Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Forza Horizon 2 Review: Automotive Nirvana

There is a place where you can drive endlessly for miles, as fast as you want, as much as you want. Where you can purchase expensive sports cars relatively easily because of all the money you get just by driving around for fun. Where you can go off the road in your McLaren P1 and not worry about the consequences.

This is Forza Horizon 2. And as you can probably tell by now, I'm absolutely smitten with this game. 

Every car fantasy that inspired classics like Daytona USA, Ridge Racer, and even Gran Turismo has culminated into this one ridiculously amazing racing game. You're put into a huge, open world where you can drive wherever you want, and participate in various types of races in different sorts of weather and all kinds of road environments. You've got the choice of over 200+ cars, and can tune, upgrade, and customize their look all you want. All sorts of colors, paints; you name it, this game has it. This game has all kinds of environments --- city type environments, countryside type environments, beach side, mountain ridges, hills....it's just all so overwhelming.

I've been playing this for almost two weeks now, and it still blows me away when I fire it up. This game is using some mezmerizing spell for its graphics; I can't explain it, it looks real but it doesn't look real --- it's a midpoint between game graphics and full on CG when you're driving. We've come very far in video games, my friends. Hard to believe Microsoft managed this in their second year. They've built Forza Motorsport 5, which does turn heads and is still a very well designed racing game, then they released THIS game, Forza Horizon 2, the year right after. Even if it took them more than a year to make Horizon 2, that's incredible project planning right there.

The multiplayer works. The single player works. I got about 3 game crashes and that's about it when it comes to game 'bugs'. The driving physics is Forza 5 - lite but it's realistic where it counts. It's definitely an arcade racer but it's the best kind. Subjectively speaking, the controls are perfect; they give you a challenge when you go off-road, and they still ask you to work for your wins. The game has a 'rewind' feature which makes things easier but not using it or turning it off gives you bonuses, so you can go all hardcore and enjoy it as it is meant to be played. If you're a guy like me and you have a life and responsibilities, the rewind feature is welcomed and appreciated.

Whoever directed the teams that made this game deserves a raise, a vacation, a garage with all 200 cars from the game and a palace. It's just so good and have a hard time putting this game down. Granted I'm a racing game enthusiast (somewhere between arcade racing fan and sim fan --- not either of the two extremes) but this game just wins me over and I can't help but gush about it. 

I feel sorry for the ones who have not played it. You'll never get a taste of virtual automotive heaven.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

My take on the never ending resolution debate

I generally don't agree with most gamers when it comes to having games always be 1080p. 1080p is nice to have, but it's not something I need for my game to feel worth it. I'd rather be sure that a game plays smoothly, or that a game has a sound gameplay mechanic, than be actually counting individual pixels on my screen. 

That said, I believe that Digital Foundry is doing a huge disservice to gamers by creating ridiculous expectations for game graphics. I just find it a bit irritating that most game discussion now boils down to resolution debates, and whether you're getting value for your money or not. 

If you're still doubtful that your spending on a new console was a waste of money, it probably was. You move on to a new generation of systems to get to play the games you want, not to count the pixels and declare one company a winner over another, or get to trample down on another person because of their choices. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Destiny: A Review after Level 20

Destiny is the hot topic of the week in the games industry. A lot of people are saying that basically it was overhyped to be this fantastic, large-scale game, only to turn out to be a shooter with MMORPG elements. I have to agree with some parts of what most are saying: advancement in Destiny requires that you play the missions over again. Finishing the game is a good thing to go for, and when you do finish it, you'll notice the whole single player campaign is about 16 hours long (or even less, if you're good as speed runs). But the impression I got from the 'end' of the game is that it isn't the real end, and that this game is something like a TV series or a saga that you would have to follow for a few weeks or months to get the most entertainment out of.

So, in the time that Destiny is asking us players to wait for them to release more story content, they're asking us to play the missions over again, with different play mechanics or harder challenges. From this point forward, a lot of people are going to tune out and begin their complaints. But I'll never understand what is the true worth of that $60 that you spend on a game. Is it supposed to be 40 hours every time? Is that even a justifiable request of any game developer?

