Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When my Xbox Live party is on a winstreak in MW2

We're like....

Latest Addiction: XCOM on iOS

Totally and completely addicted to this game. It's a squad, turn based strategy game that was ported over to iOS a few months ago. It's normally $19.99, but I got lucky and nabbed it at 50% off a month or so ago (compared to the console edition that is currently $29.99).

While the price tag may seem steep, it is definitely packed to the brim with value to justify the price-tag. It's a console quality game on iPad, with an excellent adaptation to touchscreen control.

On one hand, you have strategic turn based combat, balancing risk and rewards as you tactically position your team. The mechanics are simple enough, but can be pretty unforgiving when you get careless. At the same time, you have a true sense of achievement when you make a smart move.

I haven't finished the game yet, but so far I love it. If this type of touch-based, strategic gaming sounds interesting to you - now is the time to pick it up! The game is on sale for $9.99 on the App Store today (50% off of the normal price).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Xbox One: Hands On Impressions

This past weekend, I went to the Atlanta Xbox One Tour, where I was able to see the new console in action, and even got some hands on time with it. There were multiple stations set up, with a variety of games ranging from Forza 5 to Battlefield 4 to Peggle. Here were my thoughts of the titles, and the hardware:


The Controller

If nothing else, they made a big deal about the controller. In the center of the exhibit floor, they had a row of custom designed Xbox One controllers, each with a different theme and style. Some were goofy and fun, others were hardcore and intense - probably some sort of subtle statement that the Xbox One can be a good fit regardless of your tastes.

Practically, however, I did not love the controller. It felt like an awkward hybrid of the original Xbox and Xbox 360 controllers. Trigger placement was perfect and largely unchanged from the Xbox 360 controller. However, the grips are much more angular than the 360 controller, which has smooth rounded edges that make it comfortable in your hands. Personally, I felt like this angular version was less comfortable to hold. I was also surprised by how much smaller it felt, from the overall size of the controller to the much narrower thumb sticks. It was functional, but my hands weren't comfortable and I foresee my hands getting tired and cramped after a while. Maybe I am just attached to the 360 controller and my opinion could change over time, but I think this new controller is an unfortunate step backwards.

The Console

The Xbox One console itself actually took up a lot less room than I honestly thought it would. All the photos and footage I'd seen so far made it seem like bulky brick, roughly similar to a VCR  in size and shape. It's closer in size to the original Xbox 360, but nowhere near as big as the first Xbox. Not that it's physical dimensions would make or break it - just food for thought. I don't think any of the demos took full advantage of the Xbox One's graphical capabilities - many of them looked marginally better than their current gen counterparts. That said, many developers are just now fully utilizing the graphical capabilities of the Xbox 360. Given time we can expect improvements with the Xbox One as well.


Ryse: Son of Rome

Contrary to some of the initial reactions, Ryse is not just a bunch of Quick Time Events (QTEs). I had a

chance to play around in a solo version of the Arena mode, where I went head to ahead against swarms of barbarians. All in all, it was a lot of fun - dismemberment and shield bashes were rampant.

Graphics and sound were good, albeit only slightly better than current gen counterparts. The roar of the crowd pounded in your ears (courtesy of the headphones) and the arena and blood splatters were in a crisp HD. No complaints about any of it, it looked and sounded good.

It handled like a slower, bulkier version of PlayStation's God of War. Tap X for a sword attack, Y for a Push attack (in this case a shield slam). Hit B to dodge, and you get the rest. Attacks had some weight to them, it took some time to wind up for that slash or shield attack, and you could hold down the button for an even stronger version. Overall it forced me to be smarter about when I attacked, and when I waited for openings. Timing is everything in Ryse.

Well... I only had to be marginally smarter. Overall, I thought the enemy AI was pretty bad. Scattered around the course were numerous traps (which conveniently had labels of what they were - fire traps, stakes, etc.) and the enemy AI would haphazardly dive right in. After a while, I realized that all I had to do was stand on the opposite side of a trap and wait for them to dash through it. Nine times out of ten, it worked exactly as I planned.

