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Microsoft and Sony Press Conferences, E3 2015

Just like last year, I again had this Monday off to watch all the press conferences from Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony, from 10:30am to 8:30pm MDT.  Also like last year, I was pretty pleased with much of what I saw today.  Unlike last year, however, I won’t be summarizing each presentation.  You should just watch them.  Instead, here are my impressions of what I found most important from the big dogs:

Microsoft

Halo 5: Guardians

I’ve never played through any of the Halo games, which I’ll admit is a glaring hole in my gaming experience.  As such, I really don’t have a lot to say about this one because I have no sense of the continuity.  In any case, it looks like it plays well and the graphics are on point.  But even though I’m ignorant of this franchise’s story, it doesn’t feel like a numbered Halo game without starring Master Chief.  Just saying.  (Fun aside, hearing Nathan Fillion’s voice for one of the characters was enough to merit an entry onto this blog.)

ReCore

This was out of left field for sure, to see a new Keiji Inafune (creator of Mega Man, Onimusha, Lost Planet, and Dead Rising) game debut at a non-Japanese conference, but this title looks wonderful to me.  I don’t yet own an Xbox One, but this would likely be one of my first purchases.  Even though details were light, I gleaned from the presentation that the protagonist’s artificially intelligent sidekick can be transferred from one robot to another, which I would guess needs to happen to traverse various areas of the game.  Here’s hoping this is far more engaging than Knack’s attempt to do something similar.  Looks great.

Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility

Despite some truly incredible games demonstrated throughout the day, this was perhaps the most significant announcement of them all.  While even Microsoft admitted that only 5% of gamers make use of backwards compatibility on new hardware a couple years back, this was a very clever move and a damaging blow to Sony’s PS Now service.  I do have a couple of quibbles, however.  First, I don’t care what was said, the Xbox One does not “natively” play Xbox 360 games — there is no hidden tri-core Power PC processor hiding in the Xbox One.  The term they were looking for is “locally”, as in it doesn’t require a remote piece of hardware to stream the game to you.  But this is still emulation.  I look forward to hearing how well this works (especially since backwards compatibility was quite uneven, performance-wise, for original Xbox games on Xbox 360), but the list of currently adapted games is light at 22, as of June 15, 2015.  Still, this is a very pro-consumer initiative, even if I don’t think it’s something that really matters to the average gamer.

Elite Wireless Controller

Microsoft demonstrated a highly customizable controller, which will undoubtedly excite certain hardcore players out there.  It’ll also lighten their wallets, as it is priced at a staggering $149.99.  I am curious about how the bumpers feel on this model, as the ones on the original Xbox One pad feel awkward to me.

EA Access

Yawn.  I’m sure there are people out there who love the idea of paying EA $5/month for access to last year’s games, but I have zero interest in this.  I already pay for Playstation Plus, and if I had an Xbox, I’d pay for Live as well.  I don’t need another subscription, especially to play last year’s Madden.  However, I should admit that seeing EA add Titanfall this week (and prepping to add Dragon Age: Inquisition later this year) is pretty cool.  This is only exclusive because Sony refused to allow it on the PS4.  Regrettably, this section of the conference slowed an otherwise breakneck pace.

Forza 6

The coolest part of this demonstration was when they actually lowered a real Ford GT from the ceiling.  Henry Ford III was also there.  I don’t play racing games, really, so that’s all I have to share.  But the spectacle of it was on point.  As always, Microsoft deserves a lot of style points.

Tacoma

While my understanding is that this game is actually cross-platform, it sounds like it is at least a timed exclusive for Microsoft.  From the creator of the critically acclaimed Gone Home, this is a must play for me.  I love story-centric games that have something important to say, so Fullbright has my attention.

Xbox Game Preview

Many are comparing this to Steam Early Access.  This sounds like a great initiative to permit players to become a part of the development process of their games; that said, this has the potential to backfire when (immature, spoiled) players encounter broken alpha code.  That will be a shame.  Even so, I hope to see Sony copy this one day.  The feedback from this sort of thing might steer a game from being mediocre to being good.

Ion

From the creator of DayZ comes this intriguing space survival game.  It is described as an emergent-narrative MMO, which is another way of saying that there is no narrative except that which comes from the players, a la many sandbox games.  Very curious about this one.  Amusingly, some on Twitter said that Bohemia Interactive should worry about finishing DayZ first before worrying about something new.  Fair point.  I’m also interested in that game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Ugh, this one continues to upset me.  Even though it’s only a timed exclusive, I’ll be bitter about this until it’s finally released on PS4.  (My guess is that this will happen a year after its release on Xbox One.)  I’m still looking forward to it, however, as I really loved the previous entry in the series, so much so that I bought and played it again as a remastered rerelease on PS4.  The environments and acrobatic stunts look even more amazing this time around.  Some have noted that this entry looks like a return to gameplay more reminiscent of classic Tomb Raider, which makes longtime fans of the series happy.  Tomb Raider (2013) had amazing gameplay in both combat and platforming, so I hope that remains the case.

Rare 30th Anniversary Collection

Rare made some special games in its day.  I’m not sure how relevant Perfect Dark, Battletoads, or Banjo-Kazooie are now, but this should make for a hell of a deal since it includes 30 titles and will be priced at $30.  Here’s hoping the whippersnappers of today give it a shot.  But it’s worth noting that this studio is nothing like what it was back when it was a second party to Nintendo.

