Dark Souls II May Single-Handedly Postpone the Next Console Generation for Me

As I was logging another couple of hours into my third playthrough of Dark Souls the other day, I was of course thinking about the March 2014 release of Dark Souls II. Given my affinity for both Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, and the fact that I’ve logged almost 400 hours between the two of them, it’s a safe bet I’ll be equally obsessed with Dark Souls II.

I had already been on the fence about picking up one of the next gen consoles, and I haven’t preordered either of them. Not only do I not have the money for a new console right now, but I am so far behind on my backlog that I could game for the next two to three years and not finish all of the titles I have yet to play from this gen.

And with Dark Souls II off in the distance, I know that I’ll be putting in another couple hundred hours on a current generation game. So, I think I’ve pretty much decided to hold off on getting a new console until after I’m ready to move on from that game. By that time, the catalogs of the next gen systems should really be coming together, and I can make a better informed purchase (I’m leaning heavily toward the PS4 right now).

As if Dark Souls II wasn’t going to be enough of a time sink, I still haven’t played Skyrim yet.

It remains to be seen if I can fight the urge to get the new shiny thing this holiday season, but from a rational standpoint, I have absolutely no need for a new console right now.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head back into Saints Row IV, of which I am only 30% finished. And then maybe play a little more Dark Souls.


Vita TV is an Interesting Addition to the Micro Console Space

This past week, Sony made a couple of very interesting Vita announcements. First off, after dropping the price of the Vita to $199 in August, Sony announced that a redesign of the handheld will be arriving in Japan in October (with other regions assumed to follow). The new Vita is lighter and will allegedly have a slightly improved battery life.

The bigger new though was the announcement of the PS Vita TV, a mini console that not only aims to take on Apple TV, but could also throw a monkey wrench into Amazon’s rumored console plans.

The PS Vita TV will retail for $100, plugs into your TV and works with the DualShock 3 controller (which most of us PS3 owners already have). It can play downloaded PSOne and PSP games, as well as downloaded physical Vita games. The console also runs apps like Hulu and Netflix, and will have some cross-functionality features for PS4 owners.

Right now, the PS Vita TV has only been announced for Japan, but there’s obviously a very good chance it will be coming to the US as well.

Last month I wrote about the potential of Amazon’s rumored Android console, and I think it’s still a good bet we’ll see that this year. BUT, Sony could really disrupt this space with the PS Vita TV in the US. Instead of a so-so library of Android games, this $100 console would provide a proven library of PS classics, as well as a taste of new games from the Vita library. And if the Vita TV plays well with the PS4, there will always be that temptation to upgrade for those that start with the Vita TV.

So, while the main focus of the gaming industry continues to be on the major console releases this holiday season, I find this budget console race to be getting more and more fascinating. We as gamers will continue to benefit from there being more choices at multiple price points out there.

Who will be next to jump into the ring?


Saints Row IV is Crackdown 3

Perhaps me spending a lot of time re-playing Crackdown 2 recently was just a happy coincidence. but, when I started Saints Row IV this week, the similarities between it and the Crackdown franchise were immediately apparent. In fact, Saints Row IV may just be the Crackdown sequel gamers have been waiting for.

Maybe the biggest addition to the franchise in Saints Row IV is the introduction of super powers. Early on in the game, you get super sprint and super jump abilities, which make navigating the world feel very similar to a powered up agent in Crackdown. Saints Row IV also features golden orb-shaped robots that you have to chase down . In Crackdown 2, these were known as “Renegade Orbs,” but Saints Row IV refers to them as “CID Command Orbs.” They function pretty much the same though, granting rewards for tracking them down.

Using your jump powers to bound from building to building like the Hulk feels very much like jumping around in Crackdown. As you get further into the game, you get a wider variety of powers than what Crackdown offers, but the moment to moment gameplay still feels very much like Crackdown, as you’re often using a combination of your powers as well as firearms to deal with large crowds of enemies.

