Welcome to the New Age Part 2: Gaming in the Current Generation

Last week I described how I took a bold step into 2014 and got a current generation console.

This week I thought I’d share some thoughts on the games I’ve played so far and general thoughts on the generation as a whole. I actually jumped in at just the right time as I was able to get a lot of big releases at discounted prices since most of them had been out for months when I finally got my PS4.

  • Shadow of Mordor: As a Lord of the Rings fan this one looked fun and even had the chance of doing predatory stealth without the strange Assassin’s Creed background or the baggage of being Batman…again. It’s a new story with a new character and takes place in a formative stage in the Middle Earth history not often covered. The gameplay is some of the most fun I’ve had doing 3rd person combat. You can string long chains of attacks, defenses, counters, and kills without missing a step and it makes diving in and carving up Uruk Hai as much fun as sneaking up and jamming a broken sword in their skull. The Captains of Mordor mechanic is both brilliant and diabolical depending on the extent of the player’s OCD and wrathfulness. Since I am both OCD and wrathful I obsessively hunted down captains and evilly and relentlessly hunted down any of them that had the luck to best me… A great game, but it didn’t feel like a big leap to the new age.

  • Wolfenstein: The New Order/The Old Blood: I played these in reverse order as I got Old Blood first and beat it before getting New Order. Both are terrific fun, and I don’t even care for 1st person shooters. I haven’t played a Wolfenstein game since they were corridor shooters that could be played from a floppy disk. It says something that these games had the “new” 1st person feel but still captured the strange charm and 90s attitude of the original games. Old Blood especially had the classic sensibility, and even had a boss fight with a big armored dude with Gatling guns on each arm. I actually recommend playing the prequel before the original game. New Order is a deeper, more complex game and Old Blood’s simplistic game play got me back into console shooting again without having as many mechanics. Again it didn’t feel “next gen” moving up from PS3 but is still damn fun.

  • Bloodborne: Good god. I haven’t played completely through a souls game since Demon’s Souls but it was my second favorite game on PS3 (the first being Valkyria Chronicles). It was tough, rewarded patience and thinking, and was ruthless in its player correction. You make a mistake…you pay. And not in the lame Heavy Rain way, in a gameplay way that makes you even more careful and extremely tense. I played Dark Souls but it was at the end of my last console gaming phase and I stopped halfway through. Bloodborne is a work of art. It’s beautiful, brutal, fast, and aggressive. The level design is truly extraordinary and this is a rare game that can make you cuss like crazy out of frustration as some human-sized hunter owns you in seconds…then moments later makes you cuss in admiration as you exit a tunnel only to appear in a location you last saw 9 hours ago in a place that was previously gated. It’s is wonderfully balanced, intuitive in its controls, and masterful in gameplay execution. It’s the first and only game I’ve played that has truly felt like a step into a new generation from PS3 era.

The system is far, far from perfect and the choice of games really shows how much things have changed. My PS2 had dozens of titles I couldn’t wait to choose from. This system has only a few games coming out over the next two years that I will probably end up with (though I DID pre-order the Pipboy Edition of Fallout 4 thank you very much). It may be the change in the industry as a whole, like the difference between boxing now and boxing in the 50s…Sugar Ray Robinson might have fought 10 times a year…but Manny Pacquiao only fights once or twice a year. Games have become too much money and too much development too much investment to release bunches of titles in a year to support a console.

This is where Steam on PC and the indie and small games on PSN have it right (though I really want some of those Devolver Digital games to hit PSN…) These smaller, more reasonably priced games can fill the gap between the more expensive releases and make a system more cost effective. I don’t care about 90% of the AAA releases coming out, but with the smaller digital games I can get plus the other 10% I can only play on PS4 I get my money’s worth.