On the off chance an enemy did work his way to me, combat consisted mostly of bashing him with my shield to drop his guard, slashing him a few times, and then dodging out of the way of any other attackers. Once an enemy takes enough damage, they become vulnerable to executions triggered by the right trigger. Activating an execution triggers a QTE sequence (gah!) where an enemy outline glows a specific color. Your job is to hit the button of the corresponding color - Yellow for Y, Blue for X. Missing an entry is no big deal, you still beat he snot out of them in a brutal fashion. However, inputting it correctly rewards you with a typically gory and violent attack. Examples include slicing off limbs, curb stomping, and shield slamming in the throat like your name is Captain America. Good family fun, rated M for Mature...

As a whole, Ryse: Son of Rome was a lot of fun to play, even if it wasn't particularly challenging. I wouldn't call it a system seller, but I imagine the arena mode could be a lot of fun in CO-OP.

Forza 5

Caveat upfront - I don't typically like car games. They have very little replay value for me since I seldom enjoy doing the same thing multiple times. That said, I enjoyed Forza 5 just for the experience of driving. The graphics were very nice, and I actually enjoyed being blinded by the sun glare at times.

I am not familiar with the series, and my own racing game experience is limited to Mario Kart and Need for Speed, but it felt pretty realistic. I needed to ease up on the gas to turn around corners, or else I went barreling into the grass.

For me personally, not a system seller. However, if I was a racing fan, I could see this being a game to get behind. Either way, it did a good job showing off the vibration functionality of the Xbox One controller, especially when I swerved off the track (which was often).


There were several games that I didn't have time to play. Below are some of the impressions I had based on graphical performance at the displays for two of the other big names at the event.

Battlefield 4

Frame rate here was significantly improved compared to past Battlefield games. It wasn't choppy, graphics looked good. Honestly, I would have thought it was Call of Duty if not for the signage at the event. Graphical quality wasn't out of this world, comparable to current gen, but the much appreciated FPS boost is the biggest thing I noticed.

Dead Rising 3

Take the model of previous Dead Rising games, and tack onto it significantly improved graphics. Nothing wrong with that! It looked very well polished, and largely undisturbed from what Dead Rising 1 and 2 played like.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When a game has a mindblowing ending

I'm like...

This one's for you, Bioshock Infinite.

When Xbox Live tells me my NAT type is Moderate

I'm like...

Capcom's Deep Down (PS4) looks epic

Capcom has something up its sleeve for the PlayStation 4, and it's a project called Deep Down. Preliminary info about the game makes it sound like an interesting fusion of Assassin's Creed and Dark Souls.

Combat looks to take you up close and personal.
Well at least you're not charging a dragon alone...
Deep Down, an action RPG with online elements, takes place in New York in 2094. Why the knights and dragons, you ask? Apparently your character is a sort of memory archaeologist, where you relive your ancestor's memories through various artifacts. More or less like Desmond from Assassin's Creed.

The dungeons, enemies, and weapons you encounter in these memories are allegedly going to be randomly generated. Additionally, the game is said to allow 4-player online co-op.

Deep Down's release date is still TBA, but it looks like it will be one epic ride.

Is it just me or is it getting hot in here?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When someone says Candy Crush is an example of quality gaming...

I'm like....

When I watch video game cutscenes

I'm like....

and then I realize it's really a quick time event...

Review: Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita) - An absolutely addicting RPG

Persona 4 Golden is perhaps one of the best games I've ever played, and I was actually hesitant to pick this game up! I'd never played any other Persona game, but I'd heard a lot of people rave about it and JRPG is one of my favorite genres. All that said, Persona 4 Golden just seemed too Japanese-y for me.  Eventually, I took the plunge and picked it up. 

Yes, it was heavy on the JRPG quirks, but it was constantly enjoyable and had an interesting story. Most of all, it presents a diverse cast of characters that each feel so vivid and real. If you like stories with character development, then Persona 4 Golden is the game for you.

Be warned, Persona 4 Golden is not a shallow game. My first play-through was upwards of 60-70 hours. The game rarely feels this long, which speaks volumes to the compelling story. It takes a little while to build to the combat, as the first hours of the game are filled with narrative and exposition. The game has save points frequently accessible so you are generally able to play at your own pace, regardless of whether its a matter of minutes or hours. That said, I found it impossible to put the game down.

