Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When the Saints Go Marching In

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

I recently finished Saint's Row 4, and holy crap was it an amazing experience. In my last blog I expressed concern that SR4's sales might suffer with it being released so close to Grand Theft Auto 5 since they're similar games and some people my feel the need to choose one over the other. Well I'm happy to report that, after playing it, those fears seem unfounded. Saint's Row 4 is so far removed from what the GTA series is that it's hardly worth the comparison. SR4 is more in line with games like Crackdown or Infamous; its a super hero game at heart.

The new Saint's Row still has many of the gameplay mechanics you associate with GTA and earlier entries in the series: the ability to jack cars and planes, etc. However, within the first hour or so, you'll find that you will almost never have to set foot in a vehicle except for when the game's story requires it.

The reason is, early on in the game, your character earns the ability to run faster than any car in existence and jump incredibly high into the air. And, soon after, you'll be able to run up the side of any building, leap off at the top and glide across the city like some foul-mouthed flying squirrel.


The breezy, fluent traversal controls are easily one of the funnest parts of the game. It's simply a blast to get around the city, and the game provides more than enough collectibles to give you an excuse to just criss-cross the city of Steelport like a drunken Superman. Scattered all over the place there are more than 1200 "clusters" that function as a secondary currency that you'll use to upgrade your various super powers. There are several other types of collectibles as well, including audio logs and statues begging to be destroyed.

Enter the Simulatrix

Welcome to Virtual Steelport! Brought to you by the Zin Empire.
If you haven't been following SR4 up to its release you're probably wondering why you have super powers to begin with. The Saint's Row franchise, while becoming increasingly ridiculous over the years, has always been somewhat grounded in reality. So where do these powers come in to play? To explain that we'll have to dig into the story a bit. So, if you're planning to enter SR4 spoiler-free, you should probably stop reading here. Just know that the game is amazing and you should absolutely play it if what you've seen or read has interested you at all. However, be sure to play it on PC if that's an option for you; I hear the console versions suffer from some serious performance issues.

When the game opens, the leader of the Saints(your character) is in the middle of foiling a plot to nuke the United States. Despite your best efforts the warhead launches and you're tasked with climbing the missile and tearing out its navigation systems as it builds altitude. You ultimately succeed and dive off of the missile just in the nick of time. This event propels you and the Saint's from international celebrities to patriotic heroes. And, being the ambitious bastard you are, you parlay the public adoration into a run for the Presidency. And you win.

Things aren't all rosy for your administration, however. You're facing resistance from other political groups and all the major decisions being left to you have begun to take their toll. And, just when it looks like the leader of the free world is considering hanging it up for good, fucking aliens bust into the White House and abduct you and your cabinet members(your friends and fellow Saints.)

You wind up in a crazy virtual world based on Steelport from Saint's Row: The Third, But this place is designed to keep you in line and break you. To make a long story short, a couple of your homies help you break out of this digital nightmare and steal an alien ship to call your own.

Complete with futuristic shitter!
However, a number of your friends are still trapped inside this network of cyber prisons, known as The Simulation. And the only way to get them out is to plug yourself back in, track down where they're being held, and force them to snap out of the illusion. You'll also need to weaken the Simulation overall in an attempt to bring the whole thing down. But these are just the steps you must take to get your shot at Emperor Zinyak, architect of The Simulation.

It's basically a mix of The Matrix films and Mass Effect games, with tons of references to other games and movies thrown in for good measure. You'll see nods to everything from Terminator and Men in Black to Streets of Rage and Combat, and everything in between.

Hmm, I know this reminds me of something...
SR4's story is very well written, but it's ultimately just an excuse to give you ridiculous powers and the designers a chance to throw you into increasingly ludicrous scenarios that couldn't exist in a more realistic world.This lends the game's story missions a wide variety of settings and mechanics for you to play around with. And, since you're entering simulations that are based on your trapped homie's worst nightmares, it provides insight into these character's backstories, giving you a better sense of who they are. It makes you care about them, which makes you want to help them out.

After rescuing one of the Saints, you can speak to them aboard your ship or call them into The Simulation to aid you in combat. More importantly however, you gain access to a loyalty mission involving them. These missions are all unique to that specific character and are the source of some of the best and funniest moments in the entire game, especially if you've played the earlier Saint's Rows. Your reward for completing the mission? That homie becomes super powered within The Simulation and dons an incredible hero outfit, all of which are perfectly fitting for that person.

