Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Not that you asked, but some thoughts on games of 2014 and podcasts and stuff

2014 was an absurdly tumultuous year for me. If it’s all well and good, I’d rather avoid going through the gut-wrenching uncertainty and ego-shattering sense of “oh fuck, what have I done?” on the professional front if you don’t mind. It wasn’t all downs though. After spending the summer months slobbing around in my underpants, things finally got back on track, and now that I’ve got used to being a productive member of society again, I can start thinking about other, more fun stuff again. At some point, there will no doubt be another podcast. Not sure when, or what, or how, but after Garnett and I iced our show in September as we both went back to work, I’ve definitely felt an absence. Also, there’s a bunch of podcasting gear in the bedroom closet, and I keep tripping over it when I reach for my trousers.

I’m thinking maybe the next show, should there actually be one, won’t be pure games stuff. I don’t know. I’ve been collecting stories daily about the kinds of things that I really like to talk about in a Flipboard magazine that is currently very unimaginatively named GeekyCoolStuff (click the link and it’ll open in any browser, or in Flipboard if you have it) and it occurred to me that I’d love to do something just like that. Unbelievably self-indulgent I know. Needs a partner, or a group for it to really work. Garnett and I managed to pull off the recording remotely thing with the last show, but honestly there’s no substitute for recording with everyone in the same room. The energy is better, and it sharpens the wit. Using Hangouts or Skype or whatever is ultimately a poor substitute for the real thing.

Should I be doing a podcast right now, there would no doubt be some kind of “best games of 2015" type list discussion thing. Right now there is no show, so instead…behold…a listicle.

One of the benefits of not writing about games for a living any more is that I can devote all of my available game-playing time to games that I want to play, and not have to slog through anything that I find boring, or tedious, or that I have to play out of any sense of obligation. There have been a number of games this year that I’ve wanted to love (Divinity, for example) but ultimately just didn’t stick with.

OK…enough preamble. Shut up and get on with it.


Battlefield 4 Premium

Not a 2014 release, I know. But my list, my rules. I think we can all agree that it was messed up for the first six months anyway, and honestly I didn’t really start playing it til the summer. I’d grabbed it on PS4 at launch and had been impressed with the visuals, but I didn’t really enjoy the campaign that much. This is going to make me sound really old, but it just felt like a cacophony of explosions and people shouting. Also, I really sucked at the multiplayer. It wasn’t until I made a concerted effort to “learn” the game in July (because I had so much free time) that it really clicked for me. Also making the switch to Xbox One seemed to help. Not sure why, it just did.

I ignored the campaign completely and threw myself into playing Conquest. I didn’t mess around with any of the 572 other modes, I just went all-in on the big 64-player epic stuff. The first few hours were so hard that I just felt stupid. Spawn, die. Spawn, die. Fuck it. Spawn, die. Spawn die…and then, suddenly, it all became clear.

It really is a magnificent game. So magnificent, that when the Premium add-on was reduced to $25 over Thanksgiving I snapped it up and downloaded all the new maps. Now the game is occupying 61GB of hard drive space on not one, but two different Xbox Ones in the house.

If a “game of the year” was judged purely on time-spent, this would be mine. I’ve logged dozens and dozens and dozens of hours and I love it more now than I ever have.

Xbox One Affected by New Issues Relating to Battlefield 4 Xbox Live 406316 2



Back in March, I threw myself into Titanfall with some gusto. My logic for doing so was flawed, but ultimately it really worked for me. I’d not been a shooter guy for a number of years (probably since Quake 2, really) and I always found that trying to get into multiplayer on any existing franchise left me at a disadvantage. Even though each new Call of Duty was technically a brand new game where everyone started at zero, the fundamentals of each game were the same, as was the community. So when Black Ops 2 came out, there was already a ton of institutional knowledge in the community which meant that everyone playing was pretty badass the second the game came out. For me, that always exacerbated my confidence issues when trying the games for the first time.

So, for Titanfall my flawed logic was “new system, new franchise, new game, new community…I can get in on the ground floor as everyone is learning it.” In truth, everyone’s Call of Duty/Battlefield/Halo skills were perfectly transferable, but the important thing for me was having the confidence to jump in and really go for it.

It worked. And I had a blast. I loved the fast pace of the game, the verticality of the maps, the feeling of power in the weapons, and what a tight, pure experience it was. Reviews bemoaned the lack of a campaign, citing the omission as a weakness, but for me it was a strength. The decision to make Titanfall multiplayer-only ensured it was a super-focused experience, and it taught me to love shooters again.

It really annoys me when I see people being so dismissive of the game now. There’s a vibe in the press that because it’s top of mind for them that it’s not top of mind for anyone else. When the game is brought up, it’s done so with a flippant comment that “no one is playing it.” Not true. 

I really hope they announce a sequel at the next E3. I’ll be first in line for it.

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Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare

Yeah, yeah…another shooter, but it’s such a blast. The essence of Battlefield blended with the humor of Plants vs Zombies make this my biggest surprise of the year. When they announced it I think I actually rolled my eyes. It seemed like such a cynical EA thing to do; turn a perfectly charming game into yet another shooter. Because that’s exactly what the world needs, right?

