The well prepared are rewarded with a chance to show off their prowess and earn superior rating and bonus upon completion of the event, which occurs whether the players win or not. As added incentive, players earn further bonus for the first “gold star” public event rating they earn each day in addition to the XP, currency and loot.

Speederbikes

Turning what could have been another trivial detail into something wildly awesome, once you are on the ground getting from one place to another in a hurry is far from boring. “Summon” your speederbike mount and open the throttle boost wide. They are wicked fun to ride. Fully upgradable at the shipwright in the tower, your speederbike will become a staple for getting into and out of trouble fast.

Your favorite shooter, your way

The four main game modes are each well rounded enough to stand alone as games themselves, but are also tightly bound to one another. Unlock new areas by advancing the plot in story mode. Prior story missions can be replayed on higher difficulty for better loot and XP. Once you’ve unlocked an area, you can also opt to return in open world explore mode. When exploring you encounter enemies at a steady rate, earning decent currency, loot and XP without fixed goals. Chests of loot and other secrets lay scattered about waiting to be found. Also available are endless simple “quests” that provide an easy, defined task to earn bonus rewards and faction for one of the five plus factions back at the tower. These tasks are random and self replenishing, and are usually in the form of “Go to Point A”, “Kill N bad guys” , “Collect Y rare things”, “recover item X”, and so forth. They are random enough to avoid tedium and blessedly short, making it a great choice for casual play. The faction reward is also random, and includes the various PVP factions so players have an alternative way to earn the superior gear from those PVP faction vendors.

Back at the tower, players can also select “bounties” that are like personal daily quests for any of the games modes, which also carries faction rewards. They include objectives like “Get 200 precision kills” , “Get 20 melee kills without dying”, and also PVP objectives like “Get first strike in a match 10 times” and “Kill the match MVP 3 times”, etc.

The third game mode is “strike”, which is essentially an instanced dungeon-like area with several boss encounters. From Orbit, once you have set your destination to the Strike zone, your fireteam will fill automatically to the ideal number of players for that encounter and chosen difficulty. The boss fights are much harder than story mode or public event encounters, and the loot rewards scale with the difficulty. If a player drops from your fireteam, another may join dynamically at some point later in the instance story progression. Strike is a great way for an organized fireteam to hone their teamwork and skills to overcome the toughest PVE encounters.

Finally, the various PVP modes tie all of the games areas and factions into a tangible substory that stands as its own game for the competitively minded guardian. It is here that the pillars of Bungie are found: rock solid arena death match. Some PVP events are available only at certain intervals, like the hotly contested “Iron Banner” event, where guardian level advantages are enabled and rewards are much more valuable.

The little details

Bungie knows is audience. These are the same guys who’s games inspired fan creations like Rooster Teeth’s “Red vs Blue”, a phenomenon of its own. Of course, that success was entirely on the talent at Rooster Teeth, but Bungie had created the platform. This comes in part from a passion for attention to detail, dedication to enjoyable multiplayer, and plenty of hidden challenges and easter eggs. Already in beta, at the tower we had discovered a fully usable soccer ball. Yeah, a classic soccer ball. We had fun kicking it around and even managed to kick it into a vendor tent that was shaped vaguely like a soccer goal. Nothing happened, but it begs the question; what is the soccer ball for? What easter egg might it unlock? Plus, impromptu street soccer in post apocalyptic city-scape is fun in its own right.  Secrets are littered everywhere in the open world as well, including some unexpected overworld bosses, tough to reach areas, and more.

On the frontier

In all, by the end of the few day long beta, I had already created memorable characters, made a friend or two, and recorded numerous amazing encounters worth sharing. The ease of the social features reminded me of the best early days of Xbox Live, where meeting new people was fluid and barriers to communication were few. I was hooked – there was no doubt that Bungie’s ambitious Destiny would be their biggest success yet.

My fireteam is ready for September 9. See you on the frontier.

 

 

One Night In Daggerfall

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Roar of the daedric plane of Coldharbour still ringing in my ears, I awoke from my trip to the afterlife. Vital instructions spoken to me just moments before all but vanished from my mind as I stepped outside into the cobbled streets of the coastal city of Daggerfall. With little memory of who I was or my life before that moment, I still somehow knew this was home.

Welcome to Tamriel. Bethesda & Zenimax Online spared no detail in recreating the well-established world of The Elder Scrolls, and the efforts paid off. Elder Scrolls Online was first announced at E3 in 2012, and fans were skeptical of an effort to bring the extremely single player Elder Scrolls universe into the online space. No other MMO fiction boasted the depth of lore and established fiction, nor the renown for freedom of character development, dynamic story and open world exploration. Given an atmosphere of growing malcontent with the popular titles at the time, comparisons were unavoidable. How would they solve these problems, and can they do it without shattering the fiction that made Elder Scrolls such a popular single player title? They succeeded, and they did it by making a game unlike any other MMO title.

