What JRPGs should learn from Final Fantasy IV

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For anyone who has read my recently posted review of Dragon Ball Fusions, you’ll note that I closed out my piece with a little tangent about how I disliked modern JRPGs. I’m not sorry I wrote that, as I feel it helps one understand my frustrations with Fusions. The game does literally nothing to break the typical mold of JRPGs and it suffers for that.

One thing that seems to be misunderstood is my attitude towards the genre, as a whole. I don’t dislike every JRPG ever made, just most of them after Chrono Trigger. As a matter of fact, I’m going to now explain why Final Fantasy IV’s remake is one of the best examples of the genre and how Fusions and Bandai Namco could (and should) learn a thing or two from Square Enix’s past.

The opening of Final Fantasy IV immediately breaks the stereotypes of the genre. You aren’t playing some prophesized hero on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil; you’re a man who begins to question the morality of the orders he is being given. That insecurity leads to you being stripped of your position and sent on a tedious (and ultimately terrible) mission.

After falling from grace and hitting rock bottom, Cecil (the main character) vows to travel the world and help others in need. This goal thrusts him into an adventure that has a few twists and turns and introduces an incredible cast of characters along with some innovative and thrilling combat mechanics.

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With age, I’ve grown to understand why people enjoy turn based RPGs. Having that layer of strategy and tactics play out in a manner with which you are given limited control is an extra challenge on top of any difficulty selection (with which the remake of Final Fantasy IV offers two options). You can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy and any mistakes lead to emergent gameplay in the style of damage control. Failure to come back from the brink of death leads to a game over, but succeeding brings an incredible sense of accomplishment.

The thing is, most modern JRPGs do very little to distinguish each of their battles. Dragon Ball Fusions, as a matter of fact, is basically the same exact game for 90% of its playtime. You can approach every single battle with the same team of people and never even come close to losing. Some side quests offer up variety, but holding victory to different stipulations shouldn’t be relegated to optional content. A game should be challenging the player every step of the way.

Final Fantasy IV does exactly this. The default difficulty definitely makes things easy, but you are constantly faced with enemies that have weaknesses to different magic attacks or require you to play defense with certain characters. A lot of the bosses are resistant to magic or physical attacks and the rotation of your party members help switch up tactics without lecturing the player with dialog boxes.

Even the animations of the enemies can clue you in as to what needs to be done. One of the main bosses, Rubicante, will move his cape and that lets the player know physical attacks are now diminished in effectiveness. Of course, the only way to discover this is by trying things out, but the game gives players the freedom to learn these nuances on their own instead of throwing an utterly baffling amount of information at the player and then hiding important details in a “tips” menu.

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Then there is the active time battle system, which forces you to think on your feet. Sure, the characters won’t be moving on their own and everyone goes in a turn, but failing to select an option within a reasonable time limit will grant the enemy a chance to retaliate. You can’t just sit around and think forever, something that modern JRPGs have regressed back to.

One of the coolest additions to the remake (and even the PSP port) is the auto battle option. Grinding was worked into the design of older JRPGs because of the lack of technology powering them. Making a long and meaningful game on the NES was an arduous task without raising the difficulty. While removing grinding would have been preferable, having the auto battle for easier encounters removes a tremendous amount of tedium.

Let’s say you don’t gel with the combat or find it tedious; that can be understandable with the length of a lot of JRPGs. Final Fantasy IV’s story moves at such a brisk pace that I was able to complete in 20 hours while undertaking numerous side quests. I was never bored, I constantly felt the severity of the situation at hand and I had concern for the characters in my party. When certain events would strip me of some of my party members, I got legitimately sad.

Newer JRPGs don’t do this often. Most of the time, you have a group of people who never face any consequences. They don’t die, never get called away or come under ailment; they are basically terminators. Everything that happens in battle doesn’t matter, because they will always be there for you. I usually get pissed off because the party size is arbitrarily limited and I can’t use them all at once.

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Final Fantasy IV may be a bit too happy about shifting around the dynamic of your group, but at least you never feel like anyone is being wasted. This is also putting aside how some events in the plot permanently remove members from the game, even if they still exist in the story. I’d really hate falling in love with Tellah, for example.