Turns out it does.

I was surprised that it didn’t get much attention in 2014 wrap-ups. In the grand scheme of things, I think it was one of the best releases of the year, and there’s still a really active player base that is voraciously consuming the updates that are hitting the game regularly.

PlantWarfare 4


Wolfenstein The New Order

What’s this? Another shooter? This one’s different though. It was all about the story, all about the single-player, and it delivered on its promise spectacularly. Much like Titanfall, Wolfenstein’s strength is its purity and focus. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it was designed to be, which means that all of the appropriate care and attention was put into crafting something that was consistently good throughout (well, except maybe for the first 20 minutes or so, which weren’t that great.)

What was particularly surprising, and what really stuck with me after I’d finished it, was how well written it was. It’s not often that we get to say that about any game, and certainly not about a big dumb first person shooter, but Wolfenstein featured some genuinely emotional and tender moments that really helped balance the horror elsewhere in the story.

Wolfenstein A new Order Gameplay

Sunset Overdrive

Of all the new open-world sandboxy games that hit in 2014 (there were a bunch of re-issues and remasters too, so overall GTAV still gets my vote,) this one was my favorite. I enjoyed it considerably more than the po-faced emo snark of Infamous Second Son. I appreciated the humor, and the joy that clearly went into making it. I love playing games where you really tell that the people behind it were having a blast making it, and really believed in their vision. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved the day-glo crazy 90s vibe. It reminded me of playing games on the Dreamcast for some reason.

Sunset Overdrive forall Nighttime


Magic the Gathering always struck me as somewhat impenetrable. There was just too much fuss and palaver about all the set up and there just seemed to be so much bullshit involved. If I’m honest, I’m a bit jealous of how into it people can be. I’d love to have that kind of patience, because I’m sure that if I did, I’d really enjoy it. But I don’t. So a game like Hearthstone is perfect for me.

Blizzard are so very good at boiling things down to the very essence and making things as enjoyable as possible. They did it for MMOs with World of Warcraft, they did it for action RPGs with Diablo (and especially Diablo 3,) and it looks like in the coming year they’ll be similarly successful with Heroes of the Storm for MOBAs and Overwatch for shooters. Hearthstone is the purest expression of this skill. They made CCGs incredibly accessible and fun…and they opened my eyes to a genre that I’d previously steered clear of.

Also: bonus! It’s on PC, Mac, and iPad - so I can play it just about everywhere. When they finally release the phone version, I’ll really be in trouble.

Ss1 med

Monday, May 19, 2014

What's in a name? Call of Duty and the "call of duty"

Cast your mind back to October 2003, and the original Call of Duty. (When screenshots were still square, and nothing was “HD” or widescreen yet.)

Schnee call of duty 2004

It was set in World War II, attempted to simulate infantry and combined arms warfare, and was relatively unique because its primary hook (besides being a WWII first person shooter) was that it was meant to celebrate the literal “Call of Duty.” Namely, the necessity to carry out the work of a soldier in a time of war. It wasn’t about a lone soldier blowing stuff up and being the hero of the day, but instead told the story of the war from multiple perspectives and highlighted the sacrifice of those called to arms. It was meant to show you that wars aren’t won by individuals, but by the contributions of many individuals.

Over the course of the series, this clarity of purpose has certainly waned, but by and large it’s been on approximately the same path, regardless of whether you buy into its scenarios or not. In each story we’ve seen soldiers from different backgrounds put into difficult situations, but whose motivations are ultimately the same; answer the “call” and defend their country’s interests. They’ve all, at least loosely, lived up to the name.

Think what you will of the franchise and its super-commercialized, cash-cow status within the Activision fold, I’ve always quite admired that even in the face of increasing commercial pressure to deliver greater successes and larger spectacles, it’s remained mostly true to that original vision.

Judging from the details we’ve seen so far of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, I’m not sure we can expect the same of the new game though. For starters, it’s a lone-hero story (Private Mitchell, voiced by Troy Baker, is the sole focus of the game); something that back in 2007, Infinity Ward was keen to distance the franchise from. And then there’s what that lone-hero does for a living…The scenario described on the game’s official website is that, “Private Military Corporations have become the dominant armed forces for countless nations outsourcing their military needs, redrawing borders and rewriting the rules of war.” So, as a soldier for the largest of these Private Military Corporations, called Atlas, Mitchell is a mercenary.

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With that in mind - can Mitchell, and by association the player, truly be answering the “call of duty”? If a soldier’s talents are simply being sold to the highest bidder, what is really being defended? Real-world PMC Blackwater (now called Academi after their problems in Iraq in 2007) founder Erik Prince once described the role of the PMC as “trying to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did for the Postal Service.” So…killing the other guys faster, more expensively, and with no loyalty other than to the person footing the bill.

