Final Thoughts–Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (PS4)

The last time I wrote about Tomb Raider was back in July 2013, when I had picked the game up on the Steam Summer Sale. At the time, the quick-time events in the beginning of the game were such a turn-off for me that I actually stopped playing it.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and a flash sale that happened on PSN after Thanksgiving. I grabbed Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (PS4) for $18.00. And while the quick-time events are still the weak point of the game in my opinion, they’re just about the only weak point. Tomb Raider is an absolutely fantastic game, and I am so glad I gave it another chance.

Like many, I’m a Tomb Raider fan from back in the day. Playing the original on the first PlayStation is one of those experiences I’ll remember forever.

I was excited about the idea of the Tomb Raider reboot, and Lara becoming more of a fleshed-out character. And as fantastic as the new Tomb Raider looks and plays, I think the reinvention of Lara as a character is the game’s biggest achievement. Experiencing the evolution of Lara as a survivor and an explorer is easily the most enjoyable journey I’ve taken with Lara in the history of the franchise.

But let’s not gloss over the gameplay, because it’s pretty fantastic overall. The bow combat in particular is just super fun. And the one place I didn’t mind the quick-time events was in the finishing moves that add another layer to the combat system. by the end of the game, I had gone from long-range sniper to looking for opportunities to get up close and personal with enemies just so i could finish them with a flourish. The traversal mechanics are also excellent, and for me a huge leap ahead of anything I’ve encountered in the Assassin’s Creed series. I started dabbling in AC: Unity while playing through Tomb Raider, and it still amazes me how clunky traversal can be sometimes–but that’s another post for another day.

So, to recap–I loved the story and loved the gameplay in Tomb Raider. I am stoked for the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider on XBox One, and in the meantime I’ll be revisiting this game to complete the tombs that I still have to explore after finishing the main story.

I Can’t Wait to Die Again: Dark Souls II is Coming to PS4/XBox One in April 2015

One of the reasons this blog has been so barren over the last month or so is that I’m working on my next novel and participating in National Novel Writing Month. I have had no time to play games (well, I did create a character in Dragon Age: Inquisition), and I have barely been able to keep up with what’s going on in the gaming world.

BUT, anytime an announcement involving the Souls games (or Bloodborne for that matter) is made, my spider-sense goes off. Just as it did when Bandai Namco announced that an enhanced edition of Dark Souls II was coming to PS4 and Xbox One in April 2015.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin will feature visual upgrades, some tweaks to gameplay and most importantly, all three DLC expansions.

I “finished” Dark Souls II on PS3, although I have been trying to beat the Darklurker boss forever, so I haven’t started NG+ yet. I also haven’t played the DLC, and now I’m thinking that I’ll wait for the PS4 version to start a new playthrough and dive into that stuff.

Despite spending well over 100 hours with Dark Souls II on PS3, I still am just scratching he surface of that game. I’ll gladly but the enhanced edition for PS4. The only problem is that it’s coming out just a couple weeks after Bloodborne, so my guess is I’ll be getting Scholar of the First Sin a while after it’s April 7th release date.
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Diablo III Fits Like a Glove for This Old Gamer

Man, am I loving Diablo III so far.

I’m old–that is to say, I was around when videogames were first their way out of the arcades and into people’s homes. My next door neighbor had a Coleco Telestar system and my first console was the Atari 2600. I grew up on the Commodore 64 and the gold box D&D games (Pool of Radiance is still probably the best RPG ever made).

For me, sword and sorcery games hold a special place in my heart (I’ll be posting about my RPG love alter this week), and the Diablo series is unique among them. That may sound weird, because Diablo games are sort of a mish-mash of other games that came before them (Gauntlet and the aforementioned D&D games, to name a couple), but that’s what makes it unique to me. Even in 2014, the core gameplay and systems that made Diablo great in 1996 still hold up today, as they are the core aspects of D&D–fight monsters, level-up, get cool stuff. Rinse, repeat.

I grabbed the Ultimate Evil Edition of Diablo III for PS4 recently and have been having an absolute blast with it. For my first playthrough, I’m going with a wizard, and I recorded a bit of that playthrough the other day, which you can check out below. It’s from fairly early on in the first act, so it’s not super-spoilery.

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Even though the game has evolved since the 1996 original, Diablo III still has that old school feel, and it’s so easy to just pick up and play. I can put twenty minutes into it, or I can fall down the rabbit hole for hours. But I keep coming back to it whenever I turn on my PS4.

