Xbox One November Update

Microsoft has been updating the Xbox One every month since the console launched almost a year ago, and the November 2014 update (now available to preview members) adds some exciting new features to the OS.  One highly requested feature being added in November is background customization, which allows you to set the dashboard background to display solid colors or achievement art from achievements that you have unlocked.  Another new feature is the Showcase, which lets players display noteworthy achievements or game clips at the top of their profile page.

Perhaps the new feature that I am most excited, though, is the ability to post GameDVR clips directly to twitter, since this will allow me to quickly share game clips with all of you via the Heartland Gamer twitter account!  I plan on uploading some videos in the next day or two, so keep an eye out for them!

Below is a video by Major Nelson describing some the new features being added next month, and for full details, check out Major Nelson’s blog.

Sunset Overdrive Launch Trailer

The launch of Insomniac Games’ new Xbox One exclusive, Sunset Overdrive, is just a week away, and Insomniac has just released their launch trailer for the game.  I’ve been excited for this since it was announced at E3 2013; the colorful, zany art style really stands out compared to a lot of other AAA shooters released these days, and the Jet Set Radio-inspired traversal looks like a lot of fun.

Be warned, there is some strong language in this trailer (though in the final game there is an optional language filter for those who want it).  Don’t be fooled by the colorful world, this is an M-rated game.

Review – Fable III

Developer: Lionhead Studios

Publisher: Microsoft

Genre: Action RPG

Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PC

ESRB Rating: M – Mature

 

One of the great things about video games is that, unlike in some other media (particularly movies), sequels are quite likely to be definitive improvements over their predecessors; developers learn from previous games what mechanics work and what need to be revised or polished, and the new game is better for it.  There are exceptions, though, and unfortunately Fable III is just that.  Many great things about Fable I and II have carried over to this game, but Lionhead tries to fix things that aren’t broken, and as a result the game feels like an unnecessary step back in the series.

Story

In Fable III you play as the “Hero”, who is the son or daughter of the player character from Fable II.  Your brother, Logan, is the new king, and has turned into a tyrant who bleeds the people of resources and violently puts down any resistance.  Your mentor, Walter, leads you out of the castle grounds to your Father’s tomb.  Upon acquiring your Father’s old Guild Seal, the blind seer Theresa (a recurring character in the series) who teleports you to the Road to Rule, a mystical, gated path that represents your quest to take the crown from your brother.  Theresa then unlocks the heroic powers within you that have been passed down in your family for generations, and with your newfound abilities, you are ready to roam the land of Albion, winning over citizens and sparking a revolution.  But supplanting Logan is only the first part of the story; once you take control as the new king or queen, you are tasked with ruling over Albion and preparing them to face an even greater evil that threatens the kingdom.

While the plot and characters here are probably the least memorable in the Fable franchise, they still serve well enough as a reason to explore the world and plow through the main missions.  The story never takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing; Fable is known for its lighthearted tone and silly sense of humor, and this game is just as funny as its predecessors.  Where Fable III’s humor really shines is in its plentiful side quests.  The quirky villagers you encounter spout some very cleverly written dialogue, and the tasks you perform for them are often quite ridiculous (such as putting on costumes and performing a play for an audience of ghosts).  Finding and completing these side quests kept me interested in the game when the main story wasn’t compelling.

Gameplay

Travel and exploration in Fable III work the same way as in Fable II: the Hero wanders on foot between towns, regions, and dungeons, and you can fast travel to any area in the game that you have already visited.  There are plenty of hidden treasure chests, keys, and secret areas to find in each of these places, and this provides great incentive for you to explore every nook and cranny of the game world.  Each town you visit will have various shops, quests, and minigames that bring in money.  Most of the homes and shops in the game can be purchased, and you can manage all of your properties from the world map.

One of the signature changes in Fable III is the new pause menu, which actually isn’t a menu at all.  Instead, when you hit the Start button your character is teleported to the Sanctuary, a safe haven that houses your armory, wardrobe, finances, trophies, and the world map from which you can fast travel to the places you have explored.  Your butler Jasper (voiced by John Cleese) stays here throughout most of the game, and provides you with various tips and witty commentary.  This radical change in the menu is certainly an interesting idea, but I don’t think it’s really that much of an improvement over a normal menu.  Walking through the various rooms of the Sanctuary is more engaging than sifting through text, but it took a little time to get used to the new system, and hearing Jasper spout the same few lines over and over again throughout the game got annoying.