Sea of Thieves

Rare concludes its presentation with its latest title, described as its most ambitious — the buzz word every developer seems to use these days.  (Perhaps developers should focus their ambitions on making games that aren’t broken.)  In any case, Sea of Thieves looks like a shared multiplayer world of pirates.  Looks cartoony in a good, fun way and includes important things like naval battles and sharks.  Hope this is great for the sake of a long-irrelevant studio.

Fable Legends

A Fable game made by a studio not named Lionhead is either a good thing or a bad, depending on your point-of-view.  I have never found this franchise to be compelling, especially with all the broken promises of the first two games.  I always felt that the designers spent too much time with simulating a living world for the player to exist in rather than the gameplay itself.  Compare this to Bethesda, which also spends a lot of time on the simulation aspect but also finds a way to include engrossing gameplay.  Perhaps this one will be different, but it’s been designated as Free-to-Play, so count me out already on that alone.

Valve VR

Microsoft had already declared a partnership with Oculus Rift, but I guess the folks there wanted to cover all their bases and also sign a deal with Valve’s VR product.  (They’ve also committed to supporting HTC’s foray into this world as well.)  More importantly, Oculus Rift will also ship with an Xbox One controller bundled in, which is quite a coup.  I have some concerns about this technology in general (in any of its incarnations, including Sony’s Project Morpheus), but I’ll have more on that to say later.

HoloLens

While some prognosticated that Microsoft would take this time to declare exclusive Xbox and Windows content for Minecraft, the company took a different tact.  This section of the show was perhaps the most amazing thing I’ve seen in a long while, with the demonstrator playing the game on his table, like it was a hologram.  While doing this, Lydia Winters of Mojang was running around the map in a normal first-person POV.  The demonstrator could see her tiny avatar moving across the zoomed out map on the table live.  He could even zoom in on an area or spin it around.  Simply incredible.  I don’t know if the finished product will actually work this well, but it sure as hell has a better shot at commercial success than VR or motion gaming.  (Which is to say, not likely anyway.  These peripherals will be expensive add-ons and receive limited developer support due to their lower market penetration.)

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition

I actually love this trend of rereleasing games with improved graphics, performance, and features.  There are a number of smaller studios that exist purely to do these ports, which allows developers to hone their skills before moving up to original projects with other developers.  Moreover, this trend allows younger gamers to experience titles they may have missed the first time around.

Now with regard to Gears specifically, I wasn’t in love with this game, but I did have fun with all five hours of it back in 2006.  This franchise is so over-the-top with its machismo and gore that it’s actually funny.  I would play this rerelease again, I think.

Gears of War 4

Like Halo 5 and the lack of Master Chief, there’s something strange about seeing this title without Marcus Fenix headlining.  I have no idea how to take this, but similarly to how Bungie left Halo behind, so Epic Games has left Gears.  With that, change is inevitable.  What was shown was quite pretty, though.

Analysis

Excepting the section that EA filled, the Microsoft conference was tight, well paced, and filled with high production values.  Xbox One owners can look forward to a strong second half of the year, including Halo 5, Tomb Raider, and Forza 6.  I was surprised that Crackdown, Scalebound, and Quantum Break were all no-shows, but it sounds like Microsoft is holding some things back for Gamescom later this year.  But as great as all the games looked, the backwards compatibility announcement and the HoloLens demonstration both stole the show.  We’re only a year-and-a-half in on this generation, but I’m already ready to see an Xbox One Slim — perhaps that will convince me to finally buy one.

Sony

The Last Guardian

Rumors of its cancellation prior to last year’s E3 were greatly exaggerated.  After some eight years of development hell, this much anticipated game from the creators of the critically acclaimed titles Ico and Shadow of the Colossus is finally set to come out in 2016.  Think about this for a second, though: the entire seventh generation of consoles passed without a single release from Team Ico — those aforementioned titles were on PS2 in 2001 and 2005 respectively.  Since then, Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy was published to much critical and commercial success.  Same for Naughty Dog’s Uncharted trilogy, as well as The Last of Us.  Same for Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and Skyrim.  Same for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV and V, as well as Red Dead Redemption.  Seriously, Team Ico, what have you been doing all this time?

Last Guardian looks very cool, in any case, though it still looks very much like a PS3 game to me.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if all the drama and delays didn’t result in improved graphics, this game sure as hell better deliver on gameplay and story.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Holy moly did this game blindside me.  I had heard rumors of Guerrilla Games’s new IP, but I had no idea it was this.  Everything shown in this trailer was amazing.  Simply amazing.  If you haven’t watched it, go look it up on YouTube.  Set it to 1080p.  Wait for it to buffer.  Watch it and bask.  Then come back.

A far, far distant future featuring a post-technological human society, Horizon features a badass heroine who hunts robot dinosaurs for resources to survive.  With a bow.  All of this transpires against the backdrop of long-abandoned and decayed cities, complete with waterfalls running through old office buildings, relics of “The Old Ones”, as the narrator describes us.

It will be mine.  Oh yes.  It will be mine.

Hitman

Despite the lack of a number or subtitle, this game is supposed to be a continuance of the franchises overarching story (whatever that is).  I’ve never played any of these, though I’ve heard that they do the stealth gameplay genre proud.

Street Fighter V

This is a game that wouldn’t exist except for investment by Sony, I’ve heard.  That’s why it’s a console exclusive for PS4.  Now, I haven’t played a true fighting game since the Super Nintendo days, so this doesn’t speak to me at all.  But I’ve also heard that this is the purist’s series, compared to something like Mortal Kombat.

