Gaming Doldrums: Pre-Order Pressure & Assassination Exploitation

I was on holiday for some time, and in addition to that, life got crazy (again). But I’ve spent some time catching up on important gaming news and I’m back to ask…what in the actual heck?

You know how the summer is known as a gaming Dead Zone, since there are no major releases and the post-E3 lull has gamers resembling a young child that’s experiencing a severe sugar crash. We replay old games, grind for hours on whatever multiplayer holds our fancy, or put our imagination through its paces by thinking about upcoming titles that we’re just too damned excited about.

*sigh*

I am completely used to being bored out of my skull, gaming-wise, during the summer months. What I never expected to face, though, was a world in which I could potentially be bored out of my skull, gaming-wise, throughout the entire year. I find myself in an enhanced state of “meh” when I think about the titles that are releasing towards the end of 2014 and the start of 2015. Jeez…wasn’t it just yesterday we were getting ready to launch into a new console generation? Crazy. Anyway, lost in the hub-bub of E3 was Assassin’s Creed COMET, which I personally thought meant we would have AC on the MOON, a la Wolfenstein TNO…this would have meant that Ubisoft had utterly lost it, of course.

 

Soon….

However, AC Comet is now Assassin’s Creed Rogue, or, as I like to call it, Ubisoft Open World Game #45, in which you play a Templar named Shay who is given the arduous task of taking out as many assassins as possible. Considering the title is called AC Rogue, I figure somewhere along the way, Shay is going to have an identity crisis wherein he wonders why he follows the Templar order and ends up killing his master/brothers to atone for his sins. Rogue will be released exclusively on XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 and, according to Ubisoft, will be linked to the Kenway Family adventures before the events of Black Flag AND will serve as a lead-in for the events that will occur in AC Unity, which launches for the XBox One and PS4. Say what you will about Ubisoft, but they sure aren’t afraid to hedge their bets. Stuck on previous-gen? We gotcha. Graduated to the big leagues? We gotcha. But aren’t you just exploiting the customer base at this point? I loved Assassin’s Creed right up to the release of Black Flag which, while immensely entertaining when I was on my ship, lacked that extra spice once I hopped off said ship and actually tried to have a story. That Rogue has been snuck into the line-up after a “leak” revealed its trailer and basic story elements does not surprise me; two Assassin’s Creed games in one year? Why not. Ubisoft has been looking more like Activision every year, anyway. What does it tell you that I have yet to finish Watch_Dogs, aka Watch Assassin’s Creed Far Cry of Chicago Dogs?

Perhaps what really irks me is the fact that Rogue has been cobbled together by seven…SEVEN Ubisoft studios around the world, but when asked about female playable assassins for Unity, we were served up a steaming pile of excuses, ranging from delays to the game to the ridiculous “too much work” logic trotted out by creative director Alex Amancio. You know…if you’d reallocated resources from the seven studios working on the useless title that is Rogue, perhaps you could have developed some female assassins for Unity, or at the very least some assassins that reflect the smaller populations within your consumer base. I dunno, I mean, I’m no rocket scientist, but if I want to make a quality product that begins to reflect my corporation’s line of diversity and inclusion, I’d assign additional resources to getting that done. Perhaps it’s just me. At any rate, for the first time in my life, I have no plans to get an AC game. I’ll make do with Unity, since I already planned to get an XBox One for the Master Chief Collection.

Heeee….

 

The last bit of gaming news that made me bristle was the announcement that the original movie cast would be available as pre-order DLC for Alien Isolation. Wait. What?

Yes. You can only play as Ripley and the gang if you pre-order the title. Additionally, you only get access to both “special missions” when you pre-order at GameStop. If you decide not to pre-order because, let’s face it, there are TWO Assassin’s Creed titles coming out this year and you’ve gotta save up so you can do some assassinatin’, then you have to wait until the DLC is offered up as a separate paid download. WHAT?