Character progression has also undergone some changes compared to previous games in the series.  All character upgrades are locked in treasure chests on the Road to Rule, and can only be unlocked by spending Guild Seals, which are earned through killing enemies, completing quests, and interacting with villagers.  This would not be a problem, except that in order to open all the chests you are going to have to interact with dozens, if not hundreds, of NPCs throughout the game, which quickly becomes a tedious chore.  Even worse, the Expressions system that you use in these situations has been altered in Fable III, and not in a good way.  Only a few expression prompts appear on the screen at a time, and some expressions are overwritten as you unlock new ones later in the game.  This is a huge step back from previous Fables, in which all expressions you had unlocked were available at any time.

Combat in Fable III takes a few steps forward, and a few steps back, from previous Fable games.  Melee attacks and gunplay are more fluid and satisfying than any other game in the series, and each weapon has unique upgrades that can be unlocked, many of which require you to play the game in different ways.  There are plenty of weapons to purchase or find in the game, so you are bound to find several that fit your playstyle.

Magic attacks, on the other hand, have undergone a substantial overhaul, and the result is disappointing.  Each spell is assigned to a gauntlet that the player must equip, but there are only six different gauntlets to choose from, and only two can be used at a time (though they can be switched out at any time in the Sanctuary).  Some of the more interesting spells from previous games are either missing entirely from the game or have been turned into potions.  Compared to previous Fable games in which spells were more numerous and could be accessed more quickly, Fable III’s magic system feels very limiting.

Presentation

While the gameplay is a mixed bag, the artwork and the soundtrack are fantastic.  The world of Albion is as colorful and vibrant as ever, from cobblestone-paved Bowerstone, to the snowy cliffs of Mistpeak, to the untamed swamps of Mourningwood, and beyond.  These beautiful and varied landscapes are a delight to explore and remind me of why I fell in love with the Fable series in the first place.  Villagers are dressed in all manner of silly looking garb to complement their quirky, silly mannerisms.  Meanwhile, the playful orchestral score evokes a sense of wonder and curiosity as you wander through Albion’s many regions, contributing to the lighthearted tone of the game.  The overall atmosphere produced by the visuals and the music is one of Fable III’s highlights, and helps paper over some of the flaws found elsewhere in the game.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, Fable III is a good game: its great humor, gorgeous landscapes, and solid melee combat have been enough to keep me coming back to the game over the years for multiple playthroughs.  But attempts to streamline some of the game’s other mechanics takes away too much freedom from the player, and creates frustrating chores that mar the overall experience.   What stings the most, though, is that previous Fable games didn’t make these mistakes.  There was no need to re-invent the wheel; if Lionhead had kept what had worked in the past, this good game could have been a great one.

Review – Dance Central Spotlight

Platform: Xbox One

Developer: Harmonix

Publisher: Microsoft

Genre: Dance game

ESRB Rating: T – Teen

 

When Microsoft launched the Kinect for the Xbox 360 in 2010, they teamed up with Harmonix to create Dance Central, and the game quickly became a big hit for the new hardware.  Its success was enough to spawn two additional entries on the 360, Dance Central 2 and 3.  Harmonix has continued the franchise on Xbox One with Dance Central Spotlight, a digital-only title that strips out some of the extra modes in favor of focusing on what has made this series shine over the years…the dancing.

Gameplay

Dancing in Spotlight is the same as it has been throughout the Dance Central series.  Cue cards scroll up the side of the screen showing which moves will be coming up next, and the onscreen dancer shows you how to perform those moves.  If you make a mistake the character’s limbs will be highlighted in red to show you where you need to improve, and at any point during the dance you can use voice commands to enter a practice mode which will allow you to repeat moves until you are comfortable and ready to proceed.  A second player can jump in at any time during a song, which is a great feature when playing the game with a group of people.

When you play a song for the first time, you are required to dance the Beginner routine, but mastering dance moves (called “Collecting” a move in the game) unlocks seven additional routines of higher difficulty.  The Alternate, Strength, and Cardio routines for each song introduce a lot of new dance moves that aren’t in some of the other routines, and that variety goes a long way in keeping the experience fresh and interesting.