Given that we already know Kevin Spacey is deliciously sinister as Atlas CEO Jonathan Irons, it’s entirely possible that your ultimate purpose as the player in the Campaign mode of Advanced Warfare (which no one except the critics and a fraction of players over the age of 30 will actually bother playing) will be to find a sense of purpose and make some kind of moral choice. I would imagine that the narrative will more than likely play out like a Michael Bay movie though. No doubt you’ll stumble into a flimsy narrative thread that positions Irons like a James Bond villain, and the “ohmygod he’s been playing both sides all along! He was behind the global catastrophe that started all this!” climax will ultimately lead to some kind of fight with a thug (or, if we’re going all 90s-style sci-fi action flick…Irons himself) wearing a more advanced version of the Elysium-style power armor getup. This denouement will render all previous conflict irrelevant, and the player’s ultimate triumph will no doubt provide some form of redemption for Mitchell. Cue large explosions and loud industrial-sounding, vaguely-dubsteppy-but-not-quite-because-it’s-not-as-cool-now credit music.

So: lone hero, soldier for hire, private military corporations…it’s not what Call of Duty originally set out to do artistically at all. It’s just a very cool-looking futuristic military first person shooter that has the Call of Duty name on it.

Well, d’uh. We shouldn’t be surprised by this at all, obviously. The name sells lots and lots of games.

Ironically, the existence of Advanced Warfare is actually a metaphor for the story it’s trying to tell; nobility of purpose ultimately trumped by commercialization.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Titan Falls, Fails, and Wins

I honestly haven’t found myself enjoying an online multiplayer shooter as much as I enjoy Titanfall since… well, probably since Quake. I enjoy it’s pacing, I like the setting, and I love the fact that it takes multiplayer shooters back to feeling like they’re a real “fight” rather than just a fast-paced slaughter.

I suck at Call of Duty, and I’ve tried and failed to find my groove in Battlefield. I enjoy Halo (particularly Reach) but I really struggle to hold my own in a multiplayer match, and end up dying far too much. But Titanfall? It seems to have clicked for me, and I’m really digging it.

That said, a number of things have struck me while playing, so rather than trying to lay out a lengthy “review,” I thought I’d just list it all out here to try and bring some structure and coherence to the thoughts that have been going through my head each night while playing.

Titanfall screen 6 feature

  • I’m not sure why they bothered with the Campaign mode. It stinks to me of trying to make some kind of nod toward the obnoxiously vocal minority that wanted some kind of narrative structure to the game. It’s simply not necessary, and the half-hearted execution of it just makes me think that it was included with a “well, fuck ‘em - if they want a Campaign, I guess we’ll give them something so they’ll shut the fuck up” mentality. It doesn’t even serve as an advanced tutorial mode, because it only includes Attrition and Hardpoint matches. The story itself is sci-fi cliché nonsensical bumwank that occasionally wants to be Firefly Browncoat stuff, but my 10 year-old could write better dialogue. Also, what’s up with the mish-mash of accents? Is that some kind of attempt to show how multicultural the Frontier is? Or did they just spec “not American” for the main roles? You’ve got Idris Elba soundalike London accent guy, South African dude, and Australian/possibly-New Zealander bloke. Honestly the Spectres give better performances.
  • The map design is superb. The sight-lines work really well both for Pilots and Titans, which is quite an achievement, and they’ve managed to effective encourage vertical play without having to signpost it.
  • It owes some of its effectiveness to MOBAs like League of Legends, as much as it does to older arena shooters like Quake. The map design encourages “lane” play to a certain degree, working as a team with distinctive roles really helps effectiveness, particularly in CTF and Last Titan Standing matches, and the grunts and Spectres are basically Creeps.

  • The matchmaking kinda sucks. It’s far too frequent that you find yourself in a match with people that are substantially more experienced, and have better gear. When I pointed this out on Twitter, I was simply told to “get better friends,” by a sensitive and pragmatic individual - but that’s horseshit. I’m not 15 any more, and I don’t get home at 3pm and have nothing to do for nine hours. I can’t sink the kind of time into the game that’s necessary to regenerate once or twice in the game’s first week. That said, there are clearly a lot of people playing - so is it really necessary to dump me into games so frequently with people that have played it so much more than me? Am I in the minority, or does the matchmaking still need some work? I’m going to go with the latter until I see some data that proves otherwise.
  • I know experience should yield rewards; but I think that the way it follows the Call of Duty model of juicing experienced players with better gear is a mistake for the long-term. When you hit a match where everyone on the other team is wielding a Carbine with a kick-ass scope, and a Titan that’s rocking a Triple Threat and a Particle Screen, it just gets a bit annoying. It’s not insurmountable the way similar situations would feel in Call of Duty, but it can be irritating.
  • Titanfall’s balance seems to come from its imbalance. Things get way over-powered really quickly, especially if everyone’s picking their Burn Cards sensibly for the matches they’re in, so things get pushed way out to the edges of batshit crazy. On paper, I wouldn’t have expected this to work, but in practice it seems really effective.
  • The game strikes me as being one or two patches away from being properly fixed. The Xbox One version tears like a motherfucker when there’s a lot of stuff on screen, and I’ve not seen anything quite like that on a triple-A console game for a long time. When you throw in some dodgy server connections you get tearing and humungous frame-rate drops…which I would think they’ll get a handle on in an update.
  • They need to come up with a better way to represent connection errors. Right now, they blur the screen to show that the connection is messed up…but sometimes the game doesn’t trigger a return to things being nice and crisp, so you end up having to play the rest of the round with the screen looking like it has vaseline smeared all over it.
  • The predominantly static nature of the environments disappointed me at first, as I was hoping that next gen environment design would put an end to everything in game worlds feeling so rigid. That said, the map design being so good means I quickly got over it.
  • love that one of the classes of Spectre is called a Marvin, as a reference to the Paranoid Android from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
  • This is the first online multiplayer shooter that I’ve ever seriously considered buying the Season Pass for. Despite all of the niggles above, I enjoy it that much.