One of my only complaints with the game is that I wish there were more interactions with your homies. Aboard the ship you have two options with each of the Saint's, "talk" or "romance". The "talk" option just has them throw out a few lines related to what's going on, and the "romance" options leads to an immediate, and often awkward, romance scene which are consistently funny because of how abrupt they are. When you think about it though, that's hardly even a complaint; I like what they did with the characters so much that I just want there to be more of it.

Cue the mood lighting.

Let the Playa Play

Saint's Row 4 is clearly built on the same engine as SR:TT and it reuses a lot of assets from that game. However, almost the entire world has been re-skinned to fit the new motif which makes the setting feel new, yet familiar. This feeling applies to the gameplay as well; the shooting feels the same as the previous entry in the series, but your new found abilities make the combat, and especially the traversal, feel completely fresh.

There is no adequate way to describe the feeling of dropping from the sky next to a group of enemies, tossing a Freeze Blast in their midst and then shattering their frozen bodies with you automatic shotgun. To put it lightly, it feels gooood...

I can't stress enough how fun running, jumping, and gliding around fake Steelport is. It's so satisfying that Blazin' quickly became one of my favorite activities in the game. It's a new take on an activity that's been in SR since the second game. It used to be called Trail Blazin' and it's basically their version of checkpoint races. In previous iterations you'd perform these side quests on an ATV but, in SR4, you're on foot using your Super Sprint. I always enjoyed Trail Blazin', but it was never my favorite thing to do in the game. In SR4, it's a damn close second to the mainline story and loyalty missions.

Music to My Ears

I will be the first to admit that I am not the most musically inclined person. Very few games have music that serves as anything more than background noise to me; I almost never notice if it's any good or not. That's why I have to make special mention about the soundtrack in SR4, it's absolutely wonderful. I firmly believe that this game may have the best use of licensed music of any game, ever. There are just so many moments that are made ten times funnier by the games choice of song.

I don't want to spoil these moments, so the only example I'll give is one of the earliest. In the opening sequence I mentioned earlier where you're climbing the nuclear missile as it flies through the air, the Saints that were with you assume that you're not going to make it and start giving your their heart-felt goodbyes over the radio. And while this touching moment is happening, Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" begins playing in the background. It's so utterly perfect that I could barely keep playing because I was laughing so hard.
I think I might actually tear up.

When the Saint's Go Marching Out

Everything about Saint's Row 4 makes it feel like the perfect send-off for this series. Nearly every fan-favorite character from the previous games returns in some capacity and, as someone who's played every SR game to completion, the feelings of nostalgia were undeniable as the game tossed out references to some things from the past that I remember vividly, and other things that I'd forgotten about. You don't need to have played all of the previous games to enjoy this one but, if you have, your experience will be even more fulfilling.

That's not to say that there's nowhere else that this franchise could go. Personally I couldn't have imagined where else they could take it that would be crazier than space aliens and virtual realities, but the game's ending actually plants a pretty amazing seed that would be mind-blowing to see them follow through on. That being said, the people at Volition stated that this would be the last game in this version of the Saint's Row universe, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them move on to something else for their next game. Even if it's only to give them some breathing room before jumping back into this series.

In conclusion, I absolutely adored Saint's Row 4; it's easily one of my favorite game this year and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Game on!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grove Street vs. The Row

This fall we will be treated to new entries in two series that I have a lot of love for, Saint's Row 4 and Grand Theft Auto 5. I am incredibly excited about both releases but when I began thinking about them I realized something; this is the first time these franchises have gone head-to-head like this and it's causing me some concern.

From San Andreas to Stilwater

Original Gangsta

You see, GTA: San Andreas came out in 2004 and the original Saint's Row which was... let's say "heavily inspired" by San Andreas was released in 2006. Okay, so Saint's Row was a borderline knock-off, but it was incredibly well done, unlike other GTA clones like the True Crime series or the remake of Narc. For that reason alone it was easy to overlook Saint's Row's similarities to Rockstar's popular franchise. There had also been enough of a time gap since GTA:SA that people were hungry for another game like that and Saint's Row was on the newest hardware generation, the Xbox and Playstation 3, giving it some extra oomph in the graphics department.

Semi-Original Gangsta

Saint's Row's gameplay was tight and it even managed to do some things better than San Andreas did; specifically the shooting mechanics were much better, in my opinion. It also tried to have a fairly serious story, but the writing just wasn't of the same quality that the GTA franchise had enjoyed. If you compare the games to Hollywood, the GTA series feels like your high-end, big budget gangster films like Scarface, Casino, or Boys in Tha Hood; Saint's Row feels "MTV" Gangster.