Because when you create something, inevitably you will have to make compromises. Either you get your game out in 3 years or you get your game out in 10, and be dated, like Duke Nukem Forever. Maybe sometimes gamers are just too entitled when it comes to what they expect out of their games. While publishers can do a lot of nasty things to players, like endless paid DLC, on this front I think it's the players that are being unfair already.

But I suppose where Activision / Bungie made a mistake was with their ridiculous marketing promises. "More than a game!" their trailer said. That's just too far out of a promise to make, and when you give that kind of a statement, players are going to remember that. I think Bungie could have been more upfront about the kind of game they are making instead of overpromising like that. They have done it in the past (remember Halo 2 and their E3 demo?) and I'm surprised they never learned from that experience.

So, on both fronts, there are mistakes on both sides which are cause for the disappointment with the game. I just say that, take Destiny for what it is. It's a really good shooter that handles combat very well. It has a good item system which can be as addictive as the Diablo series. It isn't really an MMORPG, even if some of its mechanics feel like it should be. If you're thinking about buying Destiny, know that it is a shooter with action RPG elements; don't go into it expecting Mass Effect, because it isn't that way at all. Know that you will be asked to play the levels over to make the most out of developing your character. And, subjectively, replay of the missions can be fun (because of the level design, the enemy placement, enemy variation, and their artificial intelligence). I'm enjoying jumping between replays of campaign missions, strikes with other players, and competitive multiplayer matches. Getting new items is a nice bonus to keep on playing the game, and watching your character get stronger and stronger over time is also enjoyable as well.

Of course I know that eventually I'll move on from Destiny; there are more game worlds to conquer and I don't know how well Bungie has really planned out their weekly 'updates' to this game. But as a single product, if you managed to avoid all the ridiculous marketing somehow, it's a good game that has some really enjoyable moments. It does lack extra characters and mission variety, that is true....but the gun battles and the level design is just fantastic, and I wish more FPS games would do it the way Bungie does.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Toxic Games Community. Is there any hope left for it?

Gamescom 2014 just happened and there's been a lot of anger over the Rise of the Tomb Raider going exclusively to Xbox One. That was yesterday. Today we found out that it's not really a true exclusive but a timed exclusive.

So in the past 24 hours, all I've been reading on Neogaf is just page after page of vitriol loaded posts. It's pretty upsetting. Personally, it doesn't bother me that ROTR is going to be exclusive to any platform at all. It's just one game. It's a great series, and we all know how iconic Lara Croft is. But still, the level of anger and the stuff people are saying online about it is kind of ridiculous. In the first place, if the game was fully exclusive to Xbox, it's not like Playstation owners don't have enough games to play anyway. They've got practically every multiplatform title coming for them, supposedly in full 1080p so they already get the best versions of everything. They've got Uncharted 4, which is probably going to be out at about the same time, and will be practically the same game (with the same level of respect and pedigree that it always gets)

So why are Playstation people so upset? Hell, I even saw PC people upset, which is really stupid, because usually anything Xbox exclusive is practically Windows exclusive, so if they exercised JUST a little bit of patience, I'm sure they will get the game eventually. At first I thought it was a bit funny to watch the rage but at some point it's just too much. I can't imagine being someone at the marketing departments of any game company or at Sony, Microsoft or *gasp* even Nintendo. The level of anger and hate they're getting on a daily basis, it must be tough to read that all day. And it's not even about something that important. It's Video Games, man. It's entertainment products. It's expensive, luxury items, hell it's about toys. But people were calling out Microsoft and calling them the Great Satan of our time for doing what is essentially a simple business decision.

There's nothing immoral or unethical about buying exclusivity for ROTR on the Xbox One. In fact, I'd say it was a smart move on Microsoft's part to help move consoles. They're clearly losing against the Playstation (though compared to Nintendo, they're doing just fine). So what's wrong with digging into those coffers and buying exclusivity? It's also a good move on the part of Crystal Dynamics. Tomb Raider, over time, has lost a bit of luster and is not really as big a deal as something like the Uncharted series. I think they wanted their series to get more attention by associating with a specific platform. In many cases, that does work. Look at how Gears of War blew up by associating with the Xbox. Originally that game could have come out on everything, but if it did that, I don't think it would have been as special as it turned out to be today. Also, focused development has its perks where a game developer doesn't have to make a game work on every platform available. One hardware for one game can make the game be the best it can be. Just look at Nintendo's exclusive games and how they all just surpass what is on the PS4 and Xbox One in terms of art style, polish and flair. Exclusivity does have its benefits.