Some learnings from a year on the periphery of games media

The first thing I ever wrote “professionally” about a videogame was in 1986. It was a review of Winter Games by Epyx for the Atari ST, and my payment for the 500 words or so that I wrote about it was that I could keep the game. I was 14, and that seemed like a pretty sweet deal at the time.

I’ve been associated with games media in one way or another for pretty much the entire time of the…gulp…28 years since. I freelanced pretty consistently between the ages of 14 and 19, and when I got my first full-time job after leaving school, it was reviewing games for a weekly games magazine in the UK called Games-X.

Much has changed in the years since. We’ve seen the transition from print to web writing, the constant evolution of video coverage, and the advent of livestreaming. One thing has stayed fairly consistent throughout though; the audience. Passionate, vocal, enthusiastic, and often quite defensive. These are people prepared to spend a huge amount of their available free time, and a large amount of their disposable income on these wonderful, magical experiences. Games provide gamers’ entertainment, but they also provide so much more; a sense of belonging to a community, being part of a rich culture, and they provide wonderful escapism. 

About a year and a half ago, I stepped away from being at the heart of games coverage for the first time in my professional life. It was a risk, but a calculated one. After spending so much time with, and creating content for people that love games so much, it was clear that some dramatic changes were occurring, and I had the good fortune of knowing some people that were seeing similar trends and were in a position to try and build something to serve these changes. That was how First for Gamers, the social network and live messaging app for gamers that we ultimately ended up building came about.


As Marc Andreessen wrote recently in his blog post about the future of the news business, “On the Internet, there is no limitation to the number of outlets or voices in the news chorus. Therefore, quality can easily coexist with crap.” In gaming, the issue was more than just that of quality, it was quickly becoming one of volume. Millions of YouTube videos, billions of minutes of livestreamed gameplay on Twitch, and millions of Tweets compete with the thousands of blog posts and articles that are produced each month about videogames.

In building First for Gamers, we’ve had the luxury of spending a great deal of time speaking with the gamers that use it every day about their feelings on gaming and the way they consume content in general. It’s been quite an eye-opener, and has made me look, with renewed interest, at the possibilities for the future of games media.

What follows is not another critique bemoaning games journalism, but more a series of observations based on repeated comments from users that are starting to coalesce for me as thoughts about how the business can evolve and continue to grow in future.

  • Gamers are generally an enthusiastic bunch, you just have to look for it - and then understand how to process it. Sure, they can seem defensive, or negative, or overly critical, but by and large they are predisposed to really enjoying videogames. This sounds blindingly fucking obvious, but it’s a general truth that is at the heart of much of the disdain that growing numbers of people seem to have for certain elements of games media. While it’s expressed in numerous different ways, we’re seeing a divergence between critics and readers. Whether it’s actually true or not, the impression lately seems to be that we’re seeing more and more critics behaving as though they feel that finding things to criticize is the only way they’ll be taken seriously as a “big-C” Critic. On the other hand, there’s a sense from gamers that they feel a lot of games coverage comes off as dismissive because it’s so negative.


  • The lack of joy is discernible. Obviously there’s no need to be a drooling idiot dishing out fanboy raves, but when a big title is about to come out, there’s a large portion of the audience that is quite genuinely excited. And there’s usually a sizable audience that has already pre-ordered, and has already made a declaration of being pre-disposed to liking the thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the lack of joy be so obvious as the 10 day period during which both the PS4 and the Xbox One came out. While the audience was giddy with anticipation after years of waiting for the next big step forward, there was a perception from the media that it was a big fucking chore to have to cover all these games. I understand that the circumstances under which a lot of the coverage was produced was far from ideal, but as a consumer of media, those circumstances needn’t be quite so apparent to me unless it’s with full transparency. I’d happily see “we haven’t had the time to cover this adequately yet,” and it seems clear that many gamers feel similarly, based on their comments.
  • TLDR: And yes, I appreciate the irony of my raising this more than three quarters of the way through a screed that is similarly plagued. Gamers just don’t have the time or (probably more significantly) the inclination to wade through thousands of words of text about anything. It’s symptomatic of a generational shift, a cultural shift, a technological shift, and the associated time constraints they impose. In the past year I’ve seen lots of really great pieces of writing dismissed by their perfect audience purely by virtue of the fact that there’s just too much content. “Seems great, but had to stop reading halfway through.” I’ve seen comments to that effect so many times. While I appreciate the ambition of perpetuating the great tradition of long-form, magazine-style writing - the audience that is pre-disposed to actually reading such a thing just doesn’t have the bandwidth any more.
  • Even though there are now 1.2 billion gamers in the world (so roughly one in six people play games of some kind) all enjoying an industry so prolific and that it generated $93 billion in 2013, many gamers still feel isolated. They just want to find people to talk to about the stuff they’re passionate about. Often they don’t have anyone around them at school or work that they can talk to in the way that they want to chat about games. Sure, they can possibly engage on the big stuff like Titanfall or Call of Duty, but if they want to really nerd-out about, say, how great Atlus RPGs are, or how epic the Assassin’s Creed IV soundtrack was, they’re pretty much shit outta luck. It not just the game-specific chat, either. The culture around games is really important too, and gamers crave discussion with people of a similar mindset. Content is often pitched as being a “conversation starter,” but often that’s not how it actually lands on the page or in the video player.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Next Gen Wishlist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately  about what I’d want to see sooner rather than later on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, so I thought I’d just scratch it down here and get the conversation going. There’s plenty more where these came from, so I may follow this up with a few more.