No Man’s Sky

Now, if we’re going to throw around the buzzword “ambitious”, then this is the game to apply it to.  Once again, Hello Games shows us how impossibly vast the game is, boasting that there are many, many worlds that will never be discovered by gamers in this shared universe.  Rather than use a pre-recorded demo, Sean Murray (the founder of the studio) randomly chose a star to warp to, and in so doing, discovered a new world, which was dynamically and procedurally generated before our eyes.  The technology of this is stunning.  But I still don’t know what the “game” part of this is.  He showed the discovery of a beacon and how it could be used to upload data from what you’ve discovered (animals, etc.), and that there will sometimes being things hostile to this activity that you have to avoid or defeat, but what else is there?  Show me.

Dreams

Media Molecule, the studio behind LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, has lost its collective mind.  This game should be called Nightmares instead.  The idea here is that you create your own dream worlds with random, claymation style creepiness, and then share that with the rest of the world.  A player would then bounce from dream to dream surreally, just as it is in real life.  Except that everything shown here was kind of terrifying.  I really have no idea what to make of this.

Firewatch

A console exclusive from Camp Santo, this one looks really compelling.  My research informs me that this game is set in the aftermath of the Yellowstone fires of 1988.  You play a volunteer fire lookout who investigates strange occurrences at his lookout tower in the Shoshone National Forest.  All your communication has been mysteriously cut off save for a walkie-talkie that connects you like a lifeline to your supervisor, whom you connect with on a deeper and deeper way in your increasing sense of isolation.  Looks incredibly suspenseful and well voice acted.  Sign me up.

Destiny: The Taken King

A first-person shooter MMO does very little for me, even if it is from Bungie.  That being said, I’m glad to see a narrative-centric, free DLC for the game, which was roundly criticized for being vacant in the story category.  I might eventually poke my head into this game when the price is right.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

I think I might be one of the only people in the world who actually highly enjoyed the first entry into this series back in 2007.  The novelty of the game spoke to me, even if it was quite uneven gameplay-wise.  Most people are stuck on Assassin’s Creed 2 as being so much better than its predecessor that there’s no comparison, and sure, the voice acting, story, and gameplay are far more refined in the second entrant, especially with regard to the side quests.  But what it also had was a ton of padding, and the overarching story about Desmond and the Animus goes further into nonsense-land.  The novelty of this series wore thin for me by the time I completed that game, and I was mortified that Ubisoft felt compelled to release two huge semi-sequels to it, making Assassin’s Creed 2 its own trilogy.  I had hoped that this franchise would only have three games total, not be gearing up to add its ninth main installment.  (That doesn’t count the thirteen other ones that are a part of the overall AC universe.)

I can’t stress how tired I am of even seeing these games.  Sure, AC4: Black Flag looked cool enough to tempt me to play, but I’m so done now.  I don’t even care what this one is about.  (It’s set the nineteenth-century London Underworld, if you’re curious.  At least the developers keep selecting interesting locations and times.)

But kudos to Ubisoft for figuring out how to “animate” a female assassin and stay under budget this time/sarcasm

World of Final Fantasy

I don’t even know what to make of this one.  Looks sickeningly cute.  But I’m interested because it’s presumably cross-buy with Vita, so there’s that.  Whatever.  I’m only mentioning this because it led into…

Final Fantasy VII: Remake

IT’S HAPPENING.  The sun has risen in the west and set in the east.  Hell has frozen over.  This game came out in 1997 for the original PlayStation, and by the time the PS2 came out in 2000, fans were begging for a remake.  AND IT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING!

(Quick admission: I’ve only played a small portion of this game, so my excitement is rooted more in the realm of wanting to finally play it rather than relive it.  That being said, I desperately want an Ocarina of Time remake, so I understand this feeling either way.  I would literally buy a Wii U for that.)

The trailer was brief but beautiful.  I actually got chills — seriously.  CHILLS.  This is huge.  My theory is that this one is a ways off, though.  I’m going to predict a holiday 2017 release to celebrate the 20-year anniversary.  I also predict that this game will sell more than any other release that year.

Shenmue III

I never played the first two Sega Dreamcast-era Shenmue games (though I now kind of want to now, judging by the fan reaction to this game’s Kickstarter announcement).  Brilliantly, Sony’s Adam Boyes went up on stage to countdown to the start of the crowd-funded campaign, and it successfully hit its $2-million goal in a mere nine hours.  It’s at 3 million as of the time of writing this blog.

This stunt actually took down the Kickstarter sight due to all the excitement.  Damn.  The last Shenmue game (which did not feel like a definitive end, according to fans) was released in 2001.  That’s a long time to wait.

Someone I follow on Twitter wrote that the trio of announcements for The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and Shenmue III was like fan fiction for a game conference.

Batman: Arkham Knight

The Twitter-verse exploded in fury at the spoiler-heavy (for Arkham City’s ending) trailer that was shown at this conference.  In any case, it looks great, as it did a year ago.  Like a lot of people, I’m excited for this one to come out on June 23, but I’ll admit that I usually have to be in the right mood to dive into these games.  I think I had my copy of Arkham City in shrink wrap for a year before I finally got around to playing it.  Nevertheless, Rocksteady’s work on the previous titles has been stellar, and this one looks to closeout that studio’s involvement with the series in style.

