Event: First Look 2013 Review

Every year in Utrecht, The Netherlands, the First Look Event is held at the Jaarbeurs, a gigantic event space that plays host to thousands of gaming and technology fans. It gives attendees the opportunity to view and play upcoming titles before their release dates, as well as get their paws all over the latest in tech offerings from the likes of Asus, Logitech, NVIDIA and more. Last year, Ubisoft reigned supreme with their Assassin’s Creed III preview, the cosplay alone making it worth waiting in line for entry to the venue. The Nintendo WiiU also made its grand appearance at First Look 2012, with a playable preview of ZombiU. Nothing , however, could compare to the almost palpable excitement for today’s First Look outing. In a year in which two top-tier consoles prepare to duke it out for your hard-earned money, who would know which to touch first at First Look 2013?

I arrived at the venue with my band of merry men (and women) at 9:45 AM. As a regular ticket holder, I was only allowed actual entry at 12 PM, but I had learned my lesson from the previous year and decided to line up super early. This was by far the best strategy, as it ensured that we were among the first 10 regular ticket holders to enter (this, of course, after the 800+ VIP ticket holders). Our plan of action was:

– Bathrooms

– Bottled water

– XBox One booth

The Green Monster.

The Green Monster.

Thankfully, we were only in line for an hour and a half. Upon entering the green box, I saw that Microsoft had opted for quite a few XBox Ones, along with the controller and a gaming headset for each player. This was a nice touch, as it provided some blocking for the cacophony of sound happening outside and immersed the player in the game before them. Interestingly enough, one of the XBox guys mentioned that they (the Microsoft team in The Netherlands) were pretty frustrated at the communication debacle that their US counterparts set off with the announcement in April, and subsequent statements in the press and at E3. HOW ABOUT THAT EH? Anyway. I was wonderfully surprised to find that Microsoft had thrown four games into the preview pile for today’s event: Killer Instinct, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3 and Forza 5. Obviously, I am just one person, and this is why I travelled with 6 companions. We decided while on line what games we would each take. After convincing my friends to quickly text me their reactions right after playing their games, I gathered the following impressions:

1. Dead Rising 3: My sister adores the Dead Rising series, so naturally I sent her to play this demo. Her feelings afterwards were a potent mix of rabid excitement and careful awe. As she puts it, “Your shoe is literally a weapon.”She felt that the overall controls were trigger-happy, as in, hyper-sensitive, but that could have been a setting placed by one of the XBox One personnel. But then, she was probably too busy having fun mowing over zombies with a tractor to care much about that. As for graphics, she had nothing but good things to say.

2. Killer Instinct: Two of my friends played the demo version of this highly anticipated title. In addition to their impressions, I got the chance to speak to Ryan Hart about it, and he relayed that he had been impressed and that the potential was all there for this to be an attention-grabbing title. My two pals were so deep into their game, they had to be told twice that the demo time for our group was over and that they had to leave the area. They admitted that there was some lag during the game, but took into consideration that this was a demo version. One said that it reminded him of the classic Killer Instinct, so much so that within a few minutes, he was pulling off ultra combos just like in the old days (we’re not that old). Character select screen, like it was at E3, had an arcade feel to it, but the actual fight boasted seriously beautiful graphics, particularly on Sabre Wolf.

3. Forza 5: I sent my racing game lover to tackle this title (not really; he told me he was going no matter what). He thoroughly enjoyed the game’s admittedly gorgeous design, and he also raved about the controller’s responsiveness and how it seemed to respond to every instance in the game that called for any action. For example, when forced to hit the brakes in-game, the responsible trigger reacted much like a car would once the ABS kicked in for the driver. More on his overall impression at the end of this post.

4. Ryse: Son of Rome: As you may have sorted out, I played this demo myself. It offered a Gladiator-like play-through in which you partner up with either a friend or the AI and then proceed to fight your way through a series of challenges. Visually, Ryse is incredibly pleasing, with extraordinary detail in the environments, armour and weaponry. Game play, however, was a bit confusing to get a handle on at first, considering there was no explanation of controls at the beginning of the demo. However, once I figured out the two-button combination for blocking and countering, combat flowed smoothly and was bloody and brutal. And yet, it was still the usual medieval slash ‘n stab to me; this might be an unfair impression, considering it was just a demo of a gladiator setting, but the general thought was that the story should serve to carry the game through its business-as-usual combat. The AI companion: I can’t even with the world right now. I did truly enjoy the controller; it was a smooth design and was tons more comfortable than the 360’s. Good job, Microsoft.

Once we ended off at the XBox One booth, we took a walk around and enjoyed some of the Ubisoft’s booth Just Dance action, as well as the FIFA 14 station. Somehow we ended up stepping into a demonstration for Raven’s Cry, an upcoming title from Top Ware (the studio behind Two Worlds II) and Reality Pump, I guess? I know that TW handed the title to Reality Pump, but the branding all over this booth belonged to them. Inside was a build of the game dated October 2nd, 2013, loaded onto a PC and played by one of their booth attendants. While the game has some decent graphics, the movement of the main character was slightly off. He seemed to be fighting with himself on whether to do an Ezio-like swagger or a Connor-like stride. Either way, buddy was trying to pull off an Assassin’s Creed gait, even while speed-walking through water like he was Christ himself. Seriously, the man was practically walking on the surface and it was the first of three main complaints that we had about this demo. The second, and most important, would be the combat system. It was incredibly rudimentary and was perhaps the most telling factor behind their decision to transfer the project to Reality Pump’s control. Two combat situations were played on screen, both of which resembled little more than a fencing lesson. And finally, the naval component needs some serious work to even light a candle to hold beside Assassin’s Creed IV. I do hope they get this title off the ground now that Reality Pump’s taken the wheel, because it does look promising and you can never have enough pirate games.

Or...Not So Much?

Or…Not So Much?

After some time, we decided to brave the PlayStation 4 line, which at one point curved two ways across the walkway. With the day winding down, the line moved swiftly and within a few moments we were inside the PS4 booth. This is where you see that, regardless of their earlier communication missteps, Microsoft sometimes does a better job at picking themselves up and marketing their product right. I’m not sure if Sony is so confident in their self-assured superiority that they don’t think they need to put on a good show at these events, but they did not impress me nor any of my friends. While I didn’t have the chance to snap images in the Microsoft booth (you know, because I was playing), I managed to get these two of the PlayStation 4:

The Console.

