The Game Jar Files: Cutting Costs; The Xbox One price cut rumour

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 19th 2014

A few weeks ago, a rumour popped up on the internet regarding a potential Xbox One price cut, and ever since then I’ve been considering just how likely that would be. Well, to be honest, I spent a fair amount of that time rolling my eyes at the notion, given that a price cut at some point is almost inevitable. But today I’ve started to take it a little more seriously after reading the news that Sony’s PlayStation 4 is still outselling the Xbox One. I know that sales between the two consoles are reasonably close, but as I noted a little while ago, I don’t think Microsoft knows how to ‘do second place’ any longer. Leading the race is where they’re most familiar, and I’m sure a price drop is one of the things they’ve talked about to get them there. What I want to know is; what does a cheaper Xbox One look like?

The discless option

Removing the Bluray drive was one of the things being guessed at by the internet hive mind, and I guess it kind of makes sense given Microsoft’s push towards a digital future, but to me it seems a little contradictory. ‘Welcome to the all-in-one, Xbox One’ is the tagline encapsulating the multimedia pitch for the console, but doesn’t removing the disc drive mean making it a little less all-in-one? The thing I think that people forget is, you’re not just removing the capability to play Blurays. You’re also removing the capability to play DVDs and CDs, and that is a big deal. I know we have iTunes and Netflix, but just imagine saying to every household with a large DVD collection ‘here’s a box that will do everything except play all the movies you’ve spent years collecting’. Its insanity. Removing the disc drive from the Xbox One would only be viable if Microsoft fully committed to the digital delivery only model, and as we all know, they’ve already pulled back from that.

The kinect-less option

Removing Kinect from the box is perhaps the most obvious option when trying to reduce the cost of the Xbox One, but to my mind it’s also the least likely. If you watched the initial Xbox One reveal, you’ll no doubt recall how much of that presentation was given over to demonstrating how Kinect was central to the Xbox One experience, and as such it makes removing the peripheral a massive PR disaster. Kinect is absolutely integral the console’s design. It’s why they couldn’t launch with a cheaper, Kinect-free hardware bundle. It’s why they redesigned an operating system that didn’t need redesigning. Admitting they got those decisions wrong by removing Kinect (which is essentially what they’d be doing) would be a step too far for Microsoft, and that’s why I think they won’t do it. Kinect is a game-changer as far as Microsoft is concerned, it’s what separates their console from the rivals. To abandon that just a year in after selling it so hard? Inconceivable!

The suck it up option

Assuming that Microsoft haven’t reduced manufacturing costs for the One by the end of the year, the ‘suck it up’ option is the most likely route to a price cut in my opinion. Having ruled out removing either the disc drive or Kinect, Microsoft is left with no other choice than to simply swallow the loss on each unit sold until costs come down. I know that sounds drastic, but it’s not unprecedented, and it doesn’t dilute the integrity of the Xbox One’s offer either. For all my criticism of Microsoft’s original pitch, I do believe they’ve got a good console on their hands, albeit one that costs too much. By leaving the console as it is and cutting the price, they could fully support the hardware – Kinect and all – whilst competing with Sony on price. For many people, the only thing preventing them buying an Xbox One is the price. Temporarily making a loss on each one sold is the quickest way to solve that problem

Whether Microsoft drop the price of the Xbox One is a question that doesn’t need asking. There’s absolutely no way they’ll want to go into a second holiday period with the most expensive hardware – especially as they’re already being outsold. How they go about it is the real question. All consoles get cheaper to manufacture over time, and usually these cost savings get passed on to the customer, but will Microsoft wait that long? In the end, I’m only making educated guesses here, but of the options I’ve listed, only making a loss in the short-term makes any real sense to me. No doubt time will tell how wrong I am, hopefully I’m not too far off though, as I have an Xbox One-shaped hole under my TV that needs filling.

The Game Jar Files: What will the next Gears of War game look like?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 24th 2014

I have a pretty special relationship with Gears of War. It was the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox 360, the game that showed me what Online Co-Op could be like if done right, and the game that encouraged me to venture out in the world of gaming communities. I’ve had a lot of fun playing these games. So when the news broke that Microsoft had acquired the rights to the franchise, and also revealed that there would be more Gears of War games on the way, I was slightly surprised to find that my reaction was one of trepidation. Having followed the development of multiple Halo games, I’m of the opinion that Microsoft aren’t really a ‘hands off’ type of publisher, so what would a new Gear game look like now that Microsoft have direct control of it?

In 2013, Gears fans got a taste of what a non-Epic made Gears of War game would look like. The People Can Fly developed Gears of War: Judgment arrived with much fanfare, but ultimately failed to capture the same spark the previous games had. For whatever reason – the lack of Horde mode, a changed multiplayer, or revamped mechanics, fans just didn’t take to the game and now they’re quite rightly wondering how the next game will shape up. Fans can be somewhat reassured that the studio responsible for creating the next Gears game – Black Tusk – is being headed up by series veteran Rod Fergusson, but how much freedom will they have to make the kind of game the series desperately needs?