PlayStation Vue

Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House came out and mentioned a bunch of things I didn’t care about, including stats on Spotify.  But what he did say that was very compelling is that Vue, Sony’s IPTV service, will offer individual television channel subscriptions, the first time this has happened in any form.  This news is kind of amazing.  We don’t know what the pricing will be, but I’m paying attention to this one, and I’m hoping it gets copied like crazy by competing companies, like Sling and Apple.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III

Last year, I remarked that new CoD games almost always open Microsoft conferences.  Not so this year.  In a radical shift, Activision has inked a deal with Sony to launch new multiplayer maps on PS4 before Xbox One (in an arrangement identical to what the company used to have with Microsoft).  That’s cool, I guess.  I wonder if this is in some way a reflection of CoD’s waning relevance, as in its sales have been leveling off in recent years.  This series isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I think it’s possible that Microsoft felt it had enough shooters from its own studios and didn’t need to incentivize Activision anymore.

Either way, this is quite a coup.  The times they are a changin’.

Disney Infinity 3.0

I’m only mentioning this because it was the lead-in for Battlefront.  But man is it strange to see Disney mix Star Wars with its Skylanders clone.

Star Wars Battlefront

This looks incredible.  Like, this game makes me feel the closest to being in the Star Wars universe as anything ever has.  Just go watch the video, if you haven’t already.  If you have, watch it again.  EA continues to impress with its Frostbite 3 engine, the likely foundation for all of its games for the next several years.  I’m pleased to see that there is a single-player mode for this game, but I’m even willing to give multiplayer a try because it looks so good.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Oh Naughty Dog, how I love thee.  This developer made four of the finest games of last generation, and I couldn’t be more hyped for this one.  Sadly, ND seems cursed with its live demos lately, as the DualShock 4 was evidently not paired with the PS4 when game director Bruce Straley tried to demonstrate.  Sony was forced reload the demo and use a pre-canned playthrough rather than a live one.  [I had my details wrong, here.  Kotaku has a short write-up on what actually happened.]

All that aside, who cares.  It looks amazing.  Shut up and take my money.  Seriously, this game looks like the full realization of everything I want Uncharted to be.  And while it wasn’t mentioned in any detail here, Naughty Dog has already announced that the PS3-era Uncharted trilogy will be released on PS4 later this year.  I look forward to replaying those before diving into UC4 next year.

Analysis

Much of the Sony conference was incredible — historically so.  But like all live conferences, there was a bit of unevenness sprinkled throughout.  (No off-script talk about the Powers show this year, at least.)  The biggest takeaway is that PS4 will be home to some incredible games in the future.  Unfortunately, that future is going to be a ways off for much of what was exciting tonight.  At the very least, we can look forward to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Until Dawn, and Persona 5.  These will be critically acclaimed, I predict, but not as commercially successful as Microsoft’s 2015 exclusives.

Conclusion

Like last year, both companies again did well.  And like last year, I remain unconvinced that I should buy an Xbox One just yet, but I feel myself being drawn closer.  ReCore, the Master Chief Collection, and so on are tantalizing.  But I’m going to hang in there and await a slim version of this behemoth.

Purely based on games, Sony had the stronger conference: titles like The Last Guardian, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Firewatch, No Man’s Sky, Final Fantasy VII Remake, etc. bear this out.  But Team Xbox should be quite proud of the progress it has made since the flat feeling surrounding its launch in 2013, and the future should be bright for that platform.  An announcement like backwards compatibility is a huge boon for that fanbase as well, even if that list never grows to encompass most of the Xbox 360 library, or if it’s barely used by Xbox One owners.  There’s a perception victory in its existence, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s tied for biggest announcement with Final Fantasy VII Remake.

I’ll be very interested to see if Sony feels its feet held to the fire on this one, and how that might impact PlayStation Now.

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Written by Michael

18 June 2015 at 12:06 am

Posted in Games, News

Tagged with , , , , ,

Snap Judgment – Child of Light (PS Vita, PS4)

Ubisoft Montreal, the studio that shepherded the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time series, was perhaps my developer during the sixth generation of game consoles.  But I’ll admit that I lost interest in them after that team moved its focus to Assassin’s Creed (and later, Watch Dogs).

In truth, Ubisoft overall has become a bit of a mixed bag.  Each title it releases seems to be less and less complete, rushed out the door to hit some kind of mark promised to shareholders.  Ubisoft has allowed Internet connectivity to become a crutch: it’s okay to ship a broken game because it can be patched later.  I’ve largely ignored the company’s contributions of late because of this.

That is until I saw a preview for Child of Light.  While the game was developed ostensibly by a big developer, the game looks and feels like one developed by a small, passionate team of writers, artists, and coders dedicated to bringing a unique and beautiful vision to life.  This game, a love letter to JRPGs, is by far one of the best titles I’ve ever played — so much so, I played it twice on PS Vita and PS4.

The story begins in Austria in the late 1800s, and we learn about the main character, Aurora, a young girl born to a Duke.  Sometime after the death of Aurora’s mother, and after her father remarries, she falls into a sleep where she becomes as cold as ice, appearing dead.  She awakens in a fantastic realm called Lemuria, filled with monsters like giant spiders, trolls, ghouls, dragons, and more.  She’ll gather an amusing assortment of companions, and quest to defeat the Queen of the Night, who has stolen the sun, the stars, and the moon from Lemuria, and conquered the stunning beautiful land with dark creatures.