Following impressions from the final beta weekend ahead of the April 4 Launch, here are ten reasons to love Elder Scrolls Online.

1 – Character customization.

From go, ESO aims to impress. Gone are the limited face, hair and accessory pallets of yesteryear when creating an MMO character. Modify each part of the body and face in unprecedented detail that even exceeds the customization options available in the single player ES titles. Adjust the skin tone or hair hue, select from various body paint, tattoos, piercings, scars, horns and hair styles. Choose, per body part down to the hands and feet, how slender, angular or muscular the body style is. Adjust the angle or height of the corners of your mouth, eyes, or even brow to create an expression or permanent scowl. Every portion of the face can be customized in the same manner. Or, press “randomize” at your leisure and select from countless unique combinations.  The level of detail available for making your character your own is staggering.

The result is a huge variety in the appearances and faces of both player characters and NPCs you meet. Some are humorous, others heroic but none are plain or worse – the same.

2 – Skill trees your way: Class, Weapon, Armor, Guild, more.

Although introduction of the four class system is new to the Elder Scrolls series, with one glance in the skill tree you’ll find the depth and freedom of character development the series is known for. This game was built to “play your own way”. You could arguably create a healing rogue, a warrior who also carries a fire staff, a wizard archer, or opt to adhere to an archetype at your whim. The base class skill tree does make a good framework for what you’d like to create but does not limit you to any sort of armor or weapon including those usually reserved for a specific role. My first was a Sorcerer proficient in both healing and destructive staves as well as storm magic. All weekend in beta I did not run into a single character like mine. Even amongst the other healers I encountered, they were as unique in style and execution. You’ll never, ever, spot a class by its pauldrons again.

3 – Crafting.

Want it? Need it improved? DIY or find someone who can. Between raw materials trading, and synergy between crafted material types, items and class roles, market square is alive with players bringing gathered materials back to be furnished into every kind of item available. The well though out crafting system encourages players to work together and trade resources and skill to craft items that are often better than those found in the wild. The level of detail available is sure to please even the most diehard crafters. As an example, the same item or weapon can also be crafted in many different styles based on region. Do you want your Maple Long Bow in the Bosmer style, Breton, or Nord? For which level, and with what extra traits?

4 – Enchanting depth, research, complexity.

Not to be confused with crafting, enchanting in Elder Scrolls has always been a full leap beyond merely creating your own items. In Elder Scrolls Online enchanting is deeper than ever, on an order of magnitude more complex than the prior ES titles. Unlike Skyrim, where hauling a ruck full of trash magic items back to an enchanting table was sufficient to quickly learn a dozen powerful enchantments for future use, in ESO prepare to research the enchantments individually at a base cost of six hours each. Like prior titles, this process destroys the source item and discourages easily farming items with desirable enchantments for quick skill gains. Furthermore, each base enchantment is actually the sum of three runes or power words. These runes can be found by exploring, but you likely wont know what a specific rune can be used for until you experiment with it. Runes can also be learned by breaking source enchantments. As before, charged soul crystals are also required to create or recharge magic items. The time and dedication required to advance enchanting will reward those with the patience to pursue it, making their skill very valuable to other players.

5 – A busy market square is a happy market square.

The value of social aspect created by crafting, enchanting and repairing gear cannot be understated. One of the greatest sights of many players working together was not just on the battlefield, but back in the city as well. Rather than clamoring around Auctioneers impersonally while armor shops stood empty, you’ll find them at the forge, at the wood working table, or associated guild houses. Of course, zone discussion follows what players have come to expect from a common meeting ground: quests, recruiting, looking for groups, buying and selling, and all of the banter zone wide chat can be famous for. You’ll also hear about dynamic in-game events as they occur here. Don’t care for all of the noise? It’s easy to turn off zone-wide chat.

6 – TES signature freedom to do what you want, not what you must.

One of my favorite things about The Elder Scrolls is the ability to get myself lost in side quests and distractions without a nagging main story rail to dictate where I should be or cannot go. In ESO, no sooner did I wake from Coldharbour than I ran off on my own agenda. Armed with only my selected starting skills and a meager choice of cast-off weapons and rags for clothes I immediately left Daggerfall out the nearest exit into the wilderness and still succeeded in making a viable character, finding adventure and never cared what quest was back in town or feeling I was skirting the advancement rails. In fact, not only did I find things to do, learned where to gather crafting materials and gained plenty of experience, I even helped rescue a village on fire. All without any glowing arrow, minimap icon, or supernatural beacon in the sky pointing the way I should be going. And I kept going. At one point in the weekend I stopped after finishing a lengthy series of quests and looked at the map, and wondered abstractly what might be “over yonder” in an unmarked region of the map between two places I had been – so I went there, and found another series of quests that had no “sign in the road” pointing to them. I even managed to get an achievement while I was there, along with a new tie to a character I had previously met. By the time I returned to town, finding an abundance of quests and story here too was just icing on the cake, rather than a forced new player advancement path.

