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Age Appropriateness

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My boys are all at camp for a month, and it is the time of the year that my wife and I clean up and organize the house and yard. It has also been a while since I wrote about the latest games, many of which my sons and I have been playing over the last few months. These include Watch Dogs, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Disney Infinity. I finished the main campaign of Watch Dogs last week and Wolfenstein a few days ago and enjoyed both.

Watch Dogs has a few sections that definitely earn the game its Mature (M) rating. Often games end up with this rating and you wonder why – take the Halo series, for example. The violence is slightly gory in an otherworldly sense, but when compared to other games, films and television and cable series it seems rather tame. There is no foul language and no sex.

There are games like the Grand Theft Auto series that earn their M ratings with pride. Practically every minute of the game is filled with language and actions that are inappropriate for younger players. But these games are the exception, not the rule. Most fall somewhere in between and require responsible parents to make a decision, black flagging certain games because you don’t have the time to examine their content read the reviews and watch the previews or better yet, try them yourself.

Many games on the market today fall on the border of what tweens should be comfortable with. Of course, this greatly depends on the tweens in question. My own sons, who are 11 and 13 years old, are not in a rush to mature (and who can blame them), yet show interest in certain types of content but not others. As I am sure is common at their ages, the excitement of battle is thrilling, but sexual content is unappealing and scary.

Language is another matter. My kids typically do not swear – at least not when I am in earshot. Although we are far from saints with our language, we do not encourage or abide by our children expressing themselves using language inappropriate to their surroundings.

To those of you who are under the impression that modern video games expose this generation to language rougher than that to which we were exposed as kids, I have a wake up call. Select your favorite comedy film from the 1980s, say Ghostbusters, Trading PlacesAirplane or Short Circuit, and watch an unedited (uncensored for broadcast television) version. You will be surprised how many commonly bleeped words are used, not to mention the casual references to oral sex acts and the like. I don’t know about your parenting style, but I would rather reassure my child who might be frightened by a video game monster than explain what the stewardess in Airplane is doing to the “auto pilot.”

This is why in the case of games such as Dead Rising 3 and Watch Dogs parents must be extra vigilant. You might think that hacking and fighting bad guys is fine or that mowing down zombie hoards is so far from reality that it seems fine, but keep in mind that these games contain scenes that make it pretty clear why they earned their M rating. In Watch Dogs it is more implied than explicit, but in the case of Dead Rising, the side missions where you fight the psychopaths present a who’s who of perversions that would make the hillbillies of Deliverance blush.

Now, I have read some complaints about Watch Dogs being a bit of a disappointment and not living up to its hype. It’s an engaging game with a large sandbox and a few new ideas, but I would agree it’s not the groundbreaking next-gen stunner that it was purported to be. I am still holding out hope that Tom Clancy’s The Division will be that game.

I doubt that many had high expectations for the reboot of the Wolfenstein series, and it fared better in reviews as a result. It’s old-style carnage fun brought up to today’s graphic and gameplay standards. It’s hard not to enjoy this game, but again it’s not for all audiences.

My kids are at that pivotal moment where they are interested in games and films that are more adult than what they are used to but still welcome playing games that aim squarely at a younger audience. I am not in a rush for them to move from this spot as with the broadening of their horizons comes a loss of innocence that cannot be regained. Watch Dogs, meet Disney Infinity.

I will leave you with a new video from this year’s E3 highlighting the developments in The Division as well as the other game that I am greatly looking forward to, Far Cry 4. Both look stunning.

Zombies and Titans

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The new consoles have been out for two months now and the gaming audience that eagerly awaited the new batch of games has now completed them. We finished the single player campaigns in Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4. We sailed the seas as Edward Kenway and retired a happy family man in Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag. We help break up slave trafficking as Adewale in Freedom Cry. Sure, we are still playing though the racing leagues and leveling up in Forza 5 (over 50 now) and nearing time to prestige in COD (many already have long ago), but we need something new.

Forza Car packs help keep up the interest, especially when they include sexy Alfa Romeos and Maseratis from the sixties, but new tracks would be appreciated as well. The COD Onslaught expansion pack is also a welcome addition with not only four new maps but also the excellent new chapter for extinction mode as well as a new weapon. It is a little frustrating, however, that the new maps are not accessible in squads mode.

Every gamer that I speak with has the same question, “Where are the new games?” It seems as though there is a dearth of new titles, yet there are many available as you can see by the graphic at left.

A few of the titles that I am looking forward to most have been delayed including Tom Clancy’s The Division. Many of us are pinning our hopes on Titanfall, which I have heard is as good as we would hope. Apparently, Titanfall actually has dedicated servers, unlike other games that promised them and didn’t deliver. The multiplayer and extinction game modes in Call of Duty Ghosts are excellent but suffer from incredible lagging at times. The lagging in multiplayer is especially pronounced. If you are lucky to be on the favored side of the server you can have a great experience and usually do well in scoring. If you are on the less favored side, it is frustrating and repetitive. Apparently, the situation may have been made worse by an update to the game prior to the release of the Onslaught expansion pack.