Child of Light is beautifully scored, and its watercolor 2D art style is breathtaking.  The game is filled with easy but visually interesting puzzles, a robust RPG leveling and combat system, as well as cool collectible gemstones called Oculi, which can be equipped by all the characters in the game to create buffs, and even combined to create new ones.  Perhaps most interesting is that all of the dialogue, narration, and documents in the game are written in verse, with A-B-C-B rhyming.  This usually works very well, though there are a few forced lines (as is inevitable with any long form work of poetry attempting to obey a strict construct).  It’s even used to comedic effect; there’s a companion in the game who is so awkward she messes up her rhymes, and the other characters will correct her:

Rubella: “Little lady, have you seen bright balloons nearby? / Any unicorns balancing on balls / Or striped tents raised to the… stars?”

Igniculus: “Don’t you mean “sky”?

The only imperfection of note is that the ending feels rushed.  The final events of the game fly by, and the final confrontations themselves are not especially difficult — or long.  What happens directly after is told in a cutscene summation by the narrator; I think I would have rather played through some of that myself instead.  Were it not for that, I would have given this game a max grade.  Instead, it’ll have to settle for an A.

Written by Michael

27 May 2015 at 12:45 pm

Platinum Review – L.A. Noire (PS3)

Platinum number six was reminiscent of number four, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in that it featured a huge overworld with a lot of little errands required to complete it.  That said, I really loved L.A. Noire, and I was happy to go through it again to complete this.  I still feel a great sadness that Team Bondi fell apart after the release of this tour de force, and that their next project, Whore of the Orient, will probably never see the light of day.

Best Trophy: Hollywoodland (Silver) — I normally don’t find collectible quests to be all that thrilling, but this one was special.  Even though I had played the game quite thoroughly before, I never found a single one of the fifty gold film reels required to complete this trophy on my own.  I didn’t even know they existed until I began pursuing this Platinum, in fact.  In addition to being pretty cool in and of themselves (they’re all named after films from that era), they led me to parts of the Los Angeles I hadn’t had cause to explore through the normal course of the game.  One of these, entitled The Body and Soul, was located underneath a bridge at 7th St and Santa Fe, an area I had no idea existed.  When you take the stairs down into this area, there’s a homeless community there, authentically and meticulously detailed — perhaps the only one in the game, which otherwise made L.A. seem idyllic.  This trophy made me appreciate the obvious passion Team Bondi had when making L.A. Noire.

Worst Trophy: Auto Fanatic (Silver) — there are a staggering 95 cars in L.A. Noire, all beautifully modeled.  They all handle differently, and they’re all cool in their own ways.  That said, this trophy requires you to get into and drive every single one of them; let me just say that this was one of the biggest pains in the ass I’ve ever endured for a trophy.  For a Silver, no less!  What makes matters worse is that there are a number of cars that look similar as they speed by (as many come in a variety of colors, no less), and there are parts of the city where certain cars will only appear, and others where they won’t.  This was absolutely miserable, even employing the clever method the folks at playstationtrophies.org came up with to earn this one.

Special Mention Trophy: (Silver) Public Menace — this trophy requires you to rack up $47,000 in damages to public and private property in one single case.  (That’s an astronomical $494,706 in 2015!)  Let’s just say I had a lot of fun wrecking everything in sight to try to reach this amount.

Written by Michael

16 May 2015 at 11:34 pm

Posted in Games, Reviews

Tagged with , , ,

Cellular Contracts vs. Installments

I haven’t dedicated much time on this blog to my day job, as it were, so I thought I might try to explain something that seems to confuse a lot of the customers I interact with at the AT&T Authorized Retailer store where I work.  That subject is AT&T Next (or Verizon Edge, or T-Mobile Jump, or Spring 1UP — whatever), which is where you buy a smartphone at full retail via installment payments.

At first blush, many people wonder why the hell they would want to buy a phone for, say, $649.99 instead of $199.99 on a traditional 2-year contract.  Well, there’s a dirty little secret regarding contracts.  You’re usually paying as much or more anyway, and they offer no flexibility whatsoever.

2-Year Contracts: A Primer

Contracts began as a way to entice American wireless customers to buy into what was once a product with very little use.  I say that because coverage was thin across most of the U.S. for many years.  Now, let’s set the record straight: no phone, even crummy basic flip phones, have ever been so cheap to manufacture that a carrier could give it away.  Even back in the analog days (1G!), that was high technology for the time.  But the carriers understood that few people would be willing to spend hundreds of dollars on devices that only worked in some places.  So those carriers dangled free or cheap phones on contract but priced the rate plans high enough to make that subsidized money back.  Truth be told, there was always a misnomer about how carriers wanted to get you to get new equipment so they could lock you in.  The best customer was the one who didn’t need a subsidy for a new phone but kept paying a rate like he or she had one anyway.  The only time a carrier would jump at putting you into a contract with no reservations is back when it was okay to extend a contract just for making a plan change.  (Thankfully, those days are mostly gone.)