If we’ve learnt anything from Halo 4, it’s that Microsoft doesn’t appear to like taking risks with their premier IP’s. There’s a set formula for making successful Halo games for example, and I don’t doubt for a second that Microsoft made it very clear  to 343 Industries they were expected to stick to it. To give 343i their due, Halo 4 was a pretty good game, but it came after five other Halo games and had no ambition to be original whatsoever, and as a result it was never going to be a truly great game. Playing it safe held Halo 4 back in my opinion, and I fear the same will happen to the next Gears game. Having witnessed PCF’s failed reboot of the series, will Black Tusk be given license to stray from the Gears of War formula? I think not. So I find myself asking; is that really what Gears of War needs right now?

Personally, I like to think the reason Judgment wasn’t that great was because People Can Fly would rather have made Bulletstorm 2, and as a result their heart wasn’t quite in it, but that’s just me being mischievous. Very probably Judgment’s lack of stellar quality arose from the studio being unable to fully unleash their creativity. I say that because I’ve played both Bulletstorm and Judgment, and I find it difficult to reconcile to two games. The former is a brilliantly fresh take on the genre that doesn’t pull its punches, and the latter is a game that never feels confident in the changes it’s tried to make. It’s almost as if someone was looking over the developers shoulders, constantly telling them ‘you can’t do that in a Gears of War game’

The trouble is, Gears of War’s particular brand of meathead combat has already been perfected over the course of three games, and it’s hard to see where the franchise goes next. The most obvious option is to explore the Pendulum Wars, but with the storyline never really being the series selling point, it’s difficult to think of a scenario that won’t simply be Gears of War with different weapons. In my opinion the game needs to start with a blank piece of paper, perhaps one that does away with single player all together, and focuses solely on Co-Op modes and multiplayer. Whatever direction they go in, one thing is for certain; the next Gears game needs to be a triumphant return to form.

Whether Gears of War can ever be the system seller it once was, I’m not so sure, but to stand a chance, Microsoft need to allow Black Tusk the kind of creative freedom that gave birth to the franchise to begin with. If the studio is given the freedom to tear up the Gears blueprint and start afresh, the next game could be truly special. After a lacklustre last game, the last thing the series needs is a publisher determined to play it safe by holding on the hand brake. As much as we love chainsawing Locust in half, we’re also ready for something new. Whether Black Tusk are allowed to give it to us, only time will tell.

The Game Jar Files: The problem with RPGs

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 10th 2014

With the amount of cross-pollination going on in the games industry, it’s no surprise that genre boundaries are softening. First person shooters are borrowing elements from RPGs, RPGs are borrowing elements from FPS’, and all sorts of other genres are borrowing from both. Whilst the sharing of ideas is nearly always a good thing in my opinion, I do wonder if this process has some unwanted side effects to it, particularly in the case of RPGs. You see, to my mind, RPGs seem to have forgotten how to do the role-playing bit of their name over the years, and I’d like to know why.

Before I go any further, I’d like to set out what the term RPG means to me. Many many years ago, before video games were as ubiquitous as they are now, gaming meant something entirely different to me. Now and again, it meant moving little metal soldiers about on a table, but mostly it involved sitting down with a group of friends, with a sheet of paper and a pencil, and rolling dice. Advance Dungeons & Dragons was my first proper taste of a role-playing game, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. Thanks to the way it’s played, AD&D gives you access to a world that allows the player a tremendous amount of freedom to become their character, thanks largely to the fact that a human being is running the game, and not developer code. This freedom is at the heart of what a true RPG is to me, and it’s also what’s missing from a lot of games.

The Mass Effect series of games is a prime example of what a watered down RPG looks like. Because despite all of it’s choices, Mass Effect is a game that allows the player very little freedom. Instead of being free to take your character in any direction you wish, you’re constantly funnelled in the direction the game wants you to go in. Even the skill system rigidly binds you to the path set by the developer. Of course, being free to simply ignore the story unfolding around you has massive implications, but forcing you to pay attention to it also has its consequences. Knowing that there’s always a hand on your shoulder, constantly guiding you, means that Shepard never completely feels like your character. He or she will always partly belong to someone else, and I don’t think that’s what an RPG is about.

The reason developers are slowly watering down player freedom, is that they have far more control over the quality of our experience. In theory, that sounds like a good thing, but along with that control comes the restriction to fully role-play your character. Going back to AD&D, the very best Dungeon Masters know that part of creating a great gaming session means being brave enough to allow players the freedom to fuck things up by being stupid or reckless. If my Rogue is the kind of guy willing to risk his life by smuggling a dagger into a tavern that doesn’t allow weapons, the DM needs to have the flexibility to allow me to play him that way. The moment he tells me my character wouldn’t do that, he’s not wholly my character. If developers want their players to fully immerse themselves in the character they’re playing, failure – intentional or otherwise – has to be an available option.

Whether we’ve ever had an RPG game that truly offers the same freedom as AD&D, I don’t know, but I do think some have gotten close. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was the last video game I played that came closest to emulating the freedom of a pen-and-paper role-playing game, mainly because of the things I’ve already talked about. Apart from a small section at the very beginning of the game, the story left you alone to get on with things. The moment you left that sewer, you could be anyone you wanted –  a hero, or a villain,  or even a drunkard and a wastrel. And yes, I could even fuck things up by murdering key characters, or intentionally being bad at wielding a sword. I know it sounds counter-productive to suggest developers should allow their players enough scope to go astray and miss out the story they want to tell, but to me that freedom is essential to great role-playing.