And the situation is even worse if you are looking for a four-player family-oriented game. There are a few great four player games for the Xbox 360, many of which we enjoy whenever we play as a group. Castle Crashers, Bomberman, Mad Tracks and 3d Ultra Minigolf are some our favorites. We have not even needed to purchase more than two controllers for the Xbox One and it is not just due to the improved Kinect sensor – until now there was not a compelling game for more than two players (on one console). Plants Vs Zombies is a big hit in our house. We not only have the various versions of the game on Xbox 360 and more importantly on the iPads, but we also have plush and lots of it. Pea shooters, zombies, you name it.

As you can imagine then, we are looking forward to the release of Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare with great anticipation. It appears that the split screen mode exclusive to the Xbox One will only allow two players on a single console. As we only have a single Xbox One, this means that we will not be able to play this game with four people either.

Even sports games like NBA 2K14, Madden 25 and NHL 14 do not offer four player local split screen gameplay. There is a useful list of all four-player games available for the Xbox 360 at this Gamespot forum. I have not yet found such a list for the Xbox One console, but IGN does have a complete list of available games as well rumored games on their website.

Lava Lobsters vs the Xbox One

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Now that both new gaming platforms are out and the dust has had a chance to settle, I would like to give my early impressions. While some are focusing on the PS4 outselling the Xbox One worldwide and on the various hardware issues both platforms have had, I have not experienced any hardware issues with our new Xbox One. In fact, we love just about everything about it. The voice command and greatly improved Kinect are both welcome additions. Thus far, I have played Call of Duty Ghosts, Forza 5, Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag and think that each is well worth adding to your collection.

The first thing you notice are the graphic improvements in every game. Each has its own style and focus and collectively do a good job of illustrating the capabilities of the new technology. The next generation of games such as Tom Clancy’s The Division and Titanfall will undoubtedly take the graphic development even further.

We installed our new Xbox One in our main TV room where we have been playing our Xbox 360 Slim. Both Xboxes are hooked into a surround sound amplifier and the FIOS signal is now passed through the Xbox One. We also have an older white Xbox 360 in the playroom next door. I have been wondering over the past few weeks how the systems would be used now and what my boys would prefer. Thus far, the 360s are still getting a decent amount of use thanks mostly to Minecraft and BattleBlock Theater, neither of which are currently available for the One. When we have had a chance to play together, which has not been that often with the holiday activities, we have concentrated on COD Ghosts. We really are enjoying the online Squads mode. It is perfect for playing with kids (and adults who just don’t need the language, general offensiveness and getting their asses kicked in the standard multiplayer mode).

On my own I have completed the COD Ghosts campaign and am well into the Battlefield 4 campaign. I have made solid progress in Forza 5 and am now at level eleven. I am deep into the world of Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and am really enjoying the experience. Except for a few minor control issues that are most likely more my own fault than that of the game, this latest installment is the best by far. The seamless transitions from land to sea and back, as well as the sheer fun of controlling your ship and fleet – including hunting and diving – it’s a deep and multi-layered world of pirate fun.

While I am very impressed by the graphics and improvements in the interface as well as in the handling and control overall, the most welcome improvement by far, is the load once and flip back and forth ability of the interface. With the previous system, the idea of jumping into a game for ten minutes or less was a bit of lie that we told ourselves. By the time the system booted and you logged in your now bloated player profile and then loaded the game, your ten minutes were now two. But you wanted to play your ten minutes anyway and that’s why you were late to whatever appointment you had.

No more of that. Now you walk into the room and say “Xbox On.” The system loads quickly, recognizes your face and loads your profile – a feature of which I never tire. Once you start the game and it loads, dropping out to the main menu and performing actions like watching television in a split window are instantaneous and at any point you can drop back into the game without the need to refresh or reload anything. This is a profound change to the way you can play and perhaps because it is less glamorous than other new features, has not received much press.

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My oldest son recently made a new friend who is not a gamer. Yes, there are some 12 year olds that don’t play any video games. He is not without his own obsession, however, and now my son has caught the same bug – fish and aquatic life. His new friend has ten or so salt water tanks with various species of fish. He is focused on his hobby and very knowledgeable. My son, being he sponge that he is, is absorbing all of the new information and diving in, if you will pardon the pun. He now has three tanks in his room, albeit all are fresh water. Two tanks have various goldfish and the third contains the Lava Lobster in the photo at the top of this post. The image below is one of the first two lobsters that he acquired. These were Mexican Mini Lobsters and unfortunately, both have passed. It is not due to a lack of effort as my son has pleasantly surprised me with his dedication and concern for the new biomes he has created.  The Xbox has little to fear of his losing interest. He is still playing games, but there is a balance developing and most surprisingly it is coming from within him

 

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?

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