Thursday, May 23, 2013

Xbox One: One step in the Wrong Direction

Microsoft unveiled the next generation Xbox, the Xbox One, Tuesday in Redmond, Wash. to a tent full of journalists, planted Microsoft cheerers, and to the world via livestreams. The world awaited for Microsoft's answer to Sony's Playstation 4 reveal but certain rumors about always-online connectivity and no used games set a dark cloud over the entire event. Instead of subsiding these fears, however, Microsoft reinforced them by confirming daily-online connectivity, used game fees, a focus on television and sports, and having no games showcased other than EA sports titles and Call of Duty: Ghosts.  It became instantly clear that the Xbox One is not only forgetting to keep the wants of the core game enthusiast in mind, it's leading the industry on a path that will hurt the consumer and the video game market as a whole.

Daily-Online Connectivity:
One of the main concerns people had with the new Xbox was a rumor circulating that it would require a constant connection to the internet to be able to continue to play games. This would be a form of digital rights management, most commonly implemented for game distribution services like Steam and Origin, that safeguards against piracy. This may sound like a good idea on paper but when a game requires an always-online connection this causes problems most notably with games such as Sim City V and Diablo 3 where if the game detects a lost connection it will boot them out of the game entirely even during single player mode. This greedy form of safeguarding compromises the comfort of the player in order to prevent piracy and displays a total distrust of the consumer.

The entire subject wasn't mentioned until after the conference when Geoff Keighley asked Don Mattrick about the shady subject to which he responded by saying that an internet connection is necessary for the many functions of the Xbox One but it won't prevent you from playing the games.  However, later in the day, news articles began popping up about how Mattrick restated that the Xbox One would indeed need to have an online connection once every twenty-four hours.  It wasn't clear what would happen if the Xbox One fails to detect an internet connection and while it may not seem as bad as how certain PC games have it currently, this is all a slippery slope. If the Xbox One is successful then it'll give Microsoft and other companies the go-ahead to implement harsher DRM in the future.  This could lead to future consoles becoming always-online machines in the future which will blur the line between owning purchased software and just borrowing it from the publishers.

Fees for Used Games:
Another concern about the next Xbox was that used games would be unable playable on it. This ended up being true. Microsoft confirmed that in order to play used games the consumer would have to purchase the ability to install the game onto the hard drive. Microsoft confirmed that the price for a used game would be the same as its retail price. Taking a look at the 360's track record of lowering prices on their on demand service some games take up to two years to lower in price. This means if a game costs $30 dollars at Gamestop, it would cost an additional $60 or so to be able to activate it on your console. This model would definitely put a dent in sales in video game novelty stores such as Gamestop. While it's not yet sure how Gamestop will adjust to Microsoft's model for selling used games, it can be expected that consumers will not find it convenient to pay over retail price for a game that not only has been on sale for years but is also used. Gamestop might end up just ending all trade-ins of Xbox One games altogether.

The inconvenience will not end there. Imagine asking a friend to borrow a game. He gives it you and after you pay the $60 installation fee, you download it onto the hard drive. Your friend then calls you and complains that he can no longer play his game that he too bought for $60 at the store. After you're done, you give it back and your friend has no choice but to pay an additional $60 in order to install it back onto his Xbox One. It all, once again, displays a total mistrust and control of the consumer.

No removable hard drive:
The Xbox One is reported to have a 500GB hard drive but unfortunately it cannot be removed. Considering that every game must be installed in order to play, that hard drive is going to fill up quickly and the only other option is to connect an external USB hard drive dedicated solely to Xbox One games in order to expand the memory.

A Focus on Television:
The Xbox reveal event was a little more than an hour long and more than half of it was dedicated to how the console can also work as a television. The first thing shown was Yusuf Mehdi's attempt to showcase how well you could watch The Price is Right on the Xbox One. Later on, they revealed that a Halo television series is in the works. Not a new Halo game or even an expansion, but a tv show. They advertised a television program during a video game conference. Microsoft proved through their reveal conference that being a glorified DVR comes first before being considered a video game console.

Video Games on the Backburner:
I've come to expect Microsoft presenting anything but video games at their e3 conferences. They literally Ushered in a new age of gaming at last year's e3 conference. From pushing the whole television gimmick to showcasing nothing but EA sports games and the new Call of Duty: Ghosts (which is going to be multiplatform), the desire to create innovative, original, and compelling titles is not needed for the new console. Instead the consumers are getting annual franchises that have brought nothing new to the table for a decade. Microsoft did announce 15 exclusive titles coming to the Xbox One, but my concern is just how many of those will be Kinect titles. Just like this article states it; "Xbox One is the first games console for people who don't like games."

