Rock Band 4 Announced

In a blog post today, developer Harmonix announced Rock Band 4, a new entry in their beloved Rock Band franchise coming out later this year for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.  Longtime fans will be pleased to hear that anyone who has purchased songs for previous Rock Band titles will be able to download them to Rock Band 4, free of charge, once they become available.

I’m personally very excited for a new Rock Band; I played a lot of Rock Band and Guitar Hero in college, and I feel there has been enough of a break since the last entries for people to really get excited about a new one again.  I quite enjoyed learning how to play with those silly plastic instruments, and it will be…interesting to see how I do after all these years (spoiler: I’m sure I’m super rusty and not any good anymore).

Following Footsteps: Part 2 – How the PlayStation 3 Influenced the PlayStation 4

PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 Slim
PlayStation 3 (left) and PlayStation 4

This is the second in a series of three articles examining how the successes and failures of the 7th generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) impacted their respective 8th generation successors (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U).  This article takes a look at the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.  The first article dealt with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the final article will discuss the Wii and Wii U.

When Sony entered the console gaming space in the mid-1990s, they found instant success.  The original PlayStation was a much more developer-friendly console than Nintendo’s N64, and a flood of exciting exclusive titles like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid helped the new console surpass its competitors.  The PlayStation 2 (PS2), with its strong developer support and its ability to play DVDs, saw even greater success than its predecessor, becoming the best-selling home console of all time (and selling over three times as many units as its two closest competitors, the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft’s original Xbox, combined).  Naturally, then, Sony had all the reason in the world to be confident heading into the 7th console generation with the PlayStation 3.  Unfortunately for them, they proved themselves to be a bit too confident, making some critical errors with the PS3 that gave competitors Microsoft and Nintendo a chance to re-assert themselves in the market.  Let’s take a look now at some of those errors, as well as the ways that Sony learned from their mistakes in creating the PlayStation 4.

PlayStation 3 cell processor
PlayStation 3 Cell Processor

One of the biggest changes that Sony made going from the PS3 to the PS4 was the type of processor used in each machine.  The PS3 featured a new kind of processor made by Sony (and a group of other tech companies like IBM and Toshiba) called the Cell.  While this new CPU had more raw potential than that of the Xbox 360, it proved to be much more complex and very difficult for developers to work with.  As a result, many games looked or ran noticeably better on 360 in the first few years of the 7th console generation, and some developers simply didn’t bother working on the PS3 at all.  Over time, Sony taught developers how best to use their hardware, and by the end of the generation, many third-party games were just as good, if not better, on PS3 than on 360.  But those early difficulties were something that Sony wanted to avoid with their next console.

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Ken Kutaragi

For its first three consoles Sony’s own Japanese teams, led by Ken Kutaragi (a longtime Sony Computer Entertainment executive and often referred to as “The Father of PlayStation”), handled the duties of defining PlayStation hardware, and Kutaragi had led the charge in developing the Cell processor used in the PS3.  Shortly after the launch of the PS3, however, Kutaragi stepped down from his position at Sony to pursue other opportunities, and when it came time to start creating their next console, Sony hired a westerner, games industry consultant Mark Cerny, to be their lead architect.

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Mark Cerny

In crafting the PS4, Cerny moved away from the Cell technology that the PS3 had been built around, instead opting to use a much simpler X86 processor, the same kind of technology used in most PCs (and incidentally the same kind Microsoft chose for the Xbox One).  Cerny stressed the importance of a simple architecture during the PS4 reveal conference on February 20, 2013: “I’m proud of what we accomplished with Cell on PlayStation 3.  But at the same time, the need to radically customize technology can interfere with the design innovation that’s so central to game creation…our goal was to create an architecture that would facilitate the expression of their [developers’] ideas.”

Difficult game development wasn’t the only problem introduced by the Cell; price was another key factor.  The Cell was very expensive to produce, and altogether Sony had to charge $599 for the PS3 at launch, which was $100 more than the Xbox 360 (and Sony was still losing a couple hundred dollars on each console sold).  Prior to the console’s 2006 launch, Ken Kutaragi infamously declared that he wanted consumers to “think to themselves ‘I will work more hours to buy one.’  We want people to feel that they want it, irrespective of anything else.”  The public was not pleased; Microsoft and Nintendo were both offering interesting consoles for less money, and the PS3’s heavily marketed Blu-ray player couldn’t tip the scales in Sony’s favor the way that the PS2’s DVD functionality had in years past.  Sony learned the hard way that console loyalty can be lost quite quickly, and early PS3 sales lagged behind both the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.

