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Posts Tagged ‘ps4

Snap Judgment – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PS4)

Creaking forest of maple and spruce, eerie music, scant rays of light piercing the thick canopy to reveal suspended motes of dust — that’s one of the many incredibly detailed areas presented in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a PC game that was just ported and released on PS4 by The Astronauts.  Atmosphere is perhaps the single greatest achievement in this title, which is saying something considering how strong all the other elements are.  This is not only achieved through near-photorealistic graphics (seriously, wow), but also through great sound design.  Not just from the environmental sounds, like the trees, but also from your lonely footfalls.

Ethan Carter is a game about a supernatural investigator named Paul Prospero who has traveled to the rural town of Red Creek Valley in northern Pennsylvania because of a letter he received from the eponymous character, a curious and imaginative young boy — two qualities his family has been none to keen to encourage.  In Ethan’s curiosity, he accidentally awakens a dark entity named The Sleeper, who seems to require the boy’s sacrifice so it can emerge from whatever plane it is bound to, an entity with the power to dominate the thoughts and actions of the adults in Ethan’s life, driving them towards this singular goal.  Ethan is not safe.

Setting the tone, the opening narration states:

Ethan Carter I didn’t know.  But he knew who I was.  When the police won’t help you, and the priests don’t believe you, you call on Paul Prospero.  You call on me.  If you’re a kid like Ethan, you write.  Plenty do.  Ethan’s letter started out just like any other fan mail, but soon there were mentions of things no little boy should know about.  There are places that exist that very few people can see.  Ethan could have drawn a map.  I hadn’t entered Red Creek Valley yet, but already I could feel its darkness reaching for me.  Finding Ethan Carter wasn’t going to be as easy as knocking on his door.  I was too late for that.  To find Ethan, I had to figure out what this place was trying to hide from me.

From there, you’re dropped on the railroad tracks leading to Red Creek Valley, into a large open world with no loading screens.  As you solve various mysteries (read: puzzles) in this world, often using Prospero’s supernatural sensitivity, and discover new areas ranging from abandoned homes to a dark network of mines, Prospero continues to narrate with the intonations of a hardened, film noir-esque private investigator who’s seen more than his fair share.  But there is no hand holding; in fact, the game warns you of as much from the start: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”  With the exception of action prompts when you approach objects, there is no radar pointing you to your next objective, no HUD or journal explaining what you’ve accomplished.  And because of the openness of the world, you can solve the mysteries in almost any order you like.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter should take about five hours to fully complete, discovering every secret and truth Red Creek Valley has to hide.  At $19.99, however, this game is worth every penny and more.  As I’ve remarked before, I remain enthralled with games like this that continue to push the art forward.  This has easily been one of my favorite experiences, joining titles like The Last of UsJourney, and Child of Light for its accomplishments.  A+

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Written by Michael

21 July 2015 at 1:09 pm

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

The Way Forward for Nintendo

Despite what is now a relatively healthy library on Wii U (after a pretty bleak launch window), both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have surpassed the Nintendo console’s install base with relative ease. VGChartz lists the Wii U as having sold 9.1M units, compared to the Xbox One with 11.3M and PS4 with 19.1M. Even more troubling is that the Wii U has been out longer a year longer than both Microsoft’s and Sony’s offerings.

I don’t think Nintendo is necessarily trying to sell the most units, as though that were its singular measure of success, but I also don’t think the company wants to be a far distant third at the end of the cycle, as Strategy Analytics now predicts. The firm expects that by 2018, Sony will have sold 80M units, Microsoft 57M units, and Wii U 17M units. That is a mere 11% share for the house of Mario and Zelda. The saving grace for Nintendo is its strong software sales and the seemingly unstoppable 3DS, to say nothing of its enormous war chest funded by huge Wii profits in the previous generation.

There are a lot of articles out there that dissect the mistakes Nintendo has made with Wii U and attempt to explain why the console seems destined to turn in an even poorer performance than the GameCube (which was a cult hit but only sold 21.7M units), but I would summarize my feelings thus:

Underpowered hardware

The Wii U features hardware that’s not too dissimilar from the Xbox 360 and PS3. It is certainly more powerful than those 8-to-9 year-old machines, but it’s nestled somewhere between last generation and its new contemporaries. This is reminiscent of the Sega Dreamcast, which similarly came to market too early. The net result of this is that the Wii U is positioned well to receive game ports from last-generation consoles, but porting a current-generation title would be daunting and require so much downscaling that the investment in man hours would be difficult to justify. As development dwindles for those last-gen consoles, so will third-party titles for Wii U, I fear. A similar fate befell the Wii ultimately, but the long legs of the PS2 (which saw its last game released in September 2013) helped sustain it, so by then, Nintendo had sold north of a hundred million units.