The Console.

As you can see, the console itself is neat and slim, which I do appreciate. Not particularly flashy or snazzy, but it works.

The Controller.

The Controller.

I have never been a fan of PlayStation controllers, so it would be unfair of me to comment. However, my friend (whose hand you see) and some others with us didn’t particularly think it was as revolutionary as Sony thinks it is. The general verdict within my Magnificent Seven was that if today had been a competition, the XBox One would have won (heh). We’re not fan-boys or fan-girls; we just love games. I fear that the PS4 might suffer from the same launch issues that its predecessor did, but I could be wrong. I previewed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in my play-time with the PS4, and the game looked as beautiful there as it might have on the XBox One. This makes all the ridiculous name-calling and posturing on message boards even more useless, but I know that’s what the companies love. Stir the pot, thicken the stew or whatever? I don’t know.

I ended my day with a visit to the booth I’d been waiting on since the start of the day: Warner Bros’, where I got to have some fun with Batman: Arkham Origins.  I was not allowed to take pictures of the booth itself, so here, have this instead:

He's not the hero First Look deserves, but he's the hero it needs...or something.

He’s not the hero First Look deserves, but he’s the hero it needs…or something.

Running on a PlayStation 3, Arkham Origins was as beautiful as they’ve promised it would be. You were only given one mission to complete, but since there was no timer, you had the opportunity to swoop around the city and beat up thugs. The combat system you’ve come to know and love is still there, and it flows even smoother than it did in Arkham City (is that even possible?). I am most anxious to see how Troy Baker (Joker) and Roger Craig Smith (Batman) will hold up to their predecessors (the incomparable Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy). Baker has such a distinct timbre (most recently, as Bioshock Infinite‘s Booker DeWitt and Joel from The Last of Us) that it will be odd to hear him in insane-mode as The Joker. Smith is most notable as Ezio Auditore da Firenze of Assassin’s Creed II (and all subsequent sequels, aside from III) fame, and I’m interested to see how he handles Bruce Wayne

Fun Fact: Troy Baker voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne in LEGO Batman: DC Superheroes Unite.

Also available at the Warner Bros booth was Dying Light, a zombie game that in all actuality looks and plays like a Dead Island clone with a dash of Mirror’s Edge sprinkled on top, except with an incredibly clunkier combat system. I am not sure if this game should have been first-person; it made it feel awkward and enhanced the unrefined combat mechanics. Zombie game fanatics will enjoy it, but for now, it’s not on my Must Buy list.

Final Thoughts

Now that I’ve played both systems, I can honestly say that the hoopla surrounding their specs and which is better than the other is almost a moot point. Both ran at the same speed when I played, with the PS4 doing a slightly better job at handling the heavy weight that is Assassin’s Creed IV, but I encountered a tiny lag with both consoles, so it’s not as if either one was a perfect smooth ride. Black Flag on the PS4 even seemed choppy at some points, but then, that could have been the monitor they had me playing on. This is where most casual gamers find reason to complain: the graphics. And you know what? I reckon that both consoles have more or less the same to offer in that department. More and more it seems that the display you opt to use for your experience will be the deciding factor in the image you are faced with at play-time. For example…outside the XBox One booth, they had a stream of Forza 5 on an LG 60-inch 4K television which was, in a word, amazing. Inside, we played on LED SMART TVs, which didn’t affect the beauty of the games that drastically, but you could see the obvious difference. I’ve always told people that in the end, if you have a crappy display device, what you see will be crappy. HD doesn’t quite work unless your display is, well, HD.

The Forza fan who accompanied me on Sunday had the following to say about his experience, and I agree with him on every point:

After a few minutes of playing both the XBox One and the PS4, it’s still a difficult choice for me to make a conclusion as to which is better. Theoretically, on paper, the PS4 has the advantage. They both have equal-level graphic cards, both are AMD 7000 HD. However, the XBox one uses 8 GB DDR RAM as the processor with a 32 MB eSRAM, which are current generation and for future game development I’m a bit skeptical if the XBox One launch version will remain a strong fighter in the long run. Of course, they might launch new versions in the future, as both companies did this generation. The PS4 has the same graphics card, but their processor is 8GB GDDR5 RAM so…theoretically, the PS4 wins as a gaming system that is geared towards new game development. When it comes to the gaming experience….this was an entirely different story. The exclusive titles for the XBox One dominates PS4 left, right, and centre. The XBox controller feedback was amazing; I didn’t get the same rush or effect when playing on the PS4. This is where it becomes difficult to choose. I’m trying to keep an open mind and not be brand loyal; the facts and theory tell me to go for the PS4, but the feel and exclusivity of games, along with the experience, has me leaning towards the XBox One.

After First Look, it honestly felt as though we were heading to a similar launch scenario as we had with the PlayStation 3: a short catalogue of launch titles, whereas the XBox One has the advantage of, among others, Killer Instinct. On the train ride back, we discussed the fact that as the years tick by, the number of PlayStation exclusives have slowly dwindled; even Metal Gear Solid is no longer safe. For all the marketing push of the PS4 being more developer friendly than the XBox One, why haven’t they landed the prime real estate titles and held onto historically PlayStation exclusives? It’s something to think about, particularly if you, like me, are exhausted with both companies’ PR machines churning out one silly snarky article after another. Personally, I would love to own both systems; however, if I look at what I play and what I plan to play in the future, then an XBox One it should be…just not right away, because I’m not the launch-day-purchase kind of gamer.

Whew! What a post, eh? I hope you enjoyed this run-through of First Look 2013, and I hope it’s at least given you a clear view of where both consoles stand, as we await their release this year. I sure enjoyed attending it, and I’m looking forward to next year. If you attended and have your own thoughts, please feel free to share them. Until then, peace!

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The Console That Cried DRM: XBox One No Longer Big Bad Wolfenstein

Bedtime Post!

History is littered with people in power (from politicians to CEOs) recanting, dismissing or straight-up backpedaling like a Dutch biker trying to brake on a downhill slope. Within the corporate world, one of the most famous retractions of a product or feature is the 1985 debacle of ‘New Coke’ by beverage giant Coca Cola Inc. If you were still just a thought in your parents’ minds at that time, let me just say: it was a massive failure.