If a developer wants to endear people to their titles, they should cater to the fan base. I am a huge Alien fan. I am a massive Sigourney Weaver fan. Those are not entities that are able to be logically separated when speaking about a game based on the movie that encompasses both. How do you have an Alien game without Ripley? I dunno. How do you have a Mario game without Mario? What’s a hedgehog if he’s not Sonic? I dunno. These are the questions that haunt me as we continue to spiral into this nickle ‘n dime world where, surprisingly, EA is still the largest offender. I’ve hardly seen any official backlash to the Alien Isolation pre-order pressure, save for an excellent video from Escapist’s Jim Sterling. There are the usual comments under posts discussing the title on IGN etc, but for the most part, Jim and GamingAnarchist are the only two I’ve really seen go nuts about it. Go check that rant out and you’ll see why you should be more pissed off about this game. I am exhausted with the level of lip-service we keep being served by developers and then while waiting for release day, those lips are replaced by giant pythons that wrap around us and try to squeeze every possible cent for every possible bit of content that SHOULD just be part of the actual title at launch. Are we going to be a happy player base when we’re forced to hop from retailer to digital retailer to wherever to get ALL the content that really makes our game? What is the European solution for those who want to play Alien Isolation’s DLC and can only get one Ripley mission because well, we don’t have GameStop on this side of the pond? Did anyone at SEGA have a meeting before they made this decision? Again. These are the questions that haunt me.

Are you planning to throw your chips in and get Alien Isolation or Assassin’s Creed Rogue? Sound off.

Review Ahoy: The Black Flag of Freedom Cry

You may be wondering why it’s taken me so long to review Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. I do have a very good reason for the delay, and that’s because I was waiting for the Freedom Cry DLC to release. I felt that this would provide a more complete overview of this latest AC title and, to be quite honest, I was so utterly bored by the main storyline that I hoped the DLC would add some fire to a lackluster game.

Assassin’s Creed Snore: Black Lag

Low Points

We’re going to just get the bad mojo out there before we get to the good stuff, because I can think of no other way to properly review Assassin’s Creed IV. But be ye warned: there lay spoilers ahead!

Arr.

Arr.

As I started the single player campaign for AC IV BF, I was struck with a horrible thought: Ubisoft is like the French Activision, in that the AC franchise is starting to feel a little Call of Duty-ish. It seemed like just last year I was air-assassinating black bears as the most wooden assassin since Altair: Connor. Oh wait…it WAS just last year (this is bearing in mind that AC IV released in 2013, and that’s when I bought and played it). I couldn’t recall ever getting excited for this game beyond the promised ship-based adventures and really, that’s the best part of Black Flag. Once Edward Kenway gets settled on the Jackdaw, there was no stopping me when it came to plundering ships on this epic nautical map. This is not to say that there were no glitches to be found along with the plunder. There is no way that as a fresh pirate with a bare-bones ship, I should have been able to take down a level 39 Man ‘o War, but thanks to said MoW somehow flipping onto its side and exposing its hull, I was able to pummel it enough to capture and send it to my fleet. I’m not setup for video capture from my 360, but I’m sure you’ve seen some of the more hilarious ship-related glitches in this game.

Secondary to overturned ships were just little errors that were distracting and, considering how hard I had to work to keep up my interest level for the main story, I found myself more frustrated with their appearance than I have ever been with game glitches. My personal favourite has to be when my crewmen were dangling in mid-air as we’re sailing at travel speed. I played around with that for a while, changing directions and then bringing the Jackdaw to a dead stop in the water. The crew would then revert to normal behaviour, hanging onto the mast and climbing the ropes…until I started sailing again! Argh…and not in the pirate way.

Black Flag also suffers from a serious case of BORING STORY. Sorry. I tried to think of something clever to say here, but all the thinking time in the world couldn’t yield better snark. It goes without saying that there will never be another Ezio, who had some personality and I believe will go down as the favourite assassin. I was annoyed with Connor as a character and thus could not muster half a damn to give for his dilemma. Haytham was by far the best character in AC III and so I assumed that a game dedicated to the exploits of his father would be exciting and captivating. At this moment, I can’t quite explain what was happening with his wife, Charlotte…or was it Caroline? Christina? Whatever. See what I mean? I have cared more about Call of Duty characters than I do about Edward’s story, and while the historical bits and “surprise!” moments (though really, who didn’t see that James Kidd thing coming?) were fun they don’t make up for the lackluster character development.