The storyline of the original SR gave you the impression the writers listened to entirely too much gangster rap and created a world that was all about "Hos and money." It wanted to be taken seriously, but often times came across laughable because it was just so ridiculous. This humor, intentional or not, lent the game and it's characters a fair amount of charm that many gamers, including myself, really enjoyed. That's not to say that all of the humor was unintentional; one of the side activities in the game involved you hurling yourself in front of oncoming traffic to rack up false insurance claims. The game certainly had some wackiness to it, but it was subdued, especially compared to what future iterations of the series would bring.

The first Saint's Row was a surprise hit for developer Volition and publisher THQ and it was clear that there would be more to come.

A break from tradition and a testing of the (Stil)water

If the glove don't fit...

Meanwhile, Rockstar had been hard at work creating the next entry in their biggest franchise, GTA IV. It was released at the end of April, 2008. The game was a massive hit, but some portion of the gaming community was disappointed by the more serious tone the game took on compared to San Andreas. Most of the game's humor was confined to satirical business names and billboards so that the story of Niko Bellic could maintain an air of grim reality.

Niko came to Liberty City to get out of crime and away from shady gangsters, but he was almost immediately thrown into the middle of a criminal culture that was foreign, yet all-too familiar for him at the same time.

I absolutely loved GTAIV and I though that Mr. Bellic's tale was brilliant, engaging, and sad to witness. However, some gamers were disappointed with it's more realistic approach; there were no jetpacks to fly, no gang territories to take over. It was just the story of one man struggling to eke out an honest life for himself while his sordid past sabotaged that from happening.

Sad Niko is sad...

Saint's Row 2 gave the behemoth that was GTAIV a four month berth, releasing in October of the same year. The designers at Volition had listened to feedback from the first SR; specifically that people enjoyed the crazier aspects of the original game and wanted more of it. They used SR2 to test the waters with more over-the-top game mechanics and a story to match.

Gangsta with a zany twist!

The result was a significantly more exhilarating and hilarious experience. Spraying down people and local monuments with a septic tank full of shit that had somehow been equipped with a hose, just to devalue the local property so that you can buy it up for cheap, is truly an experience I'll never forget.

Eww... Just, ew.
Unfortunately, the engine the game had been built on, the same engine Volition had created for the original game, just wasn't able to handle the kind of chaos they asked it to produce. This left the game with some serious performance issues that hampered the experience significantly. For example, one of the new activities, known as Trail Blazin', sets you on fire, places you on a quad, and asks you to drive trough a series of checkpoints within a set time limit. And oh yeah, anything you get near during this activity explodes... cars, trash cans, PEOPLE, they just fucking explode when you get close. It was a fantastic idea, but the frame-rate would routinely dip into the single digits once the explosions started getting too hectic, making the missions far more difficult and frustrating to play than they should have been.

Saint's Row 2 was flawed, but it was a necessary experiment that would help the franchise evolve into what it is today. It allowed Volition to test their audience's reaction and see whether or not this was the direction the series should be headed in. The answer was a resounding "Yes!" Volition now had a blueprint to take Saint's Row to the next level...

Wrasslin', Dildo Bats, and Gangsterism

Painful AND humiliating?!?!?

While Rockstar focused on new entries in their other franchises, like Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, Volition went straight to work crafting a new engine for the next installment of the Saint's Row franchise, Saint's Row The Third. And this time, there would be no holding back. From the outset, SR:TT was designed to be as over-the-top and crazy as they could possibly make it. The motto during the game's development was "fun trumps all". Meaning that if something was fun and exciting, then it didn't have to make logical sense right off the bat, they would find a way to incorporate it.

This design philosophy resulted in a ridiculously fun experience that nothing else could rival. It was a breath of fresh air in a year that was dominated by self-serious games, several if which were marking the end of a trilogy, such as Mass Effect 3 and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. That's not to say those games were bad; Mass Effect is my favorite franchise of this generation. It's just that dealing with all of these heavy, often tragic stories throughout the year made SR:TT feel like just what the doctor ordered.

The Third placed you back in the shoes of the leader if the Saint's and dropped you jnto Steelport, a brand new city for the series. The Saint's, now international celebrity criminals, had been challenged by a larger organization known as the Syndicate. And it was your job to show them why you don't fuck with 3rd street. Despite seeming like a pretty straight-forward setup, the story managed to take some interesting and unexpected twists, but I won't spoil them here.

How do you say "Oh, Shit!" in Belgian?

What made Saint's Row: The Third exceptional was the way that it flew in the face of traditional open world game design. Typically, in these types of games, you have to slog through with sub-par weapons and vehicles, while being arbitrarily cut off from a large portion of the game-world for many hours before the fun truly begins. And most of the early missions are mind-numbingly boring.