More like Bad Joke, amirite?

More like Bad Joke, amirite?

There are many other instances of companies excitedly announcing or just launching a product, and then having to eat their words and take it all back once the collective “WTF?” from their target demographic grew too loud to ignore. However, the entire XBox One Campaign, from the leaks to the reveal to the extended introduction at E3 last week, is going to stand out from the crowd, and for all the wrong reasons. This is the first time even non-gamers aired their concerns over a gaming console, mainly because the XBox One’s slightly creepy Kinect usage and connectivity requirements were introduced at a time when Edward Snowden was being equally creepy in his description of NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens around the globe. Aside from the fact that I was both impressed and wary of the Kinect integration and the always-online (at least every 24 hours) features, the message itself of what XBox One can and can’t do has never been clear and that has been Microsoft’s biggest problem since April.

I discussed this in my review post of the Microsoft E3 press conference so I won’t delve too much into it again, but before I continue, let me just reiterate the following:

1. I am not a fan-girl…I just love gaming. Whether it’s on a PC, an XBox, PlayStation, handheld, Nintendo console or coconut shell has no bearing on my love for this industry.

2. I also love Microsoft, as a company and for their products. I also believe that if you love someone/something, you should be able to criticize or support it without fear of being pimp-slapped…on the Internet. Whether you appreciate them or not, the gaming industry needs Microsoft, just as we need Nintendo, Steam, and Sony, and whoever else wants to toss their hat into the ring. Competition is what drives innovation forward; it’s not all tech guys in hoodies and flip-flops. If there is no competition, then the product can stagnate and nobody can complain because there would be no other options available.

Although I had a feeling they would eventually remove these offending features, I wish they had done it before E3. Earlier today Don Mattrick,  President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, posted a memo to XBox Wire in which he announced that XBox One would no longer:

1. Require an internet connection to play offline XBox One games and the 24-hour connection check-in is now gone as well.

2. Stop gamers from trading, lending, reselling, gifting and renting disc-based games, as would have been the case with the initial policy.

3. Be region locked, which, let me tell you, is a MASSIVE relief to everyone, everywhere.

The entire memo reeked of “kicking rocks now” and “aw shucks”-ness (<— not a word), and this is why I wish they had done this before E3. It was so obvious that they HAD to pull these features back, because the uproar had started even before the reveal event in April. It would have been monumentally more potent to have Mattrick walk onto that E3 stage and say “Guys, you’ve been talking, we’ve been listening. As of right now, XBox One will no longer require” and then proceed with the laundry list of anti-gamer features that were now being retracted. The emotional impact would have been a lot greater with that more personal ‘mea culpa,’ though I think that they had to see the pre-order numbers to really get it through their heads that this memo was practically written for them in April.

Disastrous communications strategy aside, I am happy that Microsoft saw the light and shifted gears on their policy, if only because it would have been a shame to see the console that redefined gaming sink like the Titanic; slowly. There are still those who will nitpick over the Kinect integration, which I honestly don’t mind but maybe that’s because I enjoy sitting on my couch and commanding my console to do stuff.

XBox, Bing: Apology Memo Template.

XBox, Bing: Apology Memo Template.

You have to hand it to the gamers that power this industry, though. Despite the fact that some commentary was downright disrespectful in its vulgarity, for the most part you saw serious, thought-out posts and queries from concerned gamers the world over. I believe that had the backlash been primarily of the “OMG ur mom suxx” variety (and had those dismal pre-order numbers not been readily available), Microsoft may have actually tried to push ahead with this policy strategy, thus inevitably leading to a PlayStation monopoly. This, contrary to popular belief, would be bad for the gaming industry.

So what are your thoughts on this latest installment of Real Executives of Next-Gen Gaming? Has this about-face by Microsoft made you reconsider your pre-order decisions with regards to next-gen consoles? Or are you still put off by the price (which, to be fair, is not that bad considering the Kinect is included)? Do you think Microsoft’s Marketing & Communications Division is currently crying in a corner somewhere? Sound off.

E3 2013: “Do you not have games?!” – The Microsoft Press Con

I went into the Microsoft press conference live stream hoping against hope that they would stick to their word and make it rain games like Lil Wayne at a Vegas strip club. After the communications disaster that has been Microsoft in the wake of their April XBox One Reveal Event, everybody from Don Mattrick to Steven Ballmer’s driver scrambled to drive home the point that yes, E3 would be all about the games. Now that I’ve had an hour or two to digest the entire press conference, let the E3 excitement ease off somewhat and go over my notes and tweets, it’s time to take an objective look at what Microsoft did and did not say at their E3 2013 press conference.

Metal Gear Solid Comes To XBox One

True to their official press statements leading up to E3, Microsoft started and continued their press con with games. What I mean by that simple statement is that they kicked down the door, threw in a couple flashbangs, fired off some shots and when the smoke cleared, we had the reveal trailer for Metal Gear Solid 5. For the XBox One. Meaning, Metal Gear Solid 5 is coming to the XBox One. The game itself boasted the new open world feel, as well as real-time weather, numerous modes of transportation and more. Don Mattrick trotted onto the stage with Hideo Kojima, who beamed while saying that the graphic power of XBox One would make MGS shine. A bold statement, Kojima-san. A bold statement.

OMG It’s An All-New XBox…360?

Completely out of place in the middle of this press conference was the announcement/reveal of a new XBox 360 console, a “smaller, sleeker and quieter version” than the previous slim unit. There will be a 4GB non-Kinect-inclusive edition priced at US$199, and a 250GB model at US$299. The thing is…I don’t think we needed another 360 console. This is my biggest issue with Microsoft lately: the muddled communications message they’ve been putting out. What does a new 360 have to do with communications? Let me explain by using a statement from the late Steve Jobs regarding his thoughts on Google and what they were doing wrong. He told Larry Page that Google needed to focus and not be like Microsoft, i.e., all over the place with their products. As much I am not a fan of Apple, their products or Jobs for that matter, I cannot deny that sometimes, stringent focus is a good thing.