I was already a huge fan of the Saints Row series, but by sprinkling in a dose of one of my other favorite franchises, Volition may have created my favorite open world action game yet.


WiiU Price Drop–Better Late Than Never


Nintendo announced this week a $50 price drop for the deluxe version of the WiiU. This price drop will take effect on September 20th, the same day the new Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD bundle comes out. Even better, the Wind Waker HD bundle will also retail for $299, and will include a Zelda-themed GamePad, and a digital version of the Hyrule Historia compendium, which, if you haven’t seen it, is amazing.

So, the price drop puts the full-fledged version of the WiiU at $299. The PS4 will retail for $399 and the XBox One for $499. From a price standpoint, I feel like WiiU would be better priced at $249, but the fact that Nintendo has now aligned the console at $100 bucks cheaper than PS4 and $200 cheaper than Xbox One is a great thing. There are now clearly three options out there, and for those who are making the choice based primarily on price, there is at least now a marked difference between Nintendo and the other consoles.

The Zelda bundle is a no-brainer if you are even considering getting a WiiU. Hyrule Historia alone launched at $35 and is an amazing tome. Throw in the game and the special controller, and that’s a great package.

As much as the WiiU’s lineup of games has been maligned, by the time the other two new consoles launch, WiiU will have a pretty nice stable of games. We already have Nintendoland, LEGO City Undercover, Pikmin 3, New Super Mario Bros. U and Super Luigi U, ZombiU, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and Game & Wario among the more notable titles. Wonderful 101 and Rayman Legends are just around the corner, with Wind Waker HD and Scribblenauts Unmasked (the DC Universe Scribblenauts game) following right behind. All of those games are either out now or will be by the time the next PlayStation and Xbox consoles launch. Not too shabby.

So yes, Nintendo completely squandered the year long head start it had to build WiiU momentum. And the third party support is as bad as we all feared it would be. BUT, the price drop will help overall sales, and there are plenty of great games out now and coming in the near future to make the WiiU a worthwhile purchase.

The biggest question for Nintendo now is whether or not the WiiU price cut was too little and too late. There is no question they should have either priced the console lower at the start or cut the price as soon as the game drought hit. Whether this move turns the console’s fortunes around remains to be seen, but I will never doubt Nintendo’s ability to turn things around after what they did with the 3DS, which is now blowing the doors off every other console in terms of sales.

There are still a couple of things I’d like to see Nintendo do that I think could go a long way to helping speed the recovery of the WiiU. For starters, an Ambassador Program for early adopters would be nice, similar to what Nintendo did with the 3DS. Building in more interactivity between the 3DS and the WiiU (like remote play or using the 3DS as an alternate controller) would be great as well. But I think the biggest thing Nintendo needs to work on with the WiiU is its implementation of the GamePad. Outside of ZombiU, Nintendoland and LEGO City Undercover (to a much smaller degree), hardly any games take advantage of the functionality of the GamePad. It’s one of the defining factors of the console, and it’s sorely underutilized.

For now though, I’m happy that the price cut has finally arrived, the games are starting to pile up, and a new bundle is on the way. Here’s hoping it’s enough to get the WiiU back on track for this holiday season.


Defenders of the Faith–Part 3: Avoiding Temptation

Man, keeping the faith isn’t easy.

The farther I get into this playthrough of Dark Souls with my faith build, the more tempting it is to break from my character path in order to make the game easier.

When I set out with this character, my initial plan was to only stick to Faith based weapons and spells, and to stay in the Warriors of Sunlight covenant the entire way through.

But temptation is everywhere. There are so many enemies that are weak to fire, and the Pyromancy school of magic is full of offensive spells that can be really useful against enemies and bosses alike. Refusing to avail myself of these spells meant that I needed to keep upgrading my weapon, as melee combat is what I find myself in the most.