While the multitude of routines provides plenty of variety for each song, the game unfortunately only comes with ten songs.  This, to me, is the biggest concession that Harmonix had to make in order to release Spotlight for just ten dollars.  Thankfully, the store has plenty of additional songs available for purchase, but each song will cost an additional two dollars.   There is a silver lining for long-time fans of the franchise, however; anyone who has purchased DLC for previous Dance Central games will able to re-download those songs for free in Spotlight, once those songs are made available in the Store.

Spotlight also has a Fitness mode, which challenges you to dance to multiple songs in a row for a set amount of time, and tracks the number of calories you burn in the process.  You can choose how long each session lasts (between 10 and 90 minutes), as well as the difficulty of the routines you will be required to dance.  All the strength and cardio routines are immediately available in this mode, but any other routines will be unavailable here as well until they are unlocked in standard mode.  This is perhaps where the lack of songs in the game hurts the most, as anyone powering through a long fitness session will have to dance to the same song multiple times if they have not purchased any additional songs from the store.

Everything I’ve covered so far, though, only matters if the Kinect is able to accurately read your movements, and I’m happy to report that the Microsoft’s camera proves is up to the task.  When dancing, I almost always felt that my successful moves (and my mistakes) were recorded correctly onscreen, and using voice and gesture to navigate the game’s menus is very smooth and intuitive.  Moments of frustration with the hardware were few and far between, and never derailed any of my dancing sessions.

Presentation

Dance Central Spotlight’s soundtrack features a good variety of recent Pop and R&B hits from current artists, both among the ten songs that come with the game and the dozens of others in the store.  With artists ranging from Rihanna to Maroon 5 to OneRepublic and plenty more, most people will find something that brings them to the dance floor.  The biggest weakness of the game’s soundtrack is the lack of older hits.  The ten included songs are all contemporary, and the store is mostly the same; a few classics like “Get Up” by James Brown and “Love Shack” by the B-52s can be purchased, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Spotlight retains the bright, colorful, and cartoony art style of previous Dance Central games.  Background dancers fade in and out during the song, and the scenery behind the dancers (which can range from ambient flashing lights to more realistic locations, like a gymnasium) will shift periodically as well.  While the scenery provides nice ambiance, I was a bit disappointed that the game lacks some of the interesting locations found in previous Dance Central titles, such as the 90’s style house party and the 70’s era disco.

Conclusion

Overall, Dance Central Spotlight is an excellent dance game with great contemporary songs and plenty of dance moves to learn.  Xbox One owners looking for a game that makes good use of the Kinect, or who want something that will be fun with a group of friends and family, should definitely pick this up.  Just be aware that you’ll be hearing the same few songs over and over unless you’re willing to pay a little extra.

Review – Skies of Arcadia

Platforms: SEGA Dreamcast (reviewed), Nintendo Gamecube

Developer: Overworks

Publisher: SEGA

Genre: Role-playing game

ESRB rating: T – Teen

 

During its final years as a platform holder, SEGA’s internal studios worked on a number of Dreamcast games that became cult classics.  One such game is Skies of Arcadia, a Japanese Role-playing game that was first released on the Dreamcast in 2000, and was later ported to the Nintendo Gamecube (with some added content and a few graphical/musical tweaks).  This game was one of my favorites as a kid; it opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling and world building in games, and I have completed the 40+ hour story about a half dozen times.  But how does it hold up today?  As I’ve recently been replaying the game once again, I feel that now is as good a time as any to take a close look at what makes this game excellent…and what hasn’t aged quite so well.

Story

In Skies of Arcadia, the player steps into the shoes of Vyse, a young Air Pirate eager to make his mark in a world filled with flying sailboats and floating continents.  The empire of Valua seeks world domination, and it is up to Vyse and his friends to put a stop to them and keep the skies free.  But during a typical raid on a Valuan ship, Vyse and company rescue a mysterious girl on a secret mission.  The adventure that ensues takes Vyse and his merry band to the far corners of the world, discovering new lands as they seek to keep Valua from obtaining ancient, powerful crystals and taking over the world.