To be fair to developers, they have gotten much better at telling us awesome stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but at the same time they do seem to have lost the ability to tell them without holding our hands all the damn time. They’ve become far too obsessed with the concept of every player being the chosen one with a carefully scripted special destiny. One of my favourite P&P RPG’s of all time is a game called Call of Cthulhu. In that game there are no special snowflakes, only ordinary human beings – human beings likely to wind up either dead or mad. How quickly the player ends up there is entirely in the hands of the player. The creators of the game aren’t obsessed with ensuring players get to see the entirety of everything they’ve created, and the game is better for it.

If we’re to go back to having meaningful role-playing experiences, developers need to be braver, and set us free. They need to accept the fact that abject failure is also a viable option. They need to come to terms with the idea that creating a truly unique character also includes the possibility of making mistakes when creating it. When they narrow the choices down to ‘Correct’ and ‘Slightly less Correct’, when they refuse to allow us to create an average and flawed Commander Shepard, they place an unwelcome limit on how much we the players can develope our characters. In their relentless pursuit of the ‘great gameplay experience’ they’ve taken away our freedom, and that dear readers, is the problem with RPGs today.

The Game Jar Files: The gaming clichés that need to die

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 7th 2014

Clichés are funny old things. Usually they sound kind of right, and if enough people repeat them often enough, we all convince ourselves they must be right. The thing is though, most clichés are nonsense, and once you stop repeating them out of habit, you soon come to realise they simply don’t stand up to logical scrutiny. The world of video games is no stranger clichés, our hobby has a fair few of them, but I think it’s time to shine a light on some of them. Below I’ve listed the five gaming clichés that irk me the most. By exposing them, I hope to drain them of their powers, thus removing them from our collective conversations. So buckle up everybody, as I take some gaming clichés down!

The PC Master Race.

Apart from being mystified as to why you’d want to use a term like master race given its historical connotations, I can’t work out what PC gamers are trying to say with this one. That they’re some sort of superior gaming life-form perhaps? Or that console gamers are of sub-human intelligence maybe? Whatever it is they think they’re saying, I’m willing to bet its nothing like what everybody else hears. Because here’s the facts when it comes to PC gaming versus Console gaming; they both have their pros, they both have their cons, and one isn’t vastly superior than the other. It’s that simple. Trying to pretend you’re part of some special elite because you use a mouse and keyboard doesn’t make you look cool or special, it makes you look like a jerk. So instead of trying to insist your part of some special group with a vaguely fascistic sounding name, why not celebrate the fact that we all get to play cool games, regardless of the platform we choose.

I can’t use that controller!.

If you’re staunchly loyal to one brand of console or another, you’ve probably (at some point or another) declared that you simply cannot use the opposing brand’s controller. If you have, I won’t judge you, but please, allow me to illustrate just how silly that statement is so that you can avoid future embarrassment. Homo Sapiens have roamed the Earth for approximately two hundred thousand years now, and during that time, our very survival has depended on our ability to adapt to our surroundings. We’ve gone from flint tools to outer space, all because we have the mental and physical dexterity to overcome the challenges that lay in our path. And yet, despite all the evolution that has gone into producing us, some of you are flummoxed by a small piece of plastic. Do you have similar trouble with unfamiliar door handles? Or perhaps you take your own cutlery to restaurants? No, of course you don’t, you get used to it because human beings are infinitely adaptable. Not liking a controller is perfectly fine, insisting you absolutely cannot use it? Not so much.

Publishers are EVIL.

There’s a reason small independent shops are dying out and giving way to major chains. It’s because we as a society don’t care enough about keeping them open. As much as we might complain about yet another Starbucks or Tescos opening up on our doorsteps, we continue to give them our money. That nice little coffee shop on the corner closed because you never went in there. Your favourite game studio closed down because you didn’t buy their latest game. It’s simple, brutal economics. Games publishers are businesses, not empires of evil. They’re not trying to seduce mankind with their corrupt wares, they’re entities that respond to our buying habits. If we stopped buying games containing all the things we claim to hate; the micro-transactions, the on-disc DLC, and the Online Pass codes, they’d be gone tomorrow. If you really think EA or Activision are evil organisations out to ruin gaming, I have a solution for you: Stop buying FIFA and Call of Duty.

Gamers want a multimedia box.

No, they don’t. They want a games console that also delivers other forms of media in a convenient way. A games console first, a media device second. I realise some of you are probably shaking your head right now, but be honest with me here, can you name a single person that told you they wouldn’t be buying an Xbox One because it launched without an iPlayer app?When choosing your next-gen console, were TV and music streaming apps top of your shopping list? No, of course not. No gamer looks at the available media apps before they look at the games when deciding whether to buy new hardware. We’re gamers. We want to play video games. Media apps on a console are a great addition. They’re the sweet topping on an already awesome cake. But what they aren’t is the reason to buy a console. That would be the games, and no amount of PR spin is going to convince me otherwise.

Making games should be kept artistically pure.