Sony E3 2013 PS4 price
PS4 Price Announced at E3 2013

Eager to avoid the same mistakes with the PS4, Sony adopted a much more humble tone when announcing their new console.  Their reveal conference placed an emphasis not only on developers but on core gamers as well, stressing the importance of the gaming community and announcing several games that would be available at the platform’s launch or shortly thereafter.  They then watched carefully in the following months as gamers revolted against Microsoft’s plans to bundle Kinect with every Xbox One and to require regular online verification for all Xbox One games.  At their E3 conference in June, Sony announced that the PS4 would feature none of the unpopular policies proposed by Microsoft, that the PlayStation Camera (Sony’s closest equivalent to Microsoft’s Kinect) would be sold separately from the main console, and that the PS4 would release at $399, which was $100 less than Xbox One.  These simple statements, more than any games or other features announced for the new platform, won Sony a lot of early support and has played a large part in helping the PS4 gain an early lead in sales over the Xbox One at launch and throughout 2014.

PS3-PS4-Controllers
Dualshock 3 (left) and Dualshock 4 Controllers

While the design and marketing of the main console has been the biggest factor in the PS4’s success, it’s worth taking a few moments to note the improvements Sony has made in controller design between the 7th and 8th console generations.  The PlayStation 3’s controller, called the Dualshock 3, faced a fair amount of criticism when compared to that of the Xbox 360.  With the exception of the Dualshock’s D-pad, everything else was considered inferior by most gamers: the analog sticks were convex, making it easy for the player’s thumbs to slide off; the hand grips were not as comfortable; the gummy, convex R2 and L2 buttons were poor substitutes for the proper triggers on the 360 controller (in fact, some games from Sony’s own studios opted to program the R1 and L1 buttons for weapon fire instead); the overall construction felt cheaper and easier to break.

In constructing the Dualshock 4 for their new platform, Sony made sure that this controller would not be an obstacle to gamers.  Every major complaint with the Dualshock 3 was fixed in the new pad.  The analog sticks became concave, as did the R2 and L2 buttons, which now functioned properly as triggers.  The grips were shaped more comfortably than those on the Dualshock 3 as well.  Sony also added a brand new element to their controller: a touchpad similar to the one found on the back of Sony’s most recent portable gaming console, the PlayStation Vita (also designed by Mark Cerny).  The Dualshock 4’s touchpad can be pushed down to act as another button, and additional inputs can be registered via swipes of one’s finger across the pad in different directions.

Dualshock 3 and 4 triggers
Dualshock 3 (left) and Dualshock 4 Shoulder Buttons / Triggers

While Sony worked hard to improve the PS3 over the course of its life, they clearly made a number of mistakes that hampered the console for several years after its launch:

– The complex, expensive Cell processor

– The arrogant, overconfident tone of Sony’s executives at the time

– The inferior controller

…all put the PS3 at a disadvantage to the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, forcing the former market leader work that much harder to make their 7th generation platform a success.  But working hard is exactly what Sony proceeded to do in the following years, and when it came time to release the PS4, they were prepared to give gamers and developers what they were looking for:

+ A simple processor inside a relatively cheap console

+ A gaming-centric message and the ability to avoid the mistakes that Microsoft was making at the time

+ An innovative and much improved controller that could work just as well for shooters as an Xbox controller

These wise decisions have laid a solid foundation for the PlayStation 4 and have re-established Sony as the market leader in console gaming.  Even in the face of a now resurgent Microsoft, the goodwill that Sony has earned among gamers will likely help keep them in a position of strength throughout this generation.

Review – Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC

Developer: Sledgehammer Games

Publisher: Activision

Genre: First-Person Shooter

ESRB Rating: M – Mature

The Call of Duty franchise needs little introduction; Activision’s first-person shooter franchise has been one of the most popular in gaming for the better part of a decade.  Sledgehammer Games, however, is another matter.  Formed by Dead Space alums Glenn Schofield and Michael Condrey, Sledgehammer was assigned to help Infinity Ward complete Modern Warfare 3, and then got a chance to make a game all on their own: Advanced Warfare.  So how has Sledgehammer done with this impressive opportunity (and a three-year development cycle, a first for a Call of Duty game)?  In short, they’ve done pretty well.

COD AW Jonathan Irons

Story

Advanced Warfare begins in the year 2054.  You play as Jack Mitchell, a Private in the U.S. Military who, along with his best friend Will Irons, has been sent to South Korea to repel an invading North Korean army.  During the assault, Will is killed and Mitchell loses an arm.  Mitchell then meets Will’s father, Jonathan Irons, at Will’s funeral; Irons offers Mitchell a high-end prosthetic arm and the chance to fight in Irons’ private military company called Atlas.