Wii U Gamepad

The Gamepad is certainly a unique idea in gaming: it essentially offers a second screen to allow for a level of multitasking never exploited in console gaming. (GameBoy Advance to GameCube interactivity was interesting but never fully realized.) Problematically, however, is the fact that only one Gamepad packs in with the console, and worse still, the console will never support more than two of those simultaneously — if ever at all. Shigeru Miyamoto admitted last year that adding dual-GamePad functionality wasn’t even a part of Nintendo’s near-term goals. Instead, Nintendo envisioned that one player would operate the GamePad while the others used Wii remotes, which are themselves 9-years old now, presenting developers with the challenges of designing to accommodate asymmetric gameplay. It doesn’t help that the GamePad itself feels more like a toy than high technology. It also does not feature multitouch, an unfortunate oversight in a smartphone and tablet world.

Poor online support

Nintendo’s online multiplayer efforts have always felt timid and begrudging to me. In truth, I think that Nintendo would rather see players interact face-to-face in couch co-op rather than through the Internet — which old-time gamers like me can appreciate, actually. The problem is that some of the biggest third-party titles are designed with online gameplay in mind, so this strategy really only works well for Nintendo as a software developer, not companies like Ubisoft, Activision, or Electronic Arts. The future doesn’t look particularly bright on this front either. After all, we’re talking about a company that has consistently resisted technological progress if it wasn’t invested by itself: optical media in the fifth generation of consoles, full-sized DVDs in the sixth generation, and HD in the seventh generation. Even with Wii U, Nintendo opted for proprietary discs that cannot hold as much data as Blu-ray, which both the PS4 and Xbox One employ.

Poor third-party developer support

All of these things have led to poor support from third-party developers. Nintendo has long alienated these companies through various strong-arm tactics anyway, but these uneasy relationships have really damaged its ability to stay relevant in any generation with actual competition from other hardware manufacturers. New, envelope-pushing games won’t run on the Wii U’s hardware without serious compromise, the GamePad is something that developers are completely ignoring (instead hoping you’ve purchased the Pro Controllers instead — even Nintendo has relented to start focusing on these), and without strong online support, even DLC opportunities are bleak for these developers.

A solution

My idea would probably anger long-time Nintendo stalwarts, especially those loyalists who early-adopted the Wii U, but I don’t see another solution otherwise — reasonably, anyway1. That starts with completely abandoning the Wii U; I know that would be seen a deep betrayal, but there has to come a time when you admit defeat rather than continuing to beat your head against the wall.

What I would do is abandon attempts to embrace unusual input methods or gimmicks of any sort. While the company deserves a lot of credit for hardware innovation over the years (the ability to save progress in a game, the basic layout of the modern controller, triggers, analog sticks, and rumble among them), they’ve whiffed on motion controls and this faux tablet. (Despite Wii’s incredible sales figures, motion gaming never garnered enough hardcore-gamer interest to matter in the long term. Microsoft and Sony’s attempts to answer the Wii, in the form of Kinect and Move, seem pointless in retrospect, don’t they?) Even the 3D technology found in Nintendo’s handheld is mostly superfluous.

I would recommend that Nintendo release a new home console that is largely based on the Xbox One’s specifications. I suggest this because chasing the PS4 would be likely too expensive. Instead, Nintendo could simply match the Xbox One’s hard drive space, processor, GPU, and RAM, and probably price this hypothetical console at $299. By embracing x86-64 based processor architecture and Open-GL graphics standards, developers could easily port current-generation titles to work on Nintendo’s new system. Further, the existing Pro Controller for the Wii U should serve as a model for the next generation’s, as it is largely held in good esteem. I also believe that this generation will last for more than five years, so there is still time to capitalize on it. Further still, omit the media functionality altogether: smart TVs and set-top boxes are obviating the need for this, anyway. This would be a gamer’s machine.