As I get deeper into the game, I’ll probably record a few more sessions and post about them here.

Trying Out PS4 Twitch Broadcasting With Outlast

After doing a couple of Twitch broadcasts with XBox One, I wanted to give the PS4’s version a try. So, I downloaded Outlast and played through the opening chapter. While getting the broadcast up and running was easy, I couldn’t figure out how to get the chat bar to disappear so the broadcast could be recorded in full-screen.

I’ll keep playing around with it, but you can check out the first part of my outlast playthrough below. I’ll say this about Outlast–that game is super creepy if you play late at night with the lights out.

Why the DESTINY “alpha” might be my Game of the Year (so far)

The short version of my feelings on the upcoming Bungie game DESTINY after spending a weekend playing the “alpha” on PS4: it surpassed my expectations in almost every way.

The long version requires some preliminary explanation. First of all, let’s talk about MMO’s, because while Bungie may dance around the term all they want, DESTINY fits most of the criteria for an MMO. One could probably quibble with how “massive” the player count truly is, so perhaps we can properly call it a Moderately Multiplayer Online game? At any rate, for years I’ve been intrigued by the gameplay and social elements of MMO’s but never spent much time with them because I’ve never really been a PC gamer (blame my lifelong allegiance to the Mac, I suppose) and consequently don’t truly feel comfortable with mouse and keyboard controls for games. Even when I’ve tried an MMO on a console, like DCUO, it’s been a lackluster experience primarily because the gamepad controls feel awkward and unsatisfying.

So an MMO whose action is the very familiar “left trigger, then right trigger” mechanic I’ve learned through years of console shooters seems tailor-made for me. That brings us to the second element that appealed to me: loot. Like most gamers, I cannot deny being ready to hit that lever for my pellet of food when it comes to well-designed loot systems. A great deal of my enjoyment of both BORDERLANDS and DIABLO is due to the cycle of equip-kill-drop-evaluate-equip they employ, especially when done in an attractive and compelling art style.

The third aspect of DESTINY that hooked me? Grouping for co-operative play requires only 3 people. Now, I recognize that this fact actually is a negative for some, but as a 41-year old dadgamer who’s watched his circle of gaming friends dwindle over the years as life has gotten in the way, I’m thrilled to know that if I can just find 2 other people I can meet the game’s challenges on equal terms. And while there is a competitive mode available in DESTINY with a more robust 6v6 population, it’s the co-operative play that holds the most allure for me.

Finally, and most importantly: I’m a huge sci-fi nerd. If nothing else, Bungie has a proven track record of creating a rich and deep science fiction setting for its games. Heck, the mythology and universe of the HALO games kept me much more invested in that franchise than the gameplay ever did. So the story elements in DESTINY that have been released so far, the design of the characters, weapons, & vehicles, and the environments I’ve seen and those I’ve only glimpsed in trailers all line up perfectly with my taste and interest.

Now, all of those factors raised my expectations (and, to be honest, probably had me ready to overlook plenty of flaws) before I started playing. So when the alpha kicked off, I created a Hunter class character, jumped in, and… LOVED the gameplay. The shooting felt great. The melee attacks were SO satisfying. My character moved well, and hopping on a hover bike to get around the outdoor environment was actually fun. Early enemies were dispatched easily enough to build my confidence, and then boss fights were challenging enough to make me appreciate their defeat. I was, frankly, thrilled to find exactly what I was looking for in DESTINY. I eagerly await the beta in July, and the full release of the game in September. I no longer am disappointed by the games that have moved into 2015, because my gaming time in the last 5 months of 2014 is spoken for.

I realize I haven’t even talked about how gorgeous it is, or how good it sounds, or the sheer nerd glee I felt when Lance Reddick’s voice kicked in at one point. (I even liked Peter Dinklage’s work as your AI companion, although I can certainly see why some folks feel he’s been a bit too flat.) Take a look at a trailer for the game. Look at some screenshots. And then give me a shout in September, and we’ll take on the universe together.

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E3 2014: What I’m Most Excited About (Part 2)–Bloodborne

The other day I talked about the new Crackdown as the first of my top three E3 announcements. The next one on my list came from Sony’s E3 presentation, and it’s the thing I’m most excited about coming out of E3.