Still, the constant drive to keep the plot moving and have you seeing new things is refreshing. A lot of big budget games, let alone JRPGs, pad the length of their runtimes with meaningless content to justify a higher price point. Reaching the finish line feels like busy work instead of having the game motivate you to complete it.

Now are there any examples of modern JRPGs I enjoy? Sure, quite a few. I’ve always been into Kingdom Hearts, but that is possibly the best example of mixing wonder and joy together with two gigantic corporations collaborating. Having Disney’s dream filled worlds collide with the battle systems of Final Fantasy is so crazy and extreme that it balances out into fun. The combat also reminds me a lot of Diablo, in some bizarre manner.

Xenoblade Chronicles is also one of my favorite Wii titles, even if that deviates incredibly from the typical JRPG mold. It borrows heavily from World of Warcraft or even Final Fantasy XII, but it has an ever expanding world that is densely populated with believable characters. Maybe the sidequests are totally pointless, but the game doesn’t offer harsh punishments for failure to save or prepare; you’re allowed to make some mistakes and keep going.

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Tales of Vesperia was a game I bought on a whim after conversing with an old friend. He was a huge fan of the series and I loved the presentation aspect, but it left me feeling indifferent. The combat is pretty awesome, almost mimicking Street Fighter with combos and special moves, but the characters and elongated plot don’t do the game favors. Instead of being concise and giving the player forward momentum, the game has a tremendous amount of detours for characters to doubt themselves, almost once an hour. It really drags at the end.

Lost Odyssey is also great, but it suffers from the limitations of the Xbox 360. Being one of the first “next-gen” RPGs, the game utilizes the Unreal engine to push HD graphics. That requires a lot of disc spinning, so the load times are absolutely horrendous. Random battles take about 20-25 seconds to load and most of the game is waiting around for things to start. The combat is great and the story is incredibly deep, but even it falters with Disc three being worthless. Why are children so hard to write?

For the rest of my experiences with games, I just see the same kind of crap. Infinite Undiscovery was a borderline embarrassing waste of potential and Final Fantasy XIII is the worst example of that particular series. The newer Star Ocean titles also play things incredibly save and do nothing to push their settings; they just expect space to be awe-inspiring by itself.

That loss of wonder and excitement is what makes something like Dragon Ball Fusions feel so disappointing. It may not be a bad game and has some pretty complex battle mechanics, but it doesn’t really respect the players time and input. The game tasks you with suffering through the same encounters and plot points until it ends and gives you nothing in return.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I just want my playtime to feel like it mattered. I know that is getting caught up in an arbitrary definition, but older games usually put more of an emphasis on world building and player involvement. I just want to see that return to JRPGs, instead of the influx of bloated games with little originality.

Sigy Says – Ridge Racer: Unbounded Review

I’m not quite sure what I expected with Ridge Racer: Unbounded. The title sounded cool and I had heard decent things a few years back, but I never realized that Namco Bandai had tried their hand at a Burnout game. When I first loaded the game, I was delighted that this was taking a more destructive approach to racing.

After I finished the first event, I knew something was very wrong. The previous Ridge Racer games were all about speed. Tight turns, tighter controls and hilariously awful translations; that is what gave Ridge Racer its charm. All of that gets thrown out the window for Unbounded in an attempt to modernize the series.

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Ridge Racer Unbounded (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Bugbear Entertainment
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release: March 27, 2012
MSRP: $9.99 (on PC), $29.99 (Consoles)

For starters, the graphics are darker and more realistic than ever before; the pace has been slowed a bit and the cars feel far too weighty. Drifting, which is an integral part of the track design, is so fucking busted that I nearly quit in fury a few times. Busted explains a lot of things with Unbounded, but it applies more to the controls then the arenas you’ll be tearing apart.

The newest addition with Unbounded is the destructible environments. I have to give credit where credit is due; Unbounded does offer an impressive amount of course carnage. While the props are basically made of styrofoam, your car can glide through things and not immediately crash. Sadly, that’s about the only decent thing in the tracks.

As for regular buildings, your car typically gravitates towards them. Barely clipping them will usually cause your car to smash up, but sometimes you go flying through the air or spinning in circles. While that should be realistic, the game has an awful tendency to reset your car before your crash site. This causes a tremendous amount of wasted time in Time Attack events and often causes you to lose up to 7 places in race mode.

