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The Xbox One at One – Part Two

xbox one at one part two_1000As with the major releases of the last year mentioned in Part One, Xbox One gamers were presented with some new installments to some favorite series as well as one excellent new title. As I have stated in the past, different gamers like different games and the list of downloadable Xbox One games below aptly proves this point. Both my eldest son and I enjoy Trials Fusion. As is often the case, I make it further through the game’s progression while my son concentrates on the track builder. All of my sons play Minecraft, both on the Xbox 360 and the One. They do not play nearly as much as they used to, however, with Terraria usurping Minecraft’s status.

I have always had a huge problem with the Worms series. The controls never seem to work except to kill most of your own team. I find that I tire of it quickly, but my boys seem to enjoy it and as there are relatively few multiplayer split-screen games, having one they like playing together is always welcome.

In my opinion, and those of countless reviewers, a pinnacle of the smaller, downloadable game segment this last year was Valiant Hearts: The Great War. A rare quiet and beautiful moment in gaming. A poignant, well-written story expressed through a puzzle game with a unique graphic style that is at the same time cartoonish and sophisticated. Ubisoft achieved here what it does with the Assassin’s Creed games, sparking a desire in both me and my boys to learn more about the history of the subject of the game. In the case of Valiant Hearts, the developers include historical details and photos with each section. It seems no accident that I find my self playing games developed by Ubisoft more and more often. They often offer a deeper experience than other games on the market.

Date Title IGN Rating Gamespot Rating
April 2014 Trials Fusion  8.2 8
May 2014 Worms Battlegrounds  8  —
June 2014 Valiant Hearts: The Great War  9.3  8
September 2014 Minecraft  9.7  7

 

Interface

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Happy New Year to all. I have been deeply nested in holiday and home for a month, playing games with family and friends. Over the holidays, we went skiing and tubing in Pennsylvania with another family and had a great time playing some old favorites and some “new” games. The house in which we stayed in had a pool table, which was thoroughly enjoyed by adults and children alike as was a “bar top” trivia game. The gaming system is called the Megatouch XL and this version hailed from 1995. It features a touchscreen CRT display and a color VGA display (although ours often dropped out to a faint blue color). The system has 20 or so games such as solitaire, poker, trivia, mah jong and even horse racing. Despite the fact that every child had their own tablet (and all of the adults had smart phones), everyone was drawn to this retro tech oddity. It wasn’t that the content was so good that we overlooked the poor graphics and sound — we genuinely enjoyed the quaintness of the experience. You might jump to the conclusion that this was us recalling fond memories of playing similar games in our youth, but the younger generation was even more drawn to it than the adults. Was it just the curiosity of it? Who knows, but my eldest wants us to acquire one for our home. They do take up considerable space, perhaps  Megatouch makes an app. In fact, they do, many of them.megatouchxl

Over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but notice the development of interpersonal skills while gaming. The holidays provide opportunities to get together and spend more time with your kids. My boys and I certainly played a wide variety of games, both digital and analog with other kids of various ages as well as adults. It didn’t really matter whether we played pool, dominoes, Chinese checkers or Call of Duty Ghosts or Forza 5 — it is always interesting to note the interactions between kids (and adults, too) while they play games. Perhaps the act of playing a game with a given set of rules allows people to let down their guard some and show their emotions in a less restricted way. Maybe we see their truer self.

It’s not always a matter of competition either. Some of the most volatile and contentious situations happen while my kids build worlds in Minecraft. Regardless of game type, the adults try to instill the right values concerning sportsmanship and fair play as well as the golden rule. Many adults see video games as out of their comfort zone and don’t necessarily apply the same coaching approach. In general, we were pleasantly surprised at how well everyone got along and the few incidents that occurred were all used as teachable moments.

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With regard to my own gaming, I have been almost exclusively focused on Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag and many of my comments while applicable to many of the new games are directed specially to AC4. I completed the main mission and have been wrapping up the various other activities such as the assassin’s contracts, diving missions and naval battles. After completing the main mission, I watched the credits, as I often do for the games I play. Once again I was amazed at the number of people who work on the large games. Black Flag has one of the longest credits that I have seen, perhaps the longest. To be honest, I quit out before they ended, but I saw enough to appreciate the scale of the operation. AC4 Black Flag, like many other games these days, was developed in many locations simultaneously, so it’s hard not to be a bit dumbstruck by the scale of the development. The size of the world and the amount of detail that is present in every location is staggering. I have always been a fan of large open-world games recently favorites include Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, both Borderlands games as well as the other games in the Assassin’s Creed series.