Sony finally revealed “Project Beast” at E3 2014, and it wasn’t the Demon’s Souls successor that some were thinking developer From Software was working on. Project Beast is actually Bloodborne, a very Lovecraftian-looking, gothic horror game that is definitely inspired by Demon’s Souls, but not beholden to it. Check out the trailer:

Now, that trailer doesn’t show any gameplay, but we have seen this leaked footage from the game in action, with a nice breakdown by YouTube user VaatiVidya:

Between the world and creature design, Bloodborne certainly has the markings of a From Software game. But watching the main character wielding a shotgun also says this is a pretty stark departure from what we know the Souls series to be. it was further confirmed that there are no shields in Bloodborne, so the emphasis is clearly on having more dynamic, fast-paced combat.

I know some may disappointed that Bloodborne isn’t more of a direct Demon’s Souls sequel, but I could not be more excited. As a horror fan, the world design is right up my alley. And as a fan of the Souls games, I’m still playing Dark Souls 2 and we know we’ll get more in that series moving forward. Having a sister series begin with Bloodborne would be awesome, and the game looks to be offering something that you can’t get in the current Souls games.

I am VERY excited about this one.

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A Kinect-less Xbox One Is a Bad Move for Microsoft

Microsoft completed the circle of back-pedaling on their original Xbox One vision today, as they announced a Kinect-less version of the console would be arriving in June, at a PS4-matching price of $399. And while many will see this as a smart move, and one that has the potential to increase sales, I think it’s very short-sighted.

Let’s forget that you can get the Titanfall or Forza 5 bundles of the Xbox One for $499 right now, which effectively means that you’re paying $440 for the console with Kinect. Or the fact that many retail outlets recently dropped the price of the Titanfall bundle to $450, which made the price differential with PS4 essentially nothing.

Let’s focus instead on the notion that a great deal of the console’s functionality runs through the Kinect, and that the Xbox One was designed around it. From the very beginning, Microsoft emphasized the Kinect to both consumers and game developers. On the consumer side, you’ve got the voice commands, the video chat, the game streaming, the facial recognition, voice-chatting through Kinect, menu navigation, motion controls and more. On the developer side, you’ve got the fact that all developers can count on the Kinect being a part of every Xbox One, so they can include Kinect features in the design from the start.

Now, a mere six months into the life of the Xbox One, Microsoft is essentially abandoning the Kinect to try and close the sales gap with PS4. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, understand that the second the Kinect is not a part of every console, developers are basically going to walk away from it completely. Why would they fracture their audience?

This move affects exclusives more than third-party games of course, because third-party games are not putting a ton of effort into designing for features that don’t exist on all consoles (see the WiiU and its GamePad).

The sad thing is, there are surely plenty of games in development that are designed with Kinect functionality, and those games just got the legs cut out from under them. And now that future games will shy away from Kinect features, we’ll likely never see the potential of the Kinect fulfilled. I honestly don’t care about most of the Kinect functionality right now, but I was certainly hopeful about what it could be in the future.

Most concerning in all of this though, is how quick Microsoft is to change their strategy on a console that has been out for a little over six months. Having to give up their “always on” strategy nullified their plans for leveraging the cloud to improve performance, and now abandoning the Kinect will kill their other differentiating feature. Polygon actually has a great article detailing the changing message of Microsoft regarding Kinect over the past several months. It’s sad.

And what of the early adopters? Word on the street is they can expect no Nintendo-like reward program for their customer loyalty. I know I’m kind of wishing I’d held off and waited for a PS4 instead.

Dropping Kinect is a risky strategy, that’s for sure. If this doesn’t close the sales gap (and I don’t believe it will), then Microsoft will have completely compromised their original Xbox One design for nothing. And where does that leave them?

On a related note, say what you will about how badly the WiiU is failing, but I applaud Nintendo’s response around the GamePad. Rather than ditch it, they’ve re-committed to showing people why it’s an integral part of the WiiU.

At the first sign of trouble, Microsoft cut bait on the Kinect. But I think their missing the larger issue–that consumers are losing confidence in them due to fact that it seems they have no idea what they’re doing with this console.

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So, I Bought an Xbox One

So, after all my blathering on about how the PlayStation 4 was going to be my console of choice this generation, I went out and purchased an Xbox One. Why? Two reasons, mainly. Availability and peer pressure.

I got paid for a writing gig two weeks ago and I suddenly had the money on hand to get a console. I knew if I didn’t get one then, the cash would end up going to something else. That’s just the way it works.

So, I ventured out on that Saturday morning two weeks ago in search of a PlayStation 4. Best Buy, Target, GameStop, Walmart and even my local mom and pop game shops were sold out of PS4s across the board, and I was hearing that April would be the next time they could safely say they’d have stock. Just to be sure, I checked online on the sites that track stock, and didn’t have any luck there either. I would have driven at least an hour out of my way to get a PS4, but there were none anywhere near me.