The carefree attitude of companies like Google, such as launching one product and then murdering it off like a character named Stark in a George R.R. Martin novel, does not work for every organisation. I personally think that Microsoft should have focused all the energy in their Interactive Entertainment Division on the XBox One and making it the console that gamers would not hesitate to purchase. This convoluted communications strategy of “Next-gen! Mobile! TV! Social!” and the distracting departure to a “new” current-gen console makes me believe that Microsoft is caught in a serious concentration rut. Don’t come at me with next-gen promises and then randomly toss a “new” 360 in there; it’s unnecessary, and you could have reallocated the cash spent to develop this slimmer slim model into the XBox One design and features in which you don’t actually screw gamers out of ownership. I’m just saying.

It’s Raining Titles

At certain points in the press conference (read: right after the MGS reveal), the event took on a hurried pace, veritably sprinting from one title reveal to another, some for current-gen, some for next-gen. Each received maybe two minutes of screen time before the presenters were bundled off-stage before the next set were brought on. Don Mattrick’s face was one of “Here! Have all the games!” Let’s just have a quick run-through of what was previewed/revealed, and general reactions:

  1. World of Tanks: I viewed gameplay of World of Tanks at last year’s First Look Event in Utrecht. While not 100% impressed, I can see the appeal of the game, but not so much that I would want it on a console. Still though, it will be free to download and play this summer on the 360.
  2. Max – The Curse of Brotherhood: Also for the 360, this is a pretty cute title  from Press Play in Denmark, about a boy who wishes that his brother would disappear. When it happens, he has to face platforms and puzzles (pluzzles?) to rescue him.
  3. Dark Souls II: The first medieval slash and stab of the event. I didn’t really enjoy the first one; maybe the sequel will be better at pulling me in. This title is also coming to the 360.
  4. Ryse – Son of Rome: At this point, all the games are for the next-gen XBox One. We start with Ryse: Son of Rome, which started off with a sleek intro and voiceover about a shining city on seven hills. Then, good gracious gameplay, featuring gratuitous historical violence, including the player issuing commands to their squad. There are QTEs galore in the combat mechanics, which are actually fine with me, but others mind them…a lot. I like the look of the game and I am a sucker for Roman history, so I’m willing to set aside the disdain for QTEs. The phalanx commands add something to the gameplay beyond the usual thrust and parry, bringing every character, both player and AI, into a neat mix.
  5. Killer Instinct: In a literal blitz of a reveal, we discover that Killer Instinct is coming to the XBox One and guess what? It will be ULTRAAAAA EXCLUSIVVVEEEEEE.
  6. Sunset Overdrive: Insomniac (a historically Sony-focused developer, I have to add), introduced this game for XBox One. It made me think of Mirror’s Edge but then, with lots of tie-dye thrown into the spin cycle.
  7. Forza Motorsport 5: A shiny and undeniable sexy McClaren P1 joins the announcer on stage for this title, boasting their new “Drivatar” feature, which learns from other players’ drive techniques, and even races against them when you aren’t actually playing. This took the Creep factor of next-gen social gaming to DEFCON 3, but I can see how true Forza fans will dig it.
  8. Minecraft: Phil Harrison announces the XBox One edition of Minecraft, featuring bigger worlds and multiplayer, as well as grander possibilities. I think I played Minecraft for a total of an hour once on my Galaxy S3 and I didn’t actually enjoy it. I plan to check out the console version soon, so I’m declining to actually comment on this game, as that would not be fair.
  9. Quantum Break: The title previewed by Remedy at the XBox One reveal event is given some more screen time, with  the aim of blurring the lines between gaming and television. Your gameplay creates a personalised version of the TV show…or, Defiance. In any event, it looks beautiful and the ability to freeze, unfreeze and stutter time is interesting enough to make me follow this game’s progress.
  10. D4: Next up, from Hidetaka “Swery65” Suehiro, is D4, a cell-shaded beauty of a game that takes on the episodic style of Telltale fame. The reaction from the Internet varied from “Awww yeah” to “Damn you for making this XBox One exclusive!”
  11. Project Spark: While not exactly a game, Project Spark was what would happen if Kinect and Little Big Planet had a baby and named Smart Glass as godmother. It lets you create, develop and edit your own gameworld (and thus, your own game) that can then be shared with others. You may have read my previous post about Sploder, and what it was doing to foster curiousity and interest in game design. It may not seem like much, but little tidbits such as that, and now Project Spark, are steering us in the right direction with regards to industry growth. I thought it was a cool offering and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.
  12. Crimson Dragon: Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the sound was absent for this demo. However, I can report that it looked pretty freaking cool.
  13. Dead Rising 3: Having never played the first two iterations of Dead Rising, I went into this preview pretty blind. However, I may just have to consider picking it up. Capcom promises no load times for this persistent world and what looks like Dawn of the Dead-esque zombie counts. And really…can you ever have enough zombies?
  14. The Witcher 3: Promising 100 hours of play-time, new combat and a non-linear story. The Must Have game of next-gen? Possibly.
  15. Battlefield 4: What was up with the sound? It was absent at the start of this demo as well, but then they got it back up and running so we could properly enjoy Angry Sea. As pretty as it is, it’s still another military shooter. Hearkens back to warnings about lack of originality. They do promise the first BF4 map pack on XBox One before anywhere else (read: PS4).
  16. What Lies Below: Holy Hannah Montana, an indie game! A creepy but excellently done trailer highlights this multiplayer dungeon game by Capy.
  17. Black Tusk: It’s not the title of a game but the name of a studio, just one of five that Microsoft has churning out titles for the XBox One. They preview it, but with no title.
  18. Halo 5: While not the official title, this started off looking like another trailer for Destiny, but then they mentioned “exclusive” and I realized they were talking about Master Chief. He will be back in 2014 on the XBox One, an all-new Halo enhanced by “cloud computing” and running at 60 FPS. The fan girl in me went “Eeeee!”
  19. Titan Fall: The last XBox One exclusive comes to us from Respawn Entertainment. Basically: Call of Duty meets Mass Effect meets Halo meets Michael Bay. The usual space marine adventure shoot ’em up. Next.

