Destiny Beta Debrief: Vintage car muscle, new car smell

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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.

 

 

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

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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

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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!

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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