Volition threw you into the middle of some truly crazy missions from the outset. There were a few simple missions used to introduce the side activities on offer, but the game got to the fun quickly after that. Soon enough you were gaining access to insane weapons, like a laptop used to launch and guide missiles, floppy dildo shaped baseball bats, and exhilarating vehicles like Vtol jet bikes and tanks.

You'll be flying both of these sooner than you'd think.

Even more impressively, Volition was able to make every story mission unique and exponentially more crazy than the one you just finished. A few of these missions became instant classics and infinitely memorable. Ask anyone who's played the game about a mission called "Deckers Die!" and you will see a smile wash over their face.

This mission drops you into a near-copyright infringing world based in Tron where you must do battle with the leader of a gang of super-geek hackers. As you progress, the leader if this group tries to use his hacking skills to slow you down. Ever wondered what it would be like to play as a walking toilet?  How about a sex doll? Thanks to Saint's Row: The Third, you will wonder no more.

What did you think I was exaggerating?  THIS THA ROW BITCH!
Saint's Row: The Third received almost universal praise from critics and fans alike, garnered many awards, and was undeniably one of the funnest and funniest games of the year. Volition built upon the world of Steelport with several DLC packs before moving on to create the next game in the series, which they say will mark the end of the current SR storyline, but not the end of the franchise; provided that the game sells as well as the last few have.

The Face-Off

And finally we have come to the showdown. After years of putting months, if not years between each other's releases, we'll be seeing the latest entries in these two great franchises within one month of each other:

Saint's Row 4- August 23rd
Grand Theft Auto 5- September 17th

And Goddamn do they look fantastic!

From the streets to the white house

In Saint's Row 4 you have gone from street gangsta, to celebrity gangsta, to President of the United States... gangsta. And that's just the set-up. How could it get any more ridiculous, you ask? Your main nemesis throughout the game is an alien race that is trying to enslave humanity. Yeah, it's that kind of crazy. The final entry in the SR saga promises to reunite you with all your favorite characters from the previous games in the series, and it will give you even more freedom and super hero-like powers to wreak havoc on the world as you choose.

Los Santos welcomes you home.

Grand Theft Auto V places you in the shoes of three very different protagonists and gives you the freedom to switch between them at will. Each character has his own story and life to lead, but they're lives will converge as they plan to pull off big money heists, which is central to the game's story.

First up you have Michael, who is often described as the "GTA protagonist that won." He was a successful bank robber in his younger days but then turned state's witness against some of the people he'd previously worked for. This landed him in witness protection, living a comfortable, but soul-crushingly boring lifestyle. He yearns for the days of old and chooses to get back to what he was always good at.

Apparently money can't buy you happiness

To pull off these heists, Michael recruits his old pal Trevor; a meth-dealing psychopath who seemingly never wanted to get away from the life of crime. He is now living a trailer in the middle of the desert, fighting with biker gangs for territory. Unstable as he may be, Trevor is a skilled pilot and has always been loyal, so Michael seems willing to put up with his chaos.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

And finally there's Franklin, a street thug with ambition. Franklin works as a repo man, but also boosts cars on his own to make extra money. With his habit of hanging around with people wearing green, he seems to have ties with the Grove Street Families from GTA: San Andreas. However, petty crime simply isn't cutting it for Franklin anymore; he wants something more substantial. When Michael runs into him on the street one day, he quickly takes a liking to the young street kid and decided to take him under his wing to teach him a thing or two.

Grove Street 4 Life!

All three protagonists promise to have individual strengths and weaknesses, but you'll be able to increase each character's stats in several different areas over the course of the game. Also, while not in the middle of a mission, you'll be able to switch to any of the characters on the fly. So if you want to go from cruising the hoods of Los Santos as Franklin to off-roading through the desert as Trevor and finally end by playing a relaxing game of golf as Michael, you will be able to do so seamlessly.

Choices, choices

With both of these powerhouses coming out so close to one another, which do you choose? Personally, I will be playing both because I couldn't possibly neglect one for the other, and with a little less than a month between them I might be able to at least finish the main story of Saint's Row 4 before GTA V hits the streets.

But this may not be the case for a lot of people out there; Both games promise to offer massive worlds to explore, numerous story and side missions, as well as the endlessly replayable ability to go on a rampage for no particular reason whatsoever. It would be feasible to play either of these games exclusively for months to come, so what do you do?