7 – A huge, huge world

In a measure that used to be counted by hours it would take to walk from one side of the map to another, it’s tough today to compare property lines between franchises in terms of actual size. However, in terms of zone size I can attest to the extreme expanse contained in just the first starting zones. If you consider that each of the prior ES titles like Morrowind, Skyrim and Oblivion each covered a single, giant subsection of Tamriel, consider their combined size with the addition of lands only mentioned in prior titles. Some have not seen the bright side of a monitor in over a decade, or real 3d terrain. The first time I saw the re-imagined lava flows of Morrowind brought to vibrant new life in ESO, I got chills.

Add to the size of the world the task of actually seeing it all, as exploration is dangerous and requires a thorough, cautious, deliberate hand. Nevermind that unfriendly natives are hardly walked by (go ahead, try it) – my hat is off to the first to uncover the whole map as you are in enemy territory in more than three quarters of it! Remember, there are no “PvE” only servers in ESO. There is just one server, and realm vs realm PVP is always on.

8 – Megaserver

One new technology in this next-gen MMORPG is the Megaserver. By using dynamic load balanced cloud servers to host the game instead of dozens or hundreds of static, named servers, players are spared the process of selecting a server before creating a character or needing to change servers later to play with other friends. The game automatically places you in the same game instance as friends and guildmates, leading for a player population that is almost always “just right”, and not too crowded or vacant. Like any new technology, it will be interesting to see how they solve problems that could arise, but I’m certain even with problems it will still out-benefit the decades old concept of fixed servers.

9 – Combat: Goodbye auto attack.

Combat in ESO is a daring leap forward from prior generations of MMO. There is no auto-attack, nor automatic dodge or block. If you want to swing your sword, you control how you swing, at what, where you were standing, and how hard. Same goes for the shield, which must be actively held against an attack to deflect a blow. There is no global cooldown on moves, just the three resource pools ES players have come to know. Heavy attacks, roll-dodge, sprint and interrupts drain stamina, as does sneaking and other activity. Spells and other class abilities drain magicka, and health.. you try not to run out of. Your concept of target selection and positional fighting will be quickly re-learned. Even the most basic of opponents employ both position and a rich mix of attacks, power attacks and maneuvers that make combat a highly engaging, active process. The inclusion of interrupts and importance of well timed blocks creates opportunities for attacks to inflict additional damage, cause a stun or even a knock-down. Button mash at your own peril – unless you grossly overpower your opponents few fights are won by rushing in swinging. Learn your opponents, which moves to avoid, and how to interrupt or block them in a way to create attacks of opportunity.
 

10 – Lore lore everywhere , yet safely out of sight

Be it a song sung in a tavern in the frigid north celebrating the birth of the Ebonheart Pact, a cursed riddle spelled in runes on a statue, or an odd note found adjacent to an apple and arrow-pierced skull, there is lore everywhere. Yet none of it is forced on the player, instead is laying waiting to be found by the curious. On a scale from 1 to 10 for level of detail of fiction, Elder Scrolls Online gets an 11. Yet even past all readable tomes, scrolls, notes and songs lay other clever nuances and hidden surprises to paint a peerless picture that reaffirms this is indeed Tamriel that fans have come to love, online.

Double-jump for joy – Titanfall’s beta delivers on hype

Titanfall

Take cover last generation shooters, Titanfall is ready to make its entrance into the static team vs team shooter genre like only a giant low orbit deployed armored mech could; with a pavement cracking, expectation crushing boom.

EA & Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall explodes into life March 11, and is gunning for top spot in a genre dominated by long standing franchises like Battlefield, Gears of War, Halo and Call of Duty. Titanfall made a huge splash last year when debuted at E3, garnering an unprecedented number of awards. With all of that positive reception and press, it had set the bar very high even for itself. As it turns out, reaching heights isn’t much a problem when you’re riding a two-story tall armored mech, but the real show-stealers are the pilots themselves.

From the moment you set virtual boot to ground in the training simulator, you’ll find out how wallrunning, cloaking and double-jumping put the unarmored pilots on even ground with their giant armored mechs – and ahead of the competition. In an instant you’ll see maps in a whole new dimension and find yourself looking for ways to chain wall grabs, runs and jumps together with ease and discover the true heart of a Titan is far from soft.