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As for regular buildings, your car typically gravitates towards them. Barely clipping them will usually cause your car to smash up, but sometimes you go flying through the air or spinning in circles. While that should be realistic, the game has an awful tendency to reset your car before your crash site. This causes a tremendous amount of wasted time in Time Attack events and often causes you to lose up to 7 places in race mode.

These should be fun, but the physics and AI of the game are so borked that I couldn’t wrap my head around them. At times, you fly out of the gate and pass everyone with ease. Other times, the opponents are beyond hard and you’ll hardly catch them. Sometimes you’ll smash through highlighted objects only to immediately crash once the automated cutscene ends. You’ll even make jumps only to see your car barrel rolling through the air, despite not clipping anything.

There is also some horrible graphical glitch that causes constant flickering for upwards of 15 seconds at a time. It obscures some of the track and leads to wiping out or missing turns. It also looks terrible and gives me a headache, but that may be a personal issue.

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What isn’t personal is information about your cars. The stats are shown before you decide on your vehicle, but they aren’t really reliable. Maybe this is more down to individual playstyles, but the car with the highest speed stat should be the fastest one on the track.

There are also some cars that are carbon copies of others (excluding the pointless DLC) and others, still, that have mostly the same stats, but are higher in key areas. It makes certain cars completely worthless after reaching higher driver levels.

Then there is the lack of course diversity and the general sluggishness to the controls. It just doesn’t feel pleasant to play Ridge Racer: Unbounded. I had fun, at times, but not enough for me to recommend this to anyone. The lackluster campaign and hilariously anti-climactic ending just rub salt in the wound.

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The online portion is completely non-functional. From the sound of what it included, it could have remedied this package. Racers were given the ability to customize events and challenge others worldwide. While it may have been frustrating to deal with the controls, I could see smashing people into walls as being a blast.

Still, that doesn’t work. Namco Bandai shutdown the servers in 2015 and have basically cut the game in half. The price tag, at least, reflects the lack of multiplayer, but it still sours the overall package. Having courses made by other players would be outstanding, even if the game feels rushed and sloppy.

It doesn’t help that there isn’t a split-screen mode at all. I know PC games typically don’t offer split-screen, but even the console ports of Unbounded lacked the feature. In other words, the multiplayer was basically a bulletpoint on features for the game. No one actually cared about molding it into a celebrated feature (something that should be sorely missed upon it’s closure).

Overall, I just wouldn’t bother playing this. Unless you just have a fondness for the Ridge Racer name, there isn’t much here that hasn’t been done better in other racers. Unbounded mostly made me pine for a new Burnout or to return to Burnout: Revenge. Even the crappy portable Burnout games are better than this drivel.

3

Poor

Went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.

Sigy Says – Life is Strange Review

The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”

Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.

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Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
MSRP: $19.99

The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.

The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.

The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.

Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.

There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.

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What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.

The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.

There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.

What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.

One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.

Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).

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The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.

Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.

There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).

That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.

In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).

I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.

The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.

Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.

I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.

6.5

All Right

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.

Mid-Generation Refresh: Pros and Cons

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My gut reaction to Microsoft’s E3 reveal of the Xbox Scorpio was anger. I was so mad that mid-generation console refreshes were becoming a reality. I knew it was true, but I held out hope that Microsoft and Sony would deny all claims and keep their current boxes at the fore-front.

While I was wrong, I didn’t want to write a blog completely lambasting Microsoft. Every decision has a positive and a negative to it and I’ve tried my best to come up with a list of reasons that the Scorpio is good and bad.

Hopefully I haven’t swayed too much in one direction or failed to acknowledge the opposite side. I personally don’t want incremental console updates, but there are benefits to having things like the PS4 Neo and Xbox Scorpio.

Pros:

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No Issues with Backwards Compatibility

Right off the bat, I will say that launching the Scorpio as a more powerful Xbox One isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s the marketing strategy that is more troublesome. If the Scorpio is truly just another Xbox One, it will mean great things for backwards compatibility.

