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Expectations

In my last post, I mentioned that “what you get out of the experience depends greatly on what you are expecting.” I have found this to be especially true in the case of the most recent three games I purchased.

Before I buy a game I read reviews and view trailers and gameplay samples. All three of these popular games are favorably reviewed, but much like any piece of art or entertainment, the mood of the audience greatly affects the way the piece is experienced. To illustrate, I will use the following three games: Forza Horizon 2, Borderlands The Pre-Sequel and Destiny and myself, my family and friends as the audience.

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Forza Horizon 2

To be completely honest, the first Horizon did not blow me away. While I am a huge fan of the main Forza series, I have always preferred driving games that focus on the realistic experience of driving as opposed to those that concentrate on the nightlife, street racing and party car culture. While I much preferred the original Horizon to any of the Need for Speed titles that I own, I still liked the on-track Forza 5 better. My sons, however, have always liked driving open world games, especially ones that allow the user to drive almost anywhere. That’s why they liked Test Drive Unlimited 2 and Driver San Francisco (though in truth its world is not entirely open). They all like Horizon 2, especially like the barn finds.

The new Horizon improves on the first in every way. The resolution and attention to detail both in the cars and the environments are impressive. The art direction, lighting and weather systems help elevate this game greatly in terms of its style and mood. In fact this game comes very close in depth of mood to my favorite of all – Colin McRae’s original Dirt. The gameplay is smooth, the handing is realistic and completely adjustable to match the user’s skill level. Horizon 2 takes all of Forza’s best features, the handling of the cars, the ability to make the game as easy or challenging as desired and allows you to drive some of the most exciting cars in beautifully crafted southern European settings. I mean who wouldn’t want to drive a vintage Ferrari through Tuscany?

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Borderlands The Pre-Sequel

Those of you who have read my posts before know that the Borderlands series is one of my personal favorites and I often mention its humor and its bravery in what the developers chose to include. So it is surprising that I have spent little time with the game thus far, something telling in itself.

How is it possible that the sequel to my favorite game is out and I am not playing it? Here it is: I am more interested in playing Destiny. Really? Destiny? A game made by the same studio that created the Halo series that I knock for not having a soul? Yes, things seem to have changed.

My sons also awaited the release of this latest version eagerly and have played more extensively than I. They defend the game and say that I need to give it another chance. I will do that, but I am not alone in feeling sluggish about this title. Some of the people I game with most often have echoed the sentiment.

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Destiny

So what is it about Destiny? The simple truth is that while it’s not a game that aspires to make you laugh, there are beautiful, quiet moments as well as intense firefights and overall, it is a great, solid game that keeps you coming back.

I have not played Titanfall since getting this game. I love Titanfall and have regenerated many times. In Destiny, I am on my third character, with a nearly level 28 hunter and a level 25 warlock and somehow even going through the story mode three times is not boring. I have assembled my own personal strike team and we play every chance we get. We are very much looking forward to the newly announced downloadable content pack, The Dark Below due to come out December 9th, regardless of the fact that as Xbox players we will not get access to all of the new material. Please see Destiny‘s New DLC Kinda Screws Over Xbox Players for details.

The Destiny season pass also includes the second scheduled DLC pack, House of Wolves, which should, along with special events like the Queen’s Wrath and Iron Banner, keep the game fresh and in active rotation while other new titles are released. Considering that the competition includes the well-reviewed Sunset Overdrive, not to mention Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, gamers everywhere will have their hands full and so will we.

Comicon 2014

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Recently, Comicon came to New York City and a group of us went to experience the event. None of us had been to a Comicon before, and although some of us have had experience with related trade shows and events, we did not really know what to expect. So many preconceptions jump out. As it turns out, many of them are accurate.

Our crew consisted of my sister, her daughter and her best friend as well as a close online friend and my oldest son and me. This is essentially our gaming “crew” as well. We had planned this trip months in advance and looked forward to it.