The beta contains just a select few maps and competitive game modes, saving the best for release along with the highly anticipated multiplayer story mode. Still, what was shown was solid, highly playable release-quality gameplay that distances itself from the frequently buggy competition – a huge relief from the recent norm. At present, the modes available to test include Attrition, Hard Point and Last Titan Standing.

Attrition is described as a classic Titanfall game mode and is recommended as the best mode to start with. Featuring gameplay style made famous by the footage from E3, you start as a pilot and earn points by killing either AI or players on the opposing team. With each kill you decrease the amount of time until you can call in your Titan, which enters the battlefield with a spectacular sonic boom and annihilates anything that happens to be nearby. You can then choose to pilot it or set it to guard or follow mode to continue the fight. If you happen to die while outside of it and it survives, it will continue it’s last orders while you respawn. Once the points-based objective is met, the losing team must scramble to reach evacuation points to earn an epilogue XP bonus – although you get just one life to make the escape.

At a glance Hardpoint might seem similar to Attrition, except that points are earned by capturing and defending objectives. As these objectives are almost always in a location only a pilot can reach outside of her Titan, a different level of coordination is required by both pilots and Titans to effectively attack or defend an objective. Additionally, little or no reward is gained by fighting away from the objective – wander off on your own and you could cost your team the win even if you technically outskilled your opponents. Like attrition, it ends with a bonus epilogue chase to an evacuation point.

Last Titan Standing plays like it sounds – 6v6 Titans, multiple timed rounds, no respawn on pilot death and everyone starts in a Titan. It’s Titanfall TDM, with a brisk no-mistakes pace.

All three modes were a blast to play – featuring just the Atlas class of Titan out of the three available at release, as well as three sample pilot buildouts and numerous innovative weapons. It is easy to pick up but shows it will reward those with the skill to master both pilot and Titan abilities to their maximum. It will also challenge players to unlearn traditional “two dimensional” shooter gameplay habits – where even your Titan can outmaneuver yesteryear’s corner to cover positional warfare.

Stand by, your Titan will be ready for launch on March 11 on Xbox One and PC, March 25 on Xbox 360.

Xbox One Launch Weekend Review

launchWeekendTitles

Five launch titles, two gamers and one epic launch weekend later; a fan review.

My wife and I received our Xbox One consoles on release day along with five launch titles, including Ryse: Son of Rome, Forza Motorsport 5, Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts. Following a remarkable weekend of next generation gaming, here are our first impressions. Spoiler: Xbox One rocks!

“Xbox – ON”

Xbox One endured much criticism since reveal at E3 for many issues including the required Internet Connection, Kinect sensor, DRM changes and higher price compared to the rival PS4 console. Microsoft showed unusual agility in responding to fans, reversing its stance on DRM and the requirement for a persistent internet connection. Users now also have the choice of not using the Kinect sensor – good for them – but from my impressions it is one of the coolest parts of the new system! Gaming is personal, and having the system recognize me or my daughter and instantly customize the view to show just what I am interested in is no small detail – it encapsulates my whole experience, and more.

All weekend could be summed up in three words not used commonly together before November 22: “XBOX, Record that!” Never mind the specific voice command, or that we had plenty of awesome DVR-worthy gaming moments, the breakthrough comes in the value of the voice command shortcuts we can use without taking even a second out of our game. The commercials don’t really do justice to how cool these extra features are. It’s not just the games, folks. This system is built for gamers who wanted more out of their games.

Another detail, one you’ll never see in a commercial, is how the system handles crashes. No game is perfect (any Skyrim player knows even the best games lock up), and on the Xbox 360, a locked game was a locked console. Battlefield 4, for all it’s epicness is also prone to lockup – but on the Xbox One, the running game does not take command of the entire console, which is why switching in and out of games and movies or TV is so quick. When BF4 first locked on my Xbox One, I could just return to the home screen and relaunch it, which may sound trivial but takes some of the pain out of the crash.

I believe the Xbox One delivered on all of its next generation promises and more. The graphics are gorgeous, it’s fast, runs cool and quiet and integrates easily with your cable provider to front end the TV experience. The kinect rounds it out with easy to use commands, accurate face recognition and gestures simple enough for children. The sum nothing less than amazing.

With that said a great system is one thing, but to quote Nintendo execs, “software sells hardware”, and a system’s virtues are for not without killer launch titles.