Meanwhile, every store I visited had Xbox Ones in stock. I had a handful of games that I planned on trading in, and after having no luck on the PS4 front, I went back to GameStop and picked up the Xbox One, a copy of Battlefield 4 and a 12-month Xbox Live Gold subscription. With my trades, I ended up paying roughly $500 for the whole package.

So to recap, Xbox One was immediately available when I had cash to buy a new console, and PS4 was not. It’s really that simple.

As far as the peer pressure piece, almost all of my gaming friends are Xbox users. The group we lovingly dubbed “Team Zombie” came together around the Left 4 Dead series on Xbox 360. Entire online friendships were built around the original Modern Warfare. And most of my friends were pushing me to get an Xbox One over the PS4. The main reason I wasn’t planning on it was that I am not able to get online with the gang as much as I was in the past, and I’ve become more of a solo gamer nowadays. But, since I have the Xbox One now, I’ll still be able to connect with that group whenever I can.

My purchase of an Xbox one doesn’t rule out getting a PS4 in the future, but now that I have a current gen console, that’s nowhere near a priority. In fact, the only drawback of the PS4 in my mind was the inability to archive streaming sessions on Twitch, which is something the Xbox One will now be able to do with the recent dashboard update. So my plan to do more streaming for this blog is firmly in place with the Xbox One, and with my PS3 via the Roxio GameCap HD Pro. Plan on seeing lots of Titanfall and Dark Souls II in the next few months.

I also plan on writing up my thoughts after the first two weeks with the Xbox One. Look for that in the next several days.

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Xbox One Layaway Program Is a Big Deal

I don’t think it can be overstated how much the $100 price difference is contributing to The PlayStation 4’s dominance over the Xbox One in sales so far.

Keep in mind, most parents who are buying this console for their kids are not paying attention to the major game news sites. They could give a crap that Sony has done a better job of courting indie developers, or that Microsoft flip-flopped with their online strategy. That stuff we care about, but most consumers don’t even know about. In fact, you would be amazed at what most consumers don’t know.

One example: I was in a GameStop the other day, and a father and son were in line behind me. The father was asking his son what the difference was between the PlayStation 4 and the XBox One, and why the XBox One was more expensive. The kids reply: “The Xbox One does more. You can go online with it.” The implication was that the PS4 has less features and no online functionality.

Most consumers are walking into a retail store and comparing the two consoles. And when you see two boxes that basically do the same thing, have many of the same games, but have a $100 price difference, that’s the deciding factor.

So I find it very interesting that GameStop just started a layaway program for XBox One, that allows you to pay for the console over an indefinite period, with no additional fees. You can put $25 down, and then add to it whenever you can. You can also cancel at any time, which basically makes this a risk-free proposition for consumers.

I think this program is going to significantly increase the sales of XBox One consoles, as it essentially erases the $100 advantage PS4 has. That’s only a deciding factor when you are paying for the console in one lump sum. And by allowing people to put the console on layaway, you’re locking them in as XBox gamers before they can go somewhere else.

The reason this is so interesting to me is that I was planning on getting a PS4, not an XBox One. I don’t have the cash to just go out and grab one of these consoles, and I don’t have the ability to just sock money away until I do (between kids and bills and whatever, it just goes). But, when I have an extra $20 or $30, I can go throw it on my XBox One layaway until it’s paid off. And I won’t be charged interest or additional fees. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

Unfortunately, it’s a deal that’s only being offered for the XBox One. And that’s why I may end of up getting an XBox One instead of a PS4. So even for me, a lifelong gamer who stays up on all the news and follows all the consoles, the ultimate factor ends up being cost, and in this case, the ability to spread that cost out over a period of time.

I’ll be very interested to see how this progresses.

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The Games Industry Really Has Become the WWE

Polygon’s Emily Gera wrote a brilliant post on her personal blog today about how the games industry has turned into a spectator sport akin to World Wrestling Entertainment. It’s a fantastic read, perhaps the most insightful post I’ve read about games this year. And it really hit home with how I’ve been feeling lately as a 39-year-old gamer who is just kind of sad about the state of the industry today.

First, go read the article on Emily’s blog.