And that's where my worries start to seep in: I am excited for SR4, but I am HUNGRY for GTA V. There hasn't been a new Grand Theft Auto game in over 5 years and I cannot adequately describe how excited I am to see what the team at Rockstar North has been working on. I don't think that I'm alone in this either; there is a palpable feeling of anticipation for GTA V in the gaming community, and I just hope that Saint's Row 4 doesn't get steamrolled by it. I get the sense that, if you had to choose only one, a lot of gamers would go with the new GTA, simply because there hasn't been one in a while and they're always excellent.

...or this?
That being said, I think that Saint's Row 4 may be coming in just under the wire to give people time to enjoy it before it's bigger, beefier cousin steps in to steal their attention away. I certainly hope so; SR is a fantastic franchise from an amazing development team and I would love to seem them continue making them well into the next generation of hardware.

Either way, the next few months will deliver an extraordinary pair of games that are sure to be a fitting swan song for the current consoles before they're eclipsed by their successors. And with games like these, and the fact that neither the Xbox One nor the PS4 are backwards compatible, it's likely that those boxes will maintain a place in your entertainment center for some time to come.

Game on!

All hail the commander in chief

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Loss of a Great Man

The Bearded One

Rest in Peace, good sir.

Today I learned that Ryan Davis, co-founder of my favorite video game website, passed away on July 3rd, just days after his wedding. The news struck me so hard that I was left speechless. I had never even met Ryan, and yet it feels like I've lost a close friend. Giant Bomb has been my main source for everything video game related since I first discovered the site shortly after it launched back in 2008. I was already a fan of Ryan, Jeff Gerstmann, Brad Shoemaker, Alex Navarro, etc. from seeing them on before they all departed the site after Jeff was unfairly fired. So when I heard that they'd banded back together to form a new site, it was like a dream come true.

I am on literally every day; watching videos, listening to podcasts, reading stories. Pretty much any free time I have that isn't spent with my loved ones or playing games is spent on the site. So, even though I'd never met him, I felt like I'd gotten to know Ryan Davis on some level. He always struck me as an incredibly jovial, friendly man; the type of guy I'd love to sit and have a beer with. The type of person I'd be proud to call my friend.
Vinny Caravella with Ryan on his wedding day

I often imagined meeting the Giant Bomb crew and shaking each of their hands and thanking them for all of the laughs they've provided me over the years. And it's just so hard to come to terms with the fact that the opportunity to thank Ryan personally has passed and will never come again. Just as often I'd dream of working as a writer for Giant Bomb and being a part of the shenanigans that we only get to hear about on the weekly Bombcast. It's still my dream to do just that, but I know it won't be quite the same without Ryan's signature cackle to put a stamp on the proceedings.
Cigars and money!
I don't know what else to say, I'm still grappling with this whole situation, but I'll leave your with this: Call a friend, hug a loved one; life is short and there's no telling when it will all be over. So, focus on the good times, forget the bad, and most of all, live it up while you can.

Finally, here are some links to some of my favorite Giant Bomb videos featuring Ryan:

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Time of War

E3 Press Conferences

E3 took place earlier this month and I was planning to post something during or shortly afterward but, unfortunately, the stomach flu and some other things prevented me from doing so. However, I'm kind of glad because so much has changed since the show that it's worth talking about it all at once.

Leading into E3 all eyes were on Microsoft and Sony to see what further details would be released about their upcoming consoles, the Xbox One and Playstation 4. Microsoft had been catching a lot of flak for some of their policies regarding the Xbox One. Specifically the restrictions they would be placing on used games and the requirement of having to take your console online once every 24 hours to prevent yourself from being locked out of playing games.

That's "sic" yo!

People were looking for Microsoft to justify these restrictions by explaining how these policies would be a positive thing for customers and by showing some amazing, exclusive games for the system. During their conference, Microsoft seemed to have a rather stand-offish attitude about the whole controversy and simply restated their policies and assured everyone that THIS is the future. They also announced the price: $499; a bit steep, but not outrageous for a brand new console and certainly not the "$599 US dollars" announcement that made a joke of Sony when they announced pricing for the PS3 years ago. They did show a few interesting games, but we'll get to those in a bit. Overall MSoft's E3 press briefing felt just as scripted and awkward as most of these conferences do.

For your consideration

Later that night was Sony's event. Everyone was interested to see what they had to say about the PS4 coming on the heels of all the backlash that Microsoft had gotten. Most people expected them to follow suit with Microsoft and announce similar used games and internet restrictions.