I really don't see what's wrong with the whole ROTR exclusivity deal. This thing has been happening since time immemorial in this industry, and usually it doesn't really do that much damage when one game is on one platform and not another. I think, the worst that can happen to any major game console maker is to lose multiple third parties, like what is happening with Nintendo right now. Playstation losing Tomb Raider would not have caused much of a dent to that console's installed base.

But the level of anger on forums is insane. I read one theory that Microsoft was out to 'destroy console gaming' by doing this, which is a hell of a stretch. I read another one about how Microsoft doesn't care about gamers....well, maybe that is true, the truth is they only care about money. But that is true of all of them. That's the other thing I don't get. People think these developers do this because they 'care' about gamers. Well, the truth is, they are doing this to put food on the table. It's all about money and that isn't going to change anytime soon. It's just strange how some people associate games companies like their family members or like their 'friends'. They aren't your friends, guys. They're there to take your money. So treat them as such. Try to be objective about what these companies are doing. They're in business to make money. So instead of losing your cool and posting so much anger online (which you'll just share with everyone else and just make everyone feel miserable), the solution is simple: if you don't like something, don't buy it.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

RYSE: SON OF ROME - A worthy tribute to 300, Troy, and Gladiator

I got this game a few weeks ago and I'm really enjoying it. As a showcase for the Xbox One it definitely works; it demonstrates what 'next-gen' visuals should be all about. Great art direction, extremely sharp CG level graphics...this game is just beautiful. And it's a first gen game! Imagine how good Xbox One games will get after 2-3 years. It's mind boggling to think about after seeing this game.

The combat reminds me of old games like Golden Axe but with hyper-realistic graphics, great voice acting, sound effects and music. This game is a like a big tribute to major films like 300, Troy and Gladiator...it just has a lot of great moments that make you think back to those films, but---this game manages to have a character all its own. A lot of the action involves button mashing and good timing with QTEs...it just feels good to play. Maybe some would say it's repetitive because there are just a few enemy types but I don't know....have they played Double Dragon? Final Fight? Enemy types in those games are also repetitive and taking them out is always done the same way, but why didn't we complain about repetitiveness back then, and we're complaining about it now? I think the button mashing part --- it is gameplay, so long as you feel that the game gives you good feedback. Compare this game with something as mindless as, say, Dynasty Warriors. In that game, the enemies just literally stand in front of you while you turn them all into Chop Suey. In this one, the enemies fight back and they put up a good fight (perhaps i picked a higher than normal difficulty level, though....but still, I am really enjoying it and it never felt poorly balanced even with the higher setting). 

This game is pure entertainment, it's watching a film but really being a part of it, too. There isn't any story branches or decision making, but that's a different genre, this is all about action, action and more action. Maybe don't play it all in one night. Play one chapter a night and you will enjoy the experience. 

I read in the news that the developers of this are having rough times financially. Which is a real shame. It isn't their fault....actually the failure of Ryse in the marketplace is what is causing their financial woes, and that failure was really due to Microsoft bungling their launch last 2013. A lot of really good games (include Dead Rising, Forza and this one) were ignored by many gamers because many were really angry with Microsoft and their ridiculous DRM plans. Including me. 

I'm glad Don Mattrick is so fired. Ok, he resigned....but still, it's his damn fault that the Xbox brand is messed up right now.

Ryse could have been the new 'Gears of War' for Microsoft. As a first gen game this is far better than Kameo or Perfect Dark was for the 360 way back when. It's well polished for the genre that it's in, and it's really entertaining. I highly recommend this game to anyone considering an Xbox One. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

ENOUGH with the pre-order bonus black T-shirts already!

One thing that bugs me about Asian/Philippine console game pre-order bonuses --- those damned black t-shirts.

1) They're always too small [hey guys, we aren't all teens!]