I was actually having a conversation on Twitter with Co-Op contributor Dave Fetterman that directly relates to the sentiment expressed in Gera’s post. I was reflecting on the fact that as of late I find myself becoming part of the Nintendo Defense Force, feeling the need to reply to the constant negativity that seems to be aimed at the WiiU and Nintendo in general.

I’m a WiiU and 3DS owner and I have two kids, so for us Nintendo’s consoles are a constant source of fun and entertainment. I also have a Xbox 360, PS3 and a PC, so I play games wherever I can get them. In this last console generation, I’ve probably spent the most time on Xbox 360. Not that any of that matters, except to say that I don’t have a “console of choice” per se.

The thing that kills me is these narratives that are built up not just by the rabid fanbases of each console, but the games media as well. Over the past year, and into this holiday season, one of the biggest is that not only is the WiiU not a “next gen” console, but it’s already dead in the water. There is no reason to buy a WiiU, and there is no hope of it recovering from its slow start. Some are even calling for Nintendo to get out of consoles entirely, either moving exclusively to handhelds, or giving up hardware altogether and becoming the next SEGA.

Consider this: you can get a WiiU bundle for $299 right now that either comes with Wind Waker HD, Skylanders or two Super Mario games. Right now, the WiiU has a slew of great games to play: ZombiU, Pikmin 3, Nintendoland, Super Mario 3D World, Wonderful 101, Lego City Undercover and plenty more. And the console is backwards compatible, which means you have the entire Wii library as well. It’s a great value, especially as a family console. But that narrative is boring, right? Who wants to talk about what a fun experience the console can be when we can all hail its impending doom from the highest mountain, right?

When it comes to the PS4 and the XBox One, the ebb and flow of the narrative changes daily. The PS4 goes from being more powerful than the XBox One to having a worse launch lineup to being a better value to being inferior because it doesn’t let you control your living room in the same way XBox One does. On the flipside, XBox One had terrible party chat one day, a lack of free demos the next and then Kinect makes it better than the PS4 (despite the fact no one wanted it before launch and thought its addition was not worth the extra $100).

And this stuff isn’t just message board or comment section chatter. These are storylines that all of the major gaming news sites are feeding into daily. Much of the chatter from gamers is happening in response to these stories. The gaming news sites are just as much the creators of these narratives as the fans. The same goes for the publishers and hardware makers themselves, and you don’t have to look any further than this year’s E3, when the mudslinging between Microsoft and Sony was on stage for all the world to see. Microsoft ended up changing their whole strategy for the console based on the narrative that games journalists helped create when they took fan reactions and jabs from Sony and ran with them relentlessly. Microsoft was the bad guy–they didn’t get it. Sony came out of E3 as the “winner,” the company that really understood what gamers wanted from the next generation. Nintendo wasn’t even allowed to be part of the discussion, as the media took Nintendo’s lack of a spectacle presentation as a reason to marginalize them completely and just focus on the narrative that the upcoming generation was a two-horse race.

All of this is where the spectator sport of the games industry comes in, and where Emily Gera’s analogy is so brilliant. There has to be Good Guys (Babyfaces) and Bad Guys (Heels) in order for anyone to care. Those Good Guys and Bad Guys will switch places when it suits the overall narrative, but there will always be someone to root for and against, and those creating the narrative get to decide what roles the actors are assigned to.

This whole spectator sport aspect of the industry takes the focus off of the games, off of the fun, and off of the escape that games offer me. It also devalues the exact type of writing that Emily Gera displayed in her brilliant post. Because if gamers would rather read about how many PS4’s failed over launch weekend or how dismal WiiU’s sales were this week than a feature on the design of Resogun, that’s what Emily and those who work for other gaming sites will be writing about. And that just feeds into the spectacle our hobby has become.

The absolute saddest thing about the current state of the industry is that some of the best writers out there, people who earn a living writing about games, have to turn to their personal blogs in order to post ideas that are not part of the larger narratives, part of the spectacle. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at how many current and former games journos have their own side blogs and podcasts, and look at what they produce for content. For most of them, those side projects are where they get to actually celebrate games and talk about the things they love.

Now, the state of the industry isn’t going to change anytime soon, although I hope articles like Emily Gera’s will at least get people to do some self-reflection. I would love to see something like Upworthy come along for the games industry. Some sort of aggregator for games writing that celebrates the hobby, where features about people’s experiences with games and what they love about them are shared and promoted, as opposed to the gladiator arena that currently dominates games media.

I’m rambling now, so I’m going to wrap this post up. But you really need to go and check out Emily Gera’s post, because she is dead on.