One of the biggest gaming clichés doing the rounds today is that fans are having an increasingly worrying level of input into game design, and that developers are starting to pander to our every whim. ‘Leonardo da Vinci didn’t have to put up with this kind of shit!‘ they cry, upon reading about the latest assault on a developers artistic integrity, before going on to tell you how it doesn’t happen with films or books. The thing is though, that’s not quite true. Film directors will often re-cut a film, or even re-shoot scenes, based on audience feedback at test screenings. Authors don’t proceed straight to the printers after finishing their latest book, they hand it to a publisher who will give feedback and recommend changes based on the target audience. Creative changes happen in all these industries, all the time, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. So yes, Leonardo did indeed ‘have to put up with that kind of shit‘, as do film directors, and authors, and game developers.

So there we go, my least favourite gaming clichés debunked for all time. From this moment on, you are no longer allowed to perpetuate these clichés, and must correct all those that use them. Well OK, you’re not actually duty-bound to do any of that, but hopefully I have made you think a little. We should question these things from time to time, because if we don’t, they start to develope a weight they really don’t deserve. So do as I do, and laugh in the face of clichés everywhere.

The Game Jar Files: A Look Back at Ring of Red

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 20th 2014

Somewhere on my ‘games I wish I’d never traded’ list, is a rather obscure strategy game called Ring of Red. It’s not the best game on there by any means, but it is the game I look for most when trawling through second-hand shops. Because despite not setting the world alight when it was released, Ring of Red had both an inexplicable charm to it, and a certain addictive quality that has meant that the memory of it is lodged in my brain, and refuses to go away.

Developed and published by Konami, and released in 2000 on the PlayStation 2, Ring of Red was a turn-based/real-time 3D RPG strategy game, that boasted giant walking mechanised tanks as its main selling point. Featuring some distinctly Japanese box art, and a variety of cool looking mechs, Ring of Red instantly intrigued me when I saw it on the shelf, and now, some fourteen years later I’m going to try express why.

Set in the 1960’s, Ring of Red takes place in an alternate post-World War II Japan. Having never surrendered in 1945, and with the US never dropping the atomic bomb, the war in the pacific comes to a very different conclusion. Operation Downfall – an actual Allied plan to invade Japan that never occurred – takes place, and despite many casualties, it is successful. The Allied forces occupy Japan, and, mirroring post-war events in Europe, Japan is divided up between the USSR and the Allies. Japan is split into two countries; the communist held North, and the Allied held South.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, and again reflecting real-world events, communist North Japan attempts to invade South Japan in 1950, in what becomes known as The Japanese War. Lasting for three years, the Japanese War sees the widespread deployment of walking mechanised tanks, called Armoured Fighting Walkers – or AFWs. Having been largely ineffective in the European theatre of war, Japan’s much more rugged terrain provides the ideal battleground for these giant weapons of war, and so the stage is set.

You play the role of Masami Von Weizegger, a soldier in the South Japanese army and AFW commander. Tasked with recovering a stolen prototype AFW, you must venture into the enemy-held north, track down the mysterious ‘Crimson Phantom’, and prevent him from turning the war in the North’s favour. Along the way, you encounter a selection of other AFW-commanding revolutionary’s who are also battling to free the north and end the war. Sympathetic to Von Weizegger’s mission, they offer to join him and add their own particular strengths to his own.

With such a sombre subject matter, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the actual game wasn’t that enjoyable, but strangely it was. Like Advance Wars, Ring of Red manages to take the reasonably serious subject of bloody warfare, and fashion it into a rewarding strategy game without simultaneously turning it into some sort of cartoon. The story very cleverly weaves in and out of real-world events respectfully, and remains interesting right till the end – even despite its poor localisation.

The gameplay is essentially divided into two parts; turn-based deployment and manoeuvring on the tactical map, and the real-time combat between the AFWs. At the beginning of each mission, players deploy their troops – one AFW and three squads of supporting infantry per character – on a map divided up into a square grid. Players then take turns to move their troops around the map in order to complete a variety of objectives. Like most strategy games, the map is covered by a fog of war concealing enemy deployment, and advancing across the terrain requires careful planning.

Once the mech versus mech action kicks off, the game switches to a time limited, real-time face off. Players can select from a variety of commands that either move your AFW to a more advantageous position, fire your weapons, or use one of your special abilities. During combat you’ll also need to issue commands to your supporting infantry as well. These guys are essential to winning the battle, and as you progress and upgrade them, protecting them becomes vital. Each combat phase lasts a maximum of ninety seconds, and leaving the enemy alive is not advisable, as surviving AFWs can run off and repair themselves!

Each character commands a different type of mech, and has a skill set appropriate to it. The Light AFWs are best suited to tackling enemy infantry, as they’re the lightest armed and have the shortest range. Standard AFWs are the most versatile. Heavier armed than the light’s, they’re also able to engage in close combat, should they need to. Finally, the four-legged Heavy AFWs pack the biggest punch, but need to operate at long ranges to bring that force to bear. Using each member of your team effectively is essential for success, as a poor choice of tactics will almost always cost you dearly.

Like all really good strategy games, every troop choice had a meaningful role to play, and no one unit was vastly superior to another. Your AFW wasn’t an automatic win button, and without the help and support of the infantry units, your walking mech-tank of death soon becomes a big pile of scrap metal. The AFW/Infantry balance was at the core of the game, and victory was almost always dependant on using the two in harmony, as was selecting the right troops to begin with.