So…in no particular order;



I enjoyed Halo 4 a lot. Mostly because I just really like the Halo universe and the associated lore, so I’m prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt in that same irrational way that I give the vast majority of Star Wars stuff the benefit of the doubt. I know it had problems, but overall I enjoyed myself. For a next gen reinvigoration though, I want something we can all really sink our teeth into.

Top of my list; let’s flesh out a decent big bad of some description.

The Covenant are classic, but let’s face it; they’re played-out in their current context. Also: big daddy Covenant is dead. So we’re kinda done with them, right?

On the other hand, the Prometheans (particularly the Knights) seem pretty awesome, plus they do that great orange sparky-glowy dissolve thing when you kill them, which is particularly satisfying. My problem with them though is that their Senior Vice President of Evil, the Didact, is just a shitty bad guy. Sure, he looks like the offspring of Voldemort and Nosferatu wrapped in body armor crafted by the Reapers from Mass Effect, but whether you think he looks intimidating or credible or whatever, the bigger problem is the fact that his motivations are just silly. If you do some digging online, there’s a ton of information out there about why he’s so pissed at humanity and why he’s intent on wiping them out, but not much of it actually made it into the game. Top of the list; it’s not clear why he chose to try and digitize everyone to death, which just seems like an idea out of a crappy 80s sci-fi movie.

Maybe all he had to watch while he was stuck inside the Cryptum was a copy of Tron on VHS?

I understand that, like him or not, we’re stuck with Ur-Didact for the time being so hopefully we’ll see more of his history, and particularly his relationship with the Librarian, given some due attention. Next time I shoot a nuclear warhead at him, it’d be good to understand a bit more about him.

Also, it goes without saying that we need Halo multiplayer to go back to being more like Halo multiplay, and a lot less like Call of Duty multiplayer. And if they want to put Firefight in there too, pretty much as-is but with the new graphics engine, that certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Red Dead Revolution

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Red Dead Revolver was set in the 1880s, Red Dead Redemption was set in 1911. While they share a franchise name, there was little to link the two games, and certainly no indication that there’s any kind of narrative thread running through the Red Dead timeline. For a third in the series, I think it could be interesting to push back in time again, maybe even as far as the 1840s or 1850s and tackle the transition from the California Republic to the admission of the state into the Union. This could introduce some Zorro-like shenanigans and perhaps some swordplay into the mix.

At first glance this may sound like I’m proposing that Rockstar turn Red Dead into Assassin’s Creed, but I think there’s a ton of potential for the brand to dig into American and Mexican history of the period and dabble in some creative storytelling around a Don Diego de la Vega style character, but with a grittier 21st century take on the concept. Note: I’m not saying “make a Zorro game,” just “make a game with a Zorro-style anti-hero in it.”


Hitman Absolution Game Wallpaper HD

Absolution ended up being an essentially linear experience that was made up of small open environments. Let’s go back to the freedom of earlier games, and allow for some big, elaborate hits that are less scripted and more opportunistic. Guns are fine for some hits, but it would be good to see the world filled with objects that may (or may not) be used to carry out the hit, either in combination with other objects or on their own. Rather than giving some objects in the world a credible physical model, I’d love to see everything behave more like we’d expect - so you can set up traps by stacking objects, binding them together, or relying on their mass and weight.

In terms of story - can we please go back to 47 being an international hitman? Also, let’s bring things back on track and have him back at the ICA again.

Also, Jesper Kyd for the soundtrack again, please.

Mass Effect Trilogy “Definitive Edition

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It wouldn’t be called this, but I’m going to use “Definitive Edition” as shorthand for the idea of taking a previous generation game and remaking it for the new consoles. Tomb Raider set the tone for what’s possible more than adequately, but we need to be careful what we wish for. Much as I’d love to see some “definitive” adaptations of my favorite games, I’d hate for it to become a crutch. Given the costs involved with next gen development, it’s certainly a possibility that we’ll see more of this than we might hope for. Regardless, I’d love to play through the Mass Effect Trilogy again, only with everything wrapped in the highest resolution textures available, the whole thing relit, and with the combat system from Mass Effect 3 plugged into the first two games. Throw in all the DLC and I’d happily pay a princely sum for the whole thing repackaged in some kind of collectors edition thing along with books I’ll never look at and statues that my wife won’t let me put on show anywhere.