The Alamogordo dump site in New Mexico where a number of Atari products were laid to rest after the crash

With the advancement of PC as a gaming and market delivery platform I wonder if the console market will ever be the same. I don’t know if it’ll ever crash like it did in the 80s, but it feels like console as market king that we saw in 90s and early 2000s might be slipping away as companies force us to buy weakened versions of PCs with proprietary software, exclusivity limitations, and features many TVs and media players can accomplish with less trouble. The reason I don’t feel there will be an Atari-scale crash is that always be a market for console gaming due to its relative simplicity (you can always play the game you buy at the appropriate settings without having to mess with hardware, video output, or file structure) but as each generation becomes more tech-savvy those limitations become less onerous and more normal, relegating consoles to the lowest of the gaming spectrum.

I probably won’t ever buy one of these…so console gaming may be where I land for “current gen” titles.

I won’t lie, it’s nice to have a “current gen” system and it is a vast improvement over its predecessor, just in design and usability. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I decided to go back and play my PS3 and PS2, but I can always find time to load up Streets of Rage 2 on the Genesis or Dragon Warrior on the NES. Even as the graphics get better, the features more extravagant, and the games more “realistic,” I feel the major games that drive these systems have lost some of the iconic beauty of the games drove their forebears. I’m sure there will always be a place for “current gen” on my media shelf. Whether or not each generation stays on the shelf after their time is past remains to be seen.

Welcome to the New Age: Kicking and Screaming into Current Gen Console Gaming

Toward the end of the PS3 generation I started to become exceedingly disillusioned with the gaming industry.

Games that started as well-paced horror franchises became absurd action shooters, beloved turn-based RPGs became mash-up amalgamations of MMOs and action games, platforming vanished (except the three franchises Nintendo makes every year), and everything became about all the additional content you could buy once you bought the original content.

On PC it was even worse; franchises I grew up with had morphed into poisonous, hateful incarnations of themselves. Diablo 3 came out with no use for weapons (despite the original Diablo having a memorable dev quote “When I pick up an axe I want it to look like an axe”) and that awful real money auction house. Sims 4 and SimCity arrived with forced online and reduced content, not to mention broken states. Not to mention the mess that Steam has become.

So I essentially gave up. I played my NES and Genesis more than any system, reliving the old days when games were just games, not virtual market vectors for publishers to extort money.

Luckily Warhammer and other table top games kept me pretty satisfied, because at least those price vectors give me physical products with palpable advantages.

So when the current gen started I decided not to get a new console and that my days as a modern console gamer were over. I’d been one since the Atari days and I’ve participated in every generation since so it was a momentous decision. I never even considered an Xbox One. Despite their desperate back-pedaling, the fact that Microsoft even considered limiting used games, tried to force always online, and initially forcibly bundled with Kinect made me completely dismiss it as an anti-consumer product. Sony’s new pay wall for some features didn’t make me happy, but everything I normally use still came with the free online so it wasn’t too off-putting. Still nothing was out that I cared about so I wrote off console gaming. Until…

Walking through a local Target with Miss Misty I decided to check their clearance section. There, in a box, with a little red tag…was a PS4. I stopped and actually said, “Is-is that a PS4?” It was and it was 289.90. More than 100 off. It was noted as being “repackaged.” I rolled the dice and took it home.

After setting it up I found someone’s account info was still in there. No funding data, but there were some kid’s gaming install info. “Huh…must’ve been a return…” I thought. Then scrolling through the games, just before factory reset, I saw there was a little disc symbol on the GTA5 icon. I selected the “eject” option and sho-nuff, the GTA5 disc popped out. Even though I’m not a fan of the franchise, a free game in system added to the value of the purchase. Essentially I got a slightly used discount bundle.

Fortress of Games
PS4 with free GTA5 at home with my other systems. The PS3 was moved to my gaming room so I could have a Bluray/Netflix player in there too.