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I think that what you get out of the experience depends greatly on what you are expecting. This is true in most cases and is the subject of my next post, but in this case, I believe that we did not have any specific expectations and therefore were not disappointed. That is not to say however, that the event was what I thought it would be. Comicon has a large open floor area as well as special panels and various side rooms where scheduled events occur. We were there for the floor experience. In my mind, Comicon is a bit like Burning Man, with unbelievably well-made costumes with an almost anarchistic bent. In actuality, a bit yes and a bit no. Costumed attendees are everywhere and in many cases the costumes are very impressive in terms of workmanship and detail but also in the wearer’s ability to embody what often is an exaggerated physique. Not all can make that claim unfortunately. The best image to explain Comicon is one in which a costumed attendee is taking a photo of another costumed attendee. This is a very common thing to see here.

The overall feeling of openness and inclusiveness is refreshing and almost makes fighting the crowds fun. The presence of large game and other software developers or even toy and accessory manufacturers was limited. There were many third party distributors of toys, clothing, accessories and various specialty items. If you like comic, Sci-fi and game related titles and characters, this is the place for you. I saw many items for sale that I have never seen anywhere else. Some collector’s items, others just fun trinkets.

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Being there with family and friends definitely added to the experience and the difference in ages and perspectives also made for a wide variety of interests. None of us are very into comic books but all are avid gamers. We also like the same games and characters, many of whom were represented both as items for purchase as well as live in costume. Our favorites included various miniatures, weapons and items of clothing from Borderlands, Plants Vs Zombies and Minecraft. We purchased a few Borderlands related t-shirts from Glitch as well as a plush CL4P-TP  (Clap Trap) that says twenty different phrases and from a different vendor, a plush turret from Portal 2 that not only also speaks, it is touch sensitive and says different things when “killed.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Comicon, unlike other shows of its kind, is not primarily represented by the creators of the various entities, but by third-party vendors. Very few game, film or television developers were present. Instead, a wide variety of companies and vendors promoting and selling items related to the characters, shows and games filled the aisles. But most all it seems that Comicon is about the fans and their identification with the characters. On the way out we ran into a couple that had come with their own life-size CL4P-TP. Made of cardboard and built atop a RC car, it was mobile and surprisingly stable. Best of all it completely captured the essence of the event – creativity, individualism and fun.

Hype and its Costs

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There seems to be an established norm in the game industry that the biggest releases require not just brilliant marketing and seemingly limitless advertising budgets, but must inevitably accrue a previously unprecedented level of hype as well. Sometimes the hype is internally generated in the form of claims of “Next-Gen” or whatever and other times, it is the target audience or press that project their desires on the game in varying levels of accuracy. No doubt, hype sells games. It also has its downsides.

It is impossible to ignore the recent release of Bungie‘s Destiny. Ads for the game and its release are everywhere you look online and the live action commercials run frequently on television. I have played the game extensively, finished the campaign and am continuing with the strikes, crucible matches and various available sides missions. I like the game more than I expected I would. It is beautifully crafted and apart from some recent server connection issues, plays smoothly. It cost $500 million dollars to make and earned that amount back in its first day. But it’s clear that it is a victim of its own hype. Most of the criticisms I have read and heard are a direct result of the claims that the developer made. I expected that there would a backlash to a launch this large, but some of the critiques go well beyond my guesses.

As Dennis Scimeca of “The Daily Dot” noted “If any studio other than Bungie had released such a bait-and-switch as Destiny, critics and gamers alike would be losing their minds.” It could be worse? Maybe I am missing something, but this is a solid and fun game and no game ever lives up to the hype. In fact, nothing does. No film, no phone, nothing. People always seem to expect more – at least some people do. I could mention politics at this point but that world is so skewed by each individual’s own agenda to render it inapplicable. I don’t think that the detractors of the game have a specific agenda, but the scale of their disappointment still surprises me. In his article “Destiny doesn’t come close to living up to the hype,” Dennis Scimeca provides his review of the game and explains what he believes are the game’s many shortcomings. For the most part, I agree with his opinions. The main missions are repetitive and follow the formula too closely. The addition of the recent Queen’s Wrath missions have helped broaden the selection if only in levels of difficulty and not terrain or the enemies fought.

It is odd that the game cannot be played without Xbox Live, a fact that came acutely to our attention a few weeks ago when we temporarily lost power and as a result, our Verizon FIOS as well. A local transformer had spiked and then ran out of juice completely which, in turn fried our master FIOS box and left us without phone, cable or internet connectivity for days. This was especially irritating as it was over a long weekend when my oldest son and I were planning on spending some time playing the game. As our friends played and advanced beyond our player levels, we realized how much we enjoyed and missed the game. We are back and have been making up for lost time. It’s a shame that there is no split screen option as most of the time we play we could both be playing if the option was available.