Some of the other covenants have great spells as well. The Darkmoon covenant has a great weapon buffing spell, the Gravelord Servant covenant offers a powerful area of attack spell, etc. Staying with the Warrior of Sunlight covenant meant that I got my two offensive spells fairly early, and then nothing else afterward.

But, I’ve stayed on target for the most part. The only time I deviated from my pure Faith build was when I had to invest a few points into Intelligence to get the Cast Light sorcery spell. The Tomb of the Giants is near impossible without a light source, and I’d died several times trying to make it to a spot where I could pick up a lantern. However, I justified the Intelligence points as something I needed to invest in anyway, as the weapon I am trying to eventually build (Greatsword of Artorias) requires a minimum of 20 Intelligence to wield. So, the points I spent on getting Cast Light won’t go to waste.

That said, it’s easy to see why so many people end up creating hybrid classes that take the best bits of everything when playing through Dark Souls. If this was my first time through, I’d probably be doing that. But my overall goal for this character is to focus on co-op and helping others through the game. The only other covenant I may jump to later on is the Princess’s Guard, which grants the ability to use group healing spells in co-op.

For now though, it’s still Sunbro all the way. With each area I finish, I’m going back to help others through. This playthrough is turning out to be my favorite of the three, despite how challenging it is at times.


Defenders of the Faith–Part 2: At Home in the Catacombs

Ahh, the Catacombs. An area of Dark Souls I previously hated, but have grown to love playing through them with my Faith build. I’ve spent more time in the Catacombs during this playthrough than with my previous two combined.

For those unfamiliar, the Catacombs are a potentially frustrating area of Dark Souls because the skeletons that populate the area can reanimate if they are not killed with a divine weapon. There are necromancers (six of them, I believe) scattered throughout the level, and until they are killed, they keep bringing the skeletons in their area back to unlife.

Those not playing divine characters often build divine weapons just to play through this part of the game. As a Faith build this time around, I looked forward to tackling the Catacombs with a character uniquely suited to them. By the time I made it to this area, I had upgraded my divine Claymore to +5 (halfway to max), and my Faith stat was in the low 30’s. So for the most part, I ripped through this area without much trouble, decimating dozens of skeletons along the way.

Unlike previous playthroughs though, when I beat Pinwheel (the area boss), I didn’t just move on to the next area–I went back for some co-op. I ended up playing through the second half of the level several more times, helping people through. I also went back and forth through the area a few times, exploring it in a way I had never done before.

With my Faith build, I felt like the Catacombs were almost made for me. It’s yet another reason why Dark Souls is a game that you should play through multiple times. Every approach gives you a new appreciation for the game world.

Here’s a cool video by OreoYifu that features some good co-op in the Catacombs, including a few great invasions.


How Amazon Could Re-Create the Wii’s Success

So, rumors were flying around the internet this week that Amazon is currently developing an Android-based gaming console, which will be released before Black Friday this holiday shopping season.

Now, most avid gamers will scoff at this potential news, for a few reasons. First, the recently-released Ouya Android gaming console has received mixed reviews at best, and while we haven’t seen actual sales numbers, the console does not appear to be selling briskly.

Second, we have the Xbox One and Playstation 4 coming this holiday season, and most avid gamers that are looking for new hardware will be investing in one or both of those consoles.

Finally, many avid gamers associate Android (and iOS for that matter) games with phones and tablets, and tend to look at those games as inferior experiences to console and dedicated handheld gaming.

Here’s the thing, though–avid gamers looked at another gaming console as providing inferior experiences to more casual audiences. That console was Nintendo’s Wii, and it recently crossed the 100 million-sold mark since it’s 2006 release. Unfortunately for Nintendo, when they developed the WiiU, they got away from what made them so successful last generation created an expensive console that left more casual gamers behind.