In the older days of cartridge technology, backwards compatibility wasn’t even a thought. I don’t know if the radical changes in hardware were to blame, but console manufacturers didn’t even bother to come up with a solution. Sony was the first to introduce it with the PS2; it helped that console become the best selling device in the games industry.

Sony continued it with the original launch of the PS3, but had to remove features to turn a profit. With the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, Microsoft and Sony arbitrarily decided backwards compatibility wasn’t worth it.

With mid-generation upgrades, there wouldn’t be an issue with having to support older games; everything should, theoretically, work. In Microsoft’s favor, even Xbox 360 games will work (ever since they started that initiative on the One). It will help consumers feel better in knowing their older titles aren’t becoming overpriced paperweights.

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Price Tiers for Different Consumers

As with any hobby, gaming is pretty expensive. Consoles typically cost upwards of $400 and games are $60 a pop. That’s ignoring how controllers have skyrocketed in price and that Sony and Microsoft require extra fees for online play. It’s not great for lower income families.

The introduction of the Xbox Scorpio will see the price of the original Xbox One drop. The Xbox One S, as a matter of fact, has a model retailing for $300. That isn’t bad at all. Now people in different price demographics can get into a hobby that was previously exclusive to the rich kids.

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Less Confusion about Software

This almost goes hand in hand with backwards compatibility; Xbox Scorpio is basically an Xbox One. This should clear up any confusion that people have with newer software. The biggest issue Nintendo had with the Wii U was how to market the system.

Consumers still haven’t caught on. When they pick up a game box, they simply see “Wii” on the top and assume it works. Sony seemed to luck out in that their console titles had a clear numerical distinction, but most people can’t grasp that newer consoles are different entities.

Microsoft wouldn’t need to worry about any of that with Scorpio. Now, developers can make something for Xbox One and consumers can buy it regardless of their own hardware. It should be a win-win for everyone.

Cons:

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Software Update Incompatibility

There are a lot of issues that cellphone users take with constant software upgrades to the OS of their devices; often times, it feels like the phone is running slower and slower. This isn’t some corporate conspiracy to force users into an upgrade; it’s just the side effect of trying to strain older hardware past its limits.

With the Xbox Scorpio, this is going to become a reality to console users. There will come a point in time where the current Xbox One hardware cannot support a dashboard feature that the Scorpio will introduce. This will bring about a division in the install base of consoles (similar to how 360 users cannot party chat with One users).

It’s something that hasn’t really come up until recently. Older consoles weren’t created with constant internet connectivity in mind. Newer hardware has that as a staple feature. Eventually, the original Xbox One will become deficient.

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No Clear reason for Upgrade

If we take Microsoft’s word on the Xbox One, then the Scorpio ends up being pointless. Why upgrade to this newer hardware if the old system will continue to be supported? This isn’t like the old days when a new console had a clear identity; it’s easy to tell that PS2 games are different from PS3 games, for example. These are two platforms that are both called Xbox One.

Nintendo has recently stumbled into this issue with the “New” 3DS. Hell, even before that, the launch of the 2DS caused issues for consumers who weren’t up on hardware naming conventions. Consumers will struggle to understand why they need a Scorpio in the first place.

Now, you can state that 4K is the real reason behind the Scorpio, which is definitely true; that doesn’t address how older Xbox One games will fare. The Xbox One S does 4K upscaling, so clearly a Scorpio isn’t needed for that. Unless developers are required to render games at 4K on the Scorpio, there isn’t even really going to be a performance difference on the new unit.

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Spreads Consumer Distrust

For years, Apple has launched each new unit of the iPhone to record breaking sales. It seems people were eager to have the “latest” and “greatest” technology at their fingertips. Just this year, Apple finally saw a drop off in hardware adoption.

Consumers are beginning to see their trust in Apple waver. Why spring for incremental updates when the “true” successor will come out in a year? Microsoft seems to be heading in that direction.

As a non Xbox One owner, the only message I took away from their E3 conference was that the original launch was pointless. Xbox One was built around some always-on DRM nonsense that Microsoft quickly scrambled to change. Now, they want consumers to shell out more money for an even better box that will offer greater power to developers.