Architecture Digest: The Moment For Clarity Flies Away

Marc Whitten, who so enthusiastically presented the XBox One’s architectural assets at the reveal event, takes the stage to discuss improvements to XBox Live, including but not limited to:

  • SmartGlass connectivity, which provides a timeline, stat comparisons to your friends, video highlights, hints on what to tackle next, and more. In other words, they took almost the entire user interface and experience of Raptr and put it on Smartglass.
  • Smart Match, which enables the player to hunt for a multiplayer match in one game while actually playing another. I’m not too sure of the benefit of such a feature; when I’m deep in, let’s say, a BioShock: We’re Not Done Yet session, I don’t know how likely I am to just duck out of it because I’m a good match for someone in Call of Duty 25: Ninjas. But maybe that’s just me.
  • Upload Studio, which is by far the coolest feature thus far, especially for those who want to be YouTube famous and show off their victories and gameplay. You can edit, record commentary and put your own personal touches on your footage prior to upload.
  • XBox Broadcast, which highlights the partnership between XBox and Twitch TV and the new ability to share directly through a player’s Twitch channel.
  • You get all the friends, so no more Live friend list limits at 100. Additionally: your Microsoft Points will no longer exist. Instead, you will use real money, which is great…I just hope they sort out the various payment methods available to non-North American consumers (such as iDEAL for the Netherlands).
  • XBox Live Gold membership and features can be shared across your household.

Despite all that, Microsoft missed their big chance to finally address (and hopefully, correct) some of the worrying things we’ve been reading about XBox One’s online requirements, privacy concerns over the Kinect, and the catastrophe that is the policy on used/pre-owned games. This bounces us back to my earlier point about the communications message and its confusing delivery. On the one hand, you claim to have produced a console built by gamers, for gamers. On the other, you tout features that were clearly developed by corporations, for corporations. I understand that piracy and other copyright concerns are the priority now, but surely there are other ways to go about protecting yourself than destroying the secondary games market, as I so desperately hoped they wouldn’t. The rest of the world isn’t North America; heck, some parts of North America aren’t Redmond, WA or Silicon Valley. One must keep this in mind when making a machine that wants to claim ‘for gamers, by gamers.’

The End of the Road

The final bit of information was revealed close to the end and it’s the one we were all waiting for: the price. You can get your own XBox One sometime in November 2013 for US$499 or EUR 499 or 429 pounds. Can I just say that I was right and I should really start betting money on these things? Additionally…I am really getting tired of the lazy pricing methodology of just changing the currency symbol for European consumers. EUR 499 is NOT US$499. This isn’t the Cayman Islands; we don’t match 1:1 because we can. In reality, if I were to buy the XBox One at launch, I would be shelling out the US$ equivalent of $660, and that’s before they add the 21% BTW (VAT) onto my bill. Add to this that the rumor is that games will cost US$80 (the same in EUR, so about…US$100?) and you have a recipe for disaster and also, PIRACY. Not by me. But I do know some who are already itching to take a crack at a hack. Stings a bit harder for us, Microsoft.

All in all, I was impressed with the line-up and delivery of the titles we can expect for 360 and XBox One. While still not enough to make me consider a launch-time purchase, it was much more gamer-focused than the reveal event yet still leaves us with some lingering questions and concerns. I’m not staying up for the Sony press con, but will have that review for you tomorrow when I see the replay.

XBox One Announced, Rejoice!

My people…the next generation XBox has come forth, and tomorrow shall dawn a brighter day, for it is grand and it is…black! Behold: XBox One.

Better Than A Little Black Dress.

Better Than A Little Black Dress.

For anyone raising an eyebrow at the enthusiastic announcement of the pretty basic name, the logic behind the simplistic moniker became glaringly clear as the fast-paced presentation went on. And fast-paced it was. We literally blitzed through this event, which had a significantly more upbeat tempo than Sony’s early-2013 event announcing the PlayStation 4. XBox One is aiming to be just that: your one-stop shop for gaming, social connectivity, and audio-visual entertainment. I could hardly live-tweet as fast as they kept throwing stuff at us, and I know that this is due to the fact that Microsoft is holding back the bulk of its “OMG WOW” factors for E3. And since that’s going to be a tweetin’ bloggin’ extravaganza, I’ll try to keep this post short, focusing on the points that both excited and depressed me:

THRILLS

The Future Is Now: Voice Control

When Yusef Mehdi, Senior VP of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business line, said “XBox On” and the screen behind him came to life, I could but utter one word: Finally. Sometimes I stare at my Kinect in disgust because I can’t just turn on my XBox with a simple voice command. I know it’s not Kinect’s fault, but I have issues with misplaced frustration. XBox One aims to alleviate the stress I direct at Kinect by making it possible to turn the console on with just an utterance of “XBox On.” Laziness Level: Expert.

Fifteen Exclusives, Eight New IPs

I don’t even have to go into how great this is, especially with the promise of eight new franchises delivered for XBox One. I’m particularly excited about Remedy’s preview of Quantum Break. Fresh new content is the injection the industry needs, and after the usual suspects being rolled out at Sony’s press-con, I’m happy XBox has locked up some original product for their next-gen offering.

A scene from Remedy's Quantum Break.

A scene from Remedy’s Quantum Break.

Live-Action Halo Series With Steven Spielberg

The only two words that matter in that headline are Steven and Spielberg. I was kind of confused as to Nancy Tellum’s presence, but started to piece it together when she introduced 343 Industries’ Bonnie Ross. Anyone who followed the Halo 4 hype juggernaut watched at least one episode of the web series ‘Forward Unto Dawn.’ I appreciated the way that the story of FUD wove into the actual Halo 4 plot, and so I thought they might be announcing another web series to prep us for an upcoming Halo title. I did not even contemplate the possibility of a live-action series, much less think about the involvement of someone like Steven Spielberg. Needless to say, I’m excited to see what they can create. Forward Unto Dawn was really the best marketing tool I’d seen a game employ in a long time, and the Halo universe stretches beyond just the games, as Ross correctly stated at the beginning of her presentation. Now if only BioWare and EA would take note for Mass Effect…

EA: FIFA, NBA, Madden and…UFC

Far be it for me to say that UFC has no place among the likes of FIFA, Madden and the NBA, but I say, bravo to EA for diversifying their offering. To even be marketed alongside those three heavy-hitters is an accomplishment, and I’m looking forward to seeing the real star of those games, the new EA Sports Ignite engine, shine through on the new XBox One hardware.