The story revolves around your protagonist, a high school transfer student in the small town of Inaba, and your investigation into a series of paranormal murders. Along with your new friends from school, you balance your school life with your adventures into a TV World to chase down the culprit and rescue other victims.

Does it make any sense? If not, don't worry - that's how it is supposed to be. The game is built around unraveling what the heck is really going on with the murders and the TV world. 

Persona 4 Golden is a very immersive game. Your character is a silent protagonist, you have a real sense of ownership of the decisions and dialogue choices. Moreover, high quality writing and voice acting helps the game to flow very naturally. It doesn't feel forced, despite the crazy and outlandish things that happen. There are even times that your companions will vocalize what you're currently thinking.

As you investigate, the game falls into two main spheres: the TV World and the Real World. Throughout the game, you end up juggling these two components.

Battles are fast paced, while still offering strategic depth.
In the TV World, the game is a fairly traditional dungeon crawler. You navigate through randomized dungeon floors, looking for loot and battling against a variety of monsters, called Shadows. Combat is triggered by contact, so there are no random-battle frustrations to be had. In battle, you control your character in a classic turn-based RPG formula, where you choose to attack, cast spells, use items, etc. You can choose to control your party directly, or let the AI take the wheel. I chose the former, but the AI seemed to be okay from what I saw. I found dungeon crawling to be very fun and engaging - battles flowed smoothly and offered a fun balance of simplicity and strategy.

Character customization is a bit of a hybrid between Final Fantasy and Pokemon. You choose specific pieces of equipment to boost attack and defense, whereas your stats and
abilities are determined by the Persona, magical alter-egos, that are equipped. The protagonist has access to multiple different Personas, whereas your party members are fixed to a single one. In choosing Persona and party combinations, the game encourages customization and strategy since each one has different strengths and weaknesses. New Personas can be acquired as battle rewards, or they can also be created through a fairly deep system called "Fusion." By combining your existing Personas, you can create entirely new ones with different stats and abilities. Although, every now and again you can experience anomalies that completely change your end result...which drove me up a freaking wall. That aside, the mechanics of the game were a blast to work with - it reminded me a lot of how you could customize your character's abilities in Final Fantasy VII.

Persona fusions are involved and fun, challenging you to think of new
ways to build out your character.
My first play-through was on Normal difficulty, and I noticed that the battles eventually got to be almost too easy. Once you knew their weaknesses, most enemies dropped like bowling pins. There were a few exceptions to the norm, like a few enemies that could instantly kill you if you aren't prepared. It was still very fun, but it just lacked lasting challenge. I'm replaying it again on Very Hard, however, and it seems to be a much more balanced experience thus far.

In the Real World, the game plays like a Life-Sim. You attend classes, hang out with friends, work a part time job, etc. Story elements, both relating to the mystery or characters' lives, are dispersed throughout each of these, so it fortunately never feels like a chore like it would in reality! 

Many of these story elements come in the form of Social Links, the friendships that you form with other characters. Like I mentioned before, the character development in this
Building Chie's social link.
game is amazing, and Social Links serve a dual purpose. On one hand, developing a Social Link yields gameplay bonuses, such as Persona Fusion bonuses or new combat skills. Additionally, as you grow a Social Link you really learn more about what makes a character tick. You learn about the things they like, the things they hate, and the things they struggle with. This is where you forge your protagonist's friendships and kindle relationships. The writing and acting is top notch, so I found myself constantly wanting to learn more about characters like Yosuke or Naoto.

Anime cutscenes usually are a cue that it's
 about to hit the fan.
The game's soundtrack is also excellent. Each track is a perfect fit - whether you're wandering around Inaba, navigating an eerie castle, or battling a boss. Moreover, the music does a great job of fitting the moment. One of my favorite memories of this game came in the middle of a boss battle, where a familiar jingle was reused with different instrumentals, completely changing turning the conditioned emotional response on its head.

Overall, I absolutely loved this game. Persona 4 Golden is one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played, ranking way up there with Gravity Rush, Mass Effect 2, and Bioshock Infinite. Between the fun gameplay and the addictive characters, I found myself conflicted between playing more and dreading the inevitable ending to come. That said, the game has a lot of replay value, both for the sake of being a completionist and for reliving the game's most charming moments.