When does the next upgrade come out? When will the Xbox Two or Project Phoenix arrive? Why spring for a Scorpio when, quickly, that console will be obsolete? I can’t help but feel that smaller updates to hardware will be released in rapid fashion; there will always be performance issues with games that the new units fix.

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Sends a Negative Message to Hardware Manufacturers

This is more a con if the Xbox Scorpio manages to be successful. If people buy into this unit, it will tell Microsoft that mid-generation upgrades are the way of the future. They will have the proof they need to continue updating the console every 2-3 years.

That will only lead to console development echoing cellphone production. Incremental innovation in hardware technology will be released into the public at faster and faster rates. The Xbox One S will then turn into the Scorpio S which then brings the Xbox Two S and so on. That isn’t good for game development.

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While I could go on with more cons, I’ve decided to stop here. As I said earlier, I don’t want to completely bash Microsoft for their decision here. Maybe they can turn the situation into a positive and change how crappy consoles have become in recent years.

Only time will time. At present, things aren’t looking great. At the end of Microsoft’s presentation, I sent a text to my friend saying, “We need a new hobby.” I feel so alienated from current gaming trends; I’m almost like a walking relic of a bygone age.

I will try my best to be impartial as time marches on. If anything, this new hardware should bring us closer to the eventual platform agnosticism that gamers truly desire. Microsoft has started an “Xbox Anywhere” initiative, so that could bring about the end of dedicated boxes.

Whatever happens, I’ll still be there to comment on it. I may not remain a hardcore gamer, but I’m always interested in the shifts and changes the industry takes. Here’s hoping that we don’t end up with another industry crash like 1983.

E3 2016 Predictions!

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Publishers may be spoiling all of the fun of E3 with early announcements and “leaks,” but I get the feeling there is a bunch of stuff we don’t yet know about. Recent trends that are taking the games industry by storm aren’t going to go untouched.

There is a lot of speculation surrounding companies like Nintendo and Capcom, but I’m here to lay those worries to rest (hopefully). There is my list of predictions for stuff we’ll see at E3 2016!

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NX isn’t a console…it is Zelda!

While Nintendo initially stated their only title at E3 would be the new Zelda, they soon clarified that other games would be present during their Treehouse presentation. Most people are looking for new details on the upcoming NX console, but I have a theory.

What if the NX is just Zelda. I’m serious, too. What if the NX isn’t a separate console, but an entire machine dedicated to one game. The Wii U isn’t powerful to allow the creative vision Nintendo wants for the next Zelda game, but they also don’t want to divide their user base with another console that will (most likely) fail.

So the NX is unleashed as being another box, but it only has one game. That game will be Zelda: The Something of Whatever! It will have Demon’s Souls like multiplayer features, a never ending supply of quests like an MMO and will feature constantly expanding and growing characters in a world that changes based on your actions.

Then again, maybe the NX is just a codename for Nintendo XTreme!

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What’s Old is New Again…Again

Hot on the heels of Battlefield 1’s announcement to take place in the past, EA will begin to restructure their focus on “retro” themed games. This will lead to things like Plants Vs Zombies: Mendelian Conflict, Medal of Honor: Gettysburg and SSX 95.

Activision will take notice and announce a spin-off Call of Duty set during the rise of the Greek Empire, Call of Duty: Thermopylae. Seeing as how their only other franchise is Guitar Hero, they will announce a classic rock compilation of 50’s tunes dubbed Guitar Hero Live: All Shook Up.

A deluge of not modern military shooters will follow in the coming years. We’ll all have the EA presentation of 2016 to thank for our inevitable hatred of the “past” and our desire to head back to the “future”.

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VR Man

Since VR is becoming a hot trend, I predict that all of the major console manufacturers are going to show off their own version of VR. I know this one is mostly confirmed (and Sony has already been demoing their VR headset), but there are still a lot of details that haven’t been made public.

Microsoft will announce that they’ve teamed with Oculus for a simple VR solution on the Xbox Two! That’s right; the revision model of the Xbox One will be labeled Xbox Two, completely sidestepping the fact that the second console in the Xbox family was titled the 360.

Along with Oculus Rift support, Microsoft HoloLens will be required to utilize any VR technology of the new console. With a headset and controller in tow, you’ll be able to literally interact with everything in the game, as long as you have a 24x15x8 room available for setup.