Kinect Focused:
Ever since e3 2009, Microsoft has had a goal of putting emphasis on Kinect games in every conference. Kinect has proven to either not work or the games never live up to expectations.  Kinect should have been a dream come true for gamers yearning innovation but ended up being a broken mess and with every Xbox One coming package with a Kinect everything will based around it. Not saying that it will totally substitute a controller, but the always-on Kinect may cause some problems with the overall system. Even during the livestream of the conference, those people watching on their 360s would be cancelled out whenever the presenter would make commands using the Kinect. With  broken technology being on the forefront of the new console, the Xbox One's future looks dull.

No Backwards Compatibility:
We should be used to no backwards compatibility by now as only the first batch of PS3 units could play PS2 games and only a select few Xbox games could be played on the 360. However, Microsoft takes it to a whole new level; not only can you not play 360 games, reports say that you won't even be able to transfer previously purchased Xbox Live Arcade games over to the new console. It's another tactic to get consumers to buy games that they already own except now they have an "HD Remake" sticker attached to it. It's a shame neither Sony or Microsoft has embraced Nintendo's view of backwards compatibility.

Aside from no gameplay being shown in the gameplay trailers, Call of Doggie, Sports galore, water coolers, the Xbox One is a frightening look into the future of the video game industry; a future where total control is taken away from the player and put into the company's hands just to ensure no dollars or cents will slip through the cracks. One can only hope, Microsoft considers these concerns travels down another path. A video game console should be just that; a console made for video games. Video game innovation should be the highlight of the conference, not tv shows. Give me the video games first and let everything else be icing on the cake, not the other way around.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite

for the PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developed by Irrational Games
Published by 2K Games
Released March 26, 2013

Creating a rift in itself

The beauty of video games is that they are a type of media that encompasses all other forms of entertainment; literature, cinema, music.  As long as it's interactive it's still considered a video game.  People complain that visual novels like Katawa Shoujo or cinematic dramas such as Heavy Rain are not video games because they focus on literature or cinema rather than gameplay.  I believe it's wrong to assume that a video game is good or bad based on how many cutscenes it has but rather how well it's able to engage the player in whatever it's trying to accomplish.

Bioshock Infinite is a game that plays with this idea that a video game can be something more than just gameplay by trying to bring the player a riveting narrative and engaging FPS action.  Unfortunately, its achievement in presentation overshadows its effort in gameplay which leaves the game unbalanced.

From first entering Columbia to the mind-numbing finale, the game embeds your brain with beautiful imagery, symbolism, and narrative through its gorgeous graphics, stellar musical numbers, and believable voice-acting. Every line of dialogue and event appear to be carefully scripted and well thought out.  Every character and their intertwining fates, the backstory and subplots, and every situation comes about in such a cinematically, methodical and beautiful manner that it's obvious that the developer's first priority was to tell a story as exploration is compromised for almost on-rail story-telling.

The main and most damning problem that Bioshock Infinite has stems from its methodical story-telling.  As stated earlier, the story appears to be Irrational's first priority making the gameplay an obvious second.  This becomes a problem for two reasons; with a story that's the main focus the gameplay becomes a glaring distraction, and the gameplay loses a ton of potential.

While the story may have some problems, it's evident that the developers put forth the time and effort to bring the player a thrilling cinematic experience and they succeeded.  The player has a reason to continue, not because they want to shoot mindlessly at random enemies but because they want to continue the tale of Booker and Elizabeth.  The problem here is that the gameplay is not thrilling enough to compete with the game's cinematic elements and therefore becomes a distraction.  The same problem arose with Spec Ops: The Line where the bland third-person shooting felt like a hindrance in the wake of the narrative.  While the gameplay of Bioshock Infinite definitely has a lot more depth than Spec Ops', it, nonetheless, becomes a hindrance as well.  While vigor combinations and dimension-tearing are amusing for a bit it all starts to lose its shimmer when with every room comes a wave of the same enemies that can be killed with the same vigor/weapon combination.  While experimenting with vigors, I found that Shock Jock and Possession are really the only ones needed.  As far as the weapon choice goes, I found very little difference with each weapon or not preferring one over the other.  The only reason I would switch a weapon was when I exhausted my ammo, then I would continue the assault the same as before.