Oh how wrong we were

Sony started out simply enough by stating their continued commitment to the PS3 and Playstation Vita, which is expected from this type of conference. However, after they got past all of that is when the bombs began to drop. The first huge moment was when they announced that their policies regarding used games would remain the same as they are now; i.e., you can trade or give any game to a friend or sell it back to a retailer without any extra cost or hoops to jump through. This was in direct contrast to Microsoft's policies and was a slap in the face of what they were trying to do. And, just to twist the knife a little more, following the show Sony released this OFFICIAL video regarding used games:

We cordially invite you to suck it, Xbox

Keep in mind, this isn't some fan made video mocking the Xbox One; those guys are big shots in Sony's American and Japanese game divisions who were on stage making announcements about the Playstation 4 themselves.

As if this wasn't big enough, Sony went on to announce that the PS4 would NOT require an internet connection for games that have single-player components. Not once a day, not once a month, not EVER.

The floor was already littered with the jaws of onlookers, but Sony wasn't quite finished yet. Jack Trenton, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA), took the stage to announce the price of the console: $399. A full $100 less than the Xbox One; the final bomb had been dropped, and it was a doozy.

Please excuse me while I blow your mind.

How could Sony afford to undercut Microsoft by that much? It's since come to light that they did it by removing the Playstation Camera(Their equivalent to the Kinect) from the standard PS4 package. This is a brilliant move in some ways but ultimately dooms the PS Camera to being just a niche product that most people probably won't own, but that's a topic for another time.

The Aftermath

Microsoft was understandably shaken by the moves made by Sony and they struggled for the rest of the show to explain how their way would ultimately be better for the consumer in the long run. This led to some pretty embarrassing moments like this one where Don Mattrick, the man leading the Xbox One charge, basically told the world that if you don't have a constant internet connection then you're not the type of person that we're selling this new generation to.

No internet? What are you, a savage?

Ouch. Microsoft spent the rest of E3 getting absolutely slammed in the media and on the internet for their attitude and policies. And it was reflected in the pre-order numbers where the PS4 was outpacing the Xbox One by at least 3:2, if not better in some regions.

You could almost hear the death bell tolling for the Xbox One even with months left before launch, but then something remarkable happened.

The "Xbox 180"

Just days after E3 ended Microsoft announced that they heard their customers speaking and that they were officially changing their previously stated policies for the Xbox One. The console will only require an internet connection once during the initial set-up, and there will be no restrictions on used games.

Despite all of the bad press, this was still an unexpectedly dramatic move for Microsoft. The idea of a company completely changing course months before their proposed product is even in stores is simply unheard of. It was an undeniably smart move, though. This change in course shows that they are listening, at least to a certain extent, to their customers and are willing to adapt to what the public wants.

Uh, hey, you guys remember all that shit I said? Yeah just forget about like half of that.
But will this move be enough to save the Xbox One in sales this holiday season? Only time will tell, but in a way it feels like it may be too little, too late. A lot of people had already put in their pre-orders for PS4s before MSoft corrected themselves, and a lot more people still feel burned by the attitude and arrogance that the big M has shown over the past few years.

Personally, I've owned both of the previous Xbox systems, and I'd love to carry my profile and achievements over to the new one, but I can't help but feel weary about the whole situation. What happens if Microsoft backpedals and reintroduces these unpopular polices a few months after launch? What happens if most gamer migrate to the PS4 and the Xbox One is a commercial failure and is discontinued after a few years? I owned a Sega Saturn and a Dreamcast; so I know what it's like to be on the losing team. I'd hate for it to happen again.

Games, games, GAMES!!!

Ultimately, at the end on the day it'll all come down to games. Whoever has the better, more interesting exclusives will rule the day this console generation. Then again, who knows, most games are coming to both platforms so maybe they can coexist and continue providing healthy competition for one another. Here's to hoping!

As far as the games of E3, that'll be the topic of my next blog. Until then, Game On!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Xbox One

After a far-to-long hiatus, The Mottman Prophecies is back and this time it's going to be about my reaction and thoughts on the Xbox One.

Xbox One-The Reveal

Just under one week ago Microsoft held a press conference to finally announce their next console, the Xbox One. There have been a variety of reactions since the event, but it seems like there is a lot of negativity surrounding the console and Microsoft's plans for the future of gaming. I've been mulling over the details from the conference, as well as those that have come to light since the show, and I'd like to take some time to express my thoughts on the biggest talking points that everyone's been focused on.

The Name

One of the biggest points of debate surrounding MSoft's new console before it's announcement was what it would be called. Don Mattrick, President of Interactive Entertainment for Microsoft, savored the moments leading up to the reveal before finally announce the name, Xbox One. And honestly, I'm not a fan. "Xbox One" simply doesn't grab me the way the name "Xbox 360" did. I understand the thought process; they want this console to be your One stop for all your home entertainment needs, but the name just isn't very striking.