Nintendo will reveal that the NX (which I said will be a Zelda only machine) allows VR to let players get truly “immersed” in the world of Hyrule. Players will be able to punch pots and crates with their own fists and can then put rupees into their pockets as if they were truly there.

Sony will finally come out and proclaim that the Playstation VR will only ever support one game and will then be discontinued by the company. They’ll mention it next to their deceased handheld, the PSV or whatever, and begin a whole new line of “legacy” Sony hardware.

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Xbox Live as an ISP

Now, I want to preface this entry with my own opinion; I think this would be an incredibly smart move. People have seemed to drift away from Microsoft’s service over to Sony’s this generation. Both offer virtually the same stuff, at present, but Microsoft’s console hasn’t won any favors since its original announcement.

Years ago, I proposed the idea that Microsoft should just turn Xbox Live into an ISP. Along with monthly fees that are competitive with cable companies, anyone who signs up would be given access to Xbox Live Gold and all the features that entails.

Microsoft will finally realize that their system isn’t going to topple Sony. After having ceased development of Windows Phone and focusing on Xbox as a brand, Microsoft will announce that Xbox Live will now be offered as an internet service.

Gamers who sign up will be given access to Xbox Live Gold and some subscriber benefits that non-ISP users won’t have access to. While the service will be platform agnostic, there will be some speed benefits for Xbox users to give Microsoft a leg up over cable providers.

Sony and Nintendo will be stunned, but unable to fund their own comparable networks. Both will announce a greater emphasis on digital sales and subscriber benefits, though neither will be able to cut out the middleman required for internet service.

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Other than these predictions, I don’t see much else happening at E3. The past few years have been pretty lousy in terms of announcements and reveals. The widespread adoption of the internet has allowed many users to track down hints of games well before publishers are even ready to talk about them.

There has also been some pretty harsh backlash against companies using fake trailers to promote their games. Gearbox and Ubisoft have come under fire for the way they lied about Aliens: Colonial Marines and Watch_Dogs, respectively. I get the feeling that most companies are going to shy away from pre-rendered trailers in favor of showing live gameplay on stage.

Either way, I don’t have much interest in E3. I just wanted to write a sort of jokey blog about what I see in the industry. Maybe I’ll get lucky and have a few of these predictions come true. I’m not much of a prophet, however.

 

 

DJ Hero Retrospective

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Rhthym gaming took the world by storm in 2005. A relatively unknown company by the name of Harmonix brought Guitar Hero into the public conscious and blasted themselves to stardom. The mixture of an old-school score mentality mixed with classic rock tunes lead to an immensely popular debut that would see the series continue on for a good few years.

I jumped on the bandwagon in 2007 when Guitar Hero II was released for the Xbox 360. While I never fancied myself an actual rock star, I had some previous experience using a guitar and I liked that songs I truly admired were getting more recognition. It also felt super cool to nail insane solos without breaking a sweat.

Most of my time in college was spent playing Guitar Hero in one form or another. Its sequel or the highly polished third entry gained more of my attention in 2007 than any other game or series.

While the success of the series showed the games industry that graphics and genre weren’t that important in making lots of money, the brand eventually began to stagnate. There is only so much you can do with the formula before people realize they’ve had their fill.

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Harmonix seemed to catch on to this after creating the second game. They did not sign with Activision to produce the third and instead went on to make Rock Band, the biggest competitor to the Guitar Hero franchise. The business model was also dramatically better; instead of creating yearly sequels, Harmonix opted to utilize the online connectivity of newer consoles to continually produce extra content for the game.

Activision sort of copied that idea, but still put out a staggering amount of games with the Guitar Hero branding. Handheld consoles got installments; cellphones weren’t free from virtual shredding; there was even a spin-off series focused more on hip-hop and dance music.

That is where my interest truly piqued. I’ve always been a fan of classic rock and I love heavy metal, but to hear modern pop songs and classic hits mashed together in some freestyle kind of insanity was just golden. It encapsulated everything I liked about the internet era of music discovery with a style of gameplay that I had quickly grown to love.