The Elder Scroll: Skyrim

Skyrim gameplay2

Same as for Mass Effect. Will never happen in a million years, but if Bethesda ever wanted to port it to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and use the PC assets, that would be just fine with me. Maybe give the lighting a once-over while you’re at it.

Deus Ex: Human Evolution

2DeusExHumanRevolution AdamJensen

I’m such a sucker for the whole cyberpunk aesthetic, and Eidos Montreal got so much right with Human Revolution that it made me happily overlook the things that they got wrong. For a sequel I’d like to see something post-2027, but pre-2050. The introduction of nano tech completely changes the dynamics of the Deus Ex universe, so witnessing the beginnings of that is something I’d like to see explored in some detail. Let’s call it “Human Evolution” to tie it in with the last game without slipping into sequel malaise. I’m happy to see Adam Jensen return, but for god’s sake can we have someone other than Elias Toufexis do his voice, please? His caricature-like Clint Eastwood sneer was almost comical in its delivery. I don’t know if he was trying to channel David Hayter and create something vaguely Snake-like, but it failed on just about every level for me. Jensen was a character with a credible backstory, clearly haunted by the position he found himself in, but in “real life” if he went around talking like that, everyone would just burst out laughing every time he opened his mouth. Let’s see an older, more experienced Jensen that delivers his lines like a human being.

Rather than have the new game hop from location to location, I’d like to see the new one have a single city that’s designed in a way that allows more of an open world RPG-like approach to the gameplay. Human Revolution did a pretty good job of presenting an illusion of freedom at times, but ultimately it was more of an elaborate shooter than a role playing game. Let’s fill the city with NPCs that behave in a “next gen” way… have them react to action as it unfolds around them. Also, let’s develop some multi-dimensional adversaries that are less comic-book “big bads” and build on some credible motivation for their actions. If Deus Ex was the James Bond franchise, we’re still in the silly years when it comes to the bad guys. It needs its Casino Royale moment.

One thing I wouldn’t change; the score. Bring back Michael McCann for the new game, and let him riff on Icarus as much as he damn well likes.


Next Gen Games Need to Feel More Alive

If all we get from next gen consoles is prettier graphics and better digital distribution, then the experiences aren’t going to be noticeably different from what we had before. What we need is a focus on other technologies.

Johnny 5 Still Alive by the ovin

I’m wowed by the visuals already. Assassin’s Creed IV is superb, but it’s basically just a very pretty current-gen game. Killzone: Shadowfall is beautiful but really, really badly designed. Ryse is stunning but hopelessly vapid. Battlefield 4 has moments of grandeur and majesty that are utterly ruined by whatever the fuck it is that DICE did to screw up on the server side during development. I appreciate that it’s hard to pass that much information around a network - but it’s not like they’ve not done it before. Knack is cute, but is held back by a design doc from 1998 that Mark Cerny clearly fished out from behind his sofa. Of all the next gen launch titles, the one that really stands out for me is Forza 5. Not because it looks that much better than Forza 4 (it doesn’t) but because the ludicrously-named “Drivatars” exhibit believable on-track behavior that I can accredit to my friends, who I can then berate on Twitter for driving like arseholes.

For me, this is the key to the experiential “wow” that we need to see in the coming years. Graphics will obviously get better and better, and that’s lovely - but things need to take a step in a completely new direction.

From talking to game development people that are far cleverer than I about such things, it seems that the very best of what’s to come will actually be the stuff that’s much harder to demonstrate in a big glitzy graphical showcase. Any post-launch game reveal can bedazzle us all with a graphical orgasm that stirs up a ton of Twitter noise, but anyone with a tricked-out PC and a worldwide media event can do that. I saw the Star Wars 1313 demo running on a big, throbbing multi-GPU PC in real-time a couple of years ago, so I’m already au fait with graphical trouser tingle. It’s going to take a lot more than pretty pictures to justify the “next generation.”’s what I hope we’re all going to be talking about six months from now - not graphics (OK, maybe a little,) not digital distribution or streaming content, but two things specifically  physics and AI. The things that will make our games feel more alive.

I want to see environments that aren’t completely static, or that only react in predictably scripted ways. When you’re running around in Black Ops 2 or Ghosts, the fact that structures don’t get completely obliterated and fall over when you hit them repeatedly with a War Machine makes the whole thing feel contrived. Some games have been playing with this for a while, but we’re still not seeing the idea implemented very often because it requires the whole project to be built around the idea. Criterion’s criminally-underrated Black did it to startling effect on PS2 back in 2006. Battlefield 3 took a step in the right direction by crumpling things in a more believable fashion, and Battlefield 4 has some moments of absolute jaw-dropping magnificence. Breach played around with it somewhat, but I want to see physics models consistently applied with as much care and attention as the pretty textures. This is insanely complicated and difficult to do, I’m told, but as an audience we’re certainly ready. We can’t keep running around static sets forever. When game worlds are modeled physically as well as aesthetically, we’re going to see levels designed in a very different way and we’ll see more emergent experiences based on our interactions with environments.