Those who have played a Call of Duty campaign in the past probably won’t be surprised by what Advanced Warfare’s plot has to offer.  The story is about as deep as a typical summer action movie, complete with plenty of military jargon and some predictable plot twists.  One thing that bothers me about the storytelling in this game is that your character Mitchell talks during cutscenes, but not during gameplay.  This feels jarring, as Mitchell switches between being a definable character off the field with his own personality and interests, and being an empty shell on the field, one who never has a chance to lead but is always following the directions given by the NPCs around him.  All that said, the game contains plenty of exciting and well-choreographed set piece moments to keep the player engaged, and Kevin Spacey delivers an excellent performance as Jonathan Irons.

COD AW Induction Rush

Gameplay

The element of Advanced Warfare’s gameplay that makes the game stand out from previous entries in the Call of Duty franchise is the addition of the Exo suit, a futuristic exoskeleton worn by the game’s combatants.  This suit gives the player access to a variety of skills and gadgets, such as a double jump, a jet-powered dodge, and a portable shield.  During the campaign the abilities you have will change from mission to mission, while in multiplayer you can customize your Exo abilities to suit your playstyle (though some Exo gadgets are only used during campaign).  The extra mobility provided by the Exo adds a layer of verticality that has not been present in other Call of Duty games, and makes a big difference in how you approach the battlefield, as you can quickly hop onto rooftops and other elevated positions that give you an advantage over your enemies.

Advanced Warfare’s campaign missions are, for the most part, very linear, guided experiences; you spend most of the time walking through corridors and clearing small rooms and courtyards.  On the one hand, this narrow focus allows Sledgehammer to incorporate a wide variety of intense, exciting events that keeps the player on the edge of his or her seat.  On the other hand, it also removes a lot of freedom from the player, and sometimes left me feeling like I was just a pawn on the battlefield, waiting for my companions to give me permission to continue the story.  On occasion you get the chance to use some neat futuristic gadgets, like magnetic gloves or a hover bike, but these moments are short and limited to specific moments in the campaign, which feels like a missed opportunity to really open up ways for the player to tackle different challenges.  The linear nature of the campaign also mutes the impact of the mobility provided by the Exo.  The narrow corridors and other small, enclosed spaces that you are often forced to navigate keep you from using the double jump, thus removing the verticality that makes the game stand out.

While the campaign is hit and miss, competitive multiplayer is where Advanced Warfare shines, particularly as it relates to the Exo suit. The dynamic, fast-paced nature of multiplayer gameplay, along with the open spaces and plentiful rooftops found in the maps, encourages players to use their double jump often and seek out higher vantage points.  This verticality provides a freedom to the player that cannot be found in the narrow corridors and shooting galleries that make up much of the campaign.  It would have been nice to use some of the game’s more exotic gear in multiplayer, such as the aforementioned gloves and bike, but the abilities that have been put into multiplayer (which include not only the double jump and boost dodge, but also things like cloaking and the portable shield) are implemented quite well.

Advanced Warfare’s competitive multiplayer boasts a robust selection of game modes and customization options.  In addition to traditional modes like Team Deathmatch, Domination, and Capture the Flag, Sledgehammer introduces a new mode called Uplink, in which teams compete to deliver a ball-shaped satellite into the opposing team’s goal, similar to Halo 4’s Ricochet mode.  The Pick 10 system of loadout customization found in Black Ops II has been updated to a Pick 13 system in Advanced Warfare, allowing you to choose the weapon upgrades, Perks, Exo abilities, and Scorestreaks that fit your playstyle.

Exo Survival is Advanced Warfare’s Cooperative Multiplayer mode, in which players fight off waves of enemy combatants, unlocking new weapons and upgrades along the way.  Objective rounds are thrown in from time to time to keep gameplay interesting.  It’s a nice change of pace from the other modes, and like the multiplayer it makes better use of the Exo’s strengths than the campaign does.

Presentation

This new Call of Duty is undeniably a gorgeous one.  Impressive lighting and detailed character models help the game come to life.  While the environments aim for realism, they mostly avoid the drab browns and greys that saturated previous entries in the franchise, thanks in part to the splashes of color provided by some of the futuristic weaponry in the game.  The pre-rendered cutscenes showcase some of the most realistic characters I have seen in a game, and their beauty helps the performances of Kevin Spacy and the other actors really shine.

COD AW Multiplayer

Conclusion

Sledgehammer has done an admirable job creating a new Call of Duty game.  Advanced Warfare is a breath of fresh air for this long-running franchise; the Exo brings a real change to the traditional Call of Duty formula, and while the campaign sometimes undermines this addition, multiplayer is much improved by the new mobility and verticality it provides.  Those who have grown weary of Call of Duty in recent years should give this game a shot; I myself had gotten tired of these games, but Advanced Warfare has left me pleasantly surprised, and eager to see what see what Sledgehammer will do in the future.