High Points

As I’ve said before, the times you’re on the Jackdaw, sailing through the Caribbean Sea and raiding British, Spanish or French ships are among the game’s best moments. The sea shanties are particularly brilliant, and I know I’m not the only one singing along with the crew. Visually, Black Flag is a stunningly beautiful game. Coming from a Caribbean island myself, I have to commend Ubisoft on capturing the beautiful shades of blue and green that we have in our waters, as well as the tiny land masses that are mostly found in the Bahamas’ area. That being said, I did chuckle when the map made it appear as though Jamaica and Nassau are relatively close together when in truth they are quite some distance apart. Not doing anything to improve people’s geographical prowess, then.

The addition of Kenway’s Fleet makes your nautical adventures that much more interesting. I loaded my fleet with frigates and Man ‘o Wars, salvaging and upgrading as I gained the ability to take down more powerful ships. The Ubisoft companion app came in handy here and is a nice touch; I send my ships out in the morning while on the train to work and then collect the cash when I get home. And trust me, you will need cash in this game. Some of the upgrades for the ship are ridiculously expensive, and the game urges you to plunder by tacking on material requirements (cloth, metals, etc), all of this contributing to the making the nautical aspect the game’s defining feature.

Finally, while he’s about as interesting as Twilight when he’s talking, Edward is pretty cool when swashbuckling. Yes, there were some glitches, but I did enjoy his reckless fighting style, particularly when using just the hidden blades. There were some finishing moves that were so full of bone-crunching, muscle-tearing goodness, it brought a tear to my eye. He possesses some of the same flourish as Connor (bless him) but with less control and precision. Basically, if Edward’s going to stab you, there’s no telling where he’ll land. It made for fun combat, and I appreciated this plus point to an otherwise boring character.

To Plunder or Not To Plunder?

If you’re a die-hard Assassin’s Creed fan, you will get this game. Do I recommend it for people new to the series? No. Hell, I don’t even recommend AC I for newcomers, but that’s not the point here. I would prefer that Ubisoft take two to three years to fine tune their AC titles before releasing them as the glitchy, lackluster time-waster that Black Flag ends up being once you’ve completed the story. The wear and tear is beginning to show, more than it did for AC III, and the worst part is that Ubisoft doesn’t seem to care. Let’s not even get started on the annoying ‘meta-ness’ of when you’re out of the Animus and are wandering around “Abstergo” offices, hacking your colleagues’ Animuses (Animi? I don’t know) and discovering all the shady secrets of the Subject 17 project. Those moments were super distracting for me and added nothing to the game, not even when that nut job from IT turns out to be who you think it is all along (if you’d managed to pay attention, that is). Keep reading as we dive into the Freedom Cry DLC.

Freedom Cry: Sensitive Ubisoft Is Sensitive

Whenever a developer tries to tackle a sensitive subject, whether it’s something that happened in the past or is currently occurring somewhere in the world, people generally cringe, unsure as to how the game will turn out visually and emotionally. Two such subjects are the holocaust and slavery. In my next post (sometime this week), I’ll speak more in-depth about this, but for now check out this article, about Luc Bernard and his crusade to make a game solely about the holocaust. Right now, we’re going to take a look at the Freedom Cry DLC for Black Flag, and how Ubisoft took that other hyper-sensitive subject, slavery, and built game content around it. 

Picture credit to Diehard Game Fan.

Picture credit to Diehard Game Fan.