An Example of a 2-Year Contract

Rate plans across the industry have been a state of flux recently, but before shared data plans came about, plans were quite stable.  Here’s an example of a common plan for a single line I would have sold back then:

Nation 450: four-hundred and fifty anytime minutes, 5000 night and weekend minutes – $39.99

Messaging Unlimited: unlimited messaging – $19.99

DataPro 3GB: three gigabytes of data – $30.00

Total – $89.99/mo + tax

If you consented to a 2-year contract, you would pay whatever the subsidized price of the phone was plus a one-time upgrade or activation fee of $40.  We’ll use an iPhone 5s 16GB, since that was the most common phone I sold before all this upheaval happened.  That phone would cost you $199.99 out of pocket (instead of $649.99 at full retail), and that upgrade or activation fee would be applied to the next bill.  For the sake of argument, let’s call that purchase $239.99.  (My state doesn’t have sales tax, so I’m ignoring that consideration on phone price in these examples.)

After two years passed, if you decided to keep your phone because it worked perfectly well and you didn’t want to lock yourself into another contract, your plan price would stay exactly the same: $89.99/mo + tax.  Okay, right?

Yes.  But that’s a bad thing.

You didn’t see it in your bill, but you were paying back your carrier for that $450 subsidy on the iPhone.  Your wireless company hid it in the cost in the overall price of your plan.  This is why these companies loved it when you kept your phone past the two-years, since it was essentially free money.

An Example of AT&T Next

These days, the carriers have new plans that are specifically built to enumerate the cost of the phone subsidy.  Here’s an example of a common plan I would put someone on today, using AT&T Next:

Mobile Share Value 3GB: three gigabytes of data with rollover, unlimited calling and messaging – $40.00

Line access fee: per-line price for each smartphone not in contract – $25.00

Total – $65.00/mo + tax

Now what happens if you want the newest iPhone and you put it on Next installments? The 24-month installment price for a $649.99 phone (i.e.: $649.99 ÷ 24) ends up being $27.09 per month.  Add that to the $65 plan, and that equals $92.09.  The first thing you might notice is that this price is $2.10 more expensive per month than the old Nation 450 price of $89.99.  Over two years, that would add up to be $50.40.

Remember, however, that with AT&T Next, you are not paying an upfront, subsidized price of $239.99 ($199.99 plus the $40 upgrade or activation fee).  So, you would save $189.59 over the old plan with the 2-year contract ($239.99 – $50.40).

You can extrapolate these numbers with multiple lines.  The pendulum swings further in the favor of the customer who has a 10GB or greater Mobile Share Plan, since the line access fee is $15.00 (compared to $25, as exampled above).

The Future

Not everyone qualifies for installments, credit-wise.  As such, there are still some customers who need to either agree to 2-year contracts, buy new phones at full retail all at once, or acquire used phones instead.  But I think this will change sometime in the future: AT&T recently changed the verbiage on its installment agreements from “there is no downpayment” to “if you have a downpayment”.  Perhaps customers with less than optimal credit will be able to still enter into AT&T Next but need to put some portion of the phone cost down (which would lower the monthly payments anyway).  I can envision a scenario where 2-year contracts disappear altogether after this happens.

Written by Michael

14 May 2015 at 11:44 pm

Snap Judgment – Shovel Knight (PS Vita)

Yacht Club Games turned to Kickstarter to bring this retro 2D, Metroidvania-style game to life.  Shovel Knight made its debut on PC, Nintendo 3DS, and Nintendo Wii U in 2014, where it garnered critical acclaim and challenged for several game-of-the-year awards across the industry.  I have no doubt that Sony’s interest in indie-developed titles helped to ensure its port to the PlayStation Vita, PlayStation3, and PlayStation 4 (cross-buy and cross-save!), and I’m ever so happy that it did.

I’m not a retro gamer per se: I do have fond memories of the NES and SNES days, but I’m not driven to collect those old titles or find ways to play them now through something like Nintendo’s Virtual Console.  And truth be told, when I first saw the screens of Shovel Knight, I saw it as a title that was really cool for people who did have a strong nostalgia for 1980s gaming, but I didn’t think it was for me.

With its PlayStation release on April 21, 2015, it received an initial discount from $14.99 to $13.49 — while a small amount of money either way, I decided to see if I could appreciate the hype for this title.  The cross-buy and cross-save considerations helped, too.

In a word, the game is fantastic.  The story’s setup is that you are the eponymous Shovel Knight, decked out in blue full-plate armor, and your weapon is a shovel.  For real.  As crazy as that sounds, it turns out that this choice by the developers actually leads to really cool gameplay elements, including digging for treasure and using the shovel as a pogo stick to kill enemies.  The absurdity of this sets the tone for the entirety of the game, as all the major bosses in the game are cartoonishly funny villains, with names including Propeller Knight, Plague Knight, and so on.  They comprise the Order of No Quarter, who all stand in the way of your quest to rescue your adventuring partner (and love), Shield Knight, who was sealed away in the Tower of Fate by an evil Enchantress.

The game features many collectibles (including music sheets), upgrades (for your shovel and armor), magical relics (like a Flare Wand or War Horn), and so on.  Each level that you reach via the world map features a lot of variety, including enemy types, platforming challenges, and art style.  There are villages to explore, as well as treasure challenges to boot.

Despite the simplicity, the 8-bit graphics serve the title well.  I loaded it on my PS4, and it looks pretty great there too, despite the size of the television compared to the Vita.  (The textures are still HD, so the graphics are actually rather charming.)  Also great is the chiptune music and sound effects.