Better Hardware, Better Kinect…Better You

One of my gripes, and that of many others, regarding Sony’s PlayStation 4 announcement was the complete and utter lack of hardware present. The only tangible item available was the controller, which was nicely innovative in its own right, but not enough to really sate the blood-thirsty masses. Then yesterday, Sony does what any good marketing department would do, and “blindsides” Microsoft’s event today with a sneak peek of their console…which really just amounted to a strobe-light effect while various bits of it flashed across the screen. I put blindsides in quotation marks because it seemed as though Microsoft (and anyone with a brain, really) had anticipated Sony’s sucker punch, as all through their event today, every presenter seemed to walk with an added spring in their step, as if to say “We got this, ya’ll.”

The XBox One is sleek and, for lack of  a better word, sexy. I really hate using that word and I dislike when marketing professionals use it, but there really is no other word I could use to describe the console, the new controller and the new Kinect unit. The improvements made to the Kinect, which were necessary considering the level of multitasking the XBox One boasts, are a blessing. Also: Skype group calling. Thank you.

CHILLS

Live TV, ESPN Sports connectivity

Of course, any launch event has one or two moments where you cringe a bit and shake your head, as if to say “why would you wear that to a cocktail reception?” I only had two of these moments with the XBox One launch; this is one of them. The industry had already speculated that this console, much like Sony’s PS4, would focus on the entertainment factor as being more integral to the device’s abilities than the gaming factor. I wasn’t surprised to see Microsoft bust out the live TV functionality, and the ESPN Sports connectivity possibilities. The integration of fantasy play had my US friends chomping at the bit.

But for myself, and those gamers who do not live in North America, all that you heard from us was a collective groan. While my brother-from-another-mother in Brooklyn is enjoying switching between a Skype call with me and a live NFL match on his XBox One, I’ll be once again lamenting the fact that European XBox Live subscribers pay the same amount of money as North American subscribers for maybe 30% of the functionality that our American and Canadian counterparts receive. I understand completely the reasoning behind the lack of TV content, and truthfully, Pathe Thuis (movie-streaming service from the theater chain here) is now available on XBox 360, but there is still plenty that we do not have access to, while still paying the same price.

No Price Point

Okay, so I’m nitpicking. But I was really hoping to have a ballpark figure around which to build my plan to give up food, social interaction and possibly electricity. Twitter blew up when they didn’t mention a release date and I really have to say, this argument is getting old. We should all know by now how “the game” is played. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a release date before E3, unless of course your name is Nintendo. So let’s stop that little bit of nitpicking. A price point, however, is something I think you should be able to hint at…simply to give everyone a chance to prepare their wallets for the Special Victims Unit case its about to become.

THE BOTTOM LINE

XBox One’s spec-sheet reads like this:

– an 8-core CPU.

– 8 GB of RAM.

– 500 GB hard drive.

– USB 3.0.

– Blu-ray drive (Finally! Am I right?).

– Integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi (also finally).

– Thousands more servers to handle online play, and dedicated DVR capabilities for game-capture.

– A new 1080p Kinect camera that detects the slightest movement of your wrist, as well as your heartbeat. Hopefully if you overdo it on Nike Training With Kinect, it will also call 911 for you.

– After the event, Microsoft confirmed that XBox One was NOT going to feature always-online DRM, and everywhere, gamers and retailers sighed in collective relief.

Throughout the entire event, a die-hard PlayStation fan friend of mine kept freaking out as they threw out feature after feature. We followed it live with other gamer friends on Facebook; my notifications are now broken. People didn’t even care that the only games really shown were Forza Motorsport, Quantum Break and the world premiere of Call of Duty: Ghosts. The sheer power of the machine outshone whatever actual gameplay may have debuted. It’s safe to say that this event succeeded where Sony’s faltered: the previously non-XBox fans are frothing at the mouth.

E3 is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting this year, my friends.

Adam Orth & The Prisoner of Always-On DRM

Good morning, web surfers! The temperature today is a frigid 7°C and we’ve got slightly heavy fog rolling in from London or Norway or whatever. If for some reason you don’t have the Internet because you either can’t afford it or live somewhere that still tends to use smoke signals as a communication method, then you are more beast than human and I don’t have time for you.

That’s basically the message these days, right?

This post isn’t going to focus on Adam Orth. There’s enough on him going around the web, and if this week’s reports are true, he’s out of a job for failing to realize that a public Twitter profile is available to, well, the public. Did Orth come across as a jerk in his Twitter exchange with who was then revealed to be a friend, as well as those who picked up on the back and forth and subsequently voiced their own thoughts? Yes. But then, it’s the Internet, where 140 characters paints the most unflattering pictures when not used properly. Forget Orth, forget his sarcasm and the reports of him being an insufferable muppet by former colleagues from a plethora of companies. At the end of the day, Microsoft hasn’t denied or confirmed the issue behind his tweets: that the next-gen Xbox would host an always-online DRM feature that requires a consistent internet connection in order to play.

Always On

I’ve briefly mentioned this before, but requiring a console to be constantly connected during play is one giant nail in the coffin for many existing and budding gamers in this world. Let’s face it: there are still countries, and areas of various countries, that have shoddy connectivity, if they’ve even got connectivity at all. The ignorance behind Orth and many others’ comments of “we’re all always connected” is so blatantly obvious, I’m surprised someone didn’t just pat him on the head and direct him to visit somewhere other than a big city. It’s amazing the statements people make when they haven’t experienced the other side of the coin.

I’ll be honest with you. The island I hail from has one of the most frustrating internet connectivity ratings within the entire Caribbean region, at least in my opinion. The challenges that I face when trying to have a simple Xbox Live match with my friends still living there are ridiculously frustrating, to the point where many a controller has been flung across a room in dejected defeat. Does this limit the growth of the gaming community there? No, because luckily, an internet connection is only required for online play, and most of us just tend to set up separate monitors and system link our consoles to get some rousing matches going. The community grows as a result, and that should be the goal here. But requiring a consistent connection to play even the non-online features of a game? Then we run into a problem.

Because let’s be honest: despite coming incredibly far, internet access for the true masses is still a work in progress. Even CIA World Factbook statistics should be considered slightly unreliable, because internet connectivity in certain countries is based off multiple sessions by possibly the same user and is muddied by measuring and lumping in mobile device access. In Orth’s home-country, the USA, there are areas that have weak or practically non-existent connectivity levels. His own friend pointed that out to him, mentioning Janesville, Wisconsin and Blacksburg, Virginia.

We dare you to find bandwidth here.