Freedom Cry focuses on Adewale, Captain Kenway’s quartermaster for most of the main story. Adewale is a former slave, having escaped from his Trinidadian plantation when it was raided by pirates. He speaks of his experience as a black man on the high seas in the main story, and at some point in the game he leaves your side to find a higher purpose with the assassins. There are some well done interactions between Adewale and the people in Kenway’s life, particularly when one of them comments “You let him carry a pistol?” and Edward berates him for insulting his quartermaster. Nice touch, that. In Freedom Cry, set 15 years after the events of Black Flag, Adewale is captain of his own ship, running errands on behalf of the Assassin Brotherhood. After raiding a Templar convoy, he steals a parcel addressed to a woman residing in Port-au-Prince, but he doesn’t get a chance to discover what’s in the box before a storm shipwrecks him on the shores of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti). From hereon out, he lends his considerable aid to the cause of the Maroons of Port-au-Prince. If you’re unsure who the Maroons were, click here to educate yourself.

I went in giving Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt and, despite Freedom Cry sporting many of the glitches that plagued Black Flag’s main story, I was pleasantly surprised and more than a little emotional with their handling of this subject. Please keep in mind that this is my own opinion; if you don’t like it, feel free to respectfully disagree. Much like the holocaust, I don’t think people will ever quite understand how horrifying slavery was, from the journey across the Atlantic to the indignities suffered by the slaves in the Caribbean. On the island of Curacao, there is an exhibition where you head underground and get an idea of what it was like to be packed, stacked and shackled like sardines in the cargo hold of a ship for months at a time. Freedom Cry slaps you in the face with this reality towards its emotional ending, which I won’t spoil here.

The best thing about this DLC is that Adewale plays like an entirely different character to Kenway. He is big and muscular, and he makes it count in his combat encounters. You can’t help but wonder if being surrounded by the injustice of slavery drives his brutality when executing slave overseers and guards. Freedom Cry wastes no time in throwing you into the plight of the Maroons, but all around you there are examples of what life was like for slaves in the Caribbean. There are cages to be unlocked, runaway slaves to rescue and auctions to stop, all in the name of recruiting Maroons for the revolution. The town crier proclaims the conditions of Le Code Noir, a royal decree that contained “guidelines” for the handling of slaves in the French colonies, including how often and with what tools a slave could be punished. How kind, right? Still, it’s the kind of detail that we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Ubisoft and they deliver ten-fold.

Picture credit to Ubisoft.

Picture credit to Ubisoft.

You are still able to upgrade your ship, though I spent less time on the seas in Freedom Cry than I did in Black Flag. Ships react to your vessel with alarming quickness, particularly when you’re tasked with intercepting slave ships and their escorts. I actually cannot recall having Hunters on my trail in Black Flag as quickly as they are in Freedom Cry. I took it as an indication that for a horrific time in human history, human cargo was more valuable than rum and sugar and thus painted a target on any who would interfere in that trade.

I won’t rehash all the glitches of Black Flag here; just know that they are present, though they are less distracting once you’re used to them from the main game. I will say that my biggest pet peeve with Freedom Cry was the absence of singing on board the ship. As Adewale moves through plantations, eliminating overseers and freeing slaves, there is a wonderful rise and fall to the volume of their field song, one of the best historically accurate features in this game. Ubisoft enlisted Olivier Deriviere to score Freedom Cry and he brought La Troupe Makandal on board. The result is a perfect blend of orchestral and traditional Haitian drum rhythms that are a highlight of the DLC. The songs being sung in the fields are in line with those freedom songs that were used to pass the time in the field and, in some instances, to communicate with one another. Your ship’s crew is populated by Maroons and other freed slaves, so it seems illogical to exclude songs while you’re sailing towards liberating more slaves. Besides this, however, Freedom Cry possesses a more engaging story than Black Flag and that makes me wish there was more on the way, particularly because I feel it had a rather open-ended conclusion. This is the first time I’ve ever purchased a Season Pass and luckily it was worth the money spent.

I hope you enjoyed Freedom Cry as much as I did. I’m aiming to settle into a posting schedule that’s a bit less interrupted. Thankfully, Christmas holidays only happen once a year! Until then, peace.