Enter DJ Hero, Activision’s attempt to branch out the Hero name to reach wider audiences. The entire genre was quickly on the decline, but this didn’t stop Activision and Freestyle Games from attempting something different.

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DJ Hero was a more back to basics approach to gameplay progression mixed with some popular artists and DJs that were remixing classic dance tunes alongside some rock and metal hits. It created a strange, dissonant sound that felt comfortable in the space of gaming.

It also had a much more structurally solid controller and gameplay that totally emphasized high scores and never ending combos. Different ideas like rewinding and crossfading also put a greater emphasis on player interaction within each track. Gone were the days of pretending to be a star; you were now given some control over what the music sounded like.

The sequel, DJ Hero 2, improved almost every aspect of the previous game. The visuals were cleaner, the audio was better mixed and the soundtrack was even more solid (despite it’s omission of Daft Punk tunes from the first game). 2 focused more on rocking clubs and EDM, but its gameplay was as frenetic and score happy as before.

It also didn’t hurt that the multiplayer was greatly expanded. While credit needs to be given to the developers for attempting to not nickel and dime their consumers (the original DJ Hero has a mode that allows a player with a Guitar Hero controller to play along), having multiplayer that actually utilizes the new fangled controller just makes more sense.

Each mode feels like an intense duel with a potential usurper. Score and accuracy are dominant alongside tracks mixed specifically to up the ante with each successive checkpoint. It brought a cut-throat attitude to competitive play that had long been missing in the rhythm gaming genre.

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Sadly, 2010 marked the year that this genre of games couldn’t sustain itself. The influx of releases and more costly instrument peripherals turned any newer customers off. While they were happy with buying one “toy” and sticking with it, having to collect a virtual band in your house was too much.

Not to mention that Guitar Hero was releasing games that focused on specific bands and having redux packages of older content, but even competitor series Rock Band had started to come out with “track packs” and games dedicated to the career of specific artists (granted, the Beatles are fairly important).

For what it’s all worth, I still believe that DJ Hero was the best thing to come out of that explosion of popularity. Guitar Hero also felt a little cheesy to me and a bit insulting to actual musicians. People who had no intention of picking up actual instruments or no understanding of what went into making music treated these songs like simple levels.

I remember playing a song by Rush and explaining to my friends how I saw them live and had been a fan for most of high school, but they couldn’t care less. To them, Rush was the song with the hard drum section and female singer. It was infuriating to me.

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With DJ Hero, it didn’t matter if you truly didn’t care about the artists are songs on offer. The game required you to be more active in what was going on. You couldn’t simply sit there with controller in hand and bang through a few songs; you had to pay attention to your crossfader, work on maximizing your note streak for potential rewinds and add your own personal flair (via samples) to up your score.

The shift in focus from a slightly more involved spectator to a remix guru just made everything feel more rewarding. Despite the track list being the same for everyone, the way you heard the song belonged to you.

It truly made me want to consider being a DJ as a career path. While I never went down that road, I started a friendship with a DJ at a club out of my amazement for what he was able to create. Those songs weren’t his, but the way they were played was wholly his invention.

DJ Hero perfectly encapsulated the atmosphere of the club scene while making the player feel like the star of the show. It didn’t hurt that Daft Punk leant their likeness to the original game and that Deadmau5 signed on for the sequel, either. DJ Hero was into a burgeoning music scene before it erupted into mainstream acceptance.

Sadly, the potential third game will never happen. Both Activision and Harmonix tried their hands at new Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles last year, but sales figures were underwhelming for both. People seem to have had their fun and want these games to fade into blissful memories.

It may be pointless to ask for another entry into the DJ Hero series, but I’d pay a lot to see a return to such vibrancy and joy within music gaming. If I’m going to pretend I’m any kind of star of a music game, at least it should be the game that actually gave me control over the sounds pumping through my speakers.

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A More “Real” VR Experience

“We hope as more people get to see VR, the experience will become more normal. People will then come into the VR experience and just see another game instead of a toy.” – Cindy Miller, Lead Designer at Culture Shock Games.

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I spent my past weekend at PAX East looking at a bunch of “new” games. While I wasn’t entirely impressed with most of the showcase, I did manage to find a few interesting things. One of the more intriguing displays was for an indie game called We Are Chicago.