We dare you to find bandwidth here.

Perhaps the best response to comments like “deal with it” regarding always-on DRM is to just be silent and point to Diablo 3 and SimCity. I have a friend who took the day off to thoroughly enjoy his copy of SimCity on launch day. You hear that? He took a day off of work, his source of income, to enjoy a game he’d just spent money on. And his reward was…zilch. I don’t believe we should just learn from our own mistakes; we should also try and learn from others’ errors, and make damn sure we don’t imitate them at their worst.

I wish Orth the best of luck in his future endeavours, but his part in this story served its purpose. It exposed the apparent lack of insight by some in the industry and highlights an overall ignorance of the larger world. If the idea here, as it is in most businesses, is to keep existing customers while attracting new ones, well, requiring players to maintain internet connectivity throughout a session for NON-ONLINE features isn’t the way to go. Couple that with an increase in micro-transactions, and a host of other nickel and dime tactics, and an industry that some say is already struggling seems to just take pleasure in shooting itself in the foot.

The PlayStation 4 (Controller) Launch Press Con: Questions, Questions, Everywhere…

Let me start off by saying that I live tweeted the event from its start until about an hour and 45 minutes in, which was quite a feat considering I had to be at work early in the morning. Time differences are not kind. Now that a colleague has talked me off the ledge of breaking my almost year-long coffee ban, let me see if I can recall what I did see and piece together the bits I missed (like the Watch Dogs preview; so pissed I fell asleep before that). There were two buzz words dominating last night’s sometimes shaky experience (for example, nobody applauding after the Killzone Shadowfall demo) and each trendy term applies to different parties: mobile is for PS4 and familiarity is for me.

Mark Cerny, the most enthusiastic speaker there.

Mark Cerny, the most enthusiastic speaker there.

Anyone who stayed up to watch the press conference knows that they didn’t actually show you the console itself, but that’s to be expected. E3 is still a few months away and it wouldn’t be a console war if Sony didn’t do this dog and pony show now to one-up Microsoft. This does not mean that I like it or approve of it, but we’ll get to that eventually. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t surprised at the lack of actual hardware display. Nor was I actually surprised at the early discussion of the PlayStation Vita; as I tweeted, Sony really had no other choice but to offer you Wii-U functionality of porting your game to your Vita in order to make that platform even a tad more appealing. A PS3 fan friend of mine furiously WhatsApped me the same text but with more profanity, which gave me a laugh. But yes…Sony revealed that you can port your in-progress game to your PS Vita in the event your kids or grandmother take over the TV, enabling you to resume play while they watch Yo Gabba Gabba or Price Is Right. What’s more, Sony spent a major chunk of the start of the press conference stressing that yes, gaming has moved beyond the living room and that to enhance the gamer’s experience, they will be supporting connectivity with iOS and Android devices with a second-screen app. Strange…I felt like I was looking at a combination of the Wii-U and the XBox SmartGlass presentation. I honestly believe that the focus on mobile connectivity and the constant emphasis of connecting with your friends via Facebook and UStream, and even giving a friend the possibility to access your game if you’re ‘having a hard time with a particular level’ muddled the presentation a bit and was just meant to pacify the rabid gaming journalists who spent all of 2012 screaming MOBILE at the console developers. I don’t care about being able to use Facebook on my console; I have a phone and a PC for that. Sony doesn’t think that’s enough though, so they put a dedicated Share button on the controller to allow you to record and share game-play videos instantly. That’s about the only cool bit I thought about the whole social connectivity stress point; game-play videos from my friends are always enjoyable.

After showing us the snazzy new dashboard interface (*cough*XBOX*cough*), they then moved on to show off some launch titles, including Killzone: Shadow Fall and Drive Club. The latter looked pretty engaging; the former looked, unfortunately, like more of the same. The one title that caught my eye was Infamous: Second Son, and this is an IP I’ve always meant to play but never got the opportunity. I had an inkling that Bungie would display Destiny at this press conference but yes, I was fast asleep before that came around, so I had to catch up on that via GamesIndustry et al this morning. After Killzone, Drive Club and Infamous, Sony gave the stage to David Cage of Quantic Dream and Media Molecule, respectively. This led to a pretty funny contrast wherein Cage made some e-love to the polygon and MM went on to declare war on said polygon in their presentation. Media Molecule then trotted out the PlayStation Move and displayed some creative activities that the Move now suddenly possesses, thanks to PlayStation 4. I’m just gonna let Regina George respond to that.

Stop trying to make the Move happen. It's not going to happen!

Stop trying to make the Move happen. It’s not going to happen!

I signed off around this time, not thoroughly impressed enough to stay up beyond 2 AM. Let’s just get through a round-up of what we were told:

1. Bungie promised that the PlayStation 4 would receive exclusive Destiny content, which kind of ticked me off but then, it’s not as if XBox doesn’t have these moments as well.

2. The PlayStation 4 will come with 8 GB of unified on-board memory, so, hurrah for that.

3. The controller features, as mentioned before, the Share button (for the gamer who Facebooks while gaming) and a touchpad.

4. Launch titles will follow the usual pattern of FPS/Racing/Puzzle…I’m waiting for the RPG/fantasy adventure game to pop out.

5. Blizzard has come down to mingle with the commoners, with Diablo 3 confirmed for both the PS3 and the PS4.

6. Because they’re probably having issues selling them now, Sony has woven the Vita and the Move into the fabric of the PlayStation 4 (making you have to buy a whole new platform to get Wii-U functionality), kind of like that annoying pocket on polo shirts. Seriously…pockets on polo shirts? But I digress…

7. The controller will interact with what is called the PlayStation Eye (aka the XBox Kinect).

8. It’s going to revolutionize the way we do gaming…haha no just kidding, I just really wanted to use that line. Fans of the late series Better Off Ted will know what I’m talking about. Instead of using that awesome line, Sony stressed that the PS4 was going to be epic. EPIC.

And now…the ugly truth of it…

Have you ever had a moment at work when your boss asks you for a presentation or a report, but they don’t exactly state what they want in it? There’s no information provided as to the parameters of the research, the timeline for delivery, the desired content or even the platform they’d prefer for presentation. Isn’t that frustrating? That must have been how the poor marketers behind this press conference must have felt. I can see it now:

Sony Exec, sinisterly twirling his mustache: We’ve got to announce the PS4 months ahead of E3 so we can beat Microsoft to the punch! I need you to draw up enough presentations to stuff between the developers’ speeches.