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Beyond the shear size of the navigable world and the degree of detail involved in every piece of it, this game has so many other levels of interaction, each fun in its own way. The main mission with its various scripted sequences puts you in your own action film. The many assassination missions, including those where you help side characters through their storylines, provide for a rich experience at each location. Then there are the treasure maps, the chests, the Animus fragments, etc. There is no shortage of things to do. Part of what sets Assassin Creed games apart is their attention to historical detail. AC4 is no exception. On top of the fantastically detailed and period correct ships, weapons and clothing there are the sea shanties that your crew will sing while doing their work. I have accumulated over thirty of these. It is easy to forget the amount of time it takes people to research, produce and record these in addition to the main background music, which like all games in this series is really powerful and spot on in terms of feel and weight.

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Every game depends on the success of its user interface to provide the appropriate degree of control while not overloading the user. AC4 Black Flag, like many new games, features more interface types than was required in previous versions. The display that is ever-present while you walk through the towns or captain your ship is minimal and designed to be unobtrusive. This game is beautiful at sea and on land and features lush environments that would be spoiled by clunky menus and navigational aids. There are different menus for each type of shop and the various games within the game, each built from the same visual kit of parts as the main interface. These days, there are also smart phone and tablet apps that tie in directly to the console game each with their own interface that echoes the main game. The effort required to create and coordinate all of these graphic elements is both staggering and ever-increasing.

All this being said, the game is not perfect. I have found a few glitches such as cut scenes where the audio has dropped out or a new one that happened to me last night where during the boarding of an enemy galleon, my character somehow fell through the deck of the ship and was trapped inside the geometry of the hull. But considering the scale of the undertaking, I am nothing but impressed at the quality of the experience and as usual, I have learned a few things about the period in which the game takes place and it has sparked my desire to learn more about that time in history and the real characters. What more can you ask of any work of art let alone entertainment?

The Calm Before the Storm

Bordelands 1000OK, its true. I have been a bit obsessed with Borderlands and Borderlands 2 and although they are fantastic games, I must admit that one cannot survive on badassitude alone. Mind you I am not stopping until my current character, the Mechromancer, is at least level 50. I have already played the Siren and Commando to levels 40 and 35. But I need something else. So why not play Grid 2? I have made it through four seasons and the game difficulty level certainly has stepped up. The competition online is always fun as well. I was really enjoying World of Tanks until the beta servers had issues last week and the game came to a screeching halt. It is back online now but all settings were reset and progress erased. And yes, there are several game apps that still keep my engaged, The Simpsons Tapped Out and the new Plants vs Zombies 2, not to mention Scrabble of which I am a true devotee. But it’s not the same.

But we all see the big wave coming. The new consoles, whichever you choose or especially if you get both, will start a spending tsunami as it will be difficult to decide where to spend your money first.

I have preordered an Xbox One, so my game selections are all for this console. Call of Duty Ghosts, Battlefield 4, Forza 5 and Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag are all must-haves, since I have played almost every iteration of those games and they are amongst my favorites. Certainly there are many advantages and improvements that the new consoles are touting and that game developers are all exploring to make full use of the new technology. Each game has so many improvements that you really need to visit each one’s website and learn more.

Yeah, I can’t wait to try out the enhanced character customization in the new Call of Duty and look forward to advances like the dual focus scopes, but what I am happiest about are the dedicated servers that hopefully will do away with issues that plague the current game. This new one really does look good.

Battlefield 4 has many new features including the new Commander Mode which allows players to oversee and support their team from a console, tablet or PC. The environments are so rich and complex and the level of multiplayer combat that can be achieved is staggering. I also welcome the Battlefield series’ dedication to be more realistic than its competition, although I must admit that the inherent difficulty that accompanies this realism is not always something I wish to take on. Then there are the destructible environments or what they call “Levolution” which allow players to dramatically change the playable space by destroying skyscrapers and splitting aircraft carriers.

I have spent more time playing games in the Forza series than any other and as a true car lover I am getting Forza 5 on day one. Apart from being a driving simulator, probably still the best one too, this game allows you to be a part of car culture in ways that no other even seriously tries. I love both the Grid and Dirt series, but they do not feature the ability to collect and augment your car collection. Where else can I see a car in a film or on the street and run home and recreate it exactly on the Xbox? Or buy a design that someone else posted? Where else can I see the detailed interiors and exteriors of the world’s most expensive and exclusive cars? And with the level of detail available using the new console, this game will be even better. Adding the Spa Francochamps track and bringing back Laguna Seca prove that Turn 10 knows its audience. Throw in the Top Gear exclusives for insight and humor and the Forzavista mode for pure car photography that borders pornography and there is no way that car lovers can NOT buy this game. Plus the reveal trailer shows racing through Prague. Did I mention that I was born there?