The complaint from Nintendo employees and fans alike will be, “Well, how would this console differentiate itself from the competition?” The answer, of course, is that Nintendo produces some of the best games in the world, and they’re only available on Nintendo hardware. That’s the hallmark. What I want Nintendo to realize is that its contributions to the world of gaming no longer lie in zany sensors or strange peripherals; Nintendo’s most important contribution is its software library. This company shepherds some of the greatest and most historic franchises in history, all of which ooze with clever ideas and fine craftsmanship. For all the problems AAA games have had in the last year or so, with so many broken at launch, Nintendo deserves credit for consistently releasing games that WORK. The few games Nintendo releases each year is the only thing sustaining the Wii U right now, but these titles are keeping the system alive. And let us not forget the incredible breadth the Virtual Console spans.

This hypothetical console (which I would love if Nintendo named something that harkens back to its history, like NES Ultra) would not be the best-selling one by a long shot, but it would appeal to gamers who love Nintendo games but still offer them access to third-party titles. Nintendo’s online efforts would never compare to Xbox Live or PSN, admittedly, but there are enough gamers for whom that wouldn’t be a deal breaker, so long as they could at least play those multi-platform games without having to own multiple consoles.

With some measure of longing, I admit that the last Nintendo console I loved was the GameCube, even with all of its shortcomings and poor sales. I want to love another one — a piece of hardware that is more concerned with fostering amazing game development rather than trying to define itself with gimmicks.


1. The most prominent idea I’ve heard involves focusing all hardware and software efforts on a new handheld that can stream its content to TV.  This would be like an inverse Wii U, where the GamePad holds all the console’s intelligence and streams its content to a TV-attached receiver.  This would be clever, but I feel that handheld consoles are destined to lose to smartphones, especially as time spent playing mobile games continues to increase.  Moreover, the kind of technological miniaturization required to stand toe-to-toe with iOS or Android devices would be challenging to do in terms of engineering as well as in manufacturing scale.

Alternatively, the other idea I’ve heard is that Nintendo should abandon hardware development altogether and create games for PS4 and Xbox One.  This is an intriguing notion to be sure, and one that I would selfishly enjoy given my current investment in console hardware, but I really believe that Nintendo should give one more crack at this.  The home console space was dead and buried after the Video Game Crash of 1983, but the NES single-handledly resurrected it.  Seriously, long live Nintendo — if for nothing else.

Written by Michael

24 February 2015 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Games, Musings

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Snap Judgment – Minecraft: PlayStation 3 Edition (PS3)

I can’t believe how many times I’ve bought this game, in one form or another.: the PC edition back when it was still in Beta, the iOS Pocket Edition, the Xbox 360 Edition, and now the PlayStation 3 Edition.  (I intend to get it for PS4 as well.  I know, I’m sick.  At least the cross-upgrade price is only $5.)  In any case, here are my thoughts on this console iteration of one of the most successful titles in history:

Given that Minecraft plays much like any first-person game, the translation to console was relatively straightforward: mapped the WASD controls to the left-analog stick, and then mapped the mouse-based camera control to the right-analog stick, then put the mouse-button clicks on the triggers. And this all works very well.

The larger problem is how to deal with crafting: Minecraft on PC requires that you “draw” out the items you’re making in the crafting area.  For example, an iron sword would be a stick on the bottom forming a handle, and two ingots forming the blade atop that.  This is all done with the mouse, and despite its ill-defined nature (there are no in-game explanations, forcing you to rely on a wiki instead), it really works on PC once you get the hang of it.  But mapping this kind of thing to a gamepad would feel sloppy, no doubt.  Instead, 4J Studios (the company responsible for the creation of this port) opted to redo the entire crafting system, wherein you select the exact item you’re trying to make, and the game tells you which ingredients you need to do so.  There is no guesswork or need to cross reference.

This sense of curation extends to almost every level of the game, including how character skins and texture packs work.  Unlike PC Minecraft, where those things are free, downloadable, and fully customizable, the console editions fall under the jurisdiction of licensing; thus, these packs need to be created and approved by 4J Studios directly.  Sadly, this also makes them paid DLC, but to the developers’ credit, many of these are well done despite the annoyance.

Another difference is that console Minecraft is missing a lot of the content found in its PC cousin, which receives updates several times per year — as such, it often feels like you’re a few versions behind.  Further still, PC Minecraft is functionally infinite in size, whereas the console edition is bound to 864 meters by 864 meters.  This still feels like a large area in normal gameplay, unless you’re in the mood to explore, in which case it doesn’t take long to run into an invisible wall.