Shovel Knight is challenging, sometimes infuriating, much like all platformers of the 8-bit era, but well worth it.  I hope to one day Platinum it1, but some of the trophies are kind of terrifying.  Nevertheless, it is well worth your time, regardless of your platform of choice.  A

P.S. Here are my (perhaps embarrassing) stats:

Deaths: 333

Total Gold Haul: 185,124

Gold Lost: 75,601 (when you die, you drop varying amounts of gold, a percentage of how much you have on you; you can recover it, but only if you can reach it again before dying a second time, which will result in the first set of lost gold being gone forever)

Competition Time: 13:53:19


1. And by “I hope to one day Platinum it”, I must have meant ten days later, which is what I did on May 14, 2015.  I will have a Platinum review of this someday as well.

Written by Michael

4 May 2015 at 12:37 pm

PlayStation 4 – Upgrading to a 2TB Hard Drive

It wasn’t very long ago that I thought that my 80GB PS3 held more storage than I would ever need for console games. After all, most of the data was still kept on the Blu-rays, and only saves and game updates were stored there otherwise. It wasn’t until downloadable games took off that I realized that I would need an order of magnitude or more space to house all of this data.

I was pleased that Sony elected to put a 500GB hard drive in the PS4, as I’m sure it’s more than sufficient for many gamers. I think I’m still in the minority as someone who has completely transitioned away from optical media to downloaded instead, however, so the rub is that while 500GB holds quite a few games, it’s not enough for a long-term collection. Sure, I could get in the habit of deleting games I wasn’t currently playing and re-download them later if needed. But that’s the kind of nuisance I do not want.

Another good thing that Sony did with its current-generation hardware, as it did with the last one, is use standard 2.5” laptop drives. This stands in stark contrast to Microsoft, which decided to use upgradeable but proprietary drives on the Xbox 360, and an inaccessible and un-upgradable unit in the Xbox One.1

Before this last year, the largest 2.5” drive that wasn’t a nonstandard thickness (which can happen, evidently) was 1.5TB, which is actually pretty decent in my mind. But I had heard of a 2TB drive at the desired thickness was due last year, so I put off any thoughts of upgrading until that product was released.

Unfortunately, purchasing one as a raw drive has been surprisingly difficult. For whatever reason, Samsung hasn’t been making them directly available, but another solution presented itself. Seagate created an external drive using that Samsung 2TB one inside. YouTubers by the dozens have posted how-to videos explaining the steps necessary to liberate said drive from its housing without damaging anything, so I patiently waited for the drive to reach the right price. That was last week when it fell to $80. So I ordered it and took the plunge.

Popping the enclosure open was perhaps the hardest thing I had to do in the whole process, as the retaining clips are fairly stubborn. But once I did, everything else was smooth. The first step was to back up my PS4 with all of its game installations, saves, and captured footage to an external drive. This is a feature that was only just added for version 2.5 released earlier this week, so the timing was perfect. Prior to this, you could not back up the installations, which would have made me re-download everything. This process took some eight hours, since I had 362GB to copy using a USB 2.0 connection. Thankfully, I was able to set this up before I went to work and it was about done when I got home.

Next up was opening the PS4. The glossy panel on the top the device pops off with only a small amount of effort, and once in, the hard drive mounting bracket can be released from the console chassis by removing one Phillips head screw.

Removing the hard drive from the mounting requires the removal of a further four screws that secure it at each corner, but this is all pretty straightforward as well.

Old drive out, new drive in. Once the PS4 was put back together, I only needed to make sure I had a USB drive with the latest firmware (about an 800MB download) plugged in. I started the PS4 in safe mode (you have to hold the power button down 7 seconds to reach it), and the console mostly did the rest with regard to the installation.

After that, I was able to go into the Settings menu of the PS4 and ask it to restore from my external backup. This took a further three hours to complete, which I let happen overnight. When I booted it the next morning, it let me know that it had completed everything and switched itself to Rest Mode to conserve power — A+ for that, Sony.

Aside from having to re-log in using my PlayStation Network credentials, it looked identical to what it was before the hard drive upgrade. Except now it has 2TB of space instead of a half terabyte.

If you’re toying with the idea of doing this yourself, rest assured that it’s not difficult at all.  Here is a link to Amazon for that very external drive if you’re feeling handy.


1. I believe Microsoft’s workaround is for consumers to attach external drives that will allow for installations there once the need arises. This is a nice solution, but I’m not in love with idea of leaving another peripheral in my entertainment center all the time, especially if it requires its own independent power source.

Written by Michael

8 April 2015 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Games

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PlayStation 4 v2.5 Update – Reaction

Sony recently released its v2.5 update for PS4, codenamed Yukimura. This is probably the most substantial revision the company has yet done for its current-generation console, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

PlayStation 4 v2.5 Update

Suspend/Resume: while PS4 owners have always been able to suspend the console into a low-power state, all this would allow for was faster booting previously. Open applications, including games, would be closed during this process. What this update adds is a feature promised by Mark Cerny at the PS4 reveal event and what was always available on Xbox One, which is the ability to suspend the applications as well, allowing for a seamless transition from suspend mode to gameplay I’ve only ever experienced on mobile devices. Why this took 16 months since the hardware launch to appear is unknown, but my personal hunch is that Sony didn’t conceive of this idea itself. Perhaps a third-party developer mentioned that Microsoft intended this for its then-unannounced next-generation console, and the PS4 team put it on their own drawing board late in the development cycle.

Whatever the case, it’s magnificent. For all the requested features I’ve seen people list on forums, this is by far the one that meant the most to me. You can get from an ostensibly off state to back inside the game you were playing in about twenty seconds. Doesn’t matter if it’s minutes, hours, or days later. This was high on my list of desired features going all the way back to the initial reveal.

