Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Xbox One Reveal

Several months ago Sony revealed their vision of the future with their announcement of the Playstation 4. They talked a lot about semi-interesting social features, weird and wacky things that most people probably won't care about, and how much easier it will be for developers of all kinds to make games for their system. They also showed a decent amount of gameplay footage, real gameplay that was not pre-rendered, including footage from a brand new IP. At the time reactions to Sony's conference was mixed. Some people were optimistic, many were unimpressed. The conclusion that I think a lot of people came to was that we will wait and see what this all means for games.

Today Microsoft held their own conference, and I wanted to talk about my immediate thoughts. Full disclosure: I've owned every Sony console ever released, and none of the Microsoft consoles. While I'm not the Sony fanboy I once was, it would be naive to claim I didn't still have some bias.

Firstly on a superficial level; Microsoft actually showed their console. So we are fully aware now how sleek it is, and how much room it will take up on your shelf next to the equally large Kinect 2.0. Also, it's called the Xbox One. Why? I know laughing at console names has kind of become the thing to do these days, but still... Playstation 4 is safe, it's unimaginative. Xbox One is confusing and doesn't really seem to be based on anything. So what do we call the original Xbox now? The original Xbox? Xbox fat? XLBox? For that matter, what snappy name do we use for this new console? XOne? XBO? XBone? Yea, let's go with XBone. Anyways, I digress.

On the whole, I would say Microsoft's console started out strong--ish. Very quickly I got the impression of a console which transforms your living room. It acts as the gateway to all the media you need, and in this capacity it seems like an intriguing device. However at the same time, it's an embodiment of the ADD society we live in. Being able to instantly flip between media with a voice command is undoubtedly cool. However pressing the input button on my remote isn't particularly troublesome. Being able to open up a secondary application on the side of the screen is quite nifty. However if I'm going to control it with my phone, why not just run said application on my phone to begin with? Not to mention, how do all these media features function if I don't have cable? Or I don't have Xbox live gold? Or Netflix? Or... INTERNET.

After that whole shebang was out of the gate, Microsoft's conference took a real nosedive though. From that point there was little to see other than how awesome sports are, unrelated interviews with Athletes, a Halo TV series, a partnership with the NFL, and gameplay footage of the next (multiplatform) Call of Duty, which wasn't actually gameplay footage. The talk of actual video games was surprisingly minimal, even more so than was the case in Sony's conference. As a result of all of this, a lot of people are decrying the console as nothing but a media box aimed at fratboys and casuals. What's more, it has been confirmed that there will be an activation fee for playing used games. Of course this also comes with the claim that users will be able to trade and sell games through the console, which is intriguing, but the used games thing seems to have caused enough rage that people don't read far enough to see the reselling games bit.

The immediate reaction to this reveal seems to be the internet freaking out, because their favorite console has turned into a media box aimed at frat boys. At first I was right there with this viewpoint, but I don't think I am any more. Sure, the demographic has changed so that I'm not a part of it any more. Dudebros and casuals probably make up the majority of the market these days, so it makes business sense to me. What does being a part of that demographic do for me, anyways? Why do I care if I'm being marketed towards? There will be video games right? Sure, we will certainly see what's up at E3. If anything the biggest problem here is that the demographic that watched this live presentation is likely the core gamers and not the dudebros. Now, the core gamers feel scorned. Sony's stock is apparently soaring, and a significant number of people are leaning towards the PS4 now.

In the end of the day, all I care about are the video games. Sure, Microsoft's presentation didn't do anything for me, but they have to sell their product. In today's market where virtually every title is multi-platform, it's exclusive titles that sell consoles, and I was promised 8 new exclusive IPs at E3. Features are cool. PS4 has features that are aimed at playing video games. XBone has features that are aimed at media consumption and general use. At this point we haven't an inkling as to which box will have the best library of games, and that is ultimately all I care about. Even in terms of usability and features, there is still a lot to be seen. Microsoft's conference was a small disaster, but this battle isn't done by a long shot. The internet just has to remember that the people watching the reveal live are not representative of the other billions of people on the planet.

I do have to admit though. It's incredibly disappointing that the most interesting part of the entire presentation, the segment they used to cap off the entire thing, was about Call of Duty. Which, beyond just being Call of Duty, is a multi-platform title.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Fire Emblem Awakening Review

Fire Emblem is a series that I have been a fan of for about a decade now, about as long as it has existed in North America. So you can imagine that I was pretty excited at the prospect of a new title on the 3DS, especially considering Radiant Dawn came out way back in 2007. Fire Emblem is just one of those series that speaks to me, it has interesting characters, tactical combat, immersive worlds, and yet remains a pretty simple product on the surface. Unfortunately I had to wait a couple months after it's North American release to pick up my copy of Awakening, but all is well. I have my copy now, and I'm just about done with it, so I thought I would share my thoughts on the latest installment in the Fire Emblem series.