Amazon has a golden opportunity here to fill a missing spot in this upcoming console generation. For that matter, Apple does as well, but seems uninterested in taking gaming further than it currently is on iOS devices. Both Amazon and Apple already have app-based ecosystems full of games. Unlike the Ouya, they also both have brand recognition and a built in consumer base. So, if Amazon decided to put together an inexpensive gaming console that featured a controller and played all the games on their app store and then some? A lot of parents would be seriously considering that console for their kids this holiday season.

It makes sense that the Amazon console would be able to take advantage of other apps as well, like the Amazon Prime Video library, Netflix, and other streaming media apps.

So, imagine an Amazon gaming console and controller combo releases this holiday season for $99. It plays hundreds of games from the Amazon App Store, and a new app or game can be downloaded for free each day. The console also features Netlfix, Prime Instant Video, Audible, and more. Maybe it even allows you to use your Kindle Fire HD as a touch-based controller or a second screen.

Anyway, you get the picture. If Amazon plays their cards right, they could deal a substantial blow to both Apple and Nintendo, and offer the less expensive gaming experience to families that the Wii did in the last console generation.

I am very excited to see what happens with this, and I hope the rumors don’t turn out to be unfounded. There is definitely a part of the gaming market to be filled here, and someone will eventually take advantage of the opportunity. It’s only a matter of time before Apple comes to its senses, so Amazon should strike while the iron is hot.


Defenders of the Faith–Part 1: Harnessing the Power of the Sun

My first Dark Souls character was a magic-based one. The second was primarily a melee character, with some Pyromancy spells thrown in. For my third Dark Souls character, I decided to go with the Cleric class and make a pure Faith build, which meant I had my toughest playthrough ahead of me. That’s because from a spellcasting (or Miracle) standpoint, Faith magic is mostly defensive and supportive in nature. Healing spells, buffs, shield spells and utility spells make up most of the list. In fact, the only real offensive miracles for Faith builds come from joining particular covenants. Because I wanted to focus on my Faith stat and use spells as much as possible, I knew I had to join covenants.

As soon as I was able, I joined the Warriors of Sunlight covenant, for a couple of reasons. First off, Warriors of Sunlight are focused on helping other players through co-op, and the rewards of that covenant come from helping others successfully defeat bosses. I like that, as I prefer co-op as opposed to PvP in Dark Souls. Secondly, joining the Warriors of Sunlight gives you access to two offensive Miracles fairly early in the game: Lightning Spear and Great Lightning Spear. These are decent ranged attack spells and are very helpful early on.

In order to get Great Lightning Spear, you need to have successfully helped ten players in co-op. So, many of my early hours with this character were spent in co-op, which was really fun.

Two offensive spells wasn’t going to cut it, though, so I needed to get myself a decent weapon. Once again, Faith builds kind of get the short end of the stick, as there aren’t a lot of great weapons that scale well with the Faith stat. I settled on the claymore, as it has a good move set and is fun to wield. As soon as I could, I began upgrading my claymore through the Divine path. While faith weapons don’t scale as well as many other types in the game, it’s enough to give me a fighting chance in most boss encounters.

So, a good portion of my first 20+ hours with this character spent in co-op, and all of the souls I earned went to increasing my Faith stat and upgrading my claymore.

Next time around I’ll talk about how the Catacombs went from one of my least favorite areas in the game to one I love playing through with my Faith build.


SEGA’s ‘Let’s Go Island’ is a Fun Escape

One of the best parts about vacationing in Maine with my family each summer is the fact that there are two arcades within twenty minutes of where we stay. It’s become an annual tradition for me to take my kids to each of them at least one per trip, and this year was no different.

Since many of the arcade cabinets have been replaces by midway-style ticket-producing games, it’s rare to see either of the arcades bring in new video games anymore. So, I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the Boardwalk Arcade in Wells and see SEGA’s Let’s Go Island: Lost on the Island of Tropics.

While Let’s Go Island is a sit-down, turret-based game, anyone who’s played House of the Dead will feel right at home. The story follows Beth and Zach, two stereotypical goofy characters that are stranded together on an island that is crawling with mutated creatures. From leaping sharks to giant leeches to a mighty kraken, there are tons of colorful enemies that are constantly flying at you as you and your partner try to stave them off.