The End plays out a little differently too; console Minecraft’s Ender Dragon uses a couple different kinds of acid breath attacks, whereas PC Minecraft features  an Ender Dragon who swoops down to collide with you, often knocking you off high areas and killing you.  While the console edition is more creative, I found it a bit easier as well and never felt like I was in any danger during the battle itself.

That said, console Minecraft has some advantages, too.  PC Minecraft is notoriously difficult to fine tune to find the perfect balance between things like draw distance, particle effects, and lighting, against things like frame rate.  There are countless guides for the PC version recommending which toggles to adjust in the game, and which Java command arguments to add to the Java Control Panel to allocate more RAM to it (i.e. things like java -Xmx1024M -Xms1024M).  In this way, console Minecraft is far easier to deal with: it’s just works the way it’s supposed to, no tweaking required.  That’s not to say there aren’t seldom performance issues, especially when opening a chest, which leads to a brief stutter.  This doesn’t break the game, but you will notice it as you’ll be in and out of inventory all the time.  Despite the game’s retro graphics, there are heaps and heaps of calculations going on all the time, given its procedural generation.

Despite the deficiencies when comparing the console version and its PC counterpart, Minecraft: PlayStation 3 Edition (as well as the nearly identical Xbox 360 Edition) is a tremendously fun game.  I have high hopes that 4J will continue to make updates to the game in an admittedly vain effort to keep pace with what Mojang is doing on PC; I especially hope to see a way for maps to stay persistently online even when the host is not, as it is on Minecraft servers for PC users.

It’s hard to find a better way to spend $19.99 on a downloadable game, for all the hours you’ll spend on it.  I know I did in pursuit of my third Platinum Trophy.  A

Written by Michael

16 June 2014 at 12:35 am

Posted in Games, Reviews

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Snap Judgment – Tomb Raider (2013): Definitive Edition (PS4)

Crystal Dynamics’s Tomb Raider is right in my wheelhouse for the kinds of games I enjoy most: third-person gameplay with interspersed platforming, puzzling, and combat elements.  And it delivers on all of these in spades: truth be told, I think the gameplay mechanics alone are the best I’ve ever played in games, period.  Because of this, I put Tomb Raider up there with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time with my favorite entries in Action/Adventure games.

Tomb Raider also features stunning graphics.  It did even back on its original Xbox 360/PS3 release, but this PS4 edition is mind-bogglingly good looking.  It evens hold up well against dedicated next-gen titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall and inFAMOUS: Second Son.  That’s a hell of a graphics upgrade that Nixxes, the small studio responsible for the port to PS4, completed.  Tomb Raider also features excellent use of DualShock 4’s external speaker, echoing certain in-game sounds to create a 3D sound experience.  Another clever use is the decision to use the DS4’s lightbar to simulate muzzle flashes and oscillating reds and oranges to simulate Lara’s torch – this is especially awesome in the dark.

Where most reviews criticize Tomb Raider is its story, but this point of contention centers more on how the supernatural figure into it.  What I find odd about this point of view is how it’s not applied to the other great tomb-raiding series, Uncharted, which makes heavy use of quasi-supernatural elements at the ends of each installment.  (Naughty Dog, to its credit perhaps, usually leaves just how supernatural these elements are to interpretation, but the climaxes sure feature general surreality out of nowhere.)  Further still, both franchises draw inspiration from the Indiana Jones films, which did the very same thing when it was mostly realistic through 90% of each film, and then whipped out melting Nazis and so on.  The difference I’m going to point to here is that Tomb Raider at least hinted at and foreshadowed its supernatural twists a lot more than Indiana Jones or Uncharted did.  I’m frankly dumbfounded as to why there’s a double standard here.