2) They always come in BLACK [which makes their usability quite limited, in my humble opinion]

Enough with the pre-order bonus black t-shirt!

Xbox One - System / Games general review

We picked up a [kinect-less] Xbox One a few weeks ago and have been putting it through its paces. Overall, right now I feel pretty good about this console. But I have to admit, the first experience of buying it is not very good. I'll go with the BAD news first. But do note that it isn't all bad news....

- The first time you bring it home, the console can't work without Internet. That's because it needs an absolutely-unoverrideable mandatory update. Basically, if you get this for your birthday and it's 7PM, expect to actually play games on it around a day or so later, depending on your internet speed.

- The first patch I got for it was around 800MB. This number might have changed by the time of this writing.

- All the launch games now have accumulated patches/updates over 16+ GB in size. Not just Dead Rising 3, which has been reported widely in the media. Even Forza 5.

- My internet at home is PLDT 3Mbps; managed to get all the updates pretty quickly....that's actually the silver lining in this story. Despite the size of the updates, it seems Microsoft's server is very fast at delivering the patches.

It kind of helps that I am a big fan of Xbox from long ago, so I guess you could say I was a bit extra patient with these massive updates/patches. If you aren't an Xbox fan or are a new gamer --- this part of the experience will probably be the most frustrating/excruciating. Especially in the Philippines with our inconsistent internet. Luckily mine was wired DSL, but I can't vouch for users on LTE or wireless broadband. Your mileage may vary.

Another thing to take note is the Xbox One knows how to absolutely take over your entire home network from the moment you connect the device to it. Everyone else's bandwidth will collapse when this sucker is on. Me and my wife have no idea how the console does it. It just does. But this problem only seems to manifest if you are downloading an update or a game, or playing online.

It would have been nice if the Xbox One would let you play any game the moment you unbox it. Requiring people to get an update the moment they open it isn't really very consumer-friendly.

That said....that's just about my biggest complaint about the system.

==========

Forza 5 with rumbling triggers. Killer Instinct with dedicated servers and no lag....once you actually do start playing with the Xbox One, it's a pretty good experience. A lot has been written about the resolution of games on the console. The only game I know of where the resolution is noticeably low is Dead Rising 3. But the low resolution is likely because they threw in so many zombies and did their best to keep the framerate at about 30FPS. And the game itself is just so much fun that you hardly notice the resolution at all when you get completely absorbed in the game (the game does an extremely good job at this).

Xbox One is also pretty good for general entertainment purposes, at least if you like browsing Youtube. It streams very well from Youtube, though this can (as mentioned earlier) take over your home internet and deprive everyone else of good internet access speed. We have a Wii U as well and for some reason, Youtube HD videos on Xbox One look a lot better than they do on the Wii U.

There's a very real focus on entertainment features on the first screen of the dashboard, with Microsoft itself supplying numerous featurettes, trailers, etc, just right there on your dashboard. They even curate video uploads from gamers everywhere and compile them on a separate app on the Xbox One, which is great for just relaxing after a marathon session of games. The 'Upload' app is a very entertaining little addition to the Xbox One dashboard where you can watch other people's gameplay, and the content is normally edited with voice/narration and other effects to make them worth watching. Microsoft itself creates content out of the uploaded videos, creating top 10s of people's latest uploads and these can be pretty good since you don't have to watch everything and still get a few minutes worth of entertainment out of it. Xbox One also has a Twitch.tv feature but I haven't used it much....I recall trying it once but basically Twitch is you just sitting there waiting for something cool to happen, unlike with pre-recorded videos which are all 'cool things happening', all the time.

I've dabbled a bit in the Xbox One's ability to record game videos. It seems to be doing this all the time, in the background, and you just have to call up the Game DVR to fetch your last 30 seconds - 5 minutes of gameplay. It was pretty useful to save some really memorable moments in a game....like the other day I beat this irritating boss on Dead Rising 3 and I got to show it to my wife in the morning (who was out cold the other night because the kids were pretty exhausting to put to sleep!). I also recorded a really good replay in Killer Instinct where I made a good comeback against an opponent online. Once the really good competitive games come in, this DVR feature will be very useful for a lot of people who like to analyze their gameplay or just simply relive a cool moment in single player games, like a big boss battle or a monumental plot-twist.