Making a game about giant walking tanks, and then making them so dependant upon foot soldiers might seem a little bizarre, but by avoiding making the AFWs overpowered, the developers brought an amazing amount of depth to Ring of Red. Every unit was there for a reason. Each one was integral to your success. Far too many strategy games allow you succeed via a war of attrition, spamming units at an objective until the enemy is overwhelmed, but not in Ring of Red. skillful use of your assets really was the only way to win the game.

If all that sounds a little tough, that’s because it was. Ring of Red could be a punishing game at times. You couldn’t save during a mission, ambushes were frequent, and when units that you’d spent ages upgrading died, they were gone for good. This was war at its most brutal. Despite that though, it remains one of the most rewarding strategy games I’ve ever played. The games uncompromising nature meant you simply had to out-think your opponent to progress, and when you did, it was incredibly satisfying.

When it was re-released in 2011 on PSN in North America, I hoped it would mean a similar EU release was on the horizon. Sadly it looks unlikely now, but I haven’t stopped hoping. When researching this article, I found that it appears there aren’t many gamers that recall Ring of Red, but when they do, they recall it very fondly indeed. It may have had mixed reviews at the time, but very clearly, Ring of Red is one of those games players can’t help but love. I still have my PlayStation 2, and the memory cards to go with it, and on one of those cards is my Ring of Red save. One day, one day, I’ll find another copy, and be back in my AFW.

 

The Game Jar Files: Assassins Creed IV – The crisis of identity that works.

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 6th 2014

So, did Ubisoft Montreal think they were working on two different games? I start with that question because it’s the one most pertinent to how the game plays. Never in my time as a gamer, have I come across a game with such a split personality. It simply never makes up its mind what sort of game it wants to be. Ordinarily, I’d think this lack of direction was due to a massive error on the developers behalf, but the more I play this game, the less I’m sure. Having played Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag almost exclusively since the middle of December, I beginning to think the game is the product of a deranged, but brilliant mind.

My first moments within the game were largely spent cursing myself. Once again, I’d relied on other people’s recommendations, and ended up buying a game I didn’t like. The problem is, AC IV begins by showing off the least interesting of its multiple personality’s first – the Assassins Creed one. I know it’s a massive franchise now, but to me, Assassins Creed is a series that’s never fulfilled its potential. In 2007 the concept of using technology to explore past lives was just about interesting enough to get you past the flaws and keep you progressing through the story. Today, five games on, they’re still relying on the same trick, only now it’s wearing exceedingly thin. In my opinion, Assassins Creed is a game with iffy controls, and a story that’s so convoluted, it’s nigh on impossible to understand. Small wonder then, that I was wondering what on earth my friends were talking about when they told me it was good game.

As the opening moments of the game came to a close, and it finished trying to reassure me it was still an Assassin Creed game, I took to twitter to have a little grumble. What were people talking about I cried, to which the reply came ‘wait until you get your ship’ And so I waited. Many words were eaten as this point, as the game decided to introduce me to the most interesting of its multiple personality’s – the pirate game one. This is the part of the game where you get to drink rum, pick fights, and sail the Caribbean, and it’s so good, you can’t help but wonder what the hell it’s doing hanging around with the Assassins Creed bit. Being a pirate is so much better than being an assassin, the first question I asked is ‘can I just not bother with that other part?’ As I said in the introduction, did the studio making this game think they were making two, separate games? How can one part of it be so much cooler than the other?

Having a split personality could have been a major disaster for Assassins Creed IV, one part is awesome, one part isn’t… The whole thing would end up in a complete mess. Luckily, the game has a third personality, and its the one that glues the whole thing together. Personality number three is the bit of the game that’s been lifted directly from Far Cry 3 – the open world exploration and crafting. Think of this guy as the friend that brings two people together who don’t like each other very much, so that they can all have an enjoyable night down the pub. Sounds crazy I know, but without Mr Far Cry, the Assassins Creed part would become a workaholic that never went out, and the Pirate part would end getting over excited, blowing its load early, and never lasting the course.

Somehow, don’t ask me why, these three parts come together to create one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played. It’s not seamless by any means, but this Assassins Far Cry Pirates Creed game they’ve created is a work of maniacal genius. The lunatic destruction of Far Cry has been tempered down by Assassins Creed’s discipline. The character of Edward Kenway is more of a free spirit than Altair or Ezio ever was, and thus does away with the feeling that you’ve spent the entire game being told what to do. Your ship – the Jack Daw – offers you a fully explorable game world to play in. It is, in many ways, the very essence of three disparate parts coming together to form a greater whole. As much as I try, and despite my aversion to Assassins Creed, I can’t help but love this game.

Don’t get me wrong, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag has it’s faults. When the game takes your open-world toys away and bogs you down in just Assassins Creed, it feels like going back to the gaming dark ages, with the promise of being a pirate again being the only thing pushing you forward. The Animus sections are as jarring as ever, and the plot makes even less sense. And, at times, the game does make you wonder whether Ubisoft hasn’t just inadvertently signalled the end of the Assassins Creed franchise as we know it. But despite all that, it’s fantastic fun to play. Whether you’re roaming the high seas blowing English and Spanish ships to match wood and stealing their cargo, or destroying sea forts and swashbuckling your way to the fort commander, you are a pirate king, and you do rule the high seas. Being a pirate has never been so cool.

