For Honor – Such Beautiful Flaws

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Like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a shiny wrapped box, For Honor is the gift that keeps on giving well past your second black eye. Equal parts stunning faux-history medieval brawler and cruel test of patience and temper, Ubisoft’s unconventional arena fighter pits Knights, Samurai and Viking warriors in a cycle of never ending war. As unforgiving as it is breathtaking, it will bring out the worst – and occasionally the best – in any team.

The heart of the game is symmetrical, cinematic 1v1 Duels, 2v2 Brawls and a variety of epic 4v4 melee battle modes. Each of the three factions has four classes loosely categorized into well-rounded Vanguard, armored Heavy, nimble Assassins and wildcard Hybrids. However it would be more accurate to just say there are twelve characters, as you can only draw distant similarities between two of the same class, like the Samurai Hybrid and a Knight Hybrid, despite both using polearms. Each of the twelve has a staggering amount of visual and technical customization to further match a specific playstyle or loadout, with gear appearance and performance customization on par with the highest end RPG and way beyond anything I’ve seen in traditional arena games. The feeling of ownership of a fighter as you raise them, unlock feats and collect gear for different loadouts is only further emphasized when you’re thrown into the fray. Unlike some other competitive games where gear stats only matter in top tier combat, the default PvP mode here has gear stats enabled. Battles are brisk, do-or(and)-die trying pace with zero room for mistakes. The melee combat itself is a masterpiece of exact directional blocking, dodging, parries, strike distance, stamina, footwork and oh, learning to avoid any ledge taller than a street curb. Combine light and heavy attacks into Street-Fighter-esque combination moves that must be memorized per hero, each with situational advantages and potential one hit kill uses, and try to survive for the chance to show off a brutal execution move. The difficulty of the combat also makes it very rewarding when you win. I’d dare say this is the skeleton in the closet – the dirty secret, so to speak. If it were easy, it would probably be a lot less fun.

New players will do well to enjoy the story mode first, which is not too short and teaches most of the class basics along the way. It can be played alone or co-op with a friend. Ratchet up the difficulty and the story mode is also nearly impassible challenge on “realistic” mode, at least towards the last few chapters. The AI in both the story mode and the Player vs. AI versions of the multiplayer modes is often surprisingly clever, although prone to predictable patterns in some situations. I find it fascinating in either case, as the different bots seem to have assigned behaviors. Also as they seem to also have a set of pre-assigned names (a few which are just as ridiculous as some real names I run across), you soon start to recognize some of them from prior battles. Some are notably more aggressive, others will flee a fight to find help, and some are just as cheap as their human counterparts can be. I’d love to chat with the team that worked on the AI to see how they make the magic work. In mixed AI and PvP modes, the game auto tunes the AI bots for the skill ranking average of the teams. In custom modes you can select the difficulty level of the bot AI to better test yourself as you practice for the apex predators of For Honor; the other real players.

Even in game modes like elimination where it is a series of four not-quite-isolated 1v1 duels (4v4 total on the same map), it is more or less guaranteed that as soon after the first body drops, someone will find themselves defending in a 1v2 fight, likely injured. Even though there is a scoring mechanic that gives extra points for honorable 1v1 kills, most matches center around uneven fights. A skilled player can survive being outnumbered, but in an even match the odds are definitely with the mob. This encourages some very bad tactical behaviors, and combined with working knowledge of ledges and natural bottlenecks in a specific map can turn a lot of fights into a slaughter by the better coordinated or plain dirty tricks. Class balance is arguably imperfect, specially in certain modes with characters that have easy-to-perform block breaking or body tossing chains yield a lion-vs-lamb advantage if a ledge or spike wall is nearby. An easy, legitimate counter argument may be to try and squeeze the classes into rock-paper-scissors classifications, which feels super accurate if you are playing paper against a scissors class in a 1v1 duel. Is that balanced? Maybe. For Honor treats the entire concept of dirty fighting and unfair situational advantage as the last rule of the battlefield: victory to the team that wanted it more.

Despite its glitches and numerous flaws, it remains highly engaging to play. It gets under your skin, for the better or worse. You’ll find out for yourself if you are comfortable being the plus one in an unfair fight, or if you can muster the respect to let your ally live or die on their own merit on principal alone, even risking a loss to let your opponent settle his affairs one honorable fight at a time. Or maybe you’ll cackle with glee as you finally behead the ledge kill spamming Heavy at any cost. This is a game for both types.

If I wasn’t clear, this game is a blast to play. It is easy to pick up, difficult to put down and worth hundreds of hours to master. It will definitely be a candidate for Game of the Year and is one of the more ambitious Ubisoft multiplayer games to date. With an optional season pass and another six fighter types coming in future expansions plus an innovative seasonal faction vs. faction persistent score, their intentions for this to be supported for the long haul are well entrenched.

Broken controller replacement not included.

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!