I’ll talk about some games in the next post for now here are some late-to-the-gaming thoughts on the system itself:

  • Aesthetics/System Functions: It looks nice. It looks more solid and dense than the PS3, though the front buttons are a pain to get to. Also the constant glow is a little much especially for creatures of the night like me. It isn’t loud and doesn’t get as hot as I thought it would.
  • User Interface: The PS Vita style UI is much more effective than the old XMB. So much so that when I turn on my PS3 and navigate it I realize how clunky that interface is. I like the sorting of icons, and applications, and find it far easier to use. Also the PS Vita style continuation function, where my videos will pick up where I left off, my games will pick up where I left off, etc., even when changing applications or putting the system in rest mode is glorious.
  • Controller: Yes it has that weird touch pad button that I haven’t found a use for yet, but the controller actually feels better than the old PS3 version. One thing I don’t like about it is there is no turn off for that LED which means it’s always glowing all the time. I do like that the PS button is the only one that can turn it off and on…I can’t tell you how many times I kicked the PS3 controller only to have the system start up by accident and have to wait for the system to load just to turn it off. The battery life is pretty good and the first time it made sound during Shadows of Mordor scared the s**t out of me. I could use a media remote tho, as I still use the system for videos more than games.
  • Network: The network took a LONG time to set up. Not the actual process of me setting it up, pretty standard actually, but it was about 24 hours before the system recognized my network and gave me internet access. So much so that I thought it was why the system was returned. Once it was set up the network has actually been more reliable than the PS3 one (though that might be my aging PS3) and navigating the network options and network applications is much better thanks to the UI mentioned above. The PS Store STILL needs work. It takes a while to load and the lists of games on there are organized in such a way I still can’t find stuff I know is there. The PS Vita store is much more user-friendly.
  • PS Plus: I never even considered this as a feature. I don’t like paying for intangibles and this always seemed like a Book-a-Million discount card or Gamestop Rewards card: pay us money for a bonus or discount. If you DO happen to own a PS3, PS Vita, and PS4 you really do get your money’s worth. Two games for free every month each system. Even though they usually aren’t MAJOR titles (depending on your definition thereof anyway…) there are a TON of great games that show up for free. What talked me into PS+ was when I first went into the store Oddworld New and Tasty was free so…sold…

Next week I’ll do a short list of the games I’ve played. I came in at just the right time where a lot of good launch titles are now discounted and the generation is hitting its stride in terms of software support.

Off the Edge #4: Issues with Next Gen Gaming

Off the Edge

I’ve maintained a console through every generation of gaming, NES, Genesis, Saturn, Playstation, Dreamcast, Playstation 2, XBOX, Gamecube, Playstation 3, Wii, XBOX 360.  I’ve owned (or still own) all of these at one point or another and I just assumed I would always have a console.  I have to say the recent pre-launches of the upcoming PS4 and especially the XBOX One have kind of put me off buying either next gen system.

The first question I have is, “why?”  Though I jettisoned my 360, I have to say the PS3 and 360 are still both strong systems.  They can get loads of life out of them and provide years of games with the “current” gen technology.  I know there are loads of gamers out there who always want more and more in terms of graphical capabilities but they can squeeze so much out of the hardware it seems unnecessary that new hardware is needed to make games look better.

The second objection is the threat of DRM control.  Most of us are familiar with the gaming industry in general and have heard that, despite shaky economic conditions and various natural disasters, the game divisions of most of these companies are turning profits, and in some cases are helping keep the rest of the company afloat.  So why are game companies so concerned about “piracy” or the used game industry?  It isn’t about their economic viability at this point it’s just greed.  As a cartridge-gaming kid I never had more than a handful of games.  My friends were in a similar situation.  So we borrowed and traded with each other.  Broke kids could play lots of games that way.  When your friends wanted it back you had to either do without or, more often, sell some of your old ones and buy the new one you wanted.  Buying used and trading has always been a dynamic part of the culture.  The new plan is to DRM all games.  To borrow a game from a friend you still have to pay for a game.  This makes trading useless.  All so companies already turning profits can make more money.