Forza Motorsport 5

The first game out of its case was Forza 5. It is unfair to compare it feature to feature with the other First Person Adventure/Shooters we played, but graphically it is unmatched and races like a dream. This is the worlds biggest car geeks loose with one of the most graphically capable machines, ever. It’s pure car porn. It wastes no time getting you on the track, either – staying very light on the technical aspects of the game until later. I love the way the new Xbox One controller uses many independent internal motors to provide feedback at the triggers and grips – it is very subtle but highly effective. Even across the room, my wife remarked that the controller vibration even sounded accurate to the feedback from the car. It was as if I could feel the road. Further pushing the envelope, the cloud-powered AI is based entirely on other real players – there are no canned AI bots in the games, only other avatars called “drivatars”, which learn from your driving to represent you on line – the drivers I raced against were very sharp and behaved more like a real opponent, even in “single player” mode (wow, will that become a dated term?). Needless to say, I am highly impressed. Top marks for this hard core racer – it is a poster of what a next gen launch title should look and play like.

Battlefield 4

I am a big fan of Battlefield 2: Bad Company and Battlefield 3, so I had high hopes for Battlefield 4. I played it on Xbox 360, where the graphics were more or less comparable to the previous titles. As for story, shooters usually get the short end of the stick in favor of multiplayer features, although Bad Company and a few of the Halo titles were exceptions. Battlefield 4’s campaign story is fairly tight, coupled with amazing graphics, good voice acting and motion capture. It does well to stick to a core set of characters and a single overarching threat to drive plot – something other titles often fail at.

BF4 Multiplayer mode is a huge success. Dice shows its industry experience and delivers peerless, heart pounding, face melting 64 player action, either on epic sized dynamic maps or in tight indoor arenas. “Levolution”, the feature in which major features in a map can change over the course of a battle, simply cannot be expressed in a commercial. You have to be there to understand how fantastic it is to suddenly have the entire building you’ve been defending begin to crumble and collapse – where you heroically dive out a window to narrowly escape death (or, be heroically crushed…). I’ve clocked many hours into multiplayer mode between the 360 and Xbox One and very few matches were similar, and never got repetitive. Further enhancing the multiplayer experience, the second screen “Battlelog” and game-in-a-game “commander mode” are ahead of the pack in terms of mobile device integration. Any experienced BF4 squad knows the value of having a player in commander mode on your team. As if that all was not enough, the music is explosive and fresh – best of show stuff – adding to already rock-solid shooter game play and fast paced action. I’ve said it before, Battlefield 4 is a shoe-in for GOTY on it’s name alone, and I think the end product deserves it.

Ryse: Son of Rome

Seven years in the making, this roman era epic puts you in the boots of Marius Titus, a fictional hero loosely based on several real roman generals, time periods and legends. Fans will notice some striking similarities to the events in the movie “Gladiator” for good reason as both have common historical inspiration. The combat gameplay could be compared to the melee in Assassin’s Creed – all game controls center around four key melee abilities – dodge, deflect, bash and sword. Individual enemy AI is specific to each enemy type, but handling throngs of them at once is where the real action and strategy begins. While Easy and Normal mode is pretty forgiving, fans desiring a challenge can choose harder “centurion” mode that demands you handle each fight correctly or quickly be overwhelmed. Combat is brutal – limb severing is hardly the most graphic of executions – and it is intense. Fans looking for fast paced visceral combat with depth will not be disappointed. The graphics might be the best of next generation gaming, next to the equally pretty but highly dissimilar Forza.

The story is also strong and very well written, and sports the best human actor capture and performances of any game I’ve ever seen.  It plays like a movie, with gorgeous vistas, memorable characters and great soundtrack. Hat’s off to a solid production that looks closer to the silver screen than your flat screen ever has.

Multiplayer gladiator mode is very fun, although limited to just two players the arena challenges are well thought out and far from just smashing hordes of opponents. In all, my wife and I together put more hours into Ryse than any other title at launch.

Parent warning: Many games earn an M rating, but Ryse is a strong M for both the obvious graphic combat content, nudity and adult situations. This game is not for kids.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

Or as I like to call it, “Riley the Attack Dog Saves the World”. I’ve never been a huge fan of the CoD series, but this was an exception for me. CoD:Ghosts without Riley would be a pale shadow of the finished product. Seriously, this pup saves a potentially pretty-but-just-above-average shooter from the shelf and gives it credibility next to other next generation titles. Like other high-tech, super spec-op titles (cod:mw, cod:bo2, tc:ghost recon, etc), a lot of emphasis is put on gadgets and technology providing situational advantage to forward the plot or solve a crisis. Riley, in that context is one of the new gadgets and not the first case where an animal became an extension of the soldier. However they did such a good job of motion capture and integration of the dogs mannerism and personality that he eclipses both his role and the other characters in the game. At one point in the story where you are briefly separated from the dog and then later get to see him – I was genuinely happy to see the dog, like a real dog. The fact the team at infinity ward were able to pull this off is no small feat. Yeah, sure, at a base level it’s not a far stretch from putting a puppy in a commercial, but it WORKS.