Sony Marketer: Hey, that’s  great! We’ll get on it right away. All we need are some stock photos of the platform-

Sony Exec, now sipping on some brandy: You can’t have those.

Sony Marketer: Um…okay. Well, we can at least start out with the new logo and maybe the release date flashed underneath at the end of the video. The initial price point can come later, maybe the Group CEO can close off the conference with it!

Sony Exec, back to the mustache: No. You can’t have that either.

Sony Marketer: I…well…okay. What do we have to work with here?

Sony Exec, leaving the room: Not much, actually. Just this controller here. *thunk* And the new logo. It’ll be great, I can feel it! Great work!

Sony Marketer: …..

Yeah, that conversation that totally took place in my head quite succinctly sums up what we didn’t learn at the press conference. And as I said before, I understand why: the ongoing console war between Microsoft and Sony. I leave Nintendo out of that statement because I think they don’t spend half as much time trying to one-up their competitors. There’s also an argument for marketing tactics; if you tease a little bit between now and E3, you remain relevant and that’s the key to success, right? Only it’s gotten boring and frankly, insulting to our intelligence as gamers. As Eric states in his well-written and much more technically insightful post about the press conference, which you can read here, we’re a much more informed and critical market and can clearly recognize when we’re having the marketing wool pulled over our eyes. It’s almost as if Sony has been doing business under a rock and doesn’t realize that teasers don’t have the same effect as they once did. The information is out there and waiting to be consumed…by consumers! The disappointing thing is that it’s usually Sony pulling this stunt. Does it really make sense to continue this ridiculous trend of announcing before Microsoft and wasting a ton of cash on a lukewarm press event to just state the name of the product and show us…a controller? And the Move? The Vita? What now?

This would be more of a war (and less insulting to us) if you just waited for E3 and announced right alongside Microsoft, because that would mean you’d actually have to show us something of substance and give us some actual information. “Leaks” are all well and fine for generating the buzz, so I’m not sure why any company would insist on hosting underwhelming press events scattered between here and E3 to truly make an impression on their target market. This press con played out like an extended leak. It’s not endearing and I’d prefer to see a no-holds-barred slug fest on the E3 stage than be fed tiny morsels that are not filling and beg the question of “Please Sony, may we have some more?”

Sony Marketer: Maybe just the release date…please?

Sony Exec: Yeahhhhh…no.

Sony Marketer: *sigh*

Next-Gen Consoles vs. Used Games Market: Is It Really A Bad Thing?

Yesterday the Internet choked on the veritable glut of tech-site articles all wondering the same thing: will the next-gen XBox murder the secondary games market? The concern stemmed from unconfirmed (or confirmed, if AppyGamer is to be believed) rumours that Microsoft was implementing several slightly unwelcome features to the new XBox:

  1. Making the switch to 50 GB-capacity Blu-ray discs, thus abandoning the HD-DVD format.
  2. Absolute commitment to online functionality, with game discs still available for purchase so probably, always-on DRM system.
  3. Games purchased on disc will ship with activation codes, thus invalidating it for re-sale/trade-in and tying them to the online account of the original purchaser.

Writers immediately seized on the glaringly obvious (at least to anyone who ever took a business class) economic downfall facing Microsoft if the last two plot-points actually become a thing. Upon consuming all the information available, which I have to reiterate is still just a collection of rumours, I too was incensed at the thought that physical copies of a game could no longer be traded, re-sold, or handed down to the younger set of gamers in my family. Commentary exploded with the anticipated “Microsoft sucks, I’m totes buying a PS4,” to which I say “you clearly don’t read enough because Sony’s announced similar plans.” Gamers brought up the idea of not being able to borrow games from friends, which was my #1 decision-making methodology before I had a job, and others mentioned that this would basically make GameStop et al obsolete which, who cares what happens to those relative thieves, am I right?

Anyway, after some thought though, you can kind of see the pros and cons of these (rumoured) decisions. Let’s take a look:

PROS:

– Longevity: I went back to run through Arkham Asylum the other day, intending to write a Replay Values post related to it. Guess what? It had a scratch and I was not able to replay it. If I had a console with major space to accommodate downloaded IPs, I wouldn’t have this problem, would I?

– Potential for lowered pricing. Notice I said ‘potential.’ I haven’t written anything about this, since I’d already addressed it on a previous blog, but being a gamer on the other side of the Atlantic is EXPENSIVE. So it would be awesome if I could download a full game for a fraction of the price I pay at GameMania, Bol.com, Wehkamp.nl, etc. When you’re shelling out the equivalent of US$70-80 for a game, your wallet cries. This is due entirely to what I call the Symbol switch. Basically, retailers take the US price and slap a ‘€’ in front of it. It happens with most everything tech-wise and it’s a pain. Anyway…it’d be great to have this happen, but ‘potential’ is a pretty heavy word when it comes to money and games.

– Evolution of the industry: Let’s face it, Valve is pressing the console makers’ buttons and they’re trying to answer now. But it’s funny that critics are up in arms about this when Steam basically employs the same concept. It may have an offline mode, but from what I’ve witnessed of friends’ experiences, you might as well not utilize it.

– Cuts down on piracy: Who am I kidding? I couldn’t even type that without bursting out into raucous laughter.

CONS

For my part, there is one main consequence to always-on DRM and choking off the secondary market: limiting accessibility. What percentage of consoles are online? How many buyers possess a reliable connection to enable them to comply with these new regulations? Those are the questions that essentially need a response. Let’s face it; not everyone can afford a brand new console or brand new games. I know many game lovers who rely on that secondary market to indulge in their favourite hobby, and doesn’t that help all of us? That the base is consistently and continually strengthened? More to the point, not everyone has access to a broadband connection, in particular gamers living in those countries that have a weak ICT infrastructure. There are other issues really, for example server downtime, but those are kinks that Steam users have to contend with now, so there shouldn’t really be an uproar about that. The primary goal of any industry should be to create more consumers of your product. That’s how you cultivate adoration and support, and limiting the accessibility to games is like cutting off access to art by stopping poster prints of the great works. I frankly don’t think it’s going to happen, but I guess we’ll all learn more when E3 hits.

Until next time.