The first thing that makes this title stand out from the rest of the series is simply the degree of freedom and customization one has over their characters. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of Sacred Stones in this, and also in that you can spend time fighting non-integral battles for experience. Awakening has three main systems for customization. Firstly, every character has a pool of classes that they can change to, and subsequently learn skills from. Each person typically has about 3-5 classes they can access, and it's interesting choosing which classes to spend time in, which skills to pick up. Each character also has 5 total skill slots, giving a pretty high degree of customization per character. Even beyond this though, is the ability to marry characters together. Doing so eventually gives you access to a new character in the form of their child, who inherits potential classes, base stats, stat growths and even a couple skills from their parents. It all combines for a pretty complex system that allows for a lot of long term planning.

While I'm a huge fan of the customization Awakening allows, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the positives to this game more or less end there. That's not to say everything else about it is terrible, just not quite up to par with the rest of the series, in my opinion. Ironically, the very things that make the game so fun (to me anyways) also have a lot of not so great repercussions. It all comes down to pacing, really. Fire Emblem games typically ferry you immediately from one battle to the next with some storyline in between. In Awakening you can spend hours messing about, grinding baddies, playing DLC, fighting spot pass teams etc. While having all of this extra stuff to do can add a lot of meat to the game, it also completely removes all efforts at pacing. What's more, how you choose to build your army matters a lot less when you have as long as you need to make up for your mistakes and grind your weak characters. If you are like me, you end up so absurdly powerful that the story missions are a joke. Even the story suffers. Goofing off for hours between chapters removes all intensity from the plot. I really cared about what happened to the worlds of Elibe and Tellius, but the story behind Awakening feels really weak, I don't feel engaged in it.

Beyond the actual storyline behind whatever world Awakening takes place in, I feel like the characters themselves suffer a lot from this games open-endedness as well. For one thing, each character being able to re-class into so many different classes really hurts their individuality. In previous titles, a character's class defined who they were. When you can so easily switch a character's class, who they are starts mattering a whole lot less. They stop being a person and start being "Mercenary #3". It doesn't help that graphically, each character is only distinguishable by their head. In their base class they have a unique body, but as soon as they promote that goes away. Every Sage for example, friend or foe, has the same body, which just gets weird. It's especially odd when that body has physical characteristics that the character in question really shouldn't have, or varies drastically from that of their previous class. I personally consider this a much graver sin than any palette swap ever was..

Sadly, the character issues don't end with individuality, either. One other way that Awakening bucks the series' norms is in how it handles support conversations. Often times in the past, each character would only be able to support a handful of other characters. What's more, each character could often only get a limited number of supports. Neither is really the case in Awakening. Characters can support just about anyone else (from their own generation, anyways), and there is no limit to how many supports a character can have. This also ties into the marriage system, in that marriage occurs when two characters reach an S level support. At first this seems like an overwhelmingly good thing. It means support options aren't so restrictive, and each character has an incredible amount of dialogue with which to build their personality and relationships. What's more, Awakening doesn't resort to having pre-canned generic conversations like Radiant Dawn did. However the sad truth is that in the end of the day, the result isn't significantly better.

The problem lies in the fact that each character has precisely one defining characteristic, and the pure volume of writing that has to be done for each possible combination. Seeing how each character would interact with another is occasionally interesting, but after seeing several supports it invariably begins to tread old ground rather quickly. I get it, the mage is studious. The thief likes candy. The archer is a flirt. It would be nice if support conversations dug a little deeper like that, as has been the case in previous games. When it comes to romantic relationships  things aren't any better, either. Because there are so many marriage options, the pairings are often quite unconvincing. I didn't see a single proposal that wasn't painfully contrived. Yet, each support feels like it's leading towards marriage. Even if a character is already wed, anyone else who gets an A support with that character will seem to be blatantly flirting. It's like characters in this universe don't know how to have a friendly relationship with the opposite sex without throwing a ring at them.

In the end of the day, Fire Emblem Awakening is a very odd game to assess. The level of planning and strategy it affords is significantly higher than previous installments. Yet, every other aspect of the game feels significantly more shallow. If there was ever a question that Fire Emblem should stay a linear game, I think Awakening proves the point. Being able to go off the beaten track totally ruins the game's pacing, both in terms of challenge as well as in removing intensity from the plot. Having characters that are so flexible and support conversations that are painfully generic lead to uninteresting characters that lack individuality. What's more, being able to level up at will removes any danger that your characters will ever die. Combined, I found I just didn't really feel like I cared all that much about my characters, or the world for that matter. Even the battles themselves feel less strategic and more like going through the paces. 

Fire Emblem Awakening isn't a bad game, it just isn't good in the same ways that previous titles were. It's not a game about strategic battles, interesting characters and a tense war for power. Those things are there, they just take a back seat. Awakening is all about planning out your characters, watching them become beastly, and then spending $3 on DLC maps that take 20 mins to beat. A part of me wants to see what the game is like on the more absurd difficulty levels; maybe more challenge would solve a lot of the game's problems. A larger part of me feels like I've had my fill of this particular title. It's a quality title, I'm certainly not disappointed to have played it. It just didn't scratch the itches I expected from a Fire Emblem title.