If anything, what I will criticize is the generally weak characters in the game, save Lara.  Ms. Croft is portrayed expertly by Camilla Luddington, who I believe ought to portray the character in a feature film if someone dares to revisit the franchise after the Angelina Jolie releases.  There’s a genuinely interesting and complex journey for Lara to become the actual badass we all know so well from her other portrayals, one in which the game’s equipment and skills-upgrade mechanics actually complement well.  (Further still, Crystal Dynamics wisely and respectfully portrayed Lara as a human being rather than as an objectified sex object.)  But for as good as Lara herself is, her fellow marooned shipmates are thin with few character moments: you have the bear-sized guy who’s actually a big softie, the touch-as-nails single mom who’s trying to get back to her daughter but doesn’t entirely trust Lara’s judgment, the geeky computer guy who’s got a big crush on Lara but is out her league, and several others.  I won’t list them all here to avoid spoilers, but these characters are pretty much exactly as they’re described and nothing more.  Stereotyping, despite its bad name, is actually incredibly useful in stories where you want to use stock characters to avoid distracting the reader/viewer/player, but there are so many here (eight, I think) that their predicability is in itself distracting.  I would have rather the list of survivors be much smaller and more intimate, with stronger characterizations for each.

The plot itself is fine if farfetched, but despite the much-criticized supernatural elements, I found the heavy use of Japanese artifacts and mythology to be fascinating.  I applaud the game’s writers for doing something very different with the mystery of the island than some cookie-cutter alternative.

Superior gameplay, a decent plot, and a strong central character make for one of my favorite games ever, one which I was happy to buy and replay again on PS4.  A+

Written by Michael

31 March 2014 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Games, Reviews

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Snap Judgment – Flower (PS4)

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Flower (PS4)

Flower has been out for quite some time, originally available on PS3 back in February 2009.  It wasn’t on my radar until I played its successor, Journey (also by Thatgamcompany), however.  By the time I was aware of it, a PS4 version of the game had been announced, so I decided to wait it out to experience what I expected would be the highest quality version of the game.

And boy, is it ever a visual and auditory stunner — perhaps not as strong as Journey, but damn close.  Unsurprisingly, given the developer’s pedigree, this is an experience game, focused much less on gameplay itself.

Speaking of, you essentially play a single flower petal at the beginning of each stage, and your sole purpose is to fly around and through other unbloomed flowers, activating them.  In doing so, you gather more and more petals to eventually create a gigantic multicolored train, and every flower you hit chimes a note as if you’re composing music as you go.  This unlocks different things in each stage and ultimately leads you to completing them.

This is where I struggled a bit with Flower, however.  Whereas Journey controlled much like any other third-person oriented game, Flower feels much more like an arcade racing game inasmuch as you actually control the pitch and yaw by tilting the Dualshock 4, and then you accelerate by holding down whichever button you choose.  (Since the face buttons are no longer pressure sensitive as they were on previous Dualshock controllers, I opted for the triggers.)  For some, I’m sure the racing comparison is a favorable one, but I’m rather terrible at those kinds of games.

Because Flower gives you nothing insofar as instruction, I was convinced I needed to bloom every single flower I could find, which often led me to careening around haphazardly, often turning around to grab ones I missed.  This led to frustration in what should otherwise be a very zen-like experience.

But overall, Flower is pretty spectacular.  In its presentation, you’ll begin to understand the core philosophy behind what Thatgamecompany is trying to say about nature’s relationship to the manmade world.  This title left me considering a lot of things by the time I reached its spectacular conclusion, which is one of my very favorite aspects of indie games and why I’m so excited for this new generation.

A worthy experience, my control problems aside, especially with the increased beauty and atmosphere that the PS4 enables.  Better still, this title is cross-buy, meaning that since I bought it once, I can now play it on the PS3 in my room, PS4 in my living room, or PS Vita on the go, which is a damn good deal.  And I know I’ll want to play it again and again.  B+

Written by Michael

20 November 2013 at 1:02 am

Posted in Games

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Why PlayStation 4

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Philosophy
As we entered this year, I was pretty convinced I would be getting Microsoft’s next-generation console.  Indeed, my brother and I owned more than forty games between us on the Xbox 360, making it the most prolific console, title-wise, we’ve ever owned, so upgrading to its successor seemed like a no-brainer.

That said, I owned a PlayStation 3 and liked a lot about it, especially its adhere to open standards (including non-proprietary, user-replaceable hard drives, Bluetooth, mini-USB charging, day-one inclusion of WiFi, day-one use of 1080p-capable HDMI, and rechargeable controllers out-of-the-box).  But I never treated it like my primary console, and so I was leaning towards not giving much consideration to the PlayStation 4 until, perhaps, later in this generation when certain exclusives came out.  (Really, my relationship with PlayStation was always awkward anyway: I grew up a Nintendo fan, so I had strong feelings about those N64 vs PlayStation days.)