CoD: Ghosts does make good use of next generation graphics, with a story that will not disappoint – it ought to with Emmy winning writer from Syriana and Traffic behind it. Action is solid, also consistent with prior titles. Enemy AI is more complex than BF4 – guy gets shot in the leg, goes prone in a position and movement accurate to the situation (he’s dragging and nursing his leg) but is still firing a hand gun defiantly. Enemies make smart use of cover, and will try to out maneuver you. The run and slide move is great, as is the improved intelligent obstacle jump.

I have yet to play multiplayer, but previews online ahead of next generation launch looked really good, and is popular with many BF4 squadmates.

Assassin’s Creed 4

This swashbuckling title saddles the launch of next generation, and was already near-perfect on Xbox 360, which I wrote about in my prior blog entry. On Xbox One it does inherit improved graphics – they were already outstanding – as well as the dynamic achievements and fantastic ocean physics just not possible on prior generation hardware. The story is much what fans of the AC series come to love, although I feel it suffers from a lack of a common villain or single plot driver to tie the many characters and locations together, and many characters with only small parts in a long game. This is of course in part due to it being loosely based on actual historical events and people – with a crazy high science fiction backstory that ties otherwise distant times and people to one another. I’m not a fan of the story, but am a huge fan of the immersion into the historical places, the music and ambiance, exploration and of course – the action. AC4 is my favorite in the series yet, not for the characters or graphics, but the actual sailing gameplay. I was relieved when the main story concluded so I could get back to what I enjoyed most: commanding the Brig named Jackdaw. The Jackdaw in it’s own way could be the real lead character. It carries the story, both literally and figuratively. It’s the Millenium Falcon if Starwars were set in the Caribbean.

In all, Microsoft hit it home with both a killer console and great titles. I can’t compare it to Playstation 4 yet – we may get one next year to upgrade our PS3. Either way, it’s a great year to be a gamer. See you online!

Assassin’s Creed 4 – Take the Helm

Ahoy! – said the cannon, because first impressions matter. Wasting no time Assassin’s Creed 4 launches players into action, eschewing prelude and sci-fi babble that slowed the pace of the prior titles for more of what we really bought the game to do – fighting, naval combat, and exploring. The passive nature of the opening tutorial puts veterans and new players on even footing without hamstringing those already familiar with the controls, and weaves seamlessly into an engaging story about our hero – but is he a hero, or antihero?

From the second your boots hit the sand, the open world nature of the game is as clear as the beautifully rendered water. With no shortage of distractions and secrets to uncover, the opening sequence plays at your pace – rewarding your taste for action, exploration, attention to detail, thirst for treasure, or all of the above. The movement, combat and stealth are tight and feel spot on. Finally, when the science behind the series does come into play, I found it to be a refreshing and clever break from the previous titles. Kudos to the writers, you now have my attention.

Full review after the curtain, but for now color my expectations exceeded.

The Wolf Among Us – Dark, Gritty Excellence

image credit vg247
image credit vg247

No less potent that the great detective novels it draws from, tightly written “The Wolf Among Us” is a short and powerful mystery with teeth. Set against a deliciously dark New York, Wolf tells the story of Bigby, a lawman charged with keeping the peace between fables, figures of classic myth living amongst mortals in modern times. Its unique style of gameplay is paced more like a page turner than an action game, yet manages to keep you on your toes. Constantly adapting to a stream of player choices, the story evolves based on your actions and the consequences can be dramatic. Combining this choose-your-own-adventure style of story with top shelf animation, comic book art style, writing and voice acting puts this on par with the best of television today.

It is brief – it can easily be completed in a sitting – at which point you’ll be dying to go back and replay a sequence and see how you might have impacted the outcome. You can also see how your key choices (or sum of choices) rate compared to all other players online. Included is a preview of the next chapter, also in TV drama style, a foreshadowing of events you put in motion.

A word on grit, this plays more like Poe than Milne – it is not for kids.

Disney Infinity: Serious fun, you’re doing it right.

Sid and Buzz

If Geoffery Rush’s Captain Barbossa teamed up with Mater from Pixar’s Cars on a cow tipping rampage doesn’t tickle your funny bone, check your pulse – you might be dead.

Disney Infinity is a mash-up of both franchise and genre-bending game styles. It’s equal parts platform jumper, light hearted racer, cartoon brawler and free-form world builder with a high emphasis on spontaneous social interaction. Toss in a perfect jumble of characters, artwork and sound from several decades of your favorite Disney hits and a few more surprises and you have a smash hit that plays like a big box of toys dumped on the floor and come to life – safe for kids of all ages. Yeah, including us BIG kids. It is easy enough that our six year old can play, but still challenging enough to keep my attention.