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.

ESRB vs Curiousity: How We All Win

Google+ and XBox Live are a haven for awesome post-generating content.

Today’s discussion: should a 13-year-old play Saints Row 3?

Everyone was semi-stumped, because they had eight year olds who played Call of Duty.

Someone then asked me when the gaming world became such a scary place that we had to start policing what the younger generation plays. I remember playing Mortal Kombat as a 10 year old, at a time when you weren’t considered an actual person unless you’d seen Scorpion’s Fatality. My sister remembers watching me play Tomb Raider and as a matter of fact, she was my guide on those tougher puzzles. I didn’t really have a good answer for this person as to when the anti-gaming violence craze kicked off because truth be told, I vaguely recall the rush of anger towards Mortal Kombat and Doom and then it’s all a blur since then. Enter the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB.

The ESRB is the US version of PEGI and CERO, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m considering ESRB and PEGI on the same level. CERO just cannot be compared, as Japan is just more liberable with regards to game violence than the rest of the world. The agency rates interactive entertainment according to a scale much like that used by the Motion Picture Association (E is for Everyone, MA is for Mature audiences only). It operates on the notion that parents have absolutely no clue what a video game is about before purchasing it for their children, and thus offers a handy system with which to gauge potential purchases. This isn’t to say that the ESRB ratings work particularly well though, since at the end of the day it relies on watchful parents to NOT purchase mature-rated games for their under-17 brood just because it was requested/demanded.

Does not stand for 'Minors Approved.'

Does not stand for ‘Minors Approved.’

Of course, the answer to the question “when did it all become a pot of crazy sauce?” could be considered slightly obvious but if you ask ten people the same question, you’ll get ten different responses. Games just aren’t as cute and cuddly as they used to be, are they? Those days of playing Golden Eye with Big Head mode activated are long gone. Pixelated blood has come a long way, my friends. The answer to Lancer assassinations, Grand Theft Auto and Agent 47 has been to try and limit the exposure and influence that that pixelated blood possesses on the younger generation by relying on the ESRB/PEGI boards to tell parents what to buy. But that’s near to impossible because guess what, parents/teachers/regulatory boards/etc? Kids are curious creatures. The age-old management system for this curiosity? Talk to them. Don’t just buy them a game and let them load it up and then turn around shocked if foul language suddenly dominates their vocabulary. I do believe that what we listen to, watch and play influences us, particularly at young and impressionable ages. But I don’t believe that it all has to be negative, even if the actual game content is predominantly violent.

For example, a story:

When GTA: Vice City popped onto the scene, my cousin was about 10 years old. He had always loved to watch me play games and so I upgraded him to a PS2. The one request his mother had was that I not play GTA or any similarly violent games around him. Nor was I allowed to buy them for him as a gift. I agreed but I also discussed with her the way in which my father handled my introduction to the genre of violence. He sat me down and spoke to me about it. Differentiated the fantasy from the reality, and made sure that I remembered it. He even played a few games with me, something which, if you know my father, is an occurrence as rare as a quiet night at home for Lindsay Lohan. I wasn’t allowed to have every game with a gun though; it was more like, once every other title. But that was back when kids said “I want” and their parents said “I’ll think about it.” The issue is that in many cases, we’ve become a “Yes, dear” society with regards to our youth. When I see 13 year old kids with iPhones, I wonder what fresh Hell they unleashed on their parents to get it. That’s a discomforting thought, but it stems from a personal experience of seeing the rudest kid of life practically kicking his father in the shins so he could get a copy of Modern Warfare. He got his copy because his father wanted to shut him up and end the embarrassment.

The end-result is that when tragedies occur, people begin discussing the perpetrator’s habits like this:

“Oh he constantly played Call of Duty, Manhunt, Gears of War, Halo. A real serious gamer, always kept to himself.”

The knee-jerk reaction by those in charge is this:

“We need tighter ratings on games! Slap some warning labels on there! Slap some! SLAP!”