Immersive story
Interesting and compelling characters
Engaging RPG combat mechanics (Final Fantasy meets Pokemon)
Great writing and voice acting
Big bang for your buck - 60+ hours of gameplay
Solid replay value
Amazing soundtrack - able to elicit an emotional response

Can get really easy in the back half of the game
Anomalies in Persona Fusions may make you want to throw the Vita

SCORE: 10 / 10 

When I go 24-0 in Halo 4 multiplayer

I'm like....

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Amazon taking votes on the E3 2013 console war

Internet retailer Amazon has launched a polling page to see what consumers think of the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 console war. The page, called Amazon Versus, can be found on Facebook. At the time of this post, Sony has a shocking 17 to 1 lead over Microsoft. 

Even before the console was officially announced, Microsoft has been plagued by a series of poor public statements and controversy surrounding the console's strict connectivity requirements used game policies. Unfortunately, the negative sentiment has stuck to Microsoft despite a strong press conference that detailed a variety of next gen games and console features.

To be fair, a margin of 16,115 votes is hardly indicative of how the console war will end - especially when you consider that millions of each console will be available for purchase this upcoming holiday season. That said, it will be interesting to see how Microsoft tries to sway the masses in the coming months - either through silvery words or policy changes. Or... they may not try to do anything at all.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Opinion: Xbox One and Horrible Marketing

I'll be blunt - I am an Xbox 360 fan boy. I truly believe that Microsoft's current gen offering is vastly superior to the PlayStation 3. I scoff when anyone says otherwise. What it lacks in technical specs, it more than makes up for with a diverse offering of games, fantastic online service via Xbox Live, and a stable infrastructure. In short - it gives you the most bang for your buck.

Sadly, I cannot earnestly say I have confidence that the Xbox One will continue that legacy. In fact, I'd say my personal perception of Microsoft's next-gen console is close to venomous. What caused this shift? It's not like Sony, or even Nintendo, did anything to provoke this change of heart. No, the negative perception is entirely due to the high levels of douchebaggery that Microsoft has injected into their business practices related to the Xbox One. As a result of controversial product decisions and extremely poor public relations appearances by company leadership, Microsoft has no one but to blame for themselves if they don't retain me as a customer.

Where did they go wrong? Coming off the heels of Xbox 360, which launched in 2005, Microsoft was in a prime position to pull off a fantastic next-gen sweep. As rumors and product information started to leak, it should have been apparent to them that the Xbox One ship has some holes in it. The boat started taking on water as rumors of their new digital rights management (DRM) policies leaked, raising concerns about used game sales and game lending. The rumors around the console's "Always Online" requirement landed like another cannonball hitting the ship's hull. This would have been a great time for some crisis management - downplay the severity and make any adjustments to retain the consumer's trust - a sort of triage for the Xbox  brand.

You're a tool, Adam Orth. Deal with it.
This never happened. Instead, former Microsoft Studios creative director Adam Orth made several insensitive statements on Twitter. His tirade ended up damaging perceptions of the Xbox One, not to mention costing him his job.

By this point, Microsoft's shiny new toy had a black eye before ever even being officially revealed.
Even the slightest degree of consumer research or social listening would have shown the negative brand equity they had accrued. The consumer backlash from the DRM and Always Online rumors should have been a dead giveaway that something needed to change before they went live. Moreover, the lack of timely Microsoft response and public display of jerkiness by Orth only added to the problem, making Microsoft come across as being insensitive, if not hostile, to their fans. Regardless of whether DRM and connectivity were a big deal, it's basic to want to smooth out the ruffles and make good with the customers.Sadly, aside from having Adam Orth "leave" the company, Microsoft took no steps to mend the customer relationships he damaged.