Then we got a February event from Sony detailing the PS4, and I left it pretty impressed with the new attitude Sony was exuding from its development team, most specifically in the form PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny, an industry legend and maverick who helped usher in some of the most important franchises in gaming history.  He spoke about Sony’s passion for gaming, and how the PS4 was going to be a gamer’s gaming device.  This was a pretty strong turnaround from the all-in-one entertainment and media console that the PS3 was billed as.

Despite my positivity, I knew that I still needed to see Microsoft’s response.  Sure enough, the company held a pre-E3 reveal for the Xbox One, and literally proceeded to spend the first thirty minutes of a one-hour event talking about how great its television integration was going to be.  I felt like I was watching a Sony event from the days of yore.

Oh, I know that many Xbox-loyalists had a good excuse for this: they said something along the lines of, “Of course the Xbox One will have games.  That’s a given.  Why show stuff everyone knows will be there?  This event is about showing how it’s so much more than just a gaming machine.”  There’s a certain internalized logic to this idea, but it ignores the audience Microsoft was actually reaching — namely, gamers.  It’s preposterous to think that anyone besides the hardcore were turning into this event; the features they proceeded to focus on were certainly tantalizing, but wholly secondary to the early-adopter crowd an event like this attracts.  Indeed, when it came time to show a game during the back half of the reveal, Microsoft chose to show Call of Duty: Ghosts, a current-gen title that’s being cross-released on Xbox 360/PS3 and Xbox One/PS4.  While the up-port certainly looks better than its current-gen version, this title did not even remotely look next-gen, and thus inspired very few with positive feelings about Xbox One.  (Later demonstrations of games like Titanfall certainly improved my attitude towards the hardware, but not enough to sway my opinion by the time E3 hit.)

If the company were trying to broaden its appeal with this wide-net strategy, then it should have made them secondary in this presentation and made sure to first lock in the hardcore gaming crowd, trusting that these Xbox early adopters would proselytize these TV features to their non-gaming friends and family.  (I’m convinced this is how the Wii was so successful — word of mouth and personal demonstration.)

Sony did not take this tact, as I’ve already mentioned.  Instead of using Microsoft’s approach, again summed up as, “of course there will be games — that’s a given — check out these cool media features instead”, Sony instead said, “of course there will be media support — that’s a given — check out these cool games instead”.

Now you have my attention.

Console Hardware Considerations
Microsoft has doubled down on Kinect, its camera-based motion gaming technology.  Many are dismissive of this, since it is ostensibly intended for casual gaming in much the same way that the Wii was.  Even so, I appreciate how impressive the technology is, so I’m not strongly against it.

What frustrated me, however, was that it became clear that Microsoft had traded some of its horsepower in order bundle this device in with every console.  (Sure, making them mandatory ensures more developer support, but this seems ham fisted in light of the concessions made.)

How so?  By all accounts, Sony has architected a state-of-the-art gaming machine, with its1.84 TFLOPS of processing power and its 8GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 (!!!) memory.  That’s not to say that Microsoft’s Xbox One will be a slouch (1.23 TFLOPS, 8GB of the slower, hotter GDDR3 memory), but these numbers are notably better for Sony.  Will this translate to any dramatic difference in graphics?  I have no idea, except to say that while cross-platform games on Xbox 360 and PS3 looked very similar, despite PS3’s mostly stronger specs, the first-party exclusives Sony enjoyed were pretty blow-away.

Now, the Xbox One will debut for $499, of course, whereas the PlayStation 4 will cost $399.  For $100 more, Xbox owners will get weaker processing and memory and a mandatory camera that the hardcore will mostly be uninterested in at best, hostile towards at worst.

The tech enthusiast in me, who craves horsepower above the still-experimental Kinect, is more inclined to embrace Sony’s vision in this scenario.

(I also find it frustrating that Microsoft did choose older, less heat efficient RAM for its new console, as mentioned above.  The net result of this is a large, boxy device that looks an awful lot like a cable box — which I guess is deliciously appropriate.  Adding further insult to injury on the aesthetics front, the Xbox One also requires an external power adapter, unbelievably, due to these thermal issues.  Just like the PS3, the PS4’s brick will be internal, where it belongs.  Stranger still, the TV functionality will require the use of a thinly-wired infrared blaster pointed at or affixed to your TV’s sensor — now we’re just getting tacky looking.)