I don’t know about you, but I’m also pretty sick of NPC’s behaving like morons. If Sony is going to insist on making yet another Killzone despite no one asking for it, let’s at least make it more than a graphical showpiece. Let’s have some of that epic computing power devoted to the Helghast actually behaving the way we’d expect them to. Let’s have them show some awareness of their environment and what’s actually happening around them. Yes, I know they duck into cover in Shadowfall, but I want to believe that a group of soldiers standing within a few hundred feet of each other aren’t utterly oblivious to one another. I want to be able to accept that these guys might possibly know each other - so if I shoot one of them, the others actually react. More than just scattering for cover, I want to see them responding in a way that shows they’re operating as a cohesive unit, and are relying on one another.

In previous generations, as players we all got very used to name-checking graphics engines like Unreal and Frostbite as a shorthand barometer for visual expectations. The challenge of implementing artificial intelligence systems is that the needs are much more specialized, but I would anticipate that in the coming years we’ll start name-checking brand-name engines that control pathfinding and behavior with similar enthusiasm. What will they be? Honestly, I really don’t know, but my hope is that we’ll take comfort from seeing certain A.I. engines flagged in startup sequences just as we do now for graphics engines. Perhaps dudebro’s the world over will eventually be heard uttering, “Hey bra, this thing uses Aggrobrain 2.0 combat A.I., it’s amaze-balls,” while Icing each other. Or something.

Probably not, but the discussion I want to kick off here is that there are more important things than graphics with these new consoles. Let’s hope studios try and do something brave with the next gen, rather than just give us prettier and prettier versions of experiences we’ve already had.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013: The Year in Videogames

My big project from this past week before the Holiday break. It's probably the most ambitious video editing thing I've ever tried. A year ago, I wouldn't have attempted something like this, as the clip-juggling is pretty overwhelming. It's still by no means as tight as it could be, and it probably looks very sloppy to everyone I know that's an experienced video editor, but I feel like I've come a long way, particularly in the past few months. This whole project ended up taking about two solid days of work one of which ran late into the night. Sourcing the clips was very time consuming, but I have a workflow that works for me now, and as long as I'm using two screens so I can multitask, it goes pretty smoothly. By the end of the project, the hardest thing was letting go and being ready to post the thing. I could've probably noodled with it indefinitely.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Microsoft and Xbox One Transparency

When IGN announced that it was co-opting the "AMA" format from Reddit for an "Ask Microsoft Anything" series in the weeks leading up to the Xbox One launch, the derision and cynicism it prompted was pretty predictable. "Clearly it's a controlled PR thing," goes the argument. Well, yes. Clearly anything that Microsoft does with the press is a PR thing. That's how these things work. Big companies don't offer any kind of access without an agenda these days, and anyone that thinks otherwise is a bozo. I would imagine that the logic for putting this thing together involved all concerned thinking it was a win-win. For Microsoft, they get to try and humanize their messaging a bit, something that's increasingly important as they continue to stumble from one incompetent PR fuck-up to another, and IGN gets a regular hit of raw next-gen info to feed its large and voracious audience. Some weeks what it yields is inconsequential, while others we actually get some meat on the bones.

Say what you will about the lack of transparency in IGN's interpretation of the "AMA" format; this week yielded a sufficiently meaty snippet that the rest of the Web's tech and gaming reporters picked it up and ran with it verbatim. If you're following videogame sources in your RSS reader, or you've even glanced at Twitter, chances are you'll see at least a dozen variations on the "Xbox One no longer requires Kinect" headline. 

The quote from Microsoft's chief Xbox One platform architect Marc Whitten that prompted today's particular batch of cutting-and-pasting was a response to the question, "Since Kinect must be plugged in for the Xbox One to function, what happens if your Kinect breaks? Like if it falls off the top of your TV onto a hardwood floor or something? Will the console cease to function?"

WHITTEN: Xbox One is designed to work with Kinect plugged in. It makes gaming better in many ways – from the ability to say “Xbox On” and get right to your personalized homescreen, to the ability to control your TV through voice, Smartglass and more. Kinect allows you to search for your content, instantly move between games and your personalized dash and more with just your voice. Kinect helps you pick up and play by automatically knowing which controller you have in your hands. No more need to interrupt your friends game or navigate through multiple UI screens to sign in and tell the system which controller you are holding. It will even bind the controller to the console if its currently unbound – no searching for special buttons! Of course – these are just a few of the system wide benefits of having Kinect. Games use Kinect in a variety of amazing ways from adding voice to control your squad mates to adding lean and other simple controls beyond the controller to full immersive gameplay. That said, like online, the console will still function if Kinect isn’t plugged in, although you won’t be able to use any feature or experience that explicitly uses the sensor.

So there you go. "The console will still function if Kinect isn’t plugged in," which is yet another Microsoft U-turn. And of course a perfect opportunity for a bunch of outlets to run headlines predicting that there'll be a Kinect-free bundle announced for the same price as PS4 any day now.

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I know what the Xbox team probably thinks it's doing at the moment. A group of marketers and "communications specialists" are surely patting themselves on the back for being so hip and groovy, fully embracing the notion of "transparency" and "responsiveness."