To me, Destiny feels like a blend of the recent titles from the Halo and Mass Effect series. If I have one complaint about Destiny it is that it is a bit short on soul. The Halo series casts a long shadow in this respect as the characters in Destiny are in no way personal. Even the live action commercial contains more emotion, humor, wit and bravado. Mass Effect went much farther in that respect with actual scripted interplay between the characters. It added another level not only in gameplay but in how much you like and identify with the cast. If you are really looking for a game with personality and soul try Red Dead Redemption or any of the Borderlands series. No one has more soul or humor than Borderlands. But no matter what the critics say, there is plenty to enjoy in Destiny.

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?

Longest Day of the Year

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Summer solstice. End of the school year. A time of transition. Today is the longest day of the year and marks the start of a change from the daily pattern that we follow during the school year to the less structured schedule of summer. It also marks an important change for my gaming habits and probably for many of you as well. My three sons all leave for sleepaway camp for a month.

The next month is full of outdoor activity, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and trying new things. They swim in the pool and the lake, work in the wood shop (their favorite) and play various sports. The do not play any video games at all. A complete break. Not even games in their iPods.

Their departure means significant changes for our household as well. It’s quiet. Things stay clean and organized. It’s weird. Most parents look forward to having a break from their kids. You are not responsible for anyone but yourself. You can do what you like with your time. Yes, it’s great – for a very short time. You may think it strange, but I miss them almost immediately. I don’t miss the arguing and fighting or the significant mess they leave everywhere, that is for sure, but a large part of my enjoyment of gaming comes with sharing it with my kids.  Seeing the experiences through their eyes adds dimension and increases the fun. Sure, there are games that are meant for adults and I play those by myself or with adults, but the majority of games are intended for wide audiences and the overall experience is enhanced by the variety of reactions from the players of different ages.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a year or two ago from the hammock in my back yard. It is of a great sycamore tree that my boys referred to as the “Y Tree” due to its overall shape. This tree was very large. It had a trunk about five feet wide and rose to about seventy feet. It was the largest tree on my property and dwarfed all others around it. It is gone now. The strong winds of Superstorm Sandy caused a crack where the trunk divided and the tree experts said it was not wise to try to save it. As they took it down, the foreman showed me the crack and revealed that water had been seeping into the division for a long time and had rotted out the center of the tree. The storm had just sped up the process and really did us a favor by revealing the weakness.

Needless to say, the removal of the tree has completely changed the back yard. Where once there was mostly shade, now there is bright sun. The trees that surround the hole left by the missing branches will eventually start to extend and fill in the gap, but for now the most prominent element is what is missing.

For the next month while my kids are extending their branches I will be playing with my adult friends. Lately a few of us have formed a regular team and been playing coop games including Fuse and Borderlands 1 and 2. It is infinitely a more enjoyable experience to play in party of regulars than to jump into a public match. My sister and her daughter are part of this team. They have their own transition occurring now as her daughter graduates high school this weekend and looks forward to college life. And I thought a month without my boys was a change.

Rape Jokes, Sexism, Parenting and Gaming

I was alerted to an article by Rebecca Greenfield in The Atlantic Wire entitled “The Rape ‘Joke’ at Microsoft’s E3 Reveal Is a Bigger Deal Than Another Bad ‘Joke’” which alleges that:

“… a Microsoft presenter slipped an apparent rape reference into a Monday presentation at Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, the biggest video-game conference of the year. During a demo of Killer Instinct to drum up excitement for its new Xbox One, Microsoft brought out a man and a woman to battle it out on the big screen onstage in Los Angeles. In this scripted event the man, of course, kicks the woman’s ass at the fighting game. “I can’t even block correctly and you’re too fast,” she says, playing a video game like a girl. But even more problematic than those stereotypical gender roles was the part when her adversary said this: “Just let it happen. It will be over soon.” You know, like a rape: The audience chuckled. “Wow, you like this,” the man continues, as he beats the virtual woman. And the woman, much like someone being sexually assaulted, replies: “No, I don’t like this.”