The overall tone of the game is very upbeat, filled with quirky characters and a strong sense of humor.  That said, there are enough moments of serious drama and character development to keep you interested in how the story progresses.  The final third of the game in particular throws in a few narrative twists and raises the stakes for the heroes as the story draws to a close.

Gameplay

The core of Skies’ gameplay is its two turn-based battle systems, one for hand-to-hand combat (which is random and can take place in dungeons and on the deck of a ship while flying through the overworld) and one for ship-to-ship combat (which only triggers when you fly into an enemy ship).  Hand-to-hand combat is fairly straight-forward; every turn the player decides the action that each character in the party will take, the actions of both friend and foe are played out on-screen, and the next turn begins.  Characters can perform a variety of moves, including physical attacks, special attacks (which have a wide variety of effects and are unique to each character), magic attacks (which can inflict damage or status effects) and “Focus” (which replenishes Spirit Points, a resource shared by the party that is required for magic and special moves).  Each character’s weapon can be aligned with one of the six moons that orbit the world (red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and silver), and selecting the right color to use against a certain enemy increases physical damage.  Overall, the hand-to-hand combat system is satisfying, and has no glaring weaknesses.

There is a catch, however, and it is my only real problem with the game as a whole: there are simply too many random battles.  While the encounters can be fun, their frequency also makes them very repetitive, and those without the patience to push through this may have a hard time seeing the game through to its conclusion.  This problem is highlighted at a point about midway through the game, when you are essentially forced to grind for cash in order to proceed with the story.

Ship battles are a bit different.  The player is presented with a grid (3×3 or 4×4, depending on the size of your party at the time), with party members on the left side representing each row, and color-coded squares above each column showing when it is best to attack or defend.  You then select which party member will perform what action (such as firing one of the ship’s cannons) and in what order (the action on the leftmost column will be performed first during that turn).  In this mode, all offensive moves consume Spirit Points, and careful Point management is important during some of the game’s boss battles.  This type of combat serves as a nice change of pace from the hand-to-hand combat that is more prevalent throughout the game.

Outside of combat, there are plenty of places to explore and secrets to uncover.  The player travels between towns and dungeons by flying through the open skies on Vyse’s ship.  Exploring the numerous towns in the game is a real treat; most of the NPCs will spout a few lines of dialogue when you interacts with them, and additionally Vyse or someone else in the party will have something to say about many of the objects strewn about the environment.  This exposition really helps flesh out the world, and gives you extra insight into how the characters think and how they respond to the world around them.  Treasure chests hidden throughout the hub worlds provide even more incentive to check every nook and cranny of the beautifully detailed environments.  The overworld also has its fair share of secrets, called “Discoveries,” which are scattered around the world and can be sold in town for a nice chunk of change.

Presentation

For a game released all the way back in 2000, the presentation holds up remarkably well.  The vibrant, colorful art style is still captivating; the lush greens in the forest land of Ixa’Taka, the deep reds and oranges in the desert kingdom of Nasrad, and the expansive blue skies that cover the whole planet make this old game feel beautiful to this day.  Perhaps even more impressive is the amount of detail that has been poured into the environments, especially considering the low texture resolution.  The streets of poverty-stricken Lower Valua look filthy, and everything from the stoves in peoples’ homes to the barrels sitting on the side of the road look like they have seen better days.

The character models are more of a mixed bag.  Both the main characters and the lesser NPCs are much blockier than what we are used to seeing today, and certain animations are reused more frequently.  The fully drawn faces, however, are very expressive, and allow the characters to express a whole range of emotions; this goes a long way in making the characters relatable and the cutscenes entertaining.

Skies of Arcadia is blessed with a fantastic soundtrack that really makes you feel that you are on a grand adventure.  The whole score is very uplifting; the sweeping songs that accompany the player’s journey through the overworld are a particular highlight.  The game’s sound effects, however, can get a bit repetitive at times, particularly in battle; hearing your crew members yell out “Moons, give me strength!” and “Let’s try this!” a hundred times does get old.  I never had too much trouble tuning it out, but others’ mileage will certainly vary.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Skies of Arcadia is a wonderful game that holds up well over the years.  While the character models are dated and the random battles are too frequent, the charming characters, imaginative environments, and solid combat more than make up the game’s shortcomings.  If you’ve got the patience to put up with some old-school JRPG grinding, the experience will be well worth your investment.