"Yeah guys, see? When the community speaks, we respond," they no doubt tell themselves. The problem, of course, is that rather than responding to the complaints all in one go…they've decided to try and eke out as many press cycles as they possibly can with each shift in policy. A truly modern, hip and groovy approach – one that is properly "transparent" – would have been to wait a while, call another event (online only, with no one paid to cheer in the background) and come out and say, "hey, we listened to everything that you had to say, and this is the plan now." Boom! "It's not always-on, there's a headset included, there's no Kinect requirement, and here's a cheaper box." They honestly would have been applauded for that.

"Holy shit," we would have said in unison. "Who would have thought such a big corporation could behave in such a modern way?" Instead it would appear that an inept group of people somewhere within the bowels of the company is rather hoping that we'll have that same reaction every fucking week.

The result, of course, is that they don't look hip and groovy and transparent. They look inept and indecisive and rather like a politician that is desperately trying to ingratiate himself to a constituency he's already lost.

The Xbox group used to be an oasis of comparative coolness within the Microsoft organization. Sure, the air of "rebellion" was sometimes terribly contrived, but we were always fairly convincingly persuaded that the Xbox team understood who we were as an audience. Consequently there was a belief that, by and large, the product was being molded based on the decisions of a group of gamers with our best interests at heart.

Now? Honestly, who the fuck knows what is going on? The whole thing positively reeks of "suit." 

We're now faced with a company that thinks producing an unboxing video of its own product, three months ahead of the launch is actually going to fool us into thinking it was done for the right reasons. a) Unboxing videos are shit. They're boring, unimaginative clichés, and YouTube is full of the damn things. b) YOU DON'T DO AN UNBOXING VIDEO OF YOUR OWN PRODUCT. The whole point of that kind of content is to convey the wonder and appreciation of the shiny technological thingummy that people are craving. c) It's so clear that the job of this particular unboxing had nothing to do with "the moment you've all been waiting for," but instead was a desperate attempt to say "hey, I know it's getting weird because we keep changing things… here's what you're actually going to get for your $500."

If your strategy is being "transparent" why not just say that  then? If Larry had come on camera and said, "hey guys, we know it's been getting a bit confusing lately - so here's the deal," I think we all would have been genuinely impressed. Instead we get what one F!RST user described as being presented with "all the excitement of a kid opening socks on Christmas," before the disappointing climax of something "cool" apparently happening with the On button.

It's a testament to the strength of the brand over the past 10 years that all this crap is ultimately inconsequential. While idiots like me rant and rave from the sidelines about the idiotic and disappointing way that the brand is being wielded, ultimately - it really doesn't matter because, y'know…Call of Duty. What's sad though is that Xbox is one of the only products in the Redmond giant's enormous repertoire that is genuinely loved by it's users. We all laugh at the inept Surface RT ad campaigns, and there's not even a remote twinge of disappointment because we never actually gave a shit about the product. With Xbox though, we all care the idea of it. It means something, and there's nothing worse than watching an idea be destroyed by ineptitude.

Monday, July 8, 2013

RIP Ryan Davis

When I heard of Ryan's passing, I felt completely helpless. Patrick Klepek pinged me with the news while I was at home watching a movie with the kids. I honestly didn't know what to do with the information. I felt like there was something I should do. Something I should say. But as is always the case in these kinds of situations, nothing seems sufficient. 

Because of his effortlessly friendly demeanor as the host of the Bombcast, I always forget that I didn't actually know Ryan as well as I think I did. Having listened to him for years, his sharp wit had been a part of my lengthy commute for a long time. I only really got to know him at all "in real life" during and after the Giant Bomb acquisition at CBS Interactive when I became his boss. During that time he was always friendly and welcoming, and would share ideas and achievements with great enthusiasm.

I think we first bonded in any meaningful way when he enthusiastically told me about the possibility of a partnership between Giant Bomb and Cards Against Humanity. There were relatively few of us in the office at the time that really knew of the game, but we recognized in each other a kindred spirit for its particular sense of humor. He was already riffing on ideas for cards, and couldn't wait to get the Giant Bomb community involved in the creative process.

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Honestly, I wish I'd known him better. And this, in turn, has made me think that there are many that I wish I knew better. Many people that I should spend more time with, many I should let know how much I appreciate them, and many that I should make more of an effort with.

As we get older and settle into our lives its easy to slip into routines that slowly exclude those that we perceive as being on the periphery. The rush home to steal moments with partners and children pushes other relationships aside, to a point  where we think, "there'll be plenty of time for that later." Often "later" never comes and we lose touch with old friends, or fail to pay new acquaintances the attention they deserve.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

My E3 2013 Predictions

People seem to like it when I make predictions. It all started with some fortunate interpretations of current games-culture events back in the 1UP Yours days. Now, it seems to have spun into a whole thing where people just dig it when I get together with some of the old crew and make wild, unsubstantiated guesses about things that will happen. These guess are informed by little more than my increasing cynicism and relative old-age.

The first hit for E3 predictions this year was on episode 167 of Weekend Confirmed with Garnett Lee, Jeff Cannata, and Xav de Matos. I followed that up with an expanded batch of predictions, which you can find in the video for F!RST embedded below.

Check it out, hit the "like" button, and subscribe to the channel if you haven't already.

I'm quietly confident about a bunch of these, although that PS4 date prediction may be a bit of a wild guess.