Next came the official Xbox One reveal. Microsoft very carefully detailed how the console is designed to function as an all-in-one media hub. However, gamers (the audience that elevated Xbox 360 to its current level as a gaming superpower) were left skeptical of one of the consoles most important aspects: the games. Extra bells and whistles are great and dandy, but most of the people who can afford an Xbox One already have internet-capable Blu Ray players, DVRs, or Cable boxes. If I really wanted all of the online multimedia features, I can buy Apple TV for $100. If I buy a next-gen console, it's purpose will be video games first and foremost since there are already significantly cheaper multimedia options available.

Fast forward to E3 2013 - Microsoft's big chance to set things right. They had the stage to themselves where they could chronicle the plethora of AAA games coming to the new system, not to mention announce an change of direction for DRM and Always Online policies. Whatever they did - they really needed to show that they still cared about their consumers. Since the console reveal fell flat on the gaming front, Microsoft came out swinging as they displayed several games (some Xbox One exclusives, some not) and unveiled the price point of $499.99 in the USA. They played it safe, and the end result wasn't bad. However, they made a colossal mistake by leaving the DRM and Always Online issues still in a hazy state and altogether unresolved. This was their biggest mistake yet.

Sony took full advantage of Microsoft's
unresolved slate of problems
Sony has very clearly been watching Microsoft's mistakes. They saw how big of an issue the DRM and Always Online policies became. They also saw the emphasis on multimedia rather than gaming. When Microsoft failed to plug the holes on these issues, Sony was ready to take advantage of the fumble. They delivered two strong - and very blunt - points of differentiation. First off, the PlayStation 4 will not have the Always Online requirement. Second, the PlayStation 4 is not going to have a strict used-game policy. This means game lending and used game sales will be unchanged from how consumers currently know them. They even went one step further and mocked Xbox One's complicated sharing process with a simple PS4 Sharing demo - which featured simply passing the disc to another person. With these lines clearly drawn in the sand, Sony dropped the biggest bombshell of all - the pricing. They announced the the PlayStation 4 will be priced at $399.99 in the USA. That's right, they undercut Microsoft by 20%. Well played, Sony.

Suddenly, Microsoft found itself pushed against the wall by Sony. Not only were they undercut by $100 just like the SEGA Saturn in the 90's, but Sony effectively positioned themselves as an alternative solution for Microsoft fans who were on the fence regarding the DRM and Always Online requirements.

The last time Sony undercut a competitor by $100,
SEGA ended up leaving the console war.
As if Sony's calculated jugular strike weren't bad enough, Microsoft had another issue with leadership making comments that further alienated their fan base. Don Mattrick, President of Interactive Entertainment at Microsoft, explained Microsoft's solution for gamers not able (or willing) to be Always Online by saying, "We have a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity and it's called Xbox 360."

Wow. Just... wow. Microsoft's other snafus aside, Mattrick's statement is a not only insensitive, but also disrespectful in the face of his company's loyal consumers. Let's unpack it - if you're not willing and able to meet the Xbox One's connectivity requirements, then your only alternative option is a console that is now 8 years old. This means that there are aspects of the console, including functions and games, that you're pretty much S.O.L. This is a slightly more polite version of Adam Orth's "Deal With It" mentality, which makes me personally feel even greater affinity toward the PlayStation 4.
The technical specs are very similar, so the brands will need to rely on
brand personality to differentiate their offerings

With the Xbox 360, Microsoft has been very effective at delivering a customer-minded service. That said, the team behind Xbox One seems to be completely ignoring all of the complaints potential consumers are voicing - there's been no acknowledgement. Given that the technical specs between the Xbox One and the
PlayStation 4 are pretty similar, it's going to be extremely important for the brands to establish things that increase the their respective value propositions. In short - what is it that makes it worth it to buy brand A instead of brand B? Based on Microsoft's latest behavior, it's definitely not customer service. In my opinion, Sony has effectively trumped them on that front at E3.

I'm taking a wait-and-see approach to the next generation of consoles. I most likely won't but either at launch. Sony and Microsoft need to earn my money by showing me that their respective consoles are truly worth it in regards to what I am interested in - Gaming.

This is how Microsoft has branded the
 Xbox One in the eyes of many gamers
A lot can still change between now and launch - and I personally hope Microsoft sees their errors and repents to the light side of the force. But they've got a long battle ahead of them in order to re-position themselves as gamers' best friend given the tumultuous course they've had thus far.