"Xbox 360" was a brilliant name for it's time. Microsoft was a generation behind Sony in the console wars and calling it the "Xbox 2" would've immediately made it sound inferior to the Playstation 3. So the name "Xbox 360" allowed them to level the playing field with Sony by using the number 3, and the number 360 brings to mind cool images of extreme sports and energy drinks. It also implies that the console would be a well rounded machine since 360° makes a full circle.

Some thought they'd continue down the road of the Xbox 360 and call it the Xbox 720. I would've been fine with that decision, but I understand them not wanting to continue with that line of numbering since it would eventually lead to ridiculously high numbers that would quickly become meaningless. But the name Xbox One almost sounds like a step backwards for the company as a whole.

There were a few other names floating around the rumor mill, the two most popular of which were "Xbox Infinity" and "Xbox Fusion". Infinity would've been a cool name for the console and they surly could have done some interesting things with the infinity symbol(∞) in their marketing efforts. Now, Xbox Fusion was my favorite rumored name and I was really hoping they were going to use it. Fusion is just a very cool word; it sounds high-tech and brings to mind images of mad scientists performing crazy experiments in a lab, with explosions! But alas, it was not to be.

My final concern with the name "Xbox One" is it's potential for brand confusion in the future. It may not affect us now, but a few years down the line, whenever you're talking about the history of Xbox, you may need to constantly clarify whether you're speaking about the Xbox One, or the original Xbox. It's been commonplace to refer to the original Xbox as the Xbox 1 because of Sony's naming convention for their Playstation consoles. Now Microsoft has tossed a wrench into the gears with the name of their upcoming machine.

However, all of the concern over the name is probably going to amount to nothing in the end since the name of a console doesn't necessarily have any bearing on it's success. I remember thinking the name "Playstation" sounded pretty stupid when I first heard it. It sounded like a baby's plaything; some sort of bouncy contraption an infant can sit in and grab at plastic monkeys and giraffes to entertain itself while the parents take a much needed break. But the Playstation was a massive success, it established Sony as a true powerhouse in the video game industry and the brand name lives on today.

That wasn't the case with the Atari Jaguar which had arguably the coolest sounding name of any video game console. The Jaguar was an embarrassing flop and it spelled the end for Atari as a console manufacturer. The Jaguar failed because the console itself was shit, the Playstation succeeded because it wasn't shit. So, no mater how much stink is raised about the name of the Xbox One, it's success is going to depend on important factors beyond what words are stamped on the casing.

One of these was a MASSIVE failure...

The Games(or lack thereof)

One of the biggest complaints coming out of the Xbox One press conference was how much time Microsoft spent talking about television and the other features of the console and how few games they actually showed.

When Sony had their Playstation 4 press briefing a few months ago it was all about games; they showed triple-A titles, indie titles and generally focused on what gamers wanted to see from them. Sony seemed to "get it". They made it clear that they understood where they'd gone wrong with the PS3 and were making a concerted effort to right the ship. 

Microsoft talked about television... a lot. Then they showed a fairly nonsensical trailer for a new game being made by Remedy(Max Payne, Alan Wake), had EA talk about their sports franchises, and ended the conference with a look at the new Call of Duty game, Call of Duty: Ghosts. Microsoft promised 15 exclusive game for the Xbox One in it's first year, which is a great bullet point. However, just how many of those games are going to be "technically more than a tech demo" for the Kincet, remains to be seen.

Now don't get me wrong, I was a big fan of Alan Wake and I'm very interested to see what Remedy does next, but that trailer showed me nothing and didn't excite me at all. But EA showing sports games? Did we really need that? Of course those franchises are coming to the new consoles and of course they're going to look prettier that last generation's games. How about showing me some new IPs or sequels to more interesting IPs that I would actually give a shit about. 

I have similar feelings about them showing the new Call of Duty, but I understand. It's the biggest franchise in gaming right now and it has been particularly successful on the 360. It was a big deal for them to have Activision there and be able to announce exclusive content for the Xbox One version of the game. But did we need to end the whole show with that? Why not end it with a trailer for one of the "15 exclusive games coming in the first year" that they mentioned? Even it was just a teaser trailer, it would've at least left us something more interesting to talk about than "Hey, there's a new Call of Duty."
With all that said, I'm hoping that they were just saving the games for E3 since they waited until just 3 weeks before the big show to announce their console. Hopefully they simply wanted to get all of the bussinessy talk about television and fantasy football out of the way now so that they can really impress with non-stop games at E3(*fingers crossed*).