It comes with three prebuilt story-driven adventures based in “Pirates of the Caribbean” , “The Incredibles” and “Monsters Inc.”, in addition to dozens of franchise-neutral challenges like driving, object collecting (think Mario 64), fighting monsters, solving puzzles, or building things. As you complete objectives in each of the story worlds, you gain new objects in the world building mode from that theme. As an example during story quests in Pirates of The Caribbean you gain building sets to recreate many of the structures, characters and locations from that fiction in your own open-ended world. Add-on content includes “Cars” and “The Lone Ranger”, with “Toy Story” and “Frozen” set to be released later in October. Out of the box it includes at least 50 different potential achievements for a wide variety of feats, many of which focus on multiplayer co-op, (or lack of co-op, ie: “Sorry”, LOL).

Given that Disney also owns the rights to Starwars now, I expect those characters and props will eventually find their way into the game. Let that be the day that you nearly crossed sabres with JEDI Captain Jack Sparrow.

In addition to being crazy fun, the attention to detail is outstanding. The voice acting is dead on for the respective characters, which is good because there is a ton of banter and feedback in all of the game modes. It could be a clever resampling of the actors voices from the movies, but in some cases the lines seem too candid to have been rips from existing dialog. If you have ever played a movie-based game and found the voice acting to be either missing completely or totally off, it can be a bit distracting or reflect poorly on the finished product, but not so with Infinity.

In parting, it may be fair to criticize Disney Infinity as a mammoth cash-grab for the way the game’s external play pad integrates with the high-quality plastic replicas of the characters (required to play, it comes with three), and for how clearly it encourages you to collect them all to unlock many of the game’s rewards. At 10$ or more a pop, you’ll shell out more than the initial game cost to complete your Incredibles family – required to unlock a significant reward at the conclusion of that story world – and that’s just a start. With that said, heed my warning now – once you try it, you might have so much fun that you care as little as I do about their evil, cash grabbing motives.

 

Strangely Satisfying: Diablo III on Xbox

If you enjoyed Diablo 3 on PC, you owe it to yourself to try the Diablo 3 demo for PS3 and Xbox 360. The conversion is surprisingly fun, with some new twists. Many creative adjustments were made to make the control scheme feel at home on the dual-stick analog controller – and the end result is a solid win. The addition of the quick dodge and familiar synergy of the character abilities as assigned to the controller feels more at home on the home console than it ever did on PC.

To top it off the game looks even better than ever enlarged to your flat screen TV. The iconic two and three-quarter view and simulated 3D pops into life on the large screen, as do the richly detailed environments. Finally, although the cinematic cut scenes are not included in the demo, they are sure to amaze in high def in the full version of the game.

With the first expansion pack just around the corner, it looks like a perfect time to return to Tristram.

Top Ten Favorite Games, plus five I can’t wait to try

Like fake news of a celebrity death on social media, console gaming did not die – showing you can’t believe everything you read on CNN. Following E3, Gamescon and PAX 2013 the next generation of game consoles were revealed, setting the stage for a huge holiday season for both Sony and Microsoft. Along with the highly-anticipated super gaming consoles come a dragons hoard of new games – many of which are being released just weeks apart. So many, you might have a hard time picking which to play first.

While pondering this geeky dilemma  (oh the agony) , I found myself recalling fondly the best titles of decades past. I wondered if I could pick a favorite – or even my top five. I kicked a list around and managed to make it in ten, leaving out dozens of awesome titles for the few I felt stood out above 20+ years of amazing games. Following that, I include five more I can’t wait to play over the next six months.

1) The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker

This first spot could read “the entire Zelda series”, but I really feel Wind Waker stood out, even surpassing the epic original NES title. With compelling original gameplay, numerous twists to classic puzzle style, eye-popping dynamic cell shaded animation and hours upon hours of exploration, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was nothing less than a Masterpiece. I look forward to the HD release on Wii U.

2) Super Mario 64

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Everyone loves Mario – I grew up on Super Mario Bros. Throughout more than a dozen fantastic puzzle jumpers, I felt that Super Mario 64 was by far the best Mario title. Not only was it a stunning launch title at the time, it still holds up to its more recent descendants as a rock-solid, timeless game. It’s no surprise it saw re-release on current handheld gaming systems.

3) Super Mario Kart

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Yes, Mario lands two spots on my top ten list. I love racing games, and it is tough to pick a favorite (I am very fond of Forza), but my all-time favorite racing game was the original Super Mario Kart. Like Mario 64 – it’s no less relevant than it’s seventh sequel, but holds its place as a classic megahit.