The gameplay is simple and fun, and there are a couple twists to the usual light gun shooter formula. After completing certain levels, you get to choose which area of the island to explore next. There are also quick time events sprinkled throughout the levels that require both players to complete actions at the same time. At the end of each level, you and your partner get a compatibility rating based on how well you worked together.

Interestingly, there seems to be three versions of Let’s Go Island out there. The original 2D version featured a movable boat-shaped seat that allowed players to lean back and forth during quicktime events. A second version of the cabinet was in 3D. The third version (the one that I played), is the lesser of the three, as it has a static seat and a 2D display.

Lesser version or not, this game is a blast to play, just like most of the other SEGA light gun games. The goofy nature of the game actually makes it much more of an all ages title, as there’s no blood and the story is very cartoonish. Both my wife an my son had a good time blasting away with me.

Sadly, this game, as well as it’s predecessor Let’s Go Jungle, were never ported to consoles. That’s too bad, because this would be a great family-friendly game for the WiiU, and I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to bring it over.

Anyway, if you get a chance, it’s definitely worth checking out!


Tomb Raider’s Opening Features the Best and Worst of Quick-Time Events

Recently I wrote about how much the opening of The Last of Us grabbed me and got me invested in the world and story of the game.

I picked up Tomb Raider during the Steam Summer Sale and started playing it the other night. Turns out, that game has a pretty great opening as well. But where The Last of Us did a great job of keeping you in the moment during its opening, Tomb Raider constantly pulled me out of its opening.

From a story standpoint, Tomb Raider’s opening is immediately interesting. Through a series of quick-cut scenes, you see a young Lara Croft become shipwrecked on a mysterious island, where her life in put in peril immediately. As you take control of Lara, you’re tasked with trying to find a way out of a series of underground caverns, as things are collapsing around you and you run into some of the dangerous inhabitants of the island. It’s actually a great tutorial, as you learn the basic controls while navigating your way out.

But the quick-time events, man.

I’m not anti-QTEs at all–I grew up on Dragon’s Lair for crying out loud. When used well, quick-time events can be very effective. I enjoyed how the Mass Effect series had character moments (Paragon and Renegade) that could be activated by a trigger press at certain times. I enjoyed the hacking minigame in the first Mass Effect. In Gears of War, the idea of a timed button press to reload your gun faster and get a damage bonus is great. Telltale’s The Walking Dead also had some interesting implementations, particularly when fighting off a zombie that had grappled you.

In general, the QTEs that I hate have two components: (1) To fail is to die instantly, and (2) There is little to no margin for error.

Such is the case with many of the QTEs in Tomb Raider. There are a handful of points during Lara’s escape where the QTEs require exact timing. Worse, rather than a button press, they resort to wiggling the analog stick back and forth. A second too early or too late, and Lara gets killed in a horribly grisly manner.

So, as I played through the opening that featured an interesting story, there were places where I continued to die gruesomely several times, pulling me right out of the story before the title credits had even appeared. I had already lost some of my investment in the game by then.

Now, I did say in the title of this post that the game also featured the “best” of what QTEs can be used for, and there is one particularly good implementation in the opening Tomb Raider. At one point, Lara is scrambling from an underground cavern toward daylight, and you are actually using the right and left triggers to help her claw her way up a muddy, slippery slope. It reminded me of the scene in the original Modern Warfare when your chopper goes down and the soldier you control is crawling hand over hand amidst the wreckage. That kind of implementation really connects you to the moment.

When QTEs are used well, they add to the experience. The opening of Tomb Raider could have kept the QTEs,but made them much less punishing (at least during the intro of the game), and the effect would have been much more dramatic and rewarding.

You can watch the opening chapter of the game below, if you don’t mind the spoilers.