The Game Jar Files: My crimes against gaming revealed!

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 17th 2013

With the Christmas spirit in full effect, I thought I’d take advantage of you all. Whilst you’re all feeling warm and fuzzy about the prospect of spending time with your loved ones during the festive period, I’m going come clean about my crimes against gaming in the hope you’ll go easy on me. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, I’m going to unburden myself of all my biggest gaming sins in the hope that I can begin the new gaming year with a clean conscience. So settle down dear readers, as I take you on a journey through the seedier end of gaming.

I’ll begin slowly by confessing to a crime I don’t really have a problem with – I’ve never owned a Sega console of any kind. I’ve played on family and friends consoles plenty of times, but never actually owned one myself. When The Gameboy was first released, I coveted Game Gear for its colour screen and TV tuner, but there was absolutely no way I was going to convince my parents to buy me one. During the great war between the Megadrive and Super Nintendo, I was firmly on the side of good, righteousness, and more controller buttons. From there I spurned the Saturn for Sony’s fledgling machine, quite rightly in my opinion, and so my Sega boycott continued. The closest I ever got to owning a Sega machine was the Dreamcast, which looked ultra-cool with its chiselled lines and special memory cards, but I never quite got round to turning to the dark side. I don’t really regret never owning a Sega machine because I thoroughly enjoyed the consoles I did have, but I do feel a little responsible for Sega pulling out of the hardware market. Perhaps if I’d had been willing to settle for an inferior console, Sega would still be making them. So I’m sorry Sega fans, it was all my fault.

I’m not proud of this one, but I did say this article was all about truth and reconciliation, so I will come clean: I have played through, and finished Too Human on more than one occasion. For those of you who that don’t know what Too Human is, it’s an action RPG game based around a futuristic take on Norse mythology. Now before you start to think that doesn’t sound too bad, let me give you a potted history of its development. Originally slated to be a PlayStation release in 1999, development moved to the Gamecube in 2000. Five years later, the rights were sold to Microsoft and it became an Xbox 360 title. Finally releasing in 2008, Too Human had spent nearly a decade in development hell, but the saga wasn’t over. Approximately a year before the game’s release, Silicon Knights and Epic Games (creators of Unreal Engine 3 – the game engine Too Human was built upon) became entangled in legal action. Silicon Knights eventually lost, and were ordered to recall and destroy any unsold copies of the game. Given its difficult birth, there was no way Too Human was ever going to be a good game, and so it turned out to be. During a third playthrough of the game, my 360 chose death by Red Ring of Death rather than play any more of it. Yes, that’s right; so bad, even the console wouldn’t play it.

Lastly, this is the one I’m genuinely not proud of. The rest of this article is fairly lighthearted – I don’t really think Sega consoles were bad, for example – but I do feel slightly bad about this. I knowingly traded in a broken Crackdown disk, and bought the rather excellent Dead Rising with the proceeds. Knowingly traded because I was the one that broke it. I’d thrown it across the room in a fit of gamer-rage, Frisbee style, and the result was a tiny, barely visible crease in the leading edge of the disc which rendered the disc unreadable. Having turned my game disc in to little more than a shiny coaster, I hatched a sinister plan. I removed any signs of damage from the disc, placed it back in its case, and took it into a game shop that I shall not name here. For one tense moment, I feared I’d be rumbled as the assistant examined the disc, but no! He smiled, declared how much it was worth, and rung up my new copy of Dead Rising, which I got for free. A month or so later, after I’d finished playing Dead Rising, I picked up a second copy of Crackdown during an Amazon sale, and picked up where I left off. Occasionally I felt the odd twinge of guilt about my deception, but not for long, because… well, Dead Rising was a great game!

So there we go, my deepest darkest crimes against gaming laid bare for you entertainment. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much, and hopefully my confessions have given you the courage to step forward, and unburden your gaming soul too. During this season of goodwill to all gamers why not indulge in a little group therapy, and get it all off your chest, we can even hug it out if you want. Come on, confess your gaming sins. You know you want to.

The Game Jar Files: What does Microsoft’s vision of the future mean for the Xbox One?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – January 9th 2014

One of things I’ve found most interesting since the launch of the Xbox One, is reading about, and listening to, gamers reaction to some of the changes made to the console’s operating system. As you may know, Microsoft have made a few changes to the OS during the transition from one generation to the next, and not all of them have been welcome. We can all have our opinion on whether these changes are good or bad, but what’s more interesting to me is whether Microsoft are either interested in, or indeed capable of, altering their design plan for the Xbox One. I’ve felt for a long time now, that the company has a very definite idea of where they’re going to try to take gaming in the future, and I wonder what that means for the future of their latest console.

I never went to an Xbox One midnight launch, but I can take a pretty good guess as to the kind of people standing in those lines; they were gamers. Hardcore gamers. I know that’s not a fashionable term for Microsoft these days, but they are the people who buy your console on launch day, and evangelise about it through the lean launch window. On the other hand, the people most unlikely to be present in those lines would have been the kind of users the Xbox One seems to be mostly aimed at – parents familiar with technology, and looking for a way to get the Windows 8 experience on their televisions. In other words, not the kind of consumers willing to part with a large sum of money, whilst putting up with a slim selection of worthwhile games.