All of this brings a lack of strategy among other things that really would have other-wised balanced out Infinite and made all of its parts shine.  Picking up a certain weapon should bring about a sense in the player that they should switch up their style of gameplay to suit the gun or choose a gun based on the situation.  All Infinite offered was a sniper rifle, the only different gun in the game.  Every other gun from the pistol to the rocket launcher felt exactly the same albeit the blast radius and that was a problem.  There were also other elements in Infinite that felt like they could have been expanded upon.  Using sky-rails could been implemented better as they were only used as a way to progress the story or for a quick escape when a wave of enemies became too tough.  I imagined entire fights above the skies on the rails, switching from one to the other, using melee and grapples, or electrocuting them through the metal with your vigors . . . but no, none of that.

The world of Columbia is such a strikingly beautiful place but as you play through the game it becomes apparent that all Columbia was meant to be was a setting.  The game itself is very linear not just in a narrative sense but in a gameplay sense as well.  There is no emphasis to explore the beautiful city and lacks the ability to backtrack and explore Columbia in spare time.  I find it unforgivable, given this gorgeous world rich with lore, that an emphasis on exploration was not accentuated.

Infinite suffers from being a mindless shooter as the game is composed of wave after wave of enemies.  There were a few tiny portions, and I mean tiny, that if expanded upon, could have really improved the gameplay.  One was a stealth sequence in which an enemy would be on look out and if spotted, he would call a wave of creepy prisoners to attack you.  It was a breath of fresh air to be able to use the environment as cover and sneak your way passed, or if you'd rather, just rush in and take them all head on.  There were only two instances of this and they occurred near the end of the game.  The other example of lost potential being the controlling of allies on the battlefield (I'm not talking about Possession and I can't say who you control exactly with the fear of giving away spoilers).  Controlling an ally, only happens once, while was not the most thrilling, it was a change in gameplay that was another breath of fresh air.  Infinite's problem comes down to a lack of variety.

With such a strong narrative, it's a shame that the gameplay, while not the most thrilling but by no means awful, disrupts the flow of the entire game and leaves the latest installment of the Bioshock series an unbalanced loss of potential.  The narrative and presentation are so engaging that the gameplay, as fulfilling as it may be, becomes a distraction.  Bioshock Infinite's brilliant story and mediocre gameplay leaves the game far from perfection but has enough substance to keep the majority of players entertained.


Gameplay 7/10:
-Simple FPS gameplay expanded slightly with the use of vigors.  The gameplay is focused on simply defeating waves and waves enemies by using a balance of weapons and vigors to dispatch them.  Unfortunately, I found strategy to be unnecessary when simply blasting away enemies with any weapon you have and spamming Shock Jock will get the job done about 90 percent of the time.  Elizabeth also simplifies fights to the point where I had to stop using her assistance. As soon as you run out of ammo, health, or salts she will instantly replenish them. After accepting a few of these items from her, it will take her a few seconds before giving you anymore. There is literally a price to be paid every time you die. Upon death, you will lose a reasonable amount of money before the battle once again restarts (from where you ended off and with the enemies' health slightly restored).  The only boss fight in the game is very dull and the final standoff left more to be desired.  There is a small change-up during the final moments of the game where some stealth elements were implemented but only lasted for a few sequences leaving the player to return back to the monotonous gunfights.

Playability 9/10:
The game plays quite well with the only complaint being that turning is a bit slow especially when you need to get out of a top spot and running only works when moving forward.

Camera 10/10:
The camera really shines when trying to move the player through the narrative.  It worked in a very cinematic way to focus on the narrative.

Fun 8/10:
The enjoyment stems from the desire to continue the story and exploring the world and is held back by the sometimes monotonous gameplay.  Not to say the gameplay is bad, it's just not as in depth as the narrative.

Lasting Appeal 6/10:
Infinite is a good-sized game, taking your time it'll probably give you over 15 hours but after that the only thing to do is play a higher difficulty or try 1999 mode.

Graphics 10/10:
Stunning visuals that bring the bright and grim world of Columbia to life.

Sound 10/10:
Top-notch voice acting, musical score, and 1900's renditions of modern songs add to the brilliance of the presentation.

Difficulty 6/10:
Pretty constant but things like Elizabeth's aide and tears give the game unnecessary dips.

Flow 5/10:
The gameplay slows down the gameplay especially when the main focus of the game is the story.