The console also has a really cool suspend/resume feature that literally lets you get back in the game within seconds. This is really handy for me as a dad....when the kids need to be put to sleep i can just put the Xbox One on standby, put the kids to sleep, then fire up the Xbox One, then I'm exactly back where I left off. No more need to start a game from the very beginning, no more need to always watch my saved games. This feature is extremely useful and I wonder how we lived without this feature in the past!

With the launch games there seems to be a lot of focus on season passes and DLC, which is really unfortunate, but most community reaction online to this (for all the consoles, Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo) is quite negative. So I think this is a trend that will see some improvement over time. With Forza 5 for example, it's really unfortunate that a lot of the other cars are DLC. This is a matter of appreciating what you get with the full game, though. I think most of the generally 'iconic' cars are not DLC in Forza 5....they just made DLC out of the more esoteric cars, but there are some in there I would have loved to try in the game without needing to pay for it, like the LaFerrari. Last E3, Microsoft seemed to be dialing down on DLC, promising no DLC for Forza Horizon 2 at the start. I really hope they stick to it.

That said, I've been using the console every.single.day since we bought it. The last thing I have an issue with is MP4/AVI/video playback support, which it doesn't have....I can't play videos from a USB or hard drive. Really unfortunate. The PS4 has the same issue, though....I really hope they resolve this problem and let people play their own content. Overall, once you get over the download requirements and the patches....the console is really good, the controller is more comfortable than the original 360 controller....it's a great system.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

E3 2014 : Nintendo Takes Over

Instead of just having a two hour press conference for game journalists, Nintendo decides to take over E3 by creating a SERIES of events on the first day to highlight their upcoming games for both the Wii U and the 3DS. What we got wasn't a short conference but an 11 hour odyssey, focused on the games and explaining DIRECTLY to gamers the best features of their upcoming titles.

What Nintendo lacked in graphical horsepower, they made up in finesse, and they did this in spades. Knowing full well their console can't handle the gigantic textures and polygon counts of their competition, their first party games focus on providing cartoon-like graphics with very speedy animation and bright colors. Hardly a shade of brown, grey or red was to be seen during Nintendo's Digital Event.

Nintendo showed off some spectacular visuals for their upcoming games: specifically, the Legend of Zelda and Super Smash Bros Wii U were just impeccable  in quality. Their work looks to be a triumph in art, design and animation, and the best part is, their work just looks unique compared to everything else out there. Like their recently released, ultra-polished game Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros and Zelda look to be getting the same sort of care in terms of design and aesthetics, even without the same graphical power as the games coming from Sony or Microsoft. Nintendo's games hold their own, as GAMES. They aren't trying to be movies; they aren't trying to ape Hollywood in terms of presentation. These are games for gamers and it really shows.

Their most unique title in my honest opinion was Splatoon, a game where you don't just shoot your opposition; you shoot the walls, the floors, everything....to basically out-color the other team. This kind of thinking in game design is what has always put Nintendo on top. While it is true that it doesn't always work out well for them, when it does work for Nintendo, as a gamer you get to appreciate the variety in interactive experiences that this provides.

I spent a good chunk of my morning watching their invitational Smash Brothers tourney, and I thought it was very well organized and well executed. Their final match was really fun to watch thanks to the commentary of some people that Nintendo hired, i think, from the fighting game community. They even had Geoff Keighley to host and Reggie himself was there, too. They basically made E3 a huge party for gamers, and that is just fantastic. E3 is supposed to be a 'trade' show but Nintendo knows that, at the end of the day, E3 is all about winning the hearts and minds of gamers, and they took that to the next level....they took it further than Microsoft or Sony has.

So I'm at a complete loss here. I would have given the award to Microsoft for best show, but damn, Nintendo really went above and beyond. I suspect they're going to stretch this out for the next two days. They mentioned Starfox but didn't show it....why? I suspect they will show more in the coming two days. Same for the other projects they mentioned Miyamoto was working on. Overall, for gamers everywhere, pay attention to Nintendo's upcoming shows....they're really fun, focused on gaming, and they really help demonstrate that there's more to games than just running and gunning.