What this means is, that even if we accept that a ‘multimedia entertainment box’ of some kind is the future, and that there’s a significant number of families out there desperate to use Skype on their plasma TV’s, whilst being utterly fed up with pushing buttons on a grey plastic box to change channel, the Xbox One still needs the support of hardcore gamers during it’s infancy. The trouble is, every signal from Microsoft seems to suggest that they now consider gaming as ‘something the Xbox One also does’ as opposed to it being the reason for making a console in the first place, and that gaming needs to develop in a direction dictated by them.

When the Xbox One was first revealed, the level of negativity surrounding some of their more controversial design choices shocked Microsoft I think, but not to the point that it demanded a change in philosophy. Reading interviews with prominent Microsoft employees, it’s my opinion that internally Microsoft genuinely do not believe they were wrong. I’m convinced that were you to be on the inside, you’d hear talk about how it was the consumers fault that they didn’t get the One’s original design plan. Despite what they say publicly, I’d argue that the company has lost touch with what their core base wants. Instead of questioning their own ability to listen to, and communicate with their customers, they’re repeatedly telling themselves that we weren’t ready to hear what they had to say.

To my mind, the root of this problem is the fact that Microsoft aren’t used to being in second place. Last generation, they never really had a serious fight on their hands. Sony launched the PS3 much later than the Xbox 360, and at a higher price, which gave Microsoft a lead in the console arms race that they never lost. Having spent nigh on eight years leading their rivals, the temptation to assume that they could do no wrong with the One’s design must have been hard to resist, and perhaps they weren’t entirely successful. How else do you account for the fact that they’ve taken Xbox Live  – something which was pretty much perfect  last generation – and gone backwards with it?

Given that the Xbox One needs retain it’s base of  hardcore gamers then, the decision to remove or alter some of Xbox Live’s core functionality seems absolutely crazy to me. The Friends List system worked. The party chat system worked. Why touch those things at all if they didn’t need fixing? I’ve heard it said that it’s almost as if Microsoft have deliberately made the Xbox One’s UI awkward to navigate with a controller to enhance the appeal of Kinect. I don’t know if that’s true, but if users feel that way, it’s not a good sign. It tells me that Microsoft isn’t really invested in providing an efficient alternative to using Kinect, or that they want you to be free to use your console in the way that you want, and in the long-term, that’s a problem.

This generation, Microsoft are facing a totally different kind of Sony. The PS4 has launched at the same time as their console and for a lower price, it’s more powerful, and perhaps most crucially, it’s much easier to program for than it’s predecessor. For the first time in eleven years, when the original Xbox went up against the all-conquering PlayStation 2, Microsoft are up against a strong opponent, and I don’t think they know how to cope with that. At a time when their biggest rival has built a totally inoffensive machine, focussed on being the best games console it can be, Microsoft is busy trying to sell us features we never really asked for in the first place.

The Xbox One is not a bad console by any means, and many owners out there are happy with it the way it is, but not all of them are. Quite a few owners have been asking why familiar functionality has been changed or removed, and all they’ve had in response is vague assurances that things will get better. The Xbox One is at the beginning of its life-cycle, and as such, it will change over time, but will that change be for the good? With Microsoft still smarting over the initial reaction to the Xbox One, I don’t think they’re in the mood to compromise. In the long-term, if anything is going to hamper the Xbox One’s success, it won’t be things like a lack of pixels. It’ll be Microsoft themselves, and their inability to admit they got things wrong.

The Game Jar Files: Games are Too Cheap.

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 2 2013

Writing a piece about games not costing enough is something I’ve avoided doing for a while now, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge. After reading the reaction to various news pieces covering the price of EA games on Sony’s PSN store, I decided some sort of counter argument was needed. Broadly speaking, the reaction was pretty much as expected – ‘what the hell, that’s way over the top’ – but I personally couldn’t help but think the commenter’s had got it all wrong. Every time someone voices their disgruntlement at paying more than £40 for game, I want to ask them one question; is the price of games ever allowed to go up? We’ve been paying £40 for games for nigh on twenty years now, surely you accept there’s got to be an increase at some point?

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that £40 isn’t a lot of money, and I’m certainly not asking for the price of games to increase, but what I am asking for is a change of attitude, because in my opinion some of you are coming dangerously close to taking the value for money we get now for granted, and I think that needs to change. Some where a long the line, we’ve forgotten that videos games can be incredibly complex things to create, and so it’s my contention that the £40 price point that we all cling to so desperately doesn’t adequately reflect the level of quality we’re currently getting. As unpalatable as it is, £60 is very probably a fairer reflection of the effort, skill, and development time that goes into our games.

With the end of the year fast approaching, many gamer’s talk will turn to selecting a game of the year, and one of the candidates will almost certainly be Bioshock Infinite. Here’s a game that’s reportedly taken five years and a suggested one hundred million dollars to develop. Roughly two hundred people have given over years of their life to lovingly craft it. It’s one of the best games released this year, and light years ahead of anything we were playing when games still came on cartridges, and yet if I told you we should be paying more for it, most if not all of you would disagree. This reluctance to pay more for games of Bioshock’s undoubted quality is unsurprising, but no less troubling.