I have played all of the Assassin’s Creed games and thoroughly enjoyed each. My personal favorite being Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood mainly for its amazing locations and for Ezio Auditore, of course, who many believe is the strongest of all of the series’ characters. Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag features seamless transitions between ship and walk/run modes which results in much smoother gameplay. The new environments take full advantage of the new consoles graphic capabilities. The attention to historical detail, a mainstay of the series and what make it so unique, is illustrated in everything from the characters to their weapons and clothing, the towns and islands and the ships. Much like reading a good novel, playing a game in this series always encourages me to learn more about that point in history. I can think of no other game that can make that claim.

Now for me, playing those four games is a given, but one of the games I am most eager to try is Tom Clancy’s The Division. The plot line of The Division may be familiar but the execution seems to be top-notch. The trailers that have been presented thus far show this to be another strong contender in the now crowded open-world RPG sandbox arena. The graphics look fabulous as does the attention to environmental detail. The ability for players to join in and play together in various ways and from various devices, similar to Battlefield 4’s Commander Mode, is also enticing. The user interface is beautiful as is the way players gain information from the environment. Add to that the destructible environments, impressive lighting and particle systems and the ability to run through a post-apocalyptic New York City and you have another game that I must have on day one.

And I haven’t even mentioned TitanfallDestiny or Ryse, all of which look amazing. I will save those for another post. You know what we really need? Borderlands 3. Do I really have to wait until 2015?

Frustration

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Gaming can be a great way to get a break from life’s frustrations. We can let our imaginations go free in worlds created by artists and developers and not be tethered by earthly limitations and shortcomings. It is therefore even more irritating when your games create the frustration that you were trying to shake. Sometimes it is the entire game that elicits the frustration due to its bad design or execution. (Yes, I am talking to you, developers of the Loony Tunes Acme Arsenal game.)

There are some instances where the game itself is brilliant but flawed by the execution of certain scenes. A recent shining example comes right to mind in Far Cry 3. I absolutely loved the entire game except for the final boss battles. Without spoiling the plot of the game (which is extensive), I can say that the beautiful and freeing feeling that you get from the open world design where you attack targets and select missions without the pressures of time and physical limitations is completely compromised by these boss battles. The controls are reduced to simple timed button mashing and the entire sequence is scripted and completely unforgiving. To make matters worse, the characters you are battling deliver lengthy speeches prior to each section, so as you make mistakes you hear the same monologues over and over. And you will hear them over and over as the sequences are designed so that the only way in which to know what to do is to have done it before. This same situation exists in several of the Assassin’s Creed games where the free traveling open world is suddenly reduced to scripted button mashing. Luckily in both of these games, the good greatly outweighs the bad.

In the case of Far Cry 3, while the boss battles are frustrating, it is not due mainly to the level of difficulty. In some games, however, that is exactly the case. There are instances that burn in my memory where I was caught in a scene unable to advance and nearly had to quit the game. In the case of The Simpsons Game (for the Xbox) the scene that gave me trouble was beating god at “Dance Dance Revolution“. The timing of the moves in this section nearly made me pull my hair out and certainly made me fight hard not to curse in front of my three sons who were much younger at the time. Eventually, my oldest son figured it out and we finished the game. The web is also a great asset when you get stuck but sometimes even knowing what to do doesn’t really help. After playing through Mass Effect 2, I thought it would be great to go back and play through the first game of the series. I did so until a certain scene where the characters are all trapped on a rising circular platform where I watched my teammates die time after time leaving me to battle a roomful of enemies by myself. I am sure that if I went back today I could find where I am going wrong and finish the scene and the game, but at some point it becomes much less attractive to do so.

Many games contain parts that appear to be much more difficult than the rest of the game. You find yourself questioning whether there was enough play-testing prior to the game’s release. Sometimes you find something that you missed that makes the scene much easier (again, use the web) and other times not. These issues are secondary however to the biggest gripe amongst avid gamers. While playing with my party last night I asked everyone what they considered their biggest complaint when it came to gaming. The unanimous reply came instantly – lag. All those who play multiplayer first-person shooters know exactly what I mean. The situation may exist in many games but the biggest culprit lately is Call of Duty Black Ops II where the effect is especially pronounced. The typical way that it occurs is during gameplay you see an opponent, aim and shoot and then they somehow squeeze off a few shots resulting in your instant death. When the kill is replayed it shows your opponent’s point of view and the action is completely different. They had plenty of time and hit you many times while your shots came too little too late.