The sentiment was echoed by Chenda Ngak at CBS in “E3 audience offended by “rape joke” at Microsoft Xbox One event“. While it is true that as Greenfield puts it, “Perhaps more than any segment of the technology industry, gamer culture has had its fair share of sexism problems…,” I am getting mixed reactions as to where this incident lands on that spectrum. The non-gamers I have shown this to report seeing at least the sexual innuendo – and were somewhat rocked by the “just let it happen” comment. But if you read the comments in reaction to the CBS piece, you will see that many readers do not seem to think this was a rape reference or even sexist. The one thing that is undoubtedly true: the players in this demo were not evenly matched – the man was one of the producers of the game, clearly more skilled at the fighting techniques and using a special controller and the woman was a Microsoft presenter with a standard controller and a totally different charge – to help highlight the extended features of the game. Let me know where you come out on this. Please cast your vote after watching the video.

But the overarching point is not lost. Traditionally, female characters wear skimpy clothing and feature exaggerated body parts to make them more alluring. In the past the industry put emphasis on strong male characters who were almost always the stars of the game. But I think it does the entire gaming world a huge disservice to pretend that things have not changed and that the rampant sexism of the past is present in most games today.

Yes, female characters still feature exaggerated bodies and often wear sexy outfits, but the male characters are equally exaggerated and unrealistic, representing a non-existent super male. Let’s face it, at least some gaming is about fantasy and stepping out of your life into a more exciting role for a time sells. No question, this was a male-dominated market at first, but the number of female gamers has increased steadily and now account for nearly half of the total market. Wikipedia has interesting further detail under the topic Women and video games.

Of course there are limits, and good taste and social responsibility dictate these, and today most of the huge game developers take great care in where they draw the lines. I applaud Bioware, for instance, for enabling players to create Mass Effect’s main character as a male or female and allowing the user to determine (for the most part) the character’s body type and style. Many games feature equally balanced male and female characters like the Borderlands games for example or the new Fuse, but these limit the customization available to varying degrees.

In any case, the look of the characters is only part of the equation, what happens to them conveys the most important message and there are plenty of games today that seem to seek a balanced approach and not send the messages that so many find offensive. Careful game selection is critical. This is especially true when you are a parent of young gamers. As a father of three young boys, all of whom play a wide variety of games, I make it a point to research each game and in many cases play the games with them. I often choose to play female characters part of the time which my sons don’t understand. As they are a still too young to have real interest in girls, their unanimous preference is to play only as male characters.

But only part of the gaming experience is controlled by the developers. The online community plays a huge role in shaping the experience. Much like the variety of people who make up the game companies, the online gaming community includes all sorts of people with varied degrees of education, experience and enlightenment. One does not need to look very far to find racism, homophobia and sexism. Unfortunately, these are the realities of our society and their presence in the gaming communities only shows how accurately the gaming world reflects today’s different cultures, in the United States and abroad.

The importance of sending the correct message about healthy relationships and how to treat all human beings does not come from video games, it comes from parents. What you say and how you react to things that your children see and hear while playing video games, or watching television or films greatly affects how they process that information.

You may question – why am I talking about this on Father’s Day? Because the day is not just about giving gifts to dad. As fathers, the greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to have and sustain healthy, mature relationships, built on respect and trust. I firmly believe that talking about the problem and educating about healthy relationships can reduce the violence and protect our children.

NO MORE_STACK_RGBYet, new data from a NO MORE survey (sponsored by the Avon Foundation for Women) shows that these conversations are not happening. Three out of 4 men in this country say they have NOT talked about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children. That is why I am supporting a new effort, called NO MORE, to break through the silence surrounding these problems and get men talking about the issue.

I recognize that starting this conversation is extremely difficult; knowing what to say may be even harder. That is why there are resources you can use to make the conversation meaningful. These include information from Loveisrespect.org, Futures Without Violence and Break the Cycle. Get resources on talking to sons about healthy masculinity from Men Can Stop Rape and A CALL TO MEN. You can learn more about these organizations and many others at www.nomore.org.

This Father’s Day, decide to make teaching your children about healthy relationships part of your mission as a father. Remind yourself that this is what it looks like to end domestic violence and sexual assault. It looks like everyday people, standing up and saying NO MORE. Join me, and teach your sons and daughters to do the same.

Please also see my earlier post about NO MORE and view the public service announcement.

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