One of the games mentioned in the news reports was EA’s FIFA 14. Originally marked up at £62.99 and subsequently reduced to £59.99, the price has drawn a lot of criticism from gamers, but I do struggle to understand why. FIFA is not a game that takes you a week to finish before  you trade it in or stick it on the shelf and forget about it. It’s a game that fans play almost every day, for a whole year, until the next one comes along. When you take that in to consideration, is a whole year’s worth of gaming really not worth £60? I think if those FIFA fans were honest, they admit they’re getting incredible value for money right now, especially considering £40 won’t even buy you a ticket for a real football match at certain clubs.

Of course, there is an argument that with much larger console install bases, video games are far more profitable today than they were twenty years ago, and that of course, is correct. But does a game’s profitability have any bearing on our perception of its value? I don’t think so. The problem is gamers themselves. We’ve become so spoilt, so entitled over the years, that we don’t believe that companies should be able to charge a fair price for their products. Think of everything we demand from game developers today – cutting edge graphics, seamless online experiences, meaningful stories – all of these things cost an increasingly large amount of money and time to create, and yet we don’t want to pay a fair price for them.

My whole point with this piece is not that game prices should go up, it’s that we should stop complaining when publishers want to charge what they’re actually worth – £60. It genuinely baffles me that some of us can look at a game that’ll give us hundreds of hours worth of entertainment, and proclaim that the effort that went into creating it is only worth paying £40 for. Games are too cheap right now, so lets recognise that fact, and be grateful that they are. The next time you start to complain about seeing a £60 price tag, remember that when the all-digital world finally arrives, that £40 price point will likely be gone. So enjoy it while you can, because if Xbox One and PS4 game prices are anything to go by, it won’t be around much longer.

Fractured! ArenaNet reveal their latest Living Story update

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 22nd 2013

Whilst Guild Wars 2 players are currently dealing with the threat of the Toxic Alliance, ArenaNet has revealed the latest instalment of the Living Story. Following up on the Cutthroat Politics update from July, captain’s council election winner Ellen Kiel is returning to make good on her election promises. Her seat on the council has allowed her to sponsor new research into the Fractals of the Mists dungeon, and from November 26th, players will get to experience the fruits of that labour.

The product of those shady characters The Consortium, Fractal of the Mists is a dungeon made up of three, randomly selected mini-dungeons from a pool of nine. Introduced to the game just over a year ago, it’s the only dungeon in the game that has an increasing difficulty scale, and players have been fighting their way up through the levels ever since. Due to its modular nature, players have long since speculated that the Fractals could be used to replay past temporary content, and with the Fractured update, it looks like becoming a reality.

The first mini-dungeon added is the one promised by Kiel during her campaign. Currently, in-game, the Thaumanova Reactor is a bit of a disaster area. A past explosion within the facility has caused a significant amount of disruption to the magical processes within, and players have been dealing the aftermath since the game’s launch. Whilst we knew the explosion was due to an Inquest experiment gone awry, we’ve never really known much more. The new fractal remedies that, as it takes us back to the moment of the explosion, and promises to reveal the mysteries surrounding it.

As far as I’m aware, the other two new fractals being introduced are a complete, but welcome surprise to the player base. The Molten Furnace fractal, and the Aetherblade fractal will both take players back to those temporary dungeons introduced during their relevant stages of the Living Story. Players lamented the loss of these enjoyable bits of content when they went away, and now, with the Fractals dungeon, ArenaNet has found a way to bring them back permanently. Almost as exciting as these additions is the precedent set by this move, as it looks like ArenaNet are moving towards using the Fractals dungeon to revisit iconic moments from games past – something that would be much welcomed buy the players.

If that wasn’t enough, ArenaNet have even more new shinys to shoehorn in to the dungeon. Two new Boss fractals are being added, bringing the total to three. Even-numbered difficulties have always had a fourth Boss or ‘Bonus’ fractal, but in the past it’s always been the same one – The Jade Maw. After a year’s worth of play, players are now well familiar with how to beat The Maw, so a fresh challenge is much-needed. Aetherblade captain Mai Trin and the two Molten Alliance champions from the Molten Facility join the Jade Maw as bosses, and if our previous encounters with them are anything to go by, they’ll be a firm test.

Also added to the game with this update are various Fractals-related tweaks. Agony Resist is getting reworked, and Agony Infusions drops are being added. Players will be able to collect these drops and combine them to further increase their Agony Resistance – essential for anyone venturing into the higher difficulties. Fractals leaderboards are also being added, and the overall difficulty curve is being adjusted with difficulty levels above 30 gaining special challenges. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ArenaNet is updating and improving the rewards!

The Fractals of the Mists was a great addition to the game, so I’m really pleased to see it get some love in this update. An already interesting dungeon is getting some nice new content, and the rewards are being improved! A win-win as far as I’m concerned. Some of the adjustments have got the a few of the more ardent forumites hot under the collar, but they, as always, are in the minority, and it’s my opinion that most players will be eagerly looking forward to this update. In the main, ArenaNet have done well with the Living Story, and the Fractured update looks like continuing that trend.

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