Used Games

Oh boy, Microsoft really stepped in it here. One of the most heated rumors about Microsoft's new console before the announcement was whether or not it would lock you out of playing used games.

I almost never buy used games. This is because I know that retailers such a Gamestop will often only reduce the price of the game by $5 or $10 and they keep 100% of the profits. None of the money goes to the people responsible for making the game(the developers and publishers), and when I buy a game I want to make sure that I'm supporting the people who created it. 

So I understand the attempts by publishers to incentive people to buy the game new or to at least create a way that they can get something from the sale of a used game. That's why the implementation of Online Passes made sense to me. If a person bought a used game and wanted to access any of it's online features they'd have to pay and extra $10-$15 that would go to the publisher/development studio. Gamestop gets it's money, the game makers get their money, everyone's happy. However, not long before the big Xbox conference, EA announced that it would be discontinuing Online Passes for new games. I didn't understand why until news came to light that, whenever you put a new game into an Xbox One, it will register that game to your Xbox Live account and that game will no longer be playable on any other Xbox One unless a person pays a fee to unlock the game.

I Suddenly understood EA's decision to get rid of Online Passes. The new consoles(or at least the Xbox One) will have built-in features to "deal with" used games. I fully understand why Microsoft would try something like this but I have real concerns about it's potential to alienate not only games, but also major retailers such as Gamestop. Let me be clear; I have no love for Gamestop. They're a terribly corrupt corporation that takes advantage of people with shady sales tactics and will stop at nothing to increase they're profits. However, they ARE the largest games retailer in the world, and if Microsoft pisses them off we could easily see them forcing the Xbox One into the backseat while they push the PS4 to every customer who walks through their door. This could heavily influence how this next generation of consoles will play out. Unless Sony has similar plans for handling used games, it would be wise of Microsoft to not get on Gamestop's bad side.

The mixed-messaging about how used games would be handled following the press conference didn't help matters either. First we heard that there would be a fee associated with used games, then Xbox support denied it, then Major Nelson came out and gave what may have been the most honest answer: as simple "We're not sure yet." If anything, Microsoft should've had all of their ducks in a row before anything was said about this issue.

The "Always Online" Debacle

The other big rumor preceding the Xbox One's announcement was whether or not it would require an always-online internet connection. This quickly became a huge point of contention for people when speculating about the new console. Not every gamer has a good or consistent internet connection and some don't have one at all. What about people on military bases who have very limited or no access to the internet? Would these people be completely shit-out-of-luck when it came to the new Xbox? 

One thing was certain: Microsoft needed to be clear and concise about this issue. They weren't. Microsoft needed to take a stand one way or the other. They didn't. Instead, what we got was a coy statement that "The Xbox One doesn't require an always-online internet connection, but it does require an internet connection." 

After some back-and-forth and a lot of debate, Microsoft's Phil Harrison stated that the console doesn't require a connection at all times, but it does need to be connected once every 24 hours at least, which may as well be an always-online requirement for gamers who don't have access to the web whenever they want it.

One big question that I haven't seen addressed yet is how the registering of new games will work without an internet connection. As I stated before, the first time you put a new game into your Xbox One and sign in, the console will register that game to your Xbox Live account. So, does that mean that the console WILL require a connection the first time you put a disc in the tray? If your console isn't connected and you try to play a new game, will it simply not allow you to play until you establish a connection to Live? This is a serious question that I haven't been able to find an answer for, but hopefully we'll be getting more answers soon.

Final Thoughts

Now, I know that my attitude throughout this blog has seemed pretty negative, and it has been. But I don't want to be misinterpreted. I'm a big fan and supporter of the Xbox brand, and I have been since the Xbox 1(oops, there I go, I mean the original Xbox) and I want the Xbox One to be a roaring success for Microsoft and gamers alike. I've owned other consoles, like the PS3, but it mostly sat collecting dust as I played most new releases on my 360. But I simply can't ignore my feelings about some of the decisions that Microsoft has made and how they've handled a lot of the confusion that their lack of consistency in messaging has caused.

But with all of this behind us, we must now look forward. E3 is just a few weeks away (June 11th-13th) and we are sure to learn a great deal more about not only Microsoft's new console, but Sony's as well. We're guaranteed to see games that are going to blow our socks off, games that are going to get us hyped for the new consoles.

So, with that my friends, I encourage you to take a "wait and see" approach. Wait and see what new details come out of E3(Prices, anyone?). Wait and see what games, specifically the console exclusives, are revealed. Wait and see where your hearts and minds take you, and start putting some cash to the side so that you'll be ready to go, this holiday season!

-Jeff Mott