Even worse is the method in which they verify the DRM, specifically the XBOX One seems to have adopted the atrocious method used for Diablo III and the latest Sim City, always-on online server verification.  It reminds me of the first time I put in my copy of Empire Total War and it made me install Steam.  At that time Steam had to connect to the internet.  I had a dodgy wi-fi connection.  I couldn’t play it.  A similar problem occurred when Diablo III came out, despite all the server preparation they didn’t have enough to allow the first-wave rush and people who pre-ordered the game couldn’t play it.  The same happened with Sim City.  Companies are now forcing you to be online even when you just want to play single-player games.  I exclusively play one player so this is a barrier; as they focus on their marketing on online gamers and ignore what I’m guessing companies feel is a less-valuable customer.  Microsoft can tout the number of servers they have ready for launch.  There will be people who can’t get on.  They will crash, and those gamers who want to just basically play a game won’t be able to.

They’re watching us…but they aren’t paying any attention to what WE want…

And my third major objection, can we have a game machine that really just plays games?  Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be obsessed with all the other stuff their dream machines can do.  It can connect to their proprietary networks to play proprietary movies!  It can constantly keep connected to social media!  It can control your TV!  It watches you while you sleep and checks your vitals like HAL from 2001!  Ok.  All well and good…and well-and-creepy, but does it play games?  Are the games any good?  Do they do anything new and worthwhile?  It doesn’t seem to be the case just yet.  They look slightly better from what I can tell.  The question really is do they look good for what they NEED to do?  Sonic the Hedgehog and Double Dragon II still look amazing for what they need to do.  Make it HD and it doesn’t add much more.  Make it 3D and it doesn’t make it better.  Add motion control and it generally gets in the way…  Do they do anything worthwhile and new?  Or is it just “here’s the single player game (with maybe some motion control stuff) and here’s the multiplayer game.”  At this point I’m not sure how much innovation can be put into games, but typically the innovation comes from designers and writers not the hardware.  Get some good, creative ideas and you can make 8-bits look amazing.

I once read a book called The Pentagon Wars by Air Force Colonel James Burton.  In the book he describes the major issue with weapons development in the Pentagon (in the 80s and it’s probably still true) is that weapons manufacturers use military funding to create new technology that was ridiculously overpriced and entirely unnecessary.  The developers and consequently the Pentagon top-brass, made the weapons they wanted to see using the new technology they wanted to play with.  In doing so they totally ignored what the soldiers and pilots wanted and needed.  He discovered pilots mostly dog fight with enemy planes via sight…in response the Pentagon and weapons industry produced a missile that can fire from miles away and missed far more often than it hit.  A troop transport vehicle was requested to carry troops and instead it was outfitted with so much hardware it doesn’t carry enough troops and can’t do anything well, it just does them “good enough.”  While reading about next-gen consoles I thought of this book.  The console manufacturers are spending WAY too much time trying to shoe horn the newest technology into their latest plastic box.  All the cameras, TV-internet connectivity, social media functionality, 3D gimmicks, motion control, and voice activation won’t be worth anything if the newest, fanciest game machine doesn’t have good games or play let you play them easily.  There will be decent games on it, but to me, it won’t be worth what we’ll be paying for all the technology I don’t want or need.

The only way to send a message to the gaming industry would be to NOT buy their latest over-engineered next-gen system or let them know NOW what we really want in a new system.  The economic system is all on its head; it should be what the market desires not what the industry mandates we will have.  I won’t be getting one any time soon after launch.  But I have a feeling the market will buy it.  They’ll buy it, complain about it, and continue to support an industry that cares more about doing what they can do rather than doing what’s needed; and increasing profits via absurd protection methods rather than simply making products their market wants to buy.

I’ll have fun with Mega Man 2 and Streets of Rage 3 in the meantime…

I’d take almost any one of these any day at this point…