Look, people: If warning labels, ratings and regulations had any true and measurable impact, the tobacco industry would be non-existent. The ESRB can’t do it all, just like a government can’t do it all, and so forth. It truly does take a village, and we’re the village. As a parent, you can determine the way these games influence your sons and daughters with a combination of the word “No” and an ongoing conversation about the fantasy of gaming contrasted against real life situations.

Be the kind of parent whose son is aware of the fact that women should not be treated as they are in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row.

Be the parent whose daughter is aware that women do not look like those in Dead or Alive, that she is more than her appearance and that that is not what defines her.

Be the parent whose kids know that male Commander Shepard romancing Esteban in Mass Effect 3 is perfectly normal.

And that’s how we all win.

Replay Values: Assassin’s Creed

Hope everyone had a happy Christmas!

I had a pretty decent gaming haul: Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Hitman: Absolution. I’ve no idea when I’m going to find the time to play through these titles, but I’m happy to have received them nonetheless. But that’s not what this post is about! No, it’s about something that occurred to me after reading a post in an XBox gaming group I’m a member of on Google+. Someone asked if anyone could recommend some older games that he could get and start playing, while saving up for the abundant selection of recent and upcoming releases on XBox 360. I thought that was pretty cool and thus, Replay Values was born in my overactive brain, a blog series about picking up old games and hugging them like the cousin you haven’t seen in ten years, and then either recalling your love for them or realizing that you still haven’t forgiven them for stepping on and subsequently breaking your collector’s edition Final Fantasy figurine. Ahem.

I love replaying older games; it takes a lot for me to sell a game that I’ve played already, especially if I get all attached to the characters (like I did with the Mass Effect series). One such game for me was Assassin’s Creed. I loved Altair, from his annoyingly cocky swagger to his cool outfit. I mean, come on. Look at this guy.

Bad-assery. A word invented for him.

When I moved to The Netherlands, I had to get rid of all my games, since they would not be region compatible with the new XBox I was buying here in the land of everlasting rain. So I was really happy to get my hands on a copy of the original Assassin’s Creed game last month, and I set about reliving all my Altair memories. I even downloaded map copies to find all those dog-gone flags…you remember…the two billion you had to find, scattered randomly throughout each city. I figured since I was not achievement hunting or playing it for the first time, I could have a lazy play-through. And man…

The game is so much slower and less entertaining than I remembered. All I’ve been doing since loading a new game is comparing it to Assassin’s Creed 2. This is both good and bad. Bad in the sense that it’s incredibly distracting and my Altair has died more often this time around than the first. Good in the sense that it’s wonderful to see, just by playing an older game, just how much Ubisoft has grown and matured as a developer and publisher. When I first saw the renderings of ancient Acre and Jerusalem in Assassin’s Creed, I was impressed. Seeing them again, particularly after the spectacular representations of Venice in AC-II, was not as overwhelming. But this is, in my opinion, what ‘Replay Values’ is all about. Playing an older game, particularly if it’s from a developer you run into often, should be all about seeing them grow and get better with age, like a fine wine.

By getting better I mean on a whole, and not just on one level, such as graphics or gameplay mechanics. Repeating a play-through of AC-I has made me appreciate Ubisoft’s personal and professional growth in AC-II. From what I’ve played of AC-III so far, I’d say they’ve kept going in that same vein. This doesn’t always happen though. I’ve played games that had me wondering what the developer was smoking, and in their second trot around the paddock, they make the same mistakes and seem to have learned nothing about listening to constructive feedback (note how I said, constructive) and learning from the replay value of their earlier attempts.

I hope this first edition of Replay Values was enjoyable! I love comments. Some might say, I’m a comment-digger. That may be so, but feedback is what helps us all get better in the end, wouldn’t you say? So go on…write something…you know you want to. And if you have any old games you think I should play and then see if I want to A) hug the developer or B) beat them with a copy of their own game, then post it and I’ll get my hands on a copy and have at it.

Until next time.