Gamepad
I’ve long felt that the Xbox 360 controller was the best design I had ever seen, it’s horrid D-pad notwithstanding.  (I think the GameCube controller is a close second, which really pioneered the asymmetric analog stick layout and curved triggers.)  On the other side, I liked but didn’t love the PlayStation 3’s DualShock 3, which featured looser symmetric analog sticks and flat triggers, and a lighter, flimsier feel overall.  While it was awkward switching from the Xbox 360 gamepad over to the DualShock 3 at any given time, I was always able to adapt after an hour or so of gameplay, I should note.

But I have a DualShock 4 sitting next to me right now, courtesy of a local GameStop selling them way early.  I think I’ve found my new favorite controller.

This design has ergonomics in spades, feels very solid, has much tighter analog sticks (still symmetric, but that’s fine), and great curved triggers.  I haven’t picked up a Xbox One gamepad to compare, though I’ve read several comparisons that favor the DS4.  Either way, I’m very pleased with this design and won’t feel like I’m compromising on the feel of my gamepad when I play games in the future.  (For those wondering about Sony’s unexpected and, admittedly, unusual decision to include a touchpad, this is quite easy to reach.  Ergonomically, this inclusion is fine; I only hope developers will made good, appropriate use of it.)

Software
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the games.  We’ll have to ignore cross-platform AAA titles, since they essentially look and play the same across different systems, and should continue to do so in this new generation.  Instead, I’m more interested in the exclusives.

In the world of Xbox, I only ever really cared about one exclusive, which was my favorite franchise of this generation: Mass Effect.  (This series has since come to the PlayStation but the first title was solely Xbox-only for quite a while.)  Many others are in love with games like Halo, Fable, Forza, Gears of War, and so on, but these series didn’t interest me all that much.  (Halo and Gears are both first-person shooters, which I never cared that much about, Fable is a neat fantasy RPG game that just never hooked me, and Forza is a racing series — a genre I haven’t touched since the N64 days.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the Uncharted trilogy, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Journey, inFAMOUS, and so on over on PlayStation this generation.  These aren’t casual throwaways to me, either.  I strongly feel that these are some of the finest games ever made.  Throw in the now cross-platform Mass Effect trilogy along with the Dragon Age games and Skyrim, and you have a set that I could probably play for a decade, over and over again without evening buying a PS4.

Sony’s commitment and support for indie development can’t be ignored by me either.  The mid-tier developer has all but gone extinct towards the end of the current generation, and so it will be critical to see indie releases fill in the gaps between the AAA games that will debut periodically throughout each year.  Indie games are also exceptionally well placed to do risky or avant garde things, pushing the storytelling and gameplay boundaries of what I thought was even possible in this medium.  —Seriously, go check out previews for games like The Witness.  Or over on PC, Gone Home.

Indeed, one of my all-time favorite games, Journey, is the epitome of what indie studios can do.  I was so touched, so moved, that my time with it left an indelible mark: my thoughts return to it far more often than I would have dreamed a game could elicit.  But due to the kind of audience I believe the Xbox world engenders, with its concentration on shooters and sports titles, I don’t think it would have been nearly the success on that platform as it was on the PS3.  I predict that creative, mind-expanding games like this will continue to find a welcoming home on PlayStation, whereas they will only be an afterthought on Xbox.

Microsoft has improved its relationship with indie developers in recent months (after some true horror stories), so I’m sure there will be many great titles available to both.  However, the buzz out of those studios seems strongly tilted towards PlayStation, and Sony has strongly embraced this trend.

Now you have more than my attention.  You have my business.

A Brave New World
I’ve spent a lot of time bashing the Xbox One, I’m sure it seems like.  Undoubtedly, however, it will be quite good despite my complaints, and I might even one day own it as a second console, in much the same way that I planned to own a PS4 before everything transpired this year.  And while Microsoft seems to be embracing the casuals with its Kinect and with TV integration, and Sony the gaming hardcore with its technical prowess and focus on gaming itself, I’m left with one last thought: inconceivably, I — an ardent Nintendo fan in my childhood, an avowed Sony-hater — chose PlayStation.  A teenaged version of myself would have had a hell of an argument with the current me.

P.S.  Check out Sony’s #4ThePlayers campaign, especially its “Since 1995” commercial.  I’ve never been able to say these words about this company, but Sony gets it: http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2013/10/21/playstation-4theplayers-since-1995/

Written by Michael

27 October 2013 at 11:55 pm