There is no doubt that some players are much better than others at deathmatch style FPS games. It is also true that some players will go to extremes to beat the system. These included the use of “Modded” controllers that allow weapons capabilities that they don’t typically have such as rapid fire and auto-aiming as well as unsportsmanlike gameplay like playing on the opposite team and allowing your friends to rack up free kills on you and thereby earning points as well as killstreak rewards for their team. Most seasoned gamers agree that multiplayer FPS games are best enjoyed when they first come on the scene. It takes time for players to find the games’ weaknesses and exploit them. But once the games have been around a while, it’s the Wild West, anything goes.

My last gripe concerns peripheral hardware, and not for the new platforms coming this fall. There are already too many places where we can read about how disappointed people are with what is coming and why they can’t use what they already have. I am referring to the current generation of consoles. I have had great luck with third-party controllers, batteries and accessories. I wish that I could say the same for headphones. I have spent a good amount of time researching what to buy and spent a good amount of money buying the best headphones in my desired range only to be frustrated time and again. The issues usually involve the built-in microphones. I have returned several sets of headphones from two different manufacturers over the last few years when their mics completely stopped working. The headset that I currently use echoes my comments and occasionally others’ sound as well. I have read the instructions and consulted online help threads and not found the answer. The game sound is great, but the echo in the conversation is a constant irritation. And no one needs that when they’re playing.

Do you have a pet peeve that I missed? A game that drives you nuts? A scene that you just can’t get pass in a game that you otherwise love? A hardware or network limitation that is ruining the fun? I would love to hear about it and include it in a future follow-up.

The Multiplayer Experience

L1020022-1000The world of gaming is vast and offers a different experience depending on the type of game you play and with whom you play. There are so many fantastic single player games that are well-written and beautifully scripted that one can easily spend all of their time being the star of their own action film. But multiplayer games offer a different level of excitement and interaction.

I am a fan of the single player modes of the blockbuster series like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Far Cry. I nearly always play the single player first, although I play the multiplayer modes before finishing the single player experience. There are games such as Battlefield and especially Call of Duty, where diving into multiplayer sessions becomes a daily event. This was also true for me with Mass Effect 3 for a while, but as much as I love them, for some reason not with Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry.

Racing games are another situation completely. As I have mentioned in the past, I am an avid player of the Forza, Grid and Dirt series and even try my best at F1. In each of these, I spend countless hours playing both the single player and then the multiplayer aspects of the games. Forza definitely excels in this arena with the most robust and interesting variety of race types and locations in my opinion. I have also played many of the Need for Speed games although I always prefer the driving feel of the cars in Forza and the Codemasters games. The racing game you play decides much of the type of experience you can expect. The Codemasters games (Dirt, Grid, F1) are very popular with European and Australian audiences and it is often difficult to find enough players at times that someone on the East Coast of the U.S. may want to play. The intensity level of the competitors also ranges widely from game to game. Some games have loyal and dedicated followers who know the tracks and cars so well that newcomers will find it frustrating. I have also found that the level of sportsmanship you can expect to find varies greatly.

L1020027-1000Civility is also something that varies greatly from game to game. I play Facebook Scrabble with a dozen or so strangers at a time. Some of these players have been playing a non-stop series of games with me for years now. A few have proven to be the most polite and thoughtful people with the highest degree of sportsmanship that one can find. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the small-minded, bigoted and homophobic players that dominate the world of Call of Duty. As much as I enjoy this game, it seems to attract people, especially males, who seem to think it clever and amusing to display behaviors that on the street would get their asses kicked. Some sport in-game logos that refer to the N word and contain various homosexual put downs. The comments made by players in this game particularly almost always require me to mute players that I do not know. It is a sad realization of the stereotypes that non-gamers have of the gaming world. My sister is an avid gamer and owns all of the major consoles. She maintains that the Playstation audience is better behaved and less offensive than that of the Xbox community, even within the same game. I understand that the Xbox community is considerably larger and it makes sense that it attracts all types of players, but it is a sad fact that people (of all ages by the way) act this way in public.

There have been many times when neighborhood kids or family members drop in and we decide to all play a game together. This typically leads us to the realization that there are not many games that allow for three or four players on the same Xbox. There are arcade games, many of which are turn-based that allow for four players on the same box, but the total that allow for four on a screen are much less. We often play Castle CrashersSonic & SEGA All Star Racing or play a round of local combat training in Call of Duty. We used to play the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games often, but over time the guitar controllers have all become faulty. It is a shame because “getting the band back together” was really fun. Maybe it’s time to buy some new controllers.

If you know of great multiplayer games that allow for three or more players on the same Xbox, please let me know using the form below. If you have favorite multiplayer games (or games with multiplayer modes) that I have not mentioned, please send me your thoughts and I will follow up in the coming weeks. All comments welcome.

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