Back-Up and Restore HDD to USB: this is a feature I did not expect to ever exist, insofar as the game installation backups were concerned. There was already a method for backing up game saves and media content, but I figured that Sony would not support anything related to game code backup for quasi-political reasons. Nevertheless, here it is, and it was damn useful for me just recently when I upgraded from the stock 500GB hard drive to a new 2TB one. That said, I wish there were an option to essentially clone the drive out to another USB connected one. That would have saved me a step — instead, I had to use a third drive to act as the carrier for the data before swapping in the new drive.

Find and Connect with Friends: the social media aspects of this generation don’t appeal to me that much, but I’m glad this is there for the people that have overlapping passions for both gaming and services like Facebook. That said, this feature also adds the ability to search your Friends list on PSN to see who else is playing the same game as you, which would be great if more of my friends were both gamers and PS4 owners.

Party-related functionality has also been improved, but that’s outside my wheelhouse. I gravitate towards single-player, story-heavy games, although I must admit that The Last of Us’s multiplayer is extraordinarily good.

Share Earned Trophies and Optimize Your Trophy List: there are a few features wrapped up in this one. First, the console will take automatic screenshots when you earn trophies. That’s cool, although I’m not sure I need a record of every bronze I earn. Second, you can share your earned trophies on social media. See my above reaction for my feelings on that. Perhaps most importantly, you can also remove games that have 0% completions, like a game someone else started while you were still logged in on your console, or something you tried and gave up on right away. I’ve actually accumulated a few of these across the different PlayStation devices I have, so this is appreciated. Deleting these declutters the trophy list and also improves an overall stat that measures your average completeness across all your games.

Improved and Expanded Accessibility Options: the addition of customized button reassignments is something that didn’t immediately resonate with me until it was explained that this is a boon to gamers who have disabilities. Moving controls to one side or off of a certain area presents critical opportunities for a large segment of players. Also added is a zoom and the option to invert colors, as well as enlarged text, bolder fonts, text-to-speech, and a higher contrast for those with sight deficiencies to round out this section.

While I hope to never need to use any of these additions, it’s encouraging to hear tech companies address usability issues like this.

Remote Play and Share Play: this function already existed for those with PS Vitas (like me!), but it allows for 60fps now. Although this wasn’t mentioned in these patch notes, the stability of the connection seems to have improved dramatically as well.  Games look very good, despite the compression.

Automatic Installation for System Software Updates: previously, the console could download updates, but it would not install them until you booted it again. That said, there’s a certain risk in allowing the console to complete the updates without your intervention. While it’s been a long while now, Sony did once brick a bunch of PS3s with faulty firmware. (This was correctable with a USB flash drive and a hot fix, but still. Who needs that?)

But I’m a dice roller, I guess, so I’ll leave this on and see what happens.

Sub-Account Upgrade: sub-accounts are meant for children so that they can share in the purchases of their parents, but not have the power to do anything that would get themselves into trouble. The problem was that there was no way to upgrade these accounts to full ones after these children turned 18, so any trophy progress was lost when they created a new ID. This is a welcome feature because it’s a signal that Sony is taking seriously the ability to manage the IDs granularly. With any luck, players will soon be able to change their names as well. (This is another area that Sony lags behind Microsoft on, the latter of which already offers strong ID management.)

Verified Accounts: this takes a page from Twitter, which also employs something similar. The intent here is that this will identify people involved with the game studios or with the PSN community in an official capacity.

I guess it’ll be cool to know that the guy that keeps killing you in your multiplayer matches is actually one of the developers.

Dailymotion: the Share button will now send videos to this service. Hooray?  My understanding is that this site is especially hospitable to game videos.

There was also an update for the phone and tablet applications, which has reorganized the interface and added more trophy controls.  While I appreciate this, this update does not seem to have added better support for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, meaning the application has a slightly soft look due to some stretching.  A minor issue, to be sure, but why not take care of this alongside this update?  These larger-screen iPhones were released back in late September, some six months as of this time.

Final Impressions

So far so good. The console is running very well, and the new features seem to be a hit with the consumers. I’m especially fond of that Suspend/Resume expansion, since I will literally interact with that every time I use the PS4.

But what else would I want down the line? More organizational options for the home screen would be a nice addition. Sony added a Library feature that stores all your games and apps that haven’t recently been used into a folder, decluttering the UI quite a bit. Previously, the console would display everything you had ever played or used, in order from most recent to least. This would create a seemingly endless strip, which was bound to become frustrating as players accumulated more things. Now, only the most recent ten items are in the strip.

But I think it would be cooler if I could also pin my favorite games and applications to that strip, holding them there regardless of the amount of items I’ve opened since I touched those. Further still, creating your own custom folders would be nice as well, for those of us who would probably sort games into different genres.

The other feature I’d like to see is more media center functionality. I don’t need it myself, but there are Redditors-a-plenty who wouldn’t stop bemoaning the fact that the PS4 lacked DLNA and MP3 support, while it’s predecessor, the PS3, had these from its launch back in 2006. I would like this to shut those guys up.

With regard to the multimedia capabilities, Sony did exactly what it should have, exactly what gamers expected, which was to make a games-centric device instead of a scattershot multimedia hub. There’s no pleasing everyone.

Written by Michael

7 April 2015 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Games, Reviews

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