At first, my friend and I were simply lining up to try VR. We were glancing at the monitor and joking about almost everything in the game world. This older guy and his son were joining in with us as we kept pointing out some of the inconsistencies of the VR experience.

The demo consisted of a scripted conversation about inner-city life and a scene where the player is supposed to set the table. I wanted to get into the demo and start flinging plates around. I wondered how awesome it would be to teleport into a fridge or smack someone in the face. I was hell bent on breaking the game world.

Weird little glitches like disappearing doors and unshapely character models were just adding fuel to the fire. It was like some low budget B-movie with a more interactive twist. Who cares what the people are saying? The real joy is in tearing it apart.

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Just look at that!! How could you resist throwing it?!

As we kept waiting, though, I realized something about my behavior; I was being a real jackass. I won’t claim that every game should be treated as a masterpiece (or even with respect), but it’s hard to fault a small team for trying to break new ground.

The non VR experience of We Are Chicago is substantially better. It still has a way to go before being released, but its ability to convey a story through a slightly interactive medium looks to be taking an already tired genre in some new directions.

“We want people to empathize with how things are,” is what Cindy Miller told me. “We like the fact that we are touching on these topics and we are going to be giving some proceeds from the game to help non-profit organizations.”

That really hit me in the gut. Here I was, joking about how goofy the VR demo looked. When my friend asked the lead programmer, Michael Block, about the intended plotline for the game, I jokingly said, “It’s about a teleporting man who is tasked with setting the dinner table and refuses to.”

I suppose that is the downside to an expo dedicated to “new” things. People want to experience VR, but the show floor is so crowded that dedicating yourself to any one thing is a monumental task. When some indie developer has a quick, accessible demonstration out, you mainly want to fuck around with it to experience the technology.

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Which way did he go, George?

“We like the fact that a lot of people come for the VR and stay for the game. We’re happy that people get to experience it,” Cindy said to me with a bright smile. It doesn’t matter if people think her game is bogus; she is mostly happy to present the idea to the masses.

Thankfully, I’m not the kind of person to shut my mind off. I tinkered with the VR experience on the first day of PAX, but I returned to that booth every other day. The second day was to take another friend over and the third day was to grab some photos and quotes. I wanted to challenge myself with bringing out the better side of this game.

I don’t know if I should explain its plot details or any of the controls. At its best, the game feels like a Telltale adventure game before they began sucking up every contract possible. We Are Chicago is taking the idea of an interactive narrative to its logical conclusion.

We’ve seen games built on making us empathize with protagonists or thrusting us into difficult scenarios, but none of them have truly dealt with real life problems. The abundance of World War II shooters may have all been based on true stories, but none of those felt real.

Most gamers also don’t have to live in a shitty slum. A lot of us have a comfortable life. The worst problem we will ever face is pissing our boss off. None of us know the emotional toll that constantly living in fear brings. None of us need to worry about stray bullets flying through our walls and killing our families.

Cindy and Michael both told me, “Everything that happens in the game is based on real events.” Cindy then added, “Our writer came from Englewood and is bringing his personal experience into the game.” Well, damn. Safe, secure, blissfully happy me gets to go home to white suburbia while these developers have grown up in a crappy reality.

Did the rest of the attendees connect with this game on the same level? I honestly don’t think so. People were so happy to get into a VR headset that the conversations might as well of not happened. You could have put stickmen in place of the character models and no one would bat an eye.

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Half of these people probably never even saw the game. I know Jed didn’t!

I didn’t want to leave the expo and have this game become a distant memory. I didn’t want others to see the low budget and think this game was a joke. VR may be the future, but if it robs a game like this of its narrative punch, then it doesn’t deserve to survive on the market. VR should be opening people to new realities; it shouldn’t be relegated to a simple plaything.

Thankfully, We Are Chicago will be releasing as a standard game first. The VR experience was mostly made for PAX (and was finished in a week), but will become available at an unspecified time after the game is finally out.

I feel that is for the best. I’d rather the discussion start with how dramatic the game is rather than how ridiculous a flying plate looks in VR.

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Cindy Miller (Left), Michael Tisdale (Center), Michael Block (Right)