4) Final Fantasy 7

Sony owes its foothold in our house as a gaming platform to Squaresoft and Final Fantasy 7. I was a big fan of the US versions of Final Fantasy 1-3 on the Nintendo platforms, and Final Fantasy 7 by itself justified the new console. It did not disappoint, even with the added lag times from running on CD. This was one of the first games I recall evoking strong emotions and finding myself engaged, even deeply moved by. None of the Final Fantasy titles since have come close.

5) World of Warcraft

Despite its sunset into “Pandaria”, World of Warcraft stands as one of the greatest cross-medium franchises of all time. What Blizzard crafted was more than just the most successful MMORPG ever, it became part of modern culture. I do look forward to the eventual reboot… maybe… to coincide with the release of the movie? Com’on, Blizzard, all the other cool kids are doing it.

6) Rockband

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Rockband is the only console game I have ever driven in a car to go play with other adults. While most multiplayer games are fine played over an internet connection, or even better when you have the whole screen to yourself, Rockband rebels as the perfect party game where the more folks you can have over, the better. BOYB. Talent optional. We went on to get the “Green Day” and “Beetles” expansions, in addition to easily a hundred DLC songs. Instant favorite – still as fun as the first time I played.

7) Tomb Raider (2013)

The 2o13 Tomb Raider was a surprise hit for me. I bought this for my wife, who loved the puzzle-jumping, exploration heavy series. Watching her play through this “reboot” as young, pre-awesome Laura Croft, and I could tell right away it was the cure for the modern, dreary cash cow sequel. Solid story telling and a perfect mix of puzzle solving and top-shelf shooter action put this game, and heroine, head and shoulders over most hits in the last few years.

8) Borderlands 2

Anyone can craft a solid, multiplayer shooter – squeeze in amazing writing, memorable characters, seamless vehicle mayhem, real emotion, epic boss sequences and more laughs than you can count, and you’d be looking at Borderlands 2. It might be “the perfect game” – to the point of being potentially un-reproducible.

9) Dead Space 3

I struggle choosing a favorite from the Dead Space trilogy – each stood alone as a near-perfect title for different reasons. I picked Dead Space 3, despite being arguably less scary than the first two, because of the addition of the second main character Carver and the story between he and Isaac. Visceral Games serves up expertly woven character development, dynamic gameplay and absolutely breathtaking visuals. I loved every second of DS3 and it’s too-brief DLC “awakened”.

10) Skyrim

Time will tell, but Skyrim just might be the “last great epic single player game”. No game comes anywhere near Skyrim in terms of open world, exploration, dynamic story and free form character development. No other game, save all the Warcraft Expansions together, counts for more hours of enjoyment on my part. The music, story, environments, memorable characters and freedom of gameplay all add up to a benchmark than will not soon be exceeded.

Here are five more I am eagerly awaiting:

Titanfall

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Coming out Spring 2014 – Titanfall stole center stage at E3 and continues to sweep awards at each show since. Pre-release game footage shows fast-paced “multiplayer campaign” type story telling with hot mech vs pilot action. Titanfall looks to break the standard for team based shooter gameplay, and is one of the best looking next-gen hits we’ve seen. Yes, Respawn, I am “standing by for Titanfall”.

Destiny

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From the original makers of Halo comes a daunting, ten-year promise of a truly epic next generation dynamic cloud based multiplayer shooter. In the distant future, post apocalyptic earth awakens, having narrowly missed total annihilation. Players work together in the last great city to survive and ultimately to learn what happened. Bungie set out to create a story that would grow and unfold over a decade, in a constantly living changing world, experiences both on consoles and supporting high integration with mobile devices. Early footage looks really exciting, raising hopes that it will live up to the hype.

Assassin’s Creed 4

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I liked each of the Assassin’s Creed games, although I was less of a fan of the undercurrent high-science-fiction backstory that links the series. That aside, the rich attention to detail in reproducing historical periods or actual locations and events is commendable. Most recently, AC3 made a big impression on me. When I saw AC4 would feature even more focus on Naval Combat, feature an open world gameplay style – and has pirates – I preordered the same day.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

 

Aside from COD:MW3, I don’t consider myself a diehard COD fan. However, E3 footage for COD:Ghosts and early multiplayer gameplay videos show something unlike the former hits, which in this case might be very good news. The footage and production diary videos showing how they motion captured the dog and brought it to life in the game are remarkable.

Battlefield 4

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Battlefield is a consistently good series with a great engine that has long been a standard for a top-end shooter. Battlefield 4 debuts the Frostbite 3 engine on next-gen hardware, further pushing the limits of graphics technology, mobile device integration and cloud-based computing. It is a picture of what a next-gen launch title should look like, and will be a shoe-in for Game of